Page images



Editor of the Connecticut Common School Journal



William HARVEY Wells was born in Tolland, Connecticut, Feb., 27th, 1812. His father was a farmer in moderate circumstances, and the son lived at home, working most of the time on the farm, and attending a small district school for a few weeks each winter till the age of seventeen years. An incident that occurred during this period is deserving of notice, as having had an important influence in forming his character. He had undertaken to master the last half of Daboll's “ Arithmetic," and advanced as far as Cube Root, without assistance from his instructor. But here he met with obstacles which seemed to him insurmountable, and after a day's trial he told his father he should be obliged to call on his teacher for help. The father had watched with interest the successive steps of his progress, and now advised him to remain at home a day, and see if he could not overcome the difficulty. The day passed, but no light dawned upon the mysteries of this cabalistic rule, and he gave it up in despair. Again his father encouraged him to persevere, and recommended that he should remain at home another day. The second day passed with no better success than the first; but his father still urged him to rely upon his own resources, and assured him that he had strength enough to master the rule alone, if he would only call it into exercise. The labors of the third day were crowned with success; but the triumph he had gained over the unexplained difficulties of a formal rule in Arithmetic, was of little inoment compared with the new views he had acquired of the power of determined and persevering effort.

He now manifested an irrepressible desire for improvement, and often entreated his father to allow him the privilege of attending an academy. He had already commenced the practice of keeping a diary, and for a period of nearly twelve years he did not omit, for a single day, to make entries.

His ardent desire to enjoy higher and better advantages was at length gratified; and though he was obliged to labor daily with his hands to meet the expense of his board, his tasks, both in school and out of it, were performed with a light heart, and life opened bright before him.

The fall and winter of 1829–30, were spent at an academy in Vernon, Conn., under the charge of Theodore L. Wright, A. M., afterward the distinguished principal of the Hartford Grammar School. It was here, at the age of seventeen, that he was introduced for the first time to the study of English Grammar. But here we prefer to let his teacher speak for him: "Early in the term," says Mr. Wright, " I noticed, with daily increasing interest, peculiar characteristics and developments in young Wells. It was soon manifest that he had entered the school with a determined purpose of making the most of his time and opportunities. His ear was ever open to the requirements of his teacher, to which he made it a point of honor and conscience strictly to conform, and that, too, irrespective of the sentiments or practices of his fellow pupils. His lessons were studied in the most careful and thorough manner, and no subject or recitation satisfied him over which there rested a shadow of obscurity. Fresh in my recollection as if it were but yesterday, is that earnest, honest, persevering expression of countenance, habitual from day to day, and kindled with a glow of enthusiastic delight, as often as a new truth in literature or science was brought to his clear comprehension.

“After two terms at the academy, he left, and, for a short time, engaged in teaching a district school.* I was soon called to a new position at East Hartford, in an English and classical school, and, such were the favorable impressions made on my mind by young Wells, that I broached to him the suggestion that he should commence a course of study preparatory for college."

Mr. Wells, in accordance with the suggestion of Mr. Wright, commenced a course of study with the design of entering college. By his own efforts he defrayed the expenses of board and tuition, and with all the ardor of his nervous temperament applied himself to study. But the undertaking was too severe for him, and at length his

eyes became so seriously affected that he was obliged to abandon his favorite project, just as his preparatory course was nearly completed. He was afterward employed a part of the time in assisting Mr. Wright. “In this situation,” says Mr. W., " he early exhibited that peculiar tact for teaching which has since more manifestly proved

* The following winter was spent at an Academy in his native town; and during the win. ter of 1831-2, he taught a district school in Vernon, at ten dollars a month, and " boarded around.”

Being for a time unable to make any use of books, and undecided as to his future course, he devoted a few weeks to the construction of an electrical machine of considerable power, with which he amused himself and his friends, and somewhat astonished not only the children of the neighborhood, but many of the lower order of animals.


that his profession for life was wisely chosen. He continued his efforts as assistant for two years, and during this time he inspired in my mind a confident anticipation of his eminent success as an educator of youth. He at this time determined to make teaching his profession, and, at my suggestion, went to the Teachers' Seminary, at Andover, Mass., in order better to qualify himself for his chosen vocation. The advantages of this school proved highly serviceable to him, and after remaining at Andover a few months he returned to assist me.* During the last year of my teaching in East Hartford, the English department of the school was mainly under the instruction of Mr. Wells, and was remarkably prosperous. As an evidence of his success and popularity at this time, it may be stated that forty pupils attended the school from the city of Hartford, nearly all of whom walked from the city, daily, a distance of two miles or more. When I left, for a voyage to Europe, I recommended Mr. Wells as my successor. He was retained on terms very advantageous to him. self, and his services were held in the highest esteem by the patrons of the school.

" From my earliest acquaintance with the subject of this sketch, his indefatigable industry has ever been a marked feature in his character. Work of some kind has seemed to be his natural element. Out of this, he was unsatisfied and restless.

When his eyes would not endure reading and study, he was even the more earnest in acquiring knowledge from books through the eyes of others, employed to read for him. In this way, for several years, he made most of those acquisitions which he afterward reduced to practical use, both in teaching and in preparing his publications. Though compelled to dependence in this respect, he was remarkably independent and selfreliant in his processes of thought and solution of difficult questions and problems.

" In his pocket memorandum new and striking facts, as they were presented, were carefully noted: also all words of doubtful import or uncertain pronunciation, as he heard them, were recorded for future examination, provided a dictionary was not at hand. His diary was his vade mecum wherever he went, whether to hear a lecture or a sermon, to visit a friend, or to take one of his driving walks for exercise, thus garnering treasures from every source. The storehouse of his mind thus replenished, furnished delightful entertainment to his pupils at recitation.

• During his connection with the Teachers' Seminary at Andover, he became much interested in the study of geology and mineralogy. In company with the teachers and other members of the school, he made frequent geological excursions, and collected a cabinet of several hundred specimens. But the subject which chiefly engrossed bis attention, was that to which his life has since been devoted-the theory and practice of teaching.



“I have always regarded the eminent success of Mr. Wells as a teacher, mainly owing to his enthusiastic interest in the subject taught, and also in the pupils whom he taught; his zeal and energy, the meantime, all under the guidance of good sense and discretion, while deeply penetrated himself by a consciousness of his own personal responsibility."

A circumstance that occurred in his early history as a teacher, is worthy of mention, as illustrating a predominant trait of his character.

Among the classes which he was called to instruct, was one in Algebra, composed mostly of older pupils. Though he had previously studied the text-book, there were several problems in it which he had never been able to solve. There was one in particular on which he had already tried his strength several times without success. His class was now rapidly approaching this problem, and he felt the necessity of being prepared for any emergency. He therefore set himself at work in earnest and devoted several hours to the unsolved problem ;—but still the desired result seemed as far from his grasp as ever. Mortifying as the alternative was, he decided at length to go to one of the teachers of the school and ask for assistance. This individual kindly engaged to examine the question but remarked that as it had been some time since he reviewed that portion of the book, the mode of solution might not readily occur to him. The class had already reached the section in which the difficulty occurred, and there was no time to be lost. After one or two days, the problem was returned to him without a solution. What could be done? To go before his class and acknowledge that he was unable to master it, would be to lose caste at once. The necessity of the case suggested one more expedient. He had a friend in an adjoining city who was quite distinguished as a mathematical teacher. To the house of this friend he resolved to direct his steps; but on arriving, he learned to his utter confusion, that his friend had left home and would not return for several days. His last hope had fled. With a burden of chagrin and mortification that was almost insupportable, he commenced retracing his steps. “What,” thought he,“ does all this mean ?”

After walking a few moments in silent meditation, lis emotions found audible utterance. “I can solve the problem,” he said, with emphatic gesture, “and I will solve it.” He went to his room, and seating himself at his table, he did not rise till the task was accomplished. He has often alluded to this single triumph as of more real value to him than a year of ordinary study. It caused him to know his own strength, and taught bim to think, and to depend upon his own resources.

It has been previously stated that Mr. Wells had for a time con



[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

nected himself with the flourishing Teachers' Seminary at Andover, then under the charge of Rev. S. R. Hall, the well-known author of the volume of “ Lectures on School Keeping." During the eight months that he passed here, he gained the confidence and respect of the principal to such a degree that he was, in less than two years after leaving, invited to return and assist Mr. Hall in the instruction of this seminary. This was a field congenial to bis tastes, and here he continued to labor through the various fortunes of the seminary for a period of eleven years, from 1836 to 1847, bis attention, for most of this time being divided between the general department of the school, and the special or teacher's department.

Though still afflicted with weak eyes, he here planned and executed an extended course of English reading. For several years he employed one of the students to read for him evenings, and his reading was always accompanied with the use of either pen or pencil. On one occasion he entered into a reading partnership with a student in the Theological Seminary, and during the evenings of a single term they read together the whole of Shakspeare's dramas, besides several volumes on mental and moral science, often carrying their reading and discussions into the morning hours.

While connected with this seminary he was accustomed to discuss before his teachers' classes, from year to year, the principles of Grammar in connection with a careful analysis of Milton and other poets. In his course of English reading, which was carried forward at the same time, it was his practice to mark such examples as would be most servicable in testing or illustrating these principles. Several hundred volumes of standard English literature were read in this way, during a period of about nine years, and many thousands of examples noted and classified for this purpose. The result of these investigations and comparisons was finally embodied in the “ School Grammar," which was first published in 1846 ; and up to the present time, nearly three hundred thousand copies of this work have been issued.

In 1845, the honorary degree of Master of Arts was conferred on Mr. Wells by the Trustees of Dartmouth College. Few men have proved more worthy of such a compliment.

S. H. Taylor, LL.D., the well-known and esteemed principal of Phillips Academy, Andover, thus writes :

The first time I saw Mr. Wells to know him, was at an accidental meeting of some half dozen persons, mostly teachers, but he a pupil. The conversation turned on some point, in regard to which there was considerable difference of opinion. I was particularly struck with the confidence with which Mr. Wells advanced his views—not the confidence of one who seemed obtrusive, or out of his place, but of one who had thoroughly studied the subject and knew what he said. I then marked hiin for future observations.

« PreviousContinue »