The Spelling Lesson” is a story of “spelling” and “spelling,” from The District School As It Was. The scene appears to have been popular: it was often excerpted in reviews of the book. Memorus Wordwell’s confusion about words is unusually humorous for Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet.
“The Spelling Lesson” (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, February 1851, pp. 61-2)

Funny stories about life at school always interest everybody, I believe. At any rate, they always interest me. I have just been looking over a book called “The District School as it was,” written by one who must have been pretty well acquainted with the matter. There are some humorous things in the book, reminding me forcibly of what I used to see and hear at the old school-house in Willow Lane. Let me give you a specimen of these things. Take the chapter about the boy who went out to spell his companion.


It happened one day that the wood for the fire fell short, and Jonas Patch was out wielding the axe in school time. He had been at work about half an hour, when Memorus, who was perceived to have less to do than the rest, was sent out to take his place. He was about ten years old, and four years younger than Jonas. “Memorus, you may go out and spell Jonas.” Our hero did not think of the yankee sense in which the master used the word spell: indeed, he had never attached but one meaning to it, whenever it was used with reference to himself. He supposed the master was granting him a ride extraordinary on his favorite hobby, for he loved spelling. So he put his spelling-book under his arm, and was out at the wood-pile with the speed of a boy rushing to play.

“Ye got yer spellin lesson, Jonas?” was his first salutation. “Have n’t looked at it yit,” was the reply. “I mean to cut up this great log, spellin or no spellin, before I go in. I had as lieve keep warm here choppin wood, as freeze up there in that cold back seat.” “Well, the master sent me out to hear you spell.” “Did he? Well, put out the words, and I’ll spell.” Memorus being so distinguished a speller, Jonas did not doubt that he was really sent out on this errand. So our deputy spelling-master mounted the top of the wood-pile, just in front of Jonas, to put out words to his temporary pupil, who still kept on putting out chips.

“Do you know where the lesson begins, Jonas?” “No, I don’t; but I ’spose I shall find out now.” “Well, here ’tis.” (They both belonged to the same class.) “Spell A-bom-i-na-tion.” Jonas spells. A-b-o m bom a-bom (in the mean time up goes the axe high in the air) i a-bom-i (down it goes again chuck into the wood) n-a na a-bom-i-na (up it goes again) t-i-o-n tion, a-bom-i-na-tion; chuck the axe goes again, and at the same time out flies a furious chip, and hits Memorus on the nose. At this moment the master appeared just at the corner of the school-house, with one foot still on the threshold. “Jonas, why don’t you come in? didn’t I sent Memorus out to spell you?” “Yes, sir, and he has been spelling me; how could I come in if he spelt me here?” At this the master’s eye caught Memorus perched upon the top stick, with his book open upon his lap, rubbing his nose, and just in the act of putting out the next word of the column. Ac-com-mo-da-tion, pronounced Memorus in a broken but louder voice than before; for he had caught a glimpse of the master, and he wished to let him know that he was doing

p. 62

his duty. This was too much for the master’s gravity. He perceived the mistake, and, without saying more, wheeled back into the school-room, almost bursting with the most tumultuous laugh he ever tried to suppress. The scholars wondered at his looks, and grinned in sympathy. But in a few minutes Jonas came in, followed by Memorus with his spelling-book, who exclaimed, “I have heard him spell clean through the whole lesson, and he didn’t spell hardly none of ’em right.”

The master could hold in no longer, and the scholars perceiving the blunder, there was one simultaneous roar from both pedagogue and pupils—the scholars laughing twice as loud and uproariously in consequence of being permitted to laugh in school-time, and to do it with the accompaniment of the master.

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