The Best Girl in School” is one of many pieces on academia to appear in The Student and Schoolmate. The piece is less a story than it is a character study, contrasting the top girl in a school with the author’s ideal schoolgirl. The ideal has elements typical of works aimed at girls: modesty, humility, and self-denial. It also implies that the “best girl” will deny herself to the extent of studying less, so other scholars can “have their turn in honor”—a very different ideal from that presented to boys.
“The Best Girl in School,” by Phoebe H. Phelps (from Student and Schoolmate, October, 1864; pp. 110-112)

Almost any of the scholars would have said that Sally Andrews was the best girl in our school. She was punctual in attendance, mindful of the rules, and ready and accurate in her lessons, the head of the class. Her dress was neat, her deportment quiet, and she was usually considered quite a model.

But Alice Messenger would have been just as punctual had not her kind, dutiful spirit forbade her to leave her mother before the morning’s work was done. What merit in Sally to be punctual, when it cost her neither sacrifice nor effort? She had nothing to detain her, neither illness nor home duties.

Alice Messenger and Susan Curtis were as mindful of the rules as

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Sally; and who can tell which was “best” in being so mindful? which obeyed for conscience’s sake, and which for ambition or love of praise?

Sally was always at the head of the class, but was it a virtue in her to make it impossible for any one to get above her? I wanted to see other good scholars have their turn in honor. It would have done them good.

“Please don’t study quite so hard,” said Susan Curtis one day; “I do want to get above you once. Father has promised me a handsome book if I ’ll get to the head.”

“You ’d better get there then,” answered Sally, with a pleasant smile; but she studied harder than ever afterwards. Book or no book for Susan, she was determined to keep the head herself.

She passed little Nellie Smith, one morning, with a fine bouquet in her hand. Little Nellie danced with delight at sight of the flowers.

“Oh, please give me one,” she begged.

“I can’t; they ’re for the teacher,” answered Sally.

“Just one; please, Sally!” but Sally hurred on, and Nelly wept with disappointment.

Every day, in the apple season, Sally carried to school two great apples, one for herself and one for the teacher. Now little Nellie Smith seldom had an apple, and when I heard her say to Sally, her bright eyes fixed longingly on the tempting fuit, “Oh, how I wish my father had an orchard!” I thought that Sally could not help giving her one of her apples instead of the teacher, who had an abundance of good things. It seemed to me that almost any girl would deny herself for the sake of pleasing Nelly then. But Sally bestowed her apples as usual, except that she gave her core to Nelly.

Three or four of us had been on a romp at noontime, and were late on the return. Sally ran like a deer, for fear of a “tardy” mark. We were all running our fastest, when Nelly stumbled and fell prostrate in deep mud. She screamed, and we paused, Sally with the rest, till she had seen what was the matter. But not a hand did she lend to the unfortunate child; looked, and went on, leaving the rest of us to lift her up, wipe off the mud and soothe her as best we might. We were all marked “tardy,” all but Sally; but how much better have twenty “tardy” marks, than leave the little thing to flounder alone, heart-broken and bewailing. Ah, school-records do not tell where real merit lies. No! nor any time records. But there is a record that tells; one where selfishness is disgrace; and meanness, shame—a record where many who stand first on human rolls shall find themselves last.

A poor pleasure to Sally Andrews to be called the best girl in school,

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if she were not the best. The name should have stung her if she did not deserve it.

Who was the best girl there, if she was not? God alone knows; He who regards the heart more than the outward appearance. But I think it was Alice Messenger, who seemed to care for everybody else more than for herself. Why, in snowy, blowy weather, I ’ve seen her take little Nellie Smith in her arms and carry her through the snow-drifts, as pleasantly and tenderly as if she had been her own darling sister. I ’ve seen her give away the biggest half of her turnover full many a time; and when I have watched her patient, contented face as she took her seat at the foot of the class after an absence, I have thought she would rather sit in that place of dishonor than that any one else should. The teachers never knew her very well, she was absent so much, helping her mother at home; and when at school was unusually modest and retiring. But God saw and knew her as well as the vain and forward. No merit and no demerit ever escapes His eye.

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