Thursday, March 2, 2017

May Wright Sewall and the Girls' Classical School

During the late nineteenth century, Indianapolis experienced a boom in both its population and industry. In spite of this, the city had, as historian and author Claude Bowers noted, “the charm of a large country town.”

One of the most fashionable avenues in the community was Pennsylvania Street. Mary McLaughlin, who lived in a comfortable home on that street, remembered that maple trees lined the roadway, offering cool shade even on the warmest days. The street was also a place where mule-driven streetcars kindly stopped for passengers in the middle of the block, “as they never seemed to be in a hurry to get downtown,” McLaughlin remembered.

Although she remembered a number of famous people who frequented the neighborhood, including Benjamin Harrison, elected as president in 1888, and several Indiana governors, McLaughlin in particular recalled a woman whom she often saw “coming up our street, often carrying a large bag of books, and walking briskly along”—May Wright Sewall. It was not surprising that McLaughlin frequently spied May strolling down the sidewalk, as the McLaughlin home on Pennsylvania Street was just one door down from the Girls’ Classical School, which had opened in 1882 and which May ran with her husband, Theodore.

Until its closing in 1907, the school offered Indianapolis’s girls an education equal to that found for boys in the Indianapolis Classical School and one based on the entrance requirements established for admission to such nationally known women’s colleges as Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. A college graduate herself, May believed that higher education was “a means to some of the largest and noblest ends, but it is also in itself a noble end.”

The Girls’ Classical School opened with forty-four students in attendance in September 1882 on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania and Saint Joseph streets. The school, which eventually attracted pupils from across the country, taught its students something different from the usual courses girls had been taking in other schools, including such subjects as painting, drawing, and music.

Earlier schools for women organized in the city, such as the Indianapolis Female School and Miss Hooker’s Female School, had concentrated on teaching students how to act like ladies rather than to train their minds for serious study. The Girls’ Classical School offered two four-year courses of study, classics and English, with an additional year for pupils preparing for college entrance examinations. The course also included French and German, and the school emphasized that “Music, Painting, Drawing and similar branches” would not be offered.

May served as principal and also taught literature at the school. She took a firm hand in running the operation. “There was no nonsense about Mrs. Sewall,” one student remembered. The pupil noted that May used to come into her classroom, and after briefly speaking to the teacher, she talked to the students, all the time looking at them “through a large magnifying glass which enlarged her eye” and transformed her into “a Cyclops of most forbidding appearance.”

In opening a school with high standards, May, with her husband’s support, had given herself, as one Hoosier education historian noted, an ample “opportunity to apply some theories of her own in the education of girls.” One of these theories involved physical training for her students, something not usually offered to girls who attended school during the nineteenth century.

After a visit to the school, a reporter from the Indianapolis News came away with the opinion that a “spirit of happiness is suffused through the school.” The reporter was particularly impressed by the senior class of girls, noting the following: “They are not the kind of girls who lose their temper and self-possession under difficulties. They are not the sort of person who scream at trifles, nor do they call everything ‘lovely’—cabbages, waterfalls and all—and they are not the ones who wear shoes a great deal too small when they are young, and require shoes a great deal too large when they are old. They appear permanently well poised, mentally and bodily.”

The discipline shown by pupils at the Girls’ Classical School came about in no small part from the strict way in which May ran the school. Reminiscing about their former school, students—the daughters of Indianapolis’s leading businessmen and socially prominent mothers—described May as “a bit of a tyrant,” whose stern look could strike terror in their young hearts.

During school hours, students maintained a strict study schedule, with set hours for subjects such as reading, geography, writing, spelling, arithmetic, foreign languages, gymnastics, and grammar. Known for her promptness, May expected the same behavior from her students, often reminding them that school started at 8:30 a.m., and not a minute later. To those who claimed they did not have the time to work out a problem or translate a sentence, May always replied: “You mean you did not budget your time—you had all the time there was. You wasted it.”

May also offered advice to parents on how students should act outside of the classroom. In a letter sent to parents she noted that the hours of 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. should be set aside as a time for students to relax, but only in a certain way. She warned parents not to let their daughters waste their free time by visiting friends, shopping, or attending society parties.


May’s strict standards could, however, be too much on occasion, even for someone as sure of herself as famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Once while visiting May in Indianapolis to discuss suffrage matters, Anthony also toured the girls’ school. Writing about the visit in her diary, Anthony noted: “Mrs. Sewall introduced me to the girls of her Classical School as one who has dared [to] live up to her highest dream. I did not say a word for fear it might not be the right one.” 

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