Still one of the best-known poems in American literature, Whittier wrote “In School Days” for Our Young Folks. He had been asked to write some verses to go with some pictures the editors had sent him, but he couldn’t, and sent “In School-Days” instead. Its immediate popularity was due in part to the number of readers who still had memories of attending a one-room school.
When Oliver Wendell Holmes read it, he wrote Whittier, “It melted my soul within me to read these lovely verses….I had no sooner read them than I fell into such ecstasy about them that I could hardly find words too high-colored to speak of them to my little household. I hardly think I dare read them aloud. My eyes fill with tears just looking at them in my scrapbook, now, while I am writing. ( quoted in Woodwell 370)
Longfellow wrote, “Certainly there is something more in education than is set down in the school books. Whittier has touched this point very poetically in that little lyric of his called ‘In School-Days.’” (quoted in Woodwell 370)
The first three stanzas give a realistic and recognizable recreation of the one-room school.
Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And Blackberry-vines are creeping.
Within, the master’s desk is seen,
Deep scarred by raps official;
The warping floor, the battered seats,
The jack-knife’s carved initial;
The charcoal frescos on its wall
Its door’s worn sill betraying
The feet that, creeping slow to school,
Went storming out to playing!
School gets out for the day, but a little girl lags behind to speak to a little boy,
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled.
As if a fault confessing.
“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because”—the brown eyes lower fell,--
“Because, you see, I love you!”
Whittier ends with a moral lesson that is rarely remembered by readers who remember the lines above:
He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her,--because they love him.
Full text of "In School-Days"