Monthly Archives: July 2015

Lowell High School 1831

Lowell High School has a long history which is the subject of many documents and pages of historical books. One of the members of the first class of LHS was the future General and Governor, Benjamin Butler. Butler is now chiefly remembered as the person who started the outgoing governor’s lonely walk. He was such an unpopular governor, history claims, that no one would walk out of the State House with him on his last day, so he had to walk out by himself, starting a tradition that is carried forward by every governor since Benjamin Butler. So wrote someone in the Boston papers a few years ago.

In his younger days, the abject governor-to-be, was a member of the first class of Lowell High School. At that time the high school was on Middlesex Street. Here is what the most famous member of that class had to say in his autobiography:

“There were eight of us in that first class, the classification being made according to apparent advancement in scholarship (the academic standiing of each member was catalogued and listed). The one alphabetically at the head, whose education went no farther than in that one school, became afterwards a Boston man of high standing, and later still, a merchant in the State of Vermont. Another (who was) fitted for college in the class, became a graduate of Dartmouth, and died young, standing very high in his profession as a surgeon. Another, whose education was ended there, became a civil engineer of the very highest standing, founded the manufacturing city of Manchester, New Hampshire and was, for several years, Governor of the State (of New Hampshire). …Another, going from this class to medical school, fitted himself for his profession, as surgeon, and before his untimely death became one of the most successful and best known surgeons of the country. Two others became reputable and somewhat distinguished citizens. The remaining one is the writer.”

He offered up the comment that “This is, indeed, a glorious record of the first class of Lowell High School, and one to spur the alumni of later classes to emulation of its splendid career.” [Illustrated History of Lowell, Mass.’ publisher is not listed}

The high school antedates the incorporation of Lowell as a city. That happened in 1836. The school was started in 1831 with first principal Thomas M. Clark, “now Bishop of Rhode Island” as its first Principal (not Headmaster, which was interesting. Mr. Clark, who was a young man, served as Principal for two years, afterwhich he left for Divinity School. His assistant, a Mr. Clapp, became the editor of the Charlestown ‘Mercury.’

There is, included, a picture of the high school at its inception. The building is still used today, and is considered the best built building in the high school, by many. The school distributed three and four year diplomas, and the classes were expected to go on to college in many cases.

It was the feeling of the early citizens that a public education was as important an acheivement that you could get in life. In fact, a public education was something that the School Committee wanted for everyone in Lowell, including those miscreant Catholics. On this issue, the author of the Illustrated History of Lowell, Mass. says “The best of feeling exists, however, as all recognize that the Catholics are doing a noble work in striving for the highest educational standards. The regret of school authorities is due to the fact that they consider the public school system the one means to break down all barriers of race or religious prejudice and place all on a footing of equality by (through) the force of early association.” {ibid}

What does that say about Lowell? It proves that Lowell, even in its earliest years, was dedicated to the concept of equality and fairness, as well as the offering of a top education to all citizens of the city, regardless of their background or religion, or race, for that matter. It literally offers the educational system to all members of the educational body. This included adults who were later learners. Lowell was one of the first school systems to father adult learning for the population as a way of taking up some of the slack in mill hours worked during the early 1860’s. That, of course, was during the Civil War.

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Lowell: In The Beginning There Was An Educational System

There are a few basic facts in life. Chief among them is that all parents believe that they can do as well as their child’s teacher(s) because they went through school. The other one is in direct contrast. That one is that they expect high marks in their children’s teachers because they did not, in all probability, go onto becoming a teacher themselves. A look at educational history shows us that the truth is somewhere in between. Not everyone can teach. I did it for twenty years and, while most of my students learned, there was definite room for improvement on my side. Just keeping thirty students on target with state requirements is a massive task. Couple that with maintaining discipline in your classroom, and you become the learner, not the learnee. (Granted there is no such word but there should be.

I did my Master’s thesis on the history of the Lowell School Department. I have a great deal of data which I intend to pass on to you in order for you to make wise choices about the school your children attends, the history of the schools in Lowell, and the fact that we have never, in my estimation, moved far from the “Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic” phase.

Education has been in my genes forever. My father was the son of a Blacksmith, and his Dad taught him to shoe horses, which was a learning experience. My father became a teacher, and the youngest Superintendent in the Iowan School Department. He was twenty-six. For the next fifty years he would basically be a Superintendent of Schools. I was immersed in education from the day I was born. That experience of always having your father doling out punishment for not doing homework, or a classroom infraction perfectly taught me how to be the brother-in-law of a U.S. Senator and another member who became a Congresswoman. You learn to sort your priorities quickly.

My first memories of my father in his job consists of him bringing chocolate milk to me when I was three. Where the milk originated from, I trust it was a cow, but I have few memories of any logo on the side of the carton. My second memory is starting Kindergarten, but, unlike the other students I had to stay in the building with my father. It was sometimes good, sometimes bad. It was always interesting.

We lived in Cosgrove, Iowa for a few years until my father saw a movie called “A Man Called Peter,” about the Reverend Peter Marshall. He was so moved by that film that he decided to go for his doctorate. He got it in a few years. He became, and still remains to many of us, “Dr. Wayne R. Peters.” He moved up the ladder from Cosgrove to Coralville, from Coralville to the University of Wisconsin, from Wisconsin to District 152 in Harvey, Illinois, and from Harvey to Lowell, Massachusetts. I moved constantly. It was exciting and educational. Lowell was the pinacle of my father’s success and most of my younger brothers and sisters were Lowellians. One, Margaret, was born here so she was not even a “blow-in,” unlike the rest of us. I have been here for forty-five years but am still considered to be a blow-in.

Education in Lowell is a hard-fought battle. We were shocked to find School Committee races run as tough as Congressional races back in the Midwest. We were amused to find water fountians referred to as “bubblers.” Pop, or soda pop, was tonic. I remember getting out of the car when we moved to Wentworth Avenue and found my brother getting out of the car, yelling to me to get the “cah” cleaned. It took me weeks in school with Mrs. Borst to realize she was speaking about prison guards, not “gods.” Life was interesting.

I immediately took an interest in politics at the school level. I attended School Committee meetings religiously and was awed by my father’s patience with members of the committee. When he pushed to get a motion passed to give a raise to his Assistant Superintendents, there were no Deputy Superintendents yet, I was surprised when a School Committeman motioned to give a raise to the Superintendent because he was also an administrator. I had viewed that man to be a sworn enemy of my father’s.

Lowell politics was not what it is today. There was one source of news and that was the Lowell “Sun.” Any educational proposals were watched with great interest by the local newspaper. It was truly a local newspaper then, not a regional one such as we have at this time. It even had a full edition of city news, from hot topics to Police Reports. You could argue that there were three sources of news, including WCAP and WLLH, but the radio did not have half of the strength the Lowell “Sun” had, and my feeling was and is that the newspaper was the primary source of news and opinion. A great deal of the opinion voiced by the newspaper was anti-Peters, so any effort to correct mistakes in the schools was doomed. Strangely enough, the newspaper came out on the eve of his being denied tenure and supported him in his bid I was surprised when I read that in some old newspapers from the day that I had in my library.

School politics changed with every election. Some changes that were enacted, like the effort to decrease student numbers by allowing them to go downtown at lunch time and order out, were not reflective of New England. In Illinois, it was common practice in all grades to allow students to go home at lunch if so desired, and eat at home. In Lowell, the proposal was revolutionary. One School Committeeman supported the idea because he saw a need to decrease the number of students in the high school because of overcrowding. It was not an idea with the goal of disturbing the classes, but of getting the overcrowded school a bit of a lift. Remember that the only two buildings in the high school were the 1893 and 1922 buildings at the time.

What I would like to do is write about the history of Lowell’s schools. There was a time when the Superintendent was most interested in the ‘Intermediate” grades. He felt that that was the weakest point in Lowell schools so he proposed what became known as the “Jewel” of the city when he built three modern schools – the Varnum, the Moody, and the Butler. I intend to write about the curriculum extant at that time. This will be a weekly or bi-weekly article, starting with the building of the first K through 8 school in the United States, and showing that the people really were interested in learning. A seventh grade education made you a person of teaching age. A woman who got married was forced out of her employment for fear that she might get pregnant and lead the students down the wrong road by showing her abdomen. Other factual mishaps will be illuminated. I hope that you enjoy it.