Charles Marks sent his daughter, he called her “Hattie,” to Lake View School in the morning and searched for her body in the morgue later that day. He didn’t find her. Instead, Helen crept up from If children and families questioned the motives of schools and resisted the brute force of compulsory education statutes before the Collinwood fire, how must they have felt after news stories across the nation showed the burnt out ruin and dozens of charred corpses being carried from it?behind, threw her arms around her father and asked, “Guess who I am?” That, at least, is one version of the story that papers across the nation printed in March and April, as Helen Marks, the girl who saved her life by ditching school on the day of the fire, became a minor celebrity. Instead of attending classes, Helen sneaked past the building and onto a streetcar bound for downtown Cleveland. There, she spent her savings shaken from a bank at home on a vaudeville show and candy. When returning home on the trolley, she saw other passengers reading the horrible headlines.
Even at the elementary school level, truancy ran rampant in industrial cities and towns. About sixty percent of students, mostly from immigrant families, dropped out altogether before sixth grade. Sociologists, educators, and politicians documented the schools’ failure with fear and outrage, blaming both those who employed child workers and parents who sacrificed the education of their sons and daughters to factories, mills, or other labor. How, critics wondered, could immigrant children ever be properly Americanized if they failed to be trained for the modernCleveland’s chief truant officer said that “A habitual truant makes rapid strides in the downward path. He is constantly exposed to the temptations of life and soon becomes depraved, bad; loses his sense of honor, becomes untruthful and dishonest.” PD. Dec 29, 1904, p. 5. industrial world they inhabited? The chief truant officer of Milwaukee was among many who sounded a common alarm: “The question of truancy is . . . of more vital importance to the American people than the so-called great political questions of our time.” The Dillingham commission, a congressional committee appointed to study “The Immigrant Problem” in 1907, agreed that “the chief force . . . active in the assimilation of immigrants . . is our public schools” and that “emphasis should be laid upon the school attendance of [immigrant] children” to make them “like Americans born.”
States passed and revised compulsory education laws to regularize attendance, but the statutes typically lacked bite and were almost impossible to enforce. Ohio’s schooling law, for example, included exemptions for children who could prove they had a job. Some children had parents and employers fill out labor certificates, but others simply ignored the authorities. Even when truancy officers brought offenders to juvenile courts, they often returned quickly to work and other non-school activities. Poverty created part of the problem. Ohio’s Age and Schooling Certificate required parents to verify a child’s age (at least fourteen) and ability read and write “simple sentences in the English Language.” With that, children could go to work rather than school. Officials often made little effort to verify the truth and many children under fourteen worked. Compulsory Education Law. Office of State Commissioner of Common Schools, 1902. The state, after all, provided little help to struggling families and many of them needed whatever income their children could provide. Employers, who lobbied most strongly for work exemptions from school laws, took advantage of cheap child labor. In Ohio, even the effort to reduce children’s workday to a maximum of eight hours met powerful political resistance.
But more than financial necessity drove children from Lake View and other elementary schools. Immigrant parents often found schools “to be hostile territory, places where teachers trampled on their authority and urged habits and behaviors that were odd, unsettling, or even immoral.” The regimentation so visible in photographs of Lake View’s classrooms rankled with children unaccustomed to it. Immigrant boys, in particular, took pride in the rough-and-tumble camaraderieLewis Hine, Newsies Smoking at Skeeter’s Branch, St. Louis, 1910. Beginning in 1908, Lewis Hine took photographs to agitate for more stringent child labor laws. The images document deplorable conditions but some, like this one, also suggest a camaraderie on the street that couldn’t be shared at school. The boy in the center has his arm around his companion at right. Wikimedia. of street life and even the challenges of, for example, competing for customers against other newsboys. Truancy flew in the face of the gentility and politeness that (often female) educators hoped to cultivate in boys. Other children, like Helen Marks, rebelled in their own way, claiming time away from a tedious obligation to seek out consumer indulgences. Even the superintendent of Clevleland’s public schools acknowledged that child labor wasn’t his only—or even his greatest—problem. “The organization and course of study,” he wrote in his annual report of 1908, “are without question [partly] responsible . . . for the appalling loss” of students.
Some small percentage of children—mostly native speakers of English—must have thrived at Lake View, but on the day of the fire the school had in attendance more than seventy first graders and only thirty-one sixth graders. On the path from early to later grades, students simply stopped coming. We know that Mabel Neal, a Collinwood High School senior, published an elegant plea for a more civilized town and better school buildings on the local newspaper’s front page in 1906. “We shall soon be the men and women of the town,” Neal wrote to her fellow students. “Shall we not begin to plan for improvement?” Neal went on to become a teacher herself. But in Collinwood as in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and almost every manufacturing city, a significant majority of children left schools for a day, for a week, or for good out of necessity, mistrust, or simple distaste. If children and families questioned the motives of schools and resisted the brute force of compulsory education When the next school year began, Frank Whitney, Collinwood’s superintendent of schools, believed that many parents kept their children at home. He declared that “unless the children are sent, compulsory measures will be taken.” PD. Sep 15, 1908. statutes before the Collinwood fire, how must they have felt after news stories across the nation showed the burnt out ruin and dozens of charred corpses being carried from it? One “foreign” father in Collinwood shouted an unequivocal answer at authorities who came to check on his home: “Never again will I let my boy go to school!”
Supporters of compulsory schooling hoped to deliver a transforming education in “the principles of government upon which our democracy is based” and “new world ideas of industrial organization.” But victimized families in Collinwood needed no more instruction in the glories of “industrial life. . . American Experience and Anglo-Saxon tradition.” Life and the painful loss of it had schooled them to carry angry and broken hearts.