Bessie Gray was considered “dull” by nearly everyone, particularly her teacher and her contemporaries. But no one considered Bessie more dull than Bessie herself.
There was another girl in school who was considered “clever.” She didn’t apply herself nor spend much time with books, but she had a good memory and could easily recall and repeat her lessons. She stood in the lead in the school and was happy to be considered smart — even if she didn’t necessarily find a great deal of meaning behind what she was able to repeat by heart.
Bessie on the other hand arrived at answers in very different ways than most. By observation and practice she gained real understanding. She may indeed have arrived at understanding much slower than others, but by perseverance what she knew she truly understood.
The difference between these two girls and how their educations prepare them for life becomes very obvious as a result of a particular tragedy.
[Bessie] could not learn by rote, or by heart, or by memory, as I dare say you can. In her hymns she could not remember except she knew and understood every word. I have often heard children say a whole hymn through from beginning to end, without a single mistake, when all the time these children did not know what they had been saying, or what the hymn was about. They perhaps knew the meaning of every word, or almost every word, but did not know what the words meant put together. This is what we call saying a thing “like a parrot.”
Now there is no harm in very small children learning in this way — no harm at all. After a time, they come to know what the words mean, and in the course of months, or even years, the sense of all they have been learning comes into their minds very beautifully; and those who have been teachable and obedient, see every day more clearly many things that seem to have been hidden from them before, and understand better and better why it is that they were taught and treated in such and such a manner, and when they grow up, and have children to manage, they go on doing just the same.
But to go back to what I was saying, though there is no harm in very young children learning in this way, like a parrot, there is harm and danger in elder ones doing so; it leads them to use their memory, and even their hearing, instead of their sense and understanding.
Bessie Gray by Harriet Mozley
If you happen to have one of these children who seem very slow to catch on, take heart. There might just be a great deal more going on beneath the surface!
Bessie Gray is a book from which all educators can take something valuable:
- An appreciation of the differences in our students.
- Tips on how to handle these differences.
- Signals to look for as clues that a child might not be understanding even when appearing to understand.
- Ways to effectively teach students who are not quick to memorize without meaning.
There is an entire section (pages 27–40) describing how Bessie goes about learning her multiplication table that children who have problems memorizing the multiplication table (and those who are interested in how numbers work) can benefit by reading.
“I am sure the right way of doing things is the best and easiest in the end,” observed Bessie, little thinking she was making a very good remark, not only as to lessons, but as to many other things. “And I never should like to guess. It does not seem true to guess and guess as some do.”
“It does seem like making believe that we are cleverer than we are….”