HISTORY: The Day the School Committee Went Rogue
Passions about public education in Wakefield have always run deep, as illustrated by this extraordinary episode from our past.
The year was 1827, and the little town of South Reading was in its infancy: it had seceded from the town of Reading proper only 15 years before, and the people who had instigated that split still remembered that it was possible to take public policy into their own hands.
A new teacher was needed for the Centre School, then located on the present Upper Common. A member of the School Committee located and hired a teacher, who began work in the schoolhouse. The majority of the School Committee, however, felt that they should all have had a say in finding the teacher for the District. After a few weeks, they found a new instructor and ordered the first teacher to leave the premises.
The parents of the Centre School District, however, really did like that original instructor. They held a meeting and almost unanimously requested that he should be retained. After some debate – and some disagreement – the School Committee were persuaded to wait until the end of the term before replacing the teacher.
The Centre District parents, however, had taken offence at the School Committee’s action. They believed in that original teacher! They held a meeting and voted to keep the original schoolmaster on board, no matter what the town’s School Committee decided.
For a while, chaos reigned in the little schoolhouse, while two different teachers, one appointed by the School Committee, one favored by the parents, did their level best to offer instruction in the same classroom. Meanwhile, the children came to school every day and tried to learn, some listening to one teacher, and some listening to the other.
But things were getting out of hand: the entire community was becoming involved in this argument. The Centre District parents believed that they should have some say in the selection of the teacher who was teaching their children. The School Committee, who, after all, represented the Town as a whole, felt that their authority was absolute. This was an outrage, they decided. This had to be stopped! (Suppose the parents of the other districts also decided to make decisions for their schools? They must put an end to this nonsense!)
Now, the Chairman of the town’s School Committee was an attorney, and he believed that he had the answer. Because the Centre School District parents had placed a teacher in the school without the authority of the Town, he reasoned, they had actually committed a trespass! Taking matters into his own hands, he issued writs of trespass against three of the parents in the name of the “Town of South Reading.” (Sadly, however, he had not checked with the Selectmen to see if they would support such an action, which could only have been legally carried out if the Selectmen had voted it.)
Nevertheless, the deed was done. The constable was found and sent out to the homes of the district committeemen where he arrested them, carrying three of them, Deacon Jacob Eaton, Lemuel Sweetser and Thomas Evans, to the county jail in Cambridge, where they were imprisoned.
At this point, the majority of the students of the Central District, along with their favored teacher, left the school altogether, while competing lawsuits tried to make heads or tails of the situation. Eventually, the matter was settled in the favor of the three imprisoned parents, and the judge decided that the town should pay court costs for embroiling the state in such an action. At this point, the Selectmen did get involved, suing the Chairman of the School Committee, personally, for the expenses that had been brought to the town’s door.
Perhaps coincidentally, during the following year, an independent school was opened. The South Reading Academy was raised on the present location of the Lincoln Schoolhouse. Two of the families involved in the Centre School teacher debate were actively involved in the formation of the new Academy. The South Reading Academy, founded on Baptist beliefs, would be the first institution to offer high school level education in the town, and became renowned throughout the region. It was the South Reading Academy that would bring a little girl named Hannah Hemminway Wakefield to the town, where her brother Cyrus came to visit, and found the place very much to his liking as a location for his brand new business.