Who is Belle?

The second presentation in this series.

“Chautauqua: an adult education movement, highly popular in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It brought entertainment and culture for a whole community, and was especially popular in rural USA. It provided speakers, teachers, preachers, and specialists in many fields, to audiences who rarely had access to such.

Religious instruction was a strong part of the Chautauqua experience. It was given without a denominational approach. People involved in the Chautauqua movement believed that secular and spiritual knowledge both radiate from God, and are equally important.

By the early twentieth century this popular movement was declining. Times and living conditions were changing. Better roads and cars and radios made rural areas and small towns less isolated, and therefore less dependent on what the Chautauqua offered.”

1909 – Mid-Summer

Belle is now a young adult of nineteen. She had started teaching part-time while in high school. After finishing school, and with a minimum of formal training, she started teaching full time. Her occupation delights her, and she concentrates on kindergarten and grade one. This age group does best with a teacher who has humour and energy, enjoys children, and has organization skills. Belle has all these qualities, as the results show.

However, teaching does not pay well, so during the summer Belle finds additional jobs to increase her income. After scouring the town for options, she returns home and announces, “Got it – a great summer job. I’ll be running the kindergarten for a Circuit Chautauqua. They’re giving me a week’s instruction; that’s all the time we have before we leave. It’s a great chance to do something different, see a new world, and get paid as well!”

The questions are flying. “Daughter, I know the Chautauqua is a well-respected institution, but why a Circuit one? You’ll be living and working in tents, and travelling the whole summer.”

“Yes, Dad, that’s what makes it so exciting. Don’t worry. I can handle it.”

For Belle, the Chautauqua adds a valuable new experience out in the wide world. She is using her training and experience as a kindergarten teacher to teach young children, while their parents attend some other learning event.

But Belle is learning more than how to run a kindergarten in a tent and with a changing student body. One day she is helping out when a classical singer is giving a concert. The manager announces the event and leaves. The singer enters and sings the first song. Unknown to her, though, her long skirt catches on a rough board, tears, and reveals her backside and underwear. Belle knows the routine is for the singer to curtsy after the song, turn, and walk off, so she runs, catches the manager, explains, and they both run back. As the song ends he walks on and stands beside the singer, and says softly, “Don’t turn around.” He makes a complimentary remark to the audience, takes her arm and they back off the stage. Belle is waiting with thread and needle, hastily tacks up the skirt, checks that the performer will be decent if she turns around, and the show goes on. Such is life on the road.

This is one of the many Chautauqua stories Belle told us over the years. It was a great learning opportunity for her, and a maturing one as well. A capable youth was now a capable young woman.

Postscript – There is one more story I want to add to this early youth period. I have decided to leave it until the next session. She made a decision that would forever change her life. It was a difficult one, but one she never regretted.

To be continued . . .


Filed under This & That

4 Responses to Who is Belle?

  1. Jim Taylor

    I think that in some ways the Chataqua has reinvented itself in the Internet’s TED talks. Not the musical concert part of it of course, but the ability to bring truly renowned scholars and speakers to an interested public, in a way that makes education understandable.
    Regards to you,
    Jim Taylor

    • Marjorie

      In our day, Jim, the Chautauqua, though an admirable organization, has no needy audience. The TED talks are only the tip of the iceberg of the educational sources available to us, free! Going back to Belle’s era, does her willingness to spend the summer traveling with a Circuit Chautauqua give you any clues to her personality? I am interested in knowing.

  2. Chautauqua is still going strong as Chautauqua Institution in its namesake town in the southern tier of New York State. It’s interesting to learn the perspective for its religious component. I knew it radiated from its home base, but had forgotten it reached so far into Canada. As I grew up in NY and heard people talk about their experiences there, it remains in my memory as a model of American civic culture.

    • Marjorie

      Laurna – I’m not sure it did get to Canada. Belle, the centre of this essay, was born and raised in Iowa, USA. Born in 1890, daughter of a minister, no wonder she thought highly of the Chautauqua. Nevertheless, signing on for the summer on a tent trip on the move, indicates something of her personality. How do you see it? I would like to know.