Derby Academy in Hingham, founded in 1784, is one of the oldest co-educational schools in the country. Its founder, Madam Sarah Derby, stipulated that the boys were to be educated in “the Latin, Greek, English, and French languages, and in the sciences of Mathematics and Geography”; the girls in “writing and in the English and French languages, arithmetic, and the art of needlework in general.” She directed that a “preceptor” be hired to teach these subjects to male and female students alike—with the exception of needlework, for which a “sensible, discreet woman” should be retained. At Mrs. Derby’s request, the first Preceptor of Derby Academy was Abner Lincoln of Hingham. One of the many documents concerning Derby Academy found in our archives is his April 16, 1799 report to the Trustees of Derby Academy. Mr. Lincoln started his report with the academic progress of the school’s pupils:
The attention & improvement of the Lads, during the last term, have been pretty much as usual, no material difference. Some have been very industrious & some have been slack. The young ladies have been more attentive than usual when they could attend with propriety. But a want of health & the peculiar badness of the passing, have caused many absences. I have not been able to pay them that attention which I expected.
The “principal’s office” in the 18th century does not appear to have been so different from the principal’s office today: by far the largest part of Lincoln’s report to the trustees involved disciplinary reports. “[T]he Lads” broke “a number of windows in a fit of snowballing” and were required to mend the windows. It was discovered that two boys had been stealing from local shops. Lincoln was ready to expel them l when he learned that
[t]heir mother was dead, their father absent at sea & they left under the care of their grandfather, Mr. Stephen Hall of Boston. He repeatedly urged me in a very earnest & feeling manner to receive them again. I finally consented on condition that the Lads would come & make a public confession of the enormity & heinousness of their crime, ask forgiveness of the scholars for the very bad example exhibited in their conduct & pray them to receive them again into their friendship. This was done & their request granted in a very affecting manner. . . .
The misbehavior of one of the girls at the school was particularly noteworthy:
Complaint was made by the Preceptress that Sally Wilder’s conduct in the Academy was very exceptionable & improper. After stating the charges, I observed that I could not with propriety make any inquiry respecting them, but begged that she would, which she accordingly did. It appeared by ample evidence that her conduct at times was such as will hardly bear explaining, that she had paid no regard to truth, that no Language, neither obscene nor profane was too gross for her frequently to use; some of the Misses absented themselves on her account; many were late because they did not wish to be entertained by her. The general character was despicable & there appeared no probability of reformation. It was our united opinion that she ought not to remain in the Academy . . . .
Co-education fell into the category of novel experiments when Abner Lincoln found himself confronted with Sally Wilder’s misbehavior, and his discomfort is evident. We are left wondering whether there were appeals for clemency, explanations in mitigation, or a decision by the trustees that she should remain in school after all. One suspects not.