How an 18th-century woman changed the life of a 20th-century boy

History Smiths

“Judith Sargent Murray is my role model.”

This is what an eighth grade boy proclaimed a few years ago in public in front of his friends, parents, neighbors, town officials – “everyone” in town. A boy mind you, named Chris.

I was stunned, and I still tear up when I remember that moment.

His life had been forever changed for the better by Judith’s story of courage, overcoming obstacles, and succeeding at a time when expectations for women were painfully low. He saw in Judith Sargent Murray that all things were possible – and he brought her into his life. He said, “That’s what I want too.”

Eighth graders are all about justice, too, and Judith’s early insistence on equality got to him as well.

I happen to know that his family life was difficult, that they struggled economically, and that his parents’ expectations for his success nowhere near reached his capacity. Judith Sargent Murray changed all that for him.

How did this happen? A quick story.

When I was serving as president of the Sargent House Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts (Judith Sargent Murray’s former home), I gave a tour through the house for a middle school teacher. An incredibly creative, gifted, caring teacher, I might add.

I told her about the recent discovery of Judith Sargent Murray’s letter books, showed her examples of the letters on the microfilm reader we had purchased, and she was entranced.

At the time, this was all unpublished primary source material – letters Judith had painstakingly copied into blank volumes, 20 volumes in all and about 5,000 letters, and left behind for future generations. This was a new eyewitness account, left behind by a woman who was a professional writer, who played at high levels, who was the “first” woman to do many things, and a native of Gloucester.

This teacher was about to teach her students about the American Revolution, and she thought, why not do it using the letters Judith wrote during that period of time? They would learn about the war through the eyes of a former resident, use primary source material to do research, AND learn about Judith. Brilliant!

The teacher also got the public library, Cape Ann Museum, and Universalist church (Judith was an early Universalist) involved along with the Sargent House Museum. Students were introduced to each one of these places, learned how to do research (archives, objects, historic houses), went on tours, and were treated like respected scholars. I remember one girl saying to me, “I’ve never been treated so well.” That broke my heart at the time, but, again, she had a new standard in her life.

The students incorporated what they were learning into every one of their classes – a team teaching approach – including history and English, of course, but also geography, math, and science. It was thrilling to see.

Throughout the two-week-long period, students kept their own letter books and developed projects to show what they had learned.

I planned a big community event at the Universalist church to show off the projects, and I asked the students to decide what they wanted the program to be.

They chose twelve students to stand in a line, in front of the audience, and each one would talk about what Judith Sargent Murray meant to them.

That’s when Chris said what he did – he was the last one to speak. “Judith Sargent Murray is my role model,” he said. Wow.

Is history irrelevant?

Not a chance — not when you can connect kids with role models like Judith Sargent Murray who, in this case, literally changed a life.