Clara Barton was a remarkable individual, whose efforts were challenged on the front lines every day fighting for acceptance, equality, and dignity with courage and compassion.
Short in stature but tall in exuberance, she was the personification of the classically flawed super hero that wore a wool shawl rather than a red cape.
On a cold Christmas Day in 1821, Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born as the angel that she was destined to become. As the youngest of five siblings growing up on a farm in North Oxford, Massachusetts, she was quiet and reserved as her age gap among them was separated by a decade.
In addition, her parents had an unstable relationship due to their unyielding clash of fiery wills. Although they were strong advocates of abolitionism, they differed vastly on issues like women’s rights. In order to relieve the volatility of the home situation, Clara, as she preferred to be called, immersed herself in school books, excelling in the academic fundamentals of writing, arithmetic, and geography.
Praised by family and teachers alike, she was compelled to follow in the difficult career path of becoming a scholar. Her unwavering devotion in helping others was evident as far back as age 11when her brother David sustained injuries caused by falling from the rafters of a barn. Over the course of the next two years, she tirelessly nursed him back to health.
When she reached adulthood, Clara embarked on a bold campaign to expose children living in impoverished communities to the value of education. Despite the conditions of the schools in which she taught, she worked mostly without wages, earning respect from her students, ranging in ages four to 24, through discipline without force. In turn, her instruction methods melted some of the fears and anxieties that compromised her health.
She was more than a teacher where students could approach for guidance. They considered her role as that of a caring big sister.
Acknowledging the limitations set upon women in the teaching field, in 1850, Clara decided to further her studies by substituting the farming communities of Massachusetts for enrollment at one of the few co-educational academies in the country that offered higher learning for women: the prestigious Clinton Liberal Institute in New York State.
Although much older than most of her contemporaries, the 29-year-old was driven by a “burning anxiety” to become the best person that she could be. Her dedication to her studies left limited time for forging friendships but somehow she managed. One of these friends and classmates was Mary Norton (1835-1899) from Hightstown.
Raised in the doctrines of Universalism, Mary’s brother, Charlie, also attended the institute and appreciated Clara’s sense of humor. As friends, they collectively shared their hopes and sorrows.
In July of 1851, their friendship was tested when Clara received the tragic news that her mother had died. Worse yet was the fact that she couldn’t attend the funeral, since it had already taken place as well as the burial. Financial burdens soon followed, forcing her to terminate her education.
Slipping into a dark void that seemed difficult to recover from, she felt deeply depressed and alone. Far from home, she realized that she had no choice but to return.
With a somber farewell, she tightly hugged her friends and boarded the train for a future that seemed uncertain. All she could do was to stare out the window and watch the landscape as it rolled by.
When she arrived home at North Oxford, she had an unsettling queasiness in her soul that she had never left. Everything looked familiar, and yet nothing appeared the same. The death of her mother had shattered the household. Her aging father couldn’t maintain the farm as he was once able to do. The anxieties that she tried to quell were now overwhelming. She felt useless.
Concerned about the well-being of their friend, Mary and Charlie Norton wrote to Clara that fall, asking her to visit them in Hightstown. Without hesitation, she accepted their invitation and boarded a train with a positive sense of worth. It was the golden ticket needed to escape the smothering monotony of home.
Located outside of town, the Norton’s “large, well-cultivated” farm was comprised of 178 acres of fertile soil suitable for growing barley, wheat, corn, soybeans, and oats. Fruit orchards were also present as were sheep and dairy cows that grazed the fields. The home consisted of six children and a housekeeper, although two children had moved away by the time that Clara was present.
Spiritually grounded, the couple of Richard and Ellen Norton embraced her into their home with evening gatherings around the piano, singing songs, telling stories, and indulging in parlor games. When they discovered that a vacancy was open at the nearby Cedarville School, they thought of Clara. She heartily accepted the offer on the pretext that Mary would serve as her assistant.
On Oct. 23, Clara returned to teaching. The small wooden schoolhouse reminded her of the poorly built facility in her home state. Its atmosphere was easy to overcome with the right help. It was gaining the respect of students that presented a challenge to her.
She set firm rules at the outset and brought them into her confidence through kindness rather than pronouncing the judicial decree of a wooden switch. She rarely sat at her desk and preferred to engage with students on their level. She laughed with them. She played games with them. She was inspirational.
Within the month, attendance in the tiny schoolhouse swelled from thirty-nine to sixty students as word of Clara and Mary’s reputation spread through the district. Despite the need for expanding the stagnant curriculum of spelling and arithmetic to include geography, natural science, and American history, Clara was concerned over the fact that the school was not free. Parents paid two dollars for each of their children to attend school with the proceeds supplementing the salary of the teacher.
This didn’t sit well with the native New Englander, where public education in Massachusetts had a cherished tradition of always being free. However, in order for her to maintain her job, she kept those concerns to herself.
As the New Year started, Clara was gripped by “cabin fever” and the need for independence from the Norton family. Her need for inclusion with family activities was wearing thin as routine. She wanted privacy for writing letters and daily school preparation but was met with constant distractions as her presence was required on every family outing and church function.
Although she obliged, she was losing confidence in herself as heightened depression gripped her. If she tried to laugh at a joke or a humorous occurrence, it would be counterbalanced by weeps of despair. She felt her independence depleted by an autocratic family and a meaningful job that had no future as her term ended on April 20th. Furthermore, she dreaded the unpleasant task of billing families for sending their children to school.
Despite mixed feelings of her extent in Hightstown, Clara knew that it was time to leave another family and school behind. On May 25, the Norton family escorted her and her baggage to the train depot.
With her future in question for the second time, the only thing certain was that she had no intention of retreating home. Her friend, Charlie Norton, had accepted a teaching position in Bordentown the previous month and so, the prospects of finding a job in the bustling little town, 10 miles south of Hightstown, intrigued her.
The Norton family surmised that she would return for another visit sometime in the near future but they were wrong. Although Mary Norton and Clara Barton remained lifelong friends, it would be another 27 years before she would return.
In August 1878, Clara spent the week at Mary’s new home in town, talking about the past and her efforts to organize the American Red Cross. In relishing the summer breeze on Mary’s porch, she later wrote that it was “the last comfortable week I have known.”
This also rang true as she boarded the train for Bordentown in 1852. Little did she realize that her temporary residency in this river town would change the trajectory of her career and that of our nation forever.