A Red-Letter Day for a Schoolgirl

red letter Virgil

Recently I was thinking about standardized testing in schools, its role in hastening in the fall of civilization as we know it, and how some teachers and administrators had been found cheating to improve their schools’ scores. Then this cheating scandal popped up in India. And there was news of this long-lasting case in Atlanta.

Which naturally led me to this red-letter day in the schoolroom for a young woman in the early 1900s. The narrator is James Hyslop of the American Society for Psychical Research:

The following experience is especially interesting because it does not superficially suggest its explanation. It is from a young lady whom I know personally as well as the other members of her family. There can be no doubt about the trustworthiness of the lady’s statements regarding her experience as she remembers it. What its source is may be left to any one who wishes to conjecture it. The contents of it do not place it beyond a hallucinatory production of her subconscious mental action. Her studies had included the matter which was thus reproduced, and the interesting circumstance is the resourcefulness of the subliminal consciousness, if such it be, in recalling and reproducing in this hallucinatory manner knowledge which could not find recall in the ordinary way. An important point of interest is the fact that nearly two years later the lady suddenly developed automatic writing of a most interesting character.

“One day in the Fall of the year 1903, I went into Roman History Class at School without having looked at my lesson. I was not in the habit of bluffing, so when the teacher called upon me to answer a question I rose to my feet and commenced to say: ‘I do not know my lesson today,’ when suddenly on the blackboard behind me appeared in red letters the answer to the question. I hesitated and then read aloud what was written on the Board. It proved to be the correct answer. The red letters did not look like chalk, but like ink. This occurred several times during the year, but only in this one subject, Roman History.

“In the spring of the year 1905 in Vergil Class I was sent to the Board to translate fifteen consecutive lines of Vergil. Now I knew only the first five lines. So I commenced bravely. At about the fifth line I hesitated. I did not know what to write next, and there seemed to be writing on the board below, so to gain time till the dismissing bell should ring, I asked the teacher if I might erase this writing. I said, ‘May I erase the board clear?’ She answered: ‘There is nothing there. It is clean. Go on with the translation.’ I looked at her astonished. ‘The writing,’ I said, pointing to it. She said: ‘Don’t be silly, there is no writing there.’ The girls were beginning to smile and look at me, so I said nothing more, but turned to my translation. I finished the fifth line. The queer writing was in the way. I stared at it. It seemed to be a translation of the next ten lines of Vergil which I was supposed to write, but did not know. The writing looked like white chalk and was in a very slanting hand.

Now I wrote a decidedly back hand at the time. I took my own chalk and traced over this writing. Then at last the teacher seemed to see the writing. She read over the translation, said:

‘You are improving, Anna,’ and added, ‘Why didn’t you write it all alike? It looks terribly. The first five lines are back hand and the rest slant towards the right.’ ”



Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 1 January 1907: p. 56-7

I suppose cryptoamnesia is the most logical explanation, as Hyslop suggests with “hallucinatory production of her subconscious mental action.” Is it significant that she later became an automatic writer? If she subconsciously had absorbed the answer, why was there a need for words to trace on the board? One wonders about the handwriting slanting in opposite directions. And if “spirit guides” were feeding her the answers, is that considered cheating according to an academic code of conduct?

Write the correct answers on a piece of paper which you crumple into a tiny ball and pass surreptitiously to your neighbor. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes