The teenage girl left school fighting tears; her thoughts filled with her classmates mocking actions on this her first day of high school. All day, she had only wanted to hide as she walked between classes in the new school. It began when she had asked a student, “where do the freshmen go?” and received the taunting answer, “same place as the fresh women.”
Her quaint clothes looked funny in this educational environment, and she knew it. In her first class, a student slipped over to the chalk board, made a couple strokes and changed Elnora's last name from Comstock to Cornstalk.
The day ended in total shock when she learned she needed money she did not have to pay for books for tuition. She had so wanted to go to school. She walked the three miles home sobbing with the agony, humiliation and realization that she did not have the money to attend.
And thus the 100-year-old fiction and best seller “A Girl of the Limberlost” opens its Cinderella story of the underdog who finishes high school at the top of her class.
That same theme, the quest to escape poverty of pocketbook and mind, is portrayed in the new movie “The Glass Castle,” in which four teenagers determine they will go to school in spite of their nomadic parents' physical neglect and disregard for education.
The movie is based on a 1990 biography by Jeanette Wells.
In both situations, the children hide money from their parents. Elnora knows her mother will use it to pay the taxes. Jeanette knows her father will use it for alcohol.
An advertisement for specimens of moths and butterflies sends Elnora into the wilderness of Indiana's Limberlost to capture specimens to sell to a naturalist. It is there, in the Limberlost, that she meets her Prince Charming.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The prohibitive distance and cost of attending high school in 1908 became the prohibitive distance and cost of attending college today. With no school buses anywhere, Elnora walks three miles every day. Jeanette and her siblings save up to move to the city to further their education.
Rising above their parents' expectations and rules, Elnora and Jeanette each find a niche. Elnora uses her knowledge of nature to pay for her education and also becomes a talented violinist. Jeanette joins the only free organization: the school newspaper, which leads to a job at the local newspaper.
Elnora reflects the idealism of the time. When she searches for moths with summer visitor Philip, her mother tags along as a chaperone. Because Philip is already engaged to someone else, Elnora refuses any physical contact, declines to correspond with him when he leaves and remains unapproachable until his fiancee, in yet another fit of self-centeredness, rejects him again.
Only then can Philip court Elnora.
Chaperones have disappeared by the time 'The Glass Castle' becomes a movie. As an adult, Jeanette and her fiancee already have an established home together long before their wedding vows. The lover knows the detrimental effect of Jeanette's mother and wants nothing to do with her dumpster-diving parents. She ultimately leaves him to make peace with her parents' life choices.
Elnora summarizes their mutual pain when she confronts her mother, “you knew I needed it and you let me go ... without?” That disappointing realization releases each to quit expecting something different and to finds ways to provide for themselves. Both books highlight the importance of education and fierce determination to move oneself out of pitiful poverty and neglect to a successful, independent life.
Joan Hershberger is a retired journalist who lives in Parkers Chapel with her husband. She may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org