By Dan Cole, Charlotte Historical Society
No person should be restricted or defined by disabilities. Society seems to have few expectations of people with disabilities such as deafness, perhaps ascribing a lack of ability to overcome them.
Caroline Yale began life in Charlotte on September 29, 1848, the youngest of five children of Deacon William Lyman Yale and Ardelia Strong. At Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, Caroline found her calling, and with insight and patience helped alter the direction of education of those once referred to as deaf and dumb (meaning incapable of speech).
The Yales believed strongly in the value of education and brought a teacher from Mount Holyoke Seminary to Charlotte to homeschool their children. Three-year-old Caroline badgered her parents to be allowed into the classroom. She was admitted but admonished to remain quiet. She absorbed so much knowledge that she was years of instruction ahead of her peers. “The constant presence of [a young teacher] was an educational influence not to be overlooked.”
Desirous of furthering his children’s education, Deacon Yale moved his family to Williston, where he had helped establish the Williston Academy, which offered some of the finest higher education instruction in Vermont.
Being the youngest and of small stature (she was 5’5” tall, with auburn hair and hazel eyes), Caroline was believed to have a weak constitution. “From childhood, medical advice had cast dark shadows on my pathway. I was not allowed to do this because I was not strong; I was not to be allowed to do that for the same reason; I was not to entertain any hope of further study. Mother and I discussed the matter seriously and agreed that we had a right to make our own decision.”
A brilliant student at Williston, Caroline taught at a nearby district school and began to tutor young men for college entrance exams. She entered Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1866, but after two years, “claims of home and family prevented their continuance.” The year 1868 found her in charge of 90 students in Brandon, Vermont. In 1869, the directors of Williston Academy offered her the position of assistant principal, and she accepted. Early the next year Deacon Yale moved his family back to Charlotte.
Harriet Rogers, principal of a new school for the deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, heard of Caroline’s skills and reached out to invite her to join the staff. In the fall of 1870, “I decided to leave all else and cleave unto this work. I have never for a moment regretted this decision.” Clarke School was the first to employ an “oral method” (lip reading and vocal speech) of instruction rather than the “manual method” (signing).
Caroline became both teacher and mentor. She led young people’s religious services at Edwards Church; helped provide religious services to inmates at the jail; and once, in a local tenement, comforted a poor woman who died of consumption in her arms. “There was also a section of the town occupied by a small group of colored families. While some of them attended certain churches, they greatly appreciated religious services held by and for them in their own homes.”
“In April of 1873, I was, by action of the board of trustees, made associate principal. When I pled my inability to fill this position, Mr. Sanborn’s quiet rejoinder was: ‘Do not be troubled. The position always develops the person called to it.’” In June 1886, Caroline became principal. She traveled extensively in Europe to research methods of teaching the deaf.
Caroline stressed “to educate a deaf child means the same as to educate a normal child. … In the advanced department of the Northampton school hang maps of Greece and Rome, busts of Shakespeare and Milton, pictures of the Acropolis and Forum. The recitations in medieval history and Elizabethan literature show much thought and progress. The moral and religious natures of the students receive watchful care. Industrial training and physical exercises are especially emphasized. There is often a basketball victory for the Clarke team in a matched game. … [Under Miss Yale’s leadership], from the beginning the Northampton school has done pioneer work along broad lines, sending back into the family, society and the state most serviceable men and women.” **
The youngest students learned through play. Phonetic element charts were developed that revolutionized the instruction of the deaf, who were taught the natural sciences, art, history, mathematics, algebra, plane geometry, geology, astronomy—even dance. Yale helped develop and administer a Normal School to train teachers in their methods to become educators of the deaf in their own localities. One teacher Caroline trained was Grace Goodhue, who later married Hon. Calvin Coolidge.
By 1922, Caroline’s physical strength failed and she was forced into a wheelchair. The trustees voted her “principal emeritus.” She received an LLD from Illinois Wesleyan University, an LHD from Smith College, and another LLD from Mount Holyoke College. She remained as Director of the Normal School until her death of pneumonia in Northampton on July 2, 1933. She is buried in Barber Cemetery (West Burying Ground). Her marker is a fieldstone from the farm of her birth, featuring a plaque donated by the grateful Trustees of Clarke School.
“Sweet lady! with a pure and heartfelt joy,
I look upon thy gentle, speaking face,
On which with artist interest I trace
The spirit-promptings to thy blessed employ.
Seated before thee, eager girl and boy
Take from thy lips the messages of grace,
And in their souls the precious gems
Jewels Divine! the gold without alloy. —
Yet the rich tones that reach my gladdened ear,
Music nor meaning to their souls convey. —
The little band of earnest seekers here; —
O’er them the thunder-peal has lost its sway;
But to the eye thy lips are eloquent;
Their flexile graces mould the message sent.”
(by trustee James Congdon)
All quotes from Caroline’s memoirs, except ** St. Johnsbury Republican, St. Johnsbury, Vermont, 7 March 1906.
You can learn more Charlotte history by visiting the Charlotte Museum located on Museum Road in Charlotte. The museum is open through Labor Day on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free; the museum is accessible to the disabled.