After a Schoolteacher Called Thomas Edison “Addled,” His Heroic Mother Stepped In-Mostly Fiction!
Summary of eRumor:
After Thomas Edison’s school teacher called him addled or mentally ill in a letter, Edison’s mother hid the letter from the young inventor and homeschooled him so that Edison could reach his full potential.
Many details of an inspirational story about Thomas Edison’s young life are accurate, but they’ve been used to form a fictional narrative about young Edison’s struggles as a student.
The inspirational story begins by recalling how Thomas Edison’s grade school teacher wrote to his mother that Edison was “addled” and wouldn’t be allowed in school anymore. When Edison asked his mother what the letter said, she pretended to read it aloud, stating that he couldn’t go to school because he was a genius and “the school is too small for him.” After discovering the letter after his mother’s death, Edison supposedly wrote in his diary, “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.”
This rumor contains a few accurate details. Thomas Edison was dyslexic, which made it difficult for him to succeed in an 1800s classroom. And one of Edison’s teacher’s reportedly described him as “addled.” But the central claim — that Edison’s mother hid that fact from him — is not accurate.
The Foundation for Economic Education reports that Edison was well aware of his teacher’s diagnosis, and that he was enraged by it. Edison was seven years old when his teacher, the Rev. G.B. Engle, described him as “addled.” The boy stormed out of the school in Port Huron, Michigan, and returned the next day with his mother, Nancy. Nancy hoped to reconcile, but she became frustrated with Engle’s “rigid ways” and decided to educate young Thomas at home.
In the biography, “Thomas Alva Edison: Great American Inventor,” Louise Betts goes into more detail about why young Edison had problems with Reverend Engle’s teaching style. Betts writes that sitting still in a classroom was “pure misery” for Edison to begin with, and Engle forced his students to learn by memorizing lessons and reciting them out loud. Students were whipped with a leather strap if they made mistakes, and “Mrs. Engle also heartily approved of using the whip as a way of teaching students better study habits. her whippings were often worse than her husband’s!”
Betts concludes that Edison wasn’t able to memorize lessons and needed hands-on experience to understand and learn things. Edison also needed to ask lots of questions, which frustrated his teacher. Later, Edison said, “I remember I used to never be able to get along at school. I was always at the foot (bottom) of the class. I used to feel that the teachers did not sympathize with me, and that my father thought I was stupid.”
Later in life, Edison said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me: and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
However, there’s no record of Edison’s quote from the inspirational story, “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.”
So, it’s true that Thomas Edison’s teacher called him addled, and that his mother’s homeschooling had a big impact on him. But, based on all a the inspirational account of Nancy Edison hiding the teacher’s letter is false.
One day Thomas Edison came home and gave a paper to his mother. He told her, “My teacher gave this paper to me and told me to only give it to my mother.”
His mother’s eyes were tearful as she read the letter out loud to her child: Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn’t have enough good teachers for training him. Please teach him yourself.
After many, many years, after Edison’s mother died and he was now one of the greatest inventors of the century, one day he was looking through old family things. Suddenly he saw a folded paper in the corner of a drawer in a desk. He took it and opened it up. On the paper was written: Your son is addled [mentally ill]. We won’t let him come to school any more.
Edison cried for hours and then he wrote in his diary: “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.”