A View of the Teacher’s Desk at RI’s Oldest School

The one-room Sothermost School in Portsmouth still intimidates modern students.
southermost school
Photography by James Jones

Portsmouth’s Southermost School
When you cross the threshold of Rhode Island’s oldest educational facility, you’re greeted — or, more precisely, spooked into submission — by an imposing mannequin dressed as an eighteenth-century schoolmaster. The dummy, with a corporal punishment switch in hand, has the same back-straightening effect on children as the formidable educators who stood in its place, behind that very desk, nearly three centuries ago. Portsmouth’s Southermost School, sited on Union Street, was operational between 1725 and 1850. After a number of years as a tack barn, the one-room schoolhouse was moved to the Portsmouth Historical Society in 1952. Its members restored it to its red-clapboard glory and they now host field trips for third-graders in town, who sit at tiny wooden desks with inkwells and perform eighteenth century lessons on slates. “The kids are at first a little nervous, but they catch on to how school really was almost 300 years ago and they seem to at least realize it was vastly different,” comments historical society president and town historian, James E. Garman, adding, “Maybe they are just glad with how they have it today!”