BETTY J. COTTER, Special to The Day
Published June 18. 2013 4:00AM
It may have been built in 1773, but the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in New London has turned a decidedly 21st-century corner with its latest exhibit.
A series of panels by artist Lora Innes of Ohio tell the story of Hale, the schoolmaster turned American spy, in the form of a graphic novel. With titles like "The Schoolmaster Inspires His Community" and "The Schoolmaster Says Goodbye," Innes tells the story of Hale's arrival at the city school, his growing involvement in politics and his departure to begin working as a spy.
When she first heard about the project, docent Debra Dickey admitted she had no idea what a graphic novel was. But when she saw the panels installed, she immediately understood.
"Classics Illustrated," she said, invoking the comic books of the Baby Boomer generation that brought life to novels and biographies in dramatic fashion.
Today's graphic novels may owe some debt to the 15-cent comic books that introduced children to classic literature. But rather than retelling a story, novels like Innes's "The Dreamer" are entirely original, both in narrative and illustration, and are often serialized on the Internet before print publication.
Innes is about halfway through "The Dreamer," having written three of the planned six parts. They tell the story of Bea Whaley, a contemporary American girl who begins to have vivid dreams about the American Revolution. The dreams transport her to the American colonies, where she becomes involved with Knowlton's Rangers, an elite group of spies.
Hale naturally has a limited role in the unfolding story, since he was caught and hanged by the British in 1776. Before his death, he uttered the famous phrase, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
Innes faced the daunting task of turning the American icon into a fully realized character.
"I think for me he first came to life when I started reading all the letters his friends wrote him," Innes said, referring to his fellow Yale alumni. "When he was kind of 'talking to the bros,'" she added with a laugh, "he sort of became a person to me, not just a flat, cookie-cutter figure. One of my favorite descriptions of him was when he was reading a book, he just really hated to be interrupted." So much so that he would dangle his timepiece in front of the page so he wouldn't have to look away to check the time.
In the schoolhouse panels, she tries to bring to life the relationship the schoolteacher - who was only 18 years old when he graduated from Yale, and 19 when he took the job at what was then called the Union School in New London in 1774 - had with his students.
"He was definitely a fun guy," said Innes, who has drawn Hale with thin lips that are quick to curve into a smile. "He would go out and play with the kids on lunch break. When you think about it, he wasn't that much older than them."
She also has tried to bring some of his patriotic fervor and emotional intensity to the panels. "I could be totally wrong, but I think he was a guy who felt things deeply," she said.
Innes began working on the series about six years ago. When her research about Hale brought her to the city's schoolhouse on the Parade, she met Stephen Shaw of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, which owns the building, and from there the idea of a graphic novel exhibit germinated.
Historian Rachel Smith, consultant Jennifer Eifrig of Musevue360 and the New London County Historical Society contributed historical research. As they gathered more information, including church records, newspaper accounts, letters, maps and histories, it was the artist's job to come up with a narrative to tell the story.
Some of the panels quote Hale's letters. Two months after he was hired, he wrote: "I have a very convenient school-house, and the people are kind and sociable."
Reading his words, and seeing Innes's imagined likeness, is all the more powerful at the schoolhouse itself, which - despite six moves around the city - has changed little since it was built. Upstairs, visitors trod the same oak floors where students once walked and where indentations made by schoolmasters' boots can still be seen. Although the stairs were moved and some wallboards replaced, other changes made over the years - including renovations to convert the Union School into a residence - have been undone. The building even includes 13 original panes of glass, recognizable by their wavy lines.
Students attended the school from 8 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m., with the long lunch break necessary for chores and the main meal of the day, noted Dickey. The school also taught girls, a progressive notion at the time.
"The school was built by and for the city leaders for their children, so they likely were more open to the thought of their daughters being educated," Shaw said. "New London was a very forward-thinking city at the time."
Students sat on benches and practiced math problems with graphite on small slates. Candles provided the only light, with small fireplaces for heat (probably enlarged when the building was a residence). They studied reading, writing, mathematics and the classics - Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Innes imagines the works of Cicero on Hale's desk.
The exhibit is a new draw for school tours and families, but Shaw said it appeals to all ages. "I see that many more people tend to read the entire panel series compared to the older style (of interpretative panels) on the other side of the room," he said. "They are so well done that they draw you in to learn more. The exhibit has brought in many new visitors."