This “letter” has been reported in the literature for years.
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.
The letter is a myth. There was no letter written to Edison’s mother from his teacher.
This is what is known from reliable sources:
is the Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He notes the first time that Edison was considered "addled" as a child is in an 1894 interview of Samuel Edison. (Thomas’ father), “Some folk thought he was a little addled, I believe. Teachers told us to keep him in the streets, for he would never make a scholar.”
Edison did briefly (perhaps for several months) attend school sometime after his family moved from Milan in 1854 to Port Huron, MI. According to Vol I of the Thomas A Edison Papers, he briefly attended a private school headed by the local Episcopal minister, the Rev. Engel. Edison received instruction in piano as well as traditional subjects. There is also evidence that he briefly attended the Union School in Port Huron at about age 11 and may have studied the physical sciences.
Paul Israel continues….”The next time such a story [about Edison’s schooling] occurs is in the 1908 biography by Francis Arthur Jones,
Thomas Alva Edison; Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life.
A reprint of that section of the biography was published in the May 21, 1908 issue of the magazine
In Thomas Edison’s own words:
I was always a careless boy, with a mother of a different mental caliber. I should probably have turned out badly. But her firmness, her sweetness, her goodness were potent powers to keep me in the right path. I remembered I used never to be able to get along at school. I don’t know now what it was, but I was always at the foot of the class. I used to feel that the teachers never sympathized with me, and that my father thought that I was stupid, and at last I almost decided that I must really be a dunce. My mother was always kind, always sympathetic, and she never misunderstood or misjudged me. But I was afraid to tell her all my difficulties at school, for fear she, too, might lose her confidence in me.
One day I overheard the teacher tell the inspector that I was ‘addled’, and it would not be worth while keeping me in school any longer. I was so hurt by this last straw that I burst out crying, and went home and told my mother about it. Then I found out what a good thing a good mother was. She came out as my strong defender. Mother-love was aroused, mother-pride wounded to the quick. She brought me back to the school and angrily told the teacher that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that I had more brains than he himself, and a lot more talk like that. In fact she was the most enthusiastic champion a boy ever had, and I determined right then that I would be worthy of her and show her that her confidence was not misplaced.
Nancy Edison was a former school teacher and took on his education at home. She organized lessons and an extensive reading program that took in the family’s personal library as well as the public library in town. He was also allowed to conduct chemical experiments and was involved in other mechanical projects. In the end, his education became much more dynamic and personal than what could ever be offered in the traditional 19
Edison, again speaking in the Youth’s Companion article:
I did not have my mother very long……..but in that length of time she cast over me an influence which has lasted all my life. The good effects of her early training I can never lose. If it had not been for her appreciation and her faith in me at a critical time in my experience, I should very likely never have become an inventor.
“My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt that I had some one to live for, some one I must not disappoint.”
* Paul Israel is the author of
Edison: A Life of Invention.
Published by John Wiley & Sons, 1998.