Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter IV — School Days

page 32

Chapter IV
School Days

There were two good secondary schools in Napier, but the fees at these were quite beyond our slender means, and I had to be content with one of the denominational Board Schools at a shilling per week. The pupils were exceptionally lucky if they got their shilling's worth. The masters were generally what were called "remittance men," usually well-educated, sometimes public-school men, but scallywags of sorts packed off to the Colonies by their family with a small monthly allowance— enough perhaps to satisfy their hunger, but very far from adequate to appease their thirst.

The master of the school I was enrolled at was, fortunately, better than most of his kind. It is true he was often drunk—very drunk indeed; but he was, as I have since come to realise, drunk or sober, a gentleman. In my very first week at his school we became fast friends. He left his "rostrum" one afternoon to go to the blackboard. He appeared to me to be ill, and presently he lurched forward and fell. Alarmed, I rushed to his assistance, thinking he had taken a fit. The other boys called to me, "Let him be—leave him alone." It was usual, it appeared, on such occasions to let him "sleep it off," while the boys, according to taste, page 33played "noughts and crosses," read "Deadwood Dick "romances, or engaged in competitions to see who could stick most darts into the school-room ceiling. I was, I suppose, what they would call a "softy," for I ignored their protests, helped the poor man back to his seat, and got him a glass of water. In this strange way man and boy became devoted friends.

He used to give me special tuition in his favourite subjects. Had his tastes been literary, this would have been invaluable; but unluckily for me he was a mathematician of the deepest dye. Todhunter's Euclid, Hamblin Smith's Arithmetic, and Colenso's Algebra—these represented for him the acme of intellectual achievement. Out of pure loyalty and affection I devoted myself to these sterile and distasteful studies. Boy-like, I took the shortest cut and learned the propositions of Euclid by heart, as being so much quicker with my memory than troubling to understand them. But soon came detection, for one morning when he called me up to hear my "proposition" for the day and pencilled on his blotting-pad the two triangles whose "sides were equal to each other, each to each "(I still remember the abracadabra), he took it into his head to call them, not" the triangle A B C and the triangle D E F," as in Todhunter's text, but O P Q and X Y Z respectively. I floundered hopelessly in my parrot-like recitation, and of course he guessed the reason. I was thoroughly ashamed of myself and thereafter turned honest. I thought out my propositions as I learned them, and was quite restored to his good graces a few weeks later when I managed, unaided, to solve one of his pet riders

page 34

It was little enough to do to humour so kind a friend, for I was not devoid of brains, and if I had been, well, any second-rater can do mathematics in its lower branches if he applies himself, for it is independent alike of taste, imagination, or humour. My own brain, it is true, has always been obstinately impervious to the attractions of the binomial theorem; even the minor blandishments of recurring decimals and simple equations have left me cold. That no doubt may prejudice my view; yet I cannot but think that in the next generation mathematics will rank among the things that are "simply not done" by cultivated people: we shall by that time have invented such perfect machines for doing it instead.

At the end of the year my friend "crashed." He had been living, it seemed, far beyond his income, and with his pleasant manners he had found no difficulty in obtaining credit. Generous before he was just, at the end of the school year he distributed a number of beautiful prizes—his own gift. Mine, I remember, was Kingston's "In Eastern Seas: or the Voyage of the Dugong." After that he was made bankrupt.

A particularly malicious boy, who hated him and was jealous of me, insisted on reading out to me the newspaper report of the creditors' meeting and the many hard things said thereat about my friend. As the list of creditors included a firm of local booksellers with a claim for "school prizes supplied," my tormentor suggested that in common honesty I should hand my prize back to the book-sellers as it had not been paid for. But I shrewdly reflected that the words "For General Diligence," page 35which, together with my name, were written across the fly-leaf in the fine Roman hand of my beloved master, made the book unsaleable, and I kept it.

As for my friend, how dear he was to me I only realised when trouble overtook him. He disappeared from Napier, and the announcement of "a first and final dividend of ninepence in the £" in his bankruptcy was the last that was heard of him. But one young boy paid him the tribute of bitter tears o' nights for many a sad week after he had gone.

His successor was a hard-featured, red-headed Scotchman—for a wonder, not a mathematician— who did me one good service. He admired Macaulay, only, I suspect, because he was a contributor to the Edinburgh Review, and he set me to learn by heart "The Lays of Ancient Rome." If only he had mentioned "Ivanhoe" or "Rob Roy" to me he would have opened the gates of Romance; but unhappily several more years were to pass before I even heard the name of Scott. His hobby was "experimental science," and I was set to learn experimental science, but without experiments. We used Macmillan's Science Primers, Roscoe's Chemistry, Geikie's Geology, and What's-his-name's Physics. I learnt by rote elementary chemistry, without ever handling a test-tube; the story of the rocks without ever seeing a geologist's hammer. As for physics, all I remember of that is the name of one piece of apparatus described in the book and called "Wollaston's Cryopharus," and I only remember that because it rhymed with "Tricopherus," at that time a popular and much advertised hair-wash.

page 36

The only science that ever appealed to me— unless a complete course of Jules Verne could be called science—was astronomy, and that was due to the happy circumstance that Proctor, an English astronomer, and a most inspiring popular lecturer, visited Napier some time in the early eighties and delivered a series of four lectures—"The Life of a Planet," "The Moon," "Jupiter," and "Mars." I attended them all, and thereafter read every book on astronomy I could lay hands on. But while this science appealed to my imagination, it also disturbed my beliefs; and I entered upon some trying years of futile mental conflict in which I sought to reconcile "The Life of a Planet" with the first Book of Genesis.

I suppose my schoolmasters thought me clever, for I remember the other boys in the classes were always three or four years older than I was. My masters were probably deceived by my extraordinary receptivity; I sucked in knowledge like a sponge sucking up water, and gave it out again in class or examination-room in the same mechanical way, when duly squeezed.

In the year 1876 the Parliament of New Zealand passed an Education Act and established in the Colony a national system of "free, compulsory, and secular education." One must approve the "free" and "compulsory" even while deploring the "secular." Bible-teaching was relegated to the Sunday schools, and it is to be feared that many children grow up in ignorance of some of the noblest things in all literature—to put the matter on no higher plane. But anything was preferable to the chaos hitherto existing, in which learning page 37was sacrificed to sectarian bigotry and every little Bethel insisted upon conducting its own school in which to promulgate its own peculiar tenets. New school buildings, well lighted and ventilated, sprang up all over the Colony; the "remittance men" gradually disappeared, and trained teachers, many of them imported from England under engagement to the new Education Boards, took their place. Teaching was organised and systematised, and if it became a little mechanical under a too rigid syllabus for the various standards, it was at least efficient out of all comparison with what it had been.

The newly-built "District School" at Napier, as schools under the Act were called—was opened on February 1st, 1879, and I was there bright and early on the first morning. Now at last I was going to school in earnest to learn, not at haphazard but under service conditions, subject to strict discipline and with the zest of competition. I remember what a joy to me were those new sunny rooms with their interesting teaching apparatus and accessories, terrestrial globes and orreries, clean new wall-maps, and fascinating diagrams to illustrate industries and manufacturing processes. By October of 1879 I had run through the "standards" and had passed through the highest class in the school. Then, at twelve years and a half, I was faced with stern reality: I must begin to earn money—my own keep, at any rate—and trust to night schools or self-education for the rest.

It was my good fortune at this time to find two new friends who interested themselves in my education—the headmaster of the school, Archibald Bruce Thomson, and the Secretary and Inspector page 38to the Board of Education of the Province, Henry Hill. The Education Act made provision for the appointment and training of what were called "pupil-teachers" —juniors who taught in the schools and were themselves taught. Their term of apprenticeship was four years; the salary commenced at £20 for the first year and rose by annual increases to £50 in the fourth year. Here was my chance of obtaining a further four years' education, and that, too, under a headmaster who, I still think, was the most naturally gifted teacher I have ever known. At the same time I should be earning what in those days was a substantial wage for a boy of my years.

Very opportunely a vacancy occurred; but it was then discovered that the Act laid it down as a hard-and-fast rule that candidates for appointment must be not less than fourteen years of age, and I was only twelve and a half. But I was tall and looked much more than fourteen. My birth certificate was conveniently mislaid, and my two good friends unblushingly broke the law. Thus, at the age of twelve years and seven months I became a full-fledged pupil-teacher duly appointed to the staff of the Napier District School. I entered upon my duties with, I fancy, a pretty conceit of myself and in no danger of under-estimating my own importtance.

So far my reading had been confined almost exclusively to lesson-books and text-books—the books which are not books—biblia abiblia of Elia's aversion. Now at length I began to read books that were literature.

Almost the only verse I had read so far was the wretched stuff which was then, and I fear still is, page 39to be found in school readers—" Casabianca," "The Psalm of Life," "Bingen on the Rhine," or the thin drivel of pietistic poetasters like "A.L.O.E." Why such anæmic twaddle should be served up to children passes comprehension—healthy, normal, high-spirited youngsters, who loathe every poem or tale that has a moral to it, and for whom nothing, not Shelley's "Skylark" even, is ever too good ! Thrice blessed are the children of this generation who have Stevenson's "Garden of Verses" to read, or A. A. Milne's "When we were very Young."

But presently I purchased "Dick's Shilling Shakespeare "—a kingdom for twelve pence—and found therein and promptly committed to memory "Full fathom five thy father lies," and "When icicles hang by the wall."

I read and re-read the Comedies; but it was the lyrics which at that period made the strongest appeal. And then one day soon after—a never-to-be-for-gotten day—a gifted and discerning friend made me a present of Francis Palgrave' s priceless anthology— his "Golden Treasury "of lyrical poetry—and I too stood

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

At the end of the second year of my apprentice-ship, when the results of the annual examinations appeared in the newspapers, I received through my friend, the Inspector of Schools, a most kind letter from a complete stranger congratulating me on my success, enclosing an order for several guineas on a local bookseller, and hoping I should "choose wisely." He proved to be the Rev. Wm. Colenso, cousin of "Pentateuch" Colenso, Bishop of Natal, page 40the well-known writer of books on mathematics and famous—or must I say notorious—for his daring flights in theological controversy.

The Napier Colenso had lived for many years in retirement, devoting himself to botanical researches. Occasionally, too, like his more famous cousin, he made excursions into the stormy regions of Higher Criticism. For a time he was, in consequence, out of favour with his Bishop and the authorities of his Church. But shortly before his death, when he was an old and venerable-looking man, I heard him preach in the Napier Cathedral. On a tablet to his memory it is recorded of him that he printed on a hand-press brought out with him from Home the first translation into the Maori language of a portion of the New Testament. And so, at the end, there was peace.

When I called upon him to thank him for his gift he talked to me for a long time about his difficulties and struggles as our pioneer printer. He had much trouble to conceal from his Maori converts the lead he had brought out to the Mission for casting into type wherewith to print the gospel of peace; the Maoris used to steal it and melt it into rifle-bullets ! He recalled also, I remember, that he had spent Christmas Day, 1842, with the great Charles Darwin on board the Beagle in the Bay of Islands. This, he said, started him on what he regarded as his life's work—the classification of New Zealand ferns.

I spent nearly half of his gift on Macaulay's "History of England." To this day it remains unread, and all but the first fifty pages are uncut. Had I known it I could have purchased for much less money Greene's "Shorter History." I should page 41then have possessed a picturesque and entrancing history of the English people instead of a learned but prolix Whig pamphlet. But in the selection of the rest of my gift I was more fortunate: Macaulay's "Essays," Proctor's "Poetry of the Stars," and Winwood Reade's "Martyrdom of Man."

This last book was chosen on the recommendation of a new friend—the Gamaliel of the moment— upon whom my ardent hero-worship became at this time centred. He was a cynical and witty journalist. He had been educated at Merchant Taylors' School, and was a man of culture and taste; but he was what would now, I suppose, be called an agnostic, though perhaps his rationalism was of too militant a type to be adequately described by that colourless term. Indeed, so violent was he at times in his iconoclastic fervour that one is tempted to compare him with the rabid secularist who began a speech with, "Thank God—I am an Atheist."

At any rate, he deemed it his duty to educate his protégé in "free thought." He prescribed for my perusal what he called "the most emancipative chapters" in Gibbon's "Decline and Fall," and he urged me to procure "The Martyrdom of Man." In truth, after the "sturm und drang" period since Proctor's lectures first moved me to doubt, the "Martyrdom of Man" acted rather as a pleasant sedative.

But militant free-thought has long since ceased to be the vogue; Charles Bradlaugh and Robert Ingersoll are alike forgotten, and we have learned to regard each other's differences of view in a spirit of Christian charity, with, however, a twinge of misgiving, now and then, lest that fine old word page 42"tolerance" should be subtly degenerating, as the best of words will degenerate, into a euphemism for "indifference."

We, all of us, agree with Tennyson's:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

But Samuel Butler's whimsically wicked misquotation of the lines will persist in obtruding itself also.

If my new friend's philosophy had a disturbing influence, after all it merely accelerated a stage in my development which I had to go through, I suppose, sooner or later. But that was by no means the only direction in which he stimulated my mental growth.

He was a constant playgoer; and as his "Press" ticket admitted two, he frequently took me to the theatre with him. Even in those early days of the Colony's history many really excellent theatrical companies visited us from Australia and sometimes even from Home. It was with him, for example, that I went to my first grand opera, "Un Ballo in Maschera," sung in Italian by the "Martin Simonsen Opera Company," and to my first Savoy opera, "Pinafore," In the course of two or three years he was actually able to take me to three different performances of "Hamlet." He made a point of never missing a "Hamlet"—good, bad, or indifferent; and for forty years 1 have adopted and followed his rule with interesting results.

The first of my "Hamlets" was Herr Bandmann, a ponderous German actor who gave what was called a "scholarly performance" in a vile German accent. Miss Louise Pomeroy played the part of page 43the Prince in corsets, and spoke her lines in a deep contralto voice which did not, however, avail to disguise her sex. The third was an American, whose name for the moment I forget. He "explained himself" with much unction to the newspaper interviewers. He was, he said, a realist and a stickler for the authorised text and for the literal as against a fanciful interpretation of it. He played Hamlet in a tow-coloured wig, because all Danes were supposed to be fair! He also wore a beard; for how else, he said, could Hamlet exclaim:

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?

Some day, no doubt, we shall have an American actor, product of a Chicago Shakespeare Society, who will act Hamlet as an Irishman with a Tipperary brogue; for does he not in one scene swear, and that most valiantly, by St. Patrick?

But the best service my friend did me was to insist, when I was about sixteen, that I should "take stock" of myself and my attainments. I flattered myself that I was becoming "educated," a belief encouraged, no doubt, by a certain fatal facility I possessed in doing the superficial cramwork which enables you to score marks in examinations.

He set himself ruthlessly to destroy my self-complacency. A smattering of science and mathematics— "arithmetic enough for a grocer's clerk" was his comment; a string of dates and events in history, of capes and bays, towns and exports in geography—"an auctioneer's catalogue of useless lumber—without reserve." Parsing and analysis, page 44rules for composition, "figures of speech "—all according to "Bain's Rhetoric "—the true "curse of Scotland" he dared to call the work of that thrice-learned pundit.

What was his remedy? Latin and Greek, if possible—if not, at least Latin and French. Not Latin accidence and French grammar merely, but the literature, history, and philosophy of the two peoples. This was the one and only sovereign remedy: so only could my mind be cultivated. His unobtrusive scholarship and unaffected culture made me realise my own barrenness and poverty. At all costs I must, however hard the struggle, get to a town where I could attend university classes.

I was now nearly sixteen and had entered upon the last year of my apprenticeship. I had good prospects of being awarded a bursary at the end of my course to enable me to proceed to the Teachers' Training College at Christchurch in the South Island. There, too, I could attend the classes at Canterbury University College. But the bursary was only £50 a year for two years, and it was clear I could not pay for board, clothes, and books out of that.

So I set about making money. My friend's caustic allusion to the "grocer's clerk" supplied one hint. I procured a copy of Chambers' "Lessons in Book-keeping "and read it up. Soon I obtained three jobs at book-keeping, in the sense of posting day-book into ledger and making out the monthly bills. My employers were a draper, a baker, and a butcher. The draper had a comfortable little office, and the baker's books were written up amid the warm and pleasant odours of his bakehouse; page 45but the butcher's were kept on a desk in his shop, where in winter I suffered from cold and in summer from smells and fly-pests. These jobs kept me busy three long evenings in every week and brought me in close on £50 for the year. But it was hard work; I never knew what it meant to be in bed on the last night of any month. All three employers insisted that their monthly bills must be made out and posted in time for the mail delivery on the first, and I was fortunate if my night's work was finished by breakfast time.

But this was not my only or my most profitable "side-line." Just before my sixteenth birthday I inserted an advertisement in the newspaper announcing that

"Mr. O. T. J. Alpers" (that was me, if you please!) "proposes to start a night-school for working-men, if sufficient inducement offers."

I had not ventured to mention this project to my cynical friend for fear he should scare me out of it. As it was, when he saw my advertisement he described it, not altogether incorrectly perhaps, as "a piece of blazing effrontery "; but he conceded, sensibly enough, that as I had publicly committed myself to this "asinine project" I might as well see what came of it.

In the upshot, success came of it. It is true I was only a boy of sixteen, but that fact was not paraded in the advertisement. I had acquired, no doubt, some little reputation in the town—a small community, remember, in which everyone knew something of everyone else—and was spoken of variously as "a clever young fellow," "a bit of a crank," "with lots of cheek "; and it was rumoured, page 46not, I hope, without some justification, that I had the knack of teaching. At any rate, rather more than the "sufficient inducement" offered; I had, in fact, close upon forty pupils in the course of the year. Some stayed a few weeks only—others stuck it out. They paid me a fee of two shillings per week—cash on Friday nights—and in the year I made nearly £70 out of my school.

I should perhaps explain here that this shrewdness in money matters, so marked in my seventeenth year as to suggest the possession of a promising acquisitive instinct and future triumphs in finance, came, alas! to naught. It may be that when I began at last to pursue the "humanities" I acquired also—or affected—the scholar's contempt for that which is dross.

They were a fine lot of men, all sorts. One was actually the father of two children at the District School who had been my pupils. "You taught the kids something, so what about their dad?—" and, half in jest, half in earnest, he joined up. But most of them were young men who felt they had left school too early and wanted "rubbing up" in some particular subject.

Some little time before I had received, as a special prize, Cassell's "Popular Educator" in four well-filled volumes. It was a sort of "Inquire within upon everything." It had well-arranged lessons upon every conceivable subject, and I had obtained direct from the publishers a key or book of answers to the exercises. With this compendium of information in my possession I was thrice-armed. One young fellow wanted to learn Navigation for some reason. Navigation, I ex-page 47plained , was an extra; so he paid the "extra" and was taught navigation. It was all there, with diagrams, in my wonderful "Popular Educator." Another desired to be taught what, in those days, was still called "Polite letter-writing" (I rather suspected he was in love!). That subject had been omitted from my all-comprising encyclopædia, but was fortunately well within my own powers to teach.

But my boldest stroke of business was done with a young fellow, a printer, I remember, on the staff of one of the newspapers. He had a pleasant tenor voice and had been called upon to sing, on occasions, the anthem in St. John's. This was his undoing. Abetted by his admiring relations, he conceived himself to be a Sims Reeves, and nothing but the Leipzig Conservatorium was good enough for him. Would I teach him German?

Now, I did not know one word of German; but I at once realised it was high time I did. The pronunciation of that harsh language was not altogether strange to me; I had heard the sailors on the good ship Friedeburg singing German "shanties" in the fo'c'sle. My father, too, would sometimes try to sing—he really had no ear—" Ach, dy lieber Augustin." He, I reflected, would certainly help me with the difficult gutturals. My printer was willing to pay double rates—four shillings a week. I had a key to the exercises, and, what was much more important, he had not, so why hesitate? I did the first six exercises of Cassell's "Lessons in German "before commencing to teach him, and throughout the year I kept my lead. At the end of it he knew quite a good bit of German, and I knew more—six exercises more, to be exact. He page 48ultimately got to Leipzig; but I am afraid the virtuosi were less enthusiastic about his voice than his relations in New Zealand had been, for in a few years he was back in the printing office "on case." I heard that when the linotype machine was introduced some years later he took to the new invention with special enthusiasm. I suppose the keyboard appealed to his musical instincts.

But, fortunately, I did not have many of these "extra" pupils, or I might have been found out; though I always protest that those I did have got their honest money's worth. Most of my scholars, however, wanted nothing more difficult than lessons in two of the "three R's"—usually writing and arithmetic, with a little of "Mavor's Spelling Book" thrown in.

When, more than thirty years later, I made my debut—if the metaphor be not too flippant—on the Bench at Napier, the gentlemen of the Grand Jury very courteously craved leave to address me, and in the course of some very kind and gracious words of welcome to me as an "old Napier boy," the foreman told me that he and three other "gentlemen of the County" had been my pupils at the Napier District School.

I subsequently learnt that one member at least of my first Petty Jury had actually attended my night-school. The dramatic proprieties demand here that this should have been my "German" student; but thank heaven it wasn't. Had I recognised him in the jury seats I should have blushed to the roots of my Judge's wig.