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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter VI — Teaching

page 67

Chapter VI

Schoolmasters are a disconsidered class, and they are seldom allowed to forget it. Perhaps it is because people will persist in associating their calling with the corporal chastisement of small boys, as though this were their main business, That, at least, seems to be the reason why they cut such a sorry figure in literature. From the plagosus Orbilius of Horace to the heavy-handed James Boyer of Charles Lamb—with his robidus furor and his "sublunary infirmities"—the schoolmaster is always depicted wielding a birch.

And yet at one time more than half of the occupants of the Bench ot Bishops in England had been headmasters of public schools; but even this recognition of their fitness to become Peers Spiritual has failed to procure for the profession the consideration due to it. Perhaps the best explanation of the anomaly is that suggested by Ian Hay in the dedication of his delightful book "The Lighter Side of School Life" to "the most responsible, the least advertised, the worst paid, and the most richly rewarded profession in the world."

But although the rewards are rich indeed, they are not completely adequate compensation for the underpayment. It is true that in this country page 68clergymen are now paid even less, but they have at least the consolation of feeling that theirs is not a profession, but a vocation; and—well, they are occasionally invited to the garden parties of the rich.

But men do not as a rule become schoolmasters because they feel a "call" to teach; they do not adopt the profession—they drift into it. Of all the young men I helped to educate at school or University, I know of three only who deliberately made up their minds to be schoolmasters, and of these one is now a doctor, and one a stock-broker; the third alone has remained true to the faith that was in him.

The typical schoolmaster—and I have known many—is a man who at twenty or twenty-one finds himself the proud possessor of a diploma on parchment adorned with the seal of a University and the signature of its august chancellor. This entitles him to stick several letters at the back of his name in addition to those in front, but no prudent pawn-broker will advance him the price of a meal on it. His head is filled with learning, but his pockets are empty of money. His ambition is to become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, but lack of means makes these professions for the time inaccessible; so he accepts a job on the staff of a secondary school as a stop-gap, and there stops. After his strenuous years at the University he "slacks," becomes "groovy," acquires the habit of leaning on that monthly cheque like a drunken man lurching from one lamp-post to the next. He finds his work in school absorbs all his energies; he discovers, if he has a gift for teaching, that "boy"—even "perpetual boy"—is not at all unpleasant material to page 69work upon, and that after all those three vacations in the year are, one must admit, a joyous time to look forward to. He has not abandoned those other ambitions of his; he still vows he will set about attaining them—next year. And so he passes out of the twenties into the thirties, and out of the thirties into the forties, and wakes one morning with a shock to find it is his birthday once again, and that middle-age is stalking him with unrelenting steps.

That, or something very like it, was my own case. Shortly after taking my degree I was offered and accepted a position on the staff of the Christchurch Boys' High School, and there I remained for fifteen years. Many reasons moved me to stay: my keen enjoyment of the work itself, my attachment to the headmaster—wisest, kindest, and most lovable of men—and, I suppose, sheer inertia. My salary when I joined was adequate and even tempting to a young man of twenty-two; but it had only been increased by £50 when I retired at thirty-eight. Two of my contemporaries at College, one of whom had taken to medicine and the other to law, were, as I found, paying considerably more in income-tax than I was receiving in salary, and this gave me furiously to think.

I could not possibly have remained in the profession as long as I did were it not that by leader writing for newspapers, by occasional contributions to London magazines, and by perpetrating a book or two (in one1 of which, however, I had an accomplice) I contrived to add substantially to the emolu-

1 "New Zealand in the Nineteenth Century," by R. F. Irvine and O. T. J. Alpers. (Linscott Publishing Co., Philadelphia; W. & R. Chambers, Edinburgh. 1901.)

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of teaching. That I was forced at last to leave the profession was not due to any loss of Interest in it, for the longer I stuck to it the more I came to love the work. My reasons for leaving it were, I am afraid, frankly sordid; I was driven out by my tailor and my shoemaker, who insisted, not unreasonably, on having their bills paid. Could I have brought myself to wear "hand-me-down" suits and "slip-on" boots I might have remained a schoolmaster, and that perhaps was a sacrifice I ought to have made in so good a cause. But there never was anything really heroic in my moral make-up.

This iniquitous and short-sighted underpayment of schoolmasters which prevailed in New Zealand twenty years ago was a bad tradition bequeathed to the Colony as a legacy from its founders, for in "The Handbook for New Zealand," published in London in 1848, appears this minute from the records of the Canterbury Association:

The Association, considering the large surface over which the population will be distributed, calculates that twenty clergymen and as many schoolmasters will not be more than will be requisite to maintain that high religious and educational character which the Association hopes, with the Divine blessing, that the settlement will possess.

The following will be an approximate estimate of their cost:
To a Bishop1,000
To an Archdeacon600
To twenty Clergymen at £200 each4,000
To twenty Schoolmasters at £70 each1,400page 71
Twenty parsonages and glebes at £50010,000
Twenty schools at £100 each2,000

Truly a priceless document; a halfpenny worth of bread to an intolerable deal of sack. And yet those pious founders were quite sincere about the high ideals on which they invoked the Divine blessing with such naïveté, even though, like many of us, they were not prepared to pay for their realisation. They set aside large areas of land as endowments for religious and educational purposes, and they had not been a year in the new settlement before they made a beginning with one of their most dearly cherished projects—the establishment of Christ's College Grammar School. The cost of the original building in which a handful of boys assembled in 1851—the year after the arrival of the historical "first four ships"—cannot have exceeded by much the modest estimate of "schools at £100 each." But as the first headmaster was a clergyman as well as a schoolmaster, one may hope he was placed in the £200 category and was not one of the "job line" of 70-pounder pedagogues. From these small beginnings, in the course of seventy-five years, Christ's College has developed into a school that is justly ranked among the great public schools of the Empire.

Schoolmasters work in fetters. If they had their boys only to consider, all would be well with masters and boys alike. But boys unfortunately have parents; behind the parents are Trustees and Governors; and behind these, least enlightened and most tyrannical of all, is public opinion. This is apt to express itself in slogans and catch-words: page 72utility, efficiency, specialisation—these are the worst. The control of education in an ultra-democratic country such as this is largely in the hands of successful men of the self-made type—farmers, merchants, manufacturers—men who have "made their pile," and are proud of it, without the help of a college education. They want to know "what's the use" of Latin and Greek, and even "what's the good" of Euclid and Algebra? In their philosophy the schoolboy is merely a labour unit in embryo, his progress down the years measured in money-earning capacity, his mental and moral worth calculated in "industrial co-efficients" to three places of decimals. Their ideal of education is expressed in the demand that small boys in smockfrocks shall be taught agricultural chemistry because their mothers think it would be so nice to make them farmers.

It might have been supposed that the Headmaster1 under whom I served, with his love for the classics and his Oxford training, would have been conservative in his methods and ideas; in fact, he was the most open-minded and receptive of men. He had, too, that greatest of gifts in a headmaster—he trusted his staff and left them, if he thought them competent, a free hand. We had, of course, to adapt our work to some extent to the vicious examination system; but if he was personally satisfied that our work was sound, he cared little what marks or reports we got from outside examiners.

It was my ill-luck for several years to have the work of my sixth form English "passed upon" by

1 C. E. Bevan-Brown, M.A., Lincoln College, Oxford; at one time a master on the staff of the Manchester Grammar School.

page 73a professor in one of the Colleges affiliated to the New Zealand University. He was an Aberdonian and had been nurtured on "the curse of Scotland" —Bain's Rhetoric. He would select a passage from Milton or Shakespeare and ask the boys to parse it and analyse it and even to paraphrase it—to convert immortal blank-verse into workaday prose! He had as little reverence for the holy places as Wordsworth's scientist who went botanising on his mother's grave.

Usually a Shakespeare play would form part of the year's work—"Macbeth" was a favourite choice. The boys and I would read it together, discuss it together, allot each other parts, and act scenes from it. The least intelligent enjoyed it as a melodrama, as indeed it is—one of the finest; others could appreciate its characterisation and dramatic art; a few at least would understand its inner significance. And then, at the end of the year, this Aberdonian pedant would ask them to "Name and define the figures of speech in the following passages," or to "Write out ten peculiar idioms" (I am sure he pronounced it ee-dioms) "from 'Macbeth.'" I did get the Headmaster one year to protest against this particularly stupid form of question; but the examiner replied in all seriousness that he thought it a very easy question indeed because the boys could learn the answer in a quarter of an hour from Dr. Abbott's Shakespearean Grammar! Of course the learned professor sent in year after year most damning reports on the work of the form. If he had praised my work, I should have thought it time to resign.

The same gentleman was also examiner in English page 74History. That meant to him, apparently, a list of kings and dynasties, and a string of events and dates. He had obviously never read, the Paston Letters or the Creevey Papers, and yet he professed to know all about the periods of history to which that illuminating correspondence and those priceless memoirs relate. One year, I remember, he quoted in his report, as a particularly shocking example of the work sent in, an answer by a boy in the sixth to a question about "The Character of Henry VIII":

This King is often held up to scorn as a very wicked man because he had six wives. But one should always remember that he had them in succession, and was scrupulously careful to get rid of one, by divorce or decapitation, before he married another. In this he was at least superior to the Georges, who often had six at a time.

Alas! the flippancy, I fear, was mine; but fortunately only one boy in the form repeated it. Had several done so, the shocked examiner must have detected its source and "dealt it out" to me in no measured terms.

But every schoolmaster could write a volume on the sins of examiners, so I forbear. A very wise headmaster told me once that when he had to interview a candidate for appointment to his staff the first question he always asked himself was: "Has this man a sense of humour?" It is a great pity that the same test is not applied on the appointment of examiners.

It is certainly the all-important qualification for a master. You cannot, it is true, impart a sense of humour to boys; but you can cultivate it if you page 75possess it yourself. Without it your work is the veriest drudgery; with it you may teach for years and remain young. For no man will ever understand or sympathise with boy-mind and boy-character unless he has the happy gift of remaining boy himself. The saddest part of the whole business is that so many schoolmasters are middle-aged at thirty and senile at forty-five.

If one may judge from the anecdotes "old boys" are fond of recalling when we meet, they, at any rate, seem to think that I myself had, when a schoolmaster, "the happy gift of remaining boy." I am not quite sure, indeed, when I listen to some of the rather thin "jokelets" they relate in affectionate reminiscence, whether I was merely "boyish" in my demeanour or whether I was not occasionally puerile. Odd trifles remain in a boy's memory sometimes when much of the learned lumber of the class-room has passed into oblivion. Recently, for example, an "old boy" named Sterling, who had just been appointed to a very responsible post in the Public Service in the Dominion, reminded me that when he first came to school some thirty years before his inseparable chum was a boy who had for his initials the letters "L.S.D." I at once insisted that there must have been some mistake; the two friends must somehow have got their initials "mixed up"; and so "L. S. D. Sterling" was promptly entered on my mark-books and formlists and remained there till the poor joke grew stale.

Some time ago I presided over a Compensation Court, sitting with two assessors. One of them was an "old boy," and he told me this story: When he was in the fifth form I had occasion several page 76weeks running to "rag" him for failing to do his "home-work" on Friday nights. He finally gave the reason: he played the organ in his parish church, and Friday was the night of the weekly choir practice. Pleased apparently to find so young a boy a competent musician, I at once promised him that so long as he continued to play the organ in his church I would let him off Friday "prep." "My people," he said, "were rather opposed to my playing because it might interfere with my school-work; but your encouragement settled it, and I have been playing the same organ in the same church ever since—for thirty-five years."

Many hundred boys must have passed through my class during the fifteen years I was engaged in teaching; but I don't think a single one of them left school with a grudge against me. That is not to say I did not make many mistakes, or that I was not sometimes guilty of injustice. I attribute it rather to a fortunate frankness in acknowledging a blunder, and an impulsive readiness to atone for an injustice. Also, perhaps, it is due to the fact that quite early in my career I abandoned the use of corporal punishment. I was not so unwise as to announce a "change of policy" or to adopt "moral suasion" as a profession of faith; to the last I always had a hefty cane lying conspicuous on my desk as a reminder that "I could an' I would." But a very few years' experience as a schoolmaster forced the conclusion upon me that if you are gifted by nature with the power of discipline, corporal punishment is unnecessary; and if you are not, it is dangerous.

I well remember the circumstances of my last page 77"administration." I was engaged in giving "three of the best" to a perversely attractive and particularly incorrigible small boy when the Headmaster happened to come into the room. Later in the day we met by chance; looking at me, not through, but over his spectacles, he said:

"I saw you caning H. H this morning— 'dusting his jacket,' I think you call it. Was that his first? "

"His very first," I said.

"Please don't think I want to interfere with your discretion; but do you realise that you were also—er —dusting the bloom off the peach?"

I realised, as always, how right he was, and "dusted" no more jackets.

That was many years ago, but it left me with a deeply rooted objection to corporal punishment. Since I have been a judge I have once or twice wondered, when passing sentence for certain abominable crimes, whether my duty to the public did not demand that I should order one or more floggings in addition to a term of imprisonment. So far I have been able to avoid it; I sincerely hope circumstances will never arise that may compel me to do it, for it is so debasing, not to the man who receives the flogging, but to the unfortunate gaol-official who is called upon to administer it.

I hope I have not allowed myself in this chapter to dwell too much on the difficulties and hardships of the profession and to overlook its rewards. For, in my case, I found them rich indeed. During the twenty years I practised as a barrister in Christchurch a great number of my rivals—and those among the most formidable—were "old boys." They were page 78my juniors in age, but many of them my seniors in "call," for the profession they had entered in the early twenties I did not adopt till I was nearly forty. It often happened that of a dozen barristers seated round the counsel table all but one or two would be old pupils. The affection I had felt for them in their boyhood they repaid me in ample measure in my middle age. And though, as lawyers do, we strove mightily, we had, they will all agree, as jolly times together in Court as ever we had in the classroom. I could no longer silence their opposition with a peremptory "Sit down, Gresson Minor," or a stern "Donnelly Major, take an hour's detention." And as for "bend over"—well, I flatly refuse to remember that I ever subjected any of my colleagues at the Bar to this indignity when they were at school. But I shrewdly suspect that in conceding me the position of their leader, as they most generously did, they had regard less to my prowess in the Courts than to kind recollections of my comportment in the rostrum.

It was the Great War that, for all its sorrow, brought to me, as to most schoolmasters, the deepest realisation that ours is, after all, the most richly rewarded profession in the world. Those letters headed "Somewhere in France" from boys who had left school, perhaps a dozen years before, and yet remembered an old master and wrote to him the night before they went "over the top," are a very precious possession. While the war was still in progress I was asked by the Headmaster to contribute to the School Magazine some reminiscences of "old boys" among the fallen who had been at school in the days when I was master there. That page 79article, now when I re-read it, seems to describe much better than anything I could write to-day what I felt for the old school in which I had spent so many years of my life. It conveys, too, though incidentally, much better than mere generalisations can convey, my views, for what they are worth, on the attitude of a master to his boys and to his work. For those reasons, in spite of the intimate and personal character of the article, I venture to reproduce it here. It was published in the Christchurch Boys' High School Magazine for November 1917, under the title—

Some Memories

Before me, as I write, lies an old photograph taken some twenty odd years ago by a camera enthusiast of the Lower III. I sit in the midst—a slim young man of something under thirty, with my mortarboard cocked jauntily over the left eye: around me fourteen boys, also of the Lower III. (Why is it that all the jolliest chaps are always in the Lower III?) At any rate, they were jolly for the moment, for we were all—master and boys alike—bunking a Latin lesson for the more congenial occupation of being photographed down there, in the corner of the playground behind "Jackson's room."

Of those fourteen, two died in boyhood; of the remaining twelve, ten are or have been serving. Great as is the record of the School for service, no form, I venture to say, before or since could beat this. There in the back row stands Gordon Harper; in front, seated, his brother Robin, both in the blue-striped blouse of innocence. On my right sits "Ru" Garsia, looking in his white turn-down collar as cherubic as any choirboy. He retained the cherubic look even when a middy on H.M.S. Russell—I have Ms photo of that period; page 80but he had lost it when he came found in H.M.S. New Zealand—Lieutenant-Commander, no less, and very much a man of the world, but with most of the old charm left. He it was who accepted the surrender of von Müller's sword on board the Emden, with, I doubt not, the same fine Spanish courtesy (his father was a Spaniard) that Richard Grenville met on the decks of the Revenge.

Oliver is not in the photo; his last letter to me, written the night before he set out from Curragh Camp, to fall a few days later in the first battle of the Aisne, has already been printed in the magazine. Oliver Garsia's was my first experience of a personal loss in the war. I had received his letter— such a bright, game "Lower III" letter—only a week before I chanced on the announcement of his death in the Morning Post. Since that loss, over three years ago, many another old boy of my own time has followed. And when a chap came to you in the Lower III, or even earlier, and you had him again for a year or two in the Middle School, and finished with him perhaps in the Sixth, and had watched him through all the stages from serge blouse to "stand-up" collars with a pretty taste in ties, and even something of the dandiacal as to the socks—well, it is not comparable to the grief of a father for his son, of course, but we schoolmasters suffer too: we have so many gallant boys to mourn for.

But to return to my photo—the "gay Gordon," with his close-cropped ginger hair, his firm set jaw, the twinkle of humour in the eye that never left him—his was the individuality that impressed me most strongly of all the boys I ever taught. I suppose it was partly because he was a rebel. On the morning after he left school he walked up and down Worcester Street in front of the windows of the Masters' Room for a full hour puffing at a page 81huge pipe to show his independence. That was characteristic of him. At the little "Saturday nights" for the Sixth Form I used to hold in my cottage in the last term of each year, the rule was that boys who were leaving that term—all, be it remembered, young men of seventeen or more— might have ale and their pipes. Boys who were staying on had to drink lemonade and look on at the smokers. It was most "unmasterly" to let any of them smoke, I admit, or even drink small-beer, I suppose, but I'll wager none of them ever "split" on me; and the Head, when he reads these lines, will learn for the first time of this further breach of duty by his one-time graceless under-master, and, learning it, will forgive it as generously as he did all my other lapses from pedagogic rectitude. But I mention the fact merely to add that for two years before he did actually leave, Gordon Harper was "leaving" at the end of each year, and sucked his pipe at my "Saturdays" in lofty contempt for the poor devils who were "coming back." But all the space and more than the editor will allow might be easily filled with Gordon Harper; his dramatic triumphs in "Box and Cox" (or was it "Cox and Box"?), his ingenious practical jokes, his defiance of all school conventions, and his passionate loyalty to all of good the school stood for—gay, gallant Gordon; brief his life might seem to some, but he was, through it all, "The Happy Warrior." And I am constrained to believe that he fought the Turks in Gallipoli with the same imperturbable humour that he fought prenorious masters at school. But if anyone asks me to translate "prenorious" as applied to schoolmasters, I refuse, for this is a school magazine, and I must write nothing that might be subversive to discipline. But—well, my old friend Jackson was never prenorious.

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I am sorry my photo contains only one representative of "The Three Families." Perhaps there are more now, but in my day there were "The Three Families"—and what families they were! The six Deanses, the six Guthries, and the four Lawrences. In all the fifteen years I was on the staff there was never a year without a Guthrie and a Deans at school, seldom one without a Lawrence. Never a scholarship boy in the whole sixteen, not a swot in the bunch, but honest workers at tilings that really mattered; never by any chance at the top of a form, but seldom below the middle. In the real life of the school—in all that made for character and had nothing to do with exams.— what grand chaps they were! The record of "The Three Families" is one to be proud of. Of the six Guthries, five have served—two killed; of six Deanses, four, and one just lately lost; and the four Lawrences—well, we are fighting in this war on four fronts, and there is a Lawrence on each.

But if the heroes of the Lower III have a warm place in one's heart, the stalwarts—and even the intellectuals—of the Sixth are not less dear to memory. Torn Currie, one remembers, disgracing the high dignity of monitor by introducing a foxterrier into VI French to harry a humourless form master; and three more monitors joined in the riot that followed, and for the first and only time in history four grave and reverend monitors had their names inscribed in the "appearance book" to appear before the Head. And dear old Carrie in after-life took himself so seriously too. There was "Rosseau" Reid and "Chummy" Campbell, Monty Clayton and Andrew Reese—a goodly fellowship of true men all—and all gone west! And that gentle and studious spirit George Mayne, intended by Nature for an even gentler and not less lovable Vicar of Wakefield, made strife instead page 83of peace his goal, and sought a career first at the Bar and then with the Forces—and made a good end. And of all the long roll of head monitors, the best, at any rate from the view-point of an assistant master, was "Jogger" Maude. I remember him first a quarter of a century ago, a little boy of ten. I can see him now in his blue serge sailor-suit when we read "Sir Patrick Spens" and "The Ballad of Chevy Chase" in junior English. I remember him last, a bronzed soldier of thirty-five, standing at the door of his hutment in Trentham Training Camp, bidding good-bye. He had the same bonny smile in his eyes then that won me at our first meeting, and it helps one to know that in all the years between there was never a rift— not even one "imposition" in the friendship that bound us.

I promised the Head to write some "cheerful reminiscences," and as I have failed lamentably in that I had better stop. But there are consolations. It is good to remember that I did not teach them overmuch; I certainly never worried them about their exams., but we passed bright hours and swopped stories, and were chums together. The fascination of the least common, denominator left us cold, and the mysteries of science charmed us not at all; but we travelled much in the realms of gold; and in the cadences of "Kubla Khan" and "La Belle Dame," over the pages of "Esmond" and "Hypatia," and among the scenes of "Lear" and "The Tempest," we sought joyously, all of us together, to capture the gleam of Old Romance and to glimpse the humour of things.