Which Class?

THE Teachers’ Convention is always in session. The sun never sets on its deliberations. It has been ever thus in this land of public schools. Whether you pull an old newspaper of ante-bellum days out of the red chest in the garret or open the morning’s issue, wet from the press,—column to column with the latest murder and the oldest joke, is an account of the meeting of a body of educators, somewhere, everywhere, in this broad land.

My way of life, from my youth up, has carried me annually, semi-annually, or even oftener, into such meetings, and I have been unable to escape observing that certain words of wisdom are uttered at each convention with the regularity and emphasis of a standard advertisement. They come from the mouths of different educators, great guns or small guns, indigenous or imported, in nearly the same form and to exactly the same purport. One of these oracular sayings is this: ’The spirit of the class exactly reflects the spirit of the teaching.’

We teachers are told, not once but a hundred times, that a wise observer need only study briefly the class before us, — nay, some artless speakers say that the observer need only listen outside the door, — in order to learn, without a glance at the teacher, whether she (the feminine pronoun in the educational world does duty for both sexes) is alert, enthusiastic, conscientious, hard-working, well-informed, and in vigorous health, or a dragged out, ignorant, soulless, and thoroughly unpedagogic specimen of the profession.

At the tender age of sixteen when I began my pedagogic career, I accepted without question this doctrine and everything else that was thundered at me ex cathedra. After ten years of teaching I believed no word of it; after ten years more I am moved to inquire, ‘Which class?’

For my work calls me either to teach or to superintend six different classes daily, and I find that each has an individuality of its own. Gladly would I believe that some of these individualities are reflections of my own; but the unction is so flattering that my common sense refuses to lay it to my soul. That same common sense — a quality which exists in embryo even in public-school teachers — also forbids me to imagine that other less delightful classes reflect the image of my own ego. Doubtless my faults are many, and apparent to the most superficial beholder, but reason quails at regarding them as exactly those faults which I discern in the happy-go-lucky band of young barbarians occasionally given me to train, who cannot be taught to speak the truth and already know how to shoot straight.

Consider with me the various classes which are exposed to the contagion of my spirit during a typical day in my school. My first duty is to supervise a room containing one hundred and ten young men and women between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, during a period of forty-two minutes. (The missing three minutes are devoted to getting somewhere from somewhere else.) The entire one hundred and ten are solely and strenuously occupied in studying throughout this time. Whether I watch them severely from the desk or patrol the room with eagle gaze, nothing more disorderly happens than the whispered query of an industrious student, who thrusts a French book under my eyes and asks deprecatingly, ‘Could you tell me whether va is a noun or a preposition?’ or that of another, no deprecator he, who demands offhand, ‘Please tell me the date when the Pentekosiomedimni were established, and how long they lasted.’

Of course I am too old and too wise a bird to suppose that all this quiet means absolutely what it appears to mean on the surface. I, too, have sat in study-rooms in the days of long ago, and am familiar with various underground railroads for notes, and with other subways for matters of immediate and non-educational importance; but for all that, the atmosphere of the room is overwhelmingly one of intense and even greedy intake of knowledge. I may write on the blackboard, review my own lessons for the day, or guess one of Mr. Bellamy’s charades, without disturbing it in the least. Would not a visitor, who believed that the spirit of a class mirrored that of its teacher, be sure that my spirit was that of the unmitigated grind? That nothing but the pursuit of knowledge in and for itself would satisfy me?

An explanation not so agreeable to my intellectual vanity, but in strict accord with the facts, is that the industrious among these boys and girls — both the seekers after rank and the seekers after education — consider the first period the very best time in the day to study, while the lazy and idle study at no other time, but concentrate all their mental application in a frenzy of intellectual effort during this (almost) three-quarters of an hour. All of the latter doubtless absorb something: the quick, enough to ‘get through’ on; the untalented, a strange mixture of French, ‘literature,’ and mathematics, — choice extracts from which, when quoted in the daily papers as examples of what the pupils learn in our public schools, horrify the general public.

Now follow me into my next class. This is ‘College English’ and no drowsy land of enchantment. Before me, in a pleasant, well-ventilated room, sit twenty-eight boys of about eighteen, most of them bright, all strung on wires, hardly one studious, and yet all determined to enter college at the end of the year. That is the only consideration which tames their hearts of fire. So far as I can observe, they have no desire to know anything correctly, not the slightest bend toward literature, and a determination, unitedly and severally, to be as trying as possible; but this, bear in mind, without the least personal malice toward their teacher. It is not etiquette in this class to show the slightest interest in the lesson. It is unwritten law of the strictest not to answer a question that some one else has failed on. The united ambition seems to be to learn as little as possible, to elude the teacher as much as possible, and yet ultimately to ‘ pass.’ Judge how highly I appreciate the ability of these boys when I say that I have no doubt they will be as successful in the last of these purposes as they eminently are in the other two.

But, after all, elude they never so wisely, the teacher sits in the seat of the mighty. Moreover, she is an old war-horse and knows a few tricks of her own. If the first boy can’t answer her question she puts a different and equally obnoxious one to the next boy. Once upon a day she essayed to write on the blackboard. Festive sounds of combat assailed her ears. Flying chalk hurtled through the air and rattled against every hard surface. When she turned suddenly all was silent, except that Buster Coombs, who giggles easily and who doubtless had had nothing to do with the disturbance, was nearly bursting with merriment, and little Gehigan, who doubtless was chief offender, was preternaturally solemn, but with his collar unfastened behind and scraping the back of his earnest and attentive head. Thereafter members of the class, selected by her who must be obeyed (when the worst comes to the worst), write on the blackboard when such work is necessary. How they hate it! The victim in question is regarded as the butt of ridicule. He is facetiously supposed to be that contemptible creature, the teacher’s pet. Hard is his lot, but inevitable.

Yet I would not have you suppose that the rapscallions are without good points. They have more than one, the most endearing of which is that they show off well. I would rather receive a visitor in this class than in almost any other. Listening at the door is a different matter, and ought to be ruled out of the game. But let a visitor enter openly and above board, especially one who looks like a college professor in disguise, — and see the change. My twenty-eight boisterous young barbarians are transformed instantly into twenty-eight polished young gentlemen, serious-minded, deeply interested in literature. From stray nooks and corners of their resourceful minds they draw forth bright questions and anecdotes which they bring forward engagingly to cover their ignorance of the lesson in hand; and I, knowing only too well the depths of that ignorance, shamelessly give them their head, follow their lead, politely ignore anything that they have been told to learn and doubtless have not learned, and allow them to exploit themselves so successfully that at the close of the period the visitor invariably congratulates me on the privilege of training such delightful students. The boys, be it said, are dead-game sports. As they file out quietly, in regular order, as if they had never heard of crowding or pushing or punching, they overhear the conversation, but give me no look of partnership in crime. They are too old hands for that.

When, for the discipline of my soul, I ask myself if this class reflects my personality; if I, therefore, have taught them to be shallow, shifty, and unscrupulous, but preternaturally bright, reason and conscience entirely acquit me of that particular responsibility; but they add that I, on the other hand, reflect the class, and might, if I associated with them exclusively, before long become quite as bad as they. What upside-down pedagogics!

I pick up my books and go to my next class. Here are twenty-five boys and girls, whose object seems to be to learn as much as they can and enjoy the process. Though somewhat deficient in originality, they possess all other class-room virtues. Polite, interested, appreciative, and always prepared with exactly what they have been told to learn, these pupils are so restful that if all teaching were like teaching them our profession would be overcrowded and our salaries, by the law of supply and demand, would shrink to nothing at all. Does this class reflect its teacher’s personality? I wish I thought so; but the aforesaid reason and conscience answer uncompromisingly, “It does not; tractable you may be; without originality you are; but restful, never! ”

After the fifteen minutes of recess comes the pendant and complement of my class of the second period, namely, twenty-four girls in ‘College English,’ and one boy. Rather, one might say, a potential boy, for Cuthbert Vanderbeek is seldom objectively present. Three mornings a week, on an average, he brings a note from his mother requesting that he be dismissed at recess; the other two he either has a severe pain in his stomach which necessitates his going home even earlier, or else he has forgotten to feed the horse or to look after the furnace. His mother, meanwhile, haunts at eventide the residence of the principal, in sad explanation of her son’s delinquencies, or else, perchance, in search of advice and encouragement. The days when he dismisses himself she cheerfully lies for him, telling in what distress he came home, or enlarging upon the urgent needs of the horse or the furnace, — though it may be well known to all concerned that Cuthbert did not go home till noon, but spent the time in question in the park, smoking cigarettes. It is believed by his instructors that the horse is a mythical animal, and as for the furnace — who can imagine Cuthbert in the act of handling a coal-shovel? But let that pass. Mrs. Vanderbeck’s strongest argument used to be to raise her handkerchief to her sad eyes and say pathetically, ‘If Cuthbert only had a father it might be different!’ Imagine the principal’s surprise, one evening, when a man who announced himself as Mr. Vanderbeek, father of Cuthbert, called, accompanied by a quite different Mrs. Vanderbeek. He, too, regretted the absence of paternal authority quite as much as the boy’s mother, but he said, ‘The court gave her the control of him, so what can I do?’ So the matter of Cuthbert’s attendance stands.

Besides the potential Cuthbert the twenty-four are the dearest little damsels in the world. They study and learn their lessons, and have a pretty little wit of their own. But one serious fault mars their personality as a class: they do not like to recite before visitors. Indeed, some of them, in the presence of a stranger, — be it the meekest of parents or the most terrified of candidates for a position, — refuse to say anything at all, but simply slump into their seats in unhappy little heaps; the rest become monosyllabic or reply in so soft a voice that it is practically non-existent. Did they learn this traditional womanly grace from their teacher? Or is it their every-day intelligence and general lovableness that reflects her? If you knew me you would smile derisively at either question.

The class that occupies my time and attention during the fifth period is composed of hopeless cases, considered grammatically. Time was when I cherished the hope of teaching them not to say, or at least not to write, ’He done’ and ‘He seen.' I no longer cherish that hope. Each day, in the intervals of Byron or Shelley, Holmes or Emerson, we consider the subject of grammatical agreement, and once a week we have a regular set-to at it; but these boys and girls remain unconvinced both in theory and in practice. A few weeks ago they conceived the bright idea that if ‘ done ’ is not to be used with a singular subject, it must therefore need a plural one, and to prove their point brought me a Physics text-book which contained the phrase, ‘ Things done in this way.' With troubled countenances they listened to my explanation, and evidently still cling to the idea that I am trying to sneak out of something that I ought to admit, for did not the book say, ‘Things done’?

These young folks, as you see, are argumentative and persistent; but they are also stylish in the extreme. It is difficult to rate their mental powers with justice, because the judgment is involuntarily influenced by their attire. I do not know which to admire most, the hose, the shoes, and the cravats of the boys, or the frightfully up-to-date costumes of the girls, which have more than once made me speechless. Nay, in recent days the exiguity of some of these latter has caused the descendant of the Puritans to cast down her eyes in very shame!

Not even the most cocksure of educators would claim for a moment that these boys and girls reflect in outward semblance the spirit of their teacher; for my clothes are what they are and are worn mean-spiritedly. As to their attitude of mind, I do not know, but I fear the worst!

Now we come to the last hour of the session, — the period of hunger and weariness. A little disorder, or at least lassitude, might be pardonable, might it not? But who are these who come thronging into my room with the step and bearing of young gods and goddesses? In truth, they are mentally and physically of the elect. Led by two six-footers who plant themselves absurdly in the front seats to be nearest the firing line, they begin the fray. The gray old fortresses and bastions of Latin grammar give way to the assault as if they were walls of butter. All is zest and eagerness. Nothing but absolute perfection satisfies the critical taste and abounding vitality of this class. Scarcely a day passes that I do not disgrace myself by a false quantity or a doubtful rule in syntax, but half-a-dozen at once of the conquering band good-naturedly set me right again, and in the pleasant excitement of the mêlée overlook my mistake. Do they reflect my spirit? About as much as a group of young race-horses reflect that of an old work-worn hack. I can barely keep them in sight as they prance up the hill of knowledge.

Next week comes the State Teachers’ Convention. When some eminent and sententious educator says, as he is sure to do, ‘The spirit of the class always reflects that of the teacher,’ I shall not quarrel with him if he will only allow me to choose which class to be judged by.