RIDING one day from Baltimore to New York, I became acquainted with a young man who sold gas-meters. He was a traveling-man, representing a firm in Chicago, and had traversed the country from corner to corner a dozen times. Within live minutes after I had accommodated him with a match, I had learned that he sold gas-meters. He was very open about it, and gladly told me how many he had sold in the last month, and how the eighty-cent rate would affect his sales, and how natural gas might be piped to the city from West Virginia. Between Baltimore and Havre de Grace I learned a great deal about meters, and between Havre de Grace and Wilmington a great deal about gas. I began to see how enormously important gas and gas-meters are. I, who had always hated the sight of a gas-tank, began to feel a new respect for one; after having for years muttered maledictions upon the gas-meter, I began to see that in some eyes it might be a thing of beauty.
As we were leaving Wilmington, realizing perhaps that the conversation had thus far been a monologue, the young man turned to me and asked, ‘And what is your line?’ I had felt that the question was bound to come, and, casting about for the safest answer, had decided to be a drummer for typewriters, my usual hypothetical profession under such circumstances. Some dormant monitor within me, however, suddenly awoke.
‘ I am a teacher,’ I answered, weakly.
He was silent for a moment.
‘For a fact,’ said he, then, ‘I’d never have known it.’
Since this was evidently intended as a compliment, I murmured my thanks.
‘And how do you like teaching?’ he asked, after a while, forcing an appearance of interest.
‘Why,’ replied I, ‘it might be worse.’
‘Not much money in it, is there?’
‘No. Not very much.’
There was again a pause.
‘Don’t you find,1 he ventured at last, ‘that you,—well, that a teacher is at a — at a disadvantage with other people; that is, that other people are a — are a little, well, a little afraid in the presence of a . . . Oh, I don’t know how to put it. You know what I mean. That there is a kind of restraint?’
‘I suppose,’ said I, ‘that that depends partly on the other people.’
‘Why, yes,’ he replied, as if the idea were new to him, ‘1 suppose it does.’
He fell into thought. He appeared to be considering something seriously. There was certainly a constraint between us until he left me at Philadelphia.
This turn of our conversation was no new thing to me. ‘ Why,’ I had read many years before in Charles Lamb, ‘why are we never quite at our ease in the presence of a schoolmaster?’ I had read it many a time with a sinking at the heart. ‘Because we are conscious,’ Lamb answers his own question, ‘that he is not quite at his ease in ours. . . . He is under the restraint of a formal and didactic hypocrisy in company, as a clergyman is under a moral one. He can no more let his intellect loose in society, than the other can his inclinations. — He is forlorn among his co-evals; his juniors cannot be his friends.’
I have the passage marked with a black pencil in my copy of the Essays. I so marked it many years ago. It used to worry me a good deal. To be delivered from the professorial manner came to be a part of my private liturgy. I shall never forget my discouragement when a red-haired urchin with whom I struck acquaintance on the towpath of the Morris and Essex Canal told me that he knew that I was a teacher, although he could not tell why. That was in my second year of teaching, and I felt like a man threatened with gradual ossification.
In the boarding-school in which I was at the time temporarily imprisoned, we teachers were all haunted by this impalpable terror. One of us sought to escape by wearing brilliant waistcoats and hose; another, by educating his taste in liqueurs and cigars; a third, by studying the stock-market reports and gambling feebly when his salary permitted.
We were very young. On moonlight nights we all went down to the bridge on the edge of the town and smoked our pipes and sang ‘ Good-night, ladies ’ and danced clog-dances, merely to prove to ourselves that no insidious pedagogical symptoms were as yet appearing in us. We cultivated a bluff manner among ourselves, and practiced slang. On our tramps we avoided the well-traveled roads, as if a boy were a leper and to meet one a contamination. As for myself, I used to steal out into the back pasture and climb up into an oak tree. Although I never found a boy up there, one had cut his initials intertwined with hearts and other erotic carvings. I used furtively to go to the shore of a little river near the school, and sit down among the snakes and rhododendrons, and fish. I have caught fifty perch and sunnies there in an afternoon, returning them all to their element, none the worse save for a pricked lip. ‘I was fain of their fellowship, fain’; yet even here boys went hallooing by on the road behind me in couples and packs, little dreaming that I lay perdu so near.
We had a theory, I believe, that constant association with the immature mind would end by stunting ours; yet we never spoke of the fear that was at our hearts. Condemned as we were to associate for some twelve hours a day with the immature mind, and torn by the fear of which I have just spoken, and the other fear of inadvertently acquiring the professorial manner, it is no wonder if we gave ourselves up to strange excesses. We organized a baseball team, known as the Sundowners (because we played only at sunset), and practiced of an evening before the assembled school, which cheered or groaned as we caught or muffed a ball. That there was more groaning than cheering did not deter us; we were at least unbending, combatting the imputations which we feared. We cultivated the manly arts of boxing and wrestling, and submitted to having our faces disfigured and our bones made sore, rather than be accused of effeminacy or unseemly dignity. We were always at feud with the head-master on the question of smoking, and were not averse to having it whispered that we were rather fast when we were away from school.
In boarding-school you have boys on all sides of you, and above and below; sometimes in your midst. You take them with your meals; you pilot them to church and listen to them sing while their voices are changing; you put them to bed, and attempt to keep them there; in the drear hour of night, when the stars are weeping, you fly to the end of the corridor to convince themthat the season is unpropitious for a ‘shirt-tail race’ up and down the hall.
I used now and then to find ‘Fat’ Hendricks asleep in my bed. Overcome with fatigue when far from his room, and happening to be before my door, he had quietly turned in. ‘Horse’ Peddy was fond of my tobacco, and, under pretext of discussing opera and horse-racing with me, dropped in at all hours to smoke it. ‘Lighthouse Liz’ McCutcheon, always hungry, spent most of his leisure time foraging. He was usually missing from his room, and it was one of my duties to find him. On such occasions, I first examined the pantry window, and next the vegetable garden. When sharp set, he would eat a turnip or a head of lettuce. ‘Sporting Life’ Wilmer was also peripatetic, but his wanderings had no perceptible object. One could lead him gently back to his room half a dozen times during a study-hour; one could fly into a rage over him, and thunder threats and imprecations; one could argue, flatter, cajole; but he continued placidly to wander, singing softly in a minor key, a mark for flying shoes, rubbers, books, oranges, pillows, out of every door that he passed.
It was a busy life, and we had little time to ponder on the psychology and ethics of teaching. It has been a question with me ever since whether our influence on our pupils was on the whole good or bad; but the question never occurred to us then. I shall never forget how, on the night of my arrival at the school, fresh from college, greenly fresh, as we sat forlorn on the little side porch with our feet on the railing, I expressed my conviction that teaching is the noblest of professions; and how T-, the assistant head-mas-
ter, young in years but old in guile, replied, dryly, ‘That may be, as an abstract proposition; but, as a concrete case, if you care to stay here long you’d better forget it.’
I soon perceived the force of his remark. The boys, I soon learned, were not inclined to look up to me as a mentor and guide. I was to be tolerated so long as I did not encroach too far upon their liberties. Instruction was to be confined strictly to the classroom. Rules were made to be broken, and an untimely enforcement of one was looked upon as a breach of etiquette.
By the end of the second week, I had learned that discipline was a kind of game in which the teacher always played against a handicap. He must never resort to subterfuge, yet was always the object of subterfuge. The boys might sneak past his door and peep through the keyhole, but if he were caught sneaking by their doors or peeping through their keyholes, it was all over with him.
Few of us stayed long. Three left that first year, suddenly, and were heard of no more. Those who stayed took up the work of the departed and profited by their mistakes. I sometimes think that the best, teachers, in the usual acceptation of the term, all left. Those who remained learned to obtrude their profession as little as might be upon their charges.
This all seems very amusing now, but was a serious matter to us then. How to insinuate knowledge without an appearance of the pedagogue was a question not easily answered; yet we solved the problem as best we could according to our temperaments, or gave it up and left. I think that the teacher who had the hardest time of all was one who had taken courses at college in pedagogical method. His disillusionment was a perfect pilgrim’s progress for difficulty. He knew the psychology of the classroom, the theories of attention and interest, and all the best ways of presenting a subject; yet at his first collision with a class he discovered a number of new principles. The boys declined to behave according to the textbooks. One day, twenty brawny youngsters entered his classroom bearing bouquets of daisies and wild parsnip ‘for teacher’; another day a boy, who chose to consider himself insulted, offered to fight. The teacher failed to rise to either occasion. He hesitated, and was lost. He lingered on till nearly Easter, and then left without elaborate farewells.
We who remained behind on the line of battle concluded that pedagogy as a science is useless. So heretical a conclusion was excusable. We lived by our wits, learning by bitter experience and sly experiment. No one of us knew when he might have to take the same road that the fugitive had taken. We had no illusions. We were studying the young idea in the rough, and had discovered that the best method is to have none. That moral suasion had succeeded with Jenkins was no proof that it would succeed with Einstein. That ‘campusing’ had cured Green’s mania for wandering out o’ nights did not blind us to the fact that it might serve only to aggravate Brown’s complaint.
When we had become thoroughly sophisticated, we discovered that boypsychology is really very simple. ‘Stunts’ of all sorts, we found, were readily classified under a few genera. Hanging the school dinner-bell in a tree, which had seemed a very original piece of humor on the first occasion, produced in us a sensation of lassitude on the sixth. Chasing an imaginary rat at dead of night, putting a dead snake or a boxful of June-bugs in a bed, stealing the Wednesday or Sunday icecream, all soon lost for us the charm of newness, though they never ceased to throw the boys into transports of felicity.
This conservatism in the boys, due, I suppose, to a general dearth of imagination, helped us a good deal. T ——, through wide experience, had developed clairvoyant powers and could tell by the tilt of a boy’s chin or the light in a boy’s eye just which in the category of stunts that boy was about to attempt. His prescience was uncanny. He knew, almost before the boys themselves, that the entire Top Floor was contemplating a party under the bridge at midnight, or that the Second Floor Wing was playing poker. His methods of dealing with such aberrations were more original than the aberrations themselves. Once he fastened a tub of water to the foot of the fire-escape so that the boys, clandestinely descending, might fall in; once he scared McCutcheon, foraging as usual, almost out of his wits by impersonating a burglar armed with a bowie knife.
What the boys lacked in imagination they made up in humor; and such an appeal to their sense of a good joke was the shortest road to their hearts. However ingratiating a teacher’s presence might be, however awe-inspiring his physique, however brilliant his athletic record, all went for little unless he was possessed of a certain humorous shrewdness. We laughed a good deal in those days, and wriggled out of many a tight place by turning a jest. Discipline came to be a contest of wits, an opposition of finesse to finesse; and the loser, cheerfully swallowing his chagrin, learned to engineer more skillfully next time.
We discovered, too, that, contrary to popular impressions, boys are sentimental. We played upon their sentimentality. We cultivated school-spirit; we wrote school songs and yells for them; we talked much of old Oak Ridge, using the adjective with an endearing signification; we prated about honor; above all, we encouraged them to sing.
I can hear yet the direful chorus that rose of an evening from the side piazza, where the entire school sat, voicing the aspirations of its soul in ‘I’ve been working on the railroad,’ and ‘Farewell, farewell, my own true love,’ — direful, yet blissful to tired ears as the crooning of babes or the warbling of thrushes in the woods in June; for, as
T-, who was of Irish extraction,
put it, ‘When they’re singing, they’re working the devilment out of their systems.’ I can hear yet the bleat of Wilder’s shrill tenor, and the boomboom of Lafferty’s double-bass. Close harmony, the boys called it; and they loved to put their heads together in painful unison with upturned eyes, and give forth such strains as would have made Pluto very glad to quite set free the half-regained Eurydice.
We of the faculty sang too, and with unction. We sat on the floor of the veranda, as the boys did, and let our feet hang off into space, and were as sorry as they when the gong clanged for study-hour. In the pauses of the song sounded the shrill persistent nocturne of the little frogs, or ‘peepers,’ as we called them, in the stream down by the potato-patch; or the mellow voices of Henry and Irwin, the colored waiters, chanting in the kitchen —
The dream of love was o’e’;
She said no mo’, — jes’ slammed the do’ —
I think that this is the hour that rises oftenest to my memory.
Subconsciously we of the faculty were clinging desperately to our boyhood, which was not yet by any means dimmed by distance. We all remembered what had been our opinion of teachers and were seeking to escape having that opinion held of us. We had not yet learned the strength of tradition, or discovered that (if we remained in the profession) we could no more escape the fate we dreaded than we could by taking thought add a cubit to our stature. This awful realization was reserved for our future.
I suppose that most of the boys whom I taught still exist somewhere. Most of them must be still alive, for they seemed in those days to be enjoying excellent health. There must have been some seven hundred of them. In moments of depression I used to exclaim, ‘What! will the line stretch till the crack o’ doom?’ I used to picture myself as a pedagogical water-wheel, turning, turning, in the educational sluice through which, out of the Everywhere into the Here, a stream flowed, agitated me for a while, and disappeared into the Somewhere, leaving nothing behind but a few negligible bubbles. Of all the boys not one has ever been president or governor or senator. If one has written a novel or a play, I have not read it. Some appeared above the surface of society for a brief period as half-backs or third basemen, but only to sink back into the common ruck. This, again, used to worry me. It seemed a reflection upon my teaching. But the years bring the philosophic mind. One can but do what one can.