THE geography teacher is a girl of twenty-five or so, who touches up her face a little with paint and powder, wears the light-topped and high-heeled shoes and the short skirts of the ‘shop lady’ and her customer, and is teaching until some male picks her off the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a ripe and desirable apple, thinking that the Garden of Eden goes with it.
She chose geography because she might just as well teach that as anything, and she seemed particularly good at remembering the boundaries of things and the principal rivers. She cares considerably less for geography, per se, than she does for a book of Hall Caine’s. Its importance consists in the fact that you can make a living — $850 or $1000 a year — by teaching it to children. By the use of a book written by a man who was also interested in writing about geography as a means of making money, and by the further use of maps and globes manufactured by people who care no more for geography than the people who make stoves or hats, she can ‘put over’ a certain process called ‘ teaching geography ’ and get enough to pay room and board and allow something for her real interests besides; until, as stated, a stray man, looking into the little inclosure where she lives, has a queer feeling that this geography teacher is a rare and priceless thing to possess.
And so indeed she may be — but not as a geography teacher. As a fiancée and as a wife and mother, perhaps, her real life begins, and her life as a thinker about geography probably stops absolutely, and the last thing that you can catch that girl doing is giving a single thought to geography thereafter. That is perfectly right. At last, she is honest.
But why should a person ever have been selected to teach children, to whom geography was nothing except so many dollars a month, and to whom children’s aching minds were nothing except receptacles into which you could stuff a few maps and a few names — so that they might answer the necessary questions and move on to the next grade?
Here is the class: thirty children — say ten years old. They are like maple trees in April, all shivering with pistillate flowers to catch pollen, thirsty for the words that shall fertilize.
The geography teacher has a map on the wall. When the map is there, the children are asked questions like this: ‘What are the main exports of the State of Massachusetts?’ When the map is not there, the children are asked to bound the various states — to give the names of the capitals.
Even when they draw maps, — a. most delicious diversion, — they get no sense of what they are about: that they are engaged in a most astonishing adventure of walking or riding or sailing with the people who first laid out the lines of those bays and islands and promontories, start ling the beavers, or the walrus, or the moose, or the lion or giraffe.
It is one thing to draw the lines which inclose Hudson’s Bay, for instance. It is another thing to think, while you draw those lines, or while you look at Hudson’s Bay on the map, of old Captain Hendrik Hudson, sailing about up there in that most inhospitable and lonely place, making the map. And also that Hudson’s Bay is there now, exactly as it was, and that you certainly must see it and not be satisfied with a map of it. All around it are little camps, very far apart and extremely quiet camps, where, in the deep snow, the Indian trapper goes softly about his ancient business and lives comfortably all winter where you would die in one week. But you could train yourself to live like that Indian. And that’s one thing you hope you will not forget to do when you grow up — make a close friend of one of those Indians, and have him teach you geography — the geography of Hudson’s Bay. For he knows it, oh, how he knows it! And yet it never occurs to him to teach it; nobody in school would think for a minute of bringing an Indian to teach children the geography of the place where he lives, — or a trapper, or a French-Canadian, a voyageur, — even though you could get him for less than you pay the young lady who cares much more for a well-furnished little apartment on Belden Avenue than for any nasty cold place up north or dirty hoi place down south.
One time something incredible happened. A man from up that way, from Alaska, — a mail carrier, — did actually give a lesson in geography to a room full of children. And in order to do it properly what did he have to have — maps and books? Dear Lord, no! he had twelve or so Esquimaux dogs, and he had one dog in part icular which he wanted particularly to talk about, a dog that was really a great gray wolf. That dog understood the geography of Alaska even better than his master did. and that dog and his master together so impressed the geography of Alaska on those children that their souls and bodies trembled and shook with the power of that experience, and thereafter, to their dying day, that lesson in geography was at least one perfectly real and ecstatic piece of life.
It would be something of the same thing if you could get the geography of the Malay Archipelago, for instance, taught by some native friend of Mr. Conrad’s; if you could get Sven Hedin or Ekai Kawagouchi to pick a man from Thibet to teach the children about the Himalayas. But no — they must be taught by someone who prefers the security of a flat to the rigors of climate on the open surface of the earth under the windy sky.
The superintendent picks out the geography teacher. The superintendent ventures only to the golf field, and his wife ventures to the musicale at the woman’s club, and they both venture to a hotel at Holland, Michigan, for a few weeks in rocking-chairs there, taking pains to avoid sunburn and anything violent.
But I met a geography teacher once — a professional too: not an Indian, but a Norwegian. In point of fact I have met several geography teachers, but only one—this one—was a professional. The others were men who dropped in from the ends of the earth, who sat for a while at the table, or by the fire, sometimes on the floor, smoking and talking to the family about geography.
One used to talk about the Rocky Mountains and Arizona — about the Rocky Mountain sheep and the Mold and Zuni Indians. And as he talked he modeled the Rocky Mountains with his big bunds, and painted the great walls of ochre rock; and there, on that sharp profile on the remotest ledge — look! — do you recognize that silhouette, that perfect thing? — the wild sheep! And one time, sitting under a precipice of a hundred feet, over his head poured an avalanche of wild sheep, landing like thistle-down, without a scramble or a slip, and poured down the valley like a turbid steam. And then the buffalo of the prairie, the cougars and the grizzly bears, the Indians of the Mesas and of the Pueblos. The great desert, the shadowy coyote, the naked Indian runner, with a red scarf about his black hair, appearing on one burning horizon, crossing your trail without a glance, disappearing over the other horizon in silence and beauty.
Another was a man who casually walked across Turkestan, Afghanistan, and some part of Mongolia and China. He knew how people live in the huge vacant spaces on the roof of the world, where the wind is incessant and terrific, and the sand blows like a torment of hell, and the shepherds move from place to place, following the scanty water and grass in their red-skin tents, and receive you with all the grace and dignity and courtliness of the great traditions of an ancient race.
You get some impression from both these teachers of geography that we people of the trolley car and the department store and cheap theatre are certainly no ornament to the earth or to the race of men. Rather, we are an abominable blemish, and against the poise and grace and courtesy and graciousness of these barbarians our own bodily characteristics and a considerable part of our mental characteristics are as dust and ashes.
That is their experience. They have met both kinds.
Then there was a man the other day, — just yesterday,—who stretched himself out in a chair, blew smoke up to the ceiling, and in the presence of my two boys who were congealed into stone images, who forgot to breathe, told a simple tale of the cocoanut business in New Guinea.
It appears he was invited to go into the cocoanut business, being engaged at the time in drifting through the opalescent mysteries and terrors of the Malay Archipelago. A big Dutchman made it seem most alluring to plant twenty thousand trees, wait ten years, and then make every year thereafter a dollar a tree from copra.
So he went down to look over the location where he was invited to spend the remainder of his life. It was a beautiful place beside those enigmatic seas — beautiful with that poisonous beauty, that serpentine remorseless beauty, that we know so well from Joseph Conrad. And he was disposed to go in with the big Dutchman until somebody whispered the word ‘Tigers.’ He listened to that word and made a few inquiries. It appeared that the tigers in the cocoanut orchard were about as usual as the hornets in a peach orchard. Of course, if you could afford it, you rode on an elephant — notice the boys — and thereby avoided some risk. But, on the whole, the daily presence of that brightly burning beast — who could never be detected until it was a case of being a dead shot or being dead — made the cocoanut business seem less desirable than the lemon business in San Domingo, which now engages a part of his attention. What would New Guinea ever mean to those two boys if they got the news from New Guinea out of geographies and professional geography teachers?
But this professional I mentioned is a Norwegian. I suppose, because I know one real teacher of geography who is also a professional, that there must be others in the profession. For it is not at all likely that I know the only one. But this is certain — their value has never been realized.
This man walks the crust of the earth with adoration, as old John Muir used to walk it. And in the confinement of a city flat and a city school, with the crashing debasements of noise and the defilements of dirt and smoke, his spirit sweeps like eagles over all the mountains or wades with the heron in all the rivers of the world.
He made some maps of his own. How did they differ from other maps? They were so beautiful that as mural decoration they could not be excelled. Some indication of the mural value of a map may be seen in the Pennsylvania Terminal of New York City. And of course these maps had not a single name on them. A beautiful map is defiled with names, and yet it is the names only that make a map intelligible to the standard geography teacher, or to her superiors.
This Norwegian seems to think that the earth is not composed of cities and towns and railroad routes. It is a very strange, wild, and romantic place to live in still.
‘ Land and sea have, with the help of the sun, bred a curious fungoid thing that creeps over it. But that did not exhaust land and sea.
‘ They are yet young and sing at their work; and if you want to get a sense of how young and how vital and how generous and honest, and relentless and terrible these giants of Jotunheim are, clear out of this! If you must be an insect, — a fly, — do not choose to be a house-fly about apartment houses, office-buildings, theatres, clubs: be at least a dragon-fly.’
Then the wistfulness of those faces of regimented boys and girls sitting before him caught in the nets of circumstance, prompts him to say, ‘But my dear children, if you come to love the land, the sea, the rivers, the sky; if you come to love geography through thinking about geography, then you may be sure you will one day experience geography! And if you don’t, then the door into geography is locked against you forever. There are those resounding words, “Unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened.” All we can do in this class is to knock at the geography door lightly, timidly, perhaps, at first, but more and more resolutely; and before you know it, the door flies open — and there you find yourself, as I have found myself so many times, drifting along the lovely contours of the Alleghanies or the Blue Ridge, among dogwood and Judas-tree blossoms; exploring the bays and islands of Puget Sound, or the Florida Keys; drinking from glacial streams in the Dolomites, or climbing among the purple rocks of Norway in the twilight and sleeping in a hut against the very stars. And without money and without price — that is to say, with so little money that you can get enough by saving on the things that are totally unimportant compared with this thing.
‘For this seems to me to be Life, and Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness; and most of the goings and comings of men and women, who are old enough to know better, seem to me to be Death and Slavery and the Pursuit of Misery.
‘I would like to state the whole case for geography, but I can’t. — it is too big. You know how it was with Thor when he tried to lift the Utgard snake, or throw down the old woman; and Thor was a god. I say, you can’t even state the case for geography adequately, much less scratch the surface of the subject. You can do just one thing, you can associate yourself with this magnificent thing, first here in this class and afterwards outside, and see what it does to you.
‘Geography makes all people what they are, as far as their vital habits and customs are concerned. There is no good-will about it, and no morality at all; so it has been hard to introduce those elements into human affairs. All the same, if you want, to keep clear of the fevers and flaccidity and obesity of human society, you will have to get back to geography over and over again; and not in parties — far from it. You must go alone. The impact of part ies, of groups of laughers and jokers and witty commenters and preoccupied duffers full of law or medicine or anything else, breaks all the little wires which carry those currents to the soul that David had in mind when he said, “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
‘And that is why I have written those words on the blackboard to-day, at the beginning of our acquaintance in geography: “He restoreth my soul.” This is from one of the very greatest poems in any literature — by a shepherd who naturally expressed geography in every thought and word. And if your association with geography does not restore your soul, and even lead you in the paths of righteousness, then, children, I have not taught the subject, and you have not learned it.’
And so the year’s work in geography begins. It. is the work required by the school. But it is all kinds of geography together — it is synthetic geography — and it is informed by this geographer with something of its own profound and prodigious character, plus the reactions of a man who knows that children in schools are entitled, by every canon of honesty and fair dealing, to intellectual and spiritual bread, not stones.
Now there is, of course, a geography of information, but it does not become educational until it is transformed into a geography of inspiration. Most of the geography of information with which children are stuffed until they can recite it, — regurgitate it, — is forgotten. Naturally it has to be forgotten. There is no use, except the bad use of display, in remembering the boundaries of states, or, in fact, anything very arbitrary of that sort which takes the place of strong visualizations, both of the countries and of the people and animals and plants which live and die in them.
If you want to teach geography in the best way, you take the children to the place you wish to have them learn about. The geography book and its expositor usually take them to no place that they will remember.
Moving pictures are most valuable in producing the illusion. The Seventh Grade, for instance, can go to the Great Barrier and beyond with Lieutenant Scott — can see the killer whale’s interest in the baby seal, and the big sea-lions come up out of a hole in the ice and bask sleepily in their shining wet hides in a temperature of forty below, while the penguins nod approvingly nearby.
Yet what we have to depend on most are collateral books written by people who have ‘been there’ and who can state the case adequately, plus a teacher of geography who, if he has n’t been there in body, has been there in spirit, and, in his own Patmos, has been transported and can also write a Book of Revelation, if called on to do so.
The policy of the open door for the spirits of children will be his rule of life. With him the child who lives back of the Yards in Chicago or in Avenue B in New York may escape the prisonhouse whose shades approach so early in life and into which he will certainly go.
The map of North America hangs here on my wall — a map by the Norwegian aforesaid. What should it suggest? Do you see the map, or do you see what the map stands for? Well, what does it stand for? It stands for a very beautiful but a very terrible thing.
A thousand years to it are but as yesterday, and its categorical imperative is, ‘ Return.’ Generation after generation comes up out of it and goes back into it; and how differently they spend their time! While the lady in New York goes to Mouquin’s after the opera, her sister in the Aleutian Islands is getting up to a breakfast of hot walrus blood and blubber. The dog-team is struggling across Labrador while folks in Florida are bathing in the surf. Silver or muddy rivers are moving forever. Steamers and trains poke painfully along, like insects in high grass. In little spots, illuminated by electricity and smudged with smoke, t here is a rather repulsive swarming of the otherwise invisible human being.
The Valley of the Mississippi waves In wheat and corn. The Rocky Mountains stand rigid in the grimace of t he last convulsive agony of the crust. The Gulf of Mexico holds in its bowl the elixir of life for an otherwise dead England and Scandinavia.
The migratory birds stream north or south, following those mysterious lines established by a million years of practice.
The oceans frame it in cobalt and foam. The clouds, the sky, and the stars roof it over with a great majesty, and the sun works the chemistry and the consolation that makes t he thing go at all, turns mineral into vegetable, and allows the smallest cricket to chirp, and man himself to sing, under conditions that are really desperate.
The whole thing goes whirling on through black and frigid space — at an incredible pace. North America spins, in all its ponderosity, like a spoke in a flywheel. In other words, it is an unspeakable mystery, an atrocious contradiction, an extravagant anomaly. And will what you have to say about North America consist of everything that is dull and wearisome as a piece of bookkeeping or the minutes of the last meeting of the School Board ?