Old Sawney's

MY wife and I are just back from a visit to our boy at his ’prep school.’ It is a wonderful place, that school: broad, well-kept grounds; acres of velvet turf studded with elms; buildings of red brick or gray stone, mellow and vine-covered. There are an athletic field and a gymnasium, a swimming-pool and organized sports. There is an impressive ‘Headmaster,’ and ‘housemasters’and ‘masters’ appear and disappear in bewildering numbers. The boys themselves are a nice lot of youngsters, white-flanneled, fresh-faced, sauntering about with a bit of a swagger, as if conscious of the fact that their school is the only school. Perhaps it is. But —

‘It’s somewhat different from Old Sawney’s! ’ I remarked to my wife.

She laughed, indulgently I thought. And yet I could n’t help remembering that this school of my son’s was a landmark in this place in the days when Old Sawney, in the far-off South, sent a thin driblet of boys to the great University five miles away; and that one of the most distinguished professors in that university stated with emphasis, ‘The best-prepared boys we get come from a small school in Tennessee known to its pupils as “Old Sawney’s.”’

And with the affection born of distance and, perhaps, of comfortable middle age, my mind goes back to that old school, the very sight of which would doubtless horrify those immaculate youths with whom my son is strolling to-day.

‘Old Sawney,’ then young Sawney, just out of the Confederate army, confronted with a destitute South, and possessed of a family which must eat in spite of the ravages of war, looked for a means of providing the wherewithal. The plantations were wrecked, the negroes scattered; manufactories had never existed; the country stores had vanished altogether or were in the hands of receivers — Northern receivers. The outlook was forlorn enough.

‘But I figured out’—how often have I heard the old man tell the story! — ‘ that the one thing our people would always spend money for was education. So I decided to give them education.’

To help him in this, he had ‘Johnny,’ his brother. Johnny was a graduate of one of the larger Southern universities, a man who, in the vernacular, ‘just naturally took to book-learning.’ The years were destined to bring him renown in the field of scholarship; he was offered positions in colleges and universities, a few in the distant North. But he stuck by Sawney, and together the two formed an unbeatable combination whose influence radiated through the lives of the hundreds of boys who came into their hands.

Those first years were hard. Fees were paid more often in ‘ kind ’ than in money. Old Sawney still tells of the boy from the North Carolina mountains who came to his house one day, dragging by a rope-halter a heifer almost as scrawny as himself, and who pleaded, ‘Mr. Webb, I want to go to school. I ain’t got money, but I wonder if you-all will let me l’arn up this cow?’ That heifer, and many other products of the soil, were ’l’arned up’ in the little houses where the two teachers (the term Headmaster was unknown in those parts) and their families and pupils lived together.

Then one day there came an offer from a little town across the mountains in Tennessee, where the earnest desire for schooling was breaking through the limits of poverty. If Mr. Webb would move his school to Bell Buckle, the town would give him a site and erect a building.

He moved, and the building is standing to-day, with only a new coat of paint to mark any change. It was a large building of pine, with a huge castiron stove in the middle. The benches were originally of unplaned oak boards, and the splinters must have presented many points of irritating contact to the first generation of pupils. By the time my brothers and I arrived — years later — they had been worn to a shining glassiness, the smooth surface marred only by knife-cut initials. On second thought, however, I doubt whether even the first scholars suffered from the splinter-pricks. For all, young and old alike, were arrayed in what were known colloquially as ‘ whistle breeches,’ a heavy corduroy,undaunted by years of wear and impervious to even the sharpest splinter.

A boy’s outfit was not a ruinously expensive item there — an abundance of underclothes, heavy boots, a few shirts, a cap or a nondescript hat, two coats, and a couple of pairs of ‘whistle breeches,’ and he was ready for the fray.

But to return to the school-building, with its two wings on either side of the central hall, and, opening off the platform, two small rooms the uses of which will be revealed in due course. That constituted the main unit. After a time a ‘Senior Hall’ was built. This, too, was of pine, and possessed at one end a small but well-stocked library. For if there was one good thing which Old Sawney advocated more than another, it was reading. ‘Boys,’ he would say, to emphasize his ruling that there must be no loafing in village stores or railroad station, ‘here in these books the great men of the world have shown you their minds. Don’t you think they are better worth associating with than whiskey-soaked old Tom Hazard?’

In Senior Hall there were no benches. Each boy, as he attained seniority, went to town and purchased a splitbottom chair, and henceforth this traveled with him during school-hours as unfailingly as its shell accompanies a turtle. He took it to Latin class, and, thence, if he had a free period, to the shade of a tree in the bare, boy-scarred grounds. For Old Sawney sounded the first faint note of the ‘open-air-school’ chorus of to-day. He cared not at all where you did your work so long as you did it (and to ensure that, he had his own methods!). These chairs were the pride of their owner’s hearts, — they were a kind of toga virilis, — and all the latent artistry of boydom was expended in their decoration: initials elaborately illegible, scrolls, alleged-to-be vines, all carved with a jack-knife in the soft pine.

This was the sum total of school equipment — certainly not marked by over-elaboration. Of dormitories there were none, because we roomed and boarded with the villagers — permission to ‘take boys’ being revocable at will by Old Sawney. The quality of the fare varied, of course, with the abilities of the individual housekeepers as ‘providers,’ — certain homes being the longed-for goals of the less fortunate, — but the price never varied. Old Sawney saw to that. Three dollars a week it was in my day, though he put it higher later. And of one thing we were all dead sure — that he showed no favoritism in the allotments to the boardinghouses. With the increased prosperity of the South, boys of larger means came in increasing numbers, but they all shared alike, and though one might arrive a snob, he was certain to leave a democrat.

School opened in August, so that the pupils from the malarial rice-plantations of the lower South might avoid the most dangerous month of September.

It seems to me as I look back after the passage of years, that, to get into the school at all was something of an achievement. For every boy, unconscious of the fact though he was, had to pass under the scrutiny of the greatest ‘boy expert,’ I am convinced, since Arnold of Rugby. I can see him now, sitting at his battered old desk in his book-lined library, listening to some garrulous parent with a kind of abstracted courtesy, the while his gray eyes under the heavy brows glanced occasionally at the prospective pupil, now squirming or stiff with embarrassment at the parental loquacity. And if the boy were accepted, it was because, though he never knew it, his little palimpsest of life had been read to date by the wise old eyes and found to contain something worth going on with.

Two honor rules there were which each boy gave his ‘word of honor as a gentleman ’ to keep. First, to be in his boarding-house before dark every night. And second, to have no fire-arms in his possession. These were turned over to Old Sawney, who labeled, guarded them, and gave them back — the revolvers on the boy’s departure for his home at the term’s end, the rifles and shot-guns on those rare and glorious festas known as hunting-days, when Old Sawney would suddenly declare a holiday and let us take to the autumn woods alone, or would himself lead us in a great rabbit-hunt across the yellowing fields.

Once ‘in,’ the boy’s days sped by. For some reason it was the fashion to get to school early; and for an hour or more before the actual time of opening, the whole crowd of some hundred and fifty boys would be rollicking about the grounds, from which, except in certain isolated and lushly verdant spots, every spear of grass had long since been worn. We had little need of ‘organized sports’ to tempt us to activity; and since there were no school teams to specialize in athletics, we all took an amateurish and husky delight in outdoor games. Of recent years I have heard much talk in Eastern colleges of the shame of fifteen hundred men taking their exercise by sitting on the bleachers and watching eighteen or twenty-two of their mates pull off a match, and I grin to myself and say, ‘ Old Sawney beat you to it by twenty-five years!'

Certain it is, we were a well-oxygenated group of youngsters when, of a sudden, there rang out over the turbulent field a lusty call of ‘ C-coming-g! ’

This meant that the teachers, who had met on the outskirts of the village, were coming swiftly up the hill, Old Sawney in the lead. At the call all clatter ceased abruptlyand the boys ran toward the school-house, waiting outside, however, until the next call, ‘All over-r! ’ from some youth in the outer ranks, announced the fact that the youngest and last teacher had just dropped over the stile which separated the battered school-grounds from the dusty country road. Then, in magic shortness of time, we were all ensconced on our worn oak benches, the teachers on the platform, and Old Sawney on his feet for Scripture-reading, prayer, and the ‘morning talk.’

Those talks were the mainspring, the very core, of the school. Sometimes they would last ten minutes, often until it was time to go home for lunch (we called it dinner in those days); and classes would be dispensed with altogether that morning. What did he talk about? Everything! And I mean that literally. Problems of the world, problems of life, new inventions, scientific discoveries, local conditions and politics, school events, philosophy, religion — they were all grist to Old Sawney’s mill, and he gave us the nourishing grain. Remember, here was no ordinary man drooling in school-teachery fashion before a crowd of pupils. He could be aptly described as ‘personality plus.’ A deep, rich, humorous, and shrewd personality, plus experiences gained in war and peace, in travels, in reading, and in much contact with men. We were boys, and restless sometimes, often bored almost to death by the things he said of which our younger ignorance could not realize the significance. But as the years have passed, I for one, and I know of many schoolmates in like case, find that words of Old Sawney’s come back in moments of doubt or stress, and not infrequently with a kind of solving clarity.

In addition to his other gifts, he possessed the great one of a born raconteur; and standing with his gray beard and hair, his narrow black string tie, his black coat, invariably buttoned wrong, — the third buttonhole attached to the second button, — he would spread before us a panorama of life pregnant with wit, humor, and imagination, instilling by precept and story the principles of clean living and groat deeds. At times he would become so excited by his own tale that he would pace up and down the platform, and with the few vivid gestures of a skilful actor would present a truly dramatic creation.

From time to time he would hit upon a catchword or phrase, and would ring the changes upon it. ‘Turn in the keen sunlight of publicity,’ was long a favorite. President Wilson is not an ‘Old Sawneyite,’ but his famous ‘pitiless publicity’ sounded a familiar note in my ears.

There was also another favorite, of which we later came to think as Old Sawney’s ‘only Don’t in the Gospel of Do’: ‘Boys, don’t do anything on the sly.’ He would say it ringingly, or pleadingly — at times flinging it, as it were, from the tip of an extended forefinger into the crowd of silent youngsters. Occasionally he would stop abruptly in the midst of an ordinary talk, and after a moment’s silence, out would come the clarion call, ‘Boys, don’t do anything on the sly!’

Pretty good stuff to take out into life with us, was n’t it?

He was fond of telling us that we could find exact duplicates of all our experiences by studying the people in the Bible. One day a doubting Thomas of a small boy in the front row piped up, ‘Mr. Webb, there was never any boy in the Bible sent off to boarding-school!’

Old Sawney’s face crinkled with laughter. ‘You think the difficulties of your situation are quite without parallel, don’t you? But you are wrong, my son. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego were youths sent off to boarding-school in the king’s palace. But, I grant you one thing — they are the only pupils I ever heard of who complained that the food was too good! ’

Once the morning talk was over, we scattered to our first class. The periods were normally of an hour, but that depended on the teacher. If he wanted to keep us longer, he did so, and the second period began when the first ended. There were no bells to mark the change. Some boy would be sent to the door to sing out, ‘ Cæsar! ’ or ‘ Grammar! ’ as the case might be; and in would throng the pupils for that subject.

If that sounds like confusion to the meticulous, rule-of-thumb teacher of to-day, what would she say to the proceedings inside the classroom itself! In each course, at the beginning of the term, we numbered ourselves snappily, ‘ One! ’ ‘ Two! ’ ‘ Three! ’ — each boy striving to be as high up in the list as possible for a running start. Then, with the actual teaching, the ‘trapping’ began. If Number One missed a question, the first boy who could answer it went up to the head; and were n’t we keen to be that boy! I have seen a whole row of little chaps in first-year Latin leave their places and crowd about the teacher, hands up, begging the chance to answer. The very air was electric, and, my word, but we were alive! There were no dull hours in that school.

Of the subjects themselves I may say that the basis of the four-year course was Latin, Greek, and mathematics, with some English and one modern language. For Old Sawney’s goal was a trained mind, and he believed that was best attained, not by a multiplicity of subjects, but by the mastery of a few. The discipline in the three subjects which were all the majority of the boys were allowed to take was thorough and exacting; but we had much leisure time, which we were encouraged to spend in reading. It is a safe statement that in no other preparatory school in the country was there so widespread a disposition to read. The carefully selected library was literally read to pieces; history, biography, novels, poetry — all were devoured, and we were n’t ashamed to discuss them among ourselves. No American history was taught in the school, but I know of more than one boy who offered it as a college-entrance subject, and passed it as a result of his reading.

And speaking of examinations reminds me that from the beginning Old Sawney had the ‘Honor System.’ The pupils were not watched, and at the close, each one wrote on his paper, ‘I pledge my honor as a gentleman that I have neither given nor received any assistance in this examination.’ One tangible result of this is the Honor System of a great Eastern University, which is the pride of its every student and alumnus. But few of them know that it was started there by four or five of Old Sawney’s ‘boys,’ who found it intolerable that cheating should be considered, not a crime, but a means of outwitting the professors. If there ever were a boy in the school so dull or so bold as to go against public opinion by breaking this pledge, he was promptly expelled. But rare indeed were those cases.

The discipline of the school in general was simple and effective and (dare I whisper it in these modern days of government by the child for the child?) the greatest of the methods employed was whipping!

My father, entering his oldest son, said, ‘Mr. Webb, I don’t want my boy whipped.’

‘Take him away then, Judge,’ was the prompt reply. ‘He may never need it, but if he stays here and needs it, he ’ll get it. There come times in the lives of some boys when nothing but the touch of a switch will do any good.’

The boy stayed, and I may add parenthetically that neither he nor the three of us who came after him ever ‘got it.’ Perhaps the mere knowledge that the switches were waiting in the whipping-rooms was sufficient to make us watch our steps.

Yes, the secret is out! The two small rooms flanking the platform were the whipping-rooms, and a generous supply of young peach switches was awaiting the need.

‘Jimmy Adams,’ I have heard Old Sawney say calmly, even sadly, ‘you have spent five days in the third declension. If you don’t know it tomorrow, I’ll have to whip you.’ And Jimmy knew it!

But the whippings, although potentially ever present, were not always active; for Old Sawney rivaled even the Mikado in his genius for ‘making the punishment fit the crime.’ There was the boy who ran away and went fishing. The next day Old Sawney fitted him out with a stick, a piece of string, and a bent pin, and all day long, amid the gibes of his passing mates, the unfortunate youth was made to fish in the school rain-barrel.

An analogous case was that of the school ‘band,’ an impromptu organization armed with penny whistles, tin pans, and combs covered with paper, who made a joyful and disturbing uproar at an inauspicious time; for Old Sawney, arriving unexpectedly on the scene and the agony of the teachers, announced in the sudden engulfing silence that the band would wait after school. It did, and for four mortal hours in the schoolroom, empty save for Old Sawney’s occasional sardonic look-ins, the band was made to play. Throats were raw, lungs exhausted, eyes popping from their heads, before their ‘music’ was allowed to lapse into welcome and eternal silence.

To do them justice, however, the young teachers were not often compelled to have recourse to Old Sawney. With wits made nimble by contact with their chief, they, too, showed surprising ingenuity in dealing with their charges. A case in point was the so-called ‘ Classical Cow’ belonging to one of them, which was said to kick violently on hearing an error in declension. The secret, revealed long afterwards, showed that an adjourned session of refractory beginners was held every evening at milking-time in the young teacher’s barn-yard, and that the supposedly ‘super-cow ’ invariably lacked if her master began to use one hand instead of two for milking.

By the time we were Juniors, it was taken for granted that we had left behind us such puerile things as unlearned lessons and ensuing punishment. And as Seniors we entered the Elysian Fields of Johnny’s classes, for he and he alone taught the Seniors. We now began to experience the benefits of the groundwork which Old Sawney had compelled us to acquire, and we actually read Latin and Greek more easily by far than the average college student reads French and German. And under Johnny’s touch the Classics were no longer dead languages. I wish that I could ever again attain a thrill such as I felt over his rendition of some Homeric book. For, mark it well, we read by books, not by paragraphs! You who to-day are striving to banish Latin and Greek even from the colleges — I, a plain business man, tell you that, if you had ever wandered over the Ægean Isles with Johnny, you would feel that in parting with Ulysses you were losing a dear and cherished friend.

The school is still there—a good one, too, I am told. But old Sawney is no longer in active management, and without his ‘morning talk’ it would be for us oldsters as savorless as bread without salt. And Johnny, the everyinch-a-scholar, the giver of life to dead tongues, Johnny has gone — perhaps ‘to see the great Achilles whom he knew.’