A Boy's Way Is the Wind's Way
I RAN on him first in a university library. How he got there heaven alone knows — and possibly some kindly library attendant. Back in the stacks I detected a pungent odor differing a little from the blend of crowded books and stale cleaning-fluid that characterizes all libraries. I looked around the corner of a stack and saw him, unwashed, undarned, and unconcerned, fifteen years old. By an ingenious arrangement no holes showed in his long stockings. Three pairs were drawn one over the other, each hiding the holes in the others, and so his legs were decently completely out of view. An exceedingly dirty torn woolen sweater, survival of some woman’s devoted work ‘for the boys in the service,’ hung limply half down his chest, and worn faded-blue overalls were over all the rest of him. A barber’s heart would have ached and leaped at lost and found opportunities in his matted hair. In the most orthodox of Big Brother or Rotary or Kiwanis moods, I started in to be cordial to this outrage upon all academic expectations too young for a university library, too dirty for any place under a roof, and in any case a frightful intruder ‘back in the stacks.’ He was in the fiction section, among the C’s.
I aimed a little high for his years, and said, ever so kindly: ‘Here is a book by a man named Joseph Conrad, Youth, that I believe you would like. There are three stories in it and that is the name of the first one. You might not care for the other two — a little old for you — but you would like Youth, I believe.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have read it. Lord Jim is a peach of a book, too, don’t you think? But I must read it again.’
I blinked a little and swallowed once. I was professorizing in that university for a while and being confined to mere upper-class men, I was n’t used to any such offhand, uncompelled utterances. We talked a little more, and he seemed to have read backward and forward all over the field of literature.
It just occurred to me on the way out to make some comment on the kid to a woman at the circulation-desk who I knew would n’t feel compelled to go after him and yank him out. ‘Odd to find such a boy and in such clothes and in such an — uh — unsanitary condition back there.’
She smiled indulgently. I was kind of a guest-professor person out there and was expected to show more or less tourist interest like this in any odd or end I ran across. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said, ‘strange you have n’t seen him before. His father was gored to death by an elk six years ago. The boy is fifteen and a half and has the mentality of a child of nine. One of the assistants in the psychology department is doing a thesis on him. He comes over here from his grade school after hours. A case of arrested development or something. He does n’t give any trouble, but he’s just hopeless.’
‘He seems to have read absolutely even thing,’ I took the time to insist as I gathered up my own books.
cOh, yes; it ‘s quite amusing. But they tell me he might as well be reading a Montgomery-Ward or Sears-Roebuck catalogue — or the census tables. It all passes through his brain like so many meaningless symbols.’
I have a great respect for psychology and psychologists and all science and scientists, — a greater respect than they have for themselves and each other, because I am a man interested almost solely in the arts, — and so I forgot the lad who I had too fondly hoped might have a real reading tendency, so rare these days, and minded my own business.
Still, two weeks later, when I happened to see him again, in the street as I was starting on a ride into the country, I invited him into the automobile. We were gone two hours and I had a chance to talk with him, and let him talk, a good deal. After that I said: ‘I don’t know anything about psychology but I have had a lot of experience with college students in literature classes, and this boy reads more, remembers it better, and discusses what he reads with greater variety of well-judged comment — that still is n’t over-precocious — than most university Juniors. All the rest of the things they say about him may be so, but this one thing — what they say about his reading — clearly is n’t.’
I invited him into my house and I took the trouble to have a look at his. It was so dirty it smelled sour; the beds apparently were never made or changed; untidy food stood on the untidy table all day long.
He called at my house four or five times a week after that and he bathed at the university gymnasium next door whenever he called. He liked to do it. I frequently left him alone in the house. Stick-pins and odds and ends of money were usually one place and another around the rooms where he was free to range. There is a six-cent street-car fare in the town, and if ever I gave him a dime for a ride home he brought me the four cents change when next he came.
The psychology people were tolerant , but quite apparently considered that my heart had run away with my head. So did his school-teacher. The psychology people told me he drew random lines in a plot of a field when asked how he would hunt for a ball lost there, instead of drawing gradual concentring circles from the outer area to the middle of the field as, they said, a nice, normal, systematic child would do; that when asked to give the substance of a paragraph read aloud to him all he could remember out of it was the name, ‘New York’; that when quizzed about himself, — solely for his own good, as was clearly explained to him, — he wasn’t able to open up at all: just stood dumb. These three things, as I remember the chart they showed me, set him back about a year in reducing his mentality from fifteen to nine. I felt myself growing younger as I listened.
After six weeks they were openly triumphant. The police came to me and told me he and his little brother, twelve years old, had burglarized twelve stores on the main street in the course of two nights! I did n’t believe it, but ten minutes at the police station with him convinced me it was so. It was the very enormity of the thing that left me unimpressed.
‘That’s too bad,’ I said.
Their look convicted me as well as the boy.
‘What you going to do about it?’
‘That’s too bad,’ I reiterated. ‘That is what I mean. It is too bad. If it was n’t quite so bad it would be worse. So there is nothing to do about it but protect the boy.’
‘If he had stolen from one store it might be serious,’ I argued. ‘ But twelve stores, — and the stuff all stowed in the attic at his house, a bushel of revolvers, a bushel of jackknives, a bushel of cigarettes and him hardly smoking at all, — no, it is too much like a paroxysm. He has never had anything; lately, around my house, there has been a little release of such stricture upon living for him, and something long pent-up has broken out in this deplorable way. He is an honest boy. As well call me a murderer if in a nightmare I dream that I cut my wife’s throat.’ Everything that I learned about the boy later confirmed me in that diagnosis and that opinion.
An enlightened judge lived in that Oregon town and he telephoned me that he did not care if he never saw the boy so long as I would make myself responsible for him. I said that was rather a large order, as I had known him only six weeks, but I’d undertake it for three months and then say what I would do. In spite of the protest of the deputy-sheriff that he was ‘a dangerous young criminal and ought to be put away,’ I lugged him from jail and courthouse and police headquarters, skirted a block to dodge the psychology building on the way home, and that was the last he sawr of such surroundings. I had just lost a dog by an automobile running over him and figured on the kid as a substitute.
He had read all of Scott except The Talisman and preferred him to Dumas. Incidentally, and quite amazingly, I found he could run a typewriter. So I dug up The Talisman for him, marked two pages in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria that I wanted typewritten with a carbon copy, and left him for the day. The psychologists and the university campus in general were interested. Personally I felt I had done more for him in rescuing him from the psychologists than in rescuing him from the police.
There were rumors that inside of twenty-four hours I had to thrash him and lock him in a room. As a matter of fact, in a year and a quarter there was never great occasion, never any occasion, for punishing him, excepting for one thing: a tendency to refuse excitedly when told abruptly to hurry and get some chore done. I cuffed him half a dozen times for that before I taught myself to see that it was his nervous response to my own nervous excitement, and nothing in his disposition to work or not to work.
His typewriting was slow but accurate. Reading was more or less a vice with him. He read half as much again as he should. He needed to learn more exact study and more manual work, with a spade or a saw. So did — and do — I. But his reading was invariably of good selection. He never read as low-down stuff as I occasionally did. Once he asked for twenty minutes off in an evening of getting his lessons for next day in order ‘to read a while.’ I asked him what he wanted to read and he said he was halfway through Henry Esmond and would like a breathing spell from study to read a bit more of it!
In front of the public library of Portland, Oregon, are stone benches, each carved with the name of a great writer. I took him over to Portland — passing en route the reform school where the deputy-sheriff was sure he should have been — and he headed for the library while I attended to my affairs. ‘I started to sit down on the Dumas bench,’ he said at noon, ‘when I saw a Scott bench over on the other side. Gee! I got up out of there quick and hustled over to Scott.’ I was hired by a university, I have been hired one time and another by so many universities, to try to get students five and ten years older than he to feel that way, with entirely indifferent success in so many, many instances.
‘If a boy like that wants to read like that and behave himself meantime, he is entitled to be supported through his teens while he indulges his taste,’ I said to my friends; and while most of them held that was going pretty strong, I still think so. It occurred to me then, and occurs to me now, that a boy who cared for such things was worth letting care for such things.
I tried my hand at giving him a little tutoring to supplement the publicschool teacher’s devoted efforts. I never did succeed, and neither did she, in getting him to recite a clear distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses, and the teacher complained that his compositions on the subjects she assigned him were not what she desired and that quite often he did not hand them in at all. But almost any time he would spring on me a thousand or two thousand words of romance about a great ship and her crew’s adventures, or would open, ‘The sun was setting on Rome, “the imperial city of the Caesars.’” (I confess that those inner ‘quotes’ are mine, not his.) He naturally heard a good deal about poetry in a household whose head had to talk to students about it, and one day he said, ‘Is this anything like poetry?’ and handed me these lines: —
The Queen of all the flowers,
Swaying in the breeze.
Her head before the wind,
For she knows her master.
As the sun kisses her on the brow.
And whispering at her feet.
The Lady Rose looks down upon
The puny grass with scorn.
As if the whole world was hers.
Came the King of Trees, the Pine.
I liked it. This was another one he wrote that spring: —
Swaying in the breeze,
It lifts its small white head
As the dew falls.
It sways to and fro
In the cool night winds.
It sways gently to and fro
Like a small flake of snow
In the moonlight.
Both of them had a graphic quality and a completeness in brevity that appealed to me.
He refused to do his seventh-grade arithmetic; but he liked ships, and at the end of the book quite cheerfully and correctly managed to do the problems in longitude and time. He can read aloud so that it does n’t hurt to listen, and it is nothing for him to learn by heart the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians or King Henry’s speech to his gentlemen the night before the battle of Agincourt. And he knew long ago all about the battle of Agincourt.
Months passed without anything happening to confirm the psychologists or the outraged deputy-sheriff. One day along in the autumn I did have a pang over a suspicion — which lasted some hours — that the specialists in mentality and crime were right and I was wrong. I had had to make a practice over three months of leaving the boy alone at home for two days and two nights each week, with only a widow lady. I could not bother her about his meals and so I always left him with money enough to pay for them and take him into one movie. This particular week when I got back from my barnstorming expedition he was obviously hungry, although I learned promptly that my widow lady had given him his breakfast one of the mornings and he had dispensed with breakfast the other morning, preferring to lie abed — the two mornings being Saturday and Sunday. It was also apparent that he was penniless as well as hungry. What had been done with the money?
Some hours passed and then, when I went into his room, he stood very straight, his heels close together and his hands flat against his sides and said, ‘I have something to confess to you.’
My heart sank; and sank further at the next conventional words of weakness: ‘I did n’t mean to do it.’
‘Well?’ was all I could find to say.
‘I went into that secondhand store where the man has the books and I did n’t intend to buy anything, but when I came out I had those four books over there under my arm and I had n’t any money left. I know the money was n’t mine — not to spend that way. The man said I could always exchange them for some other books, at a deduction of ten cents, so if he has any books you would like, perhaps 3 you could save something out of it yet.’
Shades of Eugene Field and all bibliomaniacs! I explained gravely that he was right in his moral attitude, but that I could understand perhaps as well as anybody about just what had happened; and I expatiated on the deadly peril of ever going into any bookshop with money in jour pocket.
I left the West after a while. A man who runs ships placed the boy aboard a freighter and he came around to New York City via the Panama Canal. I envied him the month in those waters. He worked for two or three months on a farm where I have sometimes lived, up in Orange County. I learned that if he was set to a task you had to keep an eye on him or he would waver at it after a while, even lounge away from it. He had some other failings that someway I seemed to comprehend after a little effort. Among them was a hatred of washing dishes. Evenings he read. He would work much more willingly in the garden with hoe or spade or rake if I would promise that I would be faithful to my typewriter during all the time he was busy at chores which conceivably I might have done myself — should have had to do but for him. Occasionally I wavered or lounged away, but mainly I strove successfully to fulfill the implied contract with him. He had great faith in clicking typewriters and libraries; had n’t much interest in anything else, and only in those as they were combined. The typewriter must have a literary commission. His sure instinct, unquestioned by himself, was for the arts, even in their minor aspects, as the only matters of real concern to a young citizen. That also was stimulating, and rather different, and possibly not abnormal but entirely accurate.
I have never known a boy cleanerminded, whose eye stayed clear and direct under any innuendo or gross overhearings. How he managed it, growing up for six years in a public grade-school notorious for the ‘bad boy’ population of its district, is a miracle in human nature to be explained only when the cleanness and straightness of mere boys at sea, in rough freighters and scanning debauchery and vileness so frequently in the dregs of ports, is made comprehensible to timorous mothers and analytic psychologists.
I think this is a fair condensation of his story. I have rather a good deal to do with ships and shipmen, and I told him one day he might take a run over to London and back, with the week while the ship was there for him to see the old town and buy a few books. We went into New York together for me to fix him up, and out at the foot of Fifty-seventh street in Brooklyn was a beautiful United States freighter, the Arcturus, loading for Calcutta, Bombay, and eight other ports in India and the Malay Archipelago. Her voyage would be five months. In five minutes our plans stretched to take all this in. ‘India must be a good place, too,’ he said, and three hours later he was aboard, ready for one of the four or five great voyages of the world. Here is his letter just before she sailed: —
July 9, 1923
DEAR MR. COLLINS, —
I received your letter today. I should of written you before. I don’t think but J know, I havent played a square game with you. Here you have written me about two dozen letters and havent written to you but once. I know just how you feel about you just wasting your time on a fool like me. As you know I am not much of a writer so please excuse this scribbling, as I am writing this in bed. I dont want you to think I dont care for you, because I do as you know. In the flowering lines I dont want you to think I am making a lot of excuses. But you know a fellow will get a little slack once in while. I am just going to give you a few reasons. 1. When I first came aboard it awfully hot, so I didnt feel much like writing. 2. the last. 4 or 5 days I havent been feeling very well. I am all wright now. I was pretty sick Saturday. I havent missed a day yet so far. 3. I had a lot of dirty clothes to wash. Now dont you go and take these for excuses. They look mighty like it I know. We dont sail untill the 20th of this month. I would lie to sec you before we sail. But I guess that’s impossible. I guess maybe I used the wrong word there. So if you happen to run over to New York for anything come over to the ship. Its going to be a very long voyage. We won t be back before Christmas, That seems a long time doesnt it. But it will roll around before we know it.
That is the letter of a boy of sixteen who never got to school until he was nine, charted by the psychologists as being mentally only nine and a half. I have given the record of behavior through a year and a half of a boy whom the Portland Oregonian thus stigmatized in 1922: —
EUGENE, OREGON,May 20. (Special) B. A. Wallace, aged 15, and his brother Clarence, 12, have confessed to the officers that they committed eight Eugene burglaries during the past two weeks and most of their loot, valued at about $1000. lias been recovered. They took practically all of it to their home, where the officers recovered it yesterday.
He came back at Chrisl mas-time and then cheerfully proceeded to do with a hundred dollars what he had done with fifty when he arrived in New York via the Panama Canal. Fifty dollars in wages were handed to him, and without looking it. over or even counting it he passed it on to me and I stuffed it in my pocket, thereby confirming the declaration of some of my friends that, they had shifted from any view of me as a benevolent person in the whole business to the conviction that. I am an exploiter of child labor. I have had, at least, the easy fun of no responsibility in the matter, realizing perfectly that anything I did to the boy made a better fate for him than all the efforts of concerted society dealing with him by courts and science and churches and schools and Poor Commissions over a period of his best six growing years.
He has an uneven mentality and disposition. It strikes me that is nearer normal — in the intention of human nature — than a series of mental and moral judgments upon him which insist upon treating us as if it were desirable that we should all be so darned much alike.