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Memories of a Great Schoolmaster: Dr. Henry A. Coit
by James P. Conover

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Chapter I. First Memories

IT was during the soft twilight of a summer day, about the year 1866, that I first heard the name of Dr. Coit. I was arrested in my play by notes of peculiar interest in a man's voice, and listening to my elders heard some wonderful tales of school life. The tradition in my family was that boarding schools were meant only for boys whose parents did not care for them, and that the life was one of hardship and persecution. But this man, if I understood him aright, was talking about his school days as if he had enjoyed them, and there was a certain awe and hush in his voice when he spoke of the Doctor. No actual words of his remain with me, but after nearly forty years the impression gathered through the stillness of the night from the manner of this "old boy," and the interest of my mother, has never faded--the impression of reverential love to a schoolmaster. So it was that "Tom Brown at Rugby," coming to me in due course, had other foundation to work on than the tradition of the American boarding school, and at odd times my imagination was soon busy with our "Rugby," and our "Doctor." Some strokes of reality were drawn into my picture now and again by the talk and bearing of college men frequenting our house. They were fine fellows, these early St. Paul's men, the very cream of the land, and I hung upon their words about "school" and "the Doctor." A conversation between my mother and a freshman occurred at this time, of which two remarks have stuck in my memory, probably from their constant repetition in our family: "I never saw the Doctor lose his temper; he never scolds," and "He writes to all the old fellows."

But I was soon to see him for myself, for it was in the fall of 1870 that, after a walking trip with my father in the White Mountains, I found myself one afternoon in a small room, waiting with beating heart for the entrance of Dr. Coit. The powerful figure and deep voice of the master of all those big men had many times before been uppermost in my dreams, and now I sat perfectly still lest something should mar the effect of their fulfillment. But suddenly he was in the room. Without any show of haste he had already shaken hands and spoken some gracious words to my father, and he was now holding my hand and fixing my gaze with a moment's flash of his great eyes. It was all so sudden and so quiet that I could not realize that this was the great man. Did I speak of his shaking hands? He never shook hands; indeed, I cannot conceive of his shaking anything. He simply took one's hand and held it, and enveloped it with a sort of a tremor of his long fingers that seem id to be as the servants of his eyes to reach to a man's soul. At once I was fascinated, and in spite of my surprise listened with all my ears to a few words about mutual friends, Dr. Muhlenberg, and others, till the conversation drifted to boys and schools. I remember distinctly but four remarks. My father said, "Do you not think the theatre a proper means of education for a boy?"

"Yes, if the play is proper; but so few are. None in this town are helpful, and I never let the boys go." (Later we shall return to Dr. Coit's love of the fine drama, and his efforts to have it duly appreciated.)

"At what age," was asked, "do you think a boy ought to go away to school? "

"Oh, do not let him leave his mother till he is thirteen."

On rising to take leave, my father, who was a trustee of the elder Bishop Doane's school in Burlington, N. J., said: "We want to call your brother to take charge of Burlington College."

"You must not do that; I want him here with me. I have been planning it for so long, and I cannot spare him."

For two years I carried the image of those eyes looking into my soul, the feeling of a delicate, nervous hand enveloping mine, and the sound of a quiet voice with a timbre all its own, before I too called him "the Doctor." That name! how much it meant to us! One of my first achievements in vacation was to write, direct, and seal a letter to "Doctor Coit," without any supervision of spelling or diction. My mother saw the envelope and wisely let it go, but afterwards reproved me for my want of respect. But even mothers do not know everything.

Again we were in his presence, fathers and mothers and boys. There was the same calm dignity as before, but now a note of force mingled with a sympathy that was simply surpassing in its winning power. What mother can forget that marvelous insight into her own hopes and fears! Here was a bridge on which her boy might safely walk into the unknown land. She seemed to be the one of all that crowd to whom he was giving special heed, and surely her boy would be the first in his affection; and she was not disappointed as the beautiful little notes came to her through the year, and the few words in his own hand at the end of the monthly report. But are there not other memories of mothers? Oh, yes; a few. Some fashionable women have turned away from that study door with such feelings of wounded pride and disappointment as perhaps they have never known before. They have come to patronize, and they have been stung; they have come to lay down the law, and that gentle voice has turned the subject in a way that has made them feel unaccountably small. I remember once his reading aloud at masters' meeting a letter from some vulgar woman laying down the law, and signing herself "Your Patron." There was no comment, but such a gleeful laugh at the end! When pressed by a parent for some stretching of a rule, he would say in a pleasant way, "But that is one of the laws of the Medes and Persians which altereth not."

Men accustomed to carry their points would confidently assail the Doctor; but at times he would prove peculiarly obtuse to reason, and we can all recall the baffled look that had settled on a man's face by the time he had decided to make a retreat. But the boy, bully or puny, clever or dull, rich or poor, had at once a place in the Doctor's heart.

On that first night, some hearts were very sore; and when a young master touched me on the shoulder and said, "You are to go to the Lower School," I felt that I could not bear it. There, till bedtime, the little nagging boys nearly drove me crazy; though much to my surprise, when we went to the dormitory there was not a sound. Each fellow was undisturbed in his own little alcove,--an experience which never varied in my three years of dormitory life. Yet in the morning my spirits did not rise, especially when I tried to wash in a tin basin knocking about in a sort of trough, and elbowed by a lot of squealing youngsters. So after breakfast I took my bag and went to the Middle School where the Doctor lived, and I said, "Please let me stay in the house with you?"

"Well, my dear, we shall arrange it somehow; you go now and get your books and after chapel start your morning's work in the school-room."

The boy felt all right under the same roof with the Doctor. If he had seemed like a woman in his gentleness and sympathy, he certainly was the man that this boy was henceforth proud to own as master.

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