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

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Chapter II. The School-Room

It is the "first morning;" we have come out of "Chapel" and are assembling in the schoolroom. The "Sixth" have hardly taken their places when the Doctor appears in the door, a few moments ago the surpliced priest pouring out his soul in prayer, now the erect leader breathing power.

At sight of his form there is immediate silence. Without haste, but without loss of an instant, with head erect and slightly thrown back and inclined to one side after a fashion of his own, he proceeds to the master's desk. His walk was unique: it was not the walk of the athlete nor of the scholar; it was not the walk of any type of man. Whether on the playground or in the school-room or in the chapel, it was the same swift, dignified, gliding motion, giving one the impression not so much of strength as of perfect poise of mind and body.

With eyes straight before him, apparently fixed on the ground a few yards ahead, he is at once the centre of attention.

There are no preliminaries. Quick as thought he is facing the room and reading out the names of the boys in their respective forms. Without more ado classes are dismissed, work is assigned, and we have settled for the year. "Bricks without straw" was this call to work with no books, perplexing and disheartening; but were there not fifteen minutes between breakfast and chapel in which one hundred and fifty or more might provide themselves from "the Stationery?" Surely there was Mr. J------- to dole out articles innumerable to a scrambling, pushing, joking line. It had always been done in that way. The very apparent impossibility was the first lesson to the new boy in that inflexible standard of work set by the Doctor. He soon had out his own books, at which he worked as if there was not a boy in sight. So I thought; but I quickly learned that his field of vision was very broad meanwhile. When my attention wandered from the Latin grammar before me and my pencil point began to trace the lines of the latest yacht, at once his eyes were on me with a warning look as if they grudged a moment from their own page. But presently he was up, and standing by me cleared the clouds of trouble that befogged the text, and again was at his books.

To-day I see clearly the first page of that old Morris Grammar--Aula est ampla, was not that the first sentence?--and even now the memory is one of painful impossibility. But we lived through it; and on that first day we had our first lesson from that great workman in what he would have us learn, Labor omnia vincit.

The Doctor was much in the school-room in those early days, and no matter what the confusion, the instant he appeared at the door there was a hush; and his forceful ringing of the bell to call in from the playground was inimitable. "It is the Doctor!" Do you not recall the spell upon you as you felt his eye the instant you entered the door? Gladly would you and I go back and live those early days, for an hour just to know the thrill that came from the tap of the bell, and to sit again as boys in that room with him. The Doctor was so much present; every boy got a share of him.

At the end of morning study (in later years directly after chapel) the Doctor would read what were called "reports;" that is reports of masters to himself for "lateness" or infringement of rule or neglect of work on the part of boys. They were read in a rapid and distinct voice, and every boy reported was obliged to remain in his seat till the Doctor called him up. Those were trying moments for some. A few words were said to each and a punishment assigned or the report erased; but there was nearly always a note of humor that drove home as well as lightened the sting of the punishment. Sometimes, however, a hard nature would be stabbed right deeply in a way that brought dislike as well as fear. No boy determined to justify himself, especially at the expense of truth or good manners, could lightly withstand those heart-searching looks or fail to resent those shafts of humor.

As Dr. Coit grew older he rarely made use of this soul-lashing process. As he withdrew more to his study he became more universally merciful and loving in his manner; he often answered, when asked by a master what to do in a certain case, "Win the boy." He bemoaned the tendency to cutting words when tired and sore beset, and he would sometimes 'confess with great meekness, "I have been saying things again."

Mercy to the weak was another trait strongly marked in his discipline. He could not bear to see a boy down. "My dear, we shall erase all these reports. You go off this afternoon and have a good game, and then you will feel better and more like turning over a new leaf tomorrow." He was never weary of suggesting a fresh start and sending a boy on his way with a pressure of the hand or a succession of light I taps on the shoulder and a quick glance of loving encouragement. I have sometimes looked in amazement at what seemed his weakness in being taken in by tears; but what schoolmaster of our land has such a heritage as he in the hearts of men who owe their fresh j starts to his unfailing love and confidence?

Truly, and with reverence may it be said of him j also, "He came not to call the righteous but the sinners." And yet he sometimes said of a boy, "I am not the one to reach him; I have not the heart to deal sternly with him, and that is what he needs." Just he was, and very discerning, but mercy often carried the day in dealing with the individual. He had little faith in punishment as such, or in regulation punishments for regulation offenses. He used to say, "A man's power to rule boys is shown in his handling them with little or no punishment." "Just check them;" "Prevention is better than cure," were maxims often heard by the masters. And for the sake of the man as well as of the boy, while he allowed a master to assign the lines to a punishment, he held the right to pass upon them, and he encouraged the men to leave all that sort of thing entirely in his hands.

And yet his standard of manners for the school-room was impossibly high: to whisper to one's neighbor or to pass a note in study hour was a grave offense, not only subject to punishment but marked with loss of standing in decorum; whatever could be fairly construed as disobedience or trickery, though he seldom used those words, was considered more than a misdemeanor. This high and uncompromising standard sometimes created friction and discouragement; but when, as a man, I suggested that such conduct as he held up was impossible and turned the boys away, he said: "Do you think so? I like to hold the standard high to attract the nobler natures and expose the cloven hoof where it lurks.

May I not do that, and still hope to win the low or weak by reaching down to him in private? "Indeed, that was one of the secrets of his success, and, where he seemed to fail, of his failure; and he was content to have it so, for he said: "A school cannot do everything, but surely its main object is to hold high before the boy the standard of righteousness; and though he fall, its beauty and its power will bring him back." Is it a wonder that we all feared him? Is it a wonder that most of us loved him? Is it a wonder that some of us would have died for him?

So it was that, if there had been any underhand disorder or mischief, Dr. Coit would come into the school-room and say, "Some of you take advantage of the trust we give you." And then, after a few words which drew the offense in a new light, "What boy threw that snow-ball?" or "What boys took any of Farmer Hall's apples?" One by one the culprits would rise in their places. The subject would then be dismissed with the remark: "Now you have done the honorable thing and wiped out the offense;" or if it was a repetition, "You must write two sheets this afternoon." He rejected with scorn, at least as applied to the life of a family, the theory that "no man should inculpate himself." He declared that every boy ought to be willing to right himself not only by confession but by taking his punishment in manly fashion. Few boys could accede to this, but the majority, in spite of complaint, felt in their hearts that they were toned up by such extraordinary discipline. They recognized the straightforward dealing and boldness of such a move, and failed not to appreciate that the Doctor never condescended to underhand methods. Only two boys of my experience had the temerity to refuse such a trial; they simply avoided the occasion by remaining outside when they knew that the call was to be made.

Dr. Coit was fully aware of the danger of any method becoming so common as to create ways of escape, so he constantly varied his handling of disorder. His usual method was quiet dealing with the ringleaders whom he would select by an almost supernatural instinct; but he was not afraid to face the mob, and that every boy knew. "This disorder is not to happen again," would be said with such finality as nearly always to insure the desired effect. In this connection I remember his using a word which seemed for him a slip: "I have said that this disorder was not to happen again; I am afraid that some of you have misunderstood me. Now I pray all the better ones among you, when certain boys have decided to make asses of themselves" (said with a fine scorn) "simply to leave them alone." And that was final for that year.

I remember visiting the school while a college undergraduate, partly to look up a young cousin during his first year. I noticed that the boy seemed a little worried, though he declared himself as perfectly happy. On the third day, however, there was a complete change in his face as he came out of morning school. I asked what had happened to make him feel so lively. He said that a lot of fellows had been in swimming on the sly, and that the Doctor had asked them to come to his study to report. They had all gone to a man, about twenty of them. This confession had cleared the clouds, and he was again the open-faced happy boy.

The Doctor's directness and kingly bearing among us could not alone have commanded such results. Underneath it all was the ever watchful eye and untiring private and personal influence. "Eternal vigilance is the price of order," was a remark often heard by his masters. I have said that he walked with his eyes straight to the front, but his field of vision seemed to us almost supernatural. If occasion called, his knowledge of boys and his marvelous intuition taught him just where and just when to look, and even to see without looking. One winter afternoon the lights went out in the big study of one hundred and ninety-five boys, when the janitor was about half through lighting. This was cause enough for merriment, but when the old Irishman stopped in the middle of the aisle and began to apostrophize the gas there was more fun. At the master's suggestion he shut off the main valve, as we could smell the gas returning. Then some one called, "Try it again, Barney." So Barney went from one burner to the other, forgetting that he had turned off the supply;--laughter now. Then with show of anger, having once more opened the valve, he went successfully down one row; but suddenly out it all went again amid roars of approval. Just then the bell rang for recess, and every boy was on his feet in for a "good time." As it was almost dark, the boys did not see the Doctor coming in; but as he stepped on the platform there was a hush, and while all eyes were on him he spoke quietly to one or two boys near him, sending them in search of others, whom he straightway sent on different errands about the house. Before the spell could be broken, and while the most turbulent spirits were scattered by his stratagem, he turned to the master in charge and said, "Please ring the bell and dismiss the classes." While this was going on Barney reappeared and began distributing and lighting candles. Thus what might have become a serious disorder melted away before the quiet and ready tact of the master.

"The Big Study," as it was called, what a grip it had upon the life of the boy! None knew better than Dr. Coit the influence exercised on the individual by association in a large company. As such a room of about two hundred boys studying together, under the supervision of one man, might easily work to the destruction of a weak schoolmaster, so under his strong hand it became a tremendous lever for good. This room was characteristic of his system as well as an index of his power.

Let us not forget that here and there all about that room were friends bound to him by "hoops of steel," some that would have died for him, and among these were the leaders of the school. Not only did this man have the faculty of winning to himself the natural leaders of the school, but he had a way of choosing out and marking scholars and boys of intellectual force that made them leaders. The leaders of misrule had a hard time to get even temporary and small followings.

What "old boy" can ever forget that long-coated figure sitting erect amid the school mail dumped upon the dais! Secret correspondence has a poor show in the face of such publicity. With eagle eye he has pounced upon some forbidden matter and he is lovingly chaffing the boy; or he is taking in the news from a paper in his hand and flanking some tale of woe with a humorous summary of the events of the day.

But to see the schoolmaster on his throne was to see him on "the last night." Almost reluctantly do I attempt to give a picture of what so many carry in their hearts, each with his own cherished coloring. But so it must be with any attempt to leave on paper a likeness of this man, so high and forceful in his intellect and so broad in his sympathies. Artists never could paint him; and no photograph ever satisfied. This, therefore, is only the memory of one small boy, though strengthened through years of many "last nights."

In the first place, the setting is complete; no occasion of a boy's school life probably finds him more ready for impressions than he is on "the last night." He is keyed for every note, and the Doctor plays them with a master hand. The last examination is over, trunks are packed and gone, and under the wide-spreading trees in the twilight we have sung "Dulce Domum" for home, and "Salve Mater" for school. Led by the great man of the "Sixth," every fellow has lustily responded to "Three cheers for the Doctor;" "Three more for the School;" and "Three for Dr. Shattuck;" and we are now all sitting expectant in the school-room. Absolute silence falls as the "Sixth" begin to file in, followed by the masters, the bishop in his robes and the Doctor in academic gown. I have never seen surpassed the simple dignity of this function. The Doctor's manner was that of royalty, and yet he himself was so perfectly in accord with the room and the company that he never failed to draw men and boys to a measure of his own greatness. Sitting at one end of the platform near a table covered with books and testimonials, with the bishop at the other end, the Greek testaments and diplomas for the Sixth Form at his hand, and some of the older masters between, the Doctor would begin the evening by calling on the speakers chosen to compete for the prize. After this declamation was over the committee retired for consultation, giving us all ample time to discuss our favorites. Breathless silence greeted the chairman, as on the return of the judges he stepped to the platform to proclaim the winner and award the prize. This was his chance to say a few words about public speaking that would stick, and the Doctor took care that no unworthy or even ordinary man had such a chance. In this way prizes were awarded for collections of wild flowers and minerals, for the best examination on a play of Shakespeare or another great English masterpiece, and a prize for the best essay, generally on some character in history. Men of note were always at hand on these occasions, and their speeches made at that time were no unimportant part of our life. Most distinctly do I recall the impression made by a speech of President Eliot, and by those of Dr. Samuel A. Eliot, one of our trustees, which were models. As if it were yesterday I now see the dignified pose and hear the measured tones of Richard Henry Dana, the keen wit and forceful sentences of William M. Evarts, and, perhaps, more vividly than any, the fire and fun with which the famous Dr. Hudson, Shakespearean and divine, would sweep us along in the torrent of his periods.

When the applause for the winners of prizes had subsided, the Doctor would perhaps say, "We have come to the close of another year; we have been mercifully preserved from calamity;" or, if there had been death in the school, "It has been a year of trial and great sorrow. One has gone from our midst, but he has left us the memory of a pure and happy life. May such ever be the heritage of a place like this! On the whole the work has gone on satisfactorily in spite of the many drawbacks, though I should so rejoice to see a greater number competing for these honors and giving their minds to the more important things of our life here.

"I have to thank many of you for your loyal and unfailing support in all that goes to make this place what it ought to be. Especially do I mention at this time my great appreciation of the efficient work and unselfish character of Mr.------, who is with us to-night in his capacity as master for the last time. For ten years he has been our fellow laborer here, and he now goes to a kindred work in another part of the land. We shall not forget him; our good wishes follow him always.

"I might mention by name many of the older boys who have been my strong supporters, but their hearts will tell them better than my words how much I have depended on their loyalty and how I shall miss them in the coming year.

"Now you are all going for a period of rest; some will be traveling; and some will be running loose, I fear, in various summer resorts. I pray that every St. Paul's boy will remember that he is a gentleman; that he will not forget what we have tried to set before you here; that he will spend his holidays in healthy outdoor sport and helpful reading, in some recreation of mind and body that will fit him for the renewal of work in September. This school does not stand for such stuff as is found in------'s books; this school does not stand for the hotel manners popular at the seaside; this school does not stand for turning night into day, nor for morning hours lolling in bed, nor for the desecration of the Lord's Day now becoming so common.

"The older ones among you will find opportunity for some serious reading; to that end I now announce that the subject for the prize essay of next year will be 'The Life and Character of Oliver Cromwell,' and that the subject for the Whipple gold medal will be 'The Merchant of Venice.'

"I shall be so happy to hear from any of you during the holidays. Letters addressed to the school will always reach me in due course. Do make the best of your opportunities and you are sure to have a happy time. My heart goes with you as this great company scatters to-morrow to the four winds."

Then with a change of position and a gathering of his gown, "I proceed now to the awarding of school honors." This kind of thing was always a great pleasure to the Doctor, and though he was extremely particular about all formalities on these occasions, his face beamed with joy; and to each boy as he came up there was a special word of appreciation. Did you ever stand in that little group of "first testimonial" boys, waiting for his eye to light on you? If you did not, then you have missed something that might have been a little torch of love to shine down through your path with an ever-brightening glow of reality.

After the awarding of class testimonials he would announce the name of the boy who had attained the highest standing in studies for the year. Then again gathering his gown about him he would say, "And now we have come to the highest honor of the school, the Medal. This, please remember, goes to the boy who has excelled all others in the performance of school duties. There are many who in different ways have been worthy of special honor, but there is one whose name stands out above all for the faithful discharge of all that goes to make up our life here, the name of a leader in scholarship and of one not behind on the playground or wherever our best interests are at stake, a name which in years gone by has been honored in this place, and not in this place alone, for it is a name well known throughout the length and breadth of this land for noble aims and high attainments. I am sure that you will all agree when I mention the name of------." Great applause! for we all did agree, at least for the time, as no boy could resist the art by which the Doctor led us to his own conclusion.

As the excitement subsided, and while all eyes are fastened on the happy boy whose hand is grasped by those near him, the Doctor says "The session of 18--is now closed. You will all presently assemble in the chapel for our last service."

At this stage of the proceedings in early days we were refreshed by ice-cream and the first strawberries of the season. Ah! but they did taste good! After the present school-house was built and the Doctor's family went to live in the rectory, we used to return from chapel to the school-room to say good-by to the Doctor and Mrs. Coit and to the masters. "I was so much gratified last year when I went away to have the conductor tell me that it was a pleasure to carry such a fine lot of young gentlemen. I am sure that I can depend on you to keep up our good name." Or, if there had been complaint of horse-play, it would be plainly mentioned with some straight talk as to its true nature, and the remark that "No boy who disgraces us at such a time will be allowed to return." Then in spite of the fatigues of the day and evening, the Doctor would turn with radiant look to shake hands. We all flocked up, each for his turn, eager for the last word and look which came as a special benediction.

That was the last of the school-room for some of us; but its life has passed on, by many a stream throughout this broad land, his strong, gracious, loving presence being always its centre and spring.

A letter to a father, after the graduation of his youngest son; an example of the Doctor's short notes to parents.

MY DEAR MR.------,--Tom has ended a good life here, sans reproche, if not a very hard-working one. In writing you once more I must thank Mrs.------and yourself for your kind interest and support in what we have attempted for all three of your sons. They all have my most loving and lasting regard, and I think one may look forward to the honorable useful Christian manhood of every one of them.

Pray make my affectionate regards to them all, and believe me with much respect, Truly yours,

S. P. S. JULY 6,1882.

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