Project Canterbury

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

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Chapter III. In the Class-Room

IT is a remarkable fact that the average boy really enjoyed Virgil and Horace, really enjoyed Xenophon and Homer and all the others, in the class-room of Dr. Coit. Among the indelible impressions of a boy's early life, that he recalls with actual joy, are certain occasions when flashes of the author struck into his soul with something of their native light, the difficulty of the obscure text absolutely vanishing in the lucid translation of the master; the difficulty not only vanishing, but the reality and life of it put within his grasp. Even the dullest could not help catching some enthusiasm from such inspiration. So keen was our master's historical perception that for the time he seemed to be living with the author. A man once said to me that after talking to Dr. Coit he felt as if he had come from about a thousand years ago. Indeed this was always one of the manifestations of his nature; his sense of purity and righteousness was so strong that he naturally turned to the storehouses of the best that the world had lived; there he was not so constantly offended as by the evils of the life that surrounded him in the present.

But now, as I look back upon those hours, the greatness of the man shines out especially in this, that with all his scholarship and learning and native quickness he was never impatient with dullness; it seemed to be his joy to light even a little spark in the most stupid. And it is fair to say that no boy in his class escaped; many stupid and so-called impossible boys came under his teaching, but I never knew of one neglected, I never knew of one who did not receive some spark of life from this master, or of one who left him without feeling respect and desire for scholarship, and with some increase in his own learning. It was my lot while in the Doctor's Latin class for one year to have a desk in the school-room near two of the most sluggish intellects of the form. We were reading Cicero, and it was pathetic to see the efforts of these two to grasp the meaning of the orations. They would pore over the text, each in his own way; the one with dictionary ever looking out and relooking out the meanings of words and writing endless translations, the other reading the Latin to himself again and again and so gathering a supposed meaning which he gave with wonderful fluency and assurance. Both were equally erratic in their results, but both were getting something from their master and both were working; and, though boys that would have been neglected or have slipped out under most systems to become leaders of loafing and disorder, here they became the Doctor's loyal lieutenants.

A young master said of a boy's Greek: "I can get nothing out of him. What shall I do?"

"Just love him," said the Doctor, with a hopeful smile.

And this was the first secret of his success in the class-room, as everywhere else in the school; he had much love to give, and he gave it to those most in need. This was first, and this gave him entrance into a boy's heart and mind. Next was the example of his own scholarship enforced by a gentle inflexibility in demanding the best that every boy could give, both in detail and in spirit. "Is that your best?" was a frequent question. And lastly, that which gathered up all this and made it effectual was his quick and comprehensive eye, and lively, winning manner, that kept all his class awake and attentive. A question was sure to fall upon the indolent or careless attitude. The Doctor was peculiarly oblivious to all accessories of a class-room. He would sometimes use a blackboard or a map, but he naturally preferred to have small maps for each to handle. He gave no attention to improved chairs or facilities for writing in class. He wrote rapidly and clearly in any position, and expected us to be able to do the same. It was said of him that if a class-room door had been locked, he would have conducted the recitation in the hall. He had little patience with the effort to strike the exact number of minutes during which the normal boy could be quiet and attentive. One hour was the natural division of time, and he never had any difficulty in filling it all with work. This disregard of class furniture no doubt brought out more strongly his own personality. We never seemed to miss what others thought necessary, and there was certainly better attention and more accomplished in the Doctor's class than in any other of my experience.

Let us go back to some of those hours. Would that more of the detail could be recalled! But in this, as in all that the Doctor did, the detail seems to have vanished in the artistic perfection of the whole image.

One of my early recollections is that of sitting in a second form seat in the schoolroom while the Doctor was conducting one of the higher classes in Greek. He entered the room carrying his books in a way that no other man ever carried a school book; never under his arm, but in his hands, held as if of value. After dismissing the classes reciting at that hour, he would lovingly finger his Homer while the fifth form were taking their seats on benches in front of his desk. These being boys from the upper school, and not in his house, he gave each a look of "Good-morning" as he passed; but hardly was there time for finding places before the class seemed to be in full swing. As I sat some yards away, and tried to give my attention to my own book, I constantly found myself looking for the Doctor's smile as his face lit up with the interest of his work. There was not the faintest approach to the regulation manner, either in master or boy. It seemed an hour for friendly intercourse, and the poem and the grammar were handled as if they were the bonds of a common sympathy. "You have mastered that very well; how beautiful!" or, "My dear, that is a poor showing; I am afraid that Homer would not recognize his own thoughts. Are you not well to-day?" or, "Sam, that is not like you; I am afraid that you have neglected this. Is not that so?"

The lesson was beyond the small boy, but there settled in his mind during those hours a longing for such high intercourse and a determination that he would get there himself some day if it could be done by work. (If all teachers were Dr. Coits, the old system of recitations in the school-room must have had much in its favor.)

The anticipation was fully realized, though not the labor. "The Doctor" had our fifth form in Latin, and then work began such as we had not known before. It was a large class of over thirty. We used to meet in the library during one of the morning hours. I can see the Doctor now, as the first boys came up the stairs and passed his study door, taking up his little pile of books, and with his light step and erect carriage among the first to enter the library. It may be remarked here that Dr. Coit was never late, and in his prime was never early. He went from one duty to another without loss of an instant. Almost before we had ah1 taken seats, somebody was on his feet to read the review, or the prose composition had begun. I remember one very warm day--it was the day after the anniversary, and our minds were still on the sports of the day before--there was not the usual promptness; we were rather slow in entering the room, and the Doctor sat there looking round with a smile of compassionate amusement. Turning at length to the field marshal of the day before, he said, "Jack, you may open the first heat." The large heavy eyes of Jack looked reproach, but he rose and stammered through a bit of the review with kindly help. This exception to rule, as well as the humor, was duly appreciated by all the class, for the unvarying custom was to have the review read very rapidly by one or two boys, put into as fair English as one could command. It was astonishing how much ground was covered in these classes, and how interesting Cicero became. The text was made an occasion for much Roman history and for throwing light upon the every-day life of the Roman citizen. It is still a pleasure to recall the light turns of fancy which were brought out in his lively translations of the Georgics. Our reading, as far as we knew, had no connection with college examinations; they were never mentioned. In the higher classes we read twice the amount required for admission to college, and went into parts of authors that were never called for, as well as parts that were then read in the freshman and sophomore years.

In our sixth form we were so fortunate as to have Dr. Coit in Greek all the year, and in Latin also for the last half. It came about in this way: a new master, fresh from England, was given the class in Horace. The teaching was very uninspiring and inadequate. We, however, passed a very creditable examination at the mid-year orals before the Doctor himself. When he rallied me afterwards on the better showing in the Latin than in his Greek, I said: "But those odes which we had on the examination were assigned for the occasion, and most of the fellows made on them a special preparation." The Doctor professed his unwillingness to believe such a statement, but in a few days this Englishman was suddenly called elsewhere, and we fell to the Doctor's care.

In our late day few were lucky enough to have the Doctor both in Latin and in Greek. It was from him that I learned that Horace and Homer were really poets. He certainly was at home with these two. He knew many of the odes by heart; and he put some of his own high interpretation upon the old cynic.

The circumstances will perhaps allow a personal application. Let us go back, we six, to his own study where we sat with him in the winter of '76 and '77. I believe that we had him at his very best. He was full ripe and he had all the school in easy hand, so that the fruits of his scholarship hung ready to pick. Will you ever forget the impression of finish in all that he did or said? The long black coat and vest that buttoned to his throat with never a spot? How easily his clothes sat upon him! The collar always fresh, buttoned in front with a sort of flap! The immaculate cuffs with plain black buttons! The shoes! I am sure that no boy ever failed to notice the perfect fit and neatness of his shoes. His feet, like his hands, were strikingly characteristic, long and slim and flexible; and encased in finely made, square-toed shoes, they somehow stood for much in the expression of the Doctor's manhood. Yet withal, one could never think of him as caring for his dress. I remember the fun which he had over a chapter in "Society as I have found It," on "How a Gentleman should Dress." After reading several paragraphs in a gale of laughter, he put down the book with the remark, "He leaves out all mention of clean hands and feet; there is a good deal of the whited sepulchre about the whole thing." I well remember a little talk that he gave the school on some principles of dress and on the proper way to walk in a room and on the stairs. When he put his own foot down, either actually or metaphorically, there was no sliding or shuffling; it stayed exactly where it was put, and yet went so lightly as would seem hardly to crush a fly. Do you not remember, you other four? We were coming into the Homer class, and one of the fellows was tardy; we heard him shuffling up the stairs, and the Doctor turned to me and said: "There comes that cousin of yours, for all the world like one of our 'trailing-footed oxen'" (Homeric description). "Please tell him what I said," with a merry look. Such little cuts made with a kindly sparkle often put a laggard to shame. This boy will remember how he plumed himself on the easy-going manner of his life as well as on some other characteristics, just as every man of us did. His very small and rather illegible penmanship was a matter of pride; but the pride as well as the penmanship was in a degree mended by a very simple remark. One day, as the Doctor handed back his exercise with a hopeless sigh he said, "My dear, do you write with a pin?" I recollect that my classmate was inclined to resent the liberty, but I believe that his wrath was stayed by the quizzical look in the Doctor's eye.

Who spurred "Lazy Bill" to become one of the scholars and literary lights of the school? Was he not then an editor of the "Horae"? Nor was this last year merely a flicker of the flame: four years of steady work at college brought, beside other honors, the coveted of all, the valedictory of his class. Tell me, now, when at Newport you fought for first place in the "all comers" and put up such a plucky game against the champion, and when you maintained a high place in your profession, who gave you the awakening?

One and all, we answer, "In that study, as never before, I learned my weakness, and began to think and hope as a man."

Horace became poetry even to the boy, in the vivid pictures of Roman society. We learned to recall the Latin and commit it to memory through the medium of the English sense. The Doctor had much of that old-fashioned idea of familiarizing the mind and tongue with the sound of the correct and chaste Latin. He often read aloud to himself in the original. He knew the famous odes of Horace by heart, as well as the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid. His real love for the Latin tongue made him very familiar with the Latin Fathers, especially with St. Augustine, whose sayings he constantly quoted. Latin prayers and hymns were his daily delight.

Greek also had its peculiar charm for him, especially as it was the language of the New Testament. Gospel quotations in the original came to him easily: the Epistle to the Ephesians he had committed to memory. These facts would crop out in the Greek class, and in Sacred History. Besides Homer, our form read "The Clouds" of Aristophanes and others of the Greek comedies in connection with the "Memorabilia." I have seen the class rippling with mirth at the Doctor's lively rendering of the Greek comedy, while no boy could ever forget the noble lessons that were brought home to us through the life of Socrates. "Next to St. Paul, Socrates was, perhaps, the greatest of men." This remark not only shows his interest in these things, but goes a long way toward making clear the character of our great schoolmaster.

Such a living grasp of antiquity! Such a power to cull the very best! Such a felicity in imparting the life of it to the present boy! And such a living example of his own method, not only in the class-room but in every hour of his life, this generation will hardly see again.

Dr. Coit had little faith in new men or in new methods; he was eminently conservative. This was especially demonstrated in his handling of the Scriptures. His Bible classes came every Monday morning, and consisted of all members of fifth and sixth forms. In alternate years the New and Old Testaments were the subjects. In spite of a dry, and I may say at this date, soul-destroying text-book, the times of the Patriarchs and the lessons derived from Old Testament characters were brought home to us in a most forcible way. I say "forcible," for no general knowledge was a substitute for accuracy. Names and dates, for some, I am free to say, were so heavy a burden that the high lesson was marred in the sorrow of toil. The Book, however, was treated with such reverence, and the revelation of the Word was so constantly to the front that the general impression upon these classes was one of steady uplift. Every boy will remember the loving care with which our master handled his Bible, the readiness of quotation, and the pained surprise with which he viewed our ignorance. And when it came to the life of Jesus Christ, there was the same care about details; but the trend of it all was to educate in us a worship of the person of our Lord. In those days only the rumbling of modern methods in criticism had reached us. We boys heard no word of comment; and it was with pain and grief for the results that he ever spoke of going back of the "received tradition." He was in perfect sympathy with all investigation from historical and textual grounds; but he had nothing but scorn and misgiving for the result of the "higher criticism." "Apply these methods to Homer or to any writer, even to Tennyson, and you can prove anything in regard to authorship." Those who knew him well would agree, I think, that his was a mind eminently gifted to go thoroughly into all these matters, though with a conservative bias; but they came to him too late in life, and he would dismiss the subject with much the same remark often made by Dwight Moody,--" It is all useless, and is only an effort to eliminate the supernatural and to destroy faith." He would express great sorrow when the subject was broached, and once I heard him say, referring to the apathy on this subject of the Anglican Church,--" Perhaps our candle, too, is to be taken away."

One can see now the great mercy of his deliverance by death from the freer handling of God's Word. Both from nature and from his training as a schoolmaster his mind was hard to change in what he had considered essentials.

But the training and example set in careful scholarship,--he often said of a little thing, "If it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well,"--the loving reverence of his manner in treating of holy things, are a heritage of incalculable value to every boy that ever came within his influence. In this connection a little incident is worth recording. I never remember his speaking directly to a boy in class about behavior; so it was all the more startling one Sunday afternoon to have him send a boy out of his class. As all young people know, this is a nervous hour. The fourth form were assembled in the library, about fifty strong, to recite the Gospel and to answer the questions on it which the Doctor prepared week by week. Sam was smiling because his brother Fred had glibly recited the passage of the ten leepers. The Doctor gave a reproving look, which did not entirely smooth out the smile; so Sam was called. "My dear, will you take it up there?" He blundered along for a few lines till he also made some absurd mistake, and increased the awkwardness of the situation by turning to the Doctor with a smile still broader. The Doctor looked at him, and said, "Sam, are you trying to be a buffoon?" "Yes, sir," said the grinning boy. It was really an awful moment. With any other master the tension would have been removed by a laugh or an explosion of wrath; but now the dead silence of suspense was broken only by the Doctor's saying quietly, "My dear, you had better go downstairs to the school-room." This was the only instance I ever knew of a boy being sent from the Doctor's class. When we all returned to the study, we saw Sam sitting at his desk, in doleful mood, before an open dictionary. He was still gazing at the word "buffoon" and trying to take in its meaning and the enormity of his offense. He said that he thought it meant some sort of a gentleman.

Doctor Coit loved to teach, and he seemed to find a peculiar joy in arousing the interest of the backward boy,--and we certainly had plenty of them, considering the size of the school. When any form was getting hopelessly behind, he would make it his own for a time. I can now see the excitement on a boy's face as he went about among the fellows saying," We've got the Doctor in Latin!" "I pity you!" or "You 're in luck! "would be the response, according to the kind of hearer. And he always had a little company of boys whom he was coaching at odd times in his study. I remember how in the very last years of his life he came into the Lower School to hear classes in history. It was a tonic to the whole house, and a godsend to those little chaps.

Roman history! It was a delight to himself, and a new world for those whom he taught. Why have we nothing from his pen of all those things with which he was so familiar? For several reasons, which will appear later. But such a question would never be asked by one who followed him from his study to his class, and observed the life that he was putting into his daily work as a teacher.

Surely it is enough for any man to have carried St. Paul's School from its birth to the full strength of its working day.

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