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

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Chapter IV. The Doctor's Study

THERE were not two Dr. Coits; it was the same man in his study as in the school-room, yet one felt more distinctly the perfect relation between the man and the book-lined room. Here the world was left behind, and one breathed the atmosphere of the past and of the future. The spirit of the historical past and of a life to come seemed always breathing out in what we may call the cloistered life of this man. He was eminently the scholar; and he was never so much himself, never so happy, as when in the midst of his books. No one ever came upon him idle; often he would be reading aloud, and would stop to make notes, most discriminating little notes, on the margin. His power of memory for history and literature and his ability to turn his knowledge to account seemed to us ordinary mortals short only of the miraculous. To the boy there was also another apparent miracle, namely, the rapidity with which his eye would discover a mistake in an exercise. Our fear of this quickness of eye grew to appreciation in after years when we read with him in his study. The corresponding quickness of vision and intellect, however, never ceased to be amazing; his eye would travel over the page of a book or of a letter with lightning speed; he seemed to absorb the meaning without reading.

In our frequent visits to his study--his door was always open to us--we came closer to this great personality, and there his winning, almost intimate manner was a perfect medium for exchange of confidences. The ready sympathy of the man would shine out, however, in any place. I remember on one occasion, after he had been standing as straight as a soldier delivering some rather plain talk in the school-room, as he turned to go out his eye fell upon an ugly, little, red-haired boy who was sitting very disconsolate at his desk. The Doctor went to him with a look that would have warmed a stone, and gave him a hearty hand, with a few words in his ear that made him the envy of every boy in the room. To be downhearted was a passport to his heart, and no one ever chaffed a boy who got such attention. These flashes were but the introduction to what one might look for alone with the Doctor. Even at this day it seems a sacrilege to draw the veil from these study talks which went so deep into the springs of a boy's life. They must ever be our sacred heritage, their true meaning hidden in one's secret heart. But if we look back into the quiet of that room upon moments of the highest elevation of purpose, we look back, too, upon times of awful suspense and abject fear. In the reading-room at Newport a knot of men were discussing the different circumstances that would call out or drive away all their nerve: "Well," said one, "I do not know of anything that would really make me afraid, unless Dr. Coit were to walk into this room and say, 'My dear, what have you been doing for these last ten years?' I am dead sure that I would be scared."

I am reminded here of what an "Old Boy" has said in "Early Days at Uppingham under Edward Thring." This great schoolmaster was certainly very different in character from Dr. Coit, yet the problem he faced was much the same, namely, to raise the school to an altogether higher level; and the general aim, in caring for the individual, was the same; and many of their characteristic methods were alike.

This "Old Boy" writes, "Throughout all our time at school he dominated our life in everything. In the early days we saw more of him, and he personally knew every one--as he did, indeed, to a marvelous extent when the school had grown to its full size, for he was at first house master as weh1 as head master to every one.

"He had as head master the power of inspiring an awe which made a lower boy almost tremble to approach him in class, and to get up before him to construe was an ordeal only to be matched by the inexpressible relief of sitting down again without having made an obvious fool of yourself. But I think the most dreaded interview, and it was not infrequent, was when you went to his study for a 'paternal.' If you had been getting careless or giving trouble, and not doing yourself credit, he sent for you and spoke to you 'as a father,' appealing to your better feelings and your love for those at home, and reminding you of your good resolutions all thrown to the winds. He spoke with intense feeling, and invariably moved you to tears; but you came away feeling that there was some good in you, and that he had recognized it, and a fresh start was made easy."

This might well pass as a picture of our own memories of Dr. Coit.

What St. Paul's boy has not stood outside that study door with his heart thumping so loud as almost to prevent his hearing the "Come in "? One night a few of us were on the landing waiting our turn; a boy stood irresolute for some seconds, his hand upraised to knock, summoning his courage. Suddenly the door opened and the Doctor stood in amused quietness before the figure which remained petrified in the very act of knocking. And what were we there for? It was Saturday night, and most of us, probably, were waiting to see the Doctor before going to the early morning Communion. It was an understood thing that no boy went to that service without either the regular preparation of the monthly communicant's meeting or a private interview with the Doctor. These Saturday nights are precious memories of many a life. Words were generally few. Sometimes the Doctor looked up from his sermon--he always wrote his sermons on Saturday--merely to hold out his hand, and ask the question with his eyes, to which the boy answered, "I want to come to Communion to-morrow." "Good-night, my dear! You have had a good week." No words can describe the stimulus to a boy of such a private confidence and such a trustful Godspeed. I never heard teaching as to what is called "private confession," though I have known of the Doctor hearing private confessions and giving absolution in the sacramental sense to those who desired; yet the impression left upon us is that in these matters he dreaded formality. He was sure to detect a want of sincerity or a guilty conscience in a look, and then the loving tenderness of his manner was simply incomparable as he asked, "What is troubling you?" The secrets of the boy's soul came out, not to the priest but to the saving love of man for man; that was the key that unlocked the hearts of his boys as well as those of the poor and distressed in the country round. The tonic of those confessions to a man himself so pure never failed to give strength and courage to all "who rebelled not." But suppose that one had been missed several times from Communion--he never failed to note the absentees. "My dear, what have you been doing? You are ashamed to meet your Lord." This is not pleasant to hear, especially when one knows what is coming, and dreads the questioning, for fear of inculpating others. He knows well enough with whom one has been going, and we are all in it together, and one hardens his heart.

Perhaps the boy goes out from his presence a moral leper in his eyes and shuns him evermore; or he makes a clean breast of it and gives details of his crimes and even the names of confederates; for the Doctor shows no sympathy with the reluctance to expose others. "Dishonorable? I do not understand that kind of honor; perhaps that is the 'honor among thieves' that I have heard of before."

But let it be understood at once that mere school offenses were never treated in this way; it was only some absolute wrong that had been weighing on a boy's conscience. When any culprit was detected through information from a companion, punishment rarely followed; the object seemed to be to win the boy to a proper state of mind. The Doctor's standards of right were very high, and not always appreciated by us, but they were very clear and could not be misunderstood.

An old boy writes thus of him to the "Churchman:" "My own strongest impression, as I go back in memory for five and thirty years to the time I entered the school, is of his almost awful righteousness and his enthusiasm for righteousness in others.

"It was this righteousness of his that made 'old boys,' with whitening heads and grizzled beards, feel the old, queer heartbeat when they knocked at the door of his study, long years after they had passed out of his immediate discipline. It was not anything that he would do, or even the severity of the words he would use in righteous indignation, that made boys dread the summons to 'the rector's study,' but the withering blast of his disapproval, a judgment of condemnation, the justice of which was so evident that the boyish heart seldom, if ever, failed to admit the censure to be deserved."

And yet withal among the Doctor's best friends were boys who lived in a state of continual peccadillo. One instance especially do I recall of a boy in a lower form in my day who was almost a regular habitue of the report-room. On returning for a visit to the school, I noticed a great improvement in his bearing. When I asked him how he was getting along, he said, "I am different from what I used to be; I guess everybody hated me but the Doctor; but I am all right now." The confirmation class was held in the Doctor's study. In November this class was announced as a preparation for the confirmation to be held on Ascension Day, and the Doctor began thus early to call together those whom he had privately warned of the summons. In spite of all his care, there were some who went through this long preparation without any apparent change in life; but for the large majority it was a time of genuine renewal of their baptismal vows. A quotation from his words "To those who have been confirmed" is a fair summary of his teaching during those months of preparation: "A few words seem necessary to remind you of your duties and privileges, of the sacred lessons of the past, and of those good purposes which I trust you will ever hold fast in the days to come. Our chief anxiety is that you may have the true preparation of heart, that He to whom you have made your solemn promise and vow may see in you the earnest, daily effort to perform it. You have made your choice, once for all, in confirmation. You can never be confirmed M again. And the confirmation promise is very great and binding,--that you will 'continue Christ's faithful soldier and servant to your life's end.' It is the work of your lives to keep it. You cannot do this without God's special grace. He has appointed certain acts of religion as means for obtaining this grace. These are [here are mentioned with comments]: First, Prayer; second, Beading of Holy Scripture; third, Observance of the Lord's Day; fourth, To prepare for and come with lowly, adoring love to the Holy Communion of the body and blood of Christ . . .; fifth, Care in disposing of your time. It is not yours to waste or abuse. Be occupied. Let some definite employment fill up your waking hours. . . . Then there will be little opportunity for idle thoughts and the 'evil communications' which 'corrupt good manners.' Keep innocency, and take heed unto the thing that is right, for that shall bring a man peace at the last.

"What we must all aim at, if we would really please God, is to make his will ours, to love that which He commands, and to desire that which He promises. Pray for this every day, that his Holy Spirit may work that change of will in you that you may be converted from all sin and evil, and may choose and love and follow the Lord Jesus Christ. . . .

"There is more true happiness in one day of earnest, watchful endeavor to do duty and to please God than in weeks of careless living and self-indulgence. 'I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness.' None of your innocent pleasures will displease Him. He desires the present happiness of his children. He frowns only on that which will really do you harm. You can be as truly his servant in your play as in your prayers.

"I pray Him to deepen in you all the fear and love of his Holy Name. May you take Jesus Christ as your King and Master, and hold fast to Him; and may every day of your life hereafter prove your sincerity, and win the smile of his approval!"

The Doctor's study was the haven for any one in trouble, be he boy, man, or woman. His sympathy did not stop with boys and masters; there one would find one of the maids pouring out her troubles, a farmer's lad preparing for confirmation, a business man from the town who had lost his wife, or even a poor outcast seeking comfort in his woes.

Let it not be thought from this that the Doctor mingled with his fellows in the affairs of town or country. Far from it: he was peculiarly aloof from all that sort of thing; even if he had had the time, anything, whether in writing, in speaking, or in acting, that brought him before even our simple public, was entirely alien to his nature. He did not live much in anybody else's world except as a friend to help in time of need; and is it not so that this very "aloofness," so to speak, made it easier to trust him with one's confidence? It gave one a feeling of absolute safety. So it was perfectly natural that his study became a refuge for the downcast; the man's heart was always ready for, and yet never betrayed, a confidence.

After the day's work was done and the boys all in bed, there seemed almost a supernatural quiet about this room. It was my great privilege to go to the Doctor's study at that hour several times a week for three or four years. I was reading for Holy Orders under his direction, and that was our time for Greek Testament. There was always the same radiant smile as he took in his hand this much-loved book, frequently with the remark, "And now for something better." So vividly do these hours come back to my memory that it seems but yesterday that, filled with new desire, I read St. Luke, The Acts, St. John, and most of St. Paul's epistles, with a running comment from my master. I could never read the scenes of "the agony" in his presence without danger of breaking down, so deep and strong became the reality. "And this man was an impostor!" or "This account is a fabrication according to our friend------!" mentioning the name of some German critic. I would not change those memories for all the theological training of the schools. No attendance on scientific lectures can supply the place of personal contact with a mind like that of Dr. Coit. It is not so much the instruction absorbed, as it is the insight gained into the methods of study and modes of thought of a really great scholar and theologian by the friendly reading and talk in the private study. There, too, one felt the Spirit of God breathing through and inspiring the man and his learning. These hours were privileges never to be forgotten, and not to be weighed by any ordinary test. For myself, "Thank God!" is all that I dare say.

Another scene in that room rises before me, very characteristic of the man and his work. It is the curator's hour for his daily report. Interrupted many times, the man of affairs stands patiently by, as the Doctor turns to his table for a letter; this table is covered with a pile of books, exercises, and letters in seemingly utter confusion,--but in his mind this is order, for there is rarely an instant lost in putting his hand on what he needs; a boy who had been sent for arrives, and with several masters, each waiting for a word, these all together form a little group about the Doctor's table; fun is twinkling in his eye and bubbling in his voice, as he plays one against another, till by degrees each affair is smoothed over, if not settled. Meantime the boy is waiting for an expected reproof, and at last, "shifting feet," says, "Do you wish to see me, sir?" Then quietly the Doctor turns as if he had not observed him before, and at once, looking him straight in the eyes in his wonderful way, says, "I am afraid that you are not doing very well. I just want to give you a word of encouragement," and he holds out his hand for a friendly grasp. Tears fill the boy's eyes, and he falters, "Thank you, sir," as he turns to go.

No method in it all to the eye of the business man. It was the method of the man of God, constantly waiting on God's will, distrustful of self, trusting Him to decide many things in his own way, unwilling to experiment with others' suggestions, but proving all things as he went. This slowness to trust others in small practical ways, no doubt, vastly increased his own labor, and hastened his own end; but out of it all was evolved St. Paul's School, an exponent of a system of education absolutely dependent on the man.

Is any other kind of system worth the name? Can intellectual, spiritual, or any other kind of life be transmitted except through the hard labor of mind on mind? If the life is not there, if the love is not there, let us bury the form.

That room with its great soul has been too long the centre of love and life at St. Paul's for any true son to be satisfied simply with methods and memories.

This letter is inserted here as exemplifying the general tone of the Doctor's private talks.

PLATTSBURG, N. Y., August 2, 1864.

MY DEAR ------,--As next Sunday is the day appointed for your First Communion, I want to drop you a line to assure you of my very great anxiety for you and interest in this important step in your Christian course. Your good father has explained, I am sure, all about the Sacrament that you need to know, and you have his example, prayers, and counsel, as well as your mother's, to help you on. But you must do your part. You must try to think that you are coming into the very Presence of your dear Saviour. Before men we are naturally desirous to appear well; but how should we feel when we come so near the Lord and King of Angels and of men? He is your True Friend, and He loves you and has always loved you; and all your sincere conscientious efforts to serve Him please Him. I think He has been pleased with you in your good efforts the past year, in your trying to get the better of yourself, to be obedient and truthful, and to subdue vanity and self-conceit. Now He holds out his arms to you. He can help you to do right, and He only. Without Him, you will be proud and vain, and false and self-deceived.

He will come to you now to strengthen and help you, to show you true happiness, and to confirm all your good purposes. Come to Him and trust Him to help you. And say to Him, "Here am I, a young boy needing help, and full of weakness. Lord, dear Lord, take me and honor me to be thy servant."

My dear, may the Lord be with you! While I am engaged in the same blessed act here, I shall remember the boy kneeling for the first time to share in that high and holy gift which makes us all one--young and old, happy and careworn. May the Lord be with you! We are having a pleasant time with our friends here. I think we shall leave about the 11th or 12th for Concord. Please thank your father for his letter to me, in my behalf. Mrs. Coit joins me in kind regards to your father and mother and love to yourself.

I am, as always, dear------,
Affectionately and truly yours,

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