Project Canterbury

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

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Chapter V. The Doctor's Talks

OUR great master knew well the force of the word spoken in season to the whole school. His quick eye, commanding presence, and quiet manner always won absolute attention.

These short and winning talks were peculiar to themselves, and moreover they were always given with a peculiar fitness. There was only one regular talk for each week, and that was "the Thursday evening lecture;" but there were two other occasions on which the Doctor addressed the school, and each was marked with its own character.

In the early days he came in every night at the end of the evening study to read a chapter in the Bible with the boys, and to say good-night. All these little customs of the school had two results, first, to enhance the importance of the individual, and second, to create a solidarity of the whole body or family. In this "Bible hour," as it was called, we each read a verse in turn; when the school became too large for this, about a dozen of the younger boys moved to the front and read, while the rest of us followed with our open Bibles. At this time the Doctor would often add a few words of counsel. He also liked to look each boy in the face and give him a hearty grip before he went to bed. There was no rule to this end, but all, as far as I ever observed, went up to say goodnight.

But on Thursday evening we always expected a more set talk on our school life. Discipline and rule were not the subjects of these talks; they were entirely in the nature of confidential remarks on our own lives, and so always interesting. The Doctor sat easily at the desk with the manner of a man talking to his friend; he began in a low voice, thus giving the air of privacy as well as commanding absolute quiet in order to catch the first words. My heart, even now, quickens as I recall how I watched the hands of the clock drawing nearer to half past eight. Precisely on the stroke the door would open, books were put away, and by the time the Doctor had taken his seat all faces were turned in ready attention. Perhaps there had been some sort of a row that very day, and we could not see him without a feeling of undefined fear; but never a word of reference to it would we hear; that was not the time.

"A mother brings her boy to me, and she says 'Tommy,' or 'Dickie,' or 'Harry is such a dear fellow; he is perfectly truthful, he has plenty of brains, and he has always been a favorite with his companions and masters, but he is so easily led.' Now, strange to say, I do not find it so; I cannot lead him; he readily follows a fellow into some foolish mischief, but he does not follow those who will lead him to his best interests." Then would come about a ten minutes' picture of a boy who followed the noble traits of his ancestors, and who won the love and admiration of good men, ending with a brief allusion to the Great Example.

At another time he would begin: "I saw a group of boys about to start a game; some one must lead, and some one always does lead; the leader invariably seems to be at hand. There are boys who take to it by nature; wherever they are they take the lead." And so he would proceed to a most interesting talk on leadership and true manliness of spirit. I was going to say "independence," but I cannot recall the Doctor ever using that word in any praiseworthy sense. He dealt rather with "following," and "leading." He laid great stress upon loyal following of appointed leaders. I remember a most impressive talk on the loyalty due to parents, to the school, and to himself as the person in chief authority. This kind of thing came naturally from one who showed such self-sacrifice and love in his daily life. His many years as a schoolmaster perhaps increased his sensitiveness, but never lessened his evident gratification at personal appreciation and personal following. A scene now recurs to me which seemed inexplicable to us at the time. Some boys were very noisy in the darkness just outside the school-house door. As the Doctor passed among them on his way to his study he spoke to one and another, but very few were aware of his presence, and the noise continued; so when he came to the steps he turned and spoke to them all. The boys near by called "hush," and many others still unaware took up the cry for fun. Presently, however, they knew that he was there, and kept absolute silence while he rebuked their noise. It afterward appeared that he was very much hurt because, as he thought, they had hissed him. Even after a body of the older boys had waited on him with a disavowal from all of such an intention, he still persisted in this view, and bowed them out of his study with the remark that this had never before happened in the school.

I remember once, after the "Sunday evening hymn," how the Doctor turned and walked away without giving his customary "Goodnight." We were left in blank astonishment, feeling like culprits, ah1 under disgrace for the meanness of a few disloyal spirits. There was a method in this public expression of what seemed like personal pique. It rallied his loyal friends to sympathize with him in his disapproval of what he considered a disgrace to the school. No other man ever handled boys in just this way; but there is no doubt about it, these apparent weaknesses of his character were somehow turned to notes of power, and tended all the more to impress his personality upon every boy and man in the place.

He was always the leader, though I believe that he was keenly alive to the danger to himself of the pride of self-will. One of his sayings to his men was, "A schoolmaster must learn to be disobeyed." I remember, as a man, receiving a rebuke that gave me food for thought. I differed from him on the expediency of some rule because of the impossibility of enforcing it. "You mean," he said, "the impossibility of not having your own way."

In his talks to the boys he showed scant sympathy with the ordinary schoolboy code of fellowship. He knew its power, however, and he was often at much pains to show the true relation of the individual to the crowd, as well as to his fellow. "Friendship" was a frequent theme, and "mutual help" was often the end of his talks. I remember once his beginning in some such way as this: "What is it that you look for when you are choosing a friend? I have seen a boy not altogether blessed with friends suddenly become a centre of admiration. He has arrived from town with a pound of toffy; he has begun to wear a new and well-cut coat, or he has made a top score." After a few light touches of this sort, he would tell a story of what some boy had done for his friend, dwelling on those unselfish traits which make for friendship, and so describing the joy of interdependence of character as to arouse in us new desires. He was a great believer in the one friend. In a little society which he fostered among the boys, one of the objects was to lead fellows to look out for and befriend those who needed help. Another was to induce boys to speak out boldly for the right. Indeed, these were keynotes of his own character, which in many ways he impressed upon the school. The motto of our only other society, the Missionary Society, was Non nobis sed aliis.

At the beginning of the term we were pretty sure to have a talk on bullying: "It is such a pleasure to bring tears to a fellow's eyes! Such a noble enjoyment to put others in pain! Such a brave thing to be one of a crowd to torment a fellow fresh from home," or "so honorable to attack one weaker than yourself! If you must show your prowess pray take--"mentioning a school-giant; "there would be some glory in that. You have come from refined and gentle homes, and it goes without saying that this kind of thing is not worthy of you. But let me say distinctly that no bully will be tolerated here." His whole nature was aroused by cruelty; and woe to the boy who took these words lightly!

Another subject of these talks was "slang." He objected to useless vulgar expressions. The habitual chasteness of his own speech made it all the more striking when he said one evening, "What would you think if you heard me (darn it' or take my oath 'By Jove?' If not for me, why for you "? A practical talk on the absurdity and weakness of interlarding one's conversation with slang turned many a boy to a permanent effort to reform. But in regard to expressions that bordered on swearing or "the use of sacred names in a light and thoughtless way," the Doctor was very pronounced. In this there was no hair-splitting, but a straight direction as against swearing itself. We were not allowed to use sacred names in declamation exercises and the like, and we were directed to change the words of some of our songs which seemed to us harmless enough. "Homer's Iliad" was to be the refrain of "Bingo" instead of "Balm of Gilead."

A test of the power of these talks would appear in the faithful way in which many customs were established and maintained, customs which could rely on nothing but public spirit. A good instance of this was the universal habit of Bible reading in the school.

When Bible hour came, every boy, so far as I could see, would take out his Bible and read the chapter. A story that the Doctor told us one Thursday evening made a great impression, mostly from the manner of the telling, for the matter was simple enough.

"You know that one of our traditions established here from the beginning is 'Bible hour.' I had a letter some years ago from an old boy who had been through the last years of the war. He wrote to tell me of the death in battle of another old boy, with whom he had been associated. He was a wild fellow and had disgraced his family and broken his mother's heart; but he had done noble service in the field, and the writer felt that I would like to know how he had retrieved himself; and he wanted to tell me that, no matter how tired or how drunk, when that fellow came into his tent at night he always took out and read a little Bible which he carried in his pocket, and said, 'Now we'll have Bible hour.' When he was brought in dead, there was the book in his breast."

In later years when I was a master among the boys, the effect of his talks was very apparent. Though I no longer heard them, I generally knew what had been the subject from changes in the boys' tone, as well as in more direct ways. One of many special cases occurs to me. Some of the younger boys were banded together for no good purpose. I could not lay my finger exactly on the trouble, and one day, when I asked a leader among them what was up, he said, "You need not worry about that; the Doctor broke that up by his lecture."

Nothing could exceed the dexterity, as well as force, with which in these talks the Doctor touched upon all matters that affected the inner life of the school as well as of the boy,--purity, unselfishness, reverence, gentleness, manliness, truthfulness, honesty, friendship, and habits of prayer, study, order, and good manners. He was a thorough believer in the power of habit, and he was constantly shaping his policy to "form habits." I remember a talk on the "habit of an outdoor life." He marked the tendency of some to shun the cold and the rough games of winter. I can see him now as he threw back his shoulders with a great breath, and spoke of the joy of battling with the storm, and of the poverty of a life shut indoors.

The Thursday evening lecture was, as I have said, never a direct appeal to school order or discipline; but it was sometimes an outcome of some breach which had been dealt with at the proper time. I shall never forget the awe that fell upon the room one night when, in some matter of theft, after opportunity had been given for confession with no results, the Doctor said, "Then we have a thief among us."

Again, on another occasion, after a boy had been promptly sent home for using unfair means at an examination, our hearts stood still as he said, "No boy who is a cheat can possibly live here." This personal reference was almost unique as far as my experience goes, for while the Doctor was unbending and sometimes bitter against the sin, he ever had mercy for the sinner. Though his words were often severe, we always took them at their face value, for his character was such as to tally exactly, and we knew that he meant what he said, for he not only said but lived.

It is with regret that I turn from the Thursday evening lecture. There all the secret springs of school life were cleared of the mud of evil spirits; there so many slipping anchors found bottom to hold all through a man's life. But the temptation to dwell on these life-giving hours of long ago, now so moulded behind a man's own experience, is sure to lead to an undue coloring of the picture of this great master of boys. It was here that the "man became intimately known in that wide manliness that included the gentleness and sympathy of the woman; here he was both father and mother; it was here that he mainly laid the foundation in our hearts of those traditions which governed the school, and so impressed himself in them as to make it impossible for a bad boy to continue long at St. Paul's. In spite of the evil everywhere, no form of wickedness could become fashionable: a boy who set about inculcating the "ways of other places" soon found himself in the minority. I recall most distinctly the promptness with which a certain boy in our fifth form was put down, when he enunciated the principle that a man had a right to use forbidden helps in an examination if he was watched; he maintained that the fact of being watched by a master lifted the bond from his honor. A congenial spirit who sat right behind me immediately reported this view to his neighbors (we were just about to have a written examination), with a vague hope of corroboration; but he got scant attention, save a fling or two, "Bill, you 're a fool," "You had better not try that here."

As I write, another scene conies to mind: "John Smith told a lie to Mr. Harrison, and he is writing his English all over again; come and look at him." With three or four others I went to the school-room door, and we stood there for some minutes, gazing at the culprit as he bent over his book, and whispering together of the facts of this disgrace. "He is only a new fellow, anyhow," one remarked as we turned away. It was not the fashion to lie, even to a master.

Those who studied in the Lower, or in old Number 3, did not hear so much talk. The Doctor was always more or less annoyed by the restlessness of the little fellows, and felt that with them words could be easily overdone. He was always divided in feeling between his duty to make the effort and his distaste to talk to unattentive ears. When he broke his leg, it was by slipping on the ice as he was going into Number 3 one evening for a talk. Afterwards he said to me, "It has been a mistake, my going over there so often, and this is a judgment on me."

There was almost always a talk on Saturday afternoon at the calling in for weekly "marks;" and this occasion also had its own round of subjects, namely, those of school order or school work. "If you were all boys of another kind, it would, perhaps, be right to have here a system of espionage. But consider what that would mean, and how our pleasant relations would be marred." The Doctor would then put some matter of school order in a light entirely novel to the ordinary boy; he would start a youngster's mind to reason on a different plane, threading his logic through and through with lines of humor, and pleadings for one's own best interests, ending in some such way as this: "I can foresee that some of you are setting out to spoil your year. Nothing will come of it but disappointment to yourself and to your home. Now, do lay this to heart."

It is the first Saturday afternoon of the year. We are all in or about the school-room, washed and brushed. New boys are feeling a little more at home, especially those who have been fortunate enough to have gotten into some game for the afternoon. Talk is running high on the chances of the clubs for the year, while old boys are gathering in knots about the likeliest-looking new boys, presenting their rival claims. "You 're an Old Hundred, I can tell it by your eye." "No! No! he is an Isthmian! You 've promised, have n't you?" and so on, in much good-natured and bewildering banter, till suddenly there falls a hush, and gradually perfect quiet, as the Doctor comes in with a broad roll of paper in his hand. Whatever this man carried became at once a wand of office and added to his dignity. As we went to our desks, the sixth form and some of the fifth began to file in with chairs till the aisle and space about the dais were completely filled. (In the new school-room these boys had stalls about the sides of the room.) "We have started on another term of work. Some of you for the first time are learning what it is to be away from home. I pray that no boy brings anything here that will shame this place, or learns anything here which would make him blush before his mother.

"In a large company of this sort it is necessary to have some restraints which are not required at home. But we shall not call them rules; in one sense of the word we have no rules but the rule of the gentleman. Common sense and good breeding dictate what is fitting in a place like this. Our traditions have grown from the beginning, and I count on you all to help me in fixing these firmly in our life. You can readily understand that we must have fixed customs to keep this great company in harmony and to accomplish any adequate result. I wish all to have as much liberty as is compatible with our well-being as a household. You will please observe that," etc. Here followed a precise statement of the few rules as to "bounds," "punctuality," etc., suggestions as to hours of recreation, and a promise that he himself would give a prize at the end of the year for the best collection of wild flowers and one for the best collection of minerals. "Most of our neighbors here are our good friends and I wish to keep them as friends, so you will be careful not to interfere with their belongings. It is absolutely necessary that you do not traffic with them in any way. And when you have permission to go into the town you will please deal with Mr. A. and Mr. B. They count on us for their support and I can really rely on them to deal fairly by you."

It is easy to see how this style of talk wrought a spirit of confidence and loyalty, magnifying each one's responsibility, as well as the high import of the school.

Then, unfolding the large sheet in his hand, he explained the system of "marks," and the honors to be won, and awarded at the end of the year. As there were no "marks" to be read on the first Saturday, he proceeded to call the roll of the school. As he concluded he said, with a tone of love and reverence: "To-morrow is your first Sunday,--for some of you the first Sunday ever spent away from your own homes. I do pray that you will make it a helpful day, one and all. It is the first day of a new week; it is God's day, and each of us must keep it for Him. There will be a short lesson to learn; but you will have ample time for walking and reading and writing home. The books of every-day are to be put by, so that you may observe a marked change from the rest of the week. If there is any doubt about the kind of book to read, come and consult with myself. One of the older boys will open the Sunday library after breakfast, and you will find there a very suitable collection. But the surest way to keep ourselves in tune is for each to join heartily in the chapel services. At seven o'clock there is a celebration of the Holy Communion for the older ones, and communicants of the household. There is the place to meet your Lord and to begin the week in His presence. Speak to me in my study this evening, if you wish to be present at that service. I should like to be notified at once of any new boys who are communicants.

"Now, do take heart and buckle to; you will soon be accustomed to new surroundings; and it will be such a joy to bring home at Christmas a good report! "

"Home-coming" was often the theme of these talks. I seem to hear even now the words, "Five weeks from this hour most of you will be once more in your homes surrounded by those who love you best in the world. What a difference to them if you have done your duty here! Reports do not always tell. But there is a sure happiness to mother and boy for him who has done his best."

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