Project Canterbury

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

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Chapter VI. The Playground

FOR his knowledge of the playground and his wise appreciation of manly sport we have to thank the Doctor's native intuition rather than any practical experience. We sometimes forgot that his study window commanded a view of the whole ground (now devoted to the Lower School); I saw him actually on the field but once. Mrs. Coit and the Doctor would sometimes stroll after tea on the path that skirted the pond, and on various occasions he would be seen looking on from the road, or even at the "lower grounds" in later times. On the occasion in mind the Doctor was to our eyes the principal man in the game. It happened on this wise: With some other little fellows I was returning from a chestnut raid one Saturday afternoon, when, as we crossed the bridge, we heard cheering and saw a compact group of boys on the playground. There seemed to be little going on but some kind of "horse-play," yet suddenly the Doctor sailed across the lawn and made straight for the scene of action. As he approached, all fell back, and disclosed a tipsy man, standing foolishly in the midst. The Doctor walked deliberately up to him, and, while all stood amazed, took him firmly by the collar, and at arm's length marched him out to the middle of the road, and turning him right about toward Farmer Hall's, gave him a gentle push, with the words, "Go home at once!" Fifteen years afterwards I happened on this same man "doing chores" on the top of Flagstaff Hill, and he remembered the above incident, but with only kindly feelings toward Doctor Coit. The Doctor's firmness and efficiency on this occasion led us to manufacture all sorts of tales about his prodigious strength and athletic prowess. Though I still believe that his nervous force was capable of surprising results, yet, in truth, of muscle he had none. I cannot conceive of his ever having taken part in any game. He once said to me that he had never felt equal to games as a boy, but when he did play that he remembered doing it with great enthusiasm. I imagine that his energies had always gone out to purely intellectual effort. He never had any athletic ambition, and he heartily agreed with the Psalmist, that "The Lord delighteth not in any man's legs." It was certain that we considered him far above all these things,--a man of another kind, a sort of an angel. But no schoolmaster more thoroughly appreciated the influence of the playground. The very fact of the Doctor's distance from our boyish love of sport, and his evident ignorance of the technique, combined with his unfailing interest, kept the whole thing in its proper place in the school. The responsibility for ordering and leading the games thus devolved upon the older boys, with whom some of the masters were wont to join, but simply as fellow-players. Football, cricket, rowing, shinney, skating, and coasting,--all held sway, each in its own time. Some members of the sixth will remember how much quiet suggestion came from the Doctor to create what seemed to be only spontaneous play. Do you not recall the challenge to a "friendly game of cricket" from the two club captains to the Lower School? What swipes over the shed and through the windows! But the little fellows had their enthusiasm aroused by the notice from the great men of the school. In the same way "prisoners' base," "peel away," and other rollicking games were set going on off afternoons. The same tactics were pursued in keeping out games that were "not convenient." Beyond a spasmodic life in the late fall and early spring, baseball could make no head. The game was never forbidden, or even publicly alluded to, but somehow a boy felt like a culprit when he played what we were pleased to call the national game. I remember once that some talk came back to the Doctor of baseball having been forbidden at St. Paul's. He took occasion to say in the school-room that "I never have forbidden and never will forbid any manly game." Though some good and loyal fellows never could submit kindly to this feeling against their favorite sport, yet the very large majority fell into line, it seems to me to their own advantage. The tone of our playground was certainly far ahead of that of any place where modern baseball rules. As to the individual, one generally feels that his own experience is typical,--namely, that of a baseball lover taking up cricket "because the Doctor wanted it," learning the game, liking it, gradually realizing its moral effect on one's life, and ending by placing it ahead of any other one game or study in developing the best powers of a boy. Intuition and long experience as an interested observer, I believe, brought Dr. Coit to much the same conclusion.

But he never could exalt a mere game of any kind. "Now just look at Tom Brown," to a group of boys standing about him at noon in the school-room. It was one of the first dry days of the spring. We all looked out, and there were Tom and several others over on the old clay crease getting ready for cricket; he had taken off his linen shirt and tied his head up in a pocket handkerchief and was just then in the act of taking off his suspenders to tie them round his waist; this was the approved fair-weather costume for bowlers. The Doctor, however, remarked, "He looks as if he was going to undress completely; my dear, just run and tell him to refrain; he must put on his hat and shirt and vest." To the end of his days the Doctor never could see why a fellow needed to undress in order to play. He was constantly giving little directions about coats and hats. One day, cool for the time of year, he said that all must wear their coats except the batters and bowlers, pronouncing the "bow" in "bowler," like "bow" of a ship, as some of the English do, which made his remarks seem all the more to come from the distance of the stars. This seemingly impractical and far-away point of view but added to our feeling of reverence and awe towards the man. No matter how successful the athlete or how glorified by the boys, never did he feel at St. Paul's that he was the man his brother scholar was. The very way in which the Doctor would praise a boy for his prowess, while it gave genuine pleasure, never unduly exalted. In his study, surrounded with his books, while a new boy, rather homesick, was under the other-world spell of the place, the Doctor could afford to say to the little lad, "Jack, I hear that you are famous at football;" or he would stop in a stroll along the edge of the field to reward a boy by a smile, or a "Well done." I stood next him once at such a time and heard him say, "Who would ever have thought that fellow had such go?"

If we played any outside cricket team, he was always emphatic, however, that we should win. One summer the school eleven got together in the middle of the vacation under a too zealous captain, to play a return match with a team which we had beaten in the spring; we were disastrously defeated. You may be sure that there was a "rod in soak" for us on our return to the school.

He never allowed boys to leave the school during term to play any game; and it was with evident misgiving that he allowed matches even at the end of term, or visiting teams during term: these were favors granted only to cricket.

While we played, the Doctor would generally be found visiting the sick and sorrowing in the country; or, as Mr. Hunt used to say, "browsing around" his bookstore in the town. Barring his boys and his few friends, what he loved the best in the world, as we have said before, was the inside of a book, and next to that the outside. Bats and balls had no charms for him except as means with which to open a boy's soul.

The important place held by outdoor life at St. Paul's was due not only to the Doctor's appreciation of the necessity of keeping boys healthfully occupied, but also to his unfailing respect for the individual. So considerate was he in this regard, that almost any privilege would be granted to a boy if it was asked for in the proper spirit. Wondering at the liberty to certain boys to keep pets, a boy once said, "I believe that the Doctor would give us leave to have an elephant, if I just asked." And as to the games, much was left to the initiative of the individual. I thank my stars that when captain of an eleven I had no manager. As noted above, the masters played freely with us, but played as fellows, and we enjoyed their fellowship. When the fit came upon one to roam our beautiful hills, roam we did, in squads, in pairs, and "in singles" so to speak, with no thought of the guiding hand or eye of man.

The Doctor's delightful ignorance in regard to our outdoor life sometimes led to little disasters and curtailments of liberty. Who can forget the actual danger that we used to incur on the early ice? On a certain day, Mr. Morrill, who represented the muscular Christianity of the school, would walk out a little way from the shore with an ax and cut a hole in the ice: if it was within a certain number of inches, "no skating;" which fact often scattered us to look for unguarded spots to try our own luck. Or if the required number of inches had been attained, "All on," with little regard for the quality of the ice or the more dangerous places on the pond. No ropes or poles were at hand, and when boys "got in," as they frequently did, they were rescued by others often at great risk of a general drowning. And, too, what fellow can forget the tearing down "Tibbetts'" at break-neck speed, with the double swaying from side to side, sometimes crashing into the line of boys walking up, and often plunging into the ditch or against the stone wall? It was only a matter of time before a fatal accident brought about more care. But there was the daring, and the joy of freedom. Now the boy is hounded and whipped (metaphorically of course) into the position of a man in the ranks, to charge his fellow's armored body, and literally to take his life in his hand; and we call this parody of sport a game. In the days just passed, perhaps too great liberty was given to a boy to become either a great man or a fool; but with all our modern organizing of studies and athletics, it seems too much that one cannot be a fool if one really desires. Let us call a halt and have a little disorganization and fun. As Doctor Coit frequently remarked, this kind of thing is all in the hands of the schoolmasters.

Men at college will play what they have been taught at school in the long run. Surely it does not seem wise for schoolmasters to abandon the making of games to those whose interest is to draw a crowd or to sell their goods. The Doctor's sarcasm at times would break out over this cowardly paltering with such an important matter. When people would complain that boys were not learning the baseball that would put them on college nines, he said very plainly, "They are much better off to be free from all college baseball."

He never would condone roughness anywhere, and in old times, when we played Rugby football, long before it was spoiled by "off side play" and "interference," there were never serious injuries, though on certain occasions practically the whole school would be on the field. "School and Lower this afternoon against Upper," posted on the bulletin board, would bring not only the giants but every urchin for his stray chance at a kick or a run. And all this had much to do with him who gave spirit and tone to every phase of our school life.

The national election day always brought out great enthusiasm. Almost under the Doctor's window, perched upon the roof of the door to the "boot-room," Ned Parker made a stump speech for O'Conor, which was vociferously cheered; other speeches followed, prior to adjournment to the polls, a window of the bowling alley. Here the Democrats, though greatly in the minority, succeeded in rushing the crowd, and by keeping out Republicans almost tied their vote. In '76 the excitement was so intense that the Doctor came out to investigate. He was horrified at the free fight which was proceeding in the usual fashion; he expostulated in vain, as no one heard; at last he hooked his cane into the clothing of some struggling figure and so drew him out with only a remnant of a shirt to his back. But the look of the joy of battle on the boy's face at once disarmed any rebuke, and the Doctor passed on with, "Well, my dear, if that is so much to your taste, I shall not interfere." However, there were no more rowdy elections.

But the playground that really interested him was the library. Travel was always a delight, though rarely indulged, and books of travel were among his favorite gifts. Some of us remember how he considered a summer abroad and the buying of many books, for him special forms of temptation. In writing to a young clergyman, one of his own boys, who he thought was lingering too long abroad, he said: "It will be a greater satisfaction to you to have dragged one soul to the gates of Paradise than to have seen all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them."

Our reading was always to him of special interest and care. He allowed very few of the daily papers, and he discouraged magazine reading as having a tendency to dissipate the energies. The comic papers were his special horror, owing to the vulgarity of some and the irreligion of others. He considered that what might be admissible, even in a home where there were counteracting influences, was not always so in a place of education. We frequently heard him express himself very decidedly both as to the art and as to the style of humor current in most of these publications. The proper directing of one's taste in such matters seemed to him an important part of education. With him this outweighed the fear of misunderstanding by the world at large, of the irritation among some of the boys, and even of the occasional evasion of his wishes. In this, as in other matters of high standard, the evasion by the few, who would be in the shadow of dark ways at best, was not to be weighed against the general good. When "Life" was first becoming popular, he absolutely forbade its appearance in the school. I well remember his holding one of the early copies in his hand, and after observing the tone of flippancy with which it treated subjects of, to him, the highest importance, with despairing sorrow he said, "And they call that Life!" He never could forgive the use of a name so sacred for such parody. He did not see things just as the rest of the world, and he was not afraid to be consistent. Somehow it was the fashion to read Scott, and in the long winter darkness we were steered in various ways to take up Shakespeare. Our fifth form had a Shakespeare club, and frequently parts of the great dramas were learned and rehearsed in costume. This intellectual playground was the one for him; these plays and the school concerts he greatly enjoyed. But from the edge of the other field he was ever a silent spectator, with a look of quizzical amusement, as if he still failed to understand.

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