My earliest education was conducted quite successfully by my wonderful grandmother. I did not begin school till I was ten years old. This at once plunged me into an utterly new life and one that at first was not at all a pleasant one. The modern boy started in kindergarten at the age of four can experience no such shock as I experienced. A very shy and timid child to whom the act of standing up and reciting before the school was agony, found little joy in the school routine. I never did other than hate school and all that pertained to it--fortunately, my experience was not prolonged.
I had no knowledge of the sort of world I was going into. What are commonplace things to the school boy of ordinary training were utterly new to me. I have never forgotten the shock I received on my way to school on that first day of the term from a piece of obscenity that I encountered. However, I was speedily educated out of innocence if not into wisdom.
Today we hear parents in the city lament the necessity of sending their children to the public school, or decline to send them there if they can afford to send them elsewhere. Their criticism commonly rests on the morals of the public school boy. I think they are mistaken. The morals of the public school boy are as good or as bad as the morals of the private school boy. And the public school boy has this advantage, that he can choose his companions, and if he is a decent fellow he can choose fellows like himself to play with. In the private school he plays with his own class, which taken in the large is quite as immoral as the boys he is thought to be escaping. I do not know why we should go on making the assumption that well-dressed boys of "good family" are morally superior to others.
The village school boy has much the same difficulty as the private school boy--there is one set of boys and you play with them or with no one. I found (I do not mean at the time I consciously perceived the fact) that the boys with whom my lot was cast for some years had no morals of any sort. Morals were not disregarded; they were unknown, there was no moral standard. I never knew a boy who had any religious training or moral convictions. Within our group there was no criticism of moral or, I should say, of immoral conduct. As my own training (of which I shall speak later) had not produced any convictions or rooted any practices as being of obligation, but had resulted merely in ignorance and personal innocence, I speedily fell in with the standard of my associates. Moral delinquency was not a thing that came within our purview. And it was not merely the insouciance of boyhood; I encountered no moral standards among the men, old or young, with whom I was acquainted. No doubt they were honest within reasonable limits, but that was about all, to judge by their conversation. That one lied or stole, or indulged one's appetites in any way that appealed to one, was one's own affair--it might be a matter for a joke, but nothing else.
The implicit teaching of my home and the standards I had observed there, coupled with my inescapable shyness, kept me out of some of the offences I might have committed, but this was the only resisting force. When later I came to understand the meaning of my experience I determined to do all that I could to help and train boys in the way of righteousness as a sort of reparation. As a consequence, all the years of my ministry I have been very intimate with boys, and have been constantly surprised at their goodness when given a chance. The boys I have had to deal with from the public schools of the places where I have worked have been much better, broadly speaking, than the boys of my set in Middle Haddam. This is not because the latter were any worse naturally, but because they had no one to train them and found themselves in a society of elders who were the worst sort of example. The example of the boy is the man and especially the young man with whom he is in intimate relations--his older brother or his cousins. The boys I have dealt with have been, no doubt, in a measure select; that is, they have been boys who were sent to me for training. Yet they were public school boys and under public school influence. They have not been saints, but they have been good and responsive material, accepting the ideals of religion and having a definite standard, even though not always living up to it.
One of the limitations of village life in my day was that there was little opportunity of amusement save what we created ourselves in the way of games. This was all for the best in the summer when we led a physically healthy out-of-door life. The winter was more difficult; there was a good deal of time when there was no skating and as one grew older one was not much interested in sliding. Long evenings were on our hands to dispose of, for school work never required time at home--nor much in school, for that matter. When one got to the age when sitting about the dining-room table playing games was unsatisfying as an outlet for one's energy, what was one to do?
There might be one "show" in the village hall in the course of the winter. There was an occasional church entertainment. The consequence in my case was that I drifted to one of the general stores of the village and passed much time there and increasingly as the years went on and I left school. The store in which my father had been a partner and which was continued for a while after he retired from it by my uncle, was never a social center in the same way that the old established store--Carrier's--was. This was the post office. It was also the gathering place for all the village gossips and loafers. Here, too, a group of young fellows constantly gathered, especially on winter evenings. There was card-playing on the end of a counter. There was no restraint in the character of the talk or editing of the stories. Old men sat about the stove and told obscene stories and young boys stood about and eagerly listened and then went out to repeat the stories in their own social circle at school. There was not much gambling here; the card-playing was merely to pass the time. And Carrier's was not a drinking center--that was in a saloon a little farther off.
It was into this society of young men gathered habitually at Carrier's that I passed. I was by this time sufficiently sophisticated not to be shocked by the atmosphere of blasphemy and obscenity that prevailed there, and could take my place as a card-player. In one way the experience was good for me. I was in some respects more mature than the boys of my own age with whom I should normally have played, so that I associated easily on equal terms with young fellows considerable older than myself. At the same time, as I can now see, they looked on me as a boy and did not expect me to follow their example in all things. They were a very good sort, and I was rather a petted member of the set and was not urged on to wickedness, but was expected to keep out of some of the more mature forms. I was never tempted to drink, and though the men with whom I associated drank freely, some of them to excess, I had no inclination to follow. This was not a matter of principle, but of distaste. I gambled a little and once won several dollars at a poker game, but I had not enough money to permit of playing often. But I entered fully into the life of the set. I had been a confirmed smoker for some time, having begun at the mature age of twelve. Mother did not mind my smoking, but drew the line at chewing. Most of my friends chewed and, naturally, I tried that. I confess that I preferred chewing to smoking, but I did not continue the practice long.
The social opportunities of a village are not, or were not then, very extensive. There was, of course, a group of girls corresponding to the boy group. One played with them more or less, and we all went to the same school. As one grew older and came to look at girls from a new angle, one made one's selection. Places and occasions of meeting were limited. Deliberately to call on a girl at her home meant serious purpose: one did not begin there. It throws a curious sidelight on village life that the favorite place of meeting was the Congregational prayer-meeting. "We went there without any religious intent and whether we were Congregationalists by family inheritance or not. As I have said, none of us had any religion. In fact, the boys rarely entered the church where the meetings were held. To go to church with a girl, like calling at her house, was a serious matter--one felt that there was a settled understanding if one saw that taking place. The girls went to the meeting quite meekly as though they were in the fulfilment of a religious duty, but no one took that seriously. The boys waited about outside till the meeting was over, and then offered their services as escort to the maidens of their selection. They were not always graciously received. I remember a friend stepping up to a girl after prayer-meeting and asking in the proper form if he might see her home. She replied with a curt refusal. He asked: "May I sit on the fence and see you go by?"--which could not well be refused. My shyness made my advances to the fair rather difficult, and I felt no inner urge to make me bold, yet a fellow was rather out of it if he had no girl, especially if there was a dance coming on. I experienced a number of times the awkwardness of going to a dance without a partner. So at the age of sixteen I managed to "fall in love" (delicious and accurately descriptive phrase!) and managed to declare my affections which I was happy to find reciprocated. But the affair did not last very long; it was too difficult to carry on. It did not get to the stage of calling at the loved one's house, and standing about in the cold did not appeal to me. I could not get broken in to the mechanism of courtship. I fancy playing cards at Carrier's store had a greater fascination for me. Shortly after, I began to have visions of another sort in which love had small place and I dropped the affair, I am afraid, in rather an ungentlemanly way. That ended love-making for me for life.
I managed to learn to dance--after a fashion. I never cared for it, but one had to go with the crowd; not that there was much dancing, only a few dances in the winter in the village hall. The dancing craze was still many years off. One today hears old people speak of the scandal of drinking at dances.--"Every boy now has a hipflask," they say. They must have conveniently forgotten their youth or have had quite a different experience from mine. Every boy had a flask then. The only difference I can see is that we were not especially proud of the fact; and that the modern youth thinks that he has achieved something like heroic action by taking a flask to a dance. The difference is that he brags and we did not. As the dances were held in a hall surrounded by open lots, the young dancers were accustomed to hide their bottles of whiskey behind trees and shrubs in the field, and would emerge between dances to get a drink. The younger boys who had not yet arrived at the dancing age hung around outside looking for amusement. One form was to watch where the bottles were carefully hid and to appropriate them to the confusion and disgust of the owners when they appeared after the next dance. Howls of delight greeted their disappointment.
Society looked up a little in the summer for some of us. A number of New York people had summer houses in Middle Haddam. They were usually people with family traditions there. The younger members of these families made "society" rather gay for us--that is, for those who had admittance to the summer set. They gave variety and stimulus to life: promoted dancing and music and picnics. Still, looking back now, I see that I was not at all in niy element and got precious little enjoyment out of it. The musical side appealed most: there was a very musical group and evenings were given more to singing than to dancing. Usually a concert or two in the summer resulted.
After father withdrew from business and mother opened the house to summer boarders--they were not yet "paying guests"--another element was brought into my life which was far more influential than any outside element had hitherto been. I was still essentially a rustic with small power of self-expression. The people who came to us were intelligent and cultivated and they helped me toward a better understanding of life and better ideals than those I had been imbibing in Carrier's store. Several of them were artists in an amateur way, and I learned something of art from them. I posed a good deal for them and heard a good deal of art talk. I gradually broke away from the village set and spent my time with these new friends, for a number of them became real and helpful friends. My mind was maturing and beginning to get direction. Here again out of financial calamity came to me great advantage.
I stopped going to school when fifteen and for the next three years the question what I was to do in life was naturally very much to the fore--more, I fancy, for my parents than for myself. There was no way of earning a living in Middle Haddam, and I was not yet old enough to go out into the world as my brother George had done. He was by this time in the employ of my uncle Samuel Barry in Chicago. I did not think much beyond the immediate present. It was not that I was lazy or idle; I was, in fact, pretty well occupied, only it was not in anything permanent or paying. I had the care of the large garden which was now a very important element in our lives. In my earliest years my grandmother had a large flower garden that she mostly took care of herself. As she got older and after father took over the place, the amount of space devoted to flowers was considerably lessened. There was still a large plot left and flowers were varied and abundant at all seasons. We were especially rich in flowering shrubs of all sorts, and in tulips and roses. On annuals we spent less and less time. I had the care of the flower garden and for several years now the care of the vegetable garden, its planting and cultivation. The work began as soon as the frost was out of the ground with the spading of beds and continued till the frost came again. The hardest work was the hoeing, and to avoid the heat I often rose long before the sun and got my day's work well done before breakfast. In addition to this work a friend of mine and I took one year a large field and raised potatoes. This did not prove much of a success financially and the experiment was not repeated.
I look back on this period which ends when I am eighteen, and see a good-natured, awkward, diffident boy, without education, without religion, without morals, without any outlook into the future, groping about, trying to find himself. He had found nothing that gave him any satisfaction or interest in life. The dissipation which had ruined some of his best friends and was carrying them to early graves, did not appeal to him. He felt no sort of moral opposition to that sort of life, but it had no attraction. He was not a bad boy because it did not amuse him to be bad. He was as yet unable to see beyond the limits of his village any possible career save that of a clerk of some sort in a city. He had relatives who would get him a position in New York, but he was not yet old enough to consider that. With the exception of a trip to New York when he was eleven years old he had never been forty miles from the place of his birth. His oldest brother had plunged out into the great world and died in France. His other brother was settled in Chicago. His cousins were one by one going out into the workaday world beyond his horizon. His cousin Charlie, his most intimate friend, had gone to sea and died on his second voyage. He mechanically assumed that some time he too would follow into the world of business; but he had no will to go, no touch of wanderlust stirred. He knew more, he read more, he thought more, than the boys about him, but he had as yet thought to no conclusion. I can see now, however, that he was working toward one.
Two experiences of the year 1876 helped to clear up my mind. There came to us as rector of the church the Rev. E. B. Taylor. He came to live in our house. 1876 was the year of the Philadelphia Centennial. It was arranged that Mr. Taylor (I knew nothing of "Father" then) should take me under his charge and go to the Centennial. That was a great opportunity for me and I am interested in looking back to see what I made of it. What I did at the Centennial emphasises that difference in me from other boys whom I knew that kept me from following their lead and meeting life as they met it. I think that I rather broke loose from Mr. Taylor in the Exposition grounds. I remember that I wandered about greatly impressed by the whole scene, the architectural beauty of it all. I remember sitting in some sort of open space, listening to the music. I remember that I had no interest at all in the manifold mechanical and commercial aspects of the Exposition. My keenest interest was aroused by the art display, and it is of that that I brought away my most lasting impression.
Those impressions were deepened the same season by a short stay in New York where I was able to visit another exposition of paintings. I was told at the time that it was finer, though less expensive, than the Philadelphia Exposition. However that may be, I was deeply and permanently impressed by these two; and I am sure that they did much for my aesthetic development and toward helping me to see my way clear in life. It now interests me immensely to know that the clearest impression left on my mind by this introduction of the world of art was made by two portraits by Whistler. That seems to me significant of much in my character.