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On Schooling


I do not know if you remember your "dates." Indeed, I do not know if
anyone does. My own memory is of a bridge; like that bridge of
Goldsmith's, standing firm and clear on its hither piers and then
passing into a cloud. In the beginning of days was "William the
Conqueror, 1066," and the path lay safe and open to Henry the Second;
then came Titanic forms of kings, advancing and receding, elongating and
dwindling, exchanging dates, losing dates, stealing dates from battles
and murders and great enactments--even inventing dates, vacant years
that were really no dates at all. The things I have suffered--prisons,
scourgings, beating with rods, wild masters, in bounds often, a hundred
lines often, standing on forms and holding out books often--on account
of these dates! I knew, and knew well before I was fifteen, what these
"heredity" babblers are only beginning to discover--that the past is the
curse of the present. But I never knew my dates--never. And I marvel now
that all little boys do not grow up to be Republicans, seeing how much
they suffer for the mere memory of Kings.

Then there were pedigrees, and principal parts and conjugations, and
county towns. Every county had a county town, and it was always on a
river. Mr. Sandsome never allowed us a town without that colophon. I
remember in my early manhood going to Guildford on the Wey, and trying
to find that unobtrusive rivulet. I went over the downs for miles. It is
not only the Wey I have had a difficulty in finding. There are certain
verses--Heaven help me, but I have forgotten them!--about "_i_ vel _e_
dat" (_was_ it dat?) "utrum malis"--if I remember rightly--and all that
about _amo, amas, amat_. There was a multitude of such things I
acquired, and they lie now, in the remote box-rooms and lumber recesses
of my mind, a rusting armoury far gone in decay. I have never been able
to find a use for them. I wonder even now why Mr. Sandsome equipped me
with them. Yet he seemed to be in deadly earnest about this learning,
and I still go in doubt. In those early days he impressed me, chiefly in
horizontal strips, with the profoundest respect for his mental and
physical superiority. I credited him then, and still incline to believe
he deserved to be credited, with a sincere persuasion that unless I
learnt these things I should assuredly go--if I may be frank--to the
devil. It may be so. I may be living in a fool's paradise,
prospering--like that wicked man the Psalmist disliked. Some unsuspected
gulf may open, some undreamt-of danger thrust itself through the
phantasmagoria of the universe, and I may learn too late the folly of
forgetting my declensions.

I remember Mr. Sandsome chiefly as sitting at his desk, in a little room
full of boys, a humming hive whose air was thick with dust, as the
slanting sunbeams showed. When we were not doing sums or writing copies,
we were always learning or saying lessons. In the early morning Mr.
Sandsome sat erect and bright, his face animated, his ruddy eyes keen
and observant, the cane hanging but uncertainly upon its hook. There was
a standing up of classes, a babble of repetition, now and then a crisis.
How long the days were then! I have heard that scientific
people--Professor C. Darwin is their leader, unless I err--which
probably I do, for names and dates I have hated from my youth up--say
the days grow longer. Anyhow, whoever says it, it is quite wrong. But as
the lank hours of that vast schooltime drawled on, Mr. Sandsome lost
energy, drooped like a flower,--especially if the day was at all
hot,--his sandy hair became dishevelled, justice became nerveless,
hectic, and hasty. Finally came copybooks; and yawns and weird rumblings
from Mr. Sandsome. And so the world aged to the dinner-hour.

When I had been home--it was a day school, for my aunt, who had an
appetite for such things, knew that boarding-schools were sinks of
iniquity--and returned, I had Mr. Sandsome at another phase. He had
dined--for we were simple country folk. The figurative suggestions of
that "phase" are irresistible--the lunar quality. May I say that Mr.
Sandsome was at his full? We now stood up, thirty odd of us altogether,
to read, reading out of books in a soothing monotone, and he sat with
his reading-book before him, ruddy as the setting sun, and slowly,
slowly settling down. But now and then he would jerk back suddenly into
staring wakefulness as though he were fishing--with himself as bait--for
schoolboy crimes in the waters of oblivion--and fancied a nibble. That
was a dangerous time, full of anxiety. At last he went right under and
slept, and the reading grew cheerful, full of quaint glosses and
unexpected gaps, leaping playfully from boy to boy, instead of
travelling round with a proper decorum. But it never ceased, and little
Hurkley's silly little squeak of a voice never broke in upon its mellow
flow. (It took a year for Hurkley's voice to break.) Any such
interruption and Mr. Sandsome woke up and into his next phase
forthwith--a disagreeable phase always, and one we made it our business
to postpone as long as possible.

During that final period, the last quarter, Mr. Sandsome was distinctly
malignant. It was hard to do right; harder still to do wrong. A feverish
energy usually inspired our government. "Let us try to get some work
done," Mr. Sandsome would say--and I have even known him teach things
then. More frequently, with a needless bitterness, he set us upon
impossible tasks, demanding a colossal tale of sums perhaps, scattering
pens and paper and sowing the horrors of bookkeeping, or chastising us
with the scorpions of parsing and translation. And even in wintry
weather the little room grew hot and stuffy, and we terminated our
schoolday, much exhausted, with minds lax, lounging attitudes, and red
ears. What became of Mr. Sandsome after the giving-out of home-work, the
concluding prayer, and the aftermath of impositions, I do not know. I
stuffed my books, such as came to hand--very dirty they were inside, and
very neat out with my Aunt Charlotte's chintz covers--into my green
baize bag, and went forth from the mysteries of schooling into the great
world, up the broad white road that went slanting over the Down.

I say "the mysteries of schooling" deliberately. I wondered then, I
wonder still, what it was all for. Reading, almost my only art, I learnt
from Aunt Charlotte; a certain facility in drawing I acquired at home
and took to school, to my own undoing. "Undoing," again, is
deliberate--it was no mere swish on the hand, gentle reader. But the
things I learnt, more or less partially, at school, lie in my mind, like
the "Sarsen" stones of Wiltshire--great, disconnected, time-worn chunks
amidst the natural herbage of it. "The Rivers of the East Coast; the
Tweed, the Tyne, the Wear, the Tees, the Humber"--why is that, for
instance, sticking up among my ferns and wild flowers? It is not only
useless but misleading, for the Humber is not another Tweed. I sometimes
fancy the world may be mad--yet that seems egotistical. The fact remains
that for the greater part of my young life Mr. Sandsome got an appetite
upon us from nine till twelve, and digested his dinner, at first
placidly and then with petulance, from two until five--and we thirty odd
boys were sent by our twenty odd parents to act as a sort of chorus to
his physiology. And he was fed (as I judge) more than sufficiently,
clothed, sheltered, and esteemed on account of this relation. I think,
after all, there must have been something in that schooling. I can't
believe the world mad. And I have forgotten it--or as good as forgotten
it--all! At times I feel a wild impulse to hunt up all those
chintz-covered books, and brush up my dates and paradigms, before it is
too late.

H.G. Wells