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Sounds of school: bells, songs, and King's English

The ringing of a hand bell by an attendant to announce closing time at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh evoked memories of my school days. At the elementary school I attended in New York City, each day ended this way.

Our teachers (we called them masters), came from England. We addressed them as "sir." "Yes, sir," "No, sir," became a conversational refrain for me at school, and it even carried over to home, much to parental amusement.

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Our masters were unusual teachers. When you asked Mr. Sindall a silly question, he would start humming the national anthem, putting an end to further inquiry. To interrupt him would be both rude and unpatriotic. But when you had something useful to ask, no one could be more helpful.

Humphrey Fry was my favorite teacher. He was tall and dignified, yet always approachable. He came to teaching somewhat late in life, after having studied to be an attorney and then serving in the British Army. A highly educated man, he truly spoke and wrote the King's English. He could easily have taught at a university, but he preferred teaching young children.

He cared for the well-being of his students, revealing this in innumerable ways: in the detailed comments he made in his neat, precise hand in the margins of the scrawled chaos that constituted our attempts at prose; in the seriousness with which he approached teaching, as if it were a noble calling (we, for whom the effort was being made, must therefore not be without some significance); in his kind words of encouragement following an academic setback. Even in his critical remarks. They were never cutting, but expressed in the spirit of, "We both know you can do better than that."

In the English tradition, Shakespeare was an important part of school life. We performed his plays in the seventh and eighth grades. The major roles were given to the best students. Alas, the roles assigned to me were small. In "Julius Caesar," as the soothsayer, I warned Caesar, "Beware the ides of March." He paid no heed. In "Macbeth" I was not even a witch.

The school had wonderful songs. On the cover of the song book was the Latin word "Concinamus" -"Let us sing together." And sing together we did, at assemblies and on every other occasion. I find myself still singing these songs.

The school songs suggested a way of life to which we should aspire. Like these lines from the "School Hymn":

And free from envy, malice, hate. To help the weak, the wrong to right, Then may we keep the Golden Rule For home, for country, and for School. I have fond memories of my early schooling.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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