High Jinks Or High Learning?
A PIECE in the paper tells about a school somewhere that is being run by its students. That sets up a merry chase of thought and should contribute liberally to academic hilarity. I'd be strong for it myself except that as a whining schoolboy with my unwilling satchel, I attended such a school long enough to know better. It was, on the whole, one of my most productive academic years, but it needs considerable explanation, as follows:
We started in September with a gentleman teacher who was perhaps average for his height and weight, and while he certainly did not inspire us, he was pretty good up to about Candlemas. Then he didn't have the wherewithal to cover his fiscal obligations at the village pinochle club, and before the boom was lowered he left town with alacrity and his landlady's table silver. The theft was discovered about 30 minutes after the train left.
Since competent and available teachers were comfortably employed by February, a replacement for our knavish and departed docent was hard to find, and our school committee did the best it could and brought in Mrs. Bresnahan. She was in favor of schools that are run by the pupils, and she fooled the school committee right into May. I was in a position to make good use of her theories; my seat in the main room was beside the third window on the west side.
Our school library occupied that windowsill. It began on the right side with Webster's Unabridged, which pupils were allowed to consult without first lifting a hand for dictionary permission. Next were three elementary reference books on celestial navigation, left over from a generation ago when every lad in town expected to go to sea. Then, to the left, were 10 volumes of Stoddard's Lectures. His collected lectures on geography were the armchair version of around the world in 80 days, and as my desk was so nearby, I would sometimes sneak down a volume and read about the Great Wall of China or maybe the penguins in the Falklands. I wished I had time to read more of Stoddard.
At the time, we youngsters didn't know all that was going on, or why, but we heard things later. Mrs. Bresnahan, to say it quickly, was odd. She used to dispute the clock. One afternoon she went in the broom closet, closed the door, and played her fife.
This left the pupils with the responsibility of selecting things to study. I remember Diddy Towle tied trout flies, and Hank Desmond brought in a vise that attached to his desk and filed carpenter's saws. Hank had his own business and got 25 cents a saw. A couple of the girls went to tinting hair, and it was when all the girls in class went home redheaded that some parents began to ask what went on in school, anyway. Mrs. Bresnahan was soon replaced by a Mr. Barschdoff, who finished out the school year.
Mr. Barschdoff turned out to be a teacher of Greek at an Oxford college and was in America on a sabbatical. Our school committee found him, and we were lucky. We never had to choose our own subjects again, so I never did finish reading the lecture on Iceland, which is quite a place. And if we didn't do well with the subjects Mr. Barschdoff assigned, he had a way of bringing us to heel so we liked it, and we loved him. His few weeks with us certainly proved something.
I suppose the noble experience of letting the students handle the decisions should make us recall the celebrated Abbey of Thelema, which was meant to be the exact opposite of all the seminaries and convents of the 15th century. There was no wall about the institution, either to keep in or keep out, and the only rule seems like no rule at all - ``Do as you please.''
But the philosophy behind that rule imposed a great deal. Since only persons of good manners and upright conduct could matriculate at the Abbey of Thelema, it followed that such gentle people could not and would not err, and every decision would be made the ``right'' way. Anyway, in a society of gentlepersons and scholars, to do as you please permits no dalliance.
When my class concluded that hectic year of the three teachers and the do-it-yourself curriculum, Mr. Foster, the chairman of our school committee, apologized for certain mistakes he hoped we could someday forgive. He thanked Mr. Barschdoff, who then spoke briefly and said he was glad to have been of some help in an unlikely moment. While Mr. Barschdoff talked, Mr. Foster kept his eyes on Lottie Baker's flaming red hair and kept shaking his head. He didn't know that Lottie was redheaded anyway.