Sunday, May 23, 2010

Armed for the Fray

No matter what sort of 'breakfast' one might have with the boys—and Mr. Mead seems to have had a good one to start his first day—the real adventures begin, as they say, once the class-room door actually closes. How much of the following text is actually based on the first day George Mills ever taught, and how much is a pastiche constructed from bits of many of his subsequent first days, is open to conjecture.

See what you think as we proceed into Mills's Meredith and Co. (1933):

Mr. Mead spent the first hour of school in the common room, smoking. He was wondering how he should meet his first class. He was not looking forward to the ordeal. He remembered Peter's advice.

'I'll give them a good deal of work to do, and keep them busy. I won't do more talking than I can help,' he said to himself. Five minutes before the second lesson was due, he stood in the corridor, waiting.

The Head Master came along, and smiled.

'Well, Mead, armed for the fray?'

The boys were changing over, and several of them ran past into their class-rooms.

'Yes,' Mr. Mead answered.

'Ah, well, your boys are waiting for you now. That is the room, the one facing you. Let them have it! Good luck!'

Mr. Mead walked along the corridor to his room. The door was being held open by a boy who was wearing tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles.

'Thank you,' said Mr. Mead as he swept past Headlights [Dimmer]; 'now go and sit down.'

Dimmer shut the door, and went to his place. Mr. Mead lost no time. He walked to his desk, sat down, and produced his mark book.

'Just give me your names,' he said.

While he was taking names he looked at the boys. They were sitting like angels, with expressions of complete guilelessness upon their faces. They stared at him as much to say, 'Well, you may try it if you don't believe us, but butter wouldn't melt in our mouths!' Mr. Mead had the uncomfortable sensation that he was being summed up. And so he was! No one sees through a man quicker than a boy, and Mr. Mead put an abrupt end to the mental X-raying process.

Even after 28 years of teaching, the first day of school—like Opening Day of baseball—is still a powerful event, a rebirth for both the children and for the teacher. At least, that is, when I have been the teacher. I've heard that Laurence Olivier often vomited before performing on stage, but that's likely a legend that has its roots in a panic attack he had before going on stage at the age of 57. Still, he apparently was nervous before a live performance. Likewise, my next restful night before the initial day of school will be my first one!

As mentioned in yesterday's post, children often have an extremely accurate sense of which adults can be trusted and which can't. They can frequently spot a phony from a mile off. I can't say that Mills would have been aware of this on his first day at Windlesham. It's far more probable that those initial moments with his first class went by in a blur, and time would have seemed to be moving much more quickly for him than he describes it here due to anxiety.

This passage is a collage of first day experiences at Windlesham, Warren Hill, The Craig, and at Glion, acquired over time. One does not have the ability to anxiously do paperwork while surmising the inner workings of the minds of a group of students through careful observation. That sort of inference just isn't made by a new instructor, fresh out of university, facing a group of strange faces, angelic though they may be!

Let's return to this Leadham House class-room:

'Open your exercise books, and your Translations. Page 32. French into English. If you do not know a word, look it up. Go straight on until you are told to stop.'

Having said this, Mr. Mead sat back in his chair and surveyed the class. Peter had been quite correct, and there was no attempt at open ragging, but the master noticed the boys were not really working. Dimmer opened his desk, and produced a piece of blotting paper; Meredith dropped his pen, and stooped slowly down to pick it up. He tried it, found that it would not function, so changed the nib. Renton was frowning at the inkpot, from which he had fished a large piece of blotting-paper. The only two boys who were working were Murray and Potter I. Mr. Mead smiled to himself. The boys were trying it on! He was no fool, and started on a plan of campaign. Leaning forward, he took up a pencil and continued his watch. Every few seconds he would make a little tick on the paper in front of him. Murray and Potter, who both sat at the same desk, looked up from under their eyelids and observed what he was doing. They nudged each other and smiled. Mr. Mead made no comment, but he was busy with the pencil. he could not help thinking what poor economists boys are. The Sixth formers were giving themselves a great deal of trouble to get out of work. They went to endless pains to waste time.

They thought that it was well worth while. The man was too good to be true! He said not anything, and they were having a glorious slack, and could look forward to a term of leisure. Three minutes before the end of the lesson Mr. Mead suddenly spoke, and the boys stopped work.

'I have here,' Mr. Mead announced, 'a little piece of paper on which I registered a mark whenever a boy wasted time. There has been a great deal of time wasted. Blotting-paper has been dropped; pens which should have been overhauled before school, have had to be replaced. Only two boys in the room have been working properly. They are,' here Mr. Mead consulted his register, 'Murray and Potter I. On my paper there are twenty marks, representing an unnecessary waste of time. I am wasting time now, but that is your fault. The time must, unfortunately, be made up, and you will come here on Saturday evening for half and hour. That is to say, all except Murray and Potter I.'

Mr. Mead had been horribly nervous during this pronouncement. At the end of it he gathered up his books and left the room. For some seconds there was complete silence. The boys looked at each other, and disgust, surprise, and bewilderment were depicted on their faces. Headlights was the first to speak.

'Well!' he said, 'of all the dirty tricks, that takes the cake. It seemed so easy, too!' He stabbed at the desk viciously with his pen, and added, 'That man is the sticky limit! Shut up, you two idiots, it's not funny!' This remark was addressed to Murray and Potter I. They were sitting at their desk hugging each other with rapture, and laughing loudly.

That afternoon, as they were walking to the cricket field, Mr. Mead told Peter all about it.

'That's right!' said Peter, laughing. 'I thought they might try it on. Well, you have won your victory, and should have no further trouble.'

No further trouble getting adolescent boys to do class work? Windlesham and Warren Hill must have been very special places, indeed!

That aside, I think it's interesting how many terms from the military are applied here to teaching: "armed for the fray," "a plan of campaign," and "won your victory." Some may say that those metaphors are improper, and that the relationship between a teacher and his or her charges should be one of a community working together, rather than adversarial. I couldn't argue about those sentiments in any way.

In reality, though, there are many situations during the course of a lesson, a day, a week, or a term, in which a teacher and a student, or even a teacher and an entire class, each digs in the proverbial heels in a mighty struggle against the other. War? A wild west showdown? A duel in the sun? Characterize those moments any way you wish—they happen and those confrontations often need to be "won" by a teacher who intends to last the rest of the term.

Teachers who intend to last an entire career, however, tend to come out ahead in these situations without causing the students to "lose face" in the aftermath, and that's not something the Mr. Mead accomplished above. I wonder if Mills ever mastered that trick, or could it have been one of the reasons he moved around a bit as an educator?

Anyway, let's check back in one more time, later in Mr. Mead's first day of classes and extra-curriculars:

Uggles followed the Hawk along the corridor. He found it rather trying, poor dog, as the afternoon was a hot one. The Hawk opened his desk, and sat Uggles beside him on the seat.

It chanced that Mr. Mead was on his way to the master's cottage for a cold shower. He was still in flannels and tennis shoes, and he walked noiselessly down the corridor. The sound of a boy's voice made him stop at the open door of a class-room, and he saw the Hawk seated at his desk, the lid of which was raised and rested against his head. The boy, having his head inside the desk, was utterly unaware of the master's presence, and was talking to Uggles.

'Yes, old chap,' the Hawk was saying, 'I am quite sure you will like him. He likes dogs, too; he told me so at breakfast!'

The reality working for Mr. Mead—and probably Mills—in this situation is that he has won over a key boy in the school. While the Hawk is not a Sixth former, nor a scholarly boy, he's athletic, honest, and extremely likable. His status among the boys of the school is near the top, and having the Hawk as a powerful ally will pay off for Mr. Mead, despite the master's perceived "dirty trick."

There'll be even more about Mr. Mead and Mills next time…

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