Saturday, May 22, 2010

Breakfast with the Hawk and the Boys

It's a lovely, hot, early summer day here in the Sunshine State. The lawn is unruly after some recent rain, and I'm putting off going out to do battle with it. Instead, I think we'll check in on George Mills's fictional alter ego, Mr. Mead, at Leadham House School. Let's thumb ahead to Chapter XVII of Meredith and Co., and recall that last time, Mead was off to bed, anxiously awaiting his first day of teaching French.

MR. MEAD arose early in the morning, and walked across to the school with the Jewel [Mr. Gold]. He was anxious to see as much of the school routine as possible, and stood by the side of Gold as he read the roll call. Mr. Mead stood looking at the row of strange faces, and wondered what sort of task he would make of teaching. All the boys were perfect strangers, and he was thinking how best to break the ice during breakfast. As they were going downstairs the Jewel told him that his table was the one next to his own.

'You will have several members of the Third and Fourth forms. they are quite well-behaved, but rather talkative.'

After grace had been said, Mr. Mead sat down. He was not quite certain of the correct procedure. Should he help himself from the sideboard, or would he be waited on? He noticed the Jewel helping himself to coffee, so he joined him.

'Sorry, Mead, I ought to have told you that we help ourselves. If you want a second cup send a boy for it.'

Mr. Mead took a cup of coffee, and a plate of porridge. When he sat down, he looked at the boys who were seated at his table. He noticed particularly the boy to his right. He was a small, dark boy, with a happy care-free expression. Conversation was limited, as it often is in the presence of a stranger. Mr. Mead had just finished his porridge when the boy on his right spoke.

'Er, sir, do you like dogs?'

'Yes, very much. Do you have a dog at home?'

The boy became quite talkative.

'Rather, sir; hundreds! At least, not exactly hundreds, sir. But there's a topping dog here, sir. He belongs to one of the boy's maters, sir. He's a bulldog, and is called Uggles. Shall I get you some eggs and bacon, sir?'

My hunch is that this is an idealized first conversation with a student, invested with a great deal of "I-wish-it-really-had-been-that-easy." Upon the publication of Meredith and Co., Mills had already experienced at least four "meet and greets" with boys, having taught at Windlesham House, Warren Hill, The Craig, and the seemingly completely forgotten English Preparatory School in Glion, Switzerland between 1925 and 1933.

With so much movement from place to place, it's no wonder that Mills focuses on Mr. Mead's desire to quickly learn the "correct procedure."

Also despite Dr. Howell (Peter) Stone's advice the night before—all of which revolved around the classroom—Mills is letting us know in no uncertain terms here that the first true hurdle to be cleared is meeting the boys and establishing himself quickly. It's open to conjecture how long it may have taken Mills, at first, to win over the boys at Windlesham House, but as he was apparently a very personable fellow who enjoyed making people laugh, my hunch is that it must not have taken too awfully long.

Interestingly, we find that a real ice breaker here is the subject of dogs. Mr. Mead is immediately presented with an opportunity to win over a key boy in his form by simply admitting to a fondness for canines. I'd better dollars to doughnuts that it all didn't come off so readily in reality, but that once Mills knew man's best friend was a metaphorical foot-in-the-door with his charges, he used dogs to his advantage in all of his new teaching locales.

This isn't to imply that Mills exaggerates his fondness for dogs here simply for social gain. We do know already of his propensity to share a family story from well before he was born about his father's family taking their dogs along to church, and having one actually take in the service from a pew on one occasion.

Yesterday, we also learned that Mills's love of cricket could have helped him land at least one teaching job as Mr. Mead is welcomed by Mr. Marshall as an assistant with the Leadham House eleven. And, here, his love of dogs helps him open lines of communication with the boys.

Let's see how that breakfast conversation comes out:

Mr. Mead gave his plate over to the boy, and asked his name.

'Falconer, sir,' said the boy, and he went off, and returned with some eggs and bacon. Mr. Mead liked the Hawk. He was so natural, and his frank, open manner appealed to him. The meal proceeded most satisfactorily; Mr. Mead inquired the names of the boys, and was entertained with several stories of the holidays. he found all the boys very friendly—not the sort that tries to 'suck up' to a new master, but animated with a genuine desire to be on good terms. He found the atmosphere delightful.

[A quick aside: From this last paragraph, can we surmise that this genuine sort of student behavior was not always the way it was at Windermere and Glion?]

The Hawk looked up.

'Please, sir,' he asked, rather diffidently, 'what is your name, sir?'

Mr. Mead enlightened him, and the Hawk continued.

'What are you taking, sir?'

'French,' added Mr. Mead, shortly.

'Oh, sir, I hate French, sir. I only got seven for the exam last term.'

''Well,' said Mr. Mead, laughing, 'we shall have to improve on that!'

'Please, sir, are you taking us all in French?'

'Yes, I believe so.'

To the person who does not know the mind of the preparatory schoolboy, all his questions must appear to be rude curiosity. But in this case they served to break the ice, and enabled the boys to talk about something. The small boy is usually limited in intelligent conversation, and if he can, by asking questions, get someone else to talk, he does so.

That last paragraph is a great insight, and insight into the hearts and minds of prep students seems to have been Mills's long suit, at least early in his career.

In this scene, we see in microcosm Mills's fledgling days as a master in a preparatory school. While not the finest written lines in the history of English literature, this excerpt does display a comfortable, conversational genuineness—similar to the characteristics that Mead admires in young Falconer—full of both story-telling warmth and keen observation.

Having spent a day or two getting my feet wet at a new school now and then along my own way, Mills's concerns are real concerns. His wonder about his new students and his desire to get off on the right foot all ring perfectly true. And, despite the fact that Mr. Meads does have the ice completely broken unusually quickly in this scene, it does accurately portray the amazing speed at which children will determine whether or not an adult is trustworthy, and hence, worthy of hearing or participating in meaningful conversation among them!

So, after two excerpts from Meredith and Co., we find Mr. Mead—and Mills—possessing the 'people skills' necessary to be successful in a teaching career: He's an engaging fellow, seemingly dutiful to more experienced adults and to the needs of the boys.

Next time, let's step inside Mr. Mead's class-room as he begins his first hour teaching the Sixth form….

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