Friday, May 21, 2010

Mr. Mead's First Evening at School

I get the feeling that we're nearing the end of this quest for George Mills & Co. Those who've been willing to help have really helped quite a bit. Those who weren't so keen were sometimes prodded into helping. And some couldn't be bothered replying to requests for help even with a simple "no."

Oh—and there have been those whose replies have focused on me paying them for research and information. One of the funniest phrases I've bumped into: 'Our volunteers charge ₤10 per hour.'

So, feeling as if I've run out of other options, let's see what George Mills had to say about himself—or at least his first days teaching at Windlesham House, and subsequently at Warren Hill School in Meads, Eastbourne.

From Meredith and Co. (1933):

Mr. Mead enjoyed his first dinner at the school. Peter kept an excellent table, and was splendid company. Mead was given the post of honour near his hostess. He had met his future colleagues before dinner and had approved of them. After dinner there was a conference in the study.

'Make yourselves comfortable,' Peter said. 'Coffee over there; cigarettes and tobacco, too.'

When the men had settled down, Peter spoke again…

'Now you have met Mead. He is going to take French throughout the school, and help you, Marshall, with cricket. You can do with some help, I expect.'

'Yes, indeed, I can.'

Peter gave them a hint.

'Well then, we shall meet again in the morning. Good-night. Mead, if you have done all your unpacking, perhaps you will stay behind and finish your pipe.'

Remember, according to Dr. Tom Houston of Windlesham, "Peter," or Dr. Howell Stone, corresponds to Mr. Charles Scott Malden of Windlesham House, circa 1925. Malden and Mills would have worked under headmaster Mr. H. D. L. Patterson, with Malden becoming principal in 1927, after Mills had gone. Malden, however, apparently already had been considered a joint headmaster before that, however.

Mills had been a junior appointment at the time, a position Dr. Houston states was "seldom held for long," although Mills immediately married and purchased a home in Portslade near Windlesham, which was at the time at "Southern Cross" in Portslade, not in Brighton. Mills had come to the school to teach English or "English subjects."

Let's continue with Meredith and Co. [frontispiece, 1950 edition, right]:

When the rest of the staff had left the study, Peter turned to Mead.

'Now then,' he said, 'sit down, and make yourself at home.'

Mr. Mead sat down and waited.

'You said,' Peter started, puffing at his pipe, 'that this will be your first experience of teaching. Do you mind if I tell you a few stories of my first attempts?'

This was a delightful way of putting it, and Mr. Mead appreciated it.

'No, sir, I shall be most grateful.'

'Well,' said Peter, 'everything depends on your first hour in school. You stand or fall by that hour. I am starting you off tomorrow in the Sixth-form. It will help you to start with the bigger boys. You will be out of school the first hour. Books are given out then, and serious work starts next hour. But I want you to make those bigger boys work. Three of them, Meredith, Potter I, and Dimmer I are in for their Common Entrances this term, and will have to get down to it. You will not find that they will try to rag you; they know me too well for that; but they will see how far they can go in the way of taking things easy. Boys always do; I did so myself, and came a cropper! Let nothing pass in the way of inattention and fidgeting about. If you do, you will be at their mercy. When I first started teaching we had a young man on the staff who went into his class-room to take his first lesson, and stood in the doorway and said, "Good morning!" A chorus in the ascending scale greeted him; then he went to his desk and sat down, uncertain what to do next. The boys started playing about, and the young man never kept order at that school! I won't dictate to you how you should teach, but keep the class busy every moment of the time. If you have any trouble, send the boy to me. I shall think all the better of you if you do so, and will support your authority. If you start off by standing no nonsense the boys will respect you all the more for it."

This was very sound advice, to which Mr. Mead listened intently; and the more he saw of the head master, the more he liked him. Peter regaled him with a few funny stories about his early attempts at teaching. He then looked at his watch.

'Dear me, it is half-past eleven! Well, we shall meet again in the morning. By the way, any small thing you want to know ask Marshall, and if you are in difficulties don't hesitate to come see me. Good-night!'

It's difficult to imagine those words aren't to a great degree autobiographical. At the time, Mills was 29 years old, likely fresh from university, and engaged to be married.

Prior to that, Mills had served from 1916 through 1919 in the Great War, rising from a Private in the Rifle Brigade to a Lance Corporal in the Royal Army Service Corps. He began attending Christ Church in 1919 and Oxford in 1921. Dr. Houston speculates that Mills arrived at Windlesham shortly after departing Oxford where he did not take examinations or earn a degree—something Windlesham House believed he had done.

Mills [left] obviously respected Malden greatly, modeling the character of "Peter" on him. Seven years after leaving Windlesham, Mills wrote this book, describing Peter/Malden as "a splendid man with whom to work… as straight as a gun barrel."

It seems that George Mills loved working with Malden. Mills was engaged, just about to be married, and just about to purchase a home on Benfield Way in Portslade at the time. After just four terms, however, Mills no longer appeared on the Windlesham staff list by the end of the summer of 1926.

Houston speculates that Mills "could, like a handful of other prep school masters, have been excited by the General Strike (that term)."

The long-term ends of that work stoppage wouldn't seem to have dove-tailed very nicely with the more immediate needs of Mills's own situation in 1926, being a new husband, home-owner, and provider.

Still, it's still just the evening before the first class Mr. Mead—and I suspect Mills—would ever teach. There'[s so much more yet to happen.

Next time, let's follow Mr. Mead to his debut breakfast with the boys of fictional Leadham House School in Merdedith and Co. I have a hunch we'll find the 29-year-old George Mills sitting at that table as well…

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