Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1712/My Second School

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From All The Year Round.


One of the brothers Smith, in a lively essay, exhorted his reader to catch opportunity by the forelock, if ever he found himself in the company of a set of "wretches" who had never heard of Joe Miller, but yet were perfectly capable of appreciating him. Such an opportunity might never occur again, and the most, consequently, ought to be made of it. Without the remotest chance of balk or hindrance, the man well posted up in his "Joe" is bound, if for the first and only time in his life, to find himself generally amusing.

It is not with the slightest suspicion that the rare combination of ignorance with appreciativeness to which Mr. Smith refers is to be found among the readers of All the Year Round, that I now venture to repeat a very ancient jest. I ward off the sneers with which it will be received, because it singularly symbolizes the somewhat dismal narrative which will presently follow.

Well, then: An amateur painter, who was repairing his house, told a friend that he had been struck by a bright notion. The ceiling of his library was very dirty, so he purposed to whitewash it, and then paint upon it a picture, representing Apollo and the nine Muses. The friend, who had his own views as to the proficiency of the amateur, suggested, as an improvement, that the ceding should be painted first, and whitewashed afterwards.

Of my second school, which was simply a day-school, and which I entered at the age of ten, I can safely say that it was apparently designed to answer the purpose of the whitewash in the above story, supposing the advice of the friend to have been accurately followed. Whatever we had been taught at my preparatory school, the second school appeared to have been framed with the express purpose of washing out; and in this case, the picture to be obliterated was not only not bad, but very good. I am bound, however, in justice to say, that I and my fellow-pupils had tolerable memories. Our previous knowledge was not obliterated. Simply, we made no progress. Learning was made easy, because it was made small.

Stop! don't let me be incorrect. Objects become somewhat indistinct, when one looks at them through a vista of more than fifty years, unless one, takes great pains to secure accuracy. Though we made no progress, we made a great show of making progress; and that was something to the credit of Dr. Saunders, our reverent preceptor. A Dissenting minister of considerable repute in a suburb of London, in the immediate vicinity of that inhabited by Mr. Jackson, he had none of that hatred of "Mars, Bacchus, Apollo," to which Lord Macaulay refers as prevalent among the early Puritans. If he called upon paterfamilias, with the intention of securing some young hopeful as a pupil, he would roll jauntily in an armchair, and talk merrily of the achievement of learning sixty lines of 'Horace with a minimum of labor, if only his method of instruction was conscientiously followed. What that method was, I never found out; and although, with two or three others, I was indubitably at the top of the school, I never read any Horace. The strict attention paid to the rudiments of the English tongue, in a school apparently classical, might to some appear excessive; and I must own that, having been taught under Mrs. Jackson to spell quite as correctly as I spell now, I was not a little surprised when I was requested to learn a column of three syllables in an English spelling-book. Indeed, I was dissatisfied with the proceeding, and had the audacity to ask Dr. Saunders whether we were not going to do any Latin that afternoon. He was openly displeased with the question, and told me that if I liked it I might pursue my Latin at once, instead of getting money by sticking to the spelling-book. The appeal to the pocket implied that, if we had gone through our three syllables in a satisfactory manner, we might each have received a penny.

The employment of pence as stimulants to the acquisition of a mastery over the difficulties of the Latin accidence was remarkable. Dr. Saunders would frequently burst into the school-room, arresting attention by smartly striking his desk with his cane, and cheerfully crying out, —

"Boys, boys, hear! Of a most blue pig in a most green field! The first who will turn that into Latin shall receive a penny!"

Responsive shouts were heard on all sides, and the first shouter, if correct, duly received his penny, which was euphemistically called "merit money."

I have here to explain that, in spite of its spasmodic manifestations, the genial offer of merit money was part of a system. As quarter-day approached, Trowel, a very big boy, appointed to the office by the doctor, would walk round the schoolroom, armed with a pencil and a slip of paper, and would ask the pupils questions as to the extra items to be inserted in the bill; how many books they had had, and so on. Among the questions was one relating to the probable amount of merit money. The boy, who had received his penny at very irregular intervals, had not the slightest notion on the subject; but the ever-ready Trowel would assist his memory by saying: "Well, half-a-crown won't be too much, will it?" The boy thought not; and Trowel pursued his quest elsewhere, some times eliciting five shillings as the possible figure. Certain I am that the aggregate number of pence, received by any one boy during any one quarter, never approached half-a-crown.

When I say that we seemingly did learn Greek under the auspices of Dr. Saunders, some readers may be of opinion that I contradict myself. But the opinion will cease when they learn what an utter sham our Greek was. A Scotch element, from some unknown reason or other, prevailed in the school. We had Dalzel's Greek and Ruddiman's Latin grammar, while our contemporaries looked up to Eton — all bad enough, when compared with the elementary books which, in obedience to a German impulse, are constantly published now. We had, also, Dalzel's "Analecta Minora" made up of presumably easy Greek excerpts; but the crack book was a Glasgow edition of Anacreon.

I suppose this book is still in vogue on the other side of the Tweed; for whenever I have referred to it in the course of conversation with north-country friends, I have invariably found that they recognized the article. It was a very thin volume, clad in that irrepressible sheepskin which was once regarded as the proper clothing for spelling-books and "Tutors' Assistants," and at the bottom of each page was a literal prose translation of the Greek above. Now, only imagine two years of Greek study culminating with Anacreon! There is no need to enquire here how far the pretty poems, attributed to the old debauchee of Teos, are spurious; but any one who knows anything about the matter knows that, if there is one author least fitted among others to familiarize a student with the peculiarities of the Greek language, that one is Anacreon.

But with our Latin, of course, we did something. Did we? As far as I myself am concerned, I can safely report that, if the Greek I learned was little, the Latin was still less. I had learned no Greek at Mrs. Jackson's, and I will do Dr. Saunders the justice to say that under him I did learn the alphabet; but as for Latin, all I could do was to keep up the amount I had brought with me from the preparatory establishment. In cultivating the language of Cicero — to whom, be it remarked, not the slightest allusion was ever made — we were bound tight to that eminent classic Eutropius, with occasional deviations into the second book of Virgil's Æneid, in which latter region we were most liberally assisted.

All respect to Eutropius! Within the last few years he has shot up into something like celebrity as the historian who, in the most lucid manner, recorded the foundation of the Dacian colony by Trajan, I to which the Roumanians trace their origin; and of late the Danubian provinces have figured among the threads which are entangled in that great knot, the Eastern question. But, half a century ago, there were no Roumanians bearing that name, and the youth of twelve must have been a marvel of geographical erudition if he knew anything about Moldavia and Wallachia in connection with ancient history. The fact was, Eutropius, still known as very useful in his way, is remarkably easy, and was made even easier by the addition of an or do; that is to say, an arrangement of the Latin words, in English order, placed under the proper text, as in the Delphin editions. Even this would not do; that the task might be easier still, a boy read not the text but the ordo, and this, be it repeated, was our crack book. There was a vague tradition that somebody had once studied Cornelius Nepos; but I set that down among the myths of the place.

Many books were not purchased; but, thanks to the financial genius that pervaded the establishment, and which, I think, was embodied in the person of Trowel, some of those that were sold must have fetched high prices. The boys, as a rule, were of that happy-go-lucky kind who, when they quit school, do not care to be burdened with reminiscences, but leave their books behind them. In that case the volumes were invariably sold over again; and he was a lucky youth, on the fly-leaf of whose Eutropius the name of a former schoolfellow was not inscribed.

There are many worthy people now living who are of opinion that, at our "great schools," too much time is expended on the study of the dead languages; and if they have followed me to this point they are probably admiring Dr. Saunders for the quantity of sound useful knowledge that he diffused, while thus lightly skimming over the surface of Greek and Latin. If so, they are egregiously mistaken. If the reverend doctor aspired to anything besides the reputation of a popular preacher, it was to the character of a promulgator of classical lore. No head master at Eton or Harrow, in the good old days, had stronger views in this matter than he. We all, indeed, learned writing and arithmetic under the guidance of an authorized assistant, but when some ill-fated wretch was compelled, at the request of his ignoble parents, to solve a few problems in Bonnycastle's "Geometry," I well recollect with what contempt the pursuit was regarded by his fellows. Geometry was all very well for a future carpenter, but what possible interest could be taken in it by any one who aspired to the character of a gentleman? Of course the vulgar science fell into the province of the assistant, for never would the august Dr. Saunders have been seen with a pair of base mechanical compasses in his hands. Did they think highly of mathematics at Cambridge? If so, so much the worse for Cambridge.

But the royal road to French discovered by the Rev. Dr. Saunders was a masterpiece. Two of us were placed side by side at a desk, with an old-fashioned French novel (warranted harmless) before us. This we were expected simply to puzzle out together, without being subject to any examination, either by the doctor, or by any other third party. That, in this irresponsible position we ever looked at the novel at all is to me a matter for marvel, but, most assuredly, we did so; though, it must be owned, the narrative was frequently interrupted by conversation on our own private affairs. On one occasion, the illicit discourse was interrupted by the doctor, who, with considerable ingenuity, had contrived to place his head, unobserved, between ours, and harshly commented on our abuse of the trust with which we were so handsomely and so unacademically honored. We mildly pleaded that the novel was "dry," and — wonder of wonders! — when we returned to the schoolroom after the half-hour spent in the play-ground habitually conceded to the boys in the course of a day, which lasted from about half-past nine to one, our plea was thought feasible, and the triumphant doctor placed before our eyes the more amusing "Hermann of Unna," a work translated from the German, and of which an English version was eagerly read at a time when Mrs. Anne Radcliffe was at the height of her popularity. I am able to affirm that we did find this book more entertaining than its predecessor. On what ground, with our very imperfect mastery over the French tongue, we found one book more amusing than another, I can't conjecture.

Even our studies of the vernacular were sometimes pursued after a laissez-aller fashion, which scarcely accorded with the importance attached to them. Dr. Saunders had an aged father-in-law, who had cut off whatever communication was left between himself and the outer world by taking strong and frequent pinches of coarse black rappee, and this respectable but somewhat clingy gentleman was occasionally entrusted with the superintendence of a body of readers. One day, I observed from a distance that the boys, who were ostensibly reading by turns Goldsmith's "Abridged History of Rome," were all shaking with laughter, which they scarcely attempted to suppress, but which was utterly unnoticed by their auditor. What could it mean? To my delight I was summoned to take a place in the class, and the boy whom I found next to me immediately solved the mystery by whispering into my ear, —

"Such fun! Whenever a word ends with 'ing,' say 'ink ' instead. We're all doing it, and he don't find it out."

I entered at once into the scheme, which was, indeed, productive of much amusement. When we had to utter such words as "approachink" or "considerink" the mirth was mild; but when it fell to the lot of one fortunate youth to state that Tarquin was "kink" of Rome, there was almost a roar. Still our excellent old gentleman never discovered that anything abnormal had occurred; and, when we were dismissed, no doubt he confessed, in his inward heart, like England in the old sea-song, "that every man that day had done his duty."

As might be supposed, corporal punishment was not much in vogue at a school so extraordinarily lax in discipline. What would have been the fate of the audacious "kink-maker" under the rule of Mrs. Jackson I dread to conjecture. But the learned doctor did not wholly ignore the use of the cane, though it might be observed that this was regulated rather by the state of the doctor's own temper than by the degree of a boy's delinquency. One peculiarity showed at least that he had studied his Roman history to some advantage, and had taken the elder Brutus for his model. Among the pupils were his two sons; and if ever the cane was in requisition with an exceptional vigor, what clouds of dust rose from the jackets of those devoted lads! If we — chosen few — who stood at the head of the classical scholars, had been passed into the first part of the Æneid, we should at once have been reminded of the illustrious Trojan concealed in a cloud by his divine mother. But we knew of no book but the second.

All things considered, I am of opinion that, if any of the pupils at the academy which I have tried to describe, and of which I saw the end, are alive now, they still look back with a kindly feeling upon the figure of Dr. Saunders himself. His notions of instruction were detestable; but, in spite of occasional outbursts of anger, he was essentially a good-natured, kindly man, endowed with much native humor; and, in his most cheerful moods, he loved to tell droll stories that would make the benches rock with laughter. And as for his gloomier moments, it must be remembered that he had a very large family, and that he was very poor.