Survival Till Seventeen

Some of my readers will feel that in the last chapter the philosopher (or shall we say the poet) got ahead of the child. This I do not admit.

In an autobiography, it is not the adult analysis of childhood impressions that counts; it is the quality and receptivity of mind existing in the child when the impressions were first received; else, how explain what a child remembers from an age when he needed to be reminded of nearly everything?

I know no childhood except my own, and can take stock of no other. I did not go around in childhood like a freak reporter interviewing other children, by way of ascertaining what it was like to be one of them.

Knowledge at all stages depends to no small degree on character. In life, early or late, we come to know what we want to know. There is an intimate connection between growth of mind and generosity of will. We remain perpetually ignorant of truths we are not disposed to receive. Wisdom is a virtue deserving high merit in Heaven, not merely a semester-report deserving high marks in school. Grace, likewise, is the signature of self on one’s surroundings. No one can be taught how to be charming, nor made original by environment.

The rough draught of character is completely drawn, I believe, at ten. Hence, it is important that the child be taken seriously, even by his older self. Personality after the first decade is a matter of adding the proper details to a finished blueprint. Virtue will inevitably follow the strokes of an original moral design, and vice will be a matter for suitable erasure of inharmonious lines.

One gets few, if any, new ideas after ten, only fuller information. Likewise, one acquires no radically new habits after ten, only new motives and further example. Habits acquired after ten (the age is arbitrary, but I use it to indicate roughly the period of the parent and the primary school) superimpose themselves on the old like spirals of new wood around the central oak. If the pattern is not kept, if there is too much of a quarrel between the layers of development, the oak cracks, and the person explodes in a psychosis.

Expression is only a by-product of thought, and maturity of vocabulary does not re-originate an idea, only re-phrases it. I was able to say at ten with a gesture what I cannot express at forty, though armed with the arsenal of the dictionary. Shall I be accused of telling a false tale now, simply because I express it worse than I did thirty years ago?

There are thoughts that lie too deep for tears. There must indeed be thoughts that lie too deep for ink. Ink will do as a makeshift when one can no longer weep; but a writer of his early reminiscences is only trying to plumb depths in himself already established by first impressions when the initial soundings were made. He is not putting on a false face and pretending to be young.

A child who never wept till he was ten years old, would likely never weep at all. And a child of ten who had not already thought of most of the things worth writing, would never write a thing worth reading, though he lived to be a hundred.

I believe that everything centers around the philosopher in us. Yet no one can walk the narrow line of metaphysics and be happy, or even sensible. The scientist is the philosopher minus; the poet is the philosopher plus. On which side of the line will you place the child? On the side of curiosity, or the side of wonder? I am emboldened to make a brief for the poet in the child.

In my schooldays, the professions were summarized in a two-line poem:

Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief,

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief!

What a marvelous epitome for vocational guidance! Could you substitute “refrigerator salesman” in the above couplet and ever expect a boy to want to grow up?

We were educated in the hard school of wonder. We were not taught to be observant, it being assumed that we were nothing else. We were drilled with dogmas that might serve to make our observations valuable. Whatever talents appeared in us did so by reason of an inner impulse. A boy who could draw was considered an artist; a boy who could act was considered an actor; a boy who could sing was looked upon as a singer; and so on. Certain subjects were considered for most of us largely a waste of time. We had a classroom rascal, but we would have been positively frightened, not to say disappointed, to see him reform. We met in school a cross-section of what we might meet anywhere in life. You did not know whether you were sitting next to a future gangster or a future archbishop. Frankly, Sister did not know either, and that is why she was so solicitous for all of us in her prayers. I am not saying ours was the best education in all points. I am simply saying what it was.

We disliked school on the whole, and were not expected to prefer it to our homes and holidays. Our lessons were tasks, not recreations. We did, of course, take recreation, by engaging in games in the yard during the recess periods, but we never got any marks for that. Our classrooms were not museums, playrooms, menageries. Toys were not brought in to teach us mechanics, flowers to teach us botany, nor fossils to enable us to visualize our grandparents in the jigsaw puzzle stage. Marvel and moron, we were all herded together; the bright learned lots from the stupid, and were kept by them from the nervous strain of being always in competition. Amusing incidents occurred always of their own accord; our teacher was no vaudevillian, and never told jokes. Spontaneous drama arose out of the dullness of the environment and the versatility of our own invention. Such was the incident of Alicia and the inkwell, for the telling of which it will be necessary to know that children of my day were scolded when they were bad.

Alicia was the belle of our class. I do not remember that she was pretty, for the young are no connoisseurs of physical beauty, but I do remember that she was unusual and had ingratiating airs. Alicia was fragrant, fastidious, reserved. She was always striking a posture, preserving a pose. Her parents were wealthy, and her mother dressed her with impeccable taste. She had the most radiant assortment of hair-ribbons in Essex County.

Alicia was haughty. She condescended. She even condescended to the teacher, making it seem the latter’s privilege to ask her a question; and if she muffed the question, which she not infrequently did, she did it with the air of seeming superior to knowledge.

Alicia was vain, but vanity is the lightest of all venial sins, and Alicia’s innocence kept it from being willful. It is probably not till twenty or thereabouts that a girl’s vanity descends to deliberate tactics, making her dangerous as a débutante, wicked as a wife, pathetic as a widow. Vanity was not a fault with Alicia, it was rather an aura with which she found herself possessed at birth, causing in herself, as in others, the surprise and delight a peacock experiences when it spreads its fan.

The discipline of our classroom was very severe. There was never a spot allowed on the desk, a speck of paper on the floor. What was our consternation, therefore, one day when Alicia, in the act of making a Cleopatrine gesture, struck a bottle of ink with her wrist, and sent it crashing in the aisle. What! Ink on Sister’s floor!

“Who knocked that bottle of ink on the floor!” said Sister, whose angers were known to be righteous.

There was a dead silence. Alicia stared in horror at the remnants of her recklessness: the rolling stopper, the broken glass, the large black smudge of ink, the queer odor tincturing the air.

Sister eyed us row by row, hoping to trap the culprit by a stare.

Alicia’s prestige, meanwhile, was in positive peril. She straightened herself stiffly, and prepared herself in the grand manner for a public humiliation.

“Who knocked that bottle of ink on the floor?”

“I did!” said a brave boy in the back row, raising his hand so as to be recognized.

“Come up here!”

He went up in Alicia’s stead, stood by Sister’s desk, and was given a scolding which it took Sister an unconscionably long time to administer. To this was added a punishment lesson which it took him hours to do at home. And finally a commission to remain after class and scrub every inch of the inked floor with soap and water.

I sat at my desk and writhed in agony while Alicia’s hero was being court-martialed. “Oh, why didn’t I think to say what he said?” I kept repeating to myself. “Oh, why didn’t I think to say that?”

I asked my mother that night when I went home why I didn’t think to say it, seeking her aid in analyzing the lack of chivalry in my character.

“Maybe you will think to say it next time,” said my mother. But there was no next time. Though I secretly placed ink-bottle after ink-bottle in perilous positions on Alicia’s desk, not from then till the day we graduated could I get her to go near one with a ten-foot pole.