[Maurice Baring imagines what a passage from George Washington’s schoolboy diary might have looked like]
Bridges Creek, 1744, September 20.—My mother has at last consented to let me go to school. I had repeatedly made it quite plain to her that the private tuition hitherto accorded to me was inadequate; that I would be in danger of being outstripped in the race owing to insufficient groundwork. My mother, although very shrewd in some matters, was curiously obstinate on this point. She positively declined to let me attend the day-school, saying that she thought I knew quite enough for a boy of my age, and that it would be time enough for me to go to school when I was older. I quoted to her Tacitus’ powerful phrase about the insidious danger of indolence; how there is a charm in indolence—but let me taste the full pleasure of transcribing the noble original: “Subit quippe etiam ipsius inertiæ dulcedo: et invisa primo desidia postremo amatur”; but she only said that she did not understand Latin. This was scarcely an argument, as I translated it for her.
I cannot help thinking that there was sometimes an element of pose in Tacitus’ much-vaunted terseness.
September 29.—I went to school for the first time to-day. I confess I was disappointed. We are reading, in the Fourth Division, in which I was placed at my mother’s express request, Eutropius and Ovid; both very insipid writers. The boys are lamentably backward and show a deplorable lack of interest in the classics. The French master has an accent that leaves much to be desired, and he seems rather shaky about his past participles. However, all these things are but trifles. What I really resent is the gross injustice which seems to be the leading principle at this school—if school it can be called.
For instance, when the master asks a question, those boys who know the answer are told to hold up their hands. During the history lesson Henry VIII. was mentioned in connection with the religious quarrels of the sixteenth century, a question which, I confess, can but have small interest for any educated person at the present day. The master asked what British poet had written a play on the subject of Henry VIII. I, of course, held up my hand, and so did a boy called Jonas Pike. I was told to answer first, and I said that the play was in the main by Fletcher, with possible later interpolations. The usher, it is scarcely credible, said, “Go to the bottom of the form,” and when Jonas Pike was asked he replied, “Shakespeare,” and was told to go up one. This was, I consider, a monstrous piece of injustice.
During one of the intervals, which are only too frequent, between the lessons, the boys play a foolish game called “It,” in which even those who have no aptitude and still less inclination for this tedious form of horse-play, are compelled to take part. The game consists in one boy being named “it” (though why the neuter is used in this case instead of the obviously necessary masculine it is hard to see). He has to endeavour to touch one of the other boys, who in their turn do their best to evade him by running, and should he succeed in touching one of them, the boy who is touched becomes “it” ipso facto. It is all very tedious and silly. I was touched almost immediately, and when I said that I would willingly transfer the privilege of being touched to one of the other boys who were obviously eager to obtain it, one of the bigger boys (again Jonas Pike) gave me a sharp kick on the shin. I confess I was ruffled. I was perhaps to blame in what followed. I am, perhaps, inclined to forget at times that Providence has made me physically strong. I retaliated with more insistence than I intended, and in the undignified scuffle which ensued Jonas Pike twisted his ankle. He had to be supported home. When questioned as to the cause of the accident I regret to say he told a deliberate falsehood. He said he had slipped on the ladder in the gymnasium. I felt it my duty to inform the head-master of the indirect and unwilling part I had played in the matter.
The head master, who is positively unable to perceive the importance of plain-speaking, said, “I suppose you mean you did it.” I answered, “No, sir; I was the resisting but not the passive agent in an unwarrantable assault.” The result was I was told to stay in during the afternoon and copy out the First Eclogue of Virgil. It is characteristic of the head master to choose a feeble Eclogue of Virgil instead of one of the admirable Georgics. Jonas Pike is to be flogged, as soon as his foot is well, for his untruthfulness.
This, my first experience of school life, is not very hopeful.
October 10.—The routine of the life here seems to me more and more meaningless. The work is to me child’s play; and indeed chiefly consists in checking the inaccuracies of the ushers. They show no gratitude to me—indeed, sometimes the reverse of gratitude.
One day, in the English class, one of the ushers grossly misquoted Pope. He said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I held up my hand and asked if the line was not rather “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” adding that Pope would scarcely have thought a little knowledge to be dangerous, since all knowledge is valuable. The usher tried to evade the point by a joke, which betrayed gross theological ignorance. He said: “All Popes are not infallible.”
One of the boys brought into school a foolish toy—a gutta-percha snake that contracts under pressure and expands when released, with a whistling screech.
Jonas Pike, who is the most ignorant as well as the most ill-mannered of all the boys, suggested that the snake should be put into the French master’s locker, in which he keeps the exercises for the week. The key of the locker is left in charge of the top boy of the class, who, I say it in all modesty, is myself. Presently another boy, Hudson by name, asked me for the key. I gave it to him, and he handed it to Pike, who inserted the snake in the locker. When the French master opened the locker the snake flew in his face. He asked me if I had had any hand in the matter. I answered that I had not touched the snake. He asked me if I had opened the locker; I, of course, said “No.” Questioned further as to how the snake could have got there, I admitted having lent the key to Hudson, ignorant of any ulterior purpose. In spite of this I was obliged, in company with Pike and Hudson, to copy out some entirely old-fashioned and meaningless exercises in syntax.
October 13.—A pretty little episode happened at home to-day. The gardener’s boy asked me if he might try his new axe on the old cherry-tree, which I have often vainly urged mother to cut down. I said, “By all means.” It appears that he misunderstood me and cut down the tree. My mother was about to send him away, but I went straight to her and said I would take the entire responsibility for the loss of the tree on myself, as I had always openly advocated its removal and that the gardener’s boy was well aware of my views on the subject. My mother was so much touched at my straightforwardness that she gave me some candy, a refreshment to which I am still partial. Would that the ushers at school could share her fine discrimination, her sound judgment, and her appreciation of character.