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Tom Butler's Schooldays - Part 11: Various Teachers (snippets)

In the Writing School Mr Griggs, Mr Sharp and Mr Mackay taught us Writing and Arithmetic. Mr Fitzjohn and Mr Sykes, Spelling, Reading and Dictation, and the Royal Genealogy; and in another room Mr Bowker, Geography and English History. ...

Either [Mr Sykes] or Mr Fitzjohn gave the boys an impossible task. I wish I could remember which master of the two it was. The boys were told to copy down the Royal Genealogical Tree from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria, with its Houses of York and Lancaster and the rest, from a printed card on to a school slate. Of course if writing were sufficiently reduced in size, the thing could be managed, for the whole of the Lord's Prayer has been inscribed on the top of the point of a needle, and I have seen it through a microscope. But ordinarily there is a reasonable limit to capacity. When an omnibus is full, it refuses to take twenty more passengers. Captain Stephens says that the llama will carry a hundred pounds weight, but neither blows nor coaxing will induce it to exceed that amount. I cannot solve the mystery of the master's requirement, and therefore shall pass it by without further comment. ...

Mr Mackey and all the teachers of Writing were careful to maintain a high standard of excellent in penmanship. If a boy looked pleased with himself, expecting praise for a carefully-written second-rate performance, Mr Mackey said, "That would please your mother, but it will not do for me. "...

The next master was Mr Fitzjohn. He generally entered the School panting. He was a big man and of such a weight that his chair creaked under him... On his arrival at school in a gasping condition, he sank into his chair, and thoroughly wiped his face, ears and neck with a large red pocket handkerchief. One day after this cooling process was finished, he addressed the class in a tone of affection. With a mournful glance, he uttered a few tender words, scarcely audible, as if he thought they might be the last words he was about to speak on earth. "Dear boys, be very good and quiet today, for I am feeling ill. Don't give me any trouble: I am too weak to keep you in order. I ask of you a special favour this morning. Be so kind, dear boys, as not to make a noise. I can hardly speak." The last words were repeated in a just audible pianissimo. "I can hardly - speak."

We were sorry. These were kind expressions, and condescending also, and we felt that we must be very hushed and gentle. But one lad was a slight exception. He thought that he might, without harm, drop a pencil or say something. Then the unexpected happened. "You rascal," shouted the master in a tremendous voice probably louder than that of Stentor, whose words could be heard above the din and clang of battle. Mr Fitzjohn had recovered. "You rascal, come down here, and I'll thrash you soundly. Come down here, Sir: I'll teach you your duty. If you can't be persuaded by fair means, you shall by foul. I see that you intend to be master here." We were almost stunned with surprise and fear. Where was our pity now? It was transferred to the little chap he was so unmercifully dressing. ...

Downstairs was Mr Bowker. He had a classroom to himself, where he taught us Geography and English History. This gentleman had great literary knowledge and was a member, I believe, of learned societies.

Geography Mr Bowker did not teach well. He gave us maps to copy, and that was all. We took care to draw and paint our maps well, and to copy correctly a few principal names. One lad executed his work artistically; he spared no time and pains over the name of the country, and he even glazed his map with gum, so that it looked almost as if it had not been drawn by hand. The master could not help admiring the work, but remarked that it had not many names.

Some of us could not see to copy the small names in maps. Astigmatic sight was not then understood by oculists, and the only thing we could do was to invent names, and for our purpose, the Ward List of surnames of boys was most helpful. Once there was danger of being found out. "What is this?" said the master, "there is no such place," but something drew off his attention, and the matter ended. ...

I shall repeat here some of his instructions. "Boys, it isn't everyone who has had the privilege of travelling in foreign countries. Now you all know, because I have told you, that I have travelled a great deal. ... I have travelled about Switzerland, and have been on some of its high mountains, and have seen so many places that it would take me too much time to name them all; so I have the advantage of knowing the truth of what is reported by travellers. Some of those fellows tell the biggest lies a scoundrel can invent. There's that Arthur ____. You must not believe a word that fellow says. But I can tell you at the same time that I have heard and seen many wonderful things which you would scarcely believe, and which nevertheless you know to be true because they are told to you by me. There's a field of corn in Australia of which I will tell you the history. Once, a long time ago, a gentleman was showing me a mummy. The mummy held in his hand some of that ancient Egyptian corn which grew 2,000 years ago. Fancy! This corn had been held 2,000 years in in the hand of the mummy! Well, I begged a little of this corn, and the gentleman kindly gave me a few grains. These I sowed in my garden. They produced a crop, and that crop a larger one, and so on until at last there was this large field of corn in Australia. All that came from the few grains given me from the mummy's hand.

"... It is now time to serve out the history books. We have today to read about Titus Oates. Ah! he was a knave. He was worse than Marlborough. A most thorough knave that fellow was. Marlborough was avaricious, but he had some good qualities, and he was an able general. Marlborough too was very deceitful. But Titus Oates was not only avaricious and deceitful, he was bloodthirsty. Titus Oates was the greatest scoundrel that ever walked this earth. This infamous scamp had terrible sufferings, but he richly deserved his punishment." ...

These things were interesting and deserved attention and gratitude, and for a time they had it. But, perhaps, Mr Bowker was too long. ... So it happened that a lad, born perhaps like the majority with sluggish brains, was suddenly seen by the master to be woolgathering. Mr Bowker was at once irritated, and when one is irritated, the mind becomes like a distorting looking-glass that takes an ugly view of anything in front of it. In his excited state he called this boy the very name which he had been applying justly to Titus Oates. "See that Knave!" Mr Bowker cried. "I may talk, and talk, and talk, and talk, and the fellow doesn't listen to one word I'm saying. Come out here, you scoundrel, you scamp, you infamous rascal, and I'll give you a baker's round dozen."
Tags: family history, tom butler's schooldays
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