Legends of Myself 51

Posted on December 27, 2012

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Continued from Legends of Myself 50

51. Port Essington, 1958-59:  One Room Schoolhouse

It’s one of those bureaucratic paradoxes that sometimes the most challenging jobs are given to the least experienced, mostly because the most experienced wouldn’t put up with them.  The schoolhouse in Essington had one room, one teacher, 10 students, and (potentially) 7 grades.  That must have been a challenge.

I know that there weren’t a full 7 grades on offer because there was no one in Grade Two.  Perhaps there was a gap somewhere between 4 and 7, but I can no longer recall for certain.  Cousin Art was in Grade Four.  Myself, Reynold and Glen (another of my cousin’s uncles) were in Grade Three.  I believe Trudy was joined by someone else in Grade One.  In Grade Seven was a boy spilling over into teenagehood.  There was a girl or two somewhere in Grades Five or Six or both, I’m not sure where.  It was a various, eccentric mix of students in a little village a little beyond the edge of everything, which even an experienced teacher would find a puzzle to teach.

Pickwick Papers 1836However it was likely that the teacher assigned to that schoolhouse was one low in the scholastic pecking order, who didn’t even know he was getting a job until months after the season had begun.  Surely he was as glad to be given the chance to teach us as Port Essington was to have him.  If my own recollections are representative, he did a fine job.

I no longer remember his name.  Our teacher came to Essington with his wife, and they set up housekeeping upstairs in the schoolhouse itself.  Every morning at nine or so he stood on top of the little flight of schoolhouse stairs and rang his bell.

In that schoolroom I remember being introduced to both Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.  The Dickens was a passage from The Pickwick Papers where a boastful Winkle makes a fool of himself on the ice after pretending that he knew how to skate, and Pickwick calls him on it:

‘You’re a humbug, sir.’ ‘A what?’ said Mr. Winkle, starting.

‘A humbug, Sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, sir.’

I learned the word “humbug” from that reading, but it was not until some four years later that I began to read Dickens in earnest, beginning with Oliver TwistPickwick, the first encountered, was ironically to be the last of Dickens’ novels that I finished.

tom sawyer abroadMark Twain was represented in that classroom by Tom Sawyer Abroad, which the teacher read aloud.  Along with Tom, the novel featured Huck Finn and the ex-slave Jim who had finished the journey together in Huckleberry Finn.   Tom Sawyer Abroad —a variation on Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, I suspect—was little more than a potboiler, unable to claim the artistic merit of, say, Huckleberry Finn.   The latter has itself run into trouble for its stereotypical 19th century American racism, in particular for its depiction of Jim, but Jim is at least made real there, and the novel’s fundamentally humanitarian theme redeems it.  However, Tom Sawyer Abroad renders Jim as a clown, pure and simple, and the racism is unredeemed, and painful to revisit.

That whole aspect of the book, fortunately, went right past me in that Port Essington classroom.  I knew too little of the world to even know to assign a colour to the characters.  I just heard a story, and the characters all spoke with my teacher’s voice.  However, despite being a great lover of Twain as a general thing, as my father was as well, I would never present Tom Sawyer Abroad to any child today under any circumstances.  1958 was another country.

1-1-3In that classroom I encountered the first IQ test that I remember taking.  One of the questions was 1+1=?, which, talking about it afterwards, we all thought was hilarious.  Ho, ho.  Then we got our answer sheets back and I realized that I had written in “3.”  What, no extra points for satirizing the question?

It was early evidence, I think, that Teddy was absent-minded.

I don’t clearly remember how our teacher ran our class.  I have no sense of him moving down the rows giving private tutorials to each grade.  He had the advantage, in such a small class, of being able to monitor the progress of each of us individually without anybody in danger of falling through the cracks.  But assuming 5 or 6 grades with at least three lessons apiece a day, he had a danger of spreading his attention too thin unless he combined lessons where appropriate.

I remember a lesson on the Arctic where we built a diorama, an igloo at the centre of it, where we turned off the school lights to see what the Land of the Midnight Sun looked like.  It was spooky.

Another project about transportation I remember not quite as vividly.  I think there were mountains, trucks and trains in it.

One lesson was on slang.  By way of example, our teacher declaimed, “Go, man, go!”—so unnaturally and so far from his usual way of talking that it elicited a roar of laughter from all of us.

There is one sign that our teacher was struggling with his circumstances.  I can’t say I noticed it until my Uncle Gus came to the school one day to complain about the fact that the school day was running to 4 o’clock.  School ended at 3:15 everywhere else.  Why, in Port Essington, should the kids not go home until 4?

I remember the teacher looking abashed and it required only that challenge for Gus to win his case, apparently.  I’m not sure my uncle wasn’t right, either.  People tend to undervalue the importance of play for children.  Past a certain point too much emphasis on scholastics can actually interfere with a kid’s development in other ways.  But I, for one, didn’t mind at all staying in school until 4.  I liked school.

But after Gus’ visit school ended at 3:15 in Port Essington, just like everywhere else.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 52

Posted in: autobiography