A Clergyman's Daughter

demands, which they send by hand and which the child reads on the

  way to school. At the end of the first fortnight Mabel Briggs,

  one of the most promising girls in the class, brought Dorothy the

  following note:

  Dear Miss,--Would you please give Mabel a bit more ARITHMETIC? I

  feel that what your giving her is not practacle enough. All these

  maps and that. She wants practacle work, not all this fancy stuff.

  So more ARITHMETIC, please. And remain,

  Yours Faithfully,

  Geo. Briggs

  P.S. Mabel says your talking of starting her on something called

  decimals. I don't want her taught decimals, I want her taught


  So Dorothy stopped Mabel's geography and gave her extra arithmetic

  instead, whereat Mabel wept. More letters followed. One lady was

  disturbed to hear that her child was being given Shakespeare to

  read. 'She had heard', she wrote, 'that this Mr Shakespeare was a

  writer of stage-plays, and was Miss Millborough quite certain that

  he wasn't a very IMMORAL writer? For her own part she had never so

  much as been to the pictures in her life, let alone to a stage-

  play, and she felt that even in READING stage-plays there was a

  very grave danger,' etc., etc. She gave way, however, on being

  informed that Mr Shakespeare was dead. This seemed to reassure

  her. Another parent wanted more attention to his child's

  handwriting, and another thought French was a waste of time; and

  so it went on, until Dorothy's carefully arranged time-table was

  almost in ruins. Mrs Creevy gave her clearly to understand that

  whatever the parents demanded she must do, or pretend to do. In

  many cases it was next door to impossible, for it disorganized

  everything to have one child studying, for instance, arithmetic

  while the rest of the class were doing history or geography. But

  in private schools the parents' word is law. Such schools exist,

  like shops, by flattering their customers, and if a parent wanted

  his child taught nothing but cat's-cradle and the cuneiform

  alphabet, the teacher would have to agree rather than lose a pupil.

  The fact was that the parents were growing perturbed by the tales

  their children brought home about Dorothy's methods. They saw no

  sense whatever in these new-fangled ideas of making plasticine maps

  and reading poetry, and the old mechanical routine which had so

  horrified Dorothy struck them as eminently sensible. They became

  more and more restive, and their letters were peppered with the

  word 'practical', meaning in effect more handwriting lessons and

  more arithmetic. And even their notion of arithmetic was limited

  to addition, subtraction, multiplication and 'practice', with long

  division thrown in as a spectacular tour de force of no real value.

  Very few of them could have worked out a sum in decimals themselves,

  and they were not particularly anxious for their children to be able

  to do so either.

  However, if this had been all, there would probably never have been

  any serious trouble. The parents would have nagged at Dorothy, as

  all parents do; but Dorothy would finally have learned--as, again,

  all teachers finally learn--that if one showed a certain amount of

  tact one could safely ignore them. But there was one fact that was

  absolutely certain to lead to trouble, and that was the fact that

  the parents of all except three children were Nonconformists,

  whereas Dorothy was an Anglican. It was true that Dorothy had lost

  her faith--indeed, for two months past, in the press of varying

  adventures, had hardly thought either of her faith or of its loss.

  But that made very little difference; Roman or Anglican, Dissenter,

  Jew, Turk or infidel, you retain the habits of thought that you

  have been brought up with. Dorothy, born and bred in the precincts

  of the Church, had no understanding of the Nonconformist mind.

  With the best will in the world, she could not help doing things

  that would cause offence to some of the parents.

  Almost at the beginning there was a skirmish over the Scripture

  lessons--twice a week the children used to read a couple of

  chapters from the Bible. Old Testament and New Testament

  alternately--several of the parents writing to say, would Miss

  Millborough please NOT answer the children when they asked

  questions about the Virgin Mary; texts about the Virgin Mary were

  to be passed over in silence, or, if possible, missed out

  altogether. But it was Shakespeare, that immoral writer, who

  brought things to a head. The girls had worked their way through

  Macbeth, pining to know how the witches' prophecy was to be

  fulfilled. They reached the closing scenes. Birnam Wood had come

  to Dunsinane--that part was settled, anyway; now what about the man

  who was not of woman born? They came to the fatal passage:

  MACBETH: Thou losest labour;

  As easy may'st thou the intrenchant air

  With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed:

  Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests,

  I bear a charmed life, which must not yield

  To one of woman born.

  MACDUFF: Despair thy charm,

  And let the Angel whom thou still hast served

  Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb

  Untimely ripp'd.

  The girls looked puzzled. There was a momentary silence, and then

  a chorus of voices round the room:

  'Please, Miss, what does that mean?'

  Dorothy explained. She explained haltingly and incompletely, with

  a sudden horrid misgiving--a premonition that this was going to

  lead to trouble--but still, she did explain. And after that, of

  course, the fun began.

  About half the children in the class went home and asked their

  parents the meaning of the word 'womb'. There was a sudden

  commotion, a flying to and fro of messages, an electric thrill of

  horror through fifteen decent Nonconformist homes. That night the

  parents must have held some kind of conclave, for the following

  evening, about the time when school ended, a deputation called upon

  Mrs Creevy. Dorothy heard them arriving by ones and twos, and

  guessed what was going to happen. As soon as she had dismissed the

  children, she heard Mrs Creevy call sharply down the stairs:

  'Come up here a minute, Miss Millborough!'

  Dorothy went up, trying to control the trembling of her knees. In

  the gaunt drawing-room Mrs Creevy was standing grimly beside the

  piano, and six parents were sitting round on horsehair chairs like

  a circle of inquisitors. There was the Mr Geo. Briggs who had

  written the letter about Mabel's arithmetic--he was an alert-

  looking greengrocer with a dried-up, shrewish wife--and there was a

  large, buffalo-like man with drooping moustaches and a colourless,

  peculiarly FLAT wife who looked as though she had been flattened

  out by the pressure of some heavy object--her husband, perhaps.

  The names of these two Dorothy did not catch. There was also Mrs

  Williams, the mother of the congenital idiot, a small, dark, very

  obtuse woman who always agreed wi
th the last speaker, and there was

  a Mr Poynder, a commercial traveller. He was a youngish to middle-

  aged man with a grey face, mobile lips, and a bald scalp across

  which some strips of rather nasty-looking damp hair were carefully

  plastered. In honour of the parents' visit, a fire composed of

  three large coals was sulking in the grate.

  'Sit down there, Miss Millborough,' said Mrs Creevy, pointing to a

  hard chair which stood like a stool of repentance in the middle of

  the ring of parents.

  Dorothy sat down.

  'And now,' said Mrs Creevy, 'just you listen to what Mr Poynder's

  got to say to you.'

  Mr Poynder had a great deal to say. The other parents had

  evidently chosen him as their spokesman, and he talked till flecks

  of yellowish foam appeared at the corners of his mouth. And what

  was remarkable, he managed to do it all--so nice was his regard for

  the decencies--without ever once repeating the word that had caused

  all the trouble.

  'I feel that I'm voicing the opinion of all of us,' he said with

  his facile bagman's eloquence, 'in saying that if Miss Millborough

  knew that this play--Macduff, or whatever its name is--contained

  such words as--well, such words as we're speaking about, she never

  ought to have given it to the children to read at all. To my mind

  it's a disgrace that schoolbooks can be printed with such words in

  them. I'm sure if any of us had ever known that Shakespeare was

  that kind of stuff, we'd have put our foot down at the start. It

  surprises me, I must say. Only the other morning I was reading a

  piece in my News Chronicle about Shakespeare being the father of

  English Literature; well, if that's Literature, let's have a bit

  LESS Literature, say I! I think everyone'll agree with me there.

  And on the other hand, if Miss Millborough didn't know that the

  word--well, the word I'm referring to--was coming, she just ought

  to have gone straight on and taken no notice when it did come.

  There wasn't the slightest need to go explaining it to them. Just

  tell them to keep quiet and not get asking questions--that's the

  proper way with children.'

  'But the children wouldn't have understood the play if I hadn't

  explained!' protested Dorothy for the third or fourth time.

  'Of course they wouldn't! You don't seem to get my point, Miss

  Millborough! We don't want them to understand. Do you think we

  want them to go picking up dirty ideas out of books? Quite enough

  of that already with all these dirty films and these twopenny

  girls' papers that they get hold of--all these filthy, dirty love-

  stories with pictures of--well, I won't go into it. We don't send

  our children to school to have ideas put into their heads. I'm

  speaking for all the parents in saying this. We're all of decent

  God-fearing folk--some of us are Baptists and some of us are

  Methodists, and there's even one or two Church of England among us;

  but we can sink our differences when it comes to a case like this--

  and we try to bring our children up decent and save them from

  knowing anything about the Facts of Life. If I had my way, no

  child--at any rate, no girl--would know anything about the Facts of

  Life till she was twenty-one.'

  There was a general nod from the parents, and the buffalo-like man

  added, 'Yer, yer! I'm with you there, Mr Poynder. Yer, yer!' deep

  down in his inside.

  After dealing with the subject of Shakespeare, Mr Poynder added

  some remarks about Dorothy's new-fangled methods of teaching, which

  gave Mr Geo. Briggs the opportunity to rap out from time to time,

  'That's it! Practical work--that's what we want--practical work!

  Not all this messy stuff like po'try and making maps and sticking

  scraps of paper and such like. Give 'em a good bit of figuring and

  handwriting and bother the rest. Practical work! You've said it!'

  This went on for about twenty minutes. At first Dorothy attempted

  to argue, but she saw Mrs Creevy angrily shaking her head at her

  over the buffalo-like man's shoulder, which she rightly took as a

  signal to be quiet. By the time the parents had finished they had

  reduced Dorothy very nearly to tears, and after this they made

  ready to go. But Mrs Creevy stopped them.

  'JUST a minute, ladies and gentlemen,' she said. 'Now that you've

  all had your say--and I'm sure I'm most glad to give you the

  opportunity--I'd just like to say a little something on my own

  account. Just to make things clear, in case any of you might think

  _I_ was to blame for this nasty business that's happened. And YOU

  stay here too, Miss Millborough!' she added.

  She turned on Dorothy, and, in front of the parents, gave her a

  venomous 'talking to' which lasted upwards of ten minutes. The

  burden of it all was that Dorothy had brought these dirty books

  into the house behind her back; that it was monstrous treachery and

  ingratitude; and that if anything like it happened again, out

  Dorothy would go with a week's wages in her pocket. She rubbed it

  in and in and in. Phrases like 'girl that I've taken into my

  house', 'eating my bread', and even 'living on my charity',

  recurred over and over again. The parents sat round watching, and

  in their crass faces--faces not harsh or evil, only blunted by

  ignorance and mean virtues--you could see a solemn approval, a

  solemn pleasure in the spectacle of sin rebuked. Dorothy

  understood this; she understood that it was necessary that Mrs

  Creevy should give her her 'talking to' in front of the parents, so

  that they might feel that they were getting their money's worth and

  be satisfied. But still, as the stream of mean, cruel reprimand

  went on and on, such anger rose in her heart that she could with

  pleasure have stood up and struck Mrs Creevy across the face.

  Again and again she thought, 'I won't stand it, I won't stand it

  any longer! I'll tell her what I think of her and then walk

  straight out of the house!' But she did nothing of the kind. She

  saw with dreadful clarity the helplessness of her position.

  Whatever happened, whatever insults it meant swallowing, she had

  got to keep her job. So she sat still, with pink humiliated face,

  amid the circle of parents, and presently her anger turned to

  misery, and she realized that she was going to begin crying if she

  did not struggle to prevent it. But she realized, too, that if she

  began crying it would be the last straw and the parents would

  demand her dismissal. To stop herself, she dug her nails so hard

  into the palms that afterwards she found that she had drawn a few

  drops of blood.

  Presently the 'talking to' wore itself out in assurances from Mrs

  Creevy that this should never happen again and that the offending

  Shakespeares should be burnt immediately. The parents were now

  satisfied. Dorothy had had her lesson and would doubtless profit

  by it; they did not bear her any malice and were not conscious of

  having humiliated her. They said good-bye to Mrs Creevy, said

  good-bye rather m
ore coldly to Dorothy, and departed. Dorothy also

  rose to go, but Mrs Creevy signed to her to stay where she was.

  'Just you wait a minute,' she said ominously as the parents left

  the room. 'I haven't finished yet, not by a long way I haven't.'

  Dorothy sat down again. She felt very weak at the knees, and

  nearer to tears than ever. Mrs Creevy, having shown the parents

  out by the front door, came back with a bowl of water and threw it

  over the fire--for where was the sense of burning good coals after

  the parents had gone? Dorothy supposed that the 'talking to' was

  going to begin afresh. However, Mrs Creevy's wrath seemed to have

  cooled--at any rate, she had laid aside the air of outraged virtue

  that it had been necessary to put on in front of the parents.

  'I just want to have a bit of a talk with you, Miss Millborough,'

  she said. 'It's about time we got it settled once and for all how

  this school's going to be run and how it's not going to be run.'

  'Yes,' said Dorothy.

  'Well, I'll be straight with you. When you came here I could see

  with half an eye that you didn't know the first thing about school-

  teaching; but I wouldn't have minded that if you'd just had a bit

  of common sense like any other girl would have had. Only it seems

  you hadn't. I let you have your own way for a week or two, and the

  first thing you do is to go and get all the parents' backs up.

  Well, I'm not going to have THAT over again. From now on I'm going

  to have things done MY way, not YOUR way. Do you understand that?'

  'Yes,' said Dorothy again.

  'You're not to think as I can't do without you, mind,' proceeded

  Mrs Creevy. 'I can pick up teachers at two a penny any day of the

  week, M.A.s and B.A.s and all. Only the M.A.s and B.A.s mostly

  take to drink, or else they--well, no matter what--and I will say

  for you you don't seem to be given to the drink or anything of that

  kind. I dare say you and me can get on all right if you'll drop

  these new-fangled ideas of yours and understand what's meant by

  practical school-teaching. So just you listen to me.'

  Dorothy listened. With admirable clarity, and with a cynicism that

  was all the more disgusting because it was utterly unconscious, Mrs

  Creevy explained the technique of the dirty swindle that she called

  practical school-teaching.

  'What you've got to get hold of once and for all,' she began, 'is

  that there's only one thing that matters in a school, and that's

  the fees. As for all this stuff about "developing the children's

  minds", as you call it, it's neither here nor there. It's the fees

  I'm after, not DEVELOPING THE CHILDREN'S MINDS. After all, it's no

  more than common sense. It's not to be supposed as anyone'd go to

  all the trouble of keeping school and having the house turned

  upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn't that there's a bit of

  money to be made out of it. The fees come first, and everything

  else comes afterwards. Didn't I tell you that the very first day

  you came here?'

  'Yes,' admitted Dorothy humbly.

  'Well, then, it's the parents that pay the fees, and it's the

  parents you've got to think about. Do what the parents want--

  that's our rule here. I dare say all this messing about with

  plasticine and paper-scraps that you go in for doesn't do the

  children any particular harm; but the parents don't want it, and

  there's an end of it. Well, there's just two subjects that they DO

  want their children taught, and that's handwriting and arithmetic.

  Especially handwriting. That's something they CAN see the sense

  of. And so handwriting's the thing you've got to keep on and on

  at. Plenty of nice neat copies that the girls can take home, and

  that the parents'll show off to the neighbours and give us a bit of

  a free advert. I want you to give the children two hours a day

  just at handwriting and nothing else.'

  'Two hours a day just at handwriting,' repeated Dorothy obediently.

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