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Sketch Book of the North
School Days

As a means of awakening the genial after-dinner humour of most men past middle age, no subject, perhaps, equals the memory of early school-days. Let the topic but be started by an anecdote of some long-dead dominie, it is as if the spigot had been drawn from a butt of old vintage, and the stream of recollection will flow forth rich and sparkling with the mellowed light of years. Strange is the charm of a word! For a lifetime a man has been painfully toiling up the Alps of circumstance; it may be he has gained the object of his desire—the glittering ice-crystal on the peak which long ago dazzled his upward-looking eyes; and now, amid the walnuts and the wine, someone says "I remember"—lo! the years are forgotten; the greybeard is back in the sunny valley of his boyhood, wandering the field-paths with chubby companions long since dust, and filling his heart once more with the sweet scent of hayricks, of the hedges in hawthorn-time. It is not for nothing that rustic children day after day, as they start for school, hear the low of the farm-yard kine coming in to the milking, and that day after day, as they tread the long miles of moorland path, they see the grouse whirr off to the mountain, and the trout dart away from the sunny shallows; and it is not for nothing that they spend long truant afternoons by ferny lanes and harebell copses in the seasons of bird-nesting and bramble-gathering. These make the fragrant memories of after years! And again and again, in later life, to the man jaded with anxiety and care, the old associations come back, laden with pleasant regrets—a breath from the clover-fields of youth.

School life in town, notwithstanding its more sophisticated surroundings, has also its memories; for in what circumstances will not the boyish mind create a charmed world of its own! Apart from the actual events of class-room and playground, the streets and the shop windows, and the things in them to be desired, all furnish absorbing interests; and a half-amused envy in later years attends the memory of the fearful joy with which, after much contriving of ways and means, and much final screwing-up of courage to face the shopman, the long-coveted percussion pistol, or the wonderful and still more expensive model locomotive, was acquired and smuggled home. But school life in the city has a certain precocity which detracts from the poetry of its remembrance—an aroma is lacking which forms the subtlest charm of the associations of rustic childhood. What has the city-bred man to compare to the memory of that hot afternoon in July, when, escaped from the irksome thrall of desk and rod, in the clear river pool at the bottom of some deep-secluded dingle the urchins of the rural pedagoguy learned to swim? Such a scene remains in a man’s mind, a possession and a "joy for ever." Far off in some city den, gas-lit and fog-begrimed, his eyes may grow dim, poring over ledgers that are not his own, and his heart may grow heavy and sick with hope deferred; but at a word, a suggestion, it will all come back; he will be standing again on that grassy margin, the joyous voices of his comrades will be ringing in his ears, while the sunshine once more beats warmly on his head, and at his feet sparkle over their sandy bottom the pellucid waters of the woodland pool.

The black art of letters is probably the least detail of the learning acquired by school-children in the country, and it must be confessed that the thirst for book lore is not exactly their most conspicuous foible. Happy, nevertheless, in "schools and schoolmaster’s" of Nature’s own appointing, they grow up like the lilies, children of the earth and sun, and none the less fit for life, perhaps, that their learning has been got at first-hand from the facts and realities of actual existence. Who has not envied the bright-eyed boys and red-lipped little lasses, healthy with the breath of the woods and of the fresh-delved earth, whom one meets, satchel on back, on sequestered country roads? The dead tongues may be dead, indeed, to them, and mathematics an unnamed mystery; but, with eyes and ears open, they have learned all the lore of the fields and the hedges—have drunk deep at those nature-fountains whence all the literatures and poetries of the world have sprung.

Many changes have been made in school-teaching in the country of recent years. The Government inspector is now abroad, and code and standard compel all within their iron rule. The old ruts and byways have been forsaken, and the coach of Learning has been made to roll, if not yet along the coveted "royal road" of the old saw, at least along a highway more uniformly paved than of yore. The difference in outside appearance between the wayside school-houses of to-day and of thirty years ago is only an indication of the changes which have taken place within. The days are past when any incompetent would do for a dominie, and in place of the halt and the palsied, who used to fill the pedagogic chair, there is now the pretty school-ma’am from some Normal seminary. A tyrant of the most petty kind, it is to be feared, the rural school-master of the old days too often was—

Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace
The day’s disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laughed with counterfeited glee
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Convey’d the dismal tidings when he frown’d.

Now all this is altered. No longer would it be suffered that a sour and crabbed dominie, too crippled to walk, should, out of sheer caprice and ill-temper, hurl his tawse at some urchin’s head, and order him to bring them up and be thrashed; and it is to be doubted if the modern "Board" would countenance even such a gallant device as the vicarious birching of a boy for the delinquencies of one of the dearer sex. Idiosyncrasies like these, no doubt, made much of the picturesqueness of school life in the country a generation ago; and people whose memories are of the old régime are apt to look back upon the former state of things, faulty as it was, with a sigh. Sometimes a head is shaken regretfully, and it is averred that with modern innovations are being planed away all those strong, rich peculiarities of ancient rural life which made character in the country interesting. The crabbed rule of the ancient village pedagogue has a charm for those who have escaped beyond reach of his tawse, the thrashings themselves of bygone days have become mere subject for a smile. Point of view, however, makes a considerable difference in the matter, and the unfortunate urchin of those days, counting the strokes of an ill-tempered and unreasoning castigation upon his nether habiliments, probably entertained a somewhat different sentiment.

Head-shakings and misgivings notwithstanding, individuality of country life may very well be left to take care of itself. Children remain true to their instincts under the new regime as under the old; and growing like the trees of the hedgerows, amid the influences of wild and varied nature, rustic character may still be trusted to develop a picturesqueness of its own. The real country school, after all, does not lie within four walls, nor is it ruled by the rod of prim school-ma’am or spectacled dominie. Nature herself, the primeval alma mater of all mankind, is the educator there. The leaves of her primers are stored in the woodlands; her history-books are written and explained by the seasons themselves; the lark and the rivulet are the perpetual tutors of her "old notation"; and her terms are timed by the bloom and flight of the snowdrop and the swallow.

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