School for Life or Death.

Is there anybody, above an idiot, who has not at some time or other thought, with a strange internal thrill, while contemplating a crowd, “How will all these people die?” The thought comes when the Queen is opening Parliament, amidst the most gorgeous assemblage that this country can show. It comes in the midst of the village fair, when the drums and trumpets, and the shouts of the showmen, and the great laughs of the rustics are loudest. It comes when, in war time, the troops march forth through thronged streets, and climb into the transports on the crowded sea. It comes when, in time of peace, the first sod of a great railway is turned, or the first stone laid of a building which will be a benefit to successive generations for a thousand years.

We know how something very like it occurred to the poet Gray and to Mrs. Hemans, at Evening Prayer in a Girls’ School; and few of Hs can have been present at any celebration in any one of our public schools without being visited by that speculation.

— ” In seventy — or, say eighty — years from this day, every individual of this great crowd mil be dead.”

One would like to know how each one will die: by accident on land, some of them, no doubt: by a gun going off in getting through a hedge — their own gun or some comrade’s who will never be happy again; some by drowning in bathing at home, or by foundering at sea; some by fire in the dressing-room, or in the ship, or in their beds; one or two by suicide in disease of brain or agony of mind; some of the youths, years hence, by apoplexy brought on by intemperance of one kind or another; some of the young women in the most pathetic possible moment — mothers for an hour or a day, but prevented from rallying by previous violations of the laws of nature; some few, very few, from mere old age, when they will remember this day, but not anything of a then recent date; a large proportion from the ordinary diseases affecting the three great departments of the human frame; many from diseases of the head; more from the various diseases of the abdomen, and most from those of the chest.

The deaths in the streets from brain-seizures are a common item of news in the papers. We need but refer to liver-complaints, cholera, the gout of the olden time, still surviving, and the miserable stomach complaints of our own day. But all this last class together will not carry off so many as consumption, if we are to judge the next half-century by the past. Within fifteen or twenty years, a large proportion of the young people who to-day look so full of life and spirits, will have died of the slow strangulation and tormenting fever of consumption.

Whether in the hospital-ward, or in the cottage loft, or in the city garret, or in the airy chamber and the soft bed of the mansion — matters little. They will have gasped away their short life and been buried, while others will have half a century longer to live. The dreadful thought is, that they also might, for the most part, have their half century longer, but for the mismanagement of their earlier years.

The doomed band, the twenty or thirty youths and maidens, who are listening to the Queen’s voice amidst the hush in the House of Lords, or waving their hats and handkerchiefs to the soldiers who are going into danger less fatal than they are carrying in their own chests, might as well as not have lived to wear wrinkles and silver hair; but disease has been sown in them heedlessly, and it cannot now be uprooted.

So early? Why, many of them have but lately left school! How can they have already received their sentence? And where was it? At home or at school, or where?

Some at home and some at school. It depends on the management. Hitherto, perhaps, the danger has been greatest at school; but the scale may be turning, if we take into the account all the homes, from the Belgravian mansion to the navvy’s hovel, in which there are children between seven and seventeen. There are fewer deaths within those ten years, than during the five years of infancy: but they are the preparation for the next period of high mortality, when consumption and stomach disorders will make fearful havoc among those who ought to be entering upon the great interests of life.

Of the multitude who die before five- or seven-and-twenty, the greater number became doomed at school, or in school-rooms at home.

What is the school-boy? What is the schoolgirl? And what is school to them?

They are not fully grown, in body or mind. Their brains are fit for a good deal of work of various kinds; but not yet for all kinds; and it requires care, that it be not over-worked, nor partially worked. The frame is strong enough for a good deal of very various exercise; but it requires consideration till its parts have reached their full vigour. Till this happens — till the spine has become well-knit, and the limbs duly proportioned, and the muscles developed and strengthened, the circulation is often imperfect, the digestion is uncertain, the nervous system is unsettled; and at least as much care is necessary to do justice to the body as to the mind. Is this justice done? Not always at home; and less often at school.

A boy goes to a public school, or to a large private one, such as exist in every sect of disseuters, as well as in many districts lying out of the way of our great public schools. He carries with him the wants that everybody has at his age. He wants food in the first place — food fit for, and pleasant to, a growing boy. He wants plenty of sleep, airy, quiet, and decent. He wants regular daily opportunity for cleanliness; for the neglect of the skin is invariably avenged upon the internal organs of the body. He wants due warmth in winter, much more than he will need it ten years hence. He wants frequent change of posture and employment; steady, moderate lessons, alternating with vigorous play. He wants to have every muscle put to use in active sports, and every faculty put to use in study and in daily life. How does he get these wants supplied at school?

The “new boy” is puzzled the first morning, at finding only one basin (a good large one, however), for the six or eight fellows in his room. As he is up first he washes first, finishing with his feet. He is caught in the fact, and finds himself hated on account of it. He is called a dirty little wretch — to his amazement. It is very odd and perplexing, after having been brought up to think it a dirty trick to omit washing his feet; but the more he explains and argues, the more he gets abused. He is pulled by the hair, and made to wash out the basin before and after every other boy uses it, and to fetch the additional water required.

He is quizzed for his clean collar; and as often as he brushes his hair it is made a mop of again. So he gives up home habits for peace sake, and becomes satisfied with the Saturday night’s feet- and headwashing, in soapy water which must serve for half a-dozen. During the week, face and hands get washed, but seldom anything else. He soon becomes subject to head-colds, which he never had at home. One comes after another, and it is a great bore. Sooner or later, he has a fever; and an attack of English cholera now and then in summer. It will not be surprising if he gets a cough, which returns more and more frequently.

He is better off, after all, than his sister at her boarding-school, where there is the Saturday night’s washing, with the common foot-bath and the wet towel; and for the rest of the week, the scanty ablution in the morning, before the eyes of companions, followed by the consciousness of a dirty neck — the only part the teacher detects and complains of. The poor girl wonders where her miseries come from when she has fidgets (the worst plague of all), chaps and chilblains, languor and low spirits — and such dreadful head-colds! She is worse off than her brother, because she does not get such vigorous play; and she never goes to bathe.

We hear now and then, perhaps more and more, of washing-closets in schools; but before this time we ought to have arrived at refusing to send children to any school in which the apparatus for cleanliness is not complete. Baths and washhouses will soon be considered as necessary as dormitories and school-rooms in every educational establishment.

Water — laid on so as to serve a range of washing-closets where the children can wash from head to foot in privacy, and also for the supply of the laundry, where the washing and drying of linen may be done with the ease and speed obtained by modern inventions — will hereafter be a matter of course in large schools. Then will disappear the sneezings in school, and the mopping of noses, and watering eyes, and inflamed lips, and the lingering cough — the ghost which now haunts all assemblages of boys and girls.

“But there is the bathing for boys.” Yes, there is, in a way: but few parents like to think about that. That is a matter in which British education is disgracefully backward. The little heathens whom we think of with a sort of pitying disgust, in their South Sea islands or on the shores of the mighty rivers of the world, have, at least, learned to use their limbs, however it may be with their higher powers. They spend the hot summer noon among the fish, and can cross any stream, dive to any reasonable depth, and shift for themselves under various risks which would be fatal to most of us at their age — or, indeed, at any age.

Why are not English children as wise as the savages in this, while so much wiser in some other matters? Wherever there are people with four limbs, living near water, why do they not learn to use their limbs in the water? Perhaps this is the very greatest of the many puzzles belonging to life in England. We live in an island, and are therefore obliged to go to sea if we travel abroad at all. We flock to the coast in the summer for sea-bathing; we all live near a river, or a lake, or a pond, and yet only a small per-centage of the English nation can swim.

In the late war, a middy was drowned in the Baltic, because he could not keep himself afloat till the ship’s boat reached him. And then we began to inquire, and found that in our whole navy and merchant-service, and in the fisheries along the coast, only a fraction of the men can swim. The Duke of Northumberland at once set up a swimming-school on the North coast, with a qualified master and all means and appliances, and moreover with prizes for proficiency; and we may hope to hear no more of coroners’ inquests on fishermen drowned close by the shore at Cullercoats, and of widows and orphans bereaved and pauperised by the upsetting of a boat within a stone’s throw of the beach. Why is it not made a part of education for every child to learn early to swim? Where is the difficulty? Where is the objection?

Many years ago, a boy was drowned in bathing in one of the great private schools of the dissenters. The usher was with the party, but the boy got beyond his depth, and sank because he did not know how to keep himself up. Instead of taking measures to show every boy how to do that, the masters forbade bathing altogether; and a more awkward squad than the pupils of that school could not well be seen. They never learned the proper use of their limbs; and they were consequently timid where well-trained lads would have been without a thought of fear.

A boy who can swim like a fish is pretty sure to do other things well: to row, to bowl, to drive, to ride; and every child ought to swim like a fish. See how this consideration again brings us back to the topic of mortality! Is there ever a summer when we do not see a succession of paragraphs about persons drowned in bathing? Is there ever a tourist season at the Lakes in which every considerable lake has not its victims

A skiff is upset — a bather has got out of his depth — an angler has fallen overboard; and as none of them can swim, they all go to the bottom. So we go on, year after year. This year 1859 has been mournfully distinguished by coroners’ inquests on this kind of needless death. Oxford and Cambridge have offered up their victims, and seas and rivers have sent their bad news to swell the indignation and shame with which we have to confess that we, a maritime nation noted for our manly sports, have not yet learned to swim!

We have proposed every child — and not only every boy — as a swimming pupil, because the main reasons for anybody’s being able to swim are good for everybody. English women have four limbs, and live in an island, and make voyages, and practice sea-bathing, and need exercise in the water at school and at home, and go out in boats — in short, run the universal risks in regard to water; and, therefore, they have a claim to be taught to swim.

At the time when the great school was kept away from the river, because a boy had been drowned, a sensible and wealthy Quaker gentleman built a bathing-house for his young daughters on a mere in his grounds, which was sufficiently fenced with reeds to secure privacy; and the girls learned to swim. In the sea they could all go through the exercises as Southsea women and as French women do. Their frames were improved; their health was improved; their safety was improved; and there was not a shadow of an objection to be set off on the other side.

We are so far making progress as that there are swimming schools opened here and there, for women as for men; and we are learning how French girls esteem and practice the art which has become a matter of regular instruction on the Seine and other rivers. An event which happened three years ago also awakened attention among some who have not shaken off their prejudices against everything French. It will be sufficient to remind our readers of the burning of the steamer Indiana, on Lake Erie, in July, 1856, when 50 passengers perished out of 190, though the time was noonday, and the water was perfectly calm, and help was not long in arriving.

The ladies on board could not swim, nor even float; and they had actually used their life-belts as pincushions when undressing; so that they could only go to the bottom when the flames had driven them overboard. The gentlemen seem to have been much in the same condition. Not so Bridget Glyn, a poor Irishwoman, who had her four little children with her — the youngest a babe. Bridget knew what to do in the water; and she saved all her children, even though a boat ran one down, and all went under repeatedly during the time that elapsed before they were picked up. She saw the right moment for throwing them overboard, and for following them; she knew how to make them hold on so as to balance her, as she held up the babe: she prevented them from struggling, and when they sank she knew where they would come up, and seized them by the hair.

Every healthy woman might be at home in the water, like Bridget Glyn; but, instead of that, they lose their wits there, and cling to any man who would save them, so as to drown him too, if possible. If we could, as a nation, swim as naturally as we walk, we should see a prodigious reduction in the amount of mortality from shipwreck and accidents in home navigation. Far greater, however, would be the saving of life in another direction. The victims of consumption would be saved by hundreds.

We have floated far away from our schoolchildren. Not, however, from their interests. What else is necessary for their well-being?

Our own opinion is that no one is justified in keeping a school who does not keep a good cook. In great public schools the theory is that there are housekeepers whose business it is to see that the tables are properly served; but, in those cases, the housekeepers have no power over the arrangements of meals and hours. In private schools, the heads of the household are usually dependent on their servants; for few are the ladies in our days who know much about the economy of the table.

After casting many a wistful glance through a long range of schools — from the Bluecoat School to the super-genteel ladies’ establishments, patronised by bishops and filled with future peeresses — we are compelled to say that the simple wants of growing children are seldom met. We have nothing to say here of cheap schools, where everything is done for less than it can possibly cost.

The answer we once gave about such places we give now, and always shall give. Two fine little girls, children of a political refugee, motherless and without prospect in life, were to be done something with, and money was subscribed for their education. A lady who had given grand dinners several times a week for the London season, urged their being sent to a school where they would be taken entire charge of for £20 each a-year.

After pressing upon this lady the price of the loaf, the price of a pound of mutton, the price of a cwt. of coals, and a week’s washing, we with difficulty induced her to say that the thing could not be done; growing girls could not have enough bread, meat and vegetables; nor warmth, nor clean liucu for the money, if there was any real education given at all. Parents must know what food costs; and if they send children to twenty-pound schools, it must be at the conscious risk of health and life.

We are not writing for murderers; and therefore we pass over the cheap private schools. Looking at others, a crowd of mournful remembrances comes back upon us. In one great public school, the boys had to provide their own breakfasts. If a little devil had been set to work to invent a way of encouraging all bad inclinations and passions in boys while injuring their health, he would have devised just this: A school full of lads providing themselves with a meal a-day.

The amount of care and interest bestowed on the eating and drinking; the eagerness for luxuries; the debt; the dread of parents, and cessation of intercourse with them; the gaming induced by the pressure of debt; the introduction to the vices of manhood by the choice of breakfast — these evils are worthy of diabolic invention.

One day a wise man decreed that a good comfortable breakfast at home should be a part of the daily routine: and an amount of corruption was prevented such as had engaged the prayers and tears of a succession of holy men before the man of common sense arrived. But the spread meals must be good; and how seldom it is that they are soundly good!

One of the primary requisites in any boarding-school is a cook who can make household bread, always alike and always perfect (a practicable thing for those who know how to set about it); who can boil a potato (the hackneyed test); who sends up joints thoroughly roasted to the bone and boiled to the centre, without being burnt or ragged; who understands the mystery of savoury stews and of sending up various vegetables equally hot, and puddings which shall not have their own day of the week, or even of the fortnight. The difference between a monotonous and comfortless dinner and an agreeable and various one, is so small in cost that it is perfectly inexcusable to subject growing children to any disgust and injury for such a reason.

It is commonly taken for granted that sauciness about food is seen in home-bred children; and that the way to make a dainty boy or girl eat properly, is to send them to school. This is partly true: but there is another side to it. Instead of learning to eat what comes, the school-child too often stealthily omits the eating. While a disposition to general daintiness is to be dealt with as carefully as the fault of gormandising, it is as useless as it is cruel to contend with occasional cases of constitutional repugnance to some particular article of diet.

It is as absurd as making a child eat what disagrees with it, merely because other people do. We have seen a pale-faced little girl, with lead-coloured circles round her eyes, compelled to take milk breakfasts till she was “of the proper age” to have coffee, and enduring in consequence, a whole youth of indigestion. She did not dislike milk; but she could not digest it; and during her entire childhood, she went to her lessons with a suffocating lump in her throat, and a head full of pain or noises.

At school, she would have eaten the bread and omitted the milk. We have seen a little boy actually unable (like others of the family) to eat rice. His gorge rose at it. This was inconvenient; and the opportunity was taken when he was seven years old, to bribe him to get over the dislike. He took a fancy to a book in a shop-window — one of those overwhelming desires which throw a child into a fever. It was the “Seven Champions of Christendom,” with a gay frontispiece.

He was promised the book, if he would eat of the Saturday rice-pudding henceforward. By a tremendous effort, with his eyes fixed on the opposite wall, he got down, and kept down, his small plateful of pudding. The book was bought, and read before tea-time: and all was then a blank. The child never did eat rice again: he could not do it; and his mind was troubled. For a transient pleasure he had bound himself by a promise which he could not fulfil. These are grave mistakes, however trifling each occasion may appear. The whole subject of eating is made of far too much importance by thus connecting it with so much thought and emotion. Proper meals, properly cooked, would obviate a large class of such mistakes.

Everybody likes a great deal that is in “Tom Brown’s School-days;” but a large proportion of the public, including, probably, the dissenters generally, are amazed and shocked at the disclosure it mokes of the sensual cast of mind of the boys in a great public school. It does not follow that it is so in all such institutions. If it were, they would never be entered by the children of parents who dread to expose their sons prematurely to the grosser order of temptations. The little personages in that book think, every day of their lives, and with eagerness and passion, of sausages, kidneys, a treat of beef and mustard for supper — or good eating of one sort or another.

Throughout the wide range of dissenting life in England, nothing like this, we believe, is dreamed of; and the disclosure has been a great shock to a multitude of good citizens. What, they ask, can be expected of boys who begin their independent life amidst overwhelming and entirely unnecessary temptations, and whose minds become occupied with gross thoughts and desires? What parent could make the venture of sending his child into such a scene? We sympathise cordially with this view. Not the more, but the less, however, can we reconcile ourselves to the asceticism which prevails in many private schools, where it is taken for granted that growing children must be hungry; and that hungry children ought to be able to eat whatever is set before them.

The atmosphere of a school is one of high excitement. The faculties are strongly exercised; the nervous system is in a state of tension; the emotions and passions work vehemently; and, while more food is required than in the quiet routine of home life, there is often less inclination to take it.

This is particularly the case in girls’ schools. We have seen the pupils crowded so closely at table, that the one circumstance of the knives being blunt has made some of the more delicate go without their dinners. Half-roasted veal or mutton, burnt pie-crust, boiled rice all gluey and served six times a week, offered no inducement to elbow one’s neighbour, and hack away with a blunt knife. It was easier to eat the bit of bread, or perhaps a potato, and let the rest go. Hence may grow up the practice of eating between meals, and of buying unwholesome things.

On the whole, the chances are much against the pupils of many schools entering upon life with that inestimable blessing, a sound digestion: and the greater part of the mischief might be spared by such a provision of comfort as is found in every decent home: — plenty of room at table for everybody; plenty of time; liberty to talk quietly to neighbours; sharp knives with clean handles, and bright forks and spoons; good bread; thoroughly well-cooked joints, with such variety as soup, fish, stew, pies — such dishes as it is perfectly easy to supply in a large household; a pretty wide range of puddings, and occasional fruit when the common fruits are in season.

Dinners like these, and comfortable breakfasts and suppers, would leave no pretence for the systematic purchase of food which seems to be an established practice in some public schools. If boys will spend their money in dainties, it should, at least, be without the excuse of hunger or of custom. As it is, troops of children leave school under sentence of long suffering from an impaired digestive system — a certain proportion being sure to end in early death.

What else is wanted? Warmth; quiet sleep; strong exercise. Boys can generally get on very well in these respects. It is true the elder and stronger are often seen engrossing the fires, when little fellows are blue with cold in the distance: but boys can always move about at short intervals and get warmth into their toes. They have the playground for exercise; and tired boys soon learn to sleep at night in the midst of any storytelling and restlessness around them.

Into the practice of fagging and its consequences we do not enter here. Hearts have been broken, brains have been turned, many a life’s career has been spoiled, by the tyranny of the strong over the weak in fagging: but there are consequences of an opposite kind enough to make a complicated question of it. We all agree, probably, that when education is what it ought to be, there will be no such prodigious advantage given to the strong over the weak, to the tyrannical over the timid, to the brutal over the nervous. We all hope for the time when the discipline may be given without the abuses.

School-girls are exempt from the great heavy black cloud of care which the fagging system frequently spreads over the life of a multitude of little boys; but they have their own troubles, and some very severe ones. They have seldom anything more than a mere apology for a playground; and they do not half make use of it. The boys may be allowed to engross the fighting as well as the fagging; but we know of no other exercise which the girls might not enjoy as freely.

Indeed, it will be an immense advantage when the day comes for boys and girls learning and playing together, as the children of several foreign countries do. Climbing trees is admirable exercise for everybody; and so is cricket, and trapball, and ball play of all kinds; and racing and jumping. Instead of this, we see not a few schools where the girls, after sitting and standing all day, are taken out for a walk in the twilight, to save lighting candles. They seldom feel the sun; they have chilblains and other ailments from bad circulation; and in such schools nearly every girl has more or less distortion of the spine when she has been there more than two years.

In the last century people knew no better. Little girls were put upon hard benches without backs, and so high that the feet hung in the air; and so perched, they were required to sit bolt upright and sew for hours together. The consequence was the deformed shoulder, the hump-back, the weary aching spine which many thousands of Englishwomen have carried to the grave. There is no more reason for women being crooked than any other creature born with a proper backbone; and this is better understood than it used to be. We see that the seats in schools are oftener accommodated to the height of the children: and if leaning back is not countenanced, there is more frequent change of posture and of occupation.

Calisthenic exercises, and even the inclined plane for the relief of the backs of fast-growing girls, are common sights in our day. The improvement is marked; but the condition of school-girls needs more consideration than has yet been given to it. Their average of health is far below that of boys: more of them will languish in invalidism; fewer will have genuine robust health; more, in particular, will die of consumption within ten years. The main cause of this is the unequal development of the faculties.

There is too much intellectual acquisition, though not too much mental exercise, if it were made more general; and there is an almost total absence of physical education. If the muscles were called upon as strenuously as the memory to show what they could do, the long train of schoolgirls who institute the romance of the coming generation would flock merrily into ten thousand homes, instead of parting off — some to gladden their homes, certainly, but too many to the languid lot of invalidism, or to the actual sick-room; while an interminable procession of them is for ever on its way to the cemetery — the foremost dropping into the grave while the number is kept up from behind.

Many a survivor will be still wondering, with grandchildren round the fire, that this and that and the other pretty or clever schoolfellow should have died so early; and at the same time, papa, at thirty, will remark on the number of the fellows who left school with him who have had to go to Madeira. Some have rallied; but for most it was merely the choice of a grave under the myrtles there, or in the sea, or in the cemetery at home.

When a dragon devoured youths and maidens in ancient times, somebody was always found to go out against him, and to conquer him at last. We must not be less watchful and devoted than our forefathers. We must rescue our youths and maidens from an early doom.

Harriet Martineau

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