11/8/12 - without love, the schoolroom is a forbidding place

In today's encore excerpt - Alan (A.A.) Milne, the author and playwright who later became world famous for Winnie the Pooh, grew up in the 1880s with his older brothers in the small British schoolhouse where his father, John (J.V.) Milne, was the headmaster. Because J.V. came from poverty, he lacked qualifications and was only able to become headmaster at rougher schools. Yet he led these with affection and good humor:

"In the rough schools to which his lack of academic qualifications condemned him ... J.V. needed, and had, the two great qualities, courage and a sense of humour.

"The middle son, Ken, is on record as having said at the age of three that his father had 'too much laugh' for a schoolteacher. And Alan tells a story which splendidly demonstrates not only his father's sense of humour, but also his will­ingness to admit he had made a mistake. One day the [school] Matron had, unknown to anyone else, asked a boy to fetch her glasses just as everyone was about to have dinner. J.V. Milne admonished the boy for his lateness and, without letting him explain, told him to push in his chair and eat his first course standing, the regular mild punishment for lateness.

"When at last told he might take his chair, the boy got the chance to explain. 'Please, sir. Matron sent me upstairs for her spectacles just as I was coming in.'

"Awed silence. 'Sucks for J.V.,' the boys are thinking. 'He'll have to apologize.' The younger assistant masters look up anxiously. Do schoolmasters ever apologize? Isn't it bad for discipline?

" 'Then in that case,' says J.V. Milne, wishing to get it quite clear. 'It wasn't your fault you were late?'

" 'Please, sir. No, sir.'

" 'Oh!' Everybody is waiting. 'Oh, well, then, you'd better take two chairs.' And everybody laughs and is happy.

"There was a great deal of laughter and happiness at Henley House. At one stage the boys were asked in a typical test paper ('not tests of what a boy has learned, but intended to make him think') to name the things in the world that appeared to them most beautiful.The responses were on the whole predictable: moonlit nights, picturesque ruins, lakes with swans swimming, a field of flax in flower, the sun setting at sea. But the reply which brought the warmest response from the headmaster was -- 'a boy with a smiling countenance'. He annotated this 'Et moi aussi'. J.V. Milne's delight was in the happiness of his pupils -- true happiness, of course, not the spurious happiness of the indulged.

"It was a family school and a school with an unusual method of awarding prizes. It was not quite a case of 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes', but a boy was competing only against himself and not against the other boys. As long as he received 75 per cent of the possible marks, he received a prize. 'There was no danger of emulation becoming envy.' In December 1882 the boys received their prizes from Mr. Milne's two children, Barry and Ken, aged three and a half and two years, sitting on a table surrounded by books. Alan was presumably there too, aged eleven months, sitting on a friendly knee.

"It was a school full of love. 'Without affection,' J.V. Milne once wrote, 'the schoolroom is a hard, forbidding place. With love, it becomes the next best place to home.' For the Milne boys, of course, school and home were inextricably entwined. As soon as he is old enough to think about it, Alan can hardly wait to be a proper Henley House schoolboy."


Ann Thwaite


A.A. Milne: His Life




Copyright 1990, 1992, 2006 by Ann Thwaite


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