I’ve already written about the junior high school I went to, in a small city outside Boston:
There was something else about that school in my home town, a direct link to the Victorian past.
The school had an endowment, the gift of a nineteenth century rich man who grew up in the town and left money to the school and for the establishment of a public library. The library was a major refuge for me in that awful town; its magazine was the first place I was published—a terrible poem I wrote in the second grade called “The Circus Is Coming to Town” (I had never seen a circus, except on television).
Anyone who went through the public schools encountered the man’s legacy in the form of an essay he wrote. We were forced to stand at the beginning of assemblies in junior high to recite it. The teachers were supposed to force us to memorize it, but they didn’t try very hard. We would mumble as someone—an unlucky striver of a student or the principal himself—spoke the words into a microphone:
“‘Character,’ by Albert N. Parlin,” we would say, and then the immortal words:
I would have all young persons taught to respect themselves, their citizenship, the rights of others and all sacred things; to be healthy, industrious, persevering, provident, courteous, just and honest; neat in person and in habit, clean in thought and in speech; modest in manner, cheerful in spirit and masters of themselves, faithful to every trust, loyal to every duty; magnanimous in judgment, generous in service and sympathetic toward the needy and unfortunate; for these are the most important things in life and this is not only the way of wisdom, happiness and true success, but the way to make the most of themselves and to be of the greatest service to the world.
The formula made even the Boy Scout’s laws, codes, and oaths seem wishy-washy.
Besides rebelling by not memorizing the essay, we found other ways. One popular version of the essay was “I would have all young persons put to death.” A year after my contemporaries and I left the school, someone threw bottles of ink at the version carved in stone on the school’s facade. The staining was so bad that portions of the stone had to be replaced.
What bothered us was something we may not have been able to articulate: the hypocrisy of this recitation. It spoke of what young people should be taught to respect—but the school had no respect for us—see my other essay for examples. Classes were boring; most of the teachers were incompetent. Our world wasn’t the sanitized Victorian community of Mr. Parlin’s imagination. It was a tough, corrupt, dishonest place. And we knew it.