Back to School

BHS 1920s

[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted August 18, 2007, at thecimmerian.com; this version lightly edited.]

The school district that I work for has been fiddling with the calendar for a couple of years now—the end result has arrived: gone are the post-Labor Day start-ups of a traditional school year; they have been replaced with a mid-August return to books and homework and lunch lines. I won’t comment on the wisdom of sending kids (and teachers) back to school in the middle of August—the hottest month of the year in California’s High Desert. The “pre-game” meetings and scheduling, the lesson planning and room organizing have kept me away from the blog for a few weeks now, but my return to school got me thinking . . .

Robert E. Howard’s opinion of school is no secret to the fans who have studied his correspondence. In one of his most often published letters, Howard told Wilfred Blanch Talman (ca. September 1931):

I got through high school by the skin of my teeth. I always hated school, and as I look back on my school days now, I still hate them with a deep and abiding hatred. Outside of mathematics—at which I was a terrible mug—I didn’t particularly mind the studies, but I hated being confined indoors—having to keep regular hours—having to think up stupid answers for equally irritating questions asked me by people who considered themselves in authority over me.

I have often wondered what teaching practices were like in the 1920s, when Howard attended Cross Plains High School, and later Brownwood High—I’m sure that things were much stricter than they are now—but what could have caused Howard’s intense dislike for school? Was it as simple as what he told Talman? More than a year after his spring 1923 graduation from Brownwood High, Howard still had a bad taste in his mouth, as evidenced by a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, dated January 30, 1925: “I see you are still as madly, passionately devoted to school, as blindly loyal to the faculty as ever. Ah, yes, I wish I were back in good old Bnwd. High—with a couple of bombs.”

Part of the reason, I’m sure, that Howard disliked school was the shenanigans of his schoolmates. I’ve seen for myself the ridicule that can be heaped on bright students by their less scholastically inclined brethren, but Howard doesn’t have much to say about bullying in his correspondence. He does, however, have a few things to say about students in general. In a circa January 1931 letter he explains to Lovecraft:

Take the average high school. Ten, or perhaps fifteen percent of the pupils go in for the grinding grill of competitive athletics; the rest do nothing in the way of building their bodies, or dissipating their natural animal spirits in wholesome ways. No wonder drunkenness and immorality are so prevalent among students. To the average boy or girl the accumulation of knowledge isn’t enough to spend their energy on—they can learn only so much, anyhow, and the Devil himself couldn’t teach the average pupil, with his undoubtedly limited capacity, very much, anyway. They must have a physical outlet, and since systematic sport denies this to all but a chosen few, the rest naturally turn to amusements less wholesome. This seems to be the trend of modern life, to me.

While Howard is largely silent on the subject of his classmates, he does, however, have something to say about his instructors. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, September 22, 1932, Howard describes his walk to school on a snowy winter morning. After having walked some distance in the snow, which caused his shoes and socks to be soaked, he hoped to warm himself by the stove, but such was not to be:

When I got to school, the teacher, who was enveloped in a fur coat, wouldn’t let us go to the stove to warm, because we generally got into a fight if we did. I sat there until noon, at the back of the room where the heat couldn’t reach, and I want to say that it was about as lousy a morning as I ever spent, viewed from a purely physical standpoint. It’s a wonder my feet hadn’t been frost-bitten.

Earlier that same year, May 24, 1932, Howard described another instance of teacher indifference to Lovecraft:

One day the teachers came out of the school-house to watch us play—a rare event. I happened to be wrestling with a friend of mine, and they stopped to watch us. I wished to make an impression on them—to show off, in other words. I wished for a worthier opponent—since I had thrown this particular friend forty or fifty times. And while I was wishing, suddenly and stunningly I found myself thrown! It never happened before, and it never happened again—at least, with that boy. I was shocked, humiliated, well-nigh maddened. I urged a renewal of the strife, but the teachers laughed mockingly and withdrew into their sanctum. I withdrew from public view, and broodingly contemplated my shameful defeat.

But the teachers weren’t the only thing about school that Howard disliked; the content of his courses also left a little something to be desired. In an August 21, 1926 letter to Clyde Smith, Howard berates the reading selections made for him by a nameless English teacher: “when one considers the confounded balderdash handed out to us as students, in grammar school, under the name of poetry! Shades of the creator of Mother Goose. I’ve about decided that the only American poets worth much are Sidney Lanier, Poe and Viereck; they are equal to any England ever produced.” One can only assume that these names did not appear on Howard’s course syllabus.

One thing that we know did appear was The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith. Howard’s book report on this title has been published, and it’s clear that he wasn’t fond of the novel. He remembered the book, and his school experience with it, to Lovecraft in a letter dated November 2, 1932:

I read this abomination [The Vicar of Wakefield] as a part of my high-school work, and in writing my report, I let myself go the only time I ever did in school, and gave my own honest opinion in my own honest words, allowing myself the freedom of frothing at the mouth. I expected to flunk the course, so many teachers being slaves of the established, but that particular teacher was a black-headed Irish woman who evidently entertained similar ideas on the subject to mine, and she gave me a good grade instead of the tongue-lashing I expected.

Despite his attitude toward school and his teachers, Howard did what was necessary to receive passing marks. He told Lovecraft, circa January 1934, “In high school I showed something of a knack for biology; certainly my science grades were infinitely higher than my English and literature grades. I have reason to believe that I had more capacity for biology than I have for literature. My teacher—who detested me as a human being but seemed to appreciate my laboratory work—suggested that I take up biology as a career.” But Howard wasn’t interested in Biology, he wanted the freedom that a literary career would provide.

In a letter received by Harold Preece—who was attending Texas Christian University in Fort Worth—on October 20, 1928, Howard said, “How is the university? Frankly, I know very little about the school and the little I do know is bad. But I’m prejudiced against all colleges—to Hell with them.”

Despite this early opinion of higher learning, Howard would later agree that some college courses might have helped him in his chosen field. He told Farnsworth Wright, ca. June-July 1931, “I have only a high school education, and not a particularly elaborate one at that” and Wilfred Blanch Talman, ca. September 1931, “A literary course in some college would doubtless have been a help to me, but I never felt I could afford it, bedsides, college is too much like school to interest me much” and Lovecraft, March 6, 1933, “A literary college education probably would have helped me immensely. That’s neither here nor there; I didn’t feel that I could afford it, and that’s all there was to it.”

While his admission that college might have helped him is a bit surprising, considering his overall opinion of schooling, Howard’s resentments from his early schooling held strong. In the same letter to Lovecraft in which he makes the admission, he blasts his early experiences:

I might have liked college, but I hated grammar and high school with a vindictiveness that has not softened in later years. I didn’t spend too much time there, anyway; I didn’t start to school until I was eight, and I graduated at seventeen. No record broken there, but no time lost, either. I hated school as I hate the memory of school. It wasn’t the work I minded; I had no trouble learning the tripe they dished out in the way of lessons — except arithmetic, and I might have learned that if I’d gone to the trouble of studying it. I wasn’t at the head of my classes — except in history — but I wasn’t at the foot either. I generally did just enough work to keep from flunking the courses, and I don’t regret the loafing I did. But what I hated was the confinement — the clock-like regularity of everything; the regulation of my speech and actions; most of all the idea that someone considered himself or herself in authority over me, with the right to question my actions and interfere with my thoughts. Some of my teachers I liked, and those liked me; most didn’t. I complied with the rules of the school as well as I could, got up my lessons at least as well as most of the others, and was careful to cause the teachers no unnecessary trouble; beyond that I lived my own life, and fiercely resented any interference or regulation.

Howard continued to express his dislike of school to Lovecraft in July 1933:

Our feelings in school, again, differ. I hated school, not because any particular tyranny was practiced on me—I wouldn’t have stood for it, anyway—but simply because the whole system irked me. Sitting still in one place for hours at time got on my nerves. Having to go and come at certain times irked me; I hated for my actions to be controlled by the ringing of a bell. The fact that these things were necessary had nothing to do with it. School, any way it is looked at, was a restriction of my freedom. I accepted it as a necessary evil, and got through with it as quickly as possible, and I’ll never forget the wild and passionate feeling of relief that surged through me as I bounded out of the building where the graduation exercizes had been held, with my diploma in my hand, and halting on the lawn, expressed my pleasure at being through with school, and my opinion of the whole works in language more picturesque than choice. The passing of ten years has not dimmed that feeling in the slightest. Yet there was a good deal of comedy in my last year in high school; I look back on it, not with any pleasure, but with some amusement. I attended Brownwood High, and it was overcrowded—fairly flowing over with students. Next year they built a Junior High and took care of the surplus, but that year it was like a sardine can. We had to gang up, two or three to a seat in the main study hall. The Senior class was given separate study halls, but they were eventually abolished, because the students didn’t keep order any too well. Some of them were mean as the devil, but most were just exuberant kids, overflowing with a superabundance of vigor and animal spirits. My biology class was the biggest in the school, and all the unruly spirits that could got in there. The teacher was a poor misfit who didn’t know his stuff; that is, he was a good biologist, but he couldn’t handle students. They gave him hell. The very last day of school, for instance, while he was trying to lecture to the class, certain unregenerate spirits kept galloping past the door, firing various objects at him, such as old shirts wadded up and soaked with water, to the hilarious enjoyment of the class. At last he shut the door, and then they locked it from the outside and he had to telephone down to the janitor to come and open it. I had no part in harassing the poor devil; but he never gave me a square deal if he could help it, so I didn’t much give a damn what they did to him. The class in which I graduated was the biggest that had ever graduated from a Texas High School, up to that time.

I was much amused and interested by your account of your tilt with the English teacher concerning your astronomical essay. It was in truth a dramatic situation, and one I wish I’d had a chance to duplicate at some time or other. But the only place my stuff was appearing when I was in school was in the school paper—and some of it was barred from print by the teacher-censors on account of a certain Rabelaisian tang that would creep in in spite of myself.

I had a hell of a time with mathematics. I blundered through algebra, geometry and trigonometry without learning a blamed thing about any of them. The only reason I passed my last year’s math was a combination of luck and a teacher’s laziness. The final exam was split in half, part to be taken one day and part the next, the results to be added on the basis of 100; thus, if a scholar made 100 on the first exam, he was given 50, etc. the results of both exams to be added. I made 60 on the first exam, and came in the next day to take the rest of it. The teacher was there alone, to my surprize, leaning back with his feet on a desk. I told him I was there to take my exam. He asked me what I made; I told him; he said then my grade was really 30, and asked me if I could improve that in another exam. “Hell, no,” quoth I; “I worked the only problem in the book I could work, yesterday.” He then asked me what grades I made in other subjects—they ran something like this: English 80, science 100, economics 85. He allowed that we’d let it go and say nothing; and call my mathematics grade 60, which would pass me.

I never studied Latin much, and disliked it intensely; my old antipathy for anything Roman. The only reason I ever took it up was because I knew it would help me in Spanish; but I never got a chance to study Spanish. I had a short course in agriculture once, which interested me immensely, and I made very high grades in it, as well as in its various branching, such as the grafting of trees, etc.. But I was unable to continue it, and I’ve long ago forgotten all I learned. I’ve also forgotten what elementary science I learned, as well as the business English, commercial law and business arithmetic I learned in the business college. I generally made my highest grades in history and science, though I found the latter of scant interest, as a general thing.

If Howard’s recollections of his scores are accurate, and if he wasn’t bending the truth by saying that he didn’t apply himself to his coursework, he might have made an excellent college student, where he could pick and choose the courses he wanted to take and make his own schedule, which, I’m sure, would not have included a math class. Imagine that for a moment, a college educated Robert E. Howard. Without the benefit of a “literary college education” Howard created works of fiction that have stood the test of time, that have been translated into numerous languages, and that have been increasingly studied for their literary achievement. Would a college education have hurt his accomplishments or helped him to even greater fame? I guess we’ll never know.

Aw hell, I’ve got papers to grade.

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