I have just learned of a touching act of generosity by the headmaster of a school I attended long ago. For logistical reasons, and possibly also for cultural ones, it would be neither possible nor needed today.
In July 1967, I completed my second year at Brook Comprehensive, a school in Sheffield, England. Dad was taking our family to America in November, but I returned to Brook for third year at the beginning of September. Then, on Saturday the 23rd, I was admitted to hospital because the retina in my one good eye had detached.
I had no idea what my friends were told, and if anyone inquired of my parents, I either didn’t hear about it or have forgotten. There was no phone for patients’ use in English hospitals, and so I couldn’t initiate contact. So ended my time at Brook.
Today, had I been hospitalized under such circumstances, I might have kept in touch with school friends by smartphone, texting and email. After we moved to America, my old friends’ curiosity about my new country might have sustained email correspondence for at least a while.
Except by March of 1968, the only vision I had was color detection in the bottom-right corner of my right eye. Today, I might have received instruction in the use of a smartphone’s voice system and continued our email correspondence, though I’d have been clumsy at the outset.
Why do I mention that month? Because Brook’s headmaster wrote to my parents on March 13th that year, 1968. I came across his letter just last week. I have no memory of reading it or of my parents telling me about it. They might have, or possibly they lost track of it with all that they had to cope with at the time, between my hospitalizations, their search for a home in a new country, and Dad’s starting a high-pressure job in New York City.
I copy the letter below. It was signed “S. Johnson,” in line with the English academic tradition of reducing first names to initial letters in correspondence. Also, he refers to the old British currency where twenty shillings equaled one pound sterling. The exchange rate at the time was 1 pound to $2.40, less favorable to the pound than it had been just four months earlier. I remember how, in that era before floating currency exchange rates, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound on November 19, 1967 traumatized the country. Even so, afterwards, people would say in Britain that those were the days when a pound still meant something, just as Americans would say a dollar did.
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Spratt,
We have already written to your last address in England and had the letter returned. This address is one we’re obtained from a Mrs. J. Coppi. We’re assured that it will reach you.
Our problem is this – Adrian has won a prize this year and would have been presented with it on Speech Day. Unfortunately it may be useless to get Adrian a book as we are not sure whether he will be able to read it. We had considered buying him a record token but have not done that either as it was unlikely that a British token would have any value in the United States.
Actually what we do with our own pupils is to give them a ten shilling book voucher to which they add their own money if they wish to get something better. I hesitate to offer a mere ten shillings to you as it may well be that American prices are such that it would buy little or nothing. In the circumstances, we are making Adrian’s prize £1 in value to which I hope you may add anything that you feel suitable to buy him a present which will be useful to him.
We do hope that Adrian is going to recover at least some of his sight, and that you will all be happy over there.
P.S. His prize was last year’s 2nd year prize for English.
I picture Mr. Johnson sitting at a polished wooden desk in a sun-streaked office and calling to mind his former “pupil,” now far away across a vast ocean. He could easily dismiss the idea of getting him the prize. After so many months and so many big changes in his life, that boy probably wasn’t giving much, if any, thought to his old school. Of course, the headmaster would cite the boy’s achievement to the teachers, boys and girls in attendance at the Speech Day assembly.
Then conscience asserted itself. Or rather, generosity. He couldn’t not give the prize to the boy if there were any possibility of getting it to him.
From his letter, I infer he wrote to our last address in Sheffield and that mail sent there was forwarded to my Aunt Janet, who replied with our address in America.
Now he faced several quandaries. The prize was to be a book, but he recognized the possibility that I’d no longer be able to see to read it.
Today the school could have given me a credit for a recorded book at Audible.com. However, there was no such business in those days. So, if not a book, then a record.
But then, how far would ten shillings, half of one pound sterling, go in America? Although it’s inconceivable that he had succumbed to the myth of America’s gold-paved streets, it sounds as though he found himself reckoning with America’s reputation for lavishness. He wanted the award to mean something. So he doubled the amount. I suspect he made up the difference with his own money. A small sacrifice, I suppose, but on a local schoolboard salary, perhaps not insignificant.
Then he took up pen and paper to write a letter that laid out all these factors (minus my speculated source for the ten-shilling balance) in a letter all the more touching for its absence of sentimentality. It never occurred to him to offer praise for my showing on the final English exam. The gift spoke for itself. Likewise, without emotional ornamentation, he expressed his hopes for my family’s happiness in the United States and my retention of some vision.
How well do I remember Mr. Johnson, the man? Until reading his letter last week, I couldn’t have told you his name. I do recall him conducting the school’s daily morning assemblies. They took place in a spacious hall, with rows of girls in royal blue jerseys on one side of the aisle and we boys in navy blue blazers on the other, and the bearded religion teacher at the piano in the far-left corner. Center-front, Mr. Johnson issued the day’s announcements, recited prayers and led the singing of hymns.
I also remember seeing him now and then in the hallways. He was on the tall side, but not strikingly so. Good-looking? I didn’t think in such terms at that age, at least not about men, but his appearance was appealing, so long as you took away the aura of threat that a headmaster’s authority inescapably lent him. Words like “dignified” and “straightforward” come to mind. “Bully” does not. You could tell he cared about the school and us “pupils.”
After reading his letter last week, I Googled the search terms “brook, headmaster, ‘s. johnson’, sheffield” via Google, but with little success. A blog item suggests he still had that job in 1975. But I couldn’t even learn his first name, which might have taken me further. I have no idea what became of him, nor anything about his life before he assumed Brook’s leadership.
If I remember correctly, Mr. Johnson’s office was down a short hallway near the school’s main entrance. I have an image of that room, despite having no recollection of ever having gone inside it. If I did, it was apparently on a sunny day.
Toute ca change, toute c’est la meme chose. Everything changes, everything stays the same. No doubt there is a constancy in human nature, but its manifestations do change. 1967 is as long ago from today as 1914 was from me in 1967. Whether or not we live in the moment, in adherence to the Buddhist or plain old meditation teaching, we are encircled by our historical moment.
Today, Mr. Johnson would have contacted us not by letter, but by email or possibly phone, although English people I know still hesitate to make trans-Atlantic calls. Either medium would have changed the whole tenor of the communication. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964, coincidentally close to that time, the medium is the message. For one thing, Mr. Johnson would have been up-to-date on my situation. Also, as I suggested earlier, he would have had a realistic option for a suitable gift: a recorded book.
Furthermore, had Mr. Johnson been an American in 2020, and maybe also an Englishman (I’m too out-of-touch to be certain), he would surely have congratulated me for my “excellent” showing on the English exam and he might have signed with his first name above his printed full name.
Consistent with today’s compulsion for enthusiastic communication, he might have waxed “excited,” though probably not “super-excited,” for my father’s opportunity in his new position. However, his hope for my vision might have been expressed with diffidence similar to his wording in the actual 1968 letter. Except now the reason might have been anxiety over political correctness because it could appear inappropriate to suggest that disability might disadvantage me. Had he decided to broach the subject, he might have done so along the lines: “Adrian’s abilities are awesome. I am confident he will overcome any adversity.”
Mr. Johnson wrote his letter during a time when generosity and sympathy were expressed with restraint. Not overstating such gestures gave them a power in themselves.
Arguments can be made for and against reserve, and likewise for and against effusiveness. Reserve can put distance between people, while effusiveness can feel artificial and insincere. Cautious commitments make for reliability but can suppress potential. Enthusiasm advances potential but can lead to disenchantment. Where would we be today without those nerdy enthusiasts who gave us the Internet and email, and yet who, in their eagerness, have brought us into a world where privacy and security are at risk?
Sadly, this difference in style, between relative reserve and relentless enthusiasm, can separate generations. Those of us who grew up in and fondly remember a time and place where expression was careful and restrained can seem out of touch.
As a writer, I worry this divide has crept into contemporary artistic judgments. Of course, art went to extremes in the sixties. John Lennon and Yoko’s “bed-ins” come to mind, and that’s one of the tamer examples. But the enthusiasm that was so controversial in the arts in the sixties has spilled out all over the place with time. Older artists today worry that their work might not be direct enough, bright enough, dark enough, violent enough, sensationalist enough, politically correct enough, politically incorrect enough, morality-defying enough, never mind spontaneous. Yet there is much to be said for art that makes us pause, as there is for a headmaster’s letter that leaves us reading between the lines.