Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Serve Them All My Days

My views of British primary and secondary education are probably a little off. Like many of my peers I watched Pink Floyd's the Wall a few too many times and had it in my head that all the teachers were like the "Stand still laddie" guy in this clip from the movie. Thanks to my infatuation with the Victorian period, I'd gotten the sense that the public (private in the American sense) schools were factories for creating the foot soldiers of empire.

While Floyd made have overstated the case, the imperial duty awaiting the students is central to R.F. Delderfields To Serve Them All My Days. The main character, David Howlett-Jones, is invalided out of the British Army in the later years of World War One. As part of his recovery, he is sent to a small rural school to serve as a teacher. While he has little formal training, he has a background in history and soon finds himself deeply engaged in the role and in his students lives. He also finds himself at odds with some of his colleagues. David finds himself at odds with a jingoistic fellow teacher, who is all for the war, despite not serving himself. Some of the more conservative elements in the school also oppose his methods of teaching, which many label Bolshevik.

As in his other work, Delderfield takes his time in telling his story. His chapters are filled with details and asides although the various plots including David's romance, marriage and eventual parenthood. As time passes, he becomes more and more senior at the school and becomes a central figure to the community.

Hanging over the later half of the book is the coming of the Second World War. The school is haunted by the large number of dead alumni from the first war and the threat of new losses becomes nearly unbearable. It is David's quiet dignity that keeps it from becoming maudlin. The book concludes with an act that closes the circle opened at the book's start.

So many books today are written for the short reading blocks. In thrillers in particular, the chapters are usually only 10 or 15 pages, just the right amount for your subway ride. This book is meant for longer, committed reading times where you can really sink into the book.

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