The Dedicated – 4. Learning as a Teacher

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4. Learning as a Teacher

Margaret Noble was eighteen years old when, In the summer of 1894, just after leaving school, she received her first post as a teacher. It was natural that she should have turned to teaching as her profession, and her first appointment was an exceedingly good one: to an excellent private boardingschool for girls, at Keswick. Situated in the English Lake District, housed in a fine old building that had its own literary associations, the school joined Work and Beauty as objects of its program. Maxgaret taught literature and history; and although the whole experience at first seemed baffling she soon instinctively developed her own way of making her lessons a means of examining her pupils* reactions instead of imposing a prepared course of study. The headmistress, a woman of artistic temperament and independent spirit, watched her with some astonishment, as did also the town’s Anglican priest, who had been the confidant of Ruskin and Wordsworth.

It was in her religious oudook that Margaret changed most rapidly now. In contact with the High Church in Keswick, the naive fervor with which she had adopted her family’s strict dogma became a thirst for religious emotion. With her worship of the altar cross, with the flowers, the incense, the candles, she associated the whole of Nature. In the marvelous rituals, the chanted litanies, she beheld the saints and martyrs descending from the stained-glass windows to communicate to her their desire for sacraments of love. As soon as she left the altar her soul would be filled with a deep religious nostalgia. She thought very seriously of entering a Catholic convent, and even began making applications, but the headmistress of the school dissuaded her.

Inevitably, this new religious attitude widened the temporary breach with her mother. And Mary Noble, unable to understand why Margaret was not satisfied with the spiritual guidance she had received in the family circle, recalled an odd incident: during the family celebration that followed Margaret’s birth, while a large assemblage of kinsfolk were evoking the heroic deeds of the long line of austere preachers, ardent patriots, and strong-charactered women who had been the progenitors of this latest-bom of the Nobles, an old servant who was looking after the baby wrapped her in a blanket, ran with her to the nearest Catholic church, and had her baptized! The old woman had boasted of her achievement, and so Margaret’s mother had learned of it, and she now remembered it with a kind of irrational bitterness! What Margaret was learning in actual personal conviction, however, was that the more the soul develops, and the more beauty it absorbs, the more insatiable it becomes for the Infinite.

She left Keswick in 1887, to try a new experiment, that of poverty, and to test her powers of renunciation and self-sacrifice. This choice took her to an orphanage in Rugby, where twenty girls, charity pupils, were being brought up to be domestic servants. Margaret spent a year there, teaching and sharing her pupils’ manual labors; and she used to tell the older girls – aged sixteen and about to set out into the world-of the joy they would have in “fulfilling themselves” and living according to the ideal of their faith. For herself, a wider field opened after this experience.

She was only twenty-one when she was appointed mistress at the secondary school in Wrexham, a large mining center. She had eagerly desired such a post as this, in order to gain experience in welfare work and to put in practice what she conceived to be her “ideal.” And a spacious field of action awaited her. As her regular teaching took only half her time, she immediately began to organize her individual life. Through her pupils and their families she went to the heart of the workingman’s existence, and came to know the life of the miners by visiting their shabby and dreary homes.

Wrexham was indeed a dreary town, jerry-built in a time of plenty, with houses piled one on top of another so as to mass as many people as possible around the mines. The omnipresent coal dust had given an air of sameness to the wretched hovels, the untidy patches of garden with tattered washing on the line, the slimy alleys. The horizon was lost behind slag heaps, and the sky was a mass of smoke belched from factory chimneys. Whatever the season, the days were always gray and dark.

In the center of the mining quarter stood St Mark’s church, with an extensive parish. Margaret enrolled there as a district worker, undertaking welfare research, visiting slum households, searching out pregnant women in factories, looking for waifs and strays. Reports in hand, she would request the necessary succor with such gentle persuasiveness that the clergymen were amazed. Yet in her very conscientiousness she met with a serious obstacle.

For Margaret gave assistance without discrimination: to the poor of St Mark’s, to people who never went to church, even to members of other congregations. Inevitably, disputes arose. Seeing that her efforts might be paralyzed, and unwilling to stir up strife, Margaret gave up this work. But she was disappointed, and a smoldering anger burst into flame in an open letter which she sent to the North Wales Guardian, and which exposed the Church’s internal policy.

With this gesture the pamphleteer was born.

She was quid: to discover that her pen, properly wielded, could exert a greater influence than her social activities; ami she lost no time in putting it at the service of the oppressed. The poor of Wrexham had found a champion, who wrote under many pseudonyms. (“An old, old woman,” “An interloper,” “Churchman”; more often the masculine-sounding name, “W. Nealus”). She wrote, and published in local papers, “A Visit to a Coal Mine, by a Lady,” “A Page from Wrexham Life” (this was an appalling description of the slums), a series of “Papers on Women’s Rights,” a number of critical political reviews. After ransacking the records of the Education Authority, she wrote articles (signed “W. Nealus”) to urge the revival of plans, long dormant, for a cultural center and a sports stadium. Social journalism had become a personal passion.. . .

During this period, when Margaret was collecting for the mines in the coal offices themselves, she met a twenty-three-year-old Welshman, an engineer working in a chemical laboratory, with whom she became friendly. One day when they met at church the young man took the opportunity of introducing her to his mother, a smiling old lady who invited Margaret to her house. “Come and have tea with us by the fire.”

After her lessons, Margaret used to dimb the two flights of stairs to her friend’s flat. She knocked and entered quietly. He would be waiting for her in a comfortable armchair, smoking his pipe. His mother would bring tea. The room was quiet and spotless, and pleasant to work in. Margaret sat in front of the fire and hid golden chestnuts in the hot cinders, enjoying the intimate, friendly atmosphere. Their tastes, joys, and desires were the same; so was their unconfessed love.

After his day’s work, he searched the newspapers to find documentation for her articles, which she brought to him for discussion. They read Thoreau, Emerson, and Ruskin together, dreamed of the same ideals and the same sacrifices. Sometimes on a Sunday they went out into the country and returned intoxicated with fresh air and happiness. The separation during the summer holidays merely served to increase their desire for collaboration in each other’s work, for uniting their paths. They were about to become engaged, when the same disease which had killed Samuel Noble struck down the young man and carried him off in a few weeks. In the face of death he remained serene, slipping away quiedy, yielding up his life to God so that Margaret’s might be doubly blessed. He fell asleep with confidence.

A few weeks later Margaret left Wrexham for Chester, where she had been transferred at her own request. Lonely, and also more mature, she successfully sought a reunion with her family. Fulfilling her earlier dream, she brought her mother to live near her, in Liverpool; May, also a teacher now, had a post in the city; young Richmond studied at Liverpool College. Margaret was with her mother two days each week.

Beginning her fifth year as a teacher, and working with a class of eighteen-year-old girls, Margaret was led by her interest in comparative methods to the discovery of Pestalozzi and Froebel. She had sought with advanced pupils to find the way which they showed her was best to be followed by concentrating on the child. Now she lost no time in searching out and associating herself with the little group of Englishmen who were introducing the “new education,” and in Liverpool she looked for and found the teachers who were interested in the same new methods. In this way she met Mr. and Mrs. Logemann, and, through them, Mrs. de Leeuw, a Dutchwoman who had been Froebel’s pupil.

This discovery in education led her to self-analysis. She cast about to discover her first childish impressions: Halifax, with the threatening shadow of sin; Ireland with her bold dreams; her father and his indomitable courage. She went so far as to rediscover those obscure yearnings for affection hidden in her childish tears, her concealed weaknesses, and her surges of enthusiasm. All was now clear. This study of herself revealed to her the real meaning of that inner freedom she had always sought, which she had never valued at its true price, and which illuminated the whole existence she had built up around her mother and her studies. She had re-established her mental equilibrium.

The Logemanns were the only people with whom she could discuss her experiments, except perhaps for her sister, whose interest she had aroused. The Logemanns themselves were tireless researchers who had begun a small class of pupils in their fiat in order to apply their methods. It was here that Margaret, in her spare time, first tried out the teachings of Froebel, with a class of very small children. Here also she met several young writers of advanced ideas who became her friends and took her to their Good Sunday Club, where a faithful public demanded lectures on learned topics and readings from unpublished works. Margaret and May became enthusiastic members. They had a long journey to the dub, but they used to set off arm in arm, laughing at the wind and the rain, and matching their rapid strides to the verses which they recited in turn. The bus fare thus saved enabled them to join their friends in a high tea over which they would sit discussing literature till a late hour.

These young writers encouraged Margaret to write; for their benefit she began to relate the most striking pages of her family history – a series of exciting subjects which fired her imagination and took her Backto that Ireland of which she felt so thoroughly a part Her mother gave her encouragement, for she believed in her daughter’s ability, and her emotion came to life before the Nobles, Nealuses, Hamiltons, and Murdochs. Margaret questioned her unceasingly: “Tell me about Grandmother Elizabeth. What was she like?”

“She was a girl who laughed at danger. When she was still a child, her father made her stand sentry at a crossroads one day while he helped a group of patriots to escape. She wasn’t the least bit afraid.”

Margaret signed these stories “Elizabeth Nealus,” after the ancestor with whom she identified herself most dosely. She read two of them to the Good Sunday Club. Her family, her friends, the Logemanns, were all assodated with this first purely literary effort. As potboilers, she did some stories for an insurance company at the same time.

Two full and fruitful years went by thus, and then Mrs. de Leeuw suggested that Margaret help her found a “new school” in London. It was an unhoped-for opening in the young teacher’s individual career, for the capital would offer her unlimited opportunities. She did not hesitate a moment, but followed Mrs. de Leeuw to London as soon as the school year at Chester came to an end.

For Margaret the “small school at Wimbledon” became a daily joy; for the first time she found complete self-expression in her work. Her personality was literally transformed and entirely shook off all the restrictive influences experienced during the successive phases of her professional development The respectful schoolteacher, transmitting scrupulously the knowledge die had acquired from books, disappeared before the “educator” who guided her pupils step by step toward a world full of new discoveries. Margaret worked now with the object of developing new beings, full of candor and confidence.

Fifty or more children, of from four to six years, played around her, giving expression to their nascent personalities in accordance with their own inner harmony. Free from restrictions, they were gay, sincere, lively, forging for themselves the tools which suited them best, and which corresponded to their unconscious desires. Margaret would suggest games in which the keener children encouraged the slower ones, and would tell stories that held the attention of the most difficult pupils. She watched the bom architects who built with any kind of material – sticks or stones, branches or dods of earth; the bom mathema-tidans who, knowing nothing of numbers, made estimates and took measurements; and the passionate and sensitive dreamers who were moved by the song of a bird or the beauty of a flower. She held them spellbound before their own discoveries, and, pladng herself on their level, she helped them to arrange the threads of life they had discovered. The children played their parts as adventurous and victorious pioneers without realizing that an expert hand was guiding them.

School hours were not long, so that Margaret devoted herself more and more to her studies, and collaborated regularly in the work of the Congress of Modem Pedagogy which had its headquarters in London. She often spoke at its meetings, always to demand a complete liberty of expression for the child. “The child’s worst enemies,” she said, “are overfond parents whose love is possessive and exclusive, or their first teachers who compel them to follow their own conception of life without troubling about the child’s own individuality.” She was bold in her assertions, but did not risk affirming them unless she could support her thesis with a whole series of accurate observations. It was solid work.

Margaret’s laboratory was her classroom. For her writing, she found quiet and privacy in her room at home, because the family was living together in London now. Margaret bad her books and her desk, and her mother and sister were careful not to disturb her. But her young brother Richmond had undisputed claim on her attention, and during his holidays they used to take long walks together, or, better still, go to the theater – to see Henry Irving in Henry Fill, for instance, or Ada Rehan as Viola in Twelfth Night Richmond accused his sister of being too romantic, and this was true: a romantic sense of pathos and drama-no doubt due to her educational background and the literary influences of her day – can be traced in all Nivedita’s writings and actions, and it is impossible to form any assessment of her character without taking this into account But it was thanks to her that, before he was fifteen, the boy knew whole scenes from Shakespeare by heart She gave him Hamlet and Julius Caesar to read, while his grandfather concentrated on the Bible. Years later, too, Richmond wrote in a letter: “My sister early in life manifested a fondness for the society of intellectual men. Wherever she went, a literary dub was sure to spring up/’

In tune with this latter gravitation, Margaret found a new outside interest in her friendship with the Beatty brothers, young Irishmen writing in London. The older, whom she nicknamed “the poet,” crowned her queen of a small group of writers united in admiration of Thomas Hardy, who was then at the height of his fame and – because of Jude the Obscure – ?l figure of controversy. The younger, Octavius, a journalist, was editor of the Wimbledon News, the organ of Irish assotiations in England. Margaret had joined the “Free Ireland” group working for Home Rule, only a few weeks after her arrival in London. Two months later she was speaking publidy at evening meetings and organizing centers of resistance in the South of England. Now she contributed several artides on the Boer war, from the pro-Boer point of view, to Octavius Beatty’s paper. She also wrote for the Daily News on political questions, and she occasionally contributed to the sdendfic periodical Research, and to the Review of Reviews, whose famous editor, William T. Stead, became a personal friend.

One evening Prince Peter Kropotkin came to speak to the ‘Tree Ireland” drde, and Margaret, who had long been eager to meet the famous revolutionary exile, seemed to recognize in him the voice of her father, who had died too young to complete his own work and whose task she now sought to accomplish. She felt in him, too, the characteristics of the real leader. Remaining personally humble and unaffected, he laid down a series of precepts which required the absolute belief of those who obeyed them, and he was able to inspire in each of his followers that complete confidence without which the ideal itself is destroyed by individual ambitions and the leader is trampled down by his own partisans. Later, she used to go frequently to Ealing, that industrial suburb of London where Prince Kropotkin and his wife lived, and talk with him. His remark, “Revolution is only a period of accelerated evolution,” formed a theme she liked to discuss with her Irish friends.

In the autumn of 1895, Margaret left Mrs. de Leeuw and opened her own school, the Ruskin School, in another part of Wimbledon. This school was not for children only but was open also to adults who wished to study the modern educational methods. Margaret obtained the co-operation of several celebrated teachers, and the school’s reputation was quickly established and spread. One of her teachers was Ebenezer Cook, at that time a fashionable painter of children’s portraits, who had advanced ideas about childhood itself. He taught that the world of form and color must be presented to the child, who is an artist without knowing it. In his own career he was now building up his method, and his experiments were being followed and discussed; in Margaret Noble’s, it was he who was responsible for the capacity she was later to develop of explaining a picture’s composition and value to Hindu artists; he gave her, too, the basic knowledge for an understanding of the Italian primitives.

One of Ebenezer Cook’s friends was Lady Ripon, who had an exclusive salon where art and literature were regularly discussed. Here Margaret was welcomed and became active. Thanks to her efforts and those of Ronald M’Neill (later Lord Cushendon), soon to become editor of the St. Janie’s Gazette, the salon developed into the Sesame Club, with rooms in Dover Street, and with Bernard Shaw, T. H. Huxley, and other authors and men of science as enthusiastic visitors. At one of the dub meetings Margaret met Lady Isabel Margesson, who, like herself, was interested in the education of young children.

As lecturer on “The Psychology of the Child” and “The Rights of Women,” and as secretary of the Sesame Club, Margaret was at the nerve center of all its activities. Ronald M’Neill, who came from Antrim in Northern Ireland and was a convinced Unionist, was of course a violent political antagonist on Irish affairs, but their arguments held no personal animosity and he supported her in most of her work. Two days after a particularly vehement public tussle, he took the chair at one of her lectures and did his utmost to Backup her arguments.

Margaret was successful on all fronts: in sdiool, in her sodal life and work, in her friendships. But it was at this time that she suffered a cruel blow. She had been in love for eighteen months, had made her preparations for marriage, was about to set the wedding date, when another woman, on the score of a previous betrothal, suddenly claimed the man to whom she was – or had thought she was – engaged to be married. In her grief she sought out her old friend and former headmistress, Miss Collins. She stayed with her in Halifax for a week, and came Backcalm in spirit again. Her friend had told her that this deep suffering had an inner radiation which her relieved soul would perceive: a light divine, ineffable, and full of blessing.

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