Monday, June 4, 2012

Mr. Gallion’s School, by Jesse Stuart

Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Date originally posted on Facebook: June 20, 2010.

Note: I love Jesse Stuart's short stories, and enjoyed his autobiographical The Thread that Runs So True. Among other attractions, that book contains one of the best butt-kicking scenes of all time, when the author wipes the floor with a larger, recalcitrant adult student. He also gets points for introducing me to both the Faith Holiness movement and the Free Will Baptists. Although I didn't love this book, I highly recommend his other works, particularly those with snakes in them.

"I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the and the teacher is immortal." - Jesse Stuart

Jesse Stuart (1907-1984) is one of the unfairly neglected authors that I need to put on a list some day. Stuart was born in Kentucky, and lived there much of his life. This is not to suggest that he had a narrow range of experience or vision. However, his best writing is about Appalachia, and it always seemed to have held a place in his heart.

Stuart was a teacher by trade, and wrote what may be the best autobiography by a teacher, The Thread that Runs So True. His first assignment, a one room schoolhouse recently vacated by his elder sister, who was beaten up by an older student, came at the old age of 17. In one memorable scene, he is accosted alone in the schoolhouse by the bully, who attempts to do the same to him. Stuart lays him out, and leaves a bloodstain on the new pine floor which serves as an unspoken disciplinary tool.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gallion’s School is not one of his stronger books. It resembles, to me, an odd and uncomfortable hybrid between a novel and a polemic. The title character comes out of a medical retirement to take over a troubled high school he had once led. In the course of a year, he makes significant, but incomplete progress in restoring the school to order. The plot itself tends to get bogged down in the extended soliloquies. These can be interesting as a discussion of educational philosophy, but tend to then in turn be interrupted by the development of the plot.

The philosophy itself is fascinating, coming at that point in time when the optimism of John Dewey met the crumbling of civil society that began in the 1950s. Stuart, like many, believed that the salvation of the world would come from education, that ignorance was the true root of evil. On the other hand, he received much criticism for his advocacy for corporal punishment, even of high school students, as an alternative to expulsion. Whether you agree or disagree, there is no denying that Stuart was an involved educator at each level of responsibility, taking a personal interest in each student, and practicing exactly what he preached. I would have loved to have taken one of his classes.

What is truly sad is that Stuart seems to have been forgotten as an author. His fiction probably lacks the requisite pessimism necessary to succeed as a 20th century author. What it lacks in pessimism, it more than makes up for in an eye for realistic detail, an abiding love for nature and the mountains, and a kind heart toward the eccentric people he lived among.

I would recommend My Land Has A Voice (Short Stories) or The Thread that Runs So True as a good introduction.

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