A very distinguished man once assured a mother of my acquaintance
that she would never know what it meant to be hurt until she was hurt through her
children. Children are extremely cruel without intending it; and in ninety-nine cases out
of a hundred the reason is that they do not conceive their elders as having any human
feelings. Serve the elders right, perhaps, for posing as superhuman! The penalty of the
impostor is not that he is found out (he very seldom is) but that he is taken for what he
pretends to be, and treated as such. And to be treated as anything but what you really are
may seem pleasant to the imagination when the treatment is above your merits; but in
actual experience it is often quite the reverse. When I was a very small boy, my romantic
imagination, stimulated by early doses of fiction, led me to brag to a still smaller boy
so outrageously that he, being a simple soul, really believed me to be an invincible hero.
I cannot remember whether this pleased me much; but I do remember very distinctly that one
day this admirer of mine, who had a pet goat, found the animal in the hands of a larger
boy than either of us, who mocked him and refused to restore the animal to his rightful
owner. Whereupon, naturally, he came weeping to me, and demanded that I should rescue the
goat and annihilate the aggressor. My terror was beyond description: fortunately for me,
it imparted such a ghastliness to my voice and aspect as I under the eye of my poor little
dupe, advanced on the enemy with that hideous extremity of cowardice which is called the
courage of despair, and said "You let go that goat," that he abandoned his prey
and fled, to my unforgettable, unspeakable relief. I have never since exaggerated my
prowess in bodily combat.
Now what happened to me in the adventure of the goat happens very
often to parents, and would happen to schoolmasters if the prison door of the school did
not shut out the trials of life. I remember once, at school, the resident head master was
brought down to earth by the sudden illness of his wife. In the confusion that ensued it
became necessary to leave one of the schoolrooms without a master. I was in the class that
occupied that schoolroom. To have sent us home would have been to break the fundamental
bargain with our parents by which the school was bound to keep us out of their way for
half the day at all hazards. Therefore an appeal had to be made to our better feelings:
that is, to our common humanity, not to make a noise. But the head master had never
admitted any common humanity with us. We had been carefully broken in to regard him as a
being quite aloof from and above us: one not subject to error or suffering or death or
illness or mortality. Consequently sympathy was impossible; and if the unfortunate lady
did not perish, it was because, as I now comfort myself with guessing, she was too much
pre-occupied with her own pains, and possibly making too much noise herself, to be
conscious of the pandemonium downstairs.
A great deal of the fiendishness of
schoolboys and the cruelty of children to their elders is produced just in this way.
Elders cannot be superhuman beings and suffering fellow-creatures at the same time. If you
pose as a little god, you must pose for better for worse.