Saturday, December 01, 2007

Public School attitude

"Their ignorance of the arts was notable, and they lost no opportunity of proclaiming it to one another; it was the Public School attitude, flourishing more vigorously than it can yet hope to do in England. If Indians were shop, the Arts were bad form, and Ronny had repressed his mother when she inquired after his viola; a viola was almost a demerit, and certainly not the sort of instrument one mentioned in public."

- E.M. Forster, "A Passage to India", p. 31

There may be some differences between Victorian England and modern America, but "the Public School attitude", as E.M. Forster calls it, seems to be pretty much the same. Expressing an interest in subjects taught in class is bad form, and taking an interest in art, literature, or music outside of the classroom is absolute social suicide. It signals that you're different, weird, maybe pretentious and full of yourself - all signs of weakness and invitations to bullying. For a great example of the mercilessness of teenage boys, this one in a 1980s British public school, check out the novel Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.

That attitude might not be particular to public school, or even teenagers, as Forster points out. It might arise in any community that values conformity above all else, where displays of strength and cruelty are necessary to cover up insecurity. Public school is just the place where most of us first encountered it, and where its effects can be greatest. I seemed to fit in pretty well all through elementary school, but then in junior high school I was branded as different - it may have been the 'magnet' classes, or walking around with musical instrument cases. Probably lots of kids cast off these signs of weirdness before they can compromise their reputation - I was either too slow or stubborn to do that, though, and so I got stuck with the label of band geek.

Things are pretty rough as an outcast, and your only friends are other geeks (one of my closest friends, Aaron Olson, just wrote a nice blog post remembering high school geekiness, 'Band Geek'.) Still, you do your best to keep it from getting even worse - I remember being ultra-careful to not let anyone at school know that I still played the violin as well as the bass. If I had to go to a lesson, I would scan the sidewalks for anyone I knew, crouching down in the bushes with my violin case if necessary. I had resigned myself to being a bass-playing nerd, but somehow being a bass and violin-playing nerd was more than I could handle - I quit the violin when I was 15, though now I wish I had kept it up. I still have my old violin, and once in a while I'll pull it out and play through the Suzuki pieces I haven't yet managed to forget.

Things do get better, and as people become more comfortable with themselves, they start to realize that having friends with different talents and interests is actually quite a cool thing. This week at the CPO we've been playing a series of education concerts for school kids, a show called "A Paintbrush for Piccolo" that celebrates a little Italian kid who wanted to be an artist. The music is by Calgary composer Arthur Bachmann, who is also (I hesitate to mention it in public) a CPO violist. It's been going over very well with our elementary school-age audiences. It has some lovely, infectious melodies, as well as a sweet and clever story, engagingly acted - including a little cameo by my stand partner Graeme, who warns the 10-year old protagonist, "Go beg somewhere else!" (He says he practiced his delivery on his own kids.)

Maybe some of the kids in our audiences will decide that being an artist or musician is pretty cool after all, and stick with it despite the Public School attitude. We have one more show, this afternoon at 2 pm, preceded by an instrument petting zoo at 1.


Gabrielle said...

i think that in england, public school is the equivalent of private school in america, so forster was actually talking about rich, boarding school snobs, but i could be mistaken. but i read that book and noted that same passage! it had to be a viola joke, too.

Emily said...

Gabrielle is right. Although the sentiment and the way you address it is right on! But yeah, I was always stunned when I lived there and they talked about how much better off "public school" students were. :)

Sariom said...

Coool man !!


If you really like Bach, you like this interpretation: