Thursday, 20 October 2011

Penguin no. 1611: Good Morning, Miss Dove
by Frances Gray Patton

Let us do the thinking! Us! Billie Jean McVay whose expression when she'd looked at a little boy had been that of a gourmand surveying the cherry on top of a butterscotch sundae; Thomas Baker, the erstwhile clown, wit, wag, and ear-wiggler; and the complacent rosebud son of Angela Adams! Oh, no. Miss Dove did the thinking. It was the habit of a lifetime - the teacher's burden accepted long ago and never sloughed off for an instant! The modern fad of urging the young to 'reason things out' she considered pedagogical laziness. Moreover, it encouraged agnosticism. In the geography room she drew the conclusions. She doled them out to her pupils who received them whole, without analysis, and wrote them down between even margins in their notebooks.

On the surface this is a simple and sentimental story of a dedicated teacher and the impact she has on the small American community of Liberty Hill in which she lives and works. Every child born in the town for at least two generations has received the benefit of Miss Dove's tuition. She has taught complete families of brothers and sisters, their parents, their uncles and their aunts. She remembers them always as they were at twelve years of age, and in her presence they never feel any older. It is an experience which gives them a common heritage, and which almost defines membership of their community. The ongoing presence of "the terrible Miss Dove" gives them a sense of normalcy and stability.

Miss Dove is a formidable teacher with a simple philosophy, presented as unfailingly effective in the context of this story. She offers the children structure: her rules are clear, fair, universal, and consistently applied. She provides them with a deterministic world, a classroom in which cause and effect are constant and predictable. A specified punishment is merited for each inappropriate behaviour, and it is never delayed or avoided because she is tired, and never amplified because she is angry. Things are either right or wrong - there is no grey area, no interpretation, no other points of view. Her legacy is to provide her pupils with a set of tools with which to face life: preparedness, fortitude, and unequivocal honesty. Miss Dove's approach is not simply being described; it is being subtly offered as a template for the effective care of children

It is this aspect which makes this book particularly interesting, for it is much more than the sentimental tale of one woman reflecting on her life. It seeks to remind and to warn, offering a critique of the modern approach to both teaching and nursing, and providing a strong underlying message: be wary of the illusory appeal of new ideas. Miss Dove is presented as the lone voice of tradition; the other teachers are progressive, and the parents are influenced by the opinions of 'experts' given in books, but it is Miss Dove's approach which is repeatedly suggested as the one which has been demonstrated to work. She has no qualifications, has studied no child psychology, and has no interest in the theory of teaching. But she does have practical experience, dedication, a sense of purpose and  unfailing interest is in the children under her care: the author is clearly suggesting that these qualities are far more important.

I suspect that in this she is correct, and those qualities almost certainly are more important. However, she didn't convince me completely - I doubt that the best approach is as simple to identify as is being suggested, or that there is one correct approach that suits all or even most children. And it would be impossible to convince me of the merits of the ideas expressed in the passage quoted above. However, it was an interesting book to read, and sentimentality aside, it was a pleasant and enjoyable story. 

3 comments:

  1. This sounds intriguing. I always take notice of discipline methods because I struggle with the teens at my library and how to get them to mind! I agree that different methods work for different children, but I would love to be like Miss Dove and find that "perfect" approach to dealing with kids.

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  2. I remember seeing the movie and thinking it was a little too sweet, but this sounds nicely peppery and something I'd love to read. Thanks for the review!

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  3. I haven't seen the film, but I can believe it would be just as you describe, because the book is structured as a movie would be, and has this definite layer of sentimentality. You could read this as nothing but a sentimental story of a teacher sacrificing her life to make a difference in her students' lives and succeeding. But if you concentrate on what the author is saying you can see that she is using the appeal to the emotions to gently persuade her readers towards a particular point of view.

    And Anbolyn,

    I think I was more inclined to her conservative approach to education before I read the book than by the time I had finished it. I am sure her ideas about respect, authority, consistency and tradition (or at least not always equating new with improved) are valuable, but it seems to me that encouraging children to think for themselves (rather than to be disciplined) is the most important aim of education. I am sure it is a balance which is very difficult to get right.

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