Thursday, August 4, 2011

They Always Pick on Me, or a Week in Boarding School, 1878

The Playing Fields of Eton

Sometimes an old document of no great importance gives us a glimpse into another world. Here is a list of demerits earned in 1878 by a student in boarding school named C. Boutelle. I can’t tell you his first name, or what school he attended, or how this report was used—speculation will have to suffice.

Demerits of C. Boutelle
 To save your eyes, I have transcribed this, adding a few comments along the way:
Demerits of C. Boutelle
for the week ending Nov. 24 [1878]
            All this in one week! C. Boutelle certainly kept busy!

15  Going away without Permission & not returning till next day    
Here is a real offence, and I am surprised it was handled through the demerit system.
 1   Running down stairs                                                                      
 1   Tardy at bell                                                                                   
 1   Entering schoolroom with hat on                                                    
            Aha! C. Boutelle was a guy.
 1   Feet on Desk                                                                                              
 4  Impertinent Reply                                                                            
 2  Disrespectful Language                                                                  
            Makes you wonder the difference between impertinent and disrespectful. I would have thought disrespectful to be the greater offence.
 2  Ungentlemanly conduct – Defacing book                                      
            Only 2 demerits??!! Maybe it was just doodling in his textbook.
 1  Disorder in Recitation                                                                     
 1  Tardy at Recess bell                                                                      
            How can you be late for recess? And why is that an offence?
 1  Tardy at Dinner                                                                              
 1  Laughing & Disorder Study hour                                                  
            They would have gotten me on this one all the time!
 1  Disorder in Recitation                                                                          
 2  Impertinent Question                                                                         
 1  Laughing & Disorder Dining table                                                
 1  Not Minding business  
            Benjamin Franklin would not have approved.         
1  Failure in Grammar lesson                                                                         
            Why is this a demerit offence, instead of a grading issue?   
 4  Saucy impertinent language                                                             
            I’m dying to know the difference between Saucy impertinence and regular, garden-variety impertinence.              
 1  Laughing at Table                                                                           
            What a fun school! It sounds like something out of Dickens, or that French boys’ school in Diabolique.
42    Total                                                                    

Fugio Cent of 1787, designed by Benjamin Franklin

I find it interesting that impertinence (4 demerits) is a worse crime than disruption (1 demerit). Disruption is just a display of animal spirits, so does not reflect on the teacher or the school, but impertinence is insubordination, and shows the awareness and transgression of levels of power.

Modern schools seem to find such nitpicking unnecessary. Phillips Exeter indicated that small offenses are not reported or tallied, because students are on their honor to behave well. Other schools such as Western Reserve Academy impose some sort of detention or study hall after three demerits, but stress that serious offenders on the order of Mr. Boutelle are virtually non-existent.

Going AWOL is now a much more serious and scary offence, and would go right to the top authorities to deal with. Most boarding schools don’t have this problem, because students enjoy school life and are cooperative about the rules. Modern technology and security further help to curb nocturnal wanderings.

C. Boutelle as a boarding-school student conjures up images of P.G. Wodehouse’s early school stories, of Mike and Psmith at Sedleigh. Psmith is too clever for his own good, and feels the rules are not meant for him, while Mike, oblivious of the real world, bumbles or is misled into trouble.

Before you dismiss C. Boutelle as a total goofball, consider his behavior in tandem with his grade report:
Grades of C. Boutelle
Average Standing in Lessons
Marked on a Scale of 10
of C. Boutelle
--- --- ---- ---- --- --- ---
 7 denotes      Fair
 8                   Good
 9                   Excellent
10                   Perfect
Grammar            7.50
            We already know of his little contretemps with grammar.       
Philosophy          8.50
Algebra               8.50
Arithmetic           9.
            Studying algebra and arithmetic simultaneously?
History                8.25
Spelling               9.
Reading               8.75
Deportment         6.
            Our Hero manages to fall off the scale!
                          Jas. Bushie

Boutelle was really not such a bad student. His academic average is 8.5, about a B+, pretty good for the era of the “gentleman’s C”.

So what happened? Did Boutelle and Mr. Bushie get into a battle of wills? Since this was apparently a weekly struggle for them, I would think that this constant deluge of demerits would not have been psychologically good for C. Boutelle, and probably reinforced rather than improved his behavior.

Personally, I like his spirit of independence. This report of 1878 places him right between Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

I guess the old song was accurate:
School days, school days, dear old golden rule days.
Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.

Overall, the discipline doesn’t seem to have repressed C. Boutelle too much. With all the laughing, disorder, and rushing about, I’ll bet he had a great time at boarding school.


  1. Sounds like C. Boutelle was my kind of guy!

  2. As I read this most interesting posting, I got the sense that C. Boutelle wasn't challenged enough, and was probably bored. Winston Churchill's early days came to mind. I remember reading in a biography that he was so poor in Latin that his teachers "demoted" him to studying English, which as he said, was the best thing that could have happened to him.

  3. Hello Mark, I think that you have hit it. Even today, people seldom go beyond an immediate problem (Boutelle won't behave!)to address the true underlying cause.

  4. Hello Elizabeth,

    Boutelle does seem like a fun person to hang out with. John Waters goes one step further, and classifies as boring anyone who hasn't been arrested by age 18!

  5. Hello:
    We have been so intrigued with these 'reports' and particularly the one which cites all of the demerits. What a fscinating piece of social history it reveals and how, in a relatively short period of time, the whole approach to education has changed.

    Having had experience of the English Public School system in the 1960s, where fagging, beating, and learning by rote, to name just three aspects, were part of daily life, we are thankful that for today's students things are very different.

    Incidentally, we love the old print of Eton.

    Thank you so much for visiting our blog and for leaving a comment on our most recent post. It has, very happily, brought us to you where we are delighted to have signed to Follow. We shall much look forward to welcoming you again as well as to your future posts.

  6. Hello Jane and Lance, Thank you for your insightful comments. Here in Taiwan corporal punishment in schools was abolished only a few years ago, and learning by rote is still firmly entrenched.

  7. ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC POST. I am so glad you came by, as it led me to your great blog! Loved this! off to go read more. From your new follower,

  8. Hello KCashon,

    Thanks for your kind words. After looking at your beautiful blog, I realize how much I have to improve my photography skills.

  9. One of my endorsing officers for the Navy officer candidate school is an admiral who went to Phillips Exeter before going onto the Naval Academy. Having opted after many years of private schools to do my last three years of secondary education at a public high school, I did not realise the demerit system so closely mimicked those I endured as a midshipman. I may have to ask the admiral to tell me some stories if he's game...

    Outstanding post. I very much enjoyed it.

  10. Hello Kionon, I would definitely ask for those stories. Just as a clarification, I have no idea what school Mr. Boutelle attended; I just consulted Exeter to get a modern viewpoint.

  11. C. Boutelle was bored-agreed, And busy. You have to love the guy and all his saucy comments. What a great document. pgt

  12. Hello PGT, I agree with you. All historical documents have their interest, but the ones with attitude are always the best.


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