I had heard a great deal about Miss Beam’s school. But not till last week did the chance come to visit it.
When I arrived there was no one in sight but a girl of about twelve. Her eyes were covered with a bandage and she was being led carefully between the flower-beds by a little boy who was about four years younger.
She stopped and it looked like she asked him who had come. He seemed to be describing me to her. Then they passed on.
Miss Beam was all that I had expected – middle-aged, full of authority, yet kindly and understanding. Her hair was beginning to turn grey and she had the kind of plump figure that is likely to be comforting to a homesick child. I asked her some questions about her teaching methods which I had heard were simple.
“No more than is needed to help them to learn how to do things – simple spelling, adding, subtracting, multiplying and writing. The rest is done by reading to them and by interesting talks during which they have to sit still and keep their hands quiet. There are practically no other lessons.”
“The real aim of this school is not so much to teach thought as to teach thoughtfulness – kindness to others and being responsible citizens. Look out of the window a minute, will you?”
I went to the window which overlooked a large garden and a playground at the back. “What do you see?” Miss Beam asked.
“I see some very beautiful grounds,” I said, “and a lot of jolly children. It pains me, though, to see that they are not all so healthy and active-looking. When I came in, I saw one poor little girl being led about. She has some trouble with her eyes. Now I can see two more with the same difficulty. And there’s a girl with a crutch watching the others at play. She seems to be a hopeless cripple.”
Miss Beam laughed. “Oh, no!” she said. “She’s not really lame. This is only her lame day. The others are not blind either. It is only their blind day.” I must have looked very surprised, for she laughed again.
“This is a very important part of our system. To make our children appreciate and understand misfortune, we make them share in misfortune too. Each term every child has one blind day, one lame day, one deaf day, one injured day and one dumb day.
During the blind day their eyes are bandaged absolutely and they are on their honour not to peep. The bandage is put on overnight so they wake blind. This means that they need help with everything. Other children are given the duty of helping them and leading them about. They all learn so much this way – both the blind and the helpers.
“There is no misery about it,” Miss Beam continued. “Everyone is very kind and it is really something of a game. Before the day is over, though, even the most thoughtless child realizes what misfortune is.
“The blind day is, of course, really the worst, but some of the children tell me that the dumb day is the most difficult. We cannot bandage the children’s mouths, so they really have to exercise their will-power. Come into the garden and see for yourself how the children feel about it.”
Miss Beam led me to one of the bandaged girls. “Here’s a gentleman come to talk to you,” said Miss Beam and left us.
“Don’t you ever peep?” I asked the girl.
“Oh, no!” she exclaimed. “That would be cheating! But I had no idea it was so awful to be blind. You can’t see a thing. You feel you are going to be hit by something every moment. It’s such a relief just to sit down.”
“Are your helpers kind to you?” I asked.
“Fairly. But they are not as careful as I shall be when it is my turn. Those that have been blind already are the best helpers. It’s perfectly ghastly not to see. I wish you’d try.”
“Shall I lead you anywhere?” I asked.
“Oh, yes”, she said. “Let’s go for a little walk. Only you must tell me about things. I shall be so glad when today is over. The other bad days can’t be half as bad as this. Having a leg tied up and hopping about on a crutch is almost fun, I guess. Having an arm tied up is a bit more troublesome. because you can’t eat without help and things like that. I don’t think I’ll mind being deaf for a day – at least not much. But being blind is so frightening. My head aches all the time just from worrying that I’ll get hurt. Where are we now?”
“In the playground,” I said. “We’re walking towards the house. Miss Beam is walking up and down the garden with a tall girl.”
“What is the girl wearing?” my little friend asked in A Different Kind of School.
“A blue cotton skirt and a pink blouse.”
“I think it’s Millie?” she said. “What colour is her hair?”
“Very light,” I said.
“Yes, that’s Millie. She’s the Head Girl.”
“There’s an old man tying up roses,” I said.
“Yes, that’s Peter. He’s the gardener. He’s hundreds of years old!”
“And here comes a girl with curly red hair. She’s on crutches.”
“That’s Anita,” she said in A Different Kind of School.
And so we walked on. Gradually I discovered that I was ten times more thoughtful than I ever thought I could be. I also realized that if I had to describe people and things to someone else, it made them more interesting to me.
When I finally had to leave, I told Miss Beam that I was very sorry to go.
“Ah!” she replied, “then there is something in my system after all.”