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  • Writer's pictureWalker Buckalew

School or War: Which is Worse?

School or War?

I know that question sounds ridiculous. But hear me out.

I’m reading a new book titled Becoming C. S. Lewis, by Dr. Harry Lee Poe (Crossway, 2019). As you can guess from the title, this is yet another biography of the great 20th century author of more than 30 highly regarded books, books of all different kinds: scholarly, children’s fiction, adult fiction, and more. And C. S. Lewis also wrote his own story, Surprised by Joy.

This new book, Becoming C. S. Lewis, is different from the other biographies of C. S. Lewis. The word “Becoming” in the title is a good hint, telling us that Dr. Poe intends to explain Mr. Lewis to us in ways that he has not been explained before.

For example, other biographers of Mr. Lewis have been skeptical that his account of certain of his experiences was accurate: especially his depiction of his school experiences as worse than his experiences in the front line trenches of World War One.

Think about that. You and I have known school from the time we were very young. We had good experiences and bad, but could we possibly say that anything about school was worse than what we imagine trench warfare was like? After all, in that war, the opposing armies on the western front (which snaked through Belgium and northern France) lived subterranean lives, huddled in ten-foot-deep trenches while artillery shells burst over, around, and within those trenches. Men were torn to pieces by this kind of weaponry, and that was before they were ordered, as they periodically were, to rise out of their trenches and charge across “no-man’s land” into the teeth of enemy machine gun fire. It was mutual slaughter.

C. S. Lewis, as a boy, was sent to a series of boarding schools in England and Ireland (where he was born). He was big for his age, clumsy, bad at sports, nerdy, and miserable. He explains in his autobiography that sleep was the only good part of most days, most of the time, at his schools.

Dr. Poe, in this new book, has no trouble understanding how, for the young C. S. Lewis, school was worse than war. He writes this: “In the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and several other English speaking countries, it can seem like the validity of a boy’s right to exist depends upon the boy’s ability to hit a ball, kick a ball, catch a ball, throw a ball, and do innumerable other things with a ball. Manual dexterity is critical. Boys who cannot do a passable job at sports played with balls simply do not count in some circles…. At a time in life when a boy’s self-image and his further development into a man were at stake, ‘Jack’ Lewis had the legs kicked out from under him by the other boys…. The one thing C. S. Lewis did not do was exaggerate how horrible his experience was at school and how much worse it felt than his experience at the front during the war. At the front, he would do his duty and show courage under fire. He would be wounded. He would be honored. He would have self-respect.”

Harry Lee Poe, the author of this new biography, tells us that he has a “lazy eye.” One of his eyes does not function sufficiently to give him any sort of depth perception. Without depth perception, none of us can catch a ball. The ball will simply hit us in the face. Because of this, Dr. Poe understood perfectly why C. S. Lewis hated his schools and viewed his experiences there as actually worse than his life on the front lines in World War One.

In my young-adult books, Visioners and Visioners2, I purposely made two of the three central characters “nerdy” (by their own self-description). Joanna and her first boyfriend, Gareth, are able to recognize the nerdiness in each other, and are attracted to each other partly for that reason. I try to show them as truly amazing young people, filled with intelligence, compassion, and commitment to their beliefs.

A person does not have to be athletic in order to be wonderful. I hope the societies within which we live will continue to work at trying to make that apparent to young people as they grow up. And I hope my young-adult books can make a small contribution to that process.

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