School or War: Which is Worse?
That question sounds ridiculous. But hear me out.
Becoming C. S. Lewis, by Dr. Harry Lee Poe, is different from other biographies of C. S. Lewis. The word “Becoming” in the title tells us that Dr. Poe intended to explain Mr. Lewis to us in ways that Lewis has not been explained before.
Other biographers, for example, have been skeptical that Lewis’s own account of certain of his experiences was accurate, especially his depiction of his school experiences as worse than his time 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 WWI, 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. Lewis was seriously wounded by one of those shells.
C. S. Lewis, as a boy, was sent to a series of boarding schools in England or in Ireland (where he was born). He was big for his age, clumsy, bad at sports, nerdy, and miserable. He explains in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that sleep was the only good part of most days at his schools.
Dr. Poe, in his Becoming C. S. Lewis, makes clear how, for the young C. S. Lewis, school was indeed worse than war. Dr. Poe writes this: “In the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and several other English-speaking countries, it can seem that 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… 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, young C. S. Lewis had the legs kicked out from under him by the other boys… Lewis did not… 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.”
In my most recent novel, A Fearful Thing, the fifth book in the Rebecca Series, detective Sid Belton, who appears in all my novels, is a crippled, wizened, physically diminished person who appears to others much older than his actual age of about 50. Yet his genius as a detective and his track record for bravery make him a revered figure among law enforcement officials throughout the U.S., the U.K., and beyond.
We are never told anything about his education. We don’t know if he has ever gone beyond high school. But if we had to guess, we would imagine that he would always have preferred to be out on the tough streets of his native New York City, facing day-to-day danger, becoming superb and respected at his work, rather than sitting in a classroom where he was probably a difficult and surely a bored student, or being picked last whenever sides were chosen for games.
My question in the title of this post isn’t really serious, but it does invite us to think about how important the respect of others usually is for all of us. If we are not really good in classrooms, on athletic fields, or in other school-related activities, we may well find that “real life” – even if it carries with it a certain amount of risk – is something we learn very much to prefer and to enjoy.
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