Gentlemen First

Charlotte Hays | Posted on 01/01/10

What I wanted was to see that Saturday in Petersburg, Virginia was not the famous battlefield, though that is well worth a visit, too, but Sycamore Street, where my grandfather, a major influence in my life, lived as a boy. Walking along Sycamore, passing the park where the Petersburg Volunteers drilled in 1812, I spotted an oddity: a tombstone, of all things, in front of a private house.

Who was buried in the front yard on Sycamore Street? Weird. Crossing for a closer look, I realized it wasn’t a wayward gravesite, and that I was standing in a place I had heard of all my life. It was a marker for the spot on which Captain William Gordon McCabe, artillerist turned schoolmaster, had long ago run a school for boys. McCabe was my grandfather’s revered schoolteacher. And there was McCabe’s famous motto:

“You may not all be scholars, but you can all be gentlemen.”

Has there ever been such an un-modern sentiment? Can you imagine the parent-teacher conferences if an educator today voiced such heresy?

We live in a world where it would be deemed hurtful to tell a student she couldn’t be a scholar (or a poet, or an astronaut, or anything else, regardless of the raw material). Creativity guru Julia Cameron has sold millions of copies of her how-to book, The Artist’s Way, spawning thousands of workshops over the years, and built on the demonstrably false proposition that anybody can be an artist.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in aiming high and competing hard to get there. But I also believe that without the humility to recognize our talents, as opposed to those talents we wish we had, we end up with fake achievements. We care more about a college degree than a college education. An essay contest conducted at my local library, wherein high-school-aged girls were asked to name a “role model,” was informative. The winning essays, i.e., just about every entry, were posted. One thing was certain: nobody had a grammarian as a role model. But they were all essay contest winners.

I can’t bear to contemplate the professional future of the educator today who told anxious, tutor-hiring parents, “Little Elliott isn’t Harvard material, but she is a fine young lady.” The Petersburg of McCabe’s day, defeated and clinging to its values as a survival technique, knew that as wonderful as it is to be a scholar, being a lady or gentleman is even more important.