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The Stupid Pupil

BY HELENA M. MAGUIRE.
 
The stupid pupil is the most desirable pupil a teacher can have. The more stupid the pupil the more clever the teacher must be. The work done with a stupid pupil is productive of more deep and intense satisfaction for the teacher than the work done with the cleverest and most brilliant of pupils. We have had the "Survival of the Fittest" for many centuries. Now comes the "Era of the Unfit," and through these stupid ones, these mental weaklings, we are to learn great wisdom.
 
It is of these stupids that Carlyle said they come into the world of thought with unfurnished brains. There is nothing for an idea to sit down on, and, finding nothing but barrenness and emptiness, and bleak, chill desolation, the idea straightway departs therefrom. Who that is a music teacher has not known the struggle of attempting to start a family of musical ideas to keeping house in such a brain, and the difficulty of persuading them to make it even their temporary abode?
 
It can be done, but one has to begin farther back than the idea, or even the moving in of the idea. One has to begin with the brain itself and prepare it for its guests before one can expect them to stay. That is the great difference between the bright pupil and the stupid one; the one comes prepared for the real work of musical instruction, while the other makes it necessary that the teacher be a great deal more than an instructor of music.
 
I have found Professor James' book on psychology to be of the greatest assistance in overcoming stupidity. I have had cases of stupidity which I should never have got the better of had I not read this book, for I would not have believed it possible to pierce such density. But having studied Professor James' theory of brain formation and development, I determined to make a special study of stupid pupils. I found it to be interesting work, and I do not now feel either cross or discouraged when my instruction seems to have entered upon a barren waste, but rather a pleasant anticipation of watching another brain overcome its sluggishness and awaken into activity.
 
I have worked mainly upon the theory that every new thought or idea presented to the brain must plow a way, or a channel, for itself, through the brain matter. In a normal brain the channel, or groove, or road bed, or whatever one may wish to call it, is made without great effort, and is of permanent duration, so that when a like idea is presented it finds a way already made for it and so enters the intelligence easily and with rapidity (thus we have the phrase "with lightning intelligence"), and the innumerable tributaries of thought flow therefrom as a matter of course.
 
But other brains there are whose matter is of the nature of the rock, in which a way has to be hammered and chiseled, and even blasted for every thought presented to it. This is a slow process, but not the slowest, and the advantage of such a brain is that when once an idea has made its way into it, it stays. Its road bed is very durable, and while you will not find many ideas in such a brain, you can always be sure of what you have put there. With such a pupil to know a thing once is to know it always; having only a small stock of ideas it is always pretty sure to be in good orderly condition, "get-at-able" in fact, so that these pupils often become in time most satisfactory ones.
 
There is another kind of brain which is quite the opposite of the rocky one, which has nothing in common with it but its aversion to taking in ideas and putting them to good purpose. This brain is of the nature of a "sinking meadow," and to make a groove through it for a musical thought, is like building a roadway through a so-called sinking meadow. It requires no end of engineering. One has to fill in, and fill in, and fill in—and then see the ideas sink down out of ken and become lost forever; and begin again, to realize the same result. One day I was driving upon a road that had been built over one of these "sinking meadows," and I was told that the rows of great willow trees on either side the road had been planted a hundred years ago that their out- reaching roots might help to make a solid bed for the road across the meadow. I said, "What a lesson of patience!" And I resolved anew to plant and wait, busy all the meantime crushing great musical facts into tiny thought-pebbles, and scattering them carefully over the ways I was trying to make through my "Dismal Swamps." I sometimes used to think that the amount of musical material I brought to bear upon one girl's brain in the way of instruction, precept, and example would have stocked a dozen ordinary brains to overflowing; and she would sit and listen attentively with that gentle, stupid smile, "meekly silly, sillily meek." But by and by, after a long, long time, a very small but quite correct idea would trickle slowly through her brain, and out either at her finger tips or her mouth, and I knew we had solid substance at last.
 
At the year's end I feel a more intense satisfaction over what I have accomplished with my stupid pupils than for what I have done with my bright pupils, and I feel more proud of my poor "Dismal Swamps," whom few ever hear play, than of my talented pupils who bring much praise to my ears.
 
Is it worth while, this hard work, which brings such small and hidden results? Yes; for the music teacher cannot live by talented pupils alone. These are far too few. The pupil with genius is a good advertisement; he will bring you pupils, but not all like himself; and he cannot keep your pupils for you. The secret of a teacher's success is the being able to keep her pupils, and the only way in which she can do this is to have a clear understanding of the different kinds of brain which come under her instruction, and to be able to make music a possibility and a happiness for the stupid as well as for the bright. The music teacher in the Institute for Feeble Minded does it for his pupils, and we must be able to do it for ours if we would be successful.

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