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Boys with Stand-Up Collars
What boys those were! Looking about one in the Christmas-times in New York, and seeing the crowds of young people who are at home from school for the holidays, it is impossible not to contrast the boys of to-day in the city with those boys. This is not the pessimist's way of always thinking the old times better than the latter days. It is no imaginary contrast. It is simply the demand of the modern boy, which he makes on you wherever you meet him, to examine and pronounce judgment on him. He challenges your opinion. His mother sent him out into the street to challenge it. He is a work of art, and as such is set before you to be admired, with the expectation that you will look at him and pronounce on the quality of the art which has produced him. These little specimens of young humanity, with tight little trousers, tight little coats, tight little white chokers around their necks, little canes in their hands and little thoughts in their heads, are correct representatives of the boys that some modern mothers are bringing up for the next generation of men.
It is a melancholy fact, which no father who has daughters can fail to recognize, that the girls of today are in education and personal force of character much ahead of the boys. There are plenty of hearty, bright, brilliant, sensible girls. Society has not spoiled them, with all its frivolities.
Society is an essential part of this life. Those who abuse it with wholesale sweeping denunciations do not know what they are talking about. The purpose of education and life is happiness — here and hereafter. She who has been so educated that she is able to be happy and hopeful and to confer happiness and hopefulness on those around her — is well educated. This life and the other life are closely interwoven, and it is by no means necessary to abandon this life for the sake of getting ready for that. The duties of this life are present duties, and whatever be our social surroundings, whether in the informal associations of country society or in the settled formalities and splendid decorations of city society, there are duties which men and women owe to one another. Those who inveigh against the evils of society would do well to measure the certain results which would follow the abolition of that which they decry. Our civilization rests for its support on the splendors and luxuries of life far more than on the utilities. Our charities, hospitals, missions, all derive their support from the wealth which is the product of our social system. No mechanic, mason, carpenter, hod-carrier, artisan, tradesman, whatever his employment, whatever he produces or sells, would have a dollar to give to the church or the poor but for the fact that the rich wear rich apparel, live in gorgeous houses, give brilliant receptions, enjoy the splendor of modern social life.
In this social life, whether its brilliancy be that of intellectual gatherings, or of dress and formality, woman has right to rule supreme. There is no work of art on earth, ancient or modern, more beautiful, more worthy of admiration, than a well-dressed woman. If she were not a thing to be admired, the saint of old time, to whom were given visions of heaven, would not have likened the Holy City to a bride adorned. The pathway to the better country does not necessarily lie through the waste places of this life. Many saints there be who have walked it among all the splendors and allurements of society. Mostly, I think, women, not men. And in our own day, it is undeniable that the young women in society are in general the intellectual superiors of the young men. Some parents look solely for wealth in selecting husbands for their daughters; but I imagine these parents are more rare than is commonly believed. And it is certainly true that many judicious fathers and mothers, recognizing the ability of their daughters to be blessings and adornments of homes and of society, are sadly occupied in measuring the visible inferiority of the young men whom they see and estimate side by side with their daughters.
What boys those were! Can these little fellows, with tight collars and cravats at fourteen, ever make such men as those boys made. There is something wholly inconsistent with development of intellect in a tight stand-up collar around a boy's neck. Freedom of physical action is certainly essential to freedom of mind and thought. Fashion imposes on men in society formalities of dress. The rules of society are proper and obedience is necessary; otherwise society would degenerate and license destroy its system, which must be preserved. Therefore men in society must dress as the rules require, however ill be the taste which has made the rules. But boys are not in society; and it is a fearful blunder which mothers make in dressing their boys as if they belonged to a social system, or according to the rules of any such system, thus teaching them to demand such dress as they grow older, and to regard it as a governing consideration in life. Boys who dress in the style of some absurd-looking slips of humanity one meets nowadays can't possibly be boys. They are little automatons, mimicking the solemnities of mature life, caricaturing the sober realities of society.
What boys those were! — I say it again. The memory of them comes with the fresh brilliancy of a December Christmas wind out of the north, sharp, clear, with the sound of sleigh-bells and shouts. Are there any like them now? Doubtless plenty; but the modern schools, with gymnasiums for training the physical system, do not seem to turn out one in three, or one in a dozen, such boys as used to be in any high-class school in the country. The contrary is asserted. I don't believe it. Never did the system of old Greece, which classed athletics among the three great branches of education, make more noble specimens of young strength than our country schools did in old times, and perhaps now do. But these are never the boys that wear tight things around any of their muscles — above all, never boys that wear stiff stand-up collars habitually. To be a great boy is easier than to be a great man. It comes naturally with pure association, liberal use of muscles as well as mind, freedom of feeling which comes from freedom of clothing. It is easy to spoil what would be a great boy if let alone. Put him up to thinking much of how he looks when dressed to go out, and the boy will turn out next to worthless as a boy among boys, and have poor prospects as a man.
Perhaps I mistake those boys of old time, and the glow which invests them is the deceitful light that memory sometimes creates like a halo around the things we loved long ago. But there is no error in the estimate one must make of a large class of boys in modern cities. There is good stuff in them, but the vigor and force is taken out of it between the ages of eight and fifteen. They have by that time no independence of character; are, at their best, imitators, without self-reliance. It is a bad thing to make a boy's ambition to be measured by what other boys do, his ideas of taste controlled by other boys' ideas, his language and conversation reduced to the slang of a set of boys.
If you have no other guide in conducting your boy's life, good mother, take this: Give him something to remember; keep him from all that he would in mature life wish to forget. There is no more precious possession to the man than memories of boyhood. They grow more precious with advancing age. If it be possible, forbid in your boy's life that he shall ever look back from the serious years of maturity and have to say to himself, "What a little fool I was in those days!" All men remember follies, and the honest follies of a boy are pleasant memories, that one can laugh at and remember joyously. But deliberate follies persisted in from year to year, through all the sunniest years of life, are not pleasant to look back at; and saddest of all they will seem if the boy-man shall have to say, "I was a foolish boy because my parents made me one."
All this because of the group of country boys we saw at play in front of a school-house on the roadside. They were stout, healthy, happy boys, and some of them will be men of mark hereafter.