I grew up in Britain in the 1970’s, a time when there was still some residual ethos of empire in a country that had not entirely emerged from World War II. I attended a high school in London which was founded sometime in the late 18th century and, despite the fact that it had been taken over by the state, retained some of the trappings and rubrics that it inherited from ages past. Hence it was an all-boys school, we wore uniforms, played cricket and rugby, and were required to address the teachers (nearly all men) as “sir.”
One of the staff teachers was a man called Stockman. I recall him as a tall, heavily-built man with a military background and a slight limp that nobody had the courage to ask him about. He taught history and Latin. He also had a fondness for posing philosophical questions to his pupils that had (on the face of it) very little or nothing to do with the subject being taught.
I was 14 years old when I was sitting in Class 4 with my classmates awaiting Stockman’s appearance for a history lesson which was supposed to focus on the Napoleonic Wars. I recall that it was raining heavily; long spears of cold water dashed against the rattling windows. Stockman walked in, put a pile of books down on the desk without so much as a “good morning,” and limped over to the window where he stood with his hands behind his back, gazing broodingly out at the rain-lashed roofs.
“Boys” he said, “a question for you: a woman comes to you for advice. She is married and has five children, all of whom are afflicted with physical and/or mental disabilities of some sort. He husband is an alcoholic and has syphilis. They are grindingly poor. So poor, in fact, that she struggles to feed the children she has. She is now pregnant, expecting her sixth child. Advise her.”
Silence followed. As the rain continued the break upon the windows in sheets, we dumbstruck little boys all looked around at each other, scanning each gormless face for a clue as to what to say next.
“Come on,” said Stockman, “tempus fugit.”
Finally, the boy sitting next to me, Bobby Harkness, raised his hand. He was a small, mousey kid with hair that flopped over his eyes and a temerity that belied his slight frame.
“Sir,” said Harkness, “she should get an abortion”.
“Hmmmm…” was the response from Stockman who was still contemplating the vista, his hands behind his back, as immovable as a statue.
“Anybody else? What do the rest of you say?”
One by one, every boy’s hand climbed hesitantly aloft.
“Yes, sir. She should get an abortion.”
“No sense in her bringing another kid into the world, sir.”
“Abortion, sir. No doubt about it.”
“She can’t even feed the kids she’s got, sir.”
Stockman let out another pensive hum before turning smartly on his heels and heading for the desk where he picked up a book, an thumbed through it until he reached the required page and at which point, he looked out at us and said:
“Congratulations, Class 4: you just killed Beethoven. Now, let us begin.”
We all quickly glanced round at each other again like a room full of meerkats; some blushing, some chuckling a little and others bemused. I have no idea what expression was visible on my face, but I can tell you that Stockman’s little test made a deep impact on me that has lasted all of my life. How can the consensus get it so wrong?
I have no idea as to whether or not Beethoven’s family circumstances were quite as dire or grim as Stockman had claimed them to be. But it hardly matters really and that is far from the point. The point he was making was as pinsharp clear to me then as it still is today.
I was raised in a very secular family and I continue to live a very secular life. On the issue of abortion, I have always been rather agnostic, campaigning neither for nor against it. But Mr. Stockman’s test imprinted itself on my motherboard and now, over 40 years later, whenever I hear the word abortion, I have the “Pastoral” playing in my head.
How many Beethovens?
[Today’s guest post by David Carr is part of our paid blogging program.]