The Happy Class
‘A class has its own soul’
‘Don’t let anyone tell you being a schoolmaster isn’t an adventurous job…’ The speaker is Staal, a teacher at an Amsterdam school for poor children in the early twentieth century. There is little prestige attached to the post and his wife thinks he should look for a better job, but Staal sees his work as a calling. He wants to help the forty young individuals in his charge to get on in life. So while pretending to be studying for his French diploma he writes his diary, recording observations, concerns and ideas about education and child-rearing.
Be they smart, sickly or foolish, all children are unique and Staal knows how to make the most of that, although he is often seized by doubt as to whether he is doing the right thing. Theo Thijssen writes beautifully about the class as an organism: ‘You can tease a class, flatter it, make it laugh, tremble, a class has its own soul.’ When a humpbacked boy appears at school the class is understanding, but when another boy shares out stale nuts the teasing is relentless – and there you have it after all, ‘the dreadful wolfish morality of the world of grown ups’. To Staal the class is important as a social unit, as Thijssen makes clear at the end of the novel: ‘My marvellous, sweet, difficult lot, I really know only one thing: the year or so that I have you and you have me we ought simply to be a happy class. The rest is nonsense, believe me, although I’d never tell you that.’
Theo Thijssen’s writing was based on his practical experience as a teacher, and this novel takes the form of a diary. It demonstrates how remarkably good he was at entering into the world of the child, an exceptional achievement for the time. He caused a furore by exposing the deficiencies of generalized methods of teaching and child-rearing and appealing for more respect for the teacher, the ultimate expert on how to approach a class. As a result Thijssen’s message is still relevant today, and his novel provides a joyful if wistful insight into the world of the recent past.