Monday, April 25, 2016

What I got out of rereading Goodbye, Mister Chips

On a whim, after being reminded of the book by some graduation announcements, I reread Goodbye, Mister Chips by James Hamilton. 

It's been a good twenty years since I last read it, when I went through a phase of reading a bunch of books that you are forced to read in high school English classes in order to hit some of the ones I hadn't been assigned to read.

I remember that I went into the book expecting it to be depressing, something like a British Death of a Salesman. Instead, I remember finding it a relaxing, even uplifting little read. Mind you, I didn't actually remember much more until I reread it.

Truth to tell, I liked even more now, having lived a bit more life.

Goodbye, Mister Chips is the story of an old, now retired teacher, looking back at his long career and how many boys he taught and helped. What I personally got out of it was that it was the story about how a man, with the help of age and humor, learned how to become the glue that held a school and, in a sense, England together.

It's a pretty sentimental piece but Hamilton makes it work by underselling it to us. Brookfield isn't a top of the line school but a good second tier school that turns out its share of good Englishmen. Mr. Chipping, the titular Mr. Chips, is likewise depicted as having an second rare degree and not even being that good at reaching Greek and Latin. 

However, he is good at building community.

Hamilton wrote the entire book in a passive voice, telling about what happened in Mr. Chips' life as opposed to showing. Even the death of his young wife in childbirth is undersold, although it is still a tear jerker.

The book does work itself up to a climax, World War I, when Mr. Chips is asked to come out of retirement and help the school. When the headmaster dies, he has to step up and run the school during a war that is shaking the foundations of society. Which, of course, he does.

His crowning moment is calming a class of boys during a German bombardment by having them translate a quote from Caesar about the German tribes. It's a nice moment of believable courage.

When Mr. Chips inevitably dies at the end, which you could see coming from the first chapter, it isn't a tragedy but a testimony of all the lives he's touched and improved.

The moral of the book might be that the old, traditional ways are best or, as per the influence of Mr. Chips' short-lived but progressive wife, that traditional ways need to be tempered by modern ideas. Heck, it might just be that Hamilton really liked his school years.

What I took out of Goodbye, Mister Chips is that the elderly continue to make a valuable, even essential, contribution to both community and society. Long after he retires and even on the night before he dies, Mister Chip continues to be an important part of the life of the school. 

The world we live in today is changing even faster than Hamilton's world but I'd like to think that still rings true.

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