COLUMN: Why Carbonear's Ben Powell left school early

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Benjamin W. Powell Sr., now of Charlottetown, Labrador, was born in Carbonear, Newfoundland, in 1921. He has told various aspects of his life story in a string of books, starting with "Labrador by Choice" in 1979.

Ben Powell

Ben, as he is familiarly known, admits to having little formal education.

"Things were quite different then in the schools than they are today," he says. "Our first schoolroom had big, long tables with long benches which ran the full length of the tables."

Each student had his own slate and pencil which, he says with a twinkle in his eyes, "sure did scrape! Most of the children would spit on their slates. Then, with the sleeve of their sweater, they would rub it off."

Students had their own Royal Reader, a series used in Newfoundland and Labrador from the 1870s until about the mid-1930s.

Ben’s first teacher was Katie Taylor who, he recalls, was "a very nice old lady." At times, when things went, "Miss," as she was known, "would strike her long ruler on the desk."

One day, a little fellow who sat next to Ben fell ill. "The teacher let him go home," Ben says, "and two days later Junior Saunders was dead," a victim of a common scourge, tuberculosis, or TB.

For Grade 3, Ben moved into another room with a different teacher, Emma Reader from Greenspond. Nor did Miss spare her students the dreaded leather strap.

"We did not have to do too much," Ben recalls, "before we would get the strap across the shoulders. Sometimes we would pull away just as the strap was coming down and she would get it across her knees. Then she would turn blue in the face and strike us harder than ever!"

Ben sat third in the row which, he remembers, had its own advantage. "That way I never had to answer as many spelling words, because if the last pupil in the row did not know his spelling, the first one had to answer it."

Ben may not have gone far in school, but he is a fount of common sense though, as one wag put it, "Common sense is not all that common."

"Many people have asked me," Ben says, "how I could write a book without any records and with very little education. I am sure that many people have planned to write a book someday, but kept putting it off. Unless you make a start at something, you can never succeed."

Ben has always been a very practical person. According to his philosophy, "Nobody brings anything into this world except a lot of empty tape in their head. As they reach school age, the reels begin to fill, and the process continues throughout one’s high school and college years. By this time, most of the reels are filled and you have much information locked up in your head. Nobody can steal it or rob you of your many years of recording on your brain tapes.

"Then, as you start to practice and use those tapes as an instructor, teacher or whatever, you verify what you have recorded through your years of education, and these items become easier to retrieve.

"Often, though, the memory is not so good, and one must use paper to record certain items. This is the only way because you cannot keep track of everything in your brain, for it is already filled with many years of education."

Ben left school early "mainly," he explains, "because it was not compulsory to attend school then. Like many others, I thought I would never need any education, or at least very little. I could read and write a little … I thought it was more important for me to help Father with the gardens and the firewood, because there was always plenty of work to do.

"Thus," he adds, "I had many empty reels."

He left his Newfoundland hometown for coastal Labrador at 15.

J. Albert Joyce writes that Ben "quickly adopted this challenging, isolated area as home." In years to come, he would distinguish himself as a trapper, fisherman, family man, community builder, sawmill operator and shopkeeper. His "indomitable spirit of courage and tenacity ... enabled him to endure the hardships and rigors of this frequently hostile environment."

I personally am a firm believer in the importance of a good education. At the same time, we should never downplay or underestimate the importance of the training our forebears acquired when they attended the so-called School of Hard Knocks.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

Organizations: Royal Reader, School of Hard Knocks, The Compass

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Greenspond, Bay Roberts

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