Friday, November 04, 2016

`Five Years of Flunks'

At age twelve, in the fall of 1922, Johnny Mercer, a native of Savannah, Ga., enrolled at Woodberry Forest School, near Orange, Va. In Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World (University of Georgia Press, 2013), Glenn T. Eskew describes the setting:

“The rigorous and cosmopolitan curriculum prepared students for life in the professions. While nondenominational, Woodberry emphasized it was `no boy . . . whose parents do not sympathize with the Christian work in the School, or are unwilling to give to it their hearty support.’ Weekly `Sacred Study’ and compulsory chapel reinforce this Protestant training. The school had six forms—comparable to grades seven through twelve—the boys passed through to graduate in order to enter college directly. In each form students took English and a foreign language—Spanish, French, or German—as well as mathematics. The curriculum recommended Latin for three years and offered general science courses, physics, chemistry, and history. Woodberry required a C grade in all classes to earn a diploma.”

Eskew gives an account of Mercer’s performance as a student:

“Regular evaluations of Johnny’s academic progress point to problems that characterize an inability to focus. In subjects that interested him, such as spelling and English literature, he made high scores, but the grades dropped in classes he disliked, such as foreign languages and mathematics. In one evaluation, Headmaster [J. Carter] Walker noted, `I feel greatly discouraged about John. He is capable, but incorrigibly lazy.’”

His graduation from Woodberry in 1927 was the end of Mercer’s formal education. In 1934, he wrote for the school yearbook:

“A callow youth I packed my trunks
And entered on five years of flunks
And if I’m better off today
Then this is all I have to say
The Good Lord must look after fools and drunks”

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