The Difference One Voice Makes
By Laura Schiller
Based on: David Copperfield
Copyright: Charles Dickens' estate
David would never forget the look in Mr. Mell's eyes when Steerforth called him an impudent beggar.
If Mr. Mell had been angry and shouted back, it would have been easier. David might even have cheered Steerforth on, loyal as ever to his protector. Instead, however, the teacher bowed his head, meeting his oldest student's sneer with the quiet resignation of a man who had been kicked down so often, he hardly bothered getting up again. And all the while, he kept a hand on David's shoulder, as if silently assuring him of forgiveness.
David did not feel that he deserved it. He should never have told anyone about Mr. Mell's mother in the poorhouse. But how could he have known that Steerforth – noble, generous Steerforth – would use Mr. Mell's secret so viciously against him?
"Shame, J. Steerforth!" called Traddles, from the back of the room. "Too bad!"
David's first reaction was to flinch, expecting his unlucky friend to be hit by lightning for the unthinkable heresy he had just committed. Nobody found fault with Steerforth. But as that young paragon, standing tall and golden-haired in the middle of the room like an avenging angel, swung around and snarled at Traddles to be quiet, David saw something he had never seen before.
He saw Mr. Murdstone, as clearly as if his shadow were following Steerforth's every move. In Steerforth's flashing blue glare, he saw Mr. Murdstone's eyes, as hard and shallow as rocks. In his boyish tenor, he heard the iron clang of tyranny. In his casual contempt for Mr. Mell and anyone weaker than he was, David saw the same character that would lead a man to break his wife's spirit and beat his stepson like a dog.
There were many Murdstones in the world, he knew. Why should it surprise him that some of them were handsome and charming?
He had never even tried to protest against Mr. Murdstone, except for begging not to be beaten. But by God, he would protest now.
"Traddles is right," he said, demonstratively covering his teacher's hand with his own. "Mr. Mell is only trying to do his duty. You've no call to insult him!"
Fear made his voice embarrassingly shrill, like a mouse's squeak, but the room fell silent anyway to hear him. The spectacle of Steerforth's little favorite defying him was possibly the most astounding sight the boys had seen that day.
Mr. Mell smiled down at his youngest pupil, his thin, worn face looking ten years younger. David tried his best to concentrate on that smile as he turned back to Steerforth, whose handsome face was turning red with fury.
"I've a right to speak to anyone as I please, Miss Copperfield!" he snapped.
"I don't care if you call me a woman," David retorted, his heartbeat pounding his ears. "My old nurse is the strongest person I know. She'd stop this!"
Steerforth laughed disdainfully and several boys echoed him, in the same mechanical way the way they laughed at Mr. Creakle's jokes. But the absurd image of sturdy, apron-clad Peggotty turning Steerforth over her knee was oddly encouraging for David, so he took a deep breath and continued. He had learned how to work an audience in his storyteller's role during their midnight feasts, and he used that knowledge now: he raised his little voice as loud as it could go and met each of the boys eye-to-eye until they hung their heads in shame.
"If his mother is poor, that doesn't make him a beggar. It makes him a good man, for working so hard to support her and never complaining. He doesn't deserve to be laughed at, especially since he's the best teacher we have. Sir," facing Mr. Mell with a little bow, "When I first arrived here during the holidays, wasn't it you who helped me with my sums until I understood them? Who never once beat me or called me stupid, no matter how many mistakes I made?"
"It was the least I could do, David," replied Mr. Mell, nodding back with modest dignity.
"You little sneak!" Steerforth's face had never looked less handsome than it did now, with narrowed eyes and bared teeth. "Is this your gratitude for my friendship and protection? Toadying up to this beggar - "
"Shut up, Steerforth!" shouted Traddles, squeezing his chubby body past the rows of desks. "You think you're so brave? That's just because your mama's too rich for Creakle to thrash you. The rest of us ain't so lucky – oof!" He tripped over someone's outstretched leg, fell to the floor, and picked himself up with a shake of his frizzy curls as if nothing had happened. "Mr. Mell," he continued breathlessly, coming to stand opposite David on the teacher's other side, "I remember how you looked after me when I had food poisoning last week. You were a brick to do it, sir, and I thank you!"
It was as if a dam had been broken. One boy, and then another and another, stood up to name something Mr. Mell had done for them, until over half the school was on their feet.
"When I lost my Latin grammar, you bought me a new one out of your own wages so Mr. Creakle wouldn't find out."
"You sat by me when I was homesick."
"You told Mr. Creakle it was you forgot to feed the mice, even though it was our job to look after them."
"You always bring the letters from my sister as soon as they come in."
"Thank you, sir."
They were small things, apparently insignificant, but adding up to a wave of united respect and admiration which left Steerforth, still seething in the middle of the room, alone and excluded for the first time in his life.
"Thank you, boys."
Mr. Mell placed a hand on the shoulder of each of his two young defenders and drew himself up. Shabby as ever in his threadbare brown suit; wispy gray hair clinging to his forehead; almost as thin and angular as one of Traddles' skeletons; but his gray eyes shone with a pride and self-confidence none of his students had ever seen. David privately thought he looked better than Steerforth did at the moment.
"And while I have your attention, everyone," Mr. Mell continued, "Allow me to remind you that you are here to learn. I want to be your teacher, not your enemy; to help you and guide you, not wage war against you. I may not have as much … influence in this school as I could wish," politely referring to the tyranny of Mr. Creakle, almost as hard for him as for the boys themselves, "But I have done my very best to try to make the path of knowledge as pleasant and interesting to you as it should be. When you start to roughhouse in the classroom as you were doing just now, you do not make my task any easier. Please try to remember that."
"Beg your pardon, sir," said Traddles, echoed by wide-eyed looks of contrition all across the room. "We didn't realize … we meant no harm by it."
"I know, Thomas." Mr. Mells smiled again, ruefully, almost like a little boy himself. "When I was your age, I found it just as difficult to keep still, especially in situations like today's," meaning the absence of Creakle and his cane. "I have no objection to high spirits – as long as you express them outside your lessons, understood?"
"Yes, sir!" the whole class rumbled in chorus (except Steerforth, who had sat back down with his arms folded, affecting a careless, superior air that fooled nobody).
"Now, gentlemen, shall we continue?"
David and Traddles hurried back to their desks, exchanging proud smiles on the way that confirmed their friendship as one meant to last. There was a general rustle of paper, followed by an incomplete, but perfectly workable silence broken only by a few whispers and by Mr. Mell's voice as he continued the day's lesson.
Creakle's school did not improve overnight. In fact, for David it became rather worse at first, since in addition to Creakle he now had his former friend to contend against. Steerforth was not above "accidentally" spilling ink on David's essays, shoving him into walls or telling Creakle about various real or invented misdemeanors. David could not help but cry (privately, of course) for the friend he had lost – not the real Steerforth, but the glorious protector he had imagined him to be.
But he had Tommy Traddles to laugh and play with, help each other study and even draw the occasional skeleton together. He had Mr. Mell, who after so many years at his thankless job, seemed to finally be growing into his authority and becoming firm as well as kind. He had the respect of many of his fellows, who had previously dismissed him as a toy of Steerforth's who had no opinions of his own. Stubbornly, patiently, he managed to endure.
When his mother died, it was Mr. Mell who broke the news to him, gave him a handkerchief and excused him from the day's lesson. He even offered to play a lament on his flute, which David politely declined. When he left the school behind for once and for all, he left it with gratitude – not only for finally getting away, but for the teacher who taught him how to follow his own conscience, and the friend who showed him to be brave.