Headmaster’s Thoughts – February 2009

All of us learn from the guidance of a more experienced person. In young children it is, of course, their parents who support the learning of new skills. In older children, teachers become more influential.

Jacqueline Leber, one of our admissions directors who is completing her doctorate at Teachers College, told me that psychologist Lev Vygotsky is credited with the description of this process, which he calls “scaffolding.” The example commonly used to illustrate scaffolding is that of a mother who helps her daughter walk across the balance beam by holding her hand. Without this support, the child could not maintain the balance necessary to reach the other side. As the child develops, the need for assistance gradually diminishes, and she is able to walk across the balance beam unassisted.

Scaffolding gives the skills to reach independent success in the future. It is a life long process and does not end with childhood. If we are to learn new skills, we continue to need guidance and help from more knowledgeable people throughout our lives.

As I started to think about my “thoughts” for this month, I remembered my first jury case as a young barrister, where a teaching stranger offered me scaffolding support which contributed to my development as a criminal trial lawyer.

I was called to the bar in England (Middle Temple) in 1966. I was twenty-two. A young barrister is only allowed to actually speak in court after he has served six months as a pupil. During my first six months, a friend of my father was arrested for larceny. Three weeks after those first six months of pupilage ended, the case came to trial. My father, in the way only fathers can do, had foolishly told his friend that his son was a bright young barrister who would get him off. This was my first real trial.

The case involved what clothing manufacturers commonly referred to as “cabbage”, and to understand the case you need to know what “cabbage” is. A small clothing manufacturer would be given a number of bales of cloth along with a pattern for the dress or coat that was to be produced. The order would be specific; so many items to be made from so many bales. The number had been worked out by a pattern maker of the ordering company. But what often happened was that the manufacturer would “shrink” the pattern or “marker.” This might be done literally by putting the paper pattern into water and then letting it slowly shrink dry, or it could be done by carefully cutting the pattern back, particularly so that the hems were narrow. The result was that instead of, let us say, producing 100 coats out of thirty bales, a skilled manufacturer could produce 130. Those extra thirty coats were known as “cabbage” and were sold off privately, and they represented a major part of the profit for the small factory owner.

At some point, an ordering company decided to put an end to this practice and complained to the police who arrested the factory owner, my father’s friend, charging him with theft. The evidence was clear; he had produced and sold “cabbage,” something that belonged to the company and not to him.

The only defense witness I had on my list was the president of the Clothing Manufacturer’s Association. He headed what might loosely be called a trade association but in reality was a small group of older men who gathered regularly to complain, over their coffee, about the state of the world.

I appeared before Ewen Montague, the Chairman of the Middlesex Quarter Sessions, in a beautiful building opposite the Houses of Parliament. Ewen Montague was the second son of a prominent Jewish aristocrat (Lord Swaythling). As a bright young naval officer in 1944, he had come up with the idea of floating a drowned British officer off the coast of Spain with plans showing that the allies intended to invade Calais on D-Day. This plan of deception, known as Operation Mincemeat, worked. The Spanish police found the body but did not return it to the British Embassy for a day, during which time they had allowed German Intelligence agents to photograph the papers found in the waterproof pouch on the dead officer. Hitler believed these plans proved that the allies were going to invade through the Calais beachhead instead of Normandy. Operation Mincemeat was a major success.

For this smart and resourceful idea, Montague received a number of decorations. He wrote the book The Man Who Never Was, which was made into a movie, and eventually he was appointed the Chairman of Middlesex Quarter Sessions, (a middle level criminal court judgeship). I thought of him as a formidable, brilliant, and totally intimidating judge to appear before in my first jury trial.

The prosecution called their witnesses, and there was little to dispute. The only thing I remember asking the complaining company owner was if he agreed that the practice of “cabbage” was widespread and well known. He agreed it was and stated that this was exactly why he had urged this prosecution.

I had my one witness for the defense, the head of the manufacturer’s association. He said that everyone knew about “cabbage”, that no one had complained before, and that they (the small factory owners) were stunned to learn that one of their members (the defendant) had been arrested for stealing.

A short case, and time for the jury to deliberate. And that is when the act of scaffolding occurred; the judge stepped in. With the information I had elicited from the complaining company owner, and my own witness, the judge used his experience to scaffold me to a successful learning experience.

“Mr. Stewart,” Judge Montague said to me, “no doubt you would like to make a submission to me at this time?”

I did not have the faintest idea of what he was talking about. “Yes sir!” I replied. (In England, the Chairman of Quarter Sessions was called “Sir” and not “My Lord” as would have been the case at the Old Bailey.)

“You would want to submit that this “cabbage” is a recognized perk of the trade?”

“Yes sir!”

“You would submit that this perk is analogous to the practice of tipping a waiter, and the waiter keeping the tips without giving them to the restaurant owner?”

“Yes sir.” I began to see where this was going.

“And your submission is that this being the case here, it would be dangerous to submit the matter to the jury since there would be a potential for a miscarriage of justice?”

“Yes sir”. By now I could see clearly what was happening.

“I completely agree with your submission and your argument. I will dismiss this case before the jury has the opportunity to miscarry justice. “

And that was it. I had “won” my first case by not disagreeing with a very kind and gracious man who must have realized how inexperienced I was, and how I needed guidance.

I called my father and told him that the Judge had argued my case for me and that we had won. I think he called every person he knew to brag about his brilliant son. He really did not understand that I had done little but somehow given the judge the necessary information for the judge to teach and help me. Fathers can be blind to realities about their sons. In truth, I had been taught a valuable lesson (on submissions in criminal defense cases) by a teacher and judge, who had acted as a scaffold so that I could gain confidence, grow, and succeed.

I have always been grateful for that experience. I hoped that, in turn, I would be able to offer others the guidance for them to grow. Maybe that is why I became an educator: to be able to provide scaffolding for my pupils to reach independent success in the future. It surely is the goal of all teachers, and one that provides immense pleasure. I hope that Ewen Montague enjoyed the scaffolding support he gave me.

It is strange how forty-four years later, I remember this all as though it took place only a few weeks ago.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

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