Quote Origin: There Are Two Kinds of Teachers: The Kind That Fill You With So Much Quail Shot That You Can’t Move, and the Kind That . . .

Robert Frost? Mark Twain? Margaret Pepperdene? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator®

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Public domain illustration of two frogs by F. Strothman

Question for Quote Investigator: Prominent U.S. poet Robert Frost has received credit for a brilliantly vivid metaphor describing two types of teachers. One type fills students with so much quail shot they cannot move. The other type simply prods students a little, and they jump to the skies.

Is this figurative language really from the pen of Robert Frost? Would you please help me to find a citation with the correct phrasing?

Reply from Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Robert Frost employed this metaphor which is based on an incident in an 1865 short story by Mark Twain titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.

Twain’s tale centers on Jim Smiley who catches a frog which he names Dan’l Webster. Smiley trains the frog to jump a long distance, and he brags that his frog can “outjump any frog in Calaveras county”. A stranger agrees to gamble on a jumping contest between Dan’l Webster and another frog. The stranger sabotages Dan’l Webster by surreptitiously feeding it quail shot so that it cannot jump. The stranger wins the bet and escapes before the deceit is uncovered.

Robert Frost was both a teacher and a poet. He once told his class to read “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. A 1963 article in the “Agnes Scott Newsletter” described the reaction of Frost’s students. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

“Mr. Frost said that when his class assembled the next day they were somewhat mystified; they didn’t understand what this story had to do with a course in education. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I told them that this story was about teachers. There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just give you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.’”

This anecdote about Frost was reported by Margaret Pepperdene who was an Associate Professor of English at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She later became a Professor of English and director of the college’s Writers’ Festival.² Pepperdene heard the tale from Frost when she discussed teaching with him at his home on the Noble Farm in Ripton, Vermont.

Frost died on January 29, 1963, and the anecdote appeared in an article titled “Memories of Robert Frost Abound at Agnes Scott” in the April 1963 issue of “Agnes Scott Newsletter”.

Below are three additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1963 the “Reader’s Digest” printed a version of the anecdote under the title “Master Teachers” while acknowledging the newsletter:³

Robert Frost’s first assignment to a class of teachers was to read “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” . . .

. . . Frost explained that the story was about teachers. “There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just give you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” — Margaret Pepperdene, quoted in Agnes Scott Newsletter

Also, in September 1963 the “Stockton Daily Evening Record” of California printed the anecdote while acknowledging the “Reader’s Digest”.⁴

In 1988 “Webster’s New World Dictionary of Quotable Definitions” included the following entry:⁵

TEACHER
Two kinds: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just give you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.
Robert Frost

In conclusion, QI believes that Robert Frost deserves credit for the quotation in the April 1963 citation based on the testimony of Margaret Pepperdene. Frost’s metaphor about teaching cleverly referenced Mark Twain’s story about a frog that could not jump.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of two frogs by F. Strothman from “The Jumping Frog” (1903) by Mark Twain.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Sue Ferrara and Joseph Pizzo whose tweets and inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to the Archives and Special Collections of Amherst College Library in Amherst, Massachusetts for enabling access to the April 1963 issue of the “Agnes Scott Newsletter”.

[1] 1963 April, Agnes Scott Newsletter, Memories of Robert Frost Abound at Agnes Scott, Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Column 1 and 2, Published by News Bureau of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. (Verified with scans from Archives and Special Collections, of Amherst College Library in Amherst, Massachusetts.)

[2] 2009 November 24, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, For 53 years, scholar nurtured students: At Agnes Scott and Paideia, she made lasting connections by Rick Badie, (Obituary of Margaret Jane Pepperdene), Quote Page B5, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest)

[3] 1963 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 83, Master Teachers, Quote Page 180, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)

[4] 1963 September 16, Stockton Daily Evening Record, Scissors: A Roundup of Best Humor, Quote Page 34, Column 6, Stockton, California. (Newspapers_com)

[5] 1988, Webster’s New World Dictionary of Quotable Definitions, Edited by Eugene E. Brussell, Second Edition, Section: Teacher, Quote Page 560, Column 1, Webster’s New World, New York. (Verified with scans)

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Quote Investigator®

Garson O'Toole specializes in tracing quotations. He operates the QuoteInvestigator.com website which receives more than 4 million visitors per year