My first full-time job, after graduating from college and then spending two years in the Navy as the Korean War wound down, was as a Wall Street banker. I chose that work because my wife and I wanted to live in NYC and go to theater as often as we could afford, and also because it was an acceptable screen for a young privileged WASP to hide behind while I wrote the Great American Novel.
By staying up late every night, I managed to produce the most self-indulgent, sophomoric novel every written – except perhaps by people who were actually still sophomores –and I mean in high school! Somehow, it managed to get the attention of an editor at Doubleday who wrote me a few pages on how I might rewrite it to make it publishable. I wasn’t sure whether he was sincere, or rewarding my wife, who worked at Doubleday, for doing her boss’s work in the afternoons while he recuperated from his lunch composed exclusively of martinis. At any rate, I started to rewrite, and soon found I could not. In the time it took to compose the novel, I had outgrown its premise entirely. So I buried the manuscript under the shirts in my bottom bureau drawer and decided to take some time off from my writing to catch up on my sleep.
But I couldn’t sleep. Because now, without the novel to think about, I thought about how ardently I didn’t want to get up in the morning and spend the whole day pretending to be a banker. I would have been less troubled if my act were not successful, but everyone at the bank, including several enthusiastic mentors, thought I had chosen my career. I was amazed that no one caught me out. I would have confessed: this is not me, but that didn’t happen, and I was soon promoted to the next rung up on the young executive’s ladder. My parents were delighted and relieved. Their son was climbing upwards along an acceptable path. But my college friends, when I told them I was a banker, either laughed, thinking I was joking, or looked concerned. Soon I’d own a house in the suburbs, take the train to the City every morning, reading the Wall Street Journal, like a character in a story by John Cheever. A perfectly fine life for some, but not for me. I felt trapped, powerless, parading through life in someone else’s identity, and vaguely suicidal. Inside New York’s tall buildings, I didn’t go near the windows.
I started perusing employment advertising in The New York Times, and happened upon one for a teacher of English and coach of football, basketball and track at a boarding school. I loved literature. I loved sports. So I applied. The position had come open too close to the beginning of the academic year for the school to have time to interview more than a very few candidates. That’s why I got the job. It was one of the luckiest days of my life.
For the next thirty years, except for a short spate of free-lance journalism in which I was lucky enough to place articles in the New York Times Magazine about conservation and an article in The Saturday Review on how African-American boys and girls were faring in elite private schools, I didn’t write. I didn’t have the emotional energy left over, let alone the time, to make up characters and vicariously live their lives, as a novelist must. I found that purveying to the still supple hearts of teenagers my passion for literature was all the satisfaction I needed–which is not to say that it was easy, nor that I was always successful. I loved the idiosyncratic cultures in which I worked and which I ultimately led as Head of School. It was easy to always try to do one’s best. How much success or failure was mine was for others to say, but I never had to ask, nor did my colleagues, Why am I doing this?
And besides, I never had to wear a suit!
I spent three years teaching English and coaching sports at Trinity-Pawling School, an all-boys boarding school in Pawling, NY; then thirteen years doing the same work at Kingswood-Oxford School, in West Hartford, CT, where I was privileged to have brilliant colleagues, and lucky enough to be chosen by Trinity College for their Distinguished Teacher Award in 1968. Then I spent four years as head of The Country School, in Madison, CT, where outstanding teachers instill the love of learning in very young students, and then ten years as head of The Athenian School in Danville, CA, well known for its integration of experiential learning, civic engagement, global citizenship and other essential values with rigorous college preparatory academics.
Then, after ten years of consulting, I “retired” and now I have time to write about the world I was so lucky to be a part of.
I’m in a hurry to get it all written before the lights go out.
I also currently serve as an honorary board member of the The Athenian school and am on the board of Aim High, an exemplary summer program of academics and youth development for under-served middle school boys and girls in the Bay Area.
I’m well aware of how fortunate I am.
Author, Stephen Davenport