LIFE, MID TWENTIETH CENTURY, IN AN ALL-BOYS NEW ENGLAND BOARDING SCHOOL
One of the characteristics of my father I nostalgically admire the most, was his tolerance, maybe even approval, of his sons’ rambunctiousness. There were four of us, each quite large. When a wrestling match between two or three of us would erupt in a part of the house most parents would not permit, like, for instance, the living room, he’d say to my mother, “Let them be – as long as they don’t break any furniture.”
The faculty of the all-boys boarding school I attended long ago had the same tolerant attitude. They’d let us make up games the rules of which had no resemblance to normal civilized behavior. Like many of them, our favorite involved throwing things at people.
First everybody stripped down to a pair of shorts. Then whoever’s name came first in the alphabet would stand, arms outspread, crucifix style, against the closed door of the dorm master’s apartment, while the one of us whose name was next in the alphabet went to the other end of the hall, a fair distance away, holding a wet tennis ball. The umpire was the boy whose name came third in the alphabet. He drew a line of chalk across the hall, exactly midway between the two boys, and positioned himself up against the sidewall of the hall at the end of the chalk line as if he were about to call lines at a tennis match. When he said, NOW! the boy with the wet tennis ball would run, gaining as much momentum as possible, up to, but not past, the chalk line and hurl the wet tennis ball as hard as he could at the target-boy, who if, according to the umpire, made even the slightest move to avoid being hit before the ball left the other boy’s hand, was required to be the target again. Likewise, if the boy who threw the ball was judged by the umpire to have gone past the line, even by an inch, before the ball left his hand, he became the next target. We would proceed thus in triads until every one of us had filled all three positions, and then we would start the cycle again, and again, until the dorm master (having listened carefully at the other side of the door to ascertain it was safe) would appear in the hall to announce lights-out time. Then we would repair reluctantly, large portions of our bodies having turned black and blue, to our rooms.
We adored this game. We appreciated its subtleties. He’s going to throw low, we’d guess, so I’ll jump. Or to the right, so I’ll jump left. Or high, so I’ll crouch. Whichever move, both hands would fly protectively to the crotch, toward which, I confess, I usually aimed. Half the time the jump or crouch would take us right into the ball. THUNK on our bare skins! Loud cheering from everyone.
If you’ve never been hit by a wet tennis ball thrown from a short distance by a person running toward you, you have no idea how much it hurts. That was the whole point of the game. There would be no point in choosing this way of killing the hours on a Saturday night utterly devoid of girls, in all- boys boarding school, hidden away like a hermitage in the woods of New England, if it didn’t hurt. I got good at the game (probably the real reason I enjoyed it.) Instead of jumping up, down, or to one side, I would turn sideways and make myself thin, like a good boxer. Once or twice I even caught the ball. I always managed to appear nonchalant. Occasionally, I’d make no move at all, let the ball hit me and pretend it didn’t hurt, the ultimate victory.
When my roommate and I discovered in our senior year how easily our beds could be moved because they had little wheels, we pushed them out into the hall and raced each other. Who could be the first to slam his bed into the dorm master’s door at the other end of the hall? It was lots of fun, especially when we offered rides to friends, and the dorm master didn’t seem to mind at all. When my bed, after many collisions, fell apart, I was not chastised. I simply put the shards in a corner of my room, put the mattress on the floor and slept there the rest of the year.
Our magnificent English teacher, Mr. Cooper –Ellis, “Coop” to us, of course, loved hard boiled eggs. He would put the softball eggs frequently served at breakfast in the side pocket of his sports coat to take home where he would hard boil them. Once, when we saw this happening, several of us left the Dining Hall and walked beside him, corralling him into the wall where we planned to give him a sudden vigorous push, thus to squash the eggs and make a satisfying mess in that very tweedy sport coat, famous for the scholarly leather patches on the elbows. Clearly a sophisticate in such pastimes, he read our intention, waiting until we were very near him, when he joyfully blasted me with a hip check that would make a pro hockey player proud. I lay on the floor, barely conscious while he sauntered the rest of the way out of the Dining Hall, waving us a cheery goodbye.
Once a year, in early spring, mud time in New England, the headmaster would announce right after breakfast that classes were called off and order every one of us to get into our pajamas, faculty too. He’d always wait for a rainy day to cause what ensued to be even more ridiculous. We’d been waiting anxiously for this announcement for weeks. Will today be the day? The whole school was divided into two teams. Shivering in our pajamas, we’d go out onto the football field, which after months under snow, and in the pouring rain, had turned to mush. The object of the game was to get a football across the goal line by any means whatsoever, kicking, throwing, running, pushing, whatever worked. Nobody cared who won. It was the silliness, the outrageous stupidity of spending a morning like this that made it fun and funny and relieved the tedium.
One winter day, I looked out the second story window of my dorm room at the narrow road below and realized I could jump out, fly through the air, landing safely in the softness of the piled up snow the snow plow had made. So I did. What fun! Soon we were all jumping out whenever the spirit moved us. Occasionally, several of us would grab somebody and throw him out. That was fun too, even if you were the victim. The piece de resistance was when I looked out the window and saw the Admissions Director showing a prospective student and his parents around the school. I opened the window wide, crawled out onto the sill. “I hate this school so much I’m going to kill myself!” I screamed and leaped. When I landed I thrashed about, as if in agony, and then lay quiet. My roommate appeared a moment later, carrying a blanket. He made the sign of the cross on his forehead and then his chest, and then covered me with the blanket, while the prospective student and his appalled family watched. I wasn’t chastised for this either, instead appreciated for my “sense of humor.” I don’t know whether the prospective student applied to the school or not. I’m sure it depended on the Admission’s Director’s ability to “explain things.”
I do know that the faculty’s, tolerance, like my father’s, is one of the parts of my boarding school experience I look back on with appreciation. I don’t know if the tradition continues, for both genders, now that the school is co-ed. I hope so. Girls should be allowed to be just as stupid as boys.
Note: This is the same boarding school I wrote about in an earlier post. See (see https://stephen-davenport.com/re-diversity-and-inclusion/ )