The culture we live in is like the hands of a sculptor.
Because of undiscovered learning issues, it took me six years to get through high school. I had to repeat 4th grade, 9th grade and 11th grade and, of course earlier, I attend summer schools.
Because I moved from school to school a bit, I came to learn that the classrooms taught us very little compared to the culture of the schools where we were taught.
All of these schools had very different cultures.
After my first 9th grade at a day school, I was shipped to a boarding school in western Connecticut for my second attempt. I was a 16-year-old 9th grader.
I was embarrassed about my age and kept it secret because many of the other 9th graders were almost 2 years younger. I was bigger than many of the 9th grade students and I inadvertently made the varsity soccer team.
The only other 9th grader who made the varsity soccer team was young for the 9th grade and was small, a little overweight, and had been appointed the manager of the team. His job was to keep track of the soccer balls and pack up uniforms for away games.
Let’s call him PG. PG and I were both outcasts for different reasons. I think he was the only Jewish student at this boarding school and I was the only 16-year-old ninth grader. PG was very funny with a self mocking sense of humor once he let you know him and he was as nice as he could be.
From the start, all the seniors and juniors on the varsity soccer team picked on PG. At the end of every practice they would kick the balls in different directions to see if PG would miss dinner. Because we were both 9th graders, I would join him to collect the soccer balls.
A certain amount of this practice of cruelty was leveled at him because he was Jewish and small so his persecution became the basis of a tribal unity not only for the soccer team but the school.
This was part of the culture of the school.
The faculty member who organized dances with girls’ schools chose by grade-level, seniors first. I got to go in place of shorter sophomores because I was taller. We lined up and were matched with our date from tallest to shortest. The faculty member told me to tell my date that I was in 11th grade.
It was all about appearances.
The cruelty ran both ways. The boys nicknamed the faculty member “grave digger” because he had been a mortician in the army, saw himself as a southern aristocrat, and had a huge Adam’s apple.
The most important event each day happened after the first two classes, when recess allowed people to go to their mailboxes and get mail from girls. The girls were also imprisoned in boarding schools and they would perfume their letters. The more perfumed letters you got the more your status grew.
I got perfumed letters, but PG, because he was small and younger, was not invited to those dances and did not get perfume letters.
PG’s mistreatment was relentless, and included rolled wet towels to make “rat tails,” which would be snapped in the locker rooms and at one point caused a bleeding cut on PG’s leg.
One awkward boy got an erection in the shower and was dutifully punished with a rat tail.
PG suffered his indignities with great courage and, even though we were in different dorms, we at least knew each other and knew we liked each other.
The administration obviously knew what was happening but they did nothing other than let the tribalism run wild.
They were letting boys become men.
I saw one boy get expelled from school. Right after recess the headmaster knocked on the door as the class was settling down.
When the headmaster entered he addressed one fellow in the back row. He said he wanted to talk to the boy. The boy got up, took two steps toward the door, and the headmaster looked at him and said, “bring your books.”
After PG had made no team sport during the winter’s sports schedule, and also had made no team in the spring — each time treated badly as the manager for one team or another — he quietly gave up.
Just before recess that spring, after the spring teams had been chosen, the fire alarm went off and no one was allowed to leave their classrooms to go down to the mailboxes.
The sounds of an ambulance and a firetruck could be heard coming down the little road that ran beneath the windows of our third floor classroom.
The teacher pulled down the shades.
After about a half an hour, we heard the sirens leave and we were released from class. Everyone went down to the mailboxes except me. I waited until the classroom was empty and then I pulled the shade up and peaked out the window.
Two maintenance men were hosing down a place three floors below the window, and the water was emptying down the road into a sewer. The water was blood red.
At lunch, the headmaster asked for a moment of silence because an accident had happened. He announced that PG had fallen off the fifth floor roof of the classroom building. After that, there were no updates about PG and his injuries.
Several times thereafter, I went to the nurse’s office and asked where I could send a card to PG. I was politely discouraged. Finally, after more visits, the nurse told me In strict confidence a secret. I was told that PG had jumped head first off the roof and had died on impact.
The students who succeeded at that school were like all good kids, but the culture was defined by tribal safety at the expense of others. Its viciousness rewarded its members with confidences that weren’t kept and conspiracies that were suspect. It was about “me” not “us.”
PG was real and the school killed him, but he took the souls of the living with him when he died.
Midway thought the next year, the headmaster knocked on the door after recess as we were settling in to class and encouraged me to bring my books.
He took me to my dorm room and I loaded my belongings into two suitcases. By the time it was lunchtime, I was at the Springfield bus station headed home.
I think of PG and believe we are better than this.
The culture we live in is like the hands of a sculptor.