“You’re going to boarding school,” my father proclaimed. It was December 1954. I was thirteen, in ninth grade and not really ready for this dramatic announcement. I was not, however, completely surprised. My father didn’t like me; that had been amply demonstrated the summer before. I could not forgive his rages and my multiple humiliations. From everything he said, it was obvious he could not remember any of those horrible episodes. Any references to the summer’s events met a look of incomprehension.
So, we set about the task of finding the right boarding school. My father, with his seething anger held in only minimal abeyance, wanted me to go to a military school. My mother, with her characteristic preoccupation with her own interest and comfort, wanted me to go to a school near Providence, where my brother would be starting college the next fall; he had received early admission to Brown. That way, she explained, it would be easier for them to see us both.
My own anger on low simmer, I wanted a school that would be the antithesis of my family. If I didn’t belong in their home, I was going to be something better than they. Coming from a middleclass Jewish home, I picked something historical, New England, traditional, and very Boston Brahmin.
Now called Governor’s Academy but at the time named Governor Dummer Academy, GDA met my passive aggressive standards. It was an old school, in fact the oldest boarding school in the country. Forty-five miles north of Boston, it was in the opposite direction from Providence. Most importantly, it was a bastion of traditional Back Bay values.
Foremost among those values was the religious nature of the school. It was well rooted in the myth of “the shining city on the hill,” with a heavy emphasis on what were Unitarian and Congregationalist values. While Catholic students were allowed to go to mass and Episcopalians – even if they were Tories – were allowed to go to Anglican services, Jews were expected to go to either Unitarian services in the nearby city of Newburyport or to join the Sunday morning hike to a nearby Baptist church. Those early Sunday hikes were part of the character building that was the cornerstone of GDA as were the Sunday evening assemblies with their talks on ethical values and singing.
To understand the disconnect in time between the school’s life and the outside world, one need only know that one of the songs often sung at those assemblies, or vespers as they were called, was Aura Lee. The tune of Aura Lee was used for that wonderful Elvis Presley song Love Me Tender. At GDA, Elvis was not to be mentioned, but tradition abounded.
The headmaster of this very traditional “New England” preparatory school was Ted Eames, and he had the lean, chiseled, unbending look of a true New Englander. I was immediately impressed by the way Ted Eames looked down on us. Evidently, he was impressed by my test scores.
The next fall my father took me shopping for the clothes required by the school. They were very explicit, and he – as was his style – ignored those specifications. My charcoal gray suit was, while quite attractive, very different from the one sold by Brooks Brothers. Other clothes from Filenes certainly set me apart the moment I arrived on campus, and my leather jacket would soon be a source of ridicule. Proper gentlemen did not wear leather.
Within hours of settling into my room in Perkin’s Hall, I was suffering from culture shock. Only forty-five miles from my childhood home, I had been thrown into a world I did not understand, the world of the Back Bay Bostonian. It was an offshoot of the world of that cute poetic comment:
I come from the town of Boston,
the land of the bean and the cod
where the Cabots speak only to Lowells
and the Lowells speak only to God.
Over the next three years I learned more of that world. I learned that one never admitted to discomfort or made requests of a personal nature. I learned that responsibility included those events over which one had no control. I learned that education was about attitude. I learned that sports had an important place in education but art was irrelevant. Most importantly, I learned that the appearance of good manners and breeding were the most important standard by which people were and should be judged.
And, yes, I learned what the proper charcoal gray suit would be.
Of course, I did not just go along with the values of GDA. I had my own little rebellions. For one, I continued to by the worst ties off the racks at Filenes’ Basement. But I knew better than to wear those ties to church or vespers; there are limits.
Years later, with an Ivy League degree and a Ph.D. in psychology, I returned to GDA. My wife had become an established painter, having shown in such places as Paris, New York, and Arlington, Virginia. The fundraisers from GDA told me the school was very proud of the new arts center – now that was a major change. I suggested that my wife would love to have an exhibit at this new center and that we would donate part of any sales to the school. She also offered, with my urging, to give a portrait of Ted Eames to the school, which did not have one. With the school’s agreement, the show was to take place on a reunions weekend. A second artist, a sculptor who lived near the school, would also be represented. The plan sounded good to us.
When we arrived, we learned that the school had scheduled the reception only for the sculptor so nobody from the surrounding community would be coming to see my wife’s work. Nobody from the school administration showed up for the opening. Nor was it listed in the reunion weekend events. Nor was there any plan to accept the portrait; ordinarily one would expect at least some minimal ceremony.
After we returned to our home in New York, I wrote to GDA and remonstrated with them about their lack of manners. I received a response saying that the fundraiser who had made the arrangements was no longer at the school. The note did not even include the words “sorry” or “apologize.”
When I subsequently said there would no longer be contributions from me to the school and explained why, I received a letter from a classmate saying that the school had clearly apologized for what had happened and that I should forgive. I sent him back a copy of the letter I had received and did not hear anything further.
So what has this to do with Massachusetts? Everything and perhaps nothing. For me, a state is not just a place but also a way of life. In rejecting my father’s values – albeit with good reason – I had hoped to find a new set consistent with traditions that claimed to be of a higher order. Sadly, those values were anachronistic. Perhaps Ted Eames and I were the last people to believe in them.
I remember the last night before graduation from GDA. We seniors were welcomed into the headmaster’s home. We were given old-fashioned but lovely ceramic pipes to smoke and glasses of sherry. We were being welcomed into a world that was already disappearing. Yes, there was once a Bay State that was a different world and I glimpsed it. But that world has slipped away.
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