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Renouncing Privilege

In the year since the mass outrage committed at the Stoneman Douglas School, the question has loomed large in my mind of how hatred forms, why it underpins so much of human existence, why we repeatedly are unable to take stock of its presence, our choosing, or not, to educate ourselves to contend with it, and what means we have to contribute a course away from it.

 

The surviving students  took direct actions in the aftermath: school walkouts, marches, voter rallies, actions that have claimed the world’s attention and shaken up politicians and lobbyists.

“The courage and determination of these young survivors is a testament to the human spirit, and a marvelous inspiration to all of us, to fight for what is right, and not to give in to pessimism. “ PT, Melbourne, FL, NYT .

 

Fifteen miles away from that campus is St. Andrew’s School which I attended from 1967-71, at the time an all boy private Episcopal preparatory boarding and day school grades 7-12 located on rural land west of the city of Boca Raton.

 

 

The class of ’71 stands low on a curve that anthropologist Robert Putnam used to determine “social capital” and civic engagement. I have long noticed that names of my high school (and college) class members occupy little ink in the alumni news and on the lists of donors. We represent the trend of decreasing hands-on participation in, and affiliation with, religion, civic, fraternal, and parent-teacher organizations.

What was it that we wanted to turn away from and why? What was it we wanted to turn towards? At the end of our four years of highly regimented schooling, a tumultuous era of political assassinations, war resistance, human rights struggles and cultural upheaval – did we have any positive impact?

By our senior year I think we did make some positive contributions. Nothing earth shattering or headline claiming, small gestures at best, but one in particular stands out to me as significant. It represented a growth of awareness in us, and it had come hard won. After four years of bewildering pressures and expectations, we made a collective decision.

August 1967

As a new student entering the Third Form (9th grade) I was required to arrive in the morning, a Saturday, before the older returning students and the younger ones from Forms 1 and 2 (7th and 8th grade “Weenies”). The roommate assigned to me was one. I donned my tie and blazer and made the campus rounds with my father, walking on the sidewalks between buildings because grass walking was strictly a privilege of faculty and seniors. It was a blazing hot morning and we were both sweating by the end of a long loop from my dormitory around the pond, the quad, the academic buildings, library, dining hall, other dormitories, to the Chapel, the pool and gymnasium, post office, bookstore, and back.

 

 

After my dad departed I sat for awhile on the edge of my bed, taking in the cinder block walls, the two particleboard desks and closets, listening to the air conditioning hum. I had failed to be admitted to the traditional northeastern prep schools, and this place, being a fairly new school with less competitive admissions, had accepted me.

My parents likely felt that public school wouldn’t provide me with the horizons they expected for me, or the character building discipline. I would soon come to understand a spectrum of motives for kids to be sent away there; icy cold parent/child disaffection, class aspiration, behavioral correction, divorce, and in one shocking case, the sudden death of both parents in a plane crash.

The school property was physically remote, set in the palmetto scrub lands away from roads and neighborhoods and famously chosen by NFL teams as a spy-proof practice location prior to the Super Bowl. It was its own universe.

My first foray was a walk down the hall to try to meet any fellow students who had arrived early. A light shone from one of the rooms into the dark hallway. I walked to the doorway, glanced in, and saw a boy standing in the middle of the room. His hair had been recently cut very short, obvious because of the white untanned skin at the edges of his scalp. His demeanor was not friendly, so I passed on.

“Hey kid, come here.” I back tracked and stepped into the room hesitantly. “Come here.” I obeyed and then got sucker punched in the face. “Don’t try to mess with me, kid.” This boy had spent the previous two years at a Florida military academy. One of the disciplinary measures he’d had to endure was to stand at full attention in a hot room with a single light bulb, dressed in full cadet attire, and wait until his perspiration condensed on the ceiling.

The short haircut had to do with his signing up for the football team. Sunday night was a school-wide pep rally at which a straw stuffed effigy outfitted with the jersey of the chief rival school in Ft. Lauderdale was lynched and burned.

 

 

My next meeting with fellow students was with a group of four African-American freshmen standing on the sidewalk in front of the dorm. I can look back now and see what an important moment it was. Jim Crow laws had ended only three years before with passage of the Civil Rights Act. A prominent member of the Board of Trustees (a two-time mayor of the city and staunch segregationist) had strongly opposed the decision to allow black students to enter in 1967. He withdrew his son and enrolled him in the rival school.

“… funded by a private organization called the Stouffer Foundation, to instill in Southern white elites a value then broadly absent: a visceral and compelling belief in the societal benefits of integration… That same fall, four other Stouffer students broke the racial barrier at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Fla. The privately financed experiment would become a turning point in elite high school education in the South, and it would test, in very real terms, how much a black child could achieve in a white environment and the price he would have to pay… In the years after Brown v. Board of Education, new private schools popped up around the South, and older private schools expanded enrollment. The schools gave such reasons for their growth as “quality education,” “Christian atmosphere,” “discipline” and “college preparation,” but mostly they were academies with nostalgia for the Jim Crow South, schools to which white families fled in order to avoid integrated public schools. ” (Mosi Secret NYT)

 

 

That afternoon the returning students arrived. There were some friendly faces, kids happy to share with the new classmates how to game the system. For instance, at “lights out” at night all room electronics had to stop. One kid showed me how to rig up a wire connection in the doorway such that when the door opened (by our hall “Monitor” trying to catch us) all the lights and stereo equipment shut off.

Others exhibited wariness toward the new and untested. They weren’t going to grant membership status so easily. Their concerns were with the pecking order that would change with moving up from “Weenies” to Third Form, with the establishment of a new crop of seniors, with how the summer had played out in the cases of particular individuals who, for mysterious reasons, had not wanted to go home. It was typical of them to talk with their mates in front us, dropping names with knowing smirks and chuckles. They would be the ones to administer hazing, by attitude or action.

 Still others kept quiet and went about their business while bottling their dread stoically.

A world of bells, minutes, and deference.

A fundamental life change set in with the ringing of the chapel bell on the quarter hour, beginning at dawn, the electronic peeling that echoed over the pond, penetrated buildings, and spread across athletic fields. Church bells, factory whistles, alarm clocks, and the school hallway bells of junior high were familiar to me, but they existed in independent realms of my life, never an inescapable constant.

 

 

There were hallway and corridor bells, too, that rang with a metallic, aggressive tone against the hard surfaces. Lunch and dinner meals came to order when the chaplain rang a hand bell before prayer.

From Rising Bell until Lights Out Bell every minute of one’s day fit into packaging of fifteen minute multiples.

 

 

I remember walking on the sidewalk between classes with an intellectual whiz kid who entered sophomore year. He stopped and commented angrily “We’re Pavlov’s Dogs here. I won’t stand for a life like this.” He didn’t.

Breakfast, room cleaning, mandatory Chapel, classes and study hall periods, lunch, classes and study hall periods, athletics, dinner, study hall, a short bathroom/shower break and then lights out.

Saturday was a school day through lunch. A high Episcopal mass was held on Sunday evening after the dinner meal. As a Roman Catholic, Sunday morning, which could have been the one time to sleep in, was denied me and I went in a van to mass in the city (the double dose of Christianity still wasn’t enough to convince me).

Students prepared tables, served, and cleaned up after lunch and dinner. A faculty member and his family sat at each table for every meal.

Deference toward faculty and their families was, of course, a given. The moral value of obedience to one’s seniors was a core belief. Senior classmen, like faculty, were also accorded positions of authority, advantage, and privilege over the younger forms and were expected to receive proper respect. They could walk on the grass, butt to the head of any line, were granted much greater opportunity to leave the campus, and were selected as various Monitors. The “coup de grace” of their life at the top was the “Hour” system of punishment.

Book of hours.

Faculty and seniors could assign work hours to underclassmen for any infractions of the rules they witnessed. A list of work hours representing the tallied offenses would be posted by Friday afternoon on the central bulletin board along with the current academic standing of each student. One’s scholastic achievement and personal behavior were matters of pubic record, as if constant physical scrutiny weren’t sufficient.

 

 

The Hour List showed names and the number of hours the student had to work off over the course of the only free time that existed: Saturday afternoon and Sunday before dinner and Vespers. Clearing the drainage ditches along the campus property lines, cleaning windows, polishing trophies, raking, and sweeping were typical work assignments.

 

 

 

Seniors could devise their own work duties for individuals, thus making the punishment a personal matter, and were given the power to arbitrarily determine the required number of hours. Their much coveted privilege of walking on the grass was protected by this system.

 

 

They could make the underclassmen clean their room, shine their shoes, or wash their car.

A select number of seniors and juniors were appointed Hall Monitors, Dining Room, Work Squad and Chapel Monitors. The Chapel Monitor, positioned in the choir loft, scanned the pews for any kids succumbing to drowsiness and nodding off during the service, an offense that would cost them in hours.

“Monitors do the jobs around campus that allow Saint Andrew’s to function smoothly and efficiently without constant faculty supervision.”

For some students the hour list posted on Friday indicated that there would be no free time over the weekend. For some the number of hours would spill over to the following week. There were boys who could never catch up and developed a fatalistic, badge of honor reputation for being incorrigible.

Seniors expected to be the lords of their underclassmen. What had been meted out to them they in turn looked forward to meting out, part of a cycle of dominance that made school feel like a penal colony.

“Muscular Christianity”

Trying out for a sports team was mandatory. Failing a spot on junior varsity or varsity would put you on the “goon squad” doing calisthenics, a necessary testosterone burning activity but essentially of rock bottom status in the hierarchy of male identity.

Top status went unquestionably to the football players.

 

 

There were faculty members who were primarily football coaches but posed as teachers. In fact, all sports had teacher/coaches, another forced mentoring situation beyond the classroom and dinner table. Football had a primacy against which all other activities and accomplishments were compared. Students had to measure up against each other in their respective sports, but also against the venerated gods of the gridiron.

Athletic activity wasn’t presented as a healthy habit to be pursued over a lifetime. It was about dominance, power, and status.

Abuse

In the caldron of repression that was school life, of young men jockeying to establish their masculinity, conflicts over race, entitled social hierarchy based on family wealth, northern versus southern political views, religion, all mixed in with personal antagonisms. The underlying violent emotions and energy could be channeled into sports, it was thought, and assuaged by the constant message of faithfulness and obedience to God. As if resentments could be so easily contained.

Given the perpetual competition, ceaseless scrutiny, vying for status, demanding scholarship, disciplinary control and punishment, lack of free time for self-reflection and examination, and a dearth of nurturing, it comes as no surprise that abuse was rampant. Over the course of my four years I witnessed the major brands of abuse, faculty to student and student to student. I am not surprised to read of recent scandals rocking the school, only surprised that it has taken this long for abuses of authority to emerge in public view.

A certain amount of rough and tumble, callous behavior is “normal” with boys and young men, I’ll grant. Bringing things to a personal level, the following are not examples of the abuse I witnessed (those stories are for others to tell) just mindless and casual pranks, but they left strong impressions on my psyche.

~ My Hall Monitor ganged up on me with the aid of others, dragged me to his room, shoved my head against the rug, and administered a rug burn on one half of my face. Then I was flipped over, my shirt pulled up and a tennis racket pressed against my stomach. The protruding flesh was whacked with a wire brush and then after shave was applied.

~ While taking a shower before lights out, standing in an open stall, a boy rushed in and dumped a pail of scalding water on me.

 ~ Three kids jumped me and pulled me into one of their rooms, lifted me up, shoved and crammed me into the small locker with sliding panels above the closet, then slid the door closed and put a stick to prevent it from being opened. They proceeded to pound against the doors with broom handles and to spray aerosol cans through the spaces around the edges of the doors, poisoning what little air there was to breathe. It’s the closest I have come to losing my mind.

“Boarding school is a distinctly perverse and alienating experience. I can say that with authority, because I spent four years at one, and on good days I still manage to convince myself I emerged the better for it.

The hard part isn’t being away from home, it’s confinement among one’s peers in one of the most high-pressure settings one is ever likely to experience… Other boys and girls go home at the end of the day or disappear into the streets… but in boarding school there’s no privacy, no money, and no help, except from the larger family of the school itself. There’s no dreamy solitude, no slack time, no lazing around. One’s entire life is spent in public, performing.” Nelson Aldrich Jr.

The “larger family of the school” offered : Vestry, Acolytes, Student Council, Key Club, Gun Club, Varsity Club, Choir, Spanish and French Clubs, Dramatics, and Yearbook. A surfeit of civilizing activities, but, in the end, brutally inadequate.

 

 

 

“The System” was an amorphous term in much use in those days by leaders of the counterculture and underground movements. The System, or the Establishment, sent young men to kill and die in Southeast Asia and police to brutalize and sometimes kill people in civil rights and peace demonstrations. It was aligned with the military/industrial complex and thrived on the nuclear arms race. It was a vague controlling authority that demanded conformity in a dull 9-5 work world.

There was nothing vague about the intransigent authority that we students strained against. The System in place was a clearly structured and defined entity. We could make modest proposals through student government. Small concessions were made to our requests about liberalizing the very strict dress code and hair length rules, but more important change felt essential.

Me standing. 

 

Senior Year 1970-71. Pushing back.

Our one group protest moment came when a favorite faculty member, one of the few we felt was on “our side,” was disappeared, moved off campus in the middle of the night. The following morning all questions regarding what happened to him and the reasons for his removal met with stone silence. Not one word of explanation came forth. We staged a morning walk-out of classes.

 

 

 

“Sir, a group of us would like to form a club to do Yoga in the afternoon instead of sports or Bod Squad. Doug Rill has studied it and is willing to be our teacher.”

I was sitting in the office of the Athletic Director and head football coach.

“Vogt, Yoga? That’s something you eat!” I went on to explain the stretching, poses, and meditation we would be practicing. To our surprise, the proposal was accepted. We were accorded a grass area in plain view of the football fields. Faculty spies with binoculars were regularly spotted observing us. Drug use was their primary suspicion.

 

 

Those afternoons spent focusing on breathing, gentle stretching, relaxation, and meditation techniques taught me life long skills. They helped me to let go of stress. By the end of a session I would begin to hear the birds, feel the warm rays of the sun, the spongy grass, inhale the scents of pines, palms, and flowering shrubs, enjoy a loose body and a calm mind. They were the most peaceful and meaningful times of my school experience. A shout out here to Doug (the same kid who taught me the door wire trick freshman year!): you did a remarkable job as our instructor.

Another group of seniors proposed and were permitted to form the “Varsity” Gardening Club as an alternative to sports. They were allotted a small plot to dig up and cultivate. The produce was donated to the Children’s Ward of the local hospital.

 

 

 

The Stouffer scholarship students capped off their impressive four years with the formation of the Black Liberties Union. The number of black students had grown with each following class. They created and performed in the Chapel a powerful Black Pride production with their own music and choreography.

 

 

It was uplifting, not only seeing a creative and well done piece, but to witness their success as individuals and young men in solidarity. Under the weight of huge responsibility and adversity, they had made the school a better place.

WASP assumptions were affronted by our graduating class: its top achievers were the minority Jewish and African American students.

Renouncing privilege.

The alternatives to sports and the expansion of clubs that we initiated were our way of combating pessimism, our struggle to break the mold. I think they were creative responses.

We, as a class, went a step further by voting to end our privilege to discipline underclassmen using the hour demerit system.

 

 

Not all privilege is worth having. The health and well being of the community trumps the right to individual power. We felt a responsibility to change an abusive system and this was our small contribution.

“For in truth, there were two revolutions in that tumultuous decade. One involved stretching the boundaries of personal freedom; the other focused on the limits of freedom, on what individuals, and governments, could not do: oppress racial and sexual minorities, dump poisons into the air and water, and wage endless war based on lies.

It’s not surprising that the second revolution has been less successful — it is always easier for human beings to indulge and rationalize their impulses than to say no — but it is by no means over.” Philip Barroll

What else but cultivating restraint can change the fatal course of homo sapiens? To decide that temporary power, convenience, and gain must give way to long term considerations is a conscious act of renunciation. It’s not something they teach you in school.

 

Me seated center

 

 

 

5 comments to Renouncing Privilege

  • martha ballou

    bravo tico. well done brave stance
    all that anger and alienation
    for what
    to be Bret kavanaugh?
    nostalgia for the Jim crow south. brilliant.
    do you see any of these guys? what did they become ? angry privileged men. from another time snd value system
    I bet a lot of alcoholics, military guys. violent family men
    damaged souls.

  • Deborah Todd

    Thank you, Tico

  • tico

    I don’t regularly see anyone, just stay in contact with a couple, and they are good folks. I put that dark time in the rear view mirror until recently and was able to see that there were some redeeming aspects. But, honestly, what were my parents thinking?

  • Marcia Marquis

    Beautifully told, Tico. So much to push back against.! Realizing what you don’t want in life certainly clarifies what you do want. You have so much to say and tell about your father and his inventions, your own inventions, your experience as land steward, your musical adventures, your life with your dogs, the strong women in your life….I am sure there will be a book or two forthcoming.

  • tico

    I will want you to write the haiku for it.

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