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A Quaker education
The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith
After graduating from Thomas Mifflin Elementary School, I joined my older brother and sister at Germantown Friends, about two miles up Schoolhouse Lane. Before I would graduate, microwave ovens, McDonald's, Crest toothpaste, Scrabble, the fax machine, Elvis Presley, James Dean, the Mickey Mouse Club and Bill Haley would all be introduced to America. And Rosa Parks would be jailed.
Germantown Friends was an unpretentious institution that -- unlike a number of Quaker proprietary schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere -- was actually run by a Friends meeting, the Quaker equivalent of a parish. The meeting house, in fact, was right across the parking lot from the classrooms. I never knew exactly who was in charge of the meeting but you could feel them keeping an eye on us.
And they were. It was not merely the weekly Friends meetings that I attended until graduation five years later, but an aura that affected almost every aspect of school life, the most notable exception being the school athletic song which inconsistently promised that
When the Blue and White goes down the field,
We know the other team will always yield . . .
So it's fight, fight, fight for the Blue and the White,
We'll win every time.
The more typical values of GFS were well described by a headmaster some 35 years later. He was, unique to the school, a Roman Catholic, but he had, like people who hang around Friends often do, acquired the Friendish predilection for mild words and phases:
Germantown Friends is a Quaker school under the care of the Germantown Monthly Meeting. Friends, of course, have no exclusive claim to those principles which inform our school, but out of Friends' faith and practice, with its belief that there is that of God in every one, flow simplicity, self-discipline, honesty, community responsibility, non-violent resolution of differences, and unreserved respect for every individual. We must constantly affirm these principles, teach them, and protect them.
My father's Quaker background was undoubtedly one reason we went to GFS, but status wasn't another. In those days, well before the first glimmers of doubt about America's global supremacy, it was enough, certainly in upper class Philadelphia, to be well born, well mannered and well connected. A good education such as one received at GFS was acceptable but not especially admired. Yet GFS was indisputably respectable -- not unlike, say, a well-regarded Chestnut Hill dress shop -- and perhaps to my parents represented a reasonable compromise between social ideals and social class.
The students at Germantown Friends were not the children of my parents' friends, nor the kids I saw at St. Martins in the Field. They did not go to the Saturday Evening dances nor did they summer at Northeast Harbor - Philadelphia on the Rocks as the Maine enclave was called. How many of them were from wealthy families, I do not know. There were Jews in my class, a Chinese boy, kids from lower-class families, but no blacks.
I am told by some in later classes that GFS had cliques and snobs. Perhaps I went there before a Quaker education became socially desirable. Perhaps my class was different. Perhaps I didn't see.
Certainly I was different. With different expectations. When I graduated from Thomas Mifflin, we had shared sheets of notebook paper on which we wrote our autographs. Preceding several of the names on my sheet were the words: "To a fine sport." It was a role I was prepared to continue.
I didn't have to. The Quaker belief that there was something of God in every one, I discovered to my pleasure, included me and influenced my classmates. To be sure, I would to the day of graduation remain an oddity; my social life, for example, highly restricted due to my parents' refusal to let me drive with anyone not yet in college. But during most of the day I felt normal, and on the weekends I could contrive to slip out of parties unnoticed, with no one but myself knowing the embarrassment of being picked up by one's parents or a chauffeur, leaving my peers only the memory of a nonchalant, wise-cracking boy who could, with just his tongue, flip the butt of a lighted cigarette completely inside his mouth without burning himself.
I even gained admittance to a gang. The Society of Cruds was meant to be a secret organization. We had a secret tattoo, blue ball point pen dots on the inside of our wrists, but we blew our cover almost daily by our boisterous behavior and the only possible secret we could have kept was that there was any organization whatsoever behind our anarchistic ways. I changed my public tattoo as well. Henceforth, I announced, (with considerable success amongst my friends and teachers but far less within my family) that I was to be known as Sam. This move was hastened by my discovery that there were no decent nicknames one could create out of Houston, the middle name by which I was called, and by revulsion at some of the indecent ones -- such as Huseless -- that were being proposed. I was also beginning to suspect that the Houstons and I didn't have that much in common.
The core of the Society of Cruds consisted of some of the worst students in the class. The honor of their acceptance was heightened by the fact that I was one of the best. I enjoyed the perplexity my choice of companions caused my teachers, they little realizing the pleasure I found in no longer having to be a good boy all the time.
We did not torment nor did we vandalize. We were, however, of unmitigated high spirits. The brief era of the SOCs reached its epitome in 8th grade. Last period Friday was a study hall period with a teacher disinterested in taking attendance. Once we discovered this, we simply excused ourselves for the rest of the week and headed for the nearby movie house. There the smallest amongst us would buy a ticket at half price, enter the nearly empty theatre and open an exit door for his companions. Approximately halfway through the movie, with the manager safely off watch, several of us would proceed to the lobby, scoop unguarded popcorn into our baseball hats and return to share the salty trove.
It was not until the the last period of the last Friday of the year that the plan failed. Ed Gordon, an English teacher, had taken over the study hall and noted the absent students. For some reason, we had cancelled our normal field trip and were wandering aimlessly through the school when Mr. Gordon found each and every one of us, to our considerable detriment.
The pleasures I enjoyed in eighth grade did not pass unnoticed by other teachers as well. My report card found me "irregular" in science, "disappointingly casual" in Latin (which by April had deteriorated to "a serious state of affairs") and "careless" in math. The card offered space for parental comments and my mother willingly contributed, "We feel that being casual and irregular is Houston's besetting sin and hope we can work together to correct it." In April, my father noted, "We have discussed Houston's concentration with him and he has promised to work on it." Perhaps to avoid any more such discussions, my subsequent report cards improved.
About that time I also joined another group: Boy Scout Troop 188, specifically the Rattler Patrol. I initially regarded the Scouts as training for a life of adventure, but I was soon disabused of this notion by a more knowledgeable member who pointed out that with my interest in writing and his political clout, I could easily become troop scribe, thus achieving instant status without the tedium of earning merit badges. It was, he correctly pointed out, the troop council, and not the goody-goodies with all their badges, who actually ran the place.
I readily joined his political machine and never rose above second class. I was more than content to be a member of something and, for a few hours a week, to hang out with other boys engaged in normal boylike activities. My most notable outdoor achievement was to lead a three-hour hike that mystically and unintentionally brought us right back to where we started without ever having viewed our assigned destination. I also learned that the outdoors was more uninviting than I had envisioned -- the ground was hard, the food marginal, and even a spring night could be cold.
This view would be strengthened shortly after I graduated from GFS when our ex-Marine assistant scoutmaster helped lead a group of boys, aged 13 to 16, to Canadas Banff National Park in order to climb the 11,656 foot Mt. Temple. The hikers were ill-trained and ill-equipped (some made the climb in sneakers) and the mountain was one of the toughest in the region. Only a year earlier, four Mexican climbers had died in an avalanche four and half miles from where my scout leader and his squad was hiking.
The group made it to within 2000 feet of the summit before deciding to turn back. Then, according to an AP story:
As they started down, a mass of snow and rock roared upon them, tossing them 300 feet down the slope. One died instantly, rescuers said. Thee others succumbed to multiple injuries and exposure to the bitter weather last night before search parties could reach them.
Seven students died, two others, along with the two leaders, were injured. Our assistant scoutmaster Donald Dickerson responded to press criticism saying, "How do you equip for an avalanche?"
According to a 2017 Philly.com story, Dickerson's wife "learned about his role in the tragedy only after he died and she discovered old news clips hidden in a box in the basement. Dickerson died of emphysema in 1974 at age 48. In retrospect, she believed, 'it was a tragedy that brought an early death to my husband. He felt guilty."
Listverse, which included it in a colletion of 10 tragic mountain accidents reported:
On July 11, 1955, in one of Canada's most tragic mountaineering accidents, seven American male teenagers were killed on the southwest ridge route....They were clad in only light clothing and there was only one ice axe in the group. Some wore baseball cleats for better friction, and they were tied together on a manila rope.
At 4:00 p.m. they reached 2,750m and gathered to assess the situation, as the warm summer day had caused several nearby avalanches. After talking it over, the boys decided to start back down. A few minutes later a large avalanche thundered down towards the group. One of the boys dug in his ice axe and the rope went taut before it broke. Ten boys, ages 12 to 16 were swept 200 m down the snowfield and through a bottleneck, smashing into the rocks along the way. Before the day was over, seven of them would be dead in one of the worst avalanche accident in Parks Canada history.
There was little danger that I would have signed up for such a trip. On the other hand, at the troop council meetings I felt right at home. And the job of scribe led inevitably to my becoming co-editor of the Campfire, the mimeographed troop newspaper which I put out with Roman Hromnysky, my first friend with a name that was hard to spell. The paper inspired members to increase their peanut crunch sales, bemoaned the fact that "certain patrol leaders are taking very small interest in their respective patrols," and was the outlet for my first published verse, "In Honor of a Not Forgotten Can of Peanut Crunch."
Tell'em it's fresh, tell 'em it's new
Tell 'em anything you darn well want to.
Go out an sell it in hot or cold
And don't come back until it's sold.
The teachers at GFS tended to presume that their students would do the right thing, but the presumption was laced with firmness to insure that it proved correct. Ed Gordon had, for example, a habit of arriving late for his eighth grade class. We quickly adapted to this by stationing a student outside the door to warn of his pending arrival, thus immunizing all interior activity during the interim. When he caught on, he proposed a compromise that seemed quite reasonable. If, as he turned the corner, he could get the draw on the lookout, that student would suffer detention. If the guard drew first, he was home free.
Mr. Brauniger dealt with our exuberance in a more direct way. Although a math teacher, he would leap upon the misformed sentence or argument with the cry, "Speaka United States!," perhaps the best literary advice I ever got. Upon any signs of rambunctiousness he would send the perps on a several lap run around the school building. It was a classic Quaker approach to restoring order. It had the form of a punishment, but in fact was often as welcomed by the offenders as by the teacher -- for us a break from the tedium of triangles and square roots as well as an opportunity to be cheered on by whichever schoolmates happened to be peering out of windows.
We were not, however, particularly rowdy. For the most part the teachers acted as though we were far more mature than we were, and that we, like they, were part of the same community. When we failed their expectations, the reaction was more often disappointment than fury. Thus, when I stuck an anonymous note in the announcement box calling for all the girls to stay after assembly for a meeting -- which they did to no avail -- the worst censure I received was from Miss Iliff, a tall, bespectacled filo-leaf of a figure in her faded print dress with lace collar and imposing black shoes, who passed me in the hall looking sad and saying simply and wearliy, "Oh, Sam." I still feel sorry that I made Miss Iliff sad. It was that sort of place.
Not all the teachers had such success. Miss Hyatt, the French teacher, failed in four successive years to teach me either skill or love for the language and upon hearing me recite would repeatedly say, "Ce n'est pas francais, Sam." And art class was a fraud, although a pleasant one because of the opportunity it presented for socializing. Since my parents approved mightily of culture in all its forms and I approved mightily of art class, I took it year after year, only rarely producing a symbolic simulation to bring home as proof of its efficacy.
But the sciences were excellent, including physics and chemistry as taught by Frank Bacon, who hated shortcuts and could work himself into a paroxysm over an answer that did not explain how one arrived at it. He also liked to startle. Once he invited a student to smell a test tube and try to identify its contents. The student approached, and was on the verge of taking a good whiff when Mr. Bacon screamed, "STOP IT!" The point, he then explained, was that one should always hold the test tube away from one's nose and fan a bit of the aroma your way by hand, thus avoiding what he then vividly described as the potential mortal consequences.
Miss Darnell, my senior math teacher, had a similar concern for process but, as with Mr. Bacon, it was always rooted in pragmatism and thus avoided the appearance of priggishness. "You're mixing apples and pianos," she would gently admonish a student whose equation had gone astray. And her warning that an answer can be no more precise than the least precise number used to arrive at would often serve me well in later inquiries into government budgets and projections.
Miss Darnell also shared with us one of the most exciting moments in her life. She had spent the previous summer at Harvard learning about that mysterious new device known as the computer. She had, in fact, almost been locked in one overnight because the machines of the day, with their innumerable vacuum tubes, occupied whole buildings while barely doing the work of an early Mac. (While I don't know the size of the one that almost swallowed her, a couple of years later Harvard acquired a UNIVAC, which had 7,000 tubes and 500 miles of wiring.)
Somehow she had escaped this technological tragedy and was able to return to GFS to instruct us in the wonders of basic Boolean algebra, thus inoculating us against anxiety when we finally confronted a computer -- now reduced in size and threat to human life -- many years later.
Miss Darnell's 1950s enthusiasm for something that would boggle many allegedly well-educated adult minds for decades to come was not atypical of GFS. The Friends, despite their sometimes seemingly archaic ways, were confident enough of their faith that the future and the new did not seem to bother them much. Far from being called, in the best prep school tradition, to revere the old, GFS was constantly plunging into uncharted waters. One portion of 8th grade English involved a close study of advertising. Other teachers happily introduced us to new books with new ideas with which we could intimidate or taunt our parents.
Even the ancient Irving Poley would occasionally allow an avant garde work into his beloved Malvern Festival, a round of about a dozen plays in which every member of the senior class was expected to participate and in which no one was meant to be a star. I was cast in two. In the first, I was the IRA commandant in the classic, The Informer. I got to kiss a girl on stage and to order the death of Gypo, the drunken traitor to the Irish nationalist cause. I also got to explain to my girlfriend that I wasn't "thinking of myself. It's for the movement." The idea of a movement for something good was a new and appealing one, a sort of Society of Cruds with a purpose. And I liked the fact that in the final scene in the church, Frankie's mother forgave Gypo for having betrayed her son. In my family it was hard to get forgiveness even for venial sins.
The repertoire also included Tennessee Williams' recent play Camino Real. In it I only had a bit part as a guard but I got to leap into the audience, chase Kilroy up the aisle, and with my partner wrestle him to the floor and drag him back to the stage. It was far more fun than anything I had seen in Shakespeare and the fact that I didn't understand what Williams was talking about didn't bother me a bit. I just liked the action -- although one phrases would sometimes come back later: "Turn back stranger, for the well of humanity has gone dry in this place and the only birds that sing are kept in cages." It wasn't like that at GFS.
THE AUTHOR IN DAVID MALLERY'S CLASSROOM
Howard Platt was in a class by himself. Mr. Platt taught a 7th grade full-year course in geology, including field trips to the Pennsylvania RR's Upsal St. Station to look for garnets. And in 9th grade, alone except for one other high school teacher in America at the time, he offered a highly popular course in anthropology.
Mr. Platt was a tall, bald, bespectacled Quaker who spoke both quietly and expressively. It was a wonderful world that he laid before us. Not the stultifying world of our parents, the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of endless options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt's subliminal message of cultural relativism was simultaneously a message of freedom. You were not a prisoner of your culture; you could always go live with the Eskimos, the Indians or the Arabs. By the time the bell rang I was often ready to move, an inclination heightened by research into the mammary variations of cultures as revealed by the photos in National Geographic.
What we learned that year was strikingly different from what we were learning elsewhere. The world around us, in many ways, was teaching us to define our place by a process of exclusion, a place secured by the fact that we were smarter, whiter, or faster than someone else.
In Mr. Platt's class, things were different. The world was defined by people who built igloos and pyramids and stone axes and rafts that could cross an ocean and they lived together in strange combinations and went into the forest to have babies and some of them had more gods than others and some didn't like to fight as much as others and some thought if you died in your sleep your soul would fly away.
You couldn't help liking them. After awhile, it was no longer odd to learn about a new culture. The difference of it all seemed natural and, in fact, brought us closer to those we were reading about.
But what I read in anthropology about some of the peoples conquered or swept aside in the great march of Western Civilization made me uncomfortable. There were American Indians, for example, who were considerably more likable than the white men who got rid of them. And it annoyed me to read of white missionaries landing on Pacific Islands and making the natives wear western clothes and some of them dying of pneumonia because they wore wet western clothes after a rainstorm or going swimming.
By the end of the year I could take the Romans or leave them. I liked their domes but didn't like them beating up people because they were 'barbarians' and had some land the Romans wanted. I liked the independently invented domes of the Eskimos too, but didn't care for their tendency to dump their old people out in the snow to die when the food got short. I had become acquainted with so many cultures so vastly different from my own and from each other that I was hard pressed to say which was inferior or superior. I was not even inclined to try.
I had become, without knowing the term, a cultural relativist. Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of equality, or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He taught something far more important, something missing from the present discourse on race, something too often absent still from school and college curricula. Mr. Platt opened a world to us in which its variety was not something to fear or regulate but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not an obstacle, but a gift that came with being human.
Finally, there were Ed Gordon, David Mallery, and Bob Boynton, the school's English teachers. Mr. Gordon was the toughest of the lot, a smallish, well-dressed man as defensive of our right to say what we wanted as he was insistent that we say it precisely and clearly. In the early grades he put us through exercises such as describing a fountain pen to someone who had never seen one. Later, in advanced English, he sat with us around a table and we talked with a freedom of opinion shackled only by Mr. Gordon's insistence on meaning. Mr. Gordon would go on to teach at Yale, but he already talked to us as though we were there.
We would try to trap him, but it was not easy. One day, one of the students demanded of Mr. Gordon why -- given his propensity for free expression -- he always wore gray flannel suits. Mr. Gordon said quietly, "It makes it easier to say what I think."
We knew all about the meaning of gray flannel suits, thanks to Mr. Mallery, who had introduced us to the man in one, and other subversive literature of the 50s such as The Organization Man and Generation of Vipers.
William H. Whyte had said of the organization, "We are describing its defects as virtures and denying that there is - or should be - a conflict between the individual and the organization. This denial is bad for the organization. It is worse of the individual."
"Fight the organization," he wrote, "but not self-destructively." To some in the class it would be just a book, for me it would be a lifetime of effort, frustation, independence and doubt.
Mr. Mallery accomplished with enthusiasm what Mr. Gordon achieved with discipline. I took naturally to the skepticism of the social critics, for I had found much of my world not to my liking but had not realized that one could make a living saying so. And I devoured Ernest Hemingway because his stories were tough and melancholic and he didn't gush adjectives, metaphors and similes like so many of the writers we were meant to admire. In The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, he said that some things lose their meaning when they get all mouthed up. I appreciated the way he didn't use words as much as the way he did.
Several of the bright, proto-literary girls in my class -- who tolerated my less intellectual ways as though I were a colorful but unreliable writer to be both valued and pitied -- became entralled with T.S. Eliot and Yeats and spoke about them in ways I did not comprehend. Girls, it was understood, would do anything for the handsome Mallery, leaving even proto-literary boys to bring up the rear. Still, it was a pleasant rear, for Mr. Mallery usually found something good to say, gave us courage to challenge the world and provided daily evidence that growing up did not have to mean the end of joy. And when that didn't work, he once walked atop a row of desks to make his point.
He even inspired me to write a play, a maudlin love story involving a foreign correspondent. In his normal red ink, Mr. Mallery wrote:
Intensely interesting, Sam -- there is talk here that pierces the mind... You have values and feelings made eloquently articulate.
It being only eleventh grade, I believed him. It was thankfully the last play I ever wrote, but it was one of the moments that confirmed that I wanted to be a writer. (Years later, when this essay appeared in a school publication, Mallery wrote me, "But Sam, I was right.")
In one essay for Mr. Mallery I even took on the mythic figure of William Whyte who had proposed in Fortune placing an employee's IQ and personality test records, religion, political affiliation, hobbies, type of car and salary all on a single card for use as needed.
It was probably a satire, but I took it seriously and inveighed against the device calling it "the embryo of a police state and a place for a would-be dictator to hang his hat and go to work.... Once the individual has lost the security of privacy, we are no longer safe from the immediate overthrow of our principles by the ever-waiting demagogue."
I wrote these words a few years after Alger Hiss had gone to prison for perjury in denying that he had been a secret member of the Communist Party and while Hiss' nemesis, Richard Nixon, and Senator Joseph McCarthy were still high in the national saddle, the latter charging the Roosevelt and Truman administrations of "twenty years of treason."
This was more than news at my house. My parents had known Alger Hiss and were good friends of his brother and sister-in-law, Donald and Catherine. Nixon had been a subject of frequent opprobrium at 3460 ever since he slandered Helen Gahagen Douglass and if I had any doubts about my parents' judgment in the matter, it was confirmed forcefully and repeatedly by Nanny -- the formidable Hilda Pritlove who had raised all six of us -- who almost always refered to Nixon as that "awful little man."
My father had contributed to Hiss's defense and while my mother, with her usual certitude, thought it impossible that Alger Hiss had been a communist, my father seemed more ambivalent than usual and frequently made a point of saying that he was helping Hiss because, as a lawyer, he believed that everyone deserved a good defense.
For my part, it seemed that Hiss should be innocent. In the world in which I had been raised, in which right and wrong stood in crystalline opposition, there was no other answer, for Nixon and McCarthy, by their words and actions, indisputably represented wrong. I had yet to learn that it life wasn't quite as simple as that.
David Mallery called my critique of Whyte a "a good, vigorous and heartening response." And when I listened to a recording of Arthur Honnegers King David for the first time and asked Mallery, who was about to help stage a performance of the work, where the line between noise and music was, he said simply, "That's for you to decide."
On the other hand, my attack on Lillian Smith's The Journey brought Mr. Mallery out of his ebulliency:
Lillian Smith is not a friend of mine, or of my mother. So it is with no bias that I say your attack on her is tiresome, and inappropriate for this particular job... Since you do haggle over her in the way your do, read her again, after a good dinner. Yours, feeling nailsy, though admiring of Sam.
Bob Boynton, new to the school, split the difference between Dave Mallery's sometimes excessive bonhomie and Ed Gordon's sometimes excessive critique. Boynton had a sardonic teaching style and seemed to loved politics as much as I did. With a dry wit, he drove you to do better without making the effort seem too arduous. His criticism was probing but never mean. He wrote on my senior paper about Andrew Jackson:
If you have tried to cover too much in a short space, you have at least given the flavor of the stew if not much of the meat. You have called this 'a rough sketch of some his features;" I wonder if 'rough' doesn't become synonymous with 'lazy' when so many major issues are dealt with in such a relatively few words.
Mr. Boynton made writing seem both possible and desirable, but you had to work at it. And you had to read. I read, according to a list I still have, at least 20 books that year including Walden, Brave New World, Murder in the Cathedral, Antony & Cleopatra, Hamlet, the maritime history of Massachusetts, Voltaire, two books on jazz, Mark Twain, Anatole France, Thurmond Arnold's Folklore of Capitalism and Wendel Wilkie's One World.
It was a hardly a well-rounded list but it spanned the growing number of my interests and Mr. Boynton mainly wanted to keep you reading. And thinking. He seemed to be always saying, in effect, that you're not there yet but you will be if you keep on trying.
Years later, Bob Boynton (then a textbook publisher) and I were still friends and he told me of his plan for a new curriculum in which textbooks would only be used by students in order for them to find the mistakes in them. The whole course would be centered on the discovery of error. I approved and laughed because, after all, it was Bob Boynton who had taught me the importance of discovering error.
A few years later, he called to say he was in town. We were hosting a fundraiser for the Fifth Estate, an organization formed by Norman Mailer to expose aspects of the secret government. I shifted into full blase and said, "That's great Bob, because Norman Mailer will be over tonight." I didn't know Norman Mailer and would only meet him briefly at the event, but better than meeting Norman Mailer was introducing my best high school English teacher to him.
My writing interests won me a spot on the masthead of the school literary magazine and an appearance on KYW's Junior Town Meeting of the Air in which I critiqued the Republicans on grounds that would change little over the next four decades:
The Republicans in Congress have a record of inaction on the pressing domestic problems of today. Based on the President's own figures, one out of every 22 persons in the labor force are out of work. The GOP continues to talk of a "rolling readjustment" [Eisenhower's euphemism for the recession] but ignores the fact that the working man just can not keep rolling until the readjustment comes. He stops when his paycheck stops.
But best of all, I became co-editor of the school yearbook with Marylea Perot. We decided to attempt a yearbook using a new printing system known as photo-offset. The beauty of this system, as far as we were concerned, was that we could publish a yearbook that did not look like every other yearbook of every other school. We could do our own layout and paste-up, we could have acres of white space and we could, as Messrs. Gordon, Mallery and Boynton had taught us, be "creative."
So we regularly headed for School Life Press, where the owner sat in the corner strumming on a guitar, while we experimented at the long line of light tables. Our end pages had a head shot of every member of the class joined to a cartoon body, every teacher and student got their own clever quote and a pseudo-literary vignette, and for the photo of the stage crew, in which one member hung upside down from a ladder, we carefully snipped and pasted his name upside down in the caption as well.
Our theme was Winnie the Pooh, with quotes sprinkled liberally throughout. The committee section was introduced by:
It was just the day for Organizing Something, or for Writing a Notice Signed Rabbit, or for See What Everybody Else Thought About It.
And under my senior picture:
You can't help respecting someone who can spell Tuesday, even if he can't spell it right.
It doesn't look like much today -- especially compared to my youngest son's yearbook photo in which he is wearing a ski cap while playing the violin from inside a huge trashcan under a caption from This is Spinal Tap: "There's such a thin line between clever and stupid" -- but to those of us experiencing for the first time liberation from the linotype and photo engraving, it was heady stuff. Besides, it was the fifties and being different wasn't that difficult.
The worst time of the day was on the playing field. At the close of school we would climb into a yellow school bus and head for the field house a mile back towards my home. There I would change hurriedly, for I had become ashamed of my body and how it performed and wanted only for the next few hours to pass as quickly as possible.
The school, while de-emphasizing competition among its students, was remarkably competitive in one sport: soccer. Under the soft-spoken guidance of A.A. Smith, it had enjoyed 40 winning seasons in what was then one of the few cities in America in which soccer was taken seriously. At GFS it was the major sport. Playing in the old-style soccer shoes seemingly constructed of two by fours and pipe clamps, I attempted to be as inconspicuous as possible, which, as a fullback, was not that difficult since the ball was so frequently at the other end of the field. By senior year I had been relegated to goalie for the junior varsity, the only senior on the team. My coach and I both hoped that size would compensate for my lack of skill. But even my one moment of glory was by accident. While playing temporarily as a fullback in a game, I momentarily forgot my position and intercepted with my hand a ball inexorably headed for the goal. The resulting penalty kick failed and I was cheered for my strategic brilliance.
The closest I came to physical achievement was in the spring as a middling shot-putter. I was not bad at pure force; it was only when the force required some finite direction and distance that I failed. In winter the choice was basketball, wrestling or "physical education." At 180-pouinds, I might have been trained into a decent wrestler but by that time the athletic triage that occurs in schools had already completed its course and I was assigned to perform unconvincing simulations of activity along with the other physiological dyslectics in the school.
We did our pushups and situps in a gym built in the 1920s, with a basketball court two-thirds regulation size, a deficiency that forced the school to play most of its games away. The gym smelled of 30 years of adolescent exertion and rang constantly with the sound of Keds clomping around the highly banked track that hung from the ceiling and which doubled as a gallery for games and matches.
I took more interest when it was announced that the school was offering lessons in various musical instruments. This raised the happy prospect of liberation from the tedious weekly bouts with a somber and demanding lady who was trying to teach me piano. I immediately decided that I wanted to play trumpet, a decision that was not well received at home, my parents deciding after two weeks of listening that playing the trumpet was bad for one's health. I think in retrospect they meant their own health, but in any case I switched dutifully to clarinet which I pursued diligently but without great success for about a year. I then decided that my future lay in playing drums.
This decision was influenced by the few records I had been given: Sidney Bechet, the Dukes of Dixieland and Benny Goodman's Carneigie Hall concert. All my other records were put aside as I listened to these discs over and over again. While I loved the sounds that Bechet and Goodman made, I knew I could never replicate them; Gene Krupa seemed within reach.
I broached the idea to my parents and to my amazement they acceded, provided, of course, that I took "proper lessons." So each Saturday, while my friend Peter Temin was herded off to Hebrew School and others of my peers learned tennis or did chores, I happily boarded the A bus for the long trip to the center of town and the Henry Glass music store.
Philadelphia's streets were laid out by Benjamin Franklin. In their day they were good enough no doubt, but by the 1950s the buildings bordering them had risen enough to obscure the sun except for a brief diurnal passage over the narrow canyon they had formed. The streets were crowded with cars, people and streetcars, and there was a vibrant dinginess of the sort I had found around political headquarters.
Henry Glass, a thin, humorless man, did his business in a shop that imitated the cavernous streets outside. Deep and narrow, you made your way through an aisle lined to the ceiling with drums, violas, tubas, guitars and trombones, past the unsmiling Mr. Glass to a set of stairs in the back that led to the basement studios.
There, under a single light bulb, I would sit with my teacher and a drum pad and perform paradiddles, ratamacues, single stroke flams, long rolls and four bar breaks. My teacher was a professional drummer, a status confirmed in my mind by the fact that he was black. He said little and, in fact, regularly nodded off within the first fifteen minutes. I knew that drummers worked late so this peculiarity merely reinforced his professionalism, and he was certainly cool, something worth emulating as well. When he was awake I grabbed every piece of drum lore I could, including how to twirl drumsticks between one's fingers and how to bounce a drumstick on the floor so it would return to you, all without losing the beat. It was only some years later that it occurred to me that something other than late hours might have caused him to nod.
Eager to please myself and my silent mentor, I spent hours practicing on an ancient set with a deep snare and 28-inch bass drum and with the stereo in the library turned full bore. It was the only stereo in the house and the drums had to be removed by cocktail hour, so practice involved as much assembling and disassembling as it did playing. No matter, for the first time I was learning to do something that none of my acquaintances knew how to do. And the music -- all three records of it -- was becoming glued to my being.
By tenth grade I had decided that what GFS needed was a band. In many schools this would have been no novelty, but the Quakers hadn't even accepted dancing until 1939 and while music was important at the school it ran the gamut from Gilbert & Sullivan to Arthur Honneger, with no stops in between for jazz or pop.
The Six Saints, in fact, was the first band the school had ever known. With only 60 in a class, creating even a small combo required some imagination. Piano, saxophone and trumpet were no problem, albeit the piano player was really learning to be a church organist and had minimal experience with the likes of Jesse Stacy or Teddy Wilson. The only clarinetist I could find played a metal instrument and the bassist was, perforce, actually a cellist who would rest his instrument on a piano bench in order to pluck it. Our singer, finally, was a student of opera who managed, with some effort, to forget what she was learning during our performances.
PART OF THE RHYTHM SECTION UNDERNEATH A MILTON AVERY PAINTING
The band played during lunch breaks and at school dances and practiced regularly in the Victorian formality of our living room. I took the responsibility of band leader seriously, stopping the group when it headed towards a train wreck -- those stunning moments when everyone gets out of sync and tune with each other -- re-scoring "Sing, Sing, Sing" for six pieces (including metal clarinet and cello) and looking for new material, such as that of Bill Haley & the Comets, to enliven our repertoire. Haley's Rock Around the Clock had first been released in 1954 but with not a great reaction. My senior year the rights were bought by MGM from Decca and the tune re-released in time to add it to our repertoire in early 1955. That same year introduced the movie Blackboard Jungle and one year later Elvis Presley would rise to the top of the charts.
My parents didn't seem to mind and I felt more like me playing the drums than anything else I did. Fortunately, no recording was ever made of the Six Saints so I will never know how bad we really were.
Every Thursday we filed into the plain large room with the plain brown benches -- girls on one side, boys on the other -- for weekly meeting. Facing us were several rows of high-backed benches for the elders, but it being only a school meeting, they were sparsely filled -- perhaps a beatific white haired man who had once been headmaster; Harold Price, a shaggy history teacher who thought I was funny; and a Presbyterian who loved Quakerism so much he couldn't stop talking about it.
There was mostly nothing but silence. I filled the silence with thoughts of girls, today's soccer game, how I was going to explain something to my parents, what sort of accent you used with fete, and -- on extremely rare occasions -- the meaning of it all.
I did not think that highly of Quakerism. It seemed a little put on. I liked to say things like, "The trouble with Quakers is that they don't fight hard enough for what they believe in" and I declined to take part in the school's inner city workcamps because I thought it ostentatious to give a few hours of week to make yourself feel good without accomplishing much.
I didn't think all that much of Quaker meetings, either. The silence would get boring after awhile and the Presbyterian would get boring when he broke it. The parts I liked best came when someone did something different. Nothing as wonderful happened at our meeting as occurred at my eldest son's Quaker school, when several students let two chickens loose into the silent hall. But there was the time when a full-fledged argument on the divinity of Christ developed, all the while people were pretending they weren't arguing but just getting up and saying what was on their mind and one of the elders had to suggest that a meeting was not a place for disputation.
There were "pop-corn" meetings, where speaker after speaker arose, barely letting their predecessors' words sink in. And in spring, there was always some student, usually a girl, who would get up and become emotional about what the school and Quakerism had meant and then sit down teary-eyed and those of us boys who weren't graduating would turn to each other and wink and mug and roll our eyes.
Sometimes, though -- on those rare occasions -- my mind would turn to things that were troubling me, that were scaring me, that I couldn't put right and I would stare out the clear windows to the trees and really think about it. And sometimes, on those rare occasions, a rare kind of peace would descend and I would suddenly understand what Friends meeting was about.
And even at an ordinary meeting I had to admit I felt a little better leaving than I did entering, and certainly better that I ever did at St. Martin's in the Field. No one in that room was judging me and nothing in that room made me feel faint or uncomfortable. I was in a room with friends. There was, in that room, an undeniable sense of us.
When I look at photographs from that time, I am always surprised to see that I was fairly good-looking, for when I think back without aid of a camera, I see myself as the awkward, shy and scared kid I felt. I sometimes wonder if my life would have been different if I could have been the boy in the photographs instead of the boy inside of me.
The fifties, Dan Wakefield has noted, was a time considerably more full of romance than of sex. If there was a fast crowd in my class I was nowhere near it. There were rumors that one of the boys in the class below us had done it to a girl in a car one night, but for the most part foreplay constituted consummation and for many of us thinking about it was usually as far as we got.
None of which, of course, prevented an obsession with girls modeled on the romantic myths of the decade. Under the no-driving rules of my parents there was little I could do to act on my obsession, although I did have a two hour telephone conversation with one object of my love, a conversation I remember mainly because, unknown to me, calls to the suburbs were charged on a per-minute rate and my father demanded with no little acerbity to whom and for what purpose I had engaged the phone that long.
I found similar disapprobation when I managed to put my arm around a girl in the backseat as we were driving home from a party with her parents. On my next visit to her house, her mother blocked the front door until she had told me sternly that "My husband and I do not condone that sort of behavior." Ever since, condone has always seemed an extremely strong word.
The proper mating ritual of the proper Philadelphian began in earnest at locales such as the Saturday Evening dances. The dances were scheduled around holidays to make sure all those children dispatched to boarding school could be in attendance. At them, the scions of Philadelphia, formally dressed, gathered at the Barclay or the Bellevue Strafford to commence what would be for many of them a lifelong habit of regularly assembling in their best clothes to dance, talk and get drunk with the same people with whom they had just vacationed, played tennis, gone to church and chatted with after just happening to run into while buying the dress they were now wearing. And, as it would for decades to come, the conversation centered on trips past and present, mutual friends, and errant behavior within the tribe, which even if shocking was also comforting for it reaffirmed the solidity within the tribe of those who had not engaged in it.
I qualified for the dances as a proper Philadelphian -- after all you couldn't really disqualify the great-grandson of the man who provided them with one of the major clubs from which they excluded others -- but I did not qualify for the conversation. I did not share vacations or friends, our parents took us to no country club, and only an occasional student from my school was there. To say you went to Germantown Friends brought at best an "Oh, yes" and at worse a look suggesting the possibility of infection.
Fortunately I liked to dance and was good at it. I would pick out the best dancers, and the least talkers, and cut in on them just as the businessman's beat was beginning to escalate into a jitterbug and show them that their former partner, the boarding school guy with his plastic disdain, didn't know everything. They seemed to like it and afterwards they smiled but then the conversation would peter out. I did not know their places and their friends and they in turn had no interest in Ernest Hemingway, Adlai Stevenson or Sidney Bechet. For the next few dances I would just stand there in my tux watching the drummer, trying to pick up a few more riffs, and wishing I was back at GFS talking about T. S. Eliot, even badly, with Marcia Bell and Toni Vogel.
Sometimes, later on, people would suggest that I had rebelled against my class and I would smile to myself and think of those Saturday evenings a long time ago, recalling how little rebellion had to do with it. Ever so properly, ever so politely, it was becoming clear that "my class" didnt want me. It was, after all, what it did best, keeping those whose experiences and interests veered slightly from the norm from disturbing the equilibrium of the tribe. The Saturday Evenings had done their job: they had figured out who should stay.
That was all right, I decided. Proper Philadelphia was like being in church every day with parishioners who exulted in the utter assurance of never-changing ritual, never-disturbing words, and the absolute predictability of who would be sitting in the next pew. But graduation was approaching and with it, I would never have to come back.
Copyright 1999 Sam Smith NEXT CHAPTER
MAGNA CUM PROBATION Why Harvard and the author didn't quite hit it off
WRITE THE AUTHOR
An Unauthorized Memoir
by Sam Smith
GEORGETOWN: A child of contradictions
GHOSTS: The ubiquitous past
BECOMING: Playing with and putting away childish things
FRIENDS A Quaker education
MAGNA CUM PROBATION: Falling from grace at Harvard U
THE CANARIES IN STUDIO A in which a young radio reporter learns a lot about the media and Washington in a short time.
HOOLIGAN DAYS: A memoir of the Coast Guard
SEEDS The 60s before they became the 60s; in which your editor discovers the civil rights and anti-war movements.
HOW THE TROUBLE BEGAN: A long adventure in alternative journalism began in the mid-sixties
FIRE: The Washington riots and other suspensions of hope
PLACE: The battle for local power
THE LONELIEST MILE IN TOWN: Adventures in apostasy
GROWING GREEN The birth of a movement