Good Schoolby Richard Yates
Yates spare and autumnal tale of a New England prep school is at once a meditation on the twilight of youth and an examination America's entry into World War II. A GOOD SCHOOL tells the stories of William Grove, the nervous boy who becomes an editor of the school paper, Jack Draper the crippled chemistry teacher, and Edith Stone, the schoolmaster's young daughter,… See more details below
Yates spare and autumnal tale of a New England prep school is at once a meditation on the twilight of youth and an examination America's entry into World War II. A GOOD SCHOOL tells the stories of William Grove, the nervous boy who becomes an editor of the school paper, Jack Draper the crippled chemistry teacher, and Edith Stone, the schoolmaster's young daughter, who falls in love with most celebrated boy in the class of 1943.
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A Good School
By Richard Yates
PicadorCopyright © 1978 Richard Yates
All rights reserved.
At fifteen, Terry Flynn had the face of an angel and the body of a perfect athlete. He was built on a small scale, but he was utterly beautiful. Walking fully dressed among his friends, he moved with a light, nimble, special grace that set him apart from everyone; just by watching him walk you could picture the way he would leap to catch a forward pass, evade any number of potential tacklers and run alone into the end zone for the winning touchdown as the crowd went wild.
And if Terry looked good in his clothes, that was nothing compared to his performance every day in the dormitory when he stripped, wrapped a towel around his waist and made his way down the hall to the showers. He had what is called muscle definition: every bulge and cord and ripple of him was outlined as if by the bite of a classical sculptor's chisel, and he carried himself accordingly. "Hi, Terry," the boys would call as he passed, and "Hey, Terry"; within a very few days after his arrival at Dorset Academy, Terry Flynn had become the only new boy in Three building to be universally called by his first name.
In the shower room, which also contained the two toilet stalls and four sinks on that end of the hall, he was splendid. He would make a modest little show of whisking the towel away from his loins, proving he was hung like a horse; then he would step into the hot spray and stand there posing, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, a soaked and glistening statue. The little-finger of his right hand had been broken once in a football game and never mended properly; it wouldn't bend, and the delicate stiffness of that finger, which looked at first like an affectation, lent just the right note of insouciance to his personality.
Dorset was Terry's fourth prep school, but he was only in the second form — he was still learning to read — and so his classmates were not his contemporaries. In the hours before lunch he associated with his classmates, a cluster of thirteen-year-olds each of whom would feel warm and silly all over whenever Terry smiled at him; the rest of his time he gave to his contemporaries. His room was the most popular gathering-place in that section of Three building and was sometimes honored by the presence of older boys, sixteen-and seventeen- year-olds, who would drop in to join the horsing around. Terry didn't talk much, but he usually managed to say the right thing when he did. And he had a memorable laugh, an explosive "Bubba-hah!" that could be heard all up and down the hall.
"Hey, d'ja hear about Mr. Draper and his home brew?" someone said on one of these social occasions. Mr. Draper was the chemistry master, a frail man so crippled by polio in all four limbs that he could barely walk and barely hold a pencil. "MacKenzie had to go over to the lab last night to get a book or some damn thing, and when he turned on the lights there's Draper on the floor, flat on his back, waving his arms and legs around in the air like some — you know, like some bug tryna turn himself over? So MacKenzie gets down and picks him up — he says he only weighs about sixty-five pounds — and this terrific smell of alcohol hits him: Draper was plastered."
"Bubba-hah!" Terry Flynn said.
"He'd been sucking up all that home brew he makes in the back of the lab — you ever seen that big whaddyacallit? That big tank, like, with the hose kind of thing sticking out of it? — and he'd gone and fallen all over himself. Jesus, if MacKenzie hadn't of come along he'd of been on his back all night. So MacKenzie puts him into a chair and old Draper looks like he's gonna fall out of that too, and he says 'Please get my wife.' So MacKenzie takes off to the Drapers' house and gets Mrs. Draper —"
"Was she alone?" another voice interrupted. "Was she alone, or was Frenchy La Prade in bed with her?"
"Bubba-hah! Bubba-hah-hah!" Terry Flynn said.
"— I don't know, I guess she was alone; anyway, the two of 'em manage to get old Draper home and everything, and then Mrs. Draper says to MacKenzie, she says 'This can be just between ourselves, all right?'"
* * *
There were a number of English boys at Dorset that year, refugees from the war, and they tended to be favored at faculty teas because of their good manners. One of them was Richard Edward Thomas Lear, who roomed across the hall from Terry Flynn. He stood very straight, he had rich black hair and bright eyes and might have been a handsome boy except for his mouth, which was as loose and wet as a rooting animal's.
"You must miss your family terribly," Mrs. Edgar Stone said to him one October afternoon, leaning over to pour more tea into his cup. "And I do wish you'd tell me more about Tunbridge Wells. Has there been much bombing there? I've just finished reading The White Cliffs and I found it wonderfully moving, though of course my husband says it's not a good book." Mrs. Stone was the scatterbrained wife of the English master, and this was an important house to visit because the Stones had a sweet, shy daughter of fifteen named Edith. She was seldom home, but there was always a chance. Besides, Mrs. Stone herself wasn't half bad: when she leaned over with the teapot that way, if you were lucky, you could get a nice view of ample, creamy breast all the way down to the nip.
"I hope Tunbridge Wells isn't much changed, Mrs. Stone," Richard Edward Thomas Lear said. "I shall want to see it again as I've remembered it." Then, knocking back his tea, he stood up. "I'm afraid I must go now. Thanks ever so much." And when Mrs. Stone turned away to call her husband from the study, Lear reached out one hand, gathered up six expensive chocolate-dipped cookies and thrust them into the side pocket of his Dorset blazer.
"Good having you, uh, Lear," Dr. Stone said, blinking in the doorway.
"It's been a pleasure, sir." Smiling there with one hand sunk in his blazer pocket, he was the picture of a courteous departing guest. "Thank you both again."
He ate all the cookies in rapid succession as he walked out across the quadrangle toward Three building. Upstairs in his room, feeling a little queasy from the surfeit, he got undressed for his shower. Lear had nothing to fear from the scrutiny of the shower room: he might not be as spectacular as Terry Flynn but he was all right, his prick was adequate, and he had powerful, admirably hairy legs. Another thing: he knew better than anyone how to snap a wet towel against the buttocks of other bathers.
Sometimes, though, and particularly at this hour of the day, an unaccountable melancholy settled on him. He wanted to punch and wrestle and shout; those were the only activities that could make him feel fit again. With his shower completed and his clothes changed for dinner, he went out into the hall and found Art Jennings intently flicking specks of lint off his black jacket. Jennings was a hulking, amiable, nearsighted boy; he was bigger than Lear, but that would only make it more stimulating.
"My God! Look!" Lear cried in a shocked voice, pointing dramatically toward the shower room, and when Jennings turned to look he stepped in and punched him with all his strength on the upper arm.
"Ow! Son of a bitch!" Jennings tried to punch him back but missed — Lear had stepped out of range and stood smiling there, his wet mouth glistening — and then they were all over each other, locked in a series of clumsy wrestling holds as they swayed and fell into Jennings' room. First they were on the floor, where they knocked over the chair and Jennings' glasses fell off; then they were on the bed, where one of Lear's flailing feet scraped a long rip in the sailing chart Jennings had used to decorate his wall. Six or eight other boys passed the open door and saw them, without much interest. In the end it was Terry Flynn who broke them up, as casually as if he were separating two puppies. "C'mon, guys," he said. "That was the three-minute bell."
Gasping for breath, rubbing their sore limbs and necks and ribs, they got dizzily to their feet. Their evening clothes were ruined: one shoulder seam of Lear's jacket was torn out, both their shirts were gray with sweat and their starched collars and bow ties had come absurdly apart. Lying silver on Jennings' lapel was a long, ropy strand of Lear's spit.
"Get you next time, you bastard," Jennings said.
"You and who else?" Lear inquired. He felt marvelous — and Jennings, squinting and fitting his glasses back into place, looked as if he felt good too.
* * *
In his second year as French master at Dorset Academy, Jean-Paul La Prade had established an uneasy truce with the place. He would much rather have been back in New York, making ends meet as a translator and occasionally doing what he called "a spot of journalism" — he had been able to stay in bed till noon every day in New York, often with a lively girl — but a man had to change with changing times. The work wasn't hard here, once you'd learned to keep the little bastards off your neck; the pay was wretched but there wasn't anything to spend it on anyway; the daily regimen might be Spartan, but with a little imagination one could manage to live like an adult.
La Prade was thirty-eight. Several girls had called him "wonderfully Gallic" in his New York days, which helped him emphasize his piercing stare and his jaunty short man's gestures and movements; he liked his looks, and tended to strut a little while lecturing his classes. He was fond of his voice, too: it was precise and deep, melodious in encouragement and fearsome in reprimand, with just enough French accent to give it authority.
"I think it's your voice, as much as anything," Alice Draper had told him last spring. "Your voice, and your eyes, and the way you touch me — oh, the way you touch me." And he'd winced at that, because for many years Alice hadn't been touched by any but the soft, jiggling hands of her pitiable husband. The worst part was that he rather liked poor Jack Draper; he'd once considered him, in fact, the closest thing to a friend he had at this funny little school.
Still, Alice had been a good mistress. For a woman of thirty-six she was remarkably firm in the flesh and remarkably girlish in her eagerness. They had tirelessly writhed and humped and fed on each other, first in his apartment (where the pleasure was heightened by their knowledge that a dormitory packed with kids lay just beyond the steam pipe overhead) and later on a blanket in the woods. In the woods one afternoon she had suddenly recoiled from him, covering her breasts, and pointed to a clumsily running, noisily retreating boy who vanished among the trees two hundred feet away. La Prade had done his best to assure her it didn't matter, that she mustn't worry about it, but he'd been unsettled too. At dinner in the great stone-and-wood refectory that night he had risked occasional glances up from his plate to see if anyone in the long, wide sea of kids was looking at him. Here and there a boy sat silent, lost in loneliness over his food (and La Prade could understand that; these refectory meals were a torture). Most of them were turbulent with talk and laughter — what in God's name did they find so funny all the time? — but even among the heartiest laughers and nudgers he found no hint of a gaze aimed at himself. Once he tried discreetly to catch Alice's eye across the room — he wanted to tell her, with the faintest suggestion of a smile, that everything would be all right — but she didn't look up. She wore a severe black dress; there was something strained about her shoulders and he couldn't see the expression on her downcast face. At the opposite end of the Drapers' table, many chattering kids away, poor Jack was wholly engaged in the difficulty of cutting his meat.
"You'll forget me this summer," Alice had predicted last June. "You'll have all your old New York girls, and when you come back in the fall you'll have forgotten you ever had me."
"Good," he'd said. "That'll make me want to have you all over again."
But it had been a rotten summer. Living in a dreadful hotel on upper Broadway, spending too much money on cheap food, he had failed to find work with any of his old publishing contacts — and with one exception, a languid bleached-blonde named Nancy who complained about the "tackiness" of his room, he had failed to win back any of his girls. By September, facing another year at Dorset, he'd become preoccupied with Alice. He missed her; he wanted her, and at the same time he knew he would spend the fall seeking graceful ways to extricate himself. There was no future in a thing like this.
"Ah, God, how I missed you," she said on their first night together. "I thought you'd never, ever come back. Did you miss me?"
"I thought of you all the time."
But now it was November, and common sense made clear that it couldn't go on. She was nice, but she wanted too much.
He was alone in his apartment, changing into the darker of his two suits for dinner, and while knotting his tie at the mirror he went over some of the things he planned to tell her. "There's no future in a thing like this," he would say. "I think we've both known that from the beginning. Even if it weren't for Jack, I'd feel —" And his doorbell rang.
Surely she ought to know better than to come here at this time of day. As he hurried across the small space to the front door his irritation dissolved into an invigorating, useful kind of anger: this might be the perfect pretext for the scene he had in mind; he couldn't have asked for a better one.
But it wasn't Alice: it was a gangling, dreary-looking boy of about fifteen. It was William Grove, one of the new boys, the dumbest kid in his fourth-form French class.
"Sir," Grove said, "you told me to come at five-thirty for a conference."
And La Prade almost said "I did?" before he caught himself. Then he said "Right. Come in, Grove; sit down."
The kid was a mess. His tweed suit hung greasy with lack of cleaning, his necktie was a twisted rag, his long fingernails were blue, and he needed a haircut. He seemed in danger of stumbling over his own legs as he made his way to a chair, and he sat so awkwardly as to suggest it might be impossible for his body to find composure. What an advertisement for Dorset Academy!
"I asked you in, Grove," La Prade began, "because I'm worried about you. Here we are in November, and as far as I can tell you haven't learned any French at all. What's the trouble?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Sometimes," La Prade said, "a student will fail at a foreign language because he's deficient in basic verbal skills. But that's clearly not the case with you: Dr. Stone tells me your work in English has been adequate."
"So how do you explain it? How can someone be adequate in English and wholly incompetent at elementary French? Mm?"
"I don't know, sir."
The abject way he sat there, head bowed, waiting for his small ordeal to end, was beginning to get on La Prade's nerves. "A teacher can do only so much, Grove," he said. "Teaching is a two-way proposition. No teacher can help a student who fails to show the slightest — the faintest spark of comprehension, of willingness to learn. Do you see?"
"No, sir. I mean yes, sir."
La Prade was on his feet now, pacing the small carpet the way he paced the head of his classroom, one hand jingling coins in his pocket. This little bastard could be the death of him. "I have my own theory about you, Grove," he said. "I think you're lazy. If you weren't lazy you'd clip your fingernails and get a haircut and get your clothes cleaned. You're adequate in English because you find it easy, and you're incompetent in French because you find it difficult. And the point is this, Grove: the point is simply that I won't tolerate that attitude. You're either going to buckle down or you're going to — to find yourself in trouble." He was trembling. "Is that clear?"
"All right. I want five irregular-verb sheets from you by the end of the week. And they'd better be correct, is that clear? All right. Go along now."
Excerpted from A Good School by Richard Yates. Copyright © 1978 Richard Yates. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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