In my prep-school days, at Exeter, Creative Writing wasn’t taught — the essay was all-important there — but in my years at the academy I nevertheless wrote more short stories than anything else; I showed them (out of class) to George Bennett, my best friend’s father. The late Mr. Bennett was then Chairman of the English Department; he was my first critic and encourager — I needed his help. Because I failed both Latin and math, I was required to remain at the academy for an unprecedented fifth year; yet I qualified for a course called English 4W — the “W” stood for Writing of the kind I wanted to do — and in this selective gathering I was urged to be Creative, which I rarely managed to be.
In my memory, which is subject to doubt, the star author and most outspoken critic in English 4W was my wrestling teammate Chuck Krulak, who was also known as “Brute” and who would become General Charles C. Krulak — the Commandant of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No less a presence, and as sarcastic a critic as the future General Krulak, was my classmate in English 5, the future writer G.W.S. Trow; he was just plain George then, but he was as sharp as a ferret — I feared his bite. It was only recently, when I was speaking with George, that he surprised me by saying he’d been deeply unhappy at Exeter; George had always struck me as being too confident to be unhappy — whereas my own state of mind at the time was one of perpetual embarrassment.
I could never have qualified for Exeter through normal admissions procedures; I was a weak student — as it turned out, I was dyslexic, but no one knew this at the time. Nevertheless, I was automatically admitted to the academy in the category of faculty child. My father taught in the History Department; he’d majored in Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard — he was the first to teach Russian History at Exeter. I initiated a heightened level of intrafamily awkwardness by enrolling in his Russian History course. Dad rewarded me with a C1.
To say that Exeter was hard for me is an understatement. I was the only student in my Genetics class who failed to control his fruit-fly experiment. The red eyes and the white eyes were interbreeding so rapidly that I lost track of the generations; I attempted to dispose of the evidence in the drinking fountain outside the lab — not knowing that fruit flies could live (and breed) for days in the water pipes. When the unusable drinking fountain was declared “contaminated” — it was literally crawling with wet fruit flies — I crawled forth and made my confession.
I was forgiven by Mr. Mayo-Smith, the biologist who taught Genetics, because I was the only townie (a resident of Exeter) in any of his classes who owned a gun; the biologist needed me — more specifically, he needed my gun. Boarding students, quite understandably, were not allowed firearms. But as a New Hampshire native — “Live Free or Die,” as the license plates say — I had an arsenal of weapons at my disposal; the biologist used me as the marksman who provided his Introductory Biology class with pigeons. I used to shoot them off the roof of the biologist’s barn. Fortunately, Mr. Mayo-Smith lived some distance from town.
Yet even in my capacity as Mr. Mayo-Smith’s marksman, I was a failure. He wanted the pigeons killed immediately after they’d eaten; that way the students who dissected them could examine the food contained in their crops. And so I allowed the pigeons to feed in the biologist’s cornfield. When I flushed them from the field, they were so stupid: they always flew to the roof of his barn. It was a slate roof; when I picked them off — I used a 4X scope and a .22 long-rifle bullet, being careful not to shoot them in their crops — they slid down one side of the roof or the other. One day, I shot a hole in the roof; after that, Mr. Mayo-Smith never let me forget how his barn leaked. The fruit flies in the drinking fountain were the school’s problem, but I had shot the biologist’s very own barn — “Personal property, and all that that entails,” as my father was fond of saying in Russian History.
Shooting a hole in Mr. Mayo-Smith’s barn was less humiliating than the years I spent in Language Therapy. At Exeter, poor spelling was unknown — I mean that little was known about it. It was my dyslexia, of course, but — because that diagnosis wasn’t available in the late 1950s and early ’60s — bad spelling like mine was considered a psychological problem by the language therapist who evaluated my mysterious case. (The handicap of a language disability did not make my struggles at the academy any easier.) When the repeated courses of Language Therapy were judged to have had no discernible influence on my ability to recognize the difference between “allegory” and “allergy,” I was turned over to the school psychiatrist.
Did I hate the school?
“No.” (I had grown up at the school!)
Why did I refer to my stepfather as my “father”?
“Because I love him and he’s the only ‘father’ I’ve ever known.”
But why was I “defensive” on the subject of other people calling my father my stepfather?
“Because I love him and he’s the only ‘father’ I’ve ever known — why shouldn’t I be ‘defensive’?”
Why was I angry?
“Because I can’t spell.”
But why couldn’t I spell?
Was it “difficult” having my stepfather — that is, my father — as a teacher?
“I had my father as a teacher for one year. I’ve been at the school, and a bad speller, for five years.”
But why was I angry?
“Because I can’t spell — and I have to see you.”
“We certainly are angry, aren’t we?” the psychiatrist said.
“I certainly are,” I said. (I was trying to bring the conversation back to the subject of my language disability.)