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The Headmaster's Papers
By Richard A. Hawley
Paul S. ErikssonCopyright © 2002 Richard A. Hawley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWells, Connecticut 27 August
Mr. Hugh Greeve Pembroke House St. Edward's School Framingham, Massachusetts
I arrived home from the Cape in the dead of night, and it wasn't until this morning that I found your wonderful letter.
Of course you flatter your old - well, seasoned - uncle by deferring so graciously to his years and his experience, as if, in school life, that added up to something reliable. I am not always sure that this is so. Every day of school, at least once, I am aware that what I am doing is completely new, baffling, and that I am empowered with no special skill or insight or strength to deal with it. Remember this admission some time when your own headmaster seems hopelessly pompous or officious. All of us are really, at the nub, timid and desperate - new boys at school, compensating.
But quite frankly, I am flattered that you wrote me. Mainly, however, I am excited about the prospect of your appointment at St. Edward's. For what my opinion is worth, I think the school is just right - small, humane, and standing for something. From what I've been able to see of him, Ted Phillips looks like a promising headmaster to work for. He's so young and earnest he terrifies me. You could do worse than to begin with a young and growing school. But I hope as you become grand and important there you see to it the school doesn't get too big. The limit should be the size at which easy personal acquaintance of everybody in the school is still possible. When a school grows beyond this point, it no longer has a coherent personality, but instead becomes a complex of factions. One experiences big schools as "institutions" and behaves toward them with less than his best intimacy. I think old Endicott Peabody who founded Groton had it right when he said a school should maintain itself as a family (he kept Groton under two hundred boys). But now Groton has gotten bigger than that, and so, I'm afraid, has my shop, although I curse that economically sensible development. A digression - pardon.
Your load is of course overwhelming, but that's as it should be your first year. All of it - the dormitory, the soccer, and the classroom preparation - is essential for getting school life into your bones. This way you will know by the end of a year or two whether School is for you. You will see as the year wears on - often to your horror - that it is futile to try to divide your "inner" personal time from school time. It won't work. The harder you try, the more you will see your (limitless) school duties as an infringement on your "real life." Now everybody feels this strain sometime, to some extent, but my advice is to give in to school life - plunge in and ride the currents, then climb out for refreshment during vacations. (No one has vacations like school people's: we may be broke, but we are granted heavenly stretches of idleness.) The most empty I have ever felt in my schoolmastering days is when I felt I was holding back, saving myself for something. Some day I will tell you about my closet-poet period.
I wish I had some useful insider's tips on starting out, but I'm not sure I do. Something inside is urging me to say "keep out of faculty intrigues," but I know that is impossible. Schools very shortly become close, at times suffocatingly so, but that's part of their value. I think human communities were made to be as intense as school communities actually are. I don't think the culture at large is suffering from too much community but rather from far too little. In schools we do have to live and work with each other intensely. If we are liars, we live through the consequences of our lies. If we are loafers, we experience the reaction of whoever picks up the slack. Everything petty and everything marvelous about each member - soul comes through in a small residential community. The result is often terrifying, and for this reason, especially in the affluent and empty now, the "outside world" often seems a beckoning escape for school people. But you can hardly be interested in escaping, having just volunteered.
Those St. Edward's boys are lucky to be squaring off opposite you. Young faculty are always, in the adolescent mind, bridges to adulthood. Even dreadful young teachers, in whose number I would never include you, serve as plausible models of attainable adulthood, while more settled and middle-aged types, no matter how fine or effective, are too remote. Physical youthfulness, apprehension, doubt, impulsiveness - qualities young teachers try so hard to suppress - are wonderfully sympathetic to adolescents. They relate easily to disorder, desperate effort, and posing - these things are, you might say, their life.
How I ramble. What I really have to say is that the prospect of your first year at St. Edward's and your letter to me make me very happy. Although continually humbling, teaching is a wonderful calling. No matter how badly any aspect of it goes, you will never doubt the worthiness of the task. It will always be noble to pass on the best that we know. Perhaps we two might even combine to convince your skeptical father of this before too long. I wonder, really, if my brother didn't throw up those barriers to your taking the St. Ed.'s job just to test your commitment - I wouldn't put it past him. Fathers and sons do seem to have a way of confounding each other, don't they? My own most painful doubts and second guesses revolve around the way I modeled work and adulthood for Brian - apparently quite unattractively. The last we heard he was still living the beach life in Portugal and Spain. Meg and I both pray that he either finds or doesn't find himself soon. We miss him.
Meg of course joins me in sending her love and best wishes. She would acid a few lines herself, but she is staying on the Cape to get over some coldy aches and pains and to check out the latest of her wonder doctors in Falmouth. So in the rather dusty solitude of my study, I will now get on to cranking out the thousands of memoranda and agendae which will set our own school year into motion.
I'll have to admit I am looking forward to taking it all on again - all that life!
Love from both of us, Uncle John
Mr. Frank Greeve 14 Bingham Drive Tarrytown, New York
Your number one son has paid me the honor of writing me about some of his anticipation about the teaching life. Flattering. What a fine boy, Frank. What a blessing to have his good intelligence, rich experience, and Val's and your good, firm hand behind him as he moves out to take his adult part in the scheme of things.
About our "sharp words" at the cottage - please forgive me. The fault was clearly mine. You were serious and upset about the issue, and I failed to read it. I can see now how flippant I must have seemed. Part of the problem, too, is that I am just so frankly glad Hugh has decided to teach that I failed to pick up your concern. You know, too, I think, that I don't despise "the real world," as you were calling it. I hope I don't need to say that I have always been awed by your drive and your achievement in the firm. More than that, the care and thoughtfulness with which you manage household and personal affairs have always impressed me. And you of all people know I am no enemy to bourgeois comforts. No one would live more pretentiously than I if somebody would only supply the wherewithal. My feeling for your house, household, and manner of living in Tarrytown is one of unabashed envy, not of acetic superiority.
I suppose what I want to say most is that I hated - was frightened by - the feeling that Hugh's decision was a kind of score in some deep old competition between us. I love school, and I can't help but be glad - for both Hugh and school! - that he is going to try teaching. But that is nothing like a victory for "my side." If Hugh succeeds in the trade - and there is little doubt that he will - it will be, if anything, Val's and your victory. Not to torture an old subject, but I feel anything but victorious in the parenting line. Schoolmasters are supposed to transmit all sorts of wonderful qualities to youth, but you feel just a bit of a fraud when you are having a hard time pulling it off in your own household. I don't mean I've given up on Brian, but I do regret about half the decisions I've made on his behalf. He's still on the Portugal beaches, by the way. In the long haul I wonder what he will make of this vagabond period.
Jenkins arrived promptly and hauled the Valmar to the boatyard and with his usual wordless grace said nothing about what would be done, although if he does the bright work again at last year's rates, I'll have to take out yet another mortgage.
Meg's still at the cottage, ostensibly recuperating from a bug, but actually, I am sure, incorporating the last rays of sun into her burnt-umber complexion. For my part, I have forty-eight hours to replace a suddenly resigned math teacher. How deep the vocational commitments of the Now Generation.
Love to Val - and to you, J.O.
Mrs. Margaret Greeve Little House Ticonsett Lane East Sandwich, Massachusetts
I called periodically yesterday, but you were out, so I'll write this note in the interest of adding something besides seed catalogs to your waning summer mail.
Arrived late Tuesday p.m. to find the empty house just as bleak and indifferent as I expected. I would like to know what generates dust in a tightly closed-up house. The grounds crew may have cut our lawn once or twice, certainly not recently, and despite our pleas the flower beds have, I am afraid, been ignored. Arnold tells me the crew has been preoccupied with a water-main break under the athletic fields. Whether or not related to this, our tap water is now the color of tea. It's been raining in sheets all day, and there is a pervasive sense of Wuthering Heights about the place - that is, of Wuthering Heights if Heathcliffe had let it to Mr. Chips.
I trust you are well, free of aches, full energy restored. Was that Greek-sounding physician everything you had hoped? Was he expensive - speaking of which: before you close up, could you try a hand at getting some sort of estimate from Jenkins about what his yard costs are going to be for the boat? Frank, being steeped in wealth, doesn't seem to mind paying staggering sums - in fact, seems somehow honored by it, as if they, like yachting itself, were part of being included among the truly established. Anyway, please try with Jenkins. I know I could never do it. One has to admire Jenkins's control.
Rest up. I envy your being there. There is too much going on here for my taste. I finally - and luckily - got a replacement for Frankel in math, a nice woman named Florence something who has gone back to school to awaken her dormant college math major. She is awfully eager and a fast, nervous talker. I hope the boys don't annihilate her. For my part, I am waiting like a crouched panther for Frankel or some future Frankel employer to ask me for a letter of recommendation.
The faculty seem refreshed, and, I'll have to say it, the boys already here for early practices look great. Part of it is normal back-to-school optimism, but part of it is the style of the day. It seems OK now to wear clean clothes, and hair looks less ratty. It is so obvious that the way one turns oneself out bears directly on how one speaks and behaves - how could we have been so dense and so timid over the past ten years? (The curmudgeon raises his scaly head.)
I wish the transition were not so direct, but I am afraid there has been nothing from Brian, here or at school. It's maddening not to be able to get in touch - even to be mad at him, even to send him money! Maybe I am not fully acknowledging my repressed envy of his approach to life. I suppose he has committed himself to systematic truancy as completely as I have committed myself to school. But he is not subtle enough. I too am a little-known part-truant. I too long for the beach. The difference is that I want to play for the other side, too. I crave the release of flight and leisure but, just a little more, I want to know what everybody else is doing and be in on it up to my ears. Which, like it or not, I am. New faculty arrive for "tea" (I have already decided in favor of beer) in half an hour.
Adios, love. Longing to speed to the airport when you give the word.
Mr. Jake Levin R.D. # 3 Petersfield, New Hampshire
This is a moment I savor at the end of every summer: a post-midnight hour or so before the business of term really begins: a brown-study's eye of the scholastic hurricane. I actually am writing from my, if not brown, at least not very clean, study. All the appropriate mood elements are present - bright moon, crickets, tower bell (electronic, I'm afraid) tolling the hours, even a heightened sense of isolation due to Meg's being away at the Cape another week.
I feel badly about not having written sooner. It's easy to let little fussy business get in the way. I suppose, too, that despite my old-shoe, genial-headmasterly approach to middle life, I let myself be hurt by your no doubt genuine lack of interest in my poetry ms. Odd thing is, I knew when I sent it that you wouldn't like it. Although, despite a few obvious outward trappings, we are rather alike, our respective oeuvres (yours recognized and official, mine private and skimpy) are irreconcilably different. I know exactly what you mean when you advise me to "pull my oars in" with respect to language, but I don't really know how to do this with my intentions; the "recurring note of adolescent striving" you mention might be less an approach to poems than an approach to life. This would of course explain my vocational destiny as well as my literary limitations.
So how are you? My picture of you up there in the New Hampshire hills is mighty attractive. I'm sure there are lovingly managed near-the-earth routines like hewing wood, stoking fires, and brewing big crude pots of coffee and stew. Seems awfully tempting from my standpoint - especially on the brink of School. I also envy you the time and the quiet to write, to actually get at it. You can actually feel and think freely - and big. By that very fact, though, the writing then has to matter, doesn't it? It pretty much has to stand for what you are - which in your case works out happily but which in my (hypothetical) case seems terrifying. Is it nice there? Do you still see/hear from Susanna?
Do you remember you are invited to give another reading and be a classroom guest one day this winter? Expenses of course and all the honorarium I can muster. It will be great to have you here. I don't think Meg's seen you since the last reading. I'll check the date, but I think it's mid-February.
I hope you are well. If I can reconstitute my pride, I'd like to send you some more poems from time to time, as they come up. I would also like to know what you are reading now, at least the nourishing stuff.
I'm off now - must review my opening remarks to the faculty and boys. Right tone must be set, don't you know. Stiff upper lip, most important years of your lives, oldest and most venerable profession in the world (but one) ha ha ha - Christ. Another year like the last will kill me.
I don't think I'll say that.
Opening Day Remarks To The School.
To the boys and to the ladies and gentlemen of the faculty and staff of The Wells School - a warm and joyful welcome into our one hundred and sixth year. And to those of you - more than a quarter of you - who are new to Wells this fall, a special welcome. We count on our older boys and staff for continuity, but we rely on our new boys for novelty and vigor.
Excerpted from The Headmaster's Papers by Richard A. Hawley Copyright © 2002 by Richard A. Hawley. Excerpted by permission.
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