Three Men of Groton

1

IT IS a well-kept secret among parents that boarding schools are primarily for their convenience, but for boys too they have their importance. First and last I know a good deal about boarding schools, for I was once schoolboy, master, and trustee. My feelings about them are mixed. Certainly so far as the civilizing process goes they are imperfect substitutes for home life, and it seems hardly natural that boys and girls should be brought up apart, when in the long run they are destined to be so exceedingly dependent upon each other. But here the tradition of the race runs right against me. We are still under the spell of the monastic habit. There are obvious advantages in the opportunity for a boy to devote undivided attention to study and preparation for the long struggle of competing with his fellows.

The experiment of our coeducational colleges throws light on the moot question. I have not the statistics before me, but I am certain that in our state universities, so far as paper education goes, the rating of women is higher than of men. Why is it then that professors, eight out of ten of them, would banish women if they could? In their classrooms, that everlasting Gresham’s law which operates in so many unexpected places is steadily at work. As the proportion of women rises in a class, so surely does the number of men decline. And as women are very apt to plump for the humanities, I suspect that the fatal trend against civilizing studies among men is accelerated by the influx of women. But in these matters no choice is involved. The expense of a double program of education is prohibitive, and every institution supported by taxes must combine the sexes.

Considering then the advantage of boarding school, I should say it is entirely relative. If a boy has space to play in, companions enough, and if he belongs to a family of boys and girls good at educating each other, as every real family should be, boarding school offers a poor alternative to the home. But boys so favored grow rarer year by year.

How terrible is that day when boarding school is first mentioned. You have long dreaded it in secret and suddenly you hear your eldest brother declare it high time you should be packed off. Next your parents take it up; your father would “like to talk with you after supper,” and pretty soon you hang your head and go.

It is a fashion now that when a writing man reaches the eminence of forty years he discusses in his autobiography the painful effect his boarding school has had upon his brilliant gifts. Commonly it seems to have curbed a generous spirit and cramped bright possibilities. Particularly is this the case with literary Grotonians. But in the instances which happen to have fallen under my notice I judge the author’s youth to have offered difficult problems which the school would have been glad to escape. If a boy has individuality, so has a boarding school. It would be of little worth if it had not. To be true to itself the school must decide every question by asking not so often what is best for the boy but what is best for the school. And what is best for the school is usually a group of normal boys growing up in a normal way. The exceptional boy, unless he excels as a scholar, and in particular the aesthetic boy, the incipient artist, is a knot in the log as it goes through the mill. This is not to say that exceptional boys may not be the hope of the world, but merely that no school intent upon its job can be run in their especial interest.

It is the penalty of talent. Odd boys must be their own schoolmasters, they and the Lord who made them, and that chance friend who comes into so many lives bringing a peculiar sympathy and some eccentric but wise advice. The exceptional boy with his talent goes through the world crying “Who will understand me? I am so worth understanding.” The shadow of talent is egoism, and conscious of that, most men pass him by. But if the candle of talent shines bright enough, someone will catch sight of it and then the boy will go his glittering way, maintaining to the very end that schools are kept by Philistines and only in their teeth was he able to save his birthright.

Much as I have loved Groton, I cannot say that I enjoyed the school, not at least until I went back there as a master. I was an untalentcd boy, biddable, reasonably unattractive, and most content when unnoticed. And yet from the first day, I felt there was a possible heaven above me, for the truth was I had come out of the pit of hell.

2

MY STORY was this. When the family conclave decided that I really must grow up and be a man I was despatched to a boarding school that shall be nameless. At the time, I merely knew that school was hateful to me, but I think of it now less as a school than as a sink of iniquity. Not that there were not a number of nice boys there, but the tone of the place was the tone of a penal institution. What could a boy of fourteen learn of manliness, when, unseen himself, he watched the headmaster creep in slippered feet to a door and satisfy his suspicions by peeping through the keyhole!

It was a military school. The young lieutenant fresh from West Point, who looked like a youthful Mars and drilled us in the weary manual of arms, was doubtless a fine fellow, but if we had been a squad made up of A.W.O.L.’s he could not have looked us over with a fishier eye. The boy officers were tyrants. After sixty years, I should feel it a benediction upon my old age if I could get my fingers on the throat of one young cadet lieutenant. On dress parade, when I was presenting arms for inspection, he loved to come up behind me and, under pretense of giving a correct slant to my rifle, run a pin into my buttock. Then would the West Point lieutenant frown and make a note of my instability. We marched and we countermarched, we practiced the manual of arms till a musket became for me the devilish thing it is.

Lessons, quite subordinated to military training, were scarcely palliatives. They were taught by underpaid and unhappy young men in coats worn shiny and ingrained with chalk. I recall but a single exception, the teacher of English, who encouraged me to recite “Ruin seize thee, ruthless King,” in the spirit of romantic drama. Had the school been a place where gentlemen could exist, he would have been a gentleman. I bless him as I pass. I bless too an older boy, Gus Willard. If he still lives, I salute him. For on Saturday afternoons he would sometimes take me on a long ramble over the countryside, filling the clothes bags slung over our backs with stolen apples and half-ripened chestnuts. What bliss was in those intervals! They were the only respite except when with a long night’s sleep ahead I would slip into bed whispering to myself the single refrain, “Eight hours till reveille!”

But very often there were not eight hours. Sometimes on the stroke of eleven I would be waked by a terrifying crash. No other noise in my experience has been quite like it — a sort of quivering, shivering, sliding thunder. The cause I learned later to understand. A group of desperate heroes would creep along the ledge of the topmost story, and breaking into the room where the extra china was kept, would bring out a rich assortment. Then when eleven o’clock struck and the last light went out, they would hurl the crockery down the long corridors — slop pails, basins, mugs, chamber pots, anything that would splinter and make a noise about it. The fragments would go slithering along the polished floors and bring up against the radiator at the far end with a crash devastating to a master’s ear and infinitely satisfying to the perpetrators.

A moment’s utter silence would follow. The conspirators would dissolve into their respective beds, and immediately the trumpets would sound assembly. Out we would all rush in our nightgowns — pajamas were newfangled then. In every dormitory, roll would be called. Never was a boy missing; never a boy who had not been obviously asleep two minutes before. Then and there the entire school would be marched to the basement for two hours’ punishment drill. Oh, the misery of it! Sleepy, tired little boys with uniforms half-buttoned would right-shoulder, left-shoulder, support arms, arms port, till midnight passed and one o’clock came. Then a little troubled rest till reveille and the old routine again.

But the worst thing about the school was the indefinable sense of corruption that hung thick over it. I was an innocent little boy. The works of the devil were quite unknown to me, but I was horribly conscious they must be very near. I felt them in the universal secretiveness, in the casualness with which whispered conversations were interrupted when I approached. Nine tenths of my fears were, I dare say, morbid fancies. But evil has its own nauseous smell, and that smell hung about the school.

My family tell me that when at the age of five I was asked the classical conundrum, “What was the color of Washington’s gray mare?” I lisped the reply: “I am not suffithcently acquainted with histowy.” Had I progressed far enough in my school days to understand the color of French history, I could have prophesied with accuracy the fate of that school. That blessed spring I left it, for a chance vacancy had turned up at Groton, but not long after my time, Revolution came. The boys broke into the armory, fixed bayonets, drove out the teachers, nailed the headmaster into his room, commandeered the butcher’s cart and the baker’s wagon, and proclaimed a republic. Liberty was short-lived, for parents and constables poured down on the school in an avenging flood. Supplies were refused, pocket money cut off, and the garrison surrendered at discretion. But none the less it was a famous victory.

This was the background against which I first saw Groton. Perhaps if her severer critics had enjoyed the same perspective, they would have painted a different picture. Anyway in this “rich boys’ school” I found many boys as poor as I, and at the time my father was very poor. If the school was filled with snobs, I knew them not. Perhaps I was a snob myself, but to this day I cannot remember who it was I enjoyed looking down upon. What I remember clearly is that all alike had twenty-five cents to spend during the week, and that a nickel of that was earmarked for the plate on Sunday; and that the white collars we were obliged to wear at supper set off suits of much the same appearance. Of course Pierpont Morgan was President of the Board of Trustees, and there were a number of boys whose mothers’ names appeared regularly in the social column of the New York Herald, but I am mistaken if term bills were not of major concern to at least half the parents.

Groton was in its first youth then, hardly three years old. There were fewer than fifty boys, an excellent number. The sixth form had just reached the first years of its existence. It consisted of one boy, George Rublee, who has since lived a distinguished and useful life. Many years after, when I was a trustee of the school, I remember remarking slyly to Mr. Peabody: “Well, of course, the school goes up and down.” He turned to me with one of those Jovian looks of his. “What do you mean, down?” “Why,” said I, “you began with George Rublee and have never done so well since.”

3

ALWAYS Groton was striving to be an institution, but always it was personality that made it what it was. The core of it, the life, heart, and breath of it, were the three young men who gave it being. That was a triumvirate without a parallel — those three men, the eldest not far from boyhood. As I look back upon their confident young faces I remember that they were called the “Team,” but to me it seems that the three of them made up the sum of human divergence. To William Amory Gardner was given the scholar’s mind, imaginative and unpractical; to Sherrard Billings, the talent of the teacher and the preacher; to Endicott Peabody, the power of personality. Each was absolutely and utterly himself. We shall not look upon their like again.

Personal affection and the compulsive ardor of religion bound them indissolubly, but in all their characteristics they were diverse as the elements. Gardner was a lusus naturae and looked the part. With Aeschylus or Homer doubled back in his pocket to keep the place, he would hover about the school he loved beyond all earthly things, kindling the brains of the intelligent to a pure flame, diverting the rest of us by the quaintness of his quixotisms, turning the order of classrooms into chaos, and contriving, in some esoteric way, to stamp on every boy an impression of what loyalty means to life.

It was Gardner who gave the school its otherworldly character. I do not mean the spirit of religion, nor yet of unselfishness, although he was deeply religious and without worldly taint. Rather he seemed to be weaving fairy tales in a prosaic world. The most accomplished Grecian perhaps who ever came out of Harvard College, there was about him a fantastic quality which seemed in common touch with all the creatures of fancy from leprechauns to giant killers. He was full of theories and defended them in paradox. The approach of the holidays filled him with sorrow, and Black Monday was the brightest day of his year. There was something of Puck in Gardner, something of Ariel, and to all of us he gave in some measure the sense of living in an immaterial world.

In perfect contrast, Sherrard Billings was the impersonation of law and order. He was a little bandylegged man with an unfailing sense of dignity — and of the humanity of laughter. His bodily insignificance was a cross to him, and side by side with the physical magnificence of the Rector it was wonderful to see how much of a man he looked and was. What a struggle little men have in the world! Lucky for them that Napoleon and Nelson were in the five-foot class. It stimulates morale to think of them.

Billings was a preacher of intensity and force. Somehow the pulpit seemed to add inches to his stature, and in the classroom he had the priceless gift of keeping boys on their toes. With what skill he brought us through the horrid complexities of indirect discourse! All that Caesar did to obfuscate the intelligence of small boys, he undid with an ingenious system of what he called Chinese boxes. Take a sentence beset with inner clauses, one tucked within the next. Billings would pick up a series of colored chalks. Writing an inextricable Latin sentence on the board, he would underscore the subject in white, and then, passing over half a dozen convolutions, would mark the predicate also in white. There you had your statement. Some man said or did something. Then for its modification he would underline the principal subordinate clause in yellow. It was quite easy to understand, now you had got a firm grip on it. But at the heart of the sentence still remained an undigested clause, and within that some pernicious phrase invented for the devil of it. Mark these with green and blue. The sentence became intelligible. Caesar was licked.

There can be a relation between a boy and a schoolmaster unlike any other in the world. Each has so much to offer and to accept; knowledge for trust, enthusiasm for experience. For those who love the profession, which has no rival for usefulness save the physician’s, no call is so clear, no reward so certain. I too have loved schoolmastering, but I have never been insensible of the shadows which hang over it. School generations are short-lived; four years, six at most, and the companions you have learned to love best are gone. And if you happen to be interested in ideas rather than in people, the long, long thoughts of youth give you little sustenance. The desire to live your own life, call it selfishness if you will, sweeps over you. What is the life of man? “L’homme respire, aspire et expire,” as Victor Hugo says. You have one life to live. Then live it.

Such were my hesitations, but no such doubts assailed Billings. He was a born schoolmaster, but that overmastering passion could not save him from disappointment or from bitter sorrow. Any man of his capacities would have loved to be first; always he was condemned to be second. Under poignant circumstances he lost his wife and child. But courage and faith and duty, companions of a lifetime, stood by him to the end. At the close of his life he suffered a long and wasting illness. I was told that one of his few pleasures was to hear from old boys, and I wrote him at length. Letters for deathbed reading are not inspiriting. I tried to strike a cheerful note. I reproached him for his lifelong tyranny as Senior Master, for the black marks he had given, for the midnight pleasures he had ruined, for the Latin traps he had set for the unwary feet of carefree boys, and I marveled how it was that these same Christian and forgiving children had continued to love him and to remember him with gratitude.

Then one day he sent for me. His tiny shrunken body looked as Gandhi looks. He had no longer strength to raise his head from the pillow, but he laid both his hands over mine, and with the barest ghost of his familiar smile slowly withdrew one hand and from beneath the bedclothes brought forth my own letter and pressed it against my palm. Dear old Billings! There is no teaching like a good man’s life.

The Caesar of the Triumvirate was the Rector. They used to call him the Sun God in his youth. He was the perfect autocrat with the power of life and what to small boys was much worse than death. On the playground you could do anything short of snowballing him. But in his vast study with room for the whole school in it, that was a different matter. To be alone there, on instant summons, with your heart open and no desires hid, was like cramming for the Last Day. I do not believe any boy, however crooked his tongue, however deep his sins below the surface, ever lied face to face with the Rector. There was an instinctive, comprehensive understanding about him. He never spied, but he always knew and you knew he knew. Out with it! There was no other way. Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about him, the thing a boy could never guess and only the friendship of decades could discern, was the complete and disciplined humility of his spirit. Underneath, the schoolmaster was the priest. God was all in all; to serve Him was to rule.

The Rector was the perfect example of the healthyminded man. “Sick souls” he imperfectly understood. And though he was tolerant toward ills of the flesh, it was evident that he did not think well of them. A boy with a cold felt under a stigma, and a leg twisted in football practice was little to be proud of. Born in the days when hopes of a perfected world seemed possible, never ill, with a wife lovely as she was beloved, knowing nothing but happiness, he looked on trouble as transitory and held it firmly underfoot. If ever in the freshness of his youth a man was born into eternal life, it was the Rector.

In spite of the gayety of his temper and the cheeriness of his talk, you were always conscious of his consecration, and in the chapel the sense of it became an undercurrent of existence. I am not what is called a religious man, but almost the strongest deterrent of evil I have known is the remembrance of afternoons in the chapel, the sun streaming through the painted windows, and the Rector’s pleading voice: “Keep innocency, for that will give a man peace at the last.”

The body is not made by men alone nor is the spirit. It would have been as anomalous to bring up a family without a mother as Groton boys without Mrs. Peabody. How else would the spirit of chivalry — and what is more important in a boy’s education? — have entered into the heart of any of those young ruffians! Men can preach admirably about chivalry. They can quote you Sidney’s ideal, “Higherected thoughts seated in the heart of courtesy,” but without the presence of the lady the lesson is idle words.

I am one of hundreds of Groton boys but I speak for the rest. To me, who is like Mrs. Peabody? Whose manners are like hers? Whose smile recalls more happily the memories of a beloved past! Whose laugh is gayer, whose affections look out more naturally from understanding eyes! In the world of most of us there are individuals, a few of them, and there is the crowd, but what old boy ever shook hands with Mrs. Peabody without knowing that her friendship was his own private right, his own personal possession. So long as time lasts for us, what is she to every Groton boy but “my Mrs. Peabody.”1

4

GROTON has been written about more than enough, but I think this testimony is not without consequence. Take me for one moment as exhibit A. I was a nonconformist by nature. I hankered for the individual life. I hated organized athletics and — heresy of heresies — utterly disbelieved in their beneficial effect upon character. I took a somewhat fastidious taste to be a safer guide than any law of morals, I was certainly not a “healthy-minded” boy nor an interesting one, and certainly I was secure from the temptations which come from being too attractive. I was in fact poles asunder from the Groton boy he approved, yet Mr. Peabody liked me and trusted me. He took me into his family life, made me a master of the school, and for thirty years liked to have me by him as a trustee. My point of view was certainly at variance with his. I do not understand it but I am grateful. And I am grateful beyond measure because he it was who rescued me from complete unbelief in myself and gave me a degree of selfconfidence which through all changes and chances I have never quite lost.

There was more to be learned at Groton than knowledge and character. By example and very strictly by precept we were taught manners which I still think important as anything a boy can learn. They were not mere company manners, clean collars, ungrimed hands, and a smile for the visitor. They went below the surface. It is astonishing how glad you can be to greet an old acquaintance or to make a new one if you only behave as though you really were! Just as form is apt to be a more permanent preservative for a book than substance, so manners, if not a substitute for virtue, at least make every virtue shine.

Then on Saturdays and Sundays there was apt to be the greatest extracurricular advantage of them all — the presence of interesting guests. Not infrequently Phillips Brooks was there — our first school building was named after him. I remember his vast, benevolent bulk filling my study like Gulliver in Lilliput. When the Rector came in too, the host was driven to sit upon the bed. In the pulpit Brooks’s torrential eloquence was all that tradition says, but after talking with him I remember wondering whether he did not love everybody too dearly to care especially for anybody.

A stronger impression was left on me by Father Hall, later Bishop of Vermont. He taught me to understand how necessary asceticism is to sainthood. In the chancel, his gaunt figure, looking strangely emaciated in the purple light of stained-glass windows, seemed to me a figure in some holy, medieval legend. Then at supper his deep infectious laughter made me realize that there must be fun in heaven, despite the solemnities of circled angels and above the din of sackbuts and shawms. How he loved to tell a story! Clerical stories are always a solace to the clergy. The intonation of his voice comes back again as I hear him tell the timeless tale of the vicar, solicitous for the health of the entire family, who, after anxiously inquiring concerning each child, grandchild, aunt, and uncle, paused for breath, but noticing a long white hair on his parishioner’s skirt took a long chance and with the voice of understanding said, “And do tell me, how is the dear old gray mare?”

But speaking of stories, the storyteller of the age was a frequent visitor. Theodore Roosevelt, beginning his battle for righteousness and the strenuous life, was attracted to Groton by the tradition of muscular Christianity which had arisen from the Rector’s acceptance of the moralities of Dean Stanley. These visits were occasions, and sixth-formers were invited to Faculty Supper. While Mrs. Peabody scrambled the eggs and the Headmaster recommended the apples, the Commissioner would spin his boisterous cowboy yarns. We would shed tears of delight at the culmination of each adventure, and just before the fatal stroke of ten, one of us with entire naturalness would stand before the telltale face of the clock while the rest would drown the ten minatory strokes with clapping or applause. All this was twenty years before “ practical politics” had stiffened the Roosevelt face into a mask. Then he looked like the boy he was at heart and his falsetto voice had a vigorous, honest ring to it.

Leonard Wood too came to see us and taught every boy what a soldier should look like, and John Fiske proved to our universal satisfaction that a philosopher could eat quite as voraciously as he could read. So astonishing was his appetite indeed that we boys made special inquiry concerning it, learning to our delight that at his own family table he received his full share of food by contriving for his personal benefit a reshaping of the dining-room table. At the master’s end of the oval he had had an ample concave hewed out of the wood and, still sitting at the head of the table, had access to its very heart.

5

VISITORS to the school, apart from old boys who flocked about us each week-end, were usually of that admirable class known as Leaders of the Community, men with a message, which they would impart to us in an hour’s lecture on Saturday night, or preach from the chapel pulpit on Sunday morning. But also there were unobtrusive guests of whom we saw nothing “official” who had their indirect influence upon us. Many of these were guests of Amory Gardner. In the summer Mr. Gardner was accustomed to sail his ninety-foot schooner, luxurious winner of the America’s Cup, but during the months of school he lived in a comfortable house of his own almost under the dormitory eaves.

These guests of the Gardner house formed a shimmering background to monastic life. They gave us an impression of current fashions, but more important to a country boy like myself was the sense they brought of a world outside the school, a varied and delightful world where people lived at the foot of the rainbow and enjoyed themselves in ways wholly at variance with school life. I carried these glimpses round with me and built for myself little stories about them which I was much too shy to impart to my mates. Some of these whimsical dramas I recall to this day. Here is one that concerns two people not unknown to fame, but it will not be found in their biographies.

The time was a lovely Sunday morning in the late ‘80s. There were two hours before church, and I well knew the danger of running across a master and hearing his suggestion that there is nothing like a Sunday morning walk in God’s sunshine. I had other views, and with a copy of Ben Hur I slipped into the gymnasium and, piling two wrestling mats, rolled them up in one corner, tucked myself securely behind them, and was lost to the world.

For an hour I was buried in my book when suddenly the gymnasium door was thrown wildly open and a woman’s voice thrilled me with a little scream of mockery and triumph. Cautiously I peeked from my concealment and caught sight of a woman with a figure of a girl, her modish muslin skirt fluttering behind her as she danced through the open doorway and flew across the floor, tossing over her shoulder some taunting paean of escape. But bare escape it seemed, for not a dozen feet behind her came her cavalier, white-flanneled, black-bearded, panting with laughter and the pace. The pursuer was much younger than the pursued but that did not affect the ardor of the chase. The lady raced to the stairway leading to the running track above. Up she rushed, he after her.

She reached the track and dashed round it, the ribbons of her belt standing straight out behind her. Her pursuer was visibly gaining. The gap narrowed. Nearer, nearer he drew, both hands outstretched to reach her waist. In Ben Hur the chariot race was in full blast, but that was eclipsed. “She’s winning,” I thought. “No, she’s losing.” And then at the apex of my excitement, “He has her!” But at that crucial moment there came over me the sickening sense that this show was not meant for spectators, that I was eavesdropping and, worse, that I would be caught at it. There was not one instant to lose. The window was open. Out I slipped and slithered to safety.

For me that race was forever lost and forever won. The figures go flying motionless as on the frieze of the Grecian urn.

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

I knew not then whether it was lost or won. What I did know was that the Atalanta of that Sunday morning was Mrs. Jack Gardner and Milanion Mr. John S. Sargent. It was that same year he painted the famous portrait of her with her pearls roped about her waist, her beautiful arms glowing against a background that might have been the heart of a lotus.

6

How big a community should a small boy grow up in? If you believe as I do that there is no force in education like the impress of a personality, Groton’s theory on the subject seems sensible, although I sometimes criticize her practice. From the outset it was determined that the number of pupils should be no larger than the headmaster could know individually and with a genuine degree of intimacy. In my time there were some fifty boys and the family seemed pretty complete, but when in after years the number rose to more than one hundred and eighty the bond between the headmaster and the new recruit became inevitably thinner. Everything grew more institutionalized, a little more metallic, a little less human. The old amateur spirit where teachers taught purely for the love of it had become professional. No doubt the teaching is better now, more methodical, more rationalized, but I wonder whether it is more exhilarating. There is more head and less heart in it.

It is a curious thing about size that many littlenesses do not make up bigness. A big school, a big company, a big town, is as different in kind as it is in size from what it was in its former smallness. Groton is still small as schools go, but it has come to have something of the quality of bigness about it. The family is a clan now. Graduates wearing the red, white, and black used to be brothers, now they are cousins. A Company of Cousins has hardly the ring to it a Band of Brothers used to have.

A journalistic professor unencumbered by firsthand knowledge, and feeling in his democratic bones that Morgans, Harrimans, and Whitneys cannot have passed through a school without defiling it, maintains it to be the veriest accident that so many men eminent in public life have Groton backgrounds. The ignorance of prejudice is a shade thicker than other kinds of ignorance and this is of it. From the early years of the school, in season and out, public service was held up to every boy as a shining goal. It is God’s mercy that all of us didn’t go into it! If we wouldn’t be clergymen and couldn’t be missionaries, what clearer call was there than a public career?

An astonishing number of able young men responded. They all started from Groton, but Lord, Lord! in what different directions they have traveled since! Some have been all and more than all the school could have hoped. Others are remembered in silence. A public office is a public trust, but a public servant may be a public menace. Evil and good have entered into Groton careers in a proportion astonishingly similar to their proportion in any community. The eternal problem is as insistent in school as elsewhere. Can a good man keep his honesty? Must a blackguard be a blackguard still? As I write, I think of certain politicians, once Groton boys, whose careers have been as cynical as their ambitions. I think of others who have served their country with the singlemindedness which they once learned at school. No more than any other school can Groton make a man. The gods dispose, but Groton certainly has started her graduates with a powerful push in the right direction.

To make a school “tick,” organized and compulsory athletics are regarded as a prime essential. Of course the normal boy — the boy to whom boarding schools are dedicated — dotes upon them. My only protest is that the odd boy, the boy who for some reason or other swims against the current and educates himself against sufficient odds, should be made subject to this tyrannous compulsion. Surely the pressure of school opinion is hydraulic enough without an official draft into universal service. If schools are a training ground for democracy, it must be ever remembered that democracy’s real test lies in its respect for minority opinion.

But as a practical matter nothing simplifies a master’s duties like sentencing his charges to hard, daily, and universal labor. Two hours of football practice will take the starch out of the highest spirits. It may dull a boy’s intellectual capacities, but it makes him docile as a sheep. Exhausted boys are good boys: that is no secret in any dormitory.

To be fair to masters, I do not believe it often occurs to them how useful compulsory athletics are to their professional convenience. They take them as a matter of course, honestly believing that the school team is an embodiment of the spirit of the school. All for one and one for all seems to them the exemplification of the very ideal they strive for. And younger masters especially are apt to share the astonishing belief that moral courage is a by-product of the physical struggle, that it fosters all the nobler virtues. The probability that it may tend to atrophy the brain is never discussed at faculty meetings. Organized sport is the personification of manliness. The boy who seeks another road to his development presents to the master a picture of a shirker and not infrequently of a poltroon as well. And from the boys themselves, masters half accept the quaint idea that victory for the team is an added glory to the school.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. Teams should play and play to win. But boys to whom the whole idea of organized athletics is depressing should be allowed to go their several ways and no blight of recognized eccentricity should fall upon them. The records of after life seem to bear me out. It has not been my experience that boys who have worn school letters on their sweaters and whose names have rung out across gridiron or diamond at the end of nine hurrahs are a whit more likely to have the moral courage which active life demands than those nonconformists who have climbed their own lonely staircases to positions of responsibility. I will go further and say that even in physical courage the heroes of boyhood do not always put up a better front in times of later danger. Determination, character we call it, comes by devious and difficult roads. Many of these routes are unsurveyed and where is the guide who can lead straight to the goal that every father seeks for his boy!

Should it chance that these unfashionable ideas should fall for discussion in a group of learned clerks or Grotonians or both, they will exclaim in chorus: “Think of the elevation of the physical idea as the Greeks taught it.” To this with great deference, I will quote the opinion of Socrates in Plato’s version. The talk chanced to be on this very subject. Socrates remarks that while boys are growing up it is well for them to take good care of their bodies, to get a base and support for their later use by philosophy. Then, amplifying his opinion, the wisest of Greeks goes on to say: —

“They [boys after an athletic contest] come into motion slowly. Learning is hard for them as if they were numb, and when there is work for the mind to do, sleep attacks them and they are always yawning.”

In those old Groton generations, once so familiar to me, I recall but a single instance of a boy who became the acknowledged head of the school wholly innocent of athletic supremacy and merely gifted with character and superlative intelligence. Bayard Cutting died before the world could know him well, but his name still stands among us as the best which Groton has to offer.

Over every boarding school hangs the arch of experience. Never does the same boy return to the home which has been all in all to him. He has taken an infinite journey. He has picked up a new measuring rod. The old criteria are gone. Family judgment is no longer his judgment. Grotesque as his opinions may be they are his own, or he thinks they are. And the transformation has come during the most tremendous week of life — the first week of boarding school — when nostalgia has attacked him, and he has died and been born again.

Homesickness is the estranging sea that each one of us must cross. He who has never felt it, trust him not, for he is without the bowels of compassion. It has been so since the beginning. Only yesterday I chanced to read the story of a Chinese Embassy setting out on a hazardous visit to Rome in the year 97. Never before had these Chinese left home, and when they got as far as the Persian Gulf, they heard with terror rumors of a new pestilence, “a kind of homesickness which men have when they have been long at sea.” Travelers died of it, they were told, and were glad to die. So wisdom came upon them. They turned their ship about and sailed back to the beloved port of their native land.

  1. This was written while she lived.