The Schoolboy's Code
CLAUDE M. FUESS made his mark as the headmaster of Andover and the biographer of Daniel Webster and Calvin Coolidge. For forty years Dr. Fuess played a leading part in the evolution of the independent school: he opposed the school fraternities, fought for smaller classes and fairer discipline, and scored a durable success in building character and in rebuilding Andover. The article which follows is drawn from his autobiography. Independent Schoolmaster, to be published next month under the Atlantic Little, Brown imprint.
by CLAUDE M. FUESS
AT A conservative estimate I must have known during my four decades at Andover six thousand boys. They march before me on sleepless nights like a panorama of the generations, a procession of American life, with its brilliance and folly, its accomplishments and failures. I can see now the fledglings who later became Mayor of Denver, the Governor of Wisconsin, Bishop of Minnesota, author of The While Tower, the producer of Oklahoma!, the President of Oberlin College, the Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Director of the Yale Art School, the president of Boston s largest bank, the Headinaster of Law reneeville School, the Managing Editor of Fortune, the Sports Editor of Newsweek, a foreign correspondent of the New York Times, the Chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Board, two of the greatest of American surgeons, the toughest of motion picture actors and the most benign of clergymen, as well as heroes, alive and dead, on many a battlefield around the world.
In his delightful and authoritative book, Understanding Your Son’s Adolescence, my former school physician, Dr. J. Roswell Gallagher, has a chapter headed “There Is No Average Boy.”With this dictum I fully concur. Each boy, like each man or woman, is an individual, with his own personal traits, emotions, ambitions, hopes, and whimseys. Each is a male, with all which that implies, and likely to be in some moods rough, predatory, and obscene. Furthermore, boys have their mob movements, resembling hysteria, when they are swept as a group by uncontrollable impulses. But the variations among seven hundred youngsters from fourteen to eighteen are immense. They are usually coöperative but often unpredictable, sophisticated but also childish, idealistic but also vulgar, lovable but also exasperating, noble but also degraded — in short, just like children of a larger growth.
Andover was not at all an exclusive school, except in the sense that it was not easy to meet the scholastic requirements for admission. Nearly one third of the students were either being aided by financial grants or working their way, but that made no difference in the treatment which they received from the faculty and their males. It seemed to me to be a completely democratic sociely, in which each member made his way on his own merits, regardless of the social position or financial status of his family. It was highly, sometimes ruthlessly, competitive, not only in studies but in athletics and all the other alluring phases of undergraduate activity; but in this respect it was like life. Indeed the school was a microcosm, a miniature world, with most of the problems of human relations to be found in its larger counterpart. Perhaps this is why the “type” was rugged, resourceful, and self-reliant.
As a corollary, we displayed a cross section of American life — the opulent and the indigent, boys from farms and from city apartments, representatives of almost every state in the Union. If there was any discrimination on the basis of race or color, I was not aware of it. In a school established by rather bigoted Calvinistic Congregationalists, we had nearly 10 per cent of Jews and about the same proportion of Roman Catholies, who attended assembly and sang the Protestant hymns without protest. We usually had two or three Negroes and would have accepted more if they could have met the stiff entrance requirements. They told me afterwards that they never felt themselves at any disadvantage.
Some boys are blessed by their ancestors or by the fickle gods with every attribute making for social success. With sound bodies, they are capable if not outstanding sportsmen: they have the mesmeric quality of making friends easily; they do their class assignments without strain and possess the precious knack of passing examinations; they are emotionally well-balanced, responding normally to the violent stimuli of adolescence; and they have an instinct for avoiding serious blunders. These are the “naturals,”the delight of parents’ hearts, who advance uninhibited and undismayed through the ordeals of school and college, captaining the teams and making the “right” fraternities, evading disaster and claiming leadership as their privilege. I have known many such, and have thanked God for them.
But side by side with these Olympians are the less conspicuous who are glad for modest honors and occasionally slip sadly into failure, who bear uncomplainingly the inevitable disappointments of group living, whose progress is often slow and painful, and who are content to serve in the ranks while others win letters and other decorations. One never knows, however, what the end will be. Often the campus favorites weaken early, perhaps because they are not toughened by adversity; while some lad relatively obscure on commencement morning turns up forty years later as an eminent surgeon or judge. I liked to feel that Phillips Academy was a good training ground for both types. I hope I was right.
THE boys sorted themselves out with bewildering rapidity through a process seldom understood by their elders. As the new youngsters of fourteen and fifteen appeared each September at the headmaster’s tea, they seemed superficially to be all equally well-mannered, shy, and undistinguished. By Thanksgiving, however, some were standing out above their mates for qualities which gave them prestige. Neither too aggressive nor too diffident, they had aroused the admiration of those around them. We on the faculty often deplored the choices, but they were the consequences of a pure democracy functioning freely. The boys would have resisted any attempt by the faculty to select their leaders. They wanted their own.
Allowing again for the inevitable exceptions, the students were basically well-intentioned and seriousminded. The reprobates won a good deal of publicity, just as hoodlums make the headlines in the newspapers; and the faculty knew them all. Indeed these offenders took up an inordinate amount of our time at meetings. But the large proportion of the undergraduates, day in and day out, worked reasonably hard, tried to obey the rules, and kept out of trouble. Like any other body of isolated males, on a battleship, in an army camp, or in prison, they had their gripes, especially over the food and the minor regulations. But I found them pleasant in manner, amenable to argument, and in an emergency very reliable. However they may have behaved on their vacations, their conduct in public places was as impeccable as that of the teaching staff.
Dr. Stearns, my predecessor, more than once quoted to me with approval the advice which he received from his predecessor, Dr. Bancroft: “Alfred, a lot of things go on all over the campus that a school principal ought never to see!” If a headmaster spends his time looking for little infractions of the rules, he will soon find himself with shattered nerves. Having been no angel myself in my childhood, I was often tempted to laugh when a frightened lad was brought before me for some offense like, chewing gum in chapel or indulging in mild profanity. But I suppose that no teacher in a school can avoid occasional irritation. When I first went to live in Tucker House, I raked and seeded a neat bit of ground for my lawn and then put up signs: NO CROSSING! The land was on a corner, and the temptation to cut across was almost irresistible. One spring when I had been particularly vigorous in my denunciation of depraved young men who trampled down my grass, a diminutive offender squeaked, “Mr. Fuess, do you know who walked across there just before me?” “No,” said I, “I guess I didn’t see him.” “It was Mr. Wilkins, the physics teacher — did you bawl him out?” The situation was a trifle difficult to explain, and I am sure that I was inconsistent in meeting it. In the following June the Pot-pourri, the Academy yearbook, devoted an entire page to a drawing of my house, with my face at each one of the twenty or more front windows, glaring with baleful eyes at my newly seeded lawn. After that, I tried to keep my irritation under control. I eventually concluded that the proper place to make paths on a campus is where boys — and men — naturally go.
Each boy is an individual, but collectively they have their lapses, when they are swept by uncontrollable impulses. Phillips Academy traditionally has no faculty supervision in the dining hall. Week after week everything would go smoothly as it does in the average restaurant. Then during the week before an Andover-Exeter game some excited lad would throw a bun, and soon there would be an outburst of bun throwing, with the accompanying clamor. The student headwaiters could do little to quell the riot. Inevitably the bachelor teachers sitting by themselves in their own dining room would be disturbed, some of the chief offenders would be reported to the Discipline Committee, and we would have penalties to inflict. Because some of the best boys in school were often involved, the problem of suitable punishments was difficult. The attitudes of faculty members would range from the savage to the gentle, with all the emotional variations in between. Some of the instructors whom I most respected felt that we should tolerate no nonsense, but should act promptly and severely. Others merely murmured, “Boys will be boys,” and were inclined to forget the episode. The final votes usually reflected both the violence of the provocation and the weariness of the staff.
Through experience I learned that heavy penalties do not prevent violations of the rules. When we were “firing” boys for many offenses, we had much more disorder than we did later when we became more reasonable. Expelling undergraduates for smoking does not stop the use of tobacco any more than prohibition shut off drinking in the 1920s. A cigarette addict can always be tempted by a convenient grove or fireplace. Even when smoking is allowed under specified conditions, as it is at Andover, it is a perennial problem; but it should not be treated like drunkenness or stealing.
A few responsible school leaders with good instincts and a feeling for law and order can do more than any number of irate faculty members. If the students, guided by their elected officers, reach the conclusion that certain things just “aren’t done,” the headmaster can cease to worry. Here again boys are extraordinarily like sheep in their proneness to ape the Big Men on campus and to cooperate when coöperation becomes fashionable. Ian Hay was right when he wrote, “The god that schoolboys dread most is Public Opinion.”
I made plenty of mistakes in administering discipline. Being temperamentally quick-tempered, I sometimes burst out angrily, thus losing whatever advantage I claimed over the offender. Occasionally I took matters into my own bands and exercised my constitutional right of pardon, only to learn that my soft-heartedness was regarded as weakness, even by the beneficiary. I never quite got over the sinking sensation when I had to announce to a mother that her son would have to withdraw. To such unfortunate incidents I attribute many sleepless nights.
The saddest sequence occurred when, after I had pleaded for an offender and he had been let off lightly, he was shortly detected in an even more heinous breach of regulations. Then my associates cried, “We told you so!" and I was left with the awareness that I was regarded as an “easy mark.”
I was obliged reluctantly to reach the conclusion that, in spite of what the psychologists maintain, there are some “incorrigibles,”on whom kindness or sympathy is wasted and who insist on going wrong, no matter how decently they are treated. More times than I like to admit, my confidence in the essential goodness of human nature was shattered by a gross violation of my trust.
I SOON came to perceive a kind of pulse beat or rhythm for the school year. The hubbub and adjustment of the opening days in September were followed by a period of relative quiet, when the correspondence was light and I could relax and play golf and pass unlroublod evenings. After the first marks were given out in late October, the scholastic goats were separated from the sheep, letters of warning multiplied, and I had to meet with disappointed parents. During the two weeks before the Andover—Exeter football game, tension mounted, and the entire school was on edge. Then came the letdown of the Thanksgiving recess and the studious weeks before the Christmas vacation, when the boys were too busy preparing for examinations to engage in many illicit activities. As the holidays opened, I was busy for three or four days, dictating more than seven hundred personal letters to parents in an attempt to present a brief description of their sons’ successes or failures. After that heavy pressure, Florida for a few days was always a welcome relief.
With the return at the opening of the winter term even the drones settled down to hard work, broken by the Winter Promenade, which stirred the boys who were susceptible to female charms. At the end of the term came another period of intense application to books.
Spring was a delightful season at Andover. Most farsighted teachers completed the hardest part of their assignments during the winter, when conditions were favorable for study. The dullards in the student body were by that time pretty well sorted out. Some of them had left, unable to stand the competition, and others had undergone enough of a reform to meet the minimum requirements. Hence the atmosphere in May and June was pleasant, except for those borderline seniors who were worried about getting into college. The tempo slowed down, the boys could lie around on the grass on warm afternoons, and life seemed again worth living after the New England winter. It is true that the faculty had to keep prodding the delinquents into action, and then more action, so that the lights in certain rooms burned far into the night. Moreover the first humid winds of spring stirred the blood and inspired some undergraduates with a desire for a little deviltry. But for most of us the days passed altogether too quickly, and commencement, with its absorbing busyness, was upon us before we knew it. After that came hurried faculty meetings, the good-by greetings, and then the almost oppressive calm which envelops school campuses when the life force has gone and “all that mighty heart is lying still.”
Placing myself in the confessional, I must admit that I sometimes took terrifying chances. After one close football contest with Exeter, a gang of adventurous students tore down two Exeter banners from the dormitories where they had been hanging. When the news spread on Sunday morning, I was much concerned, for Bill Saltonstall and I had an informal understanding that no such high jinks would be permitted. On Monday morning, after spending a restless night, I rose in assembly and explained that while this in some respects was only a childish prank, it did involve me in an embarrassing situation with the Exeter authorities. “I should greatly appreciate it,” I continued, “if the follows who have those stolen banners would return them to my office this morning. I shall be out from eleven to twelve and would like to find them there when I come back. No questions will be asked.”
This was one of those speeches which either succeed — or fail miserably! As I walked back to my office after assembly, not quite sure whether or not I had made a tactical blunder, two boys — members of the Student Council — asked to see me for a moment. One of them announced rather sheepishly, “Mr. Fuess, Bill and I have those banners, and we’ll bring them in to you right away. To tell the truth we didn’t realize that there would be so much fuss about the matter. We just wanted to pep things up a bit!” I could only thank them warmly, and before night the banners were on their way to Exeter, with my apologies. But suppose they hadn’t been returned!
THE schoolboy code of honor, no matter how absurd it may seem to an adult, can never be ignored in dealing with undergraduates. Only when one of their mates has become positively vicious will they testify against him. He may copy his neighbor’s answers, he may have liquor in his room, he may filch magazines from the newsstand, he may sneak out of his dormitory on nefarious missions — but nobody will “squeal” on him. This is the chief reason why honor systems, however successful they may be in some colleges, seldom work in secondary schools.
On the other hand, the code is subject to strange interpretations. When I was busy with the alumni fund and with money-raising campaigns, I often had to desert my class to keep an engagement. I would then explain, “I’m sorry, but I am called away for the rest of the hour, and I’m leaving an examination for you to take. Please put your papers on the desk when you have finished and leave quietly.” In after years several of my former pupils told me that on such occasions nobody did any cribbing. One of them remarked, “You did a smart thing in just going out and never warning us not to cheat. The way you left us completely to our own devices made it impossible for anybody to pull anything crooked!” That is one interesting aspect of boy psychology.
To “visiting firemen,” boys are not only tolerant — they are courteously demonstrative. They may complain bitterly of the monotony of talks by the headmaster or the school minister, but when anybody from the outside speaks, no matter how platitudinously or tediously, they will applaud until their palms are sore. In church, they suffered patiently the dullest of sermons.
The patience of a schoolboy congregation is often sorely tried. One winter three successive clergymen took as their theme the parable of the Prodigal Son. Again three visiting clergymen in a row ended their sermons with a stereotyped quotation from Sir Henry Newbolt, beginning, “There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight,” and concluding dramatically, “ Play up! play up! and play the game!” There was a hush all right as number three started on his peroration, and I could see the lips of many undergraduates forming the familiar words. Indeed I almost expected the whole congregation to burst out simultaneously, in accord with their leader, “Play up! play up! and play the game!” But some deep-seated respect for the church as an institution repressed any demonstration.
On one painful morning a clergyman of national reputation preached a sermon identical in text and argument with that used by an eminent divine the week before. A little Sherlock Holmes investigation disclosed the unfortunate fact that both were “canned” sermons, evidently from the same source. At another tense moment a Yale dean suddenly stopped in the middle of his remarks and said, “If the man who is moving about in the gallery will only keep still, I shall be grateful. I am speaking extemporaneously and can’t keep my mind on my theme.” The “man” thus admonished was one of the faculty proctors, who was moving cautiously about, checking the attendance below. A lady present in the congregation told me afterwards that she had heard the dean deliver precisely the same “extemporaneous” talk the week before at Vassar College. Such are some of the weaknesses of members of “the cloth.”
Boys are diabolically clever at discerning, mimicking, and ridiculing the eccentricities of their teachers. Often at commencement the seniors would prepare and present a skit of some kind, “taking off” the peculiarities of the faculty. I was cured forever of rubbing the bare top of my bald head by an imitation of me given by a clever student. When in assembly I announced that most of the trouble in the school was caused by a disorderly “5 per cent” of the undergraduate body, I was haunted by ironic references to that unfortunate phrase. A boy caught in an indiscretion would grin and say, “Well, sir, I guess I’m one of the disreputable 5 per cent!” At first I laughed, but as time went on I smiled only as if I mocked myself, and I was soon sick of the expression.
During one recitation a young instructor talked for some time about a trip to the British Isles which he had taken the previous summer. After class a very small lad looking as innocent as one of Murillo’s cherubs came up to the master’s desk and asked, “ You’ve been a good deal in England, haven’t you, Mr. Odell?” “Well, yes, I think I might say I have.” “I guess you know a lot about their customs, don’t you?” “Yes, I probably do,” was the reply. Then the tiny youngster looked up and, his eyes twinkling, said, “Well, cheerio, Old Top, cheerio!” What could be done about that ?
Boys in these days have a genuine respect for rules, especially when the reason for them is explained. When a mother would plead for some exceptional privilege for her son, he would frequently come to me privately and say, “I knew perfectly well that I couldn’t, have my Christmas vacation extended, but Mom simply wouldn’t listen to me.” A youngster deprived of some of his precious weekends because of his poor scholastic record told me, “I got exactly what. I deserved, and Dad should never have come up here to kick about it to you.” Boys understand all the recognized conventions of the school much better than their parents do, and this is the chief reason why they don’t like to have them too much around on the campus. Their elders simply do not comprehend the principles by which the lives of their sons are governed.
In dealing with boys it is imperative that a headmaster should have two important qualities — a sense of relative values and a sense of humor. He should perceive the difference between a sin and an indiscretion, between a calculated defiance of law and order and a careless neglect of a rule. He should understand that laughter is a great solvent of confusion, often clearing completely an atmosphere fraught with tragedy.
As I have suggested, differentiations in temperament and ambition appear very early and are readily recognizable. Some boys are visibly nervous; others are lethargic. Some are conscientious; others are excruciatingly careless. I once escorted a bishop through a senior dormitory where two rooms were side by side on the second floor. One was neat and orderly, with every necktie smoothed out and each article in its proper place. The other was strewn with shirts and shoes and crowded with miscellaneous and unattractive junk. Both boys were members of the Student Council, and each was a reliable citizen. But they were entirely opposite in personal habits and modes of living, and probably neither has changed to this day.
Living in my house at one period we had a most extraordinary aggregation of undergraduate types. Ned was shy, methodical, reserved, and studious. Pete was a muscular and gregarious extrovert, interested chiefly in games and regarding classes as a sideshow to the main tent. Horace wanted to spend all his time in the biological laboratory nursing snakes. Oscar had a passion for stage carpentry and could be found at almost any hour designing and constructing scenery. Bill was a born trader who made a profit on every financial transaction. Hank was constantly writing editorials for the school paper although he loathed his English class on general principles. Each had his own private interests; yet they dwelt together in amity.
I do not mean to imply that these boys were static. Their special interests sometimes shifted almost overnight, and after a summer vacation they came back physically bigger and intellectually more mature.
People often ask me what I think of the “younger generation.” This is a difficult question to answer, for the boys of the 1950s are as varied as any group which preceded them, and no generalizations can be more than approximately accurate. Furthermore I have been in contact only with a rather carefully selected group, which included very few perverts or “hot-rods” or amateur holdup men. The teen-agers who set fire to school buildings, chop up grand pianos, and overturn tombstones do not often seek admission to a school like Andover.
The boys whom I know in this generation give the impression of competence and self-reliance. They are not communicative, even with their parents; consequently it is difficult, to find out what their real reactions are. But they have an amazing capacity for meeting crises without quailing — and they have already had plenty of them to face. These youngsters born in the 1930s know little from personal knowledge of an orderly world. No one could blame them very much for crying simultaneously and with anguish: —
That ever I was born to set it right!
This, however, they do not do. Although they do not relish the confusion in the midst of which they have been thrown, they make few complaints. They accept military service, even when it interrupts their cherished plans, as if it were as inevitable as birth or death. Because they wish to snatch what happiness they can before their universe dissolves, they plan to marry early. But they do not quit! It may be resignation which keeps them going, but it more closely resembles pride. Pity in any form is what they least desire.
Perhaps because of bitter family experience they care less about making money than their fathers and more about doing good. More and more they are choosing the missionary professions, such as teaching, medicine, the Christian ministry, and public service. They have a very real concept of what satisfactions are durable and what are transitory. They do plenty of thinking about, such perennial and intrusive problems as labor relations, racial discrimination, censorship, poverty, disease, crime, and education. In many cases they have, as adolescents, evolved for themselves a pattern for living. They are aware that they have to fight for the freedoms which they enjoy, but they are ready — not enthusiastic or glory-seeking, but prepared to face whatever comes.