I walked for a long time, every step of the way ruing the school’s directive that all students leave their cell phones at home; they weren’t allowed on campus.
I’d understood the headmaster to say it was a short walk from each house to the school, but I guess that was through the woods behind each house. I walked back up the sidewalk to the road, then down it the way I’d come in to where it separated, and I took the other leg of the V toward the school.
The walk did me good. I began to settle down. The longer I walked, the calmer I became. I knew just what I was going to do, and it wouldn’t involve facing any boys. And there was nothing or no one to intimidate me now. I also knew the objections to my attendance at this school which previously had been ignored could no longer be.
I came to the school grounds and saw again how majestic they looked. For some reason, looking at the school now, it looked much more grand, more beautiful than it had during my previous visit. While the student body had been there for two weeks of introduction to the school and the community, school itself had yet to begin. The term wasn’t to start for another three days, but just as there had been boys at the Culver House, there were boys now on the lawns, usually in twos and threes, either just talking or sitting or playing with some sort of ball, kicking one or throwing one. They all looked relaxed and happy. Content. They all seemed to fit in. Even the occasional boy who was alone, reading a book, looked comfortable.
I had a long way to go to get to the headmaster’s house. I thought all the way there. I wasn’t mad as much as I was resolved.
I had to walk to his house which was all the way across the campus. I could stick to the driveway I was on, or I could cut across the lawn. The lawn route was quite a bit shorter, but it meant passing by many of the boys who were there.
The resolve I felt made me more sure of myself, however. I walked across the lawn. Most of the boys stopped what they were doing to look at me. Their faces were neutral, for the most part. A few of them smiled. One or two, when our eyes happened to meet, even waved. When one of the boys playing catch had the ball glance off his mitt and it rolled in my direction, I stopped it, picked it up, and then, rather than throwing it back and showing everyone what the phrase ‘throwing like a girl’ looked like in real life, I walked over and handed it to the boy who’d missed it. He looked at me a little strangely, probably because I had eschewed tossing it, but took it, smiled and said thanks.
Eventually, I reached the headmaster’s house. I didn’t hesitate. I rang the bell.
A woman answered the door. She was well-dressed and looked to be about the headmaster’s age, so I assumed she was his wife.
“Hello,” I said. I tried to smile, but there wasn’t much to smile about, and my face wasn’t up to the challenge. I imagined my eyes might still be red. No matter. On my best day I wasn’t handsome, and this was far from my best day. My physical appearance was never my calling card. “May I see Dr. Rettington, please?”
“Oh, my,” she said, and frowned. No, I wasn’t getting into her house on my charm or boyish good looks, assuming I had any. “You really need an appointment for that. Usually, the way it’s done is, you speak to your housemaster.” She smiled, but didn’t move aside or invite me in and, in fact, began to close the door.
As previously mentioned, adults didn’t intimidate me. I wasn’t about to back down here; giving up didn’t appeal. I’d already done that once today. “I don’t have a housemaster,” I said. “I don’t have a house, really. I was supposed to, but it didn’t eventuate. I need to talk to the headmaster. He has some explaining to do.”
She took a half-step back, opened her eyes a bit wider, then looked a little indignant. “I beg your pardon! What’s your name, anyway? Who are you?”
“Luke Pallfry. My mother and I met with Dr. Rettington about a month ago.”
“Pallfry? Is your mother Mrs. Thomas Palmer-Pallfry?”
“Yes, she is, but I’m the one who needs to talk to Dr. Rettington, not my mother. I’ve come on my own behalf. Could you please tell him I’m here?” I didn’t bother to try a smile this time.
A variety of expressions crossed her face, but then she said, a bit cautiously, “You’d better come in,” and she stepped aside.
I entered the house. I’d been in it before. Mrs. Rettington hesitated, then said, “Perhaps it’s best if I just take you to my husband’s study. He can talk to you there.”
I accompanied her to the study. The door was open, and I could see the headmaster at his desk. His wife cleared her throat and he looked up.
“A boy to see you, Eldon. Luke Pallfry. Mrs. Palmer-Pallfry’s son.”
Dr. Rettington rose, smiling, and said to me, “Ah, Luke. Come in. I guess you just arrived? Did you stop by your house yet? You really didn’t need to drop in on me, but it’s fine you did. You just wanted to say hello, I take it?”
He motioned me to sit on the couch, and he sat down in an armchair next to it. His wife silently withdrew.
The room was an archetypical academic’s office. Bookshelves lined two walls and were filled with prestigious-appearing tomes. There was a fireplace and the furniture was set in a conversational arrangement. A large desk took up one end of the room, situated so that when the chair was in use, its occupant could look out a large window and view the school’s grounds.
Before he had a chance to start some trivial small talk, I spoke up. “Dr. Rettington, I’ve come to use your phone. I’m going to call my mother and have her come get me. I’ve just had the worst experience of my life, and I will not be staying here.”
He pulled his head back, almost as if he’d been slapped. “Bad experience?” he said.
“No,” I parried. “Not bad. Worst. The worst experience of my life. I’ve had bad ones before, but not like this. I wasn’t looking forward to matriculating here but never anticipated what I have just been through. I expected a civilized school. Civilized boys. This is obviously not that; I’ll be leaving.”
He frowned. “I’m not sure how to respond to that. Can you tell me what happened?”
“I’d be happy to, but let me call my mother first. The less time I’m here, the better. She should be on her way while we’re talking. The phone?”
He hesitated. “But maybe this is all a mistake of some kind. You wouldn’t want her being bothered if it’s just that. Let’s talk about this first.”
“Sir, you won’t placate me with apologies and assurances. What just happened, happened, and I won’t be staying. I’d like to use your phone.”
Looking a bit upset, he retreated into becoming rather formal. At his direction, I went to his desk, picked up the phone and dialed. I spoke to my mother and told her I needed her and asked if she’d please come and get me as quickly as possible. No, I wouldn't like to talk about it on the phone but would tell her about it when she arrived. The sooner the better.
I think my tone of voice convinced her. My voice was raw from the sobbing, and she could hear it as well as I could. She said she’d be at the school as soon as she could. That meant in two hours, the time it would take for Hodges to drive here.
The headmaster was eager to hear my story. I decided there was no rush, I’d have to tell it to my mother anyway, so I might as well wait. I did. Dr. Rettington wasn’t happy about that, but he was in a pickle. I was the son of a board member. He answered to the board.
So he had his wife feed me instead, once it became clear I wasn’t budging. I wasn’t sure I could eat after my earlier histrionics, but I had calmed down, now that I was in control, and found that I was starved once I began eating. She offered me some homemade chicken salad, and I’m afraid I made a pig of myself. However, I also made an ally as she told me anyone who loved her chicken salad was OK in her book.
In slightly under two hours, my mother showed up. She usually insisted Hodges drive sedately. It felt good that she’d rushed to my rescue.
It wasn’t fun, relating what I’d been through. But I did it. I told them everything, even the part about my breakdown. It wasn’t pleasant. I told them how I’d felt throughout, and doing so made me relive it. I spoke of the teddy bear, what it had meant to me, and the picture. I couldn’t speak of them without tears falling. I let them fall as I explained why these things were so special to me. For the rest, I trembled as I spoke of what had made me tremble as it had occurred, and didn’t even mind when my mother, on the couch next to me, put her arm around my shoulders.
I was watching Dr. Rettington as I related what had happened. He looked concerned and occasionally horrified; he didn’t seem to be taking it lightly. He did not, however, in my opinion, look nearly upset enough.
When I finished, we all sat quietly for several moments. Mrs. Rettington had brought me some iced tea with lots of sugar in it, and I drank about half of it at one go now that I was past the telling. I put the glass down, and Dr. Rettington cleared his throat.
“I’m very sorry you went through that, Luke. Anything I say will probably sound like an excuse or that I’m trying to protect the school. So before anything else, I really want you to know that this never should have happened, and I feel terrible your first encounter with some of the boys here went as it did.”
I interrupted. “My first and last. I won’t be staying.”
He grimaced and nodded. “I’m sure you feel that way. But let me talk awhile, Luke.” He looked at me till I met his eyes. I nodded.
He settled back in his chair, which suggested to me he was planning to speak for some time.
“This was a huge mix-up. I’m to blame for much of it, and for that I apologize. But I’m not solely at fault.”
He wiggled a bit in his chair, and I could see he was uncomfortable. He probably didn’t do much apologizing to the students in his charge. He did not appear to like it much.
“I guess I need to tell you a little about my personal philosophy,” he began. “That might be the best place to start. See, we get all sorts of boys here. Smart and slow. Big and little. Shy and overconfident. Athletic and impotent. Eager and apathetic. Boisterous and idle. All kinds. Even rich and impoverished; our foundation supports the funding of deserving students who couldn’t afford us on their own.
“We need to accommodate all these kids. These students. And what is our objective? What do we want for these young men?” He stopped and looked at me, and I decided the question wasn’t rhetorical. He wanted me to answer.
Well, if he wanted to get into a discourse with me, if he somehow thought I could be assuaged by a few words offered back and forth with him, I would be delighted to have the opportunity to dispel those thoughts. Engaging with him in an argument on educational philosophy concerning boys would be easy, and I had a point to make. I liked arguing, and, after all, I’d seen an example of the effects of his philosophical machinations at work first hand.
“I would think you would want to turn out educated young men,” I said, “well-prepared to go forth into whatever universities they should choose and flourish there. Private prep schools such as this one aren’t established to teach trades. They exist to prepare their students to go on to institutions of higher learning. That should be your purpose and goal.” Ha!, I thought. Let him find something awry with that!
He smiled at me. “That’s one element, of course. A limited one, but true. We do want our students to thrive academically. But academics don’t make for the whole man, do they? Most of our boys do go to universities, but not a high percentage become academicians. Preparing them to succeed in their studies is important to us, but just one of many things we care about. What about health? Social growth? Religious underpinnings? Romantic enterprises? Responsibility? Social interactions? There is much more to being a successful adult than knowing what the Socratic method is, reading Greek or understanding the relationship between atoms and isotopes. You focused on the academic elements but seemed to neglect these other and very important aspects of a school’s responsibility when you suggested what it is we should be trying to accomplish.”
Hmmm. He’d said that well and been relaxed when saying it. I realized I needed to forget about being smug. I needed to remember I was thirteen and callow and that he was a seasoned pro at selling his institution to prospective parents and that we were arguing about his chosen field.
But I saw a wedge, a chink in his armor. And I decided to go on the offensive rather than the defensive. “Yes, sir, you’re correct. And may I ask in return: do you think you’re accomplishing those ends here? Developing all aspects of the whole man, not just the academic side? Because what I encountered today was boys who were anything but the type of person you were alluding to. Socially responsible? Hardly. You’re supporting a house full of bullies, boys with no human compassion, no limits on their cruelty and zealous in attacking those unable or unwilling to play their game. How in the world can you defend this in your desire for accommodation? How is this accommodating the kids like myself who don’t want to face savagery?”
I didn’t seem to have fazed him, although he did look a little embarrassed. “I again apologize,” he said, “but you hit the nail on the head when you called them boys. That’s what they are. And that’s what we’re dealing with. Working with. As I said, we get all sorts here. And I try to divide them into houses where their enthusiasms will be nurtured while their energies are refined.”
“Hah!” I said. “And you thought I’d fit into The Culver House? That group’s ethos is as far from mine as anything I can imagine.”
He smiled at me. “You’re absolutely right, Luke. The thing is, I still think you’d be perfect for the Culver House. I know you better now after talking to you, and you’d be right at home there. You’d—to use your word—flourish there.”
I was appalled! “But—” I started to say, and he interrupted.
“Luke, you didn’t go to The Culver House. That’s near the very end of the row of houses. From the names of the boys you mentioned, you went to the Kennilworth House. The cab driver obviously was new; he didn’t know the houses’ names. He just dropped you off at the first one he came to. He simply made a mistake.”
That stopped me for a moment. Now I understood what he’d meant when Dr. Rettington had said there’d been a huge mix-up. Of course, remembering my interaction with the cabbie, perhaps he stopped at the wrong house on purpose. Perhaps he was making sure he got paid before taking me all the way, and when he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d simply left me where we were. Or perhaps it was more innocent than that. I could distinctly remember saying, ‘It’s the Culver House,’ just as we were coming up on the first house. The cabbie could easily have thought I was naming the house we were arriving at as the house where I was going.
It didn’t explain why Dr. Rettington felt responsible for it, however, even if it hadn’t been the cabbie’s fault. But before I could ask, he answered that tacit question.
“In the information packet you were sent, there’s a map of the school grounds that shows the houses. But the houses aren’t labeled on the map. None of the buildings are. It takes the boys no time at all to learn their way around, and so it never seemed necessary. The taxi company in town has drivers who all know the houses by name. You just happened to get one who was new and didn’t, and so you ended up at the wrong house. That’s never happened before. And I really do feel terrible that it did.”
“But why is there such a place on your campus? Why do you allow boys like that to be here? And why are they permitted to get away with such barbarism?”
He almost smiled! Then he saw I’d noticed and looked sheepish. “I’m sorry, Luke. It wasn’t what you said or the passion with which you said it. It was your choice of words. I’ve never met a boy your age that speaks like you do, and I’ve met a huge sampling of boys. You’ll do very well in this school and be good for the other boys in turn.”
I sat up straighter. “I will not be attending this school!”
“I’ll be disappointed if you won’t. I only have a little more to say, and then you’ll have to decide for yourself. Let me first say, the boys at Kennilworth House won’t get away with what they did. There will be repercussions. It is even possible—probable, I’d say—that some will be dismissed. We’ll have to see how the discussions with them go. As to why they’re here, that is because they need this school as much as you do. They have the same need you do.”
He must have seen the look on my face, both confused and skeptical. He refrained from laughing, which was good as I was about fed up with this discussion. “Luke, let me ask you a very personal question. It might be difficult for you to answer honestly, and if you can’t, I understand, but afterward, when you’re riding home, or in bed, perhaps you could then answer it, because it’s important to you that you do answer it honestly and hear that answer very clearly. Here’s the question: how did you feel about yourself when you were standing on that sidewalk in front of the Kennilworth House?”
“You know how I felt,” I said with some anger rising in my voice. “I explained that in detail. I was scared of those boys. I was terrified, really. I was sure they were going to hurt me. And then I was horrified when they ruined my things, things that meant so much to me. It about destroyed me, and the sorrow became too much for me. That’s how I felt. I told you that.”
He nodded. “Yes, you did. But that isn’t what I’m asking. You’ve told me how you felt about what they did. I asked how you felt about yourself?”
“It’s the same thing!”
“Luke! It isn’t, and you know it isn’t. Think about this. This is the first time since we started that you’re not facing the truth. You told me what happened, and it was difficult for you to talk about it, but you did it. I want you to use that same strength of character you showed me then and answer this question: how did you feel about yourself?”
He was right. I did know what he wanted me to answer. And it was hard. Very hard to do. It wasn’t nearly that hard to say what the boys had made me feel. But he wanted to know what I felt about myself.
Still, he thought I had some strength of character. And maybe I did. No one had noticed before, but he had. I liked that. I hadn’t shown it much on that sidewalk, but here he was calling on me to show it, and so, I was going to.
“All right. You must know anyway. And I’ll admit it. I didn’t feel very good about myself. I didn’t like how I behaved, truthfully. It was more than that. It’s difficult to say, but…I didn’t like myself. At all.”
For the first time, his eyes showed true empathy. “Thank you, Luke. What you’ve touched on is what I think is so important here. It’s a special thing I want to help boys with—that is, those who attend this school and need it. It’s something many boys lack. You, and the boys in Kennilworth House, share in this. What I’m talking about is self-respect. If you’d had a suitable measure of self-respect this morning, those boys wouldn’t have reacted to your presence the way they did. If those boys had any self-respect, they’d never have treated you the way they did.”
He paused to let that sink in. After a few moments, he continued, speaking softly. “Self-respect is one of the most important characteristics we can possess. The adult world is just as difficult as the teenage world. But both periods of our lives are significantly better if we respect ourselves. And so, at this school, we work hard to help our boys gain that trait. It’s why our houses are set up like they are. It’s why we have competitions between them—carefully controlled and monitored competitions. Would having a football game of athletically gifted and physically dominant boys against small and nonathletic bookworms be an avenue for self-respect for either side? No. So we don’t do that. We’re more clever in the contests we set up between houses.
“Our whole school is set up to accomplish the goals we talked about earlier, and at the same time to build and nurture self-respect. Which is why I think this is the perfect school for you. I can tell you have outstanding abilities in some areas and could use help in others. You’re not unusual in that. Most boys are an amalgam of assets and deficits. The boys here could learn from you, and you could learn from them.
“Luke, your encounter with the Kennilworth House boys was terrible for you, but you’re smart enough to see it as a metaphor for what you’ll find throughout life. You’re smart enough to see that you would benefit from a school that could help you find a way to avoid or deal with such encounters in the future. So, I put it to you. I would like you to stay with us. This is a place where your needs would be addressed and your abilities supported. But, enrollment here is entirely up to you.”
I was shocked. And confused. And uncertain. He was right, I did lack self-respect. And I didn’t like myself in several ways. I wasn’t happy about a lot of things about me. Could they change that here? If they could… But if I stayed here, I’d again bump into those cretins I’d seen this morning. Probably every day. How could I do that to myself, put myself in a position to deal with daily humiliation? Did I want to stay where humiliation was to be expected at any moment?
But he’d said those boys would be dealt with. Maybe some of them even dismissed. If that happened, how would it affect me? Would the ones who remained want revenge because I’d told on them? Or would they walk the other way when they saw me and not be a problem at all?
And then, there was the athletics. I’d heard what Dr. Rettington had said about competitions, but I’d been in gym classes at school. I knew what went on and what the adults could and couldn’t control. Did I really want that?
What it came down to was, I just didn’t know enough to make a smart decision. So, that being true, how could I decide?
Dr. Rettington was watching me. My mother squeezed my hand but didn’t say anything. Neither did I. I didn’t know what to say. Improving myself was a huge lure. Dealing with everything I’d have to deal with here was something I was pretty sure I wasn’t able to do now, wasn’t ready to do. Hadn’t I egregiously proved that already today?
After the silence had built a bit, Dr. Rettington spoke. “I have a suggestion. Luke, how would it be if I took you to Culver House and you met the boys and house parents there? Would you be up for that? Then you might be better able to decide what to do?”
This was something else to think about. And I did, but it didn’t take me very long. After all, this was just a delaying tactic, something to make it easier to decide something important, but it would give me time to do that. By accepting his suggestion, my final verdict lay ahead, rather than right now. That was attractive.
“OK,” I said. It was only afterward that I realized how my desire to be gone from this place forever as soon as possible had been forgotten. And how my respect for Dr. Rettington had risen.