FlashlightsMaybe I did a stupid thing in learning how to type during the summer before I went away to boarding school in the fall of 1947. I probably should have waited.
I was fourteen. My father had gotten me a book, Touch Typing in Ten Lessons, by Ruth Benary, to go with my Royal portable. I set up in my sunroom-bedroom with its eleven windows, and began to do the drills.
It wasn't hard; pretty soon I could do sentences without making too many mistakes. I completed about seven or eight lessons. I never got as far as touch-typing numbers, or punctuation, but I was satisfied. Maybe I could type thirty words a minute. When the time came to leave Long Island for New Jersey, I took my portable with me. I figured I would have a big edge in my classes.
When we arrived at the school, I began to think that I should have put the whole boarding school idea off for a year. I was going to live a year in the Lower School, and the Lower School, now that I took it in for the first time, was bad news.
It was a large two-story building, with a central part and two wings. In the center, on the ground floor, was a large common room, the dining room, and the kitchen. The second floor was where the Director, Mr. Nicholson, and his family lived, and the large study hall. On either side, in the wings, were the four houses where the students lived --- seventh-, eighth-, and ninth graders --- about thirty students in each house. These were named after school alumni who had served in World War I: Cromwell, Ross, Thomas and Davidson.
I was assigned to Davidson. My housemaster was Mr. Finsthwait, a new math teacher who was probably no more ready for Lower than I was.
Instead of my bright, spacious room with its eleven windows, I had, like everyone else --- a cubicle --- referred to as a cube. I was in Cube 19. A charitable way of referring to a cube was to call it an open room. It was a space, about eight feet wide and ten deep, open to the central hall, with thin plywood walls six or seven feet high.
There was room for a bed, a bureau and a cheap easy-chair you could buy in town. There was a closet. I didn't like it ... I didn't like it at all. Maybe I should have taken a closer look when we visited the school the previous spring, but it was too late now. Had I waited a year, I could have gone directly into one of the upper class houses where the students had individual rooms.
But I didn't have too much time to brood. Classes began, the sports programs began, we were busy. Mr. Finsthwait, a new math teacher/housemaster fresh out of the Army, coached our football team, and we couldn't seem to score a point for him. In the soccer season that followed, we couldn't seem to score a goal for him either; not even a penalty kick. I felt sorry for Mr. Finsthwait, who must have felt awful --- but I am getting ahead of myself.
The trouble with the cubes is that they gave --- with their partitions --- the illusion of privacy. An open, army-type barracks, with foot- and wall- lockers would have been more straightforward, and I might not have gotten into the trouble I did.
From Day One I suppose I stood out a little. I was certainly the only second former (ninth grader) who had read Anthony Adverse, the Pulitzer Prize novel of 1933. I read a lot; I wore glasses; I had a German surname; I had dark hair; maybe a lot of people thought I was Jewish.
But I wasn't Jewish. I wasn't anything. I had read a couple of science books and declined confirmation into the Lutheran church, and there wasn't anything Pastor Heil could do about it. But there wasn't anything I could do about people's perceptions either. And then of course there was my typing.
John Treadway lived in the cube directly opposite mine. My typing drove him out of his mind. Not that the noise bothered him; it was just the idea that anybody in Lower could do such a thing. He would dance around on tiptoe in the corridor with a manic expression on his face, and making little clawing movements with his fingers, saying something like, Little Eddie Ross can go tap-tap-tap on his machine.
Most of our studying was done in the large study hall on the second floor. We were there every weekday evening from 8 pm until 9:30. Early in the term I had a paper to do, and brought my portable Royal up to my desk and started typing. The sound of the keys was quite audible; heads turned. The teacher in charge, or Master (as they were called) came over to my desk.
I explained that I was typing a paper for English. He frowned. Can't you write it by hand? he asked. It was obvious that anti-intellectualism was rampant at this school.
Things came to a head on Mother's Day. This was not the traditional Mother's Day in the spring, but a Wednesday in October, when the mothers of the students were invited on campus to visit their sons, and watch the junior football team play --- the school's idea of entertainment for mothers.
My mother wasn't coming; I forget why. As for the fathers, their day would come on a Saturday in November, when the varsity football team would be playing the Hill School.
In the middle of the afternoon I was in my cube typing a letter. Since I had no desk, I was sitting on my bed with my Royal in front of me on the seat of a hard-backed chair. I was aware of people milling around in the house, in the corridor and the other cubes.
All of a sudden Lee Schumer began to bug me. He made the usual smart remarks about my typing, and may have jostled my shoulder a bit while I was trying to ignore him and get my letter done. Finally I got exasperated. I shouted, Get the hell out of here, you son-of-a-bitch!
I was aware of a silence in the house; no more chatter of voices, no moving around. For a moment everyone froze.
Then a slim, elegant lady in a gray suit walked by my cube, glanced at me, and smiled. Maybe she was Lee's mother, maybe she was someone else's mother. I was too keyed up (as it were) to say anything. Despite her smile, I knew I was in trouble.
I left Lower and walked around the campus. The junior game was over. The mothers were going home. It began to get dark. Dinner was at six.
I didn't feel like going back to Lower. I considered walking home, back on Long island. All I had to do was go out the main gate, and start walking toward Princeton, five miles away. After Princeton came New Brunswick, and after that I could probably get a ride into the city. Or if I couldn't, I could just keep walking. It was only about 65 miles to Little Neck, Long Island. But I eventually went back to Lower. If I did quit school, would my parents get a tuition refund? And how would I like Bayside High School?
At dinner I felt tension in the air. Students looked up from their dinners of artery stew to cast long glances at me, who on Mother's day, of all times, had insulted Motherhood, or at least someone's mother, or maybe more than one mother. My voice, I had to admit, had been quite loud. Later that evening, after study hall, the crisis broke.
The students of Davidson, assembled into a mob, crowded around my cube. Lee was at their head. We were going to have it out in hand-to-hand combat. Lee and I headed outside to the green space by the tennis courts, the pack at our backs, all wearing bathrobes and carrying flashlights.
Lee was actually in the first form --- the eighth grade --- a year behind me. I was even a little taller. But Lee had the reputation of an athlete: he wrestled, and in fact in later years went on to wrestle with the varsity team.
I was no athlete; but I had been playing house football --- though I wasn't very good at it --- and in the month or so since my arrival had gained weight --- gone from a hundred pounds to a hundred and ten. The endless pitchers of milk served in Lower probably had something to do with it. Lee must have weighed about the same. Nevertheless I got the impression the crowd had me pegged as a definite underdog.
The students formed a circle and brandished their flashlights. Most of them began shouting encouragement to Lee, upholder of the house honor, or something. The first phase, a fistfight of sorts, ended quickly. I hit him with a couple of rights to the head, and that was that. I really didn't know what I was doing.
But then came the wrestling match, and wrestling was Lee's specialty. Once again, I didn't know what I was doing, but somehow I managed to get on top of him, and stay there. After a few minutes the match was over.
Everyone trooped back into the house and got ready for bed. The student vice-president of Davidson was disgusted. He had been expecting a good fight, and it hadn't happened. Everyone else seemed to have forgotten about the thing.
But maybe on some level they hadn't. I never had any trouble after the fight with Lee, even though I continued to have strange habits. I carried my books in a briefcase, for example. No one else did that. You cradled your book in your arms, or maybe if there weren't too many of them, in one hand with your arm crooked up to head level. This was considered elegant.
I had a couple of other fistfights, but they were spur-of-the moment things, between friends, no witnesses.
The year in Lower wore on and came to the end. Lee and I became friends. Once when I went home for weekend, I returned to find my bed short-sheeted and my bureau drawers turned upside down. I wondered how they did that.
The following year I went on to the Kennedy House where I had my own room. Lower School, which the administration admitted in later years had been a cash cow, was demolished in 1990.