Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Pledge



My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder. --William Golding
            More than anything, I wanted to believe. I sat in church at the beginning of every school day and tried and tried. I would look around me. Everyone appeared to be filled with the spirit. In song. In prayer. I would squeeze my eyes closed and try to tear open my heart so that the spirit would pour in. To let the Lord uplift me into his embrace.
            Nothing. I felt nothing. I felt more alone than I ever felt in my life. Sitting in a pew among a chapel full of my peers. I was not of them.
            It was around these years I discovered Vonnegut, the ultimate pessimist. I remember reading that humankind had only four basic needs: food, sex, shelter, and the need to belong. As I stared around the filled chapel, I imagined that everyone got it. Everyone had the need to belong. Except me. I was empty. I was deficient.
            Since I couldn’t engage, I went to my coping strategy. Transgression.
            On the way from consuming the Eucharist, I would stagger as if I were drunk on Jesus’s blood. That would elicit two swats with the paddle from the dean.
            Perhaps the music teacher pitied me because she selected me to be her page-turner at the organ during the service. I got bored there too. I would press random petals while she played. I’d drop the music. My privilege was soon revoked, and I was relegated back to the pews and the masses of the soma-ized flock.
            Perhaps it was this lack of engagement that caused my inability to reflect on the past and project the future consequences of my actions. I lived in the moment. If it felt good. If it seemed cool. If it held the potential of surprise. Then, I was all in.
            The litany of stupidity that I engaged in seems endless as I reflect back. All of it, however, seemed like a quest to excavate that missing need. I wanted to belong. When I failed at Grace St. Lukes Episcopal Day School and was asked not to return at the end of the year, I enrolled at The McCallie School in Chattanooga, a supposedly elite boarding school. Ted Turner and Howard Baker, Reagan’s Chief of Staff, graduated from The McCallie School. When I arrived, McCallie had lost direction. The 60s and 70s had played a heavy social toll on the school. The year before it had stopped being a military academy. Now, it was just boarding school that had memories of greatness. The buildings had that Southern classical feel, but having been built in the 20s and 30s, they were crumbling around us.
            McCallie branded itself as something different, but it wasn't any different than Grace St. Lukes.
While writing my last post I stumbled upon The McCallie School’s “The Pledge.” At both schools that I attended in Tennessee, I was required to write The Pledge at the bottom of all my work and tests. On my honor, this work is my own. I have neither given nor received any unauthorized help.
The Pledge, like a similar one at Grace St. Lukes, was at the core of The McCallie School’s “Honor Code:”
Honor. Truth. Duty.
The Honor Code is McCallie School’s most treasured tradition.

The Code is predicated on the assumption that students are honorable men and have the right to be trusted. When enrolling in the Upper School, each student must sign the Book of Honor, accepting his personal responsibility for this Honor Code:
  • He will tell the truth and will not mislead others. A McCallie man does not lie.
  • He will ensure that the work he submits is his own and that he will neither give nor receive unauthorized assistance in his academic work. A McCallie man does not cheat.
  • He will respect the property of others and will ensure that it remains safe for their use. A McCallie man does not steal.
  • He will do all in his power to support the community of trust embodied in this Honor Code. A McCallie man does not condone dishonesty or the disregard of the Honor Code by other members of the McCallie community.
The Honor Code governs all McCallie students at all times and in all places.

It was like stepping into The Great Santini, but without the military uniforms. We had to wear jackets and ties every day, no matter the heat, and no buildings were air conditioned. When I arrived at McCallie, I was impressed with the Honor Code. Perhaps this would lead me along the path to that lost Need. (Yes, I really thought this way. I was both naive and cynical all at once.) I thought certainly it is wonderful to be part of a community who lives by such high standards.
By the end of my first weekend, however, I learned that the code was in word only, not deed. Nothing was attempted without some sort of violation of the code. I remember being taken out drinking and pot smoking within the first two days. I was introduced to the dorm pot and pill dealers. I was shown which liquor store sold to McCallie students. When a friend had a handgun he wanted to get rid of, he gave it to me and I sold it to someone at school.
Standing in line at the cafeteria, I watched one boy after another take his dessert and spit on it before setting it on his tray. If you didn't spit on it, one of the older boys, usually football players, would take it.
I learned that our dorm proctor, the French teacher, was having an affair with a senior. I was supposed to ignore his comings and goings from the proctor’s apartment. I was curious. I wondered if he might like me as well. I wanted friendship and was willing to do what was necessary to have a friend. I just wasn’t ever given the rule book on friends.
Instead, when the faculty proctor gave me a demerit for not making my bed properly, I retaliated by propping a garbage can filled with water against his door so when he opened it, his apartment flooded. This kind of malicious activity was the norm. In the first week a group of boarders, including myself, lured a day student into the dorm and gave him a swirly before stealing his money. The one rule was that you never ratted anybody out. If you were on the receiving end of anything, you took it. I was on the receiving and delivering end often. I had no moral compass.
I could hear my Uncle Ben roar, "Boy, you have no inner resources."
It was true.
You had to be careful when you took a shower because the toilets were connected to the shower spigots. If someone didn’t like you, they simply flushed all the toilets while you were showering. Suddenly, the cold water vanished and you were scalded.
            Once when I was showering, I was scalded for something like the third time in a row. I ran out of the showers nude and attacked the first person I saw. He beat the crap out of me. I don’t even think he did it. The flushed toilet could have been from another floor all together. Since it was a Sunday, however, we had evening vespers. I had to explain to my mentor teacher that I had banged my face into a door. I doubt he believed me since I had two black eyes, but it didn’t matter. Lying was what I had learned to do. It was a sport. It was essential that I didn't rat.
            We went to church six days a week, but twice on Sunday so seven times in all. Each school day we began with chapel. Occasionally, in the evenings we would have a speaker. Typically, it was a failed Division I college athlete who had been lost, but now was found. He’d testify for thirty minutes or so, lingering particularly on his transgressions and wind up with a GodIsGreatPraisetheLordIWasSavedByJesusHeChoseMeInParticularToComeHereAndDeliverThisMessage. We would time the drinking and drugging parts against the Found sections. Every time, the speakers lingered more on their Lost phase than their Found phase. We wondered how long they’d be able to hold it together before they were lost again. The Lost sounded so much more interesting that the Found.
            In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain satirizes the religious upright. Huck narrates, “Now she had a got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a hard and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I want him and me to be together” (13). I was with Huck, every time.
            The hypocrisy of The Honor Code was the underpinning assumption that we could ever be honorable. So much of how the world functioned at both Grace St. Lukes and McCallie had nothing to do with honor, but control and coercion.
            I was required to attend the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to play sports. On Sundays, we had the pleasure of being able to pick any church in town to attend. The school was so strict on church attendance that the one Jewish boarder was required to attend Sunday church and had to pay for his own taxi to attend Friday synagogue. (That ended after a few months because his parents kept complaining.) When I started attending church, I decided to go to a different church every Sunday. When I tried to go to a black church one Sunday, I was called into the assistant dean (whom we called the dean of discipline) and told that I had to pick one church and stick with it. And it couldn't be a black church.
           We had only one black student on campus, and he was a two sport star. I can’t help but think of the graduation ceremony in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. School Superintendent Edward Dunleavy celebrates the black athletes at Marguerite’s segregated school and not its scholars, somehow implying that blacks could only aspire to greatness on the playing fields. That seemed to be the criteria by which the first African American student was admitted to McCallie. I never spoke to him. He was a senior and I was a sophomore. Our paths just didn't cross in the highly segmented world of McCallie.
            In my last post I recounted the story of going to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes after being suspended and being treated like the Prodigal Son. The flip side of being caught drinking was that the basketball coach kicked me off the team. The up side was that I no longer had to go to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings.
            In the six months I was at the school, I had two roommates. The first, Dave, ate cookies out of the tin my mother sent me without asking. I beat him senseless, and that night he was moved. My second roommate, Mike, was a skinny kid with a mop of curly hair like his hero Frank Zappa. We wiled away the study hours in our room every night playing military games. We’d refight the Battle of Waterloo or the entirety of World War II. By February, his grades grades had tanked. The teacher proctor said I was a bad influence and moved him out. My grades remained relatively mediocre no matter how much or how little I studied. I just couldn’t get the hang of this school thing. By the time they moved Mike out, the dorm had become progressively vacant as kids were thrown out for various infractions. That meant both my old roommate and I got private rooms. Mike put up a nerf net and played Mothers of Invention nonstop in his. Me, I can’t especially remember. It was only a couple of weeks before I was gone.
            I know that I became good friends with a senior who was gay. He and I were fans of Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer and early jazz vocalists. We’d sit on his bed and we’d listen to records while we drank beer that was secluded in a cooler under his bed.
            I was only suspended twice before I expelled. I couldn’t tell how many things I did that I wasn’t caught for, but I’d estimate that for every weekend I was there, I committed at least one infraction that I could have been suspended or expelled for. I wasn’t alone. Except for the fundamentalist Christians, every kid at McCallie was smoking, drinking, fighting, gambling, cheating and whatever else fancied their imagination.  We were put in these dorms and told to make a society. Then, they left us with minimal supervision. I wonder how different the boys of Lord of the Flies would have fared.
At least, no one died. But there were broken bones.
I broke my leg playing basketball and went to the nurse. She taped it up and told me it was a sprain. I never had it x-rayed or looked at by a doctor. I played in a soccer game later that week. It hurt. The pain was excrutiating, but if I didn't, my coach would have called me a "Pussy" or some other name derogatory appellation referring to female anatomy. Only in my thirties did I discover I had broken the bone when I had my leg x-rayed for another sprain. The doctor told me my ankle was sprained and then asked me about when I had broken the leg. I told him it had never been broken. Then, I remembered the sprain at McCallie. 
When I was kicked in the head during another game and knocked out, I had to compress my shirt against the gash in my forehead. The blood flowed down my face and dripped off my chin. Because it was dinner time, I was by my coach to find an adult in the cafeteria to take me to the hospital. I was dizzy and could barely stand up. I had 20 stitches above my eyebrow. 
I was on my own. What I learned was that there was no Pledge or Honor Code to urge us to our better selves. There was no Pledge or Honor Code to encourage us to help those who are downtrodden and suffering.These values weren't deemed valuable of The Pledge or The Honor Code.

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