To Comprehend The Nectar
I did not expect Robert Martin to die. I fled The Witherspoon School soon thereafter. That's not the gamble I thought I took when it began.
Dr. Geoffrey Smitherman sat straight in a chair embossed "W & N". I sank in leather. The cotton of my new suit brushed a panel of the empire secretary which separated us. I had to tilt my head slightly to look him in the eye. We did not yet have air-conditioning. Early August. Not even a breeze.
"Mr. Smith, can you also teach Senior Bible?" he asked.
"Well, sir, I suppose I could, but I would prefer to teach only literature. I have finished my thesis on Shakes..."
"We will give you plenty of that, but we need someone to take the Bible class. Mr. Foxworthy retired in May. I see that you double- minored in religion and New Testament Greek at Evangel University. Foxworthy lacked rapport. He talked about missionaries and heathens. Quite candidly, our boys take the course mainly to impress the colleges. Bible on their transcript distinguishes us as a 'private' school. It also alerts admissions people that our graduates understand allusions."
"I could do it. It won't be a crip course though. I'll teach it as literature, not as Sunday School fare."
"Fine, Lee. I think you'll get along nicely here, especially since you attended The O'Gorman School."
"But O'Gorman is Witherspoon's biggest rival."
"You know a fine Southern boarding school first-hand. New faculty who went to public school often don't understand us. Our reverence. Not the fanatic kind, but you know what I mean. I believe Dr. O'Gorman wrote me that you won the Bonner Award 'For Unselfish Service' at O'Gorman. Did you not?"
"Good, can you attend faculty orientation the last week of August?"
"You mean I get the job?!"
"The boys won't arrive until Tuesday after Labor Day, except for the football team."
My new trousers peeled from the chair as I tried to rise.
"Thank you, sir. I am much obliged."
"But you haven't asked what salary we will give you," he smiled.
"Oh." I blushed. "That's not important. I'm sure you will treat me justly. It's the teaching that interests me, not the money."
"Excellent attitude!" he said. "Welcome to the Witherspoon family."
Later I learned how much Dr. Geoffrey Smitherman valued the word family. Because I had not pushed, he began me at the rate he gave to those without a master's.
But I had not exactly leveled with Dr. Smitherman either. I doubted that he would hire me if he knew that I no longer believed in God, or knew that at least I thought I didn't. Four years at Evangel, the world's largest bigotry institution, unconvinced me. I dropped my intention to preach and took up literature as a better venue for "a living sacrifice."
O'Gorman, had delivered me from a bad public school into a community of others who enjoyed homework. But teaching as a graduate student at a large state university taught me that too few others value their brains. I had found such people at O'Gorman; I might find others at Witherspoon.
I tease fiercely, and teach best by what I call "creative intimidation." Boys liked my classes. Since I began school early, at age 5, I was only four years older than some of them. Many got close, especially the brighter ones.
But my best student, Robert Martin, rarely said a word, except in class, where he shined. At O'Gorman, I had groveled too often.
Robert's football teammates teased him about his early lead in my class, and would importune me to tell how soon I would post the grades for the latest Bible test. Robert himself never asked. Was it arrogance? Robert seemed to presume that he would best his closest rival, Edgar Bell; and on every test he did, by at least three points.
Robert was prefect to second-formers in the Field House, but he came to see his classmates on Senior Hall often and could have dropped by with them to my apartment, had he chosen to. His friend Philip Smethurst, heir to a textile fortune, visited often enough, and even brought others, especially when I bought one of the first stereo sets. Sometimes second-formers, not even in my classes, came with him. But Robert never once did. Even at the refectory, he seemed not to notice. He didn't avoid me, just didn't notice and passed right by the faculty tables without a nod.
The perpetual shadow of his black beard made Robert seem older than the others, but not sensual. Even now, over twenty-five years later, and on much maturer terms with myself, I cannot imagine myself in darkness peeking out blinds to look at him, as night after night I waited to see either of his classmates, the two prefects in the next building, shirtless, scratch balls.
Robert triggered fantasies less sensual. They had something to do with power, not his modest skills as a tackle, but his ability to stay with a commitment until he won.
At O'Gorman, I had escaped playing sports by becoming the athletic trainer. At games I was a glorified water boy, but after hours, with tongue depressors I swabbed many a hero's jock itch with slabs of what looked like peanut butter and smelled like axle grease. I aimed deep heat at others' sore buns; ground analgesics into others' shoulders.
Four years of bowl fanaticism at "Bigotry U." made me an apostate to sports religion. I worried that The Witherspoon School might revive that. Since new teachers often have to coach j-v teams, I made a point during orientation to visit the varsity workouts, hoping to influence my luck.
It paid off. At a break in football practice, I asked a coach, "What inning is it?" I got to advise the staff of the student newspaper.
But Rubbings no longer threatened me. By then I had learned to live with my secrets, to channel most energy into books and music as easily as tackles thrust it into another's gut. Besides, The Sound and the Fury and enough other works I admired had committed me to suicide before I would ever act on the passions that surged in the dark as I peeked out the blinds.
Instead, I feared the way that sports sucked me into their definition of courage as essentially physical, an endurance of pain and risk according to clear rules. That's why I never liked Hemingway. But so pervasive is the point of view, I knew I could easily fall back into thinking that only good athletes can win courage, like a team trophy at the annual steak banquet. In that world, waterboys like me live, if at all, off-sides, out-of-bounds.
I preferred to read "A Certain Slant of Light" and blast Mahler's Ninth down Senior Hall.
Robert Martin appeared to respect my terms. He never volunteered to give a talk at chapel, though faculty often recommended such speakers for the Ivy League. He never joined the glee club to sip sherry in the director's bachelor apartment and sit in the bachelor's chair monogrammed "V." Robert kept to himself his athleticism and any other religion he might have had; studied rigorously; and never made less than a 96 on any of my tests. He worked less hard for other teachers.
The more I learned about The Witherspoon School, the more I admired Robert Martin. Witherspoon's trustees had given Geoffrey Smitherman his "Dr." easily, since they also served as trustees of a nearby Baptist women's college. Dr. Smitherman's "publications" turned out to be several editions of a workbook on sentence-diagramming, taught in no other school and only in our own Form One. At his autumn tea, I examined a dozen of the impressive leather classics in Dr. Smitherman's living room and found not one with the pages cut.
Claiborne was easier to like, if not respect. Dr. Smitherman held the title "President," but Mr. Claiborne, as "Headmaster" actually ran The Witherspoon School. Claiborne did not even try to mask his pretensions.
"What did you buy that buggy for, Smith? Do you drive it with a rubber band?" he teased me publicly when he first spotted my new Falcon, parked so all could see it, by the new Demster Dumpster.
I had gone $2,100 into hock to buy it -- $2,800 after interest -- and I earned only $3,600 for the 9 months, plus my room and board.
"Seriously, Lee," he added when he invited me to join him and Mrs. Claiborne at their table in the refectory, "you will never know that you have arrived until you sit behind the wheel of a big car, smoking a cigar, knowing that it belongs to you."
I added Babbitt to the reading list for Senior Bible. Students could earn up to 10 extra points for their annual grade (at half a point per book) for each work that they tested well on, in an oral examination.
"God makes 100. I make 99. The highest you can make, 98," I explained.
Robert put all 10 of his points into storage by the end of the first semester, though he never needed them.
Amazingly, no boy ever let out that I had put Dr. King's Strides Toward Freedom on the list; some even read it, and those who did not, still seemed pleased to have a teacher that had heard of the outside world.
On Saturdays when anyone went to town, he had to pass a Hospitality Tent which the KKK had set up in a mill village. Management had closed the mill and moved the work to Hong Kong and Taiwan when local labor organized. News about sit-ins in the Carolinas gave the white unemployed something different to get worked up about.
Dr. Smitherman addressed the new unrest the same way that he had addressed the "Race Problem" every year for over thirty years. He talked at chapel about "Old Joe," the barber to boys when a young "Mr." Smitherman first came to The Witherspoon School.
"Joe is one of the finest human beings I ever met." Dr. Smitherman modulated a slight tremolo. "Mayors and governors would do well to imitate his honesty and his good humor. He loves Witherspoon boys. He helps us turn them into Witherspoon men. You should respect good Negroes. Don't stir up a fuss like unfortunate rednecks. If you treat the Negro kindly, the Negro will serve you well.
"Of course Old Joe would be the first to say that God does not intend for the races to mix socially. Right, Joe?"
Venerable Joe Thompson, now in his eighties, hauled out of retirement for this paid annual production, smiled generously and said, "Yes, sir. You are a good man, Dr. Smitherman!" He would smile to the audience and say, "Dr. Smitherman is a good man, boys, a good, good man."
"Boys," Dr. Smitherman would close, "Joe confirms what you learn when you study 'Mending Wall,' the great poem by Robert Frost: 'Good fences make good neighbors.' "
"He can't go behind his father's saying? What's 'behind' it?" I would ask my fifth-formers in the next period, given Dr. Smitherman's own prompt to teach the poem.
As far as I know, they never reported to Dr. Smitherman how I used Frost's own words to mince his interpretation. Claiborne probably would have enjoyed it if he could have understood it. I felt that he didn't like Dr. Smitherman and impatiently waited for Dr. Smitherman to retire so that he could replace him in the President's Mansion. Perhaps I misjudged him.
I learned later that few boys or faculty approached Claiborne for anything, except to listen. Isolated in my books and music, I did not notice their reticence and had to learn the collective wisdom on my own.
I had no discipline problems in class. Students respected my work ethic. If a boy ever did sass, I would squelch him with invincible sarcasm: "John, you are very perceptive and therefore will understand how important it is that you meet me here for two hours after class to analyze your perception."
But in the dark, after lights-out, I could not defend myself with words. As the newest faculty member of three on Senior Hall, I had a hard time when the boys tested me.
They usually started off playful enough. Birdcalls. Frog croaks. But I too soon took bait and shouted, "Who made that noise!?" or guessed wildly, "Poindexter, the next time you do that you'll sit in study hall for a week!"
This licensed the circus as clearly as if I had walked to the center ring. By three o'clock in the morning I might have nabbed three culprits, but the hall would remain littered with water bombs and other trash. Everyone, highly entertained, would wait for my next turn on duty.
Next I decided to ignore them, not to take even the first bait. Let the menagerie built to whatever crescendo their ears could bear, I would wait fortressed in my room. They gave up after about an hour, but resented me. My ploy might have worked if I used it when they first played, but now I was a spoil-sport. They turned mean, to jew- baiting.
Rabinowitz played right into their trap. The moment someone made the wailing sounds used in the movie version of "The Diary of Anne Frank," Rabinowitz would run out of his room and bang on my door. They loved it better than water bombs.
I would stand in the dark hall for hours, but no one ever made the noises from a range close enough for me to catch him.
During Thanksgiving, I searched for evidence. With a master key, I crept through all 45 rooms on the hall. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly and Miller's Tropics had only recently broken the censors' backs, but the porn these rich boys sported would not be marketed publicly for another decade.
I stared for a long time, especially when I discovered in the drawer of a weightlifter the pictures of men having sex with men. If I had known such pictures existed outside my mind, I might have predicted Poindexter would have a stash. He often jerked off at the late bed-check; sometimes he waved! Yet he hoarded only dirty letters from his girl friend, no pictures at all.
Partly on instinct, partly because a box of my books had pushed the back out of my own laundry bin, I decided to check the backs of bins in several boys' rooms. I hit the jackpot on my first try. It opened to a casino.
Yes, as in mine, the back of the laundry bin opened into a low, narrow place under the roof, large enough to squeeze maybe two people. But behind the boys' bin, unlike mine, the narrow space opened into a much larger one that ran the full length of the shower room midway down the hall. In this secret space boys had placed a rug, several cases of whiskey, three slot machines, and enough other paraphernalia to keep up to fifteen gambling at any one time.
Even though I routinely eavesdropped, I had not expected anything like this. Once I had overheard a prefect on the hall say that the governor's son, a Form Two boy who lived in the Field House, had lost $1,000 in one card game, but I presumed that the prefect exaggerated, or referred to something that had happened during the previous summer.
Knowing that this evidence could blow the top off Witherspoon's reputation as one of the finest prep schools in the South, I went cautiously to Claiborne's Office. Closed for the holiday. I spotted his Ninety-Eight parked in front of the gym and trekked through the rain to his apartment at the back. Mrs. Claiborne, sensing my urgency, asked about my family, pointed to some fruitcake, and quickly left me alone with her husband.
Claiborne did not interrupt once during the whole time I told him what I had discovered. I omitted the parts about water bombs and jew- baiting, even the part about my plot to check the boys' rooms. I fibbed a bit; I said that a stranger had telephoned to tell me to look under the eaves.
Claiborne didn't question me. He didn't take notes. He just listened. For half an hour he listened.
After I had stopped, Claiborne said, "Now, Lee, have you told anyone else?"
"You've done a good job. Now let me take care of it completely. Do you understand?"
He already stood at the door.
"Well, yes, sir," I lied.
He never mentioned it again.
I've told this story out loud at least a dozen times over the past quarter of a century, usually to close friends, but sometimes even to my classes. Since I don't know you, I'm pleased and a little surprised you've gotten this far. I never thought that in print I would risk sounding like Edith Bunker when she loses her main point to give you ten interesting minor ones instead.
But I never have come to terms myself with the main point. I know the minor ones add up to something big. Maybe you can tell.
I can easily conclude the part about the jew-baiting. By the time the boys returned from Thanksgiving, for the two weeks of term examinations, they had too much work even to think of late-night play. Then after Christmas, that seemed like another dispensation.
Until April. Mistakenly I left my copy of Emily Dickinson in my apartment. Only honor students could study in their rooms during the day, and no one expected a teacher about. Philip Smethurst ambled past the showers, his back to me, and as he passed Rabinowitz's room, he let out the moan from "The Diary of Anne Frank." As much to my surprise as his, I pounced on Smethurst before he ever saw me, lifted him off the floor by his jacket, and held him against the wall, my fist pressed into his stomach.
I don't remember any words. I just raged. I saw him only once after that, when he gave the Valedictory.
I learned by the grapevine that after the summer break began, The Witherspoon School notified the parents of several of underclassmen that their sons could not return. Claiborne placed in The O'Gorman School the one senior who flunked, and the governor's son.
Viewed from a quarter of a century, Claiborne's seems a much cleverer way to handle the gambling than to panic as I had done with the water bombs, even though I still do not respect him.
When Claiborne succeeded Dr. Smitherman, he too metamorphosed into "Dr." and built a garage beside the President's Mansion for his new Lincoln. I heard he inherited even the leather, uncut books.
I understand that it took a few more complete turnovers to rid the place of all hints of scandal when marijuana hit in the early seventies; but The Witherspoon School survives, its good reputation intact. It has initiated even a few black students into reverence, not just football.
"Old Joe" Thompson and Dr. Geoffrey Smitherman eventually died, confirming my theologian friend's emendation, "So long as there's death, there's hope."
When I fled, I taught first at an Episcopal school outside the South. From there to London to teach poorer boys, in the slums. From there to my Ph.D. and teaching adults in college.
Each year at its Commencement, The Witherspoon School bestows several coveted awards, including the Bible Prize, given in perpetuity by the family of an early alumnus who died of a cold his first month as a missionary to Nigeria, to "that boy who in the view of the Senior Bible Teacher best demonstrates a rigorous understanding of Holy Scripture." I surprised no one when I posted the grades for the final examination outside the classroom: everyone had guessed that Robert Martin would win it.
Then Claiborne called me to the President's tiny office for my second and final visit. Dr. Smitherman sat high in the "W & N" chair. Claiborne leaned against the wall, stoking a cigar. I sank in leather.
"Mr. Smith, you have taught well for your first year," Dr. Smitherman said.
"Thank you. Next year I expect to revise..."
"We hope that you will cooperate with us so that you can teach here next year," Dr. Smitherman said.
"It's about the Bible Prize, Lee," Claiborne blurted, ever impatient with Dr. Smitherman's delicacy.
"That's easy," I said. "Everyone knows that Robert Martin has won it. He has led all year, and I posted his final grade, a 99, which normally I reserve...."
"Not easy," Dr. Smitherman said, softly.
"We cannot tell you any details. You must trust us. But Robert Martin has done something we prefer not to mention, ever. He cannot win the Bible Prize or any other."
"But he already has. I have posted the grades...."
"Lee," Mr. Claiborne said as paternally as when he advised me what kind of automobile to aspire to, "no one has ever said that the Bible Prize has to go to the boy with the highest score. You may freely consider other factors, like character. I believe that Edgar Bell scored second highest. He plans to preach. Robert Martin will study business at Shackville State."
"Mr. Smith, you have taught a good course. We hope that you will cooperate." Dr. Smitherman urged, not looking me in the eye.
Every other time that I have told this story, I have used it as a model for endurance not orchestrated, for risk without clear rules.
I have explained to all earlier audiences, as I told you at the beginning, that I left The Witherspoon School soon thereafter. Everyone charitably assumes that I walked away from Witherspoon with this courage of a different kind.
But I didn't. Actually I stayed on for two more short years. Edgar Bell won the prize and went to Evangel. Robert Martin never got to Shackville. He drowned in a sailing accident two months later.
I remember driving my black Falcon to the muddy lot behind the Field House. Boys and their families sloshed everywhere. I saw him several cars away, loading his gear.
My face said: "They pressured me; they made me; I'm sorry."
Robert seemed to see. I can't be sure. He waved from the gate of his family's station wagon, shrugged his shoulders, and winked.
Louie Crew (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the Academic Foundations Department of Rutgers University. He is the author of Lutibelle's Pew (Dragon Disks, 1990), Sunspots (Lotus Press, 1976), Midnight Lessons (Samisdat, 1987) and more than 865 other publications. His work appears in several recent anthologies, including Gay Nineties: Contemporary Gay Fiction (Crossing Press, 1991) and New Men, New Minds: Free Parking (The Spirit That Moves Us, 1990). (Bio last updated in 1992.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Louie Crew.