My Devon: Memoir of A Nerd
“I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there,”* a half century before. The ancient buildings were still there, but, for example, the marble steps, so well worn in 1946 when I first saw them, have been replaced with new, square stones, a concession perhaps to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
The sight of ancient buildings recalled the tears of anxiety I pushed back when saying good-bye to my parents at the Devon Inn as they left me to return to Texas. And also the exhilarating realization that, at fifteen, my cord was cut and I was free at last from maternal patronage and protection. For thirty-six weeks out of the next fifty-two, I would be immune to parental oversight, connected to Texas and family governance only by the United States Mail. Free at last!, my heart sang, when it was not afraid.
New connections formed quickly. I do not recall whether we were assigned a seat in the dining hall or found one at the first meal, but I ate three times a day for thirty-six weeks with the same six guys, and we soon formed the bonds and petty rivalries familiar to siblings. It seemed that all of us recognized a need for those relationships, and I believe that no one was excluded from them. Certainly no one ever ate alone. Often the connections amongst us were manifested in clever, acid, insults, but beneath the surface odium and rivalry was a celebration of our interdependence as well as our, to us, marvelous independence.
The truth be known, most of us were nerds, and at Devon we could at last form a herd of nerds, as much comforting to us as we had been discomforted by our exclusion from herds we had previously known. We concealed our lack of social grace with a turtle shell of verbal aggression. I learned to accept a piercing insult as a sign of respect, and to give as good as I got with similarly unarticulated affection.
It helped our relationships that we had a common enemy. She was the dietitian who so frequently served us ample portions of New England Boiled Dinner. Those with money could occasionally supplement the diet with a frappe, but there was no such thing as a pizza delivery, and few of us relished boiled beets.
About the second week, I found myself working the hall of the dormitory in search of new connections. My fellow inhabitants were from everywhere in the United States, or so it seemed. I soon knew Catholics and Jews, and even a Greek Orthodox person from Iowa. I had once before known a Jew, but never a Catholic, and the Greek was as exotic as if he had come from Mars. There was only one black student in the school and I never met him. But, for those I met, if you listened, they all seemed to have something to say; and their message was familiar, only in a different accent and diction. What a pleasure it was to discover our samenesses.
This is not to deny that some of us had problems. In February, when the days were still short and the snow piled along the duckboards was waist-high and sprinkled with soot, Rod, a senior who sat at my table, began to talk of suicide. We ridiculed him. By what right, we asked, could someone who had gained early admission to Princeton claim to be depressed? We offered to show him some real cause for depression. You don’t want beets tonight, Rod? Well, why not take an overdose? Finally, Henry said to Rod, “either go up now and do it or stop talking about it, ‘cause I am tired of hearing about it.” Rod shut up. Rod and I exchanged Christmas cards for forty years, until he died last year in Florida. It never occurred to us to get a teacher involved in our therapeutic discussion with him, and there was then no such job as a school counselor; we for some reason assumed that it was our responsibility to deal with his problem on our own.
By the third week, most of us, including all the new students, had some reason to experience self-destructive impulses, for we were under severe academic stress. The classes were not at first threatening. But it soon became evident that the faculty thought that we thought that we were very smart, and that it was their business to make us smart enough to know that we were not that smart. They gave us difficult things to do, and had no hesitation in listing those respects in which our performances were less than perfect. No hesitation at all.
The first round of graded exercises spread alarm and dismay among the new students. I had won a creative writing prize at my former school. Yet my first effort at Devon, an essay about John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, was awarded a score of 28 out of a 100. Mr. Crain spilled more red ink on it than I had used blue; his comments were a savage attack on my grammar, diction, literary taste and judgment, and pretentious style. It was as if I at fifteen had encountered the editor of The New Yorker. I took my marked paper back to my dorm room in tears. But not less devastating was the E minus I received on the first Spanish test from Mr. Rice.
What made it possible to endure these humiliations was the presence of other guys who were receiving the same treatment. One of my dining companions was memorably excoriated in red ink for writing about The Tale of Two Cities when Dickens had written about A Tale. Gradually, more or less together, we overcame the disappointment of learning that we were not God’s gift to learning. We even strove strenuously to improve, to salvage at least a few crumbs of dignity. And, in time, we shared the satisfaction of survival. We had been severely judged and found, in the end, not entirely wanting.
One place we were less severely judged was the playing fields. We were required to burn off excess testosterone at least four times a week in some form of athletic competition. Team sports seemed to be preferred. I played intramural soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, all games seldom if ever played in Texas in 1945. I excelled at none of them, even if excellence be judged only by comparison to other nerds. However, others were equally incompetent and when we lost, as often we did, we lost together. There was a high level of interest in interscholastic competition, and plainly some guys were there more because of their athletic competence than because of their intellectual attainments. They were valued no less on that account, but we were not overshadowed by their achievements, as we might have been in other environments. The teachers were accessible in class, or on the playing fields where most did some coaching. But I do not recall ever hearing of a Devon student getting academic help outside of class.
Many of the teachers lived in apartments in the dormitories and ate at the dining halls. But they had their own table, and they were seldom if ever seen in the corridors of the dorms. One day in November, someone decided to see if we could get the attention of Mr. Kern, who lived at the end of the top floor hall and who always used an insde fire escape for egress and ingress, so that he was never seen in the corridors. Forty-eight boys lined up in the hall, and each slammed his door as violently as possible, one every fifteen seconds for twelve minutes. Mr. Kern, although we knew he was in, and could not have avoided hearing the rolling thunder of our demonstration, took no notice. Yet, when we returned from class the next morning, all forty-eight doors had been removed and stored in the basement until Christmas recess.
Yes, indeed, our cords were cut and we were on our own in almost every respect. It would be extravagant to say that they made us adults as the entablature on the main building promised, but they made a noble effort.
I later had several experiences for which the severities of Devon life had prepared me. Law school, like Devon, expected its students to manage their own lives as if they were adults ready to take on other peoples’ problems as well as their own. Teachers were there to challenge, not to comfort. Harvard Law School was relatively a piece of cake.
But in important respects, basic infantry training was for me closer to the Devon experience. The U. S. Army seemed to know what Devon knew, that the beginning of useful confidence is a fall survived. First, the Army wanted to be sure that each Private was fully informed of his own individual incompetence and cowardice. The Army’s analogue to socializing insults was the black WAC Corporal Mullins who got in my face the first night that I was in the Army. Her scorn at my military incompetence moved her to words worthy of a Devonian, if perhaps earthier than one was likely to hear in a butt room: “Your daddy must have pissed in your mamma’s cunt,” she said, “to make you.” I almost felt at home; so much so that I giggled, with the result that I stayed up all night painting a mess hall under her direction. However, I did not giggle at the scorn of a Sergeant who was disgusted by my inability to scale an eight-foot wall while carrying my rifle and pack; on that exercise I fully earned my E minus. I took his point, and I did in the last week of infantry training make it over that wall. We Privates suffered countless failures and humiliations, but together survived and bonded against our tormentors in much the way that we Devonians had bonded. Soon enough, in the face of all that scorn, we shared mutual respect and a desperation never again to be rated as worthless wimps.
There weren’t many disciplinary rules at Devon. You could go anywhere you could walk, except to the one theater in town. Social life centered on the butt room, where I spent a couple of hours a day, and acquired the habit of smoking cigarettes, an affliction I bore for eight years. There were no Devonians in 1946 who did not know that “coffin nails” were bad for your health. Many fifteen-year olds will daunt mortality one way or another. Indeed, I had known a half dozen boys in Texas who had met their end in four different automobiles by doubling the speed limit. Cigarettes were sort of an alternative to driving fast. They were also an assertion of adulthood, and a medication for the anguish of solitude or the stress of having nothing to say when speech was called for. Indeed, for some, cigarettes were sort of a substitute for professional counseling. Rod did not smoke; and partly on that account he had friends less warm and fewer in number. I wonder if post-modern reformers have considered the possibility of a relation between teenage smoking and the teenage suicide rate.
Bridge was the game of choice in the buttroom, and all Devonians were competent players. Music was also heard. Steve played Brahms’ First every Sunday morning after chapel in the room next to mine. Such music was not heard in my home in Texas, and I came to share his taste. He has been dead for twenty years, but I think of him several times a week when I listen to 19th century music.
There were a lot of Southerners around. I went to the Southern Club meetings often enough to recognize that I was not quite one of them. The difference was Jim Crow. To be a real Southerner in 1946, you had to defend Jim Crow, something I was not equipped to do. I joined two debate clubs, and looked forward to their meetings with much anticipation. There was a Massachusetts Irishman who regularly beat my brains out in debate. We still get together at least once a year.
I remember very little of my politics before 1946. I faintly recall an argument of sorts in 1944 with an uncle who favored the re-election of President Roosevelt, but I do not recall favoring Governor Dewey, and I remember thinking of John Bricker, his running mate, as a pompous snob. Maybe all that debating intensified my political interests, for in 1948, I became keenly interested in the candidacy of Harold Stassen of Minnesota, who, to my disappointment, was soundly trounced in his radio debates with Dewey, debates that had for more content than any political debates we might hear at century’s end.
While we talked some about politics, and occasionally about matters fit for higher brows, we talked most frequently about sex. It was, however, for many of us a happy condition that we were not called upon to do anything about it while we were at school. One advantage of the single-sex school was that we were free, almost entirely free as I recall, of sexual rivalry. As John Knowles so elegantly observed, there was ample rivalry, but in this one vital respect, there was almost none. Especially for those of us who were doomed to fare poorly in such competition, it was a very large blessing that we did not compete daily for female admiration.
Some years ago, not long after Devon became coeducational, I was told by a Devon maiden that coeducation at Devon was no cause for stress, because the boys were just like brothers to her. I did not dispute her account of the school’s asexual ambience, but I could not help noticing the elegance of her well-groomed hair, the delicacy of her mouth, and the softness of the breasts I could glimpse beneath her neckline, nor could I help thinking that more than one of her “brothers,” indeed nearly all of them, must have been alive to sexual possibilities when in her presence, and even when not. And, oh, the wounds she inflicted however inadvertently on other adolescent “brothers” when she singled out one by word or gesture! This was a maiden possessed of very great power over males, a power much greater than she knew or cared to exercise. She could have broken my heart every day that I was sixteen. On this account, there are many of us for whom the absence of prolonged contact with members of the opposite sex during adolescence is a glorious relief from a great burden.
This is not to say that Devonians were deprived of all contact, for there were many weeks when we were not in Devon, and sometimes Devon played a role in our associations with girls. Not that I achieved any notable victories in the game of sexual conquest by being a Devonian! Jack took me to his home in Darien, where I attended a party at which my educational status seemed to rate highly. I met Janet, who seemed attracted to me. I invited her up for a dance. Alas, when she arrived, I realized that I did not wish to spend a whole day with her. I am ashamed to say that I did not conceal this feeling, and when I returned her to the Inn after the dance, I left her in tears.
Mike later took me to Germantown in Philadelphia, where I attended a dinner dance. I sat between two pretty girls, Myra and Joyce. Joyce was dressed to kill in a black strapless gown featuring engineering such as I had not previously observed. She seemed more interested in her other companion, so I concentrated on Myra. During the post-dinner dance, I sensed that Myra might like to be kissed, and it seemed like a good idea to me. We went outside and found a reasonably private place. But to my horror Joyce and her companion preceded us, her astonishing gown peeled like a banana skin. Although I would not have minded peeling Myra, I was not sufficiently optimistic to imagine that she was ready for that, so I timidly led her back to the dance floor.
Roger invited me up to Oklahoma City and his girl friend fixed me up with Norma. Four of us went swimming in the afternoon in what was likely an old quarry. We waded in to a depth of about four feet. “So you go to Devon,” Norma said, “Tell me about it.” She did not wait for a response to this command, but disappeared into the opaque water. In seconds, both her hands were inside my bathing suit. She got the physical response she sought, but perhaps not the emotional one. I was more breathless than she when she came up for air. Devonians are not ready for me, she concluded, quite correctly in my case. After swimming, she withdrew from the party. Roger took me on his date and supplied me a pint of bootleg (Oklahoma was dry) to consume in the backseat while he was petting in the front. The next morning, I had to tell Roger’s mother that I seemed to have a summer flu.
And there were the train rides. In September and January each year, there would be a train leaving Highland Park station in Dallas on a Friday that would be loaded with adolescents and young adults headed north to school. As the reader will imagine, this was a celestial event for nerds. However, nearly all the females were dauntingly older than I. The Wellesley girls would play bridge with me, but of course nothing much came from that.
In September of 1947, I was delighted to find that some of the prettiest and brightest girls I knew in Dallas were headed north to school. They could scarcely avoid my presence when we were in the same Pullman car, and besides, most of the other guys on the train were nerds, too. So I got to play bridge sixteen or more hours a day with charming maidens.
Four of the girls in my car were together, headed to a girls’ school in Westchester for a final year of high school. Two of them I knew. One, Martha Ann, had been the prettiest little girl in my elementary school class for five years, and perhaps the smartest. Because she lived on my street, I had been privileged to walk home with her many times. When we took ballroom dancing classes in 1943, all the boys would throw elbows in the scramble to dance with her. She and I sometimes went to the same parties, and I may have taken her to a movie or two, but by the time we were twelve, she seemed to be fifteen. And when I encountered her on that train, she seemed to me more mature than the Wellesley women. Nevertheless, as we rolled into Grand Central Station, I courageously asked against hope if she might want to see Devon. She kindly said that she would not mind doing so, and thus it was arranged that she and some of her schoolmates would come to the fall dance.
And they did. Dick and Bruce were happy to have dates for the event with the other Texas maidens, and I was overjoyed to be her host. It was for me a little like being host to young Elizabeth Taylor. Not only was Martha Ann’s company a pleasure, but she was very kind in her at it, possibly attract as my matriarch a female as beautiful, clever, and kind as Martha Ann. And perhaps best of all, her effect on my classmates was stunning. I was suddenly living the ultimate dream of every nerd: I was the object of widespread sexual envy. I did nothing to create, but also nothing to dispel, the impression that I was more than Martha Ann’s elementary school classmate, false though I knew that impression to be. respectful treatment of me. For the first time ever, I felt some optimism that I might, if I worked
Martha Ann and her friends must have had a reasonably good time, or else the winter in Westchester was dreary, for they agreed to return for the spring dance. The reader can imagine my anticipation. But it was not to be.
In March of 1948, there was a power failure in the town of Devon. Many students left their dorms. Acts of minor vandalism ensued, such as the uprooting of some parking meters near the bandstand in the town center. I observed the excitement, but did not participate. In rage at this institutional disgrace, the faculty canceled the spring dance, thereby terminating my cherished status as an envied stud.
This was a decree I could not accept peaceably. With Bill, who was in a rebellious mood for other reasons, I went to the convenience store where we acquired a six-pack of three percent beer, with which we returned to the dorm. I drank one bottle, and was then overcome by remorse. On my way to wash my cup of the offending odor, I encountered Mr. Sharp, who quickly sensed my shame and detected my sin. I begged piteously for mercy for at least a minute or two, but then accepted my doom. Someone (was it Devon?) had taught me that I was alone responsible for my deed. I would have to pay my debt to society.
And I did. The next day, I made rounds to say good-bye to my teachers and friends, and to the dean. I was later much flattered to learn that classmates draped in black the classroom chairs in which I would have been sitting. I was too embarrassed to go straight home, so I hung out with Henry in his Yale dorm for a day before boarding a plane back to Texas.
Thus, I did not graduate with my classmates in June. I did enter college in the fall and my life went on much as it would have had I graduated, except that my mail as a Devon alumnus comes with an asterisk signifying my status as a non-graduate. There was one notable benefit from the experience of being expelled. In 1979, one of my children had an encounter with school discipline for a similar offense. I was able then truthfully to say, “Son, if you can achieve my age and say that the worst thing that ever happened to you is that you were expelled from boarding school, it will have been a very good life!”
* John Knowles, A Separate Peace 1 (McMillan, New York, 1959). Devon is the name given to the fictional school in southeastern New Hampshire that novelist Knowles and I both attended.