Letters from a Conservative Farmer: A Bizarre Episode
It could be said (and has been) that our life since 1962, when I left the teaching profession, has been one long bizarre episode, but what I’m writing about now is one of those strange affairs that I seemed to blunder into much too often and recall now with a mixture of wonder, amusement, and self-reproach, for as usual it was my own stupidity and recklessness that got us into these messes. What I’m about to describe is our brief employment as teachers in the fall of 1965 at a prep school in the Berkshires, an area where there were then more than twenty such schools. The Berkshires had been a summer resort from the late 19th century into the 1920s, and large estates, much too expensive to maintain in contemporary society, were snapped up by institutions at bargain prices. Some were reputable, some were on the level of Lee Academy (a throwback to Dotheboys Hall), and one or two were worse. Readers of Nicholas Nickleby will recall that one of Dickens’ targets in that novel was the infamous Yorkshire schools, really places of incarceration, where parents with some money could stash children who inconvenienced them. Run by the brutal Wackford Squeers and his harridan wife, the school’s teaching was bad, the food inadequate, and the routine tyrannous. Lee Academy was not quite so bad as Dotheboys Hall, but it had all the essentials.
Occupying perhaps ten acres at the edge of the town of Lee, it was clearly an estate that had not quite come off. The best feature was the approach through stone pillars, winding up a hill between an avenue of maples, to the main building, Mandalay Hall, a mock Tudor affair, timber and stucco, with small-paned casement windows. It was a sound, commodious place, the best thing there. There was nothing else except a one-storey stone building some distance away, now a dorm, with a scruffy field for athletics. Whether the original owners ran out of money or lost interest, the rest of the grounds were a mess: grown-over excavations and heaps and hummocks, the whole area conveying a sense of aimless degradation.
If you were a parent sounding out Lee Academy, Mandalay Hall would impress you, and you would have to be persistently curious to see that there was really nothing beyond it, but if a parent got as far as the Hall, he was not really curious, and only a few parents were sincerely interested in the education of their sons. Some were naive and unsophisticated and easily duped, but the majority were looking for a place that seemed, on not too close inspection, to be classy (it was a private school, wasn’t it?) where they could dump their offspring and forget about them.
I was hired in September just before school opened (which tells you there was something desperate about it — and about me, too) by the headmaster, Matt Merrit, a failed stock broker in his early 40s, a big bluff Irishman who, after teaching at a prep school for a year or two, had just landed this job. He was a blusterer, loudly self-confident. His second in command, Joe Degrace, was a grizzled veteran of many prep schools with a mordant sense of humor. Although I was obviously a suspect commodity, I looked good, amazingly good, in that milieu, with what must have seemed golden credentials: an AB from a well-known classy college, a Master’s degree, good notices from three colleges where I’d taught. And how I looked the part, with a tweed jacket (leather patches!), gray flannels, and WASPy good looks! In fact, we proved to be a godsend — for a while.
We were summoned to a reception at Merrit’s house to meet the other teachers and Mr. Feltman, the owner, for this was strictly a private business. Merrit lived in a decaying country mansion some miles from Lee, where he and his wife, a rather ravaged beauty, tried to put up a good front. At one point I had to go upstairs to the bathroom, and there was almost no furniture, no rugs, and the walls were scabrous with damp. What they had was used for display downstairs. Matt’s sour mother lived with them, and from her imperious manner I suspected that she was the main source of funds. I felt the tension of uneasiness in the house. When Feltman entered, the manner of it put the seal on the evening. He was not only tall, over six feet, but he was big, and his petite wife was just over five feet. They had worked out a routine in which they came through the door with Mrs. Feltman carrying him on her back, a surefire gag good for laughs and applause.
Since Feltman was the Academy’s demiurge, he must be understood. Although it was said that he started the school so his son (a dunce) could graduate from it, it was a money-making business for him. He told me, in the early days when he was courting me, as it were, that with 300 students he could clear $100,000, but he couldn’t have been making very much then because there were only about 50 or 60 students. He had to have more bodies, and until my advent briefly suggested other means, he got them by press-gang methods. As a professional accountant, he was well acquainted with shady businesses, bankruptcy swindles, and dodgy characters, and he exploited to the hilt the opportunity they presented. When a prep school failed, Feltman was there to pick up the pieces, chiefly the students, who would arrive at Lee in a bewildered bunch. A frequent ploy was to rescue young criminals (whose parents had enough money) from jail sentences by appearing at court and presenting Lee as a reforming alternative. The maintenance man, a bankrupt he had some hold over, was a spy for him on the campus.
All of those things could be described as the sharp practices of an unscrupulous businessman, but what really animated him was the need to humiliate people, to make those subject to his will cringe and crawl. He was not happy unless he could make his creatures unhappy, unless he could set them at each others’ throats. A small example: our dorm, a house on a street that backed onto the campus, housed most of the seniors, us, and Fred Dotolo, a young teacher. We had a sort of friendly fraternity there. I organized a Shakespeare club that met once a week to read the plays aloud. Feltman, through his spies, was well aware of this, and one day when he heard a boy called Dotolo “Fred” (boys were always supposed to say ‘Mr.’), he ordered Merrit to move Dotolo out at once. For Feltman, the situation was ideal: we were all losers (except Jo Ann, who couldn’t be a loser anywhere) from Merrit on down, or we wouldn’t be there, and Lee was so obviously the end of the line — lose your job here, and where could you go? Into the Army, that’s where. Half the teachers were eligible for the draft. He could do as he wished with us, because he thought no one dared quit. I think he was the deepest dyed villain I’ve ever known.
Jo Ann, who had never done any teaching, was hired to teach remedial reading, something she knew absolutely nothing about, but she resolutely began studying. She was very discouraged. The books were dreadful, full of pompous jargon, empty of meaning. But one of her finest qualities is good sense, undaunted by superficial complexity, so when she chanced on a book about phonics that was clear, concise, and reasonable, she adopted that method and it worked well. Some of her students were 18 or 19, and their reading and writing skills were rudimentary. It was a formidable challenge, but as with any challenge in her life with me (there have been plenty), she rose to it. And the knowledge she was gaining would be a great factor in our future.
Although the boys were certainly a mixed lot, we got along well, partly because they could see we were working very hard to teach them (a rare experience), and partly because we were banded together against Feltman. For instance, on Parents Day a sumptuous meal was served to the guests, and a large centerpiece of fruit, with a pineapple on top, was laid out in an adjoining room. Boys from our dorm stole most of it and we had a feast (including the pineapple) together.
On fine Saturday afternoons we would take boys, along with our young children, on hikes in a nearby state forest, and there’s a sad story in connection with that. A few days after school began, a new boy with his father turned up. The boy was tall and shy and soft spoken, the father dapper and glib. He would be back, oh yes, he would visit, not right away, he was busy now, but he would be back, the boy could count on that. He couldn’t get away fast enough, and the boy was very sad. At the Saturday noon meal when I announced a hike, that boy always told me how sorry he was he couldn’t go, he loved hiking, but his father might come . . . the boy never hiked with us and his father never appeared.
The only teachers we socialized with were Fred Dotolo and Bob Watt, a young man I hired to teach English. Also Ed Logan — at first; I’ll tell you about him in a moment. Of the others I cannot honestly say that they would have seemed reputable under normal circumstances, but certainly the pressurized atmosphere Feltman maintained distorted their behavior, giving it an hysterical quality. We never knew what was going to happen next — a shout, a slap, running feet — as we taught our classes in Mandalay Hall. Rosiello, for instance, was a very excitable young man lacking intelligence and self-control, always having trouble with his students — shouting matches, threats of violence, general pandemonium — and he quarreled with other teachers. The Gold Dust Twins, two smiley young men who lived in the main dorm, taught something and also managed the meager athletic activities, were Feltman spies, always hovering ingratiatingly about, hoping to pick up seditious remarks. Nygaard, a grim, reserved math teacher in his 40s with a spectacularly unattractive wife, taught in the room next to mine, and since these were once bedrooms, there were closets. I kept the book supply in mine, and evidently Nygaard kept his cough medicine in his, because after he told the class that he had to take some, I would hear gurgling sounds on the other side of the wall. In fact he was hitting the sauce, and by the end of the morning his eyes would be glassy and his footwork edgy. One day he staged a drunken rage about something in front of Mandalay Hall, and was dragged away by DeGrace, who passed it off as a fit of indigestion.
Ed Logan, without doubt the prize of the collection, can be viewed in many lights, and I’ll simply tell the tale without judgment. He was in his 40s, and I liked him because he had a dry sense of humor and he was worldly, as the others certainly weren’t. I think he was drawn to me because I would listen to him with some sympathy, realizing right away that he was fragile — when he told me that an “international gang” was after him. He had taught before (Latin and modern languages), and with the small income from a trust fund sometimes he traveled in cheap places, like Portugal. Until the gang got after him, of course. He was broke, waiting for the first paycheck, so he could buy some shirts. Meanwhile, he managed by pinning shirt cuffs inside his jacket sleeves, while his snap-on tie was worn on a sort of dickey, a facsimile of a shirt front. He showed me the shirts he bought because he wasn’t sure of them — what did I think? Fine, Ed, fine. But he exchanged them. What did I think of these? Fine, Ed, fine. Back they went. And so on for several days — God knows what they thought in the store — until he finally settled on the first ones.
His womanizing was on small scale, at first. One afternoon Jo Ann and I were walking with him along Lee’s main street when he suddenly vanished. We looked everywhere, but we didn’t see him until suppertime. A woman had passed us in the street and Logan had turned and pursued her on the instant. As time went on, however, his compulsions became monstrous. One Saturday afternoon when we were out hiking, Logan went up and down the street ringing doorbells, propositioning every woman who came to the door. Someone called the cops, but he managed to elude them. Merritt and DeGrace were terrified of what he would do on Parents Day.
In the early days before he took my measure, Feltman sent me to Boston to a presentation, a sales pitch for an English program that was very stupid, not worth the huge price the outfit would charge to implement it, and so I reported to Feltman, but it made me think, and led to some interesting consequences. I don’t remember how often Feltman came up from New Jersey where his home and business were, but it was too often for the rest of us. Of course, his spies reported regularly. In October he initiated a series of meetings (I think there were three or four) at which teachers would discuss together the grades of students and their problems, ostensibly to help the students, but it was really a way for Feltman to put more pressure on us. The English grades were most important because it was the one subject every boy took, and our reports were the backbone of the meetings. Now one of Feltman’s methods of putting on pressure (and saving money) was to cut down on the food, and the situation in October was so bad that we were eating catsup on bread — until the cook rationed both. So the next time one of these meetings came up, Jo Ann and I and Watt went on strike, spending the afternoon in the Lenox library. Without our reports, the meeting folded. The food supply increased.
Some of the pressure, of course, was inherent in the work. I took teaching very seriously, and to help those poorly educated boys I had to work very hard with them, in and out of class, when I met with each boy to discuss his written work. I was so tired that sometimes I’d catch myself falling asleep in class. Restraint weakened and tempers flared. Merrit took to knocking boys around, Rosiello claimed a student tried to stab him, he and Logan were feuding. Logan was more and more paranoid, and his humor was extinguished. Every evening he would come to our apartment to tell me his troubles, how this or that one was after him, and I would patiently try to dispel his delusions. Fat chance. Here’s a characteristic story: one day he was called out of his classroom. A teacher often places his watch on the table to remind himself of the time, and as Logan turned to go to the door, he put his watch in the textbook and closed it. Coming back after a few minutes and not seeing his watch, he began an inquisition: Who stole it? After many bitter words had passed, he opened the book and saw the watch. What did he say? “All right you bastards — who put it here?”
By the time of Parents Day I had worked out a plan for special accelerated classes for boys going on to college — I would handle the English and Nygaard the math — which I presented in a speech after the banquet. There were some naive parents there who actually believed in the Academy, and they were enthusiastic, even though it would be an extra charge. Now Feltman would be able to attract students for academic reasons, instead of scouring courtrooms.
Another one of these stupid meetings came up, and this time it was apparent that Feltman meant to get rid of Logan, because as soon as he read one of his reports, Feltman and Merrit attacked it, until Logan was nearly in tears. He was ordered to rewrite them. Afterwards, I helped him do them over again. Of course it didn’t matter what he wrote; they were going to scourge him. Poor Ed! In his final paranoid turn, he decided that my help had betrayed him, and he left Lee thinking I was a member of the “gang,” too.
We didn’t last much longer. Our youngest, Curdie, was suffering bouts of tonsillitis, so we were keeping her in bed and bringing food to her — until the cook told Jo Ann that Feltman had forbidden it. No matter what value we may have been to the school, we were not subservient, and Feltman couldn’t abide that. We left the next day.
A month later we started the Vermont Tutoring School, the program based on what we, especially Jo Ann, had learned at Lee. Although we never made much money, we earned enough to buy a farm in Nova Scotia, where we moved in 1971. So we owe something to our bizarre episode after all.
One final note: the saddest of the boys banished to the Academy was Milner, one of those awkward angular boys with two left feet and a quaky voice and an innocent heart who’s always stumbling into trouble and being disciplined. I can still hear Merrit yelling at Milner to “pick ’em up and put ’em down!” as the poor boy ran punishment laps around the track. He had been there since the school started and was never allowed to go home. A year or two after we left I’m happy to report that he burned down a new building on the campus. *