Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saint Grottlesex Made Me Who I Am Today

Reggie is a firm believer in the benefits of a college preparatory boarding school education.  He feels most fortunate to have attended boarding school himself, and he believes that the experience of having done so made him the man he is today.  He believes that he is a better person for it, and better off than he would have been had he remained at home during his high school years.

But probably not for the reasons that a number of his readers might assume . . .

One of the buildings at Saint Paul's School
Founded 1856

Reggie grew up in a family where attending boarding school was the expected educational path to college.  Both of his parents had attended such schools, as had their parents before them, and it was understood that he and his siblings would follow in their footsteps.  It was what people of our class and background did.

A view of Saint Mark's School
Founded 1865

Reggie is the youngest of four children.  As a boy he watched with both interest and ambivalence as his older sisters and brother left home before him to attend boarding school.  He found it interesting because they were embarking on a journey that he was expected to someday follow, and he was ambivalent because he (mostly) missed their company when they were gone.  Reggie also found them to be near strangers when they returned home during school breaks, as they were different from how he remembered them.  They had become more worldly.

Over time Reggie looked forward to leaving home to attend boarding school, too.  It seemed like an adventure to him and the opening to a whole new world on the way to adulthood.

An aerial view of Saint George's School
Founded 1896

By the time Reggie reached ninth grade he was the only one of the children in his family left living at home during the school year.  While he had at times as a boy wished that he had been an only child—for the reasons that many children do—he found that when it actually came time for him to be the only one at home with his parents it wasn't the idyllic, cozy experience he had daydreamed about.

For by then ours was a less-than-happy household.  My parents' marriage had sputtered into a loveless stalemate, and when they were around at the same time, which wasn't all that often, they were barely on speaking terms with each other.  They were exhausted in their relationship and self-absorbed in their own lives, and they weren't all that interested anymore in the demands of parenting.  It's not that they were overtly neglectful of me, it's just that they didn't have much time or attention left over for me.  I was pretty much left on my own to fend for myself.

The gothic chapel at Groton School
Founded 1884

It was a solitary and lonely existence for young Reggie, with little structure or direction.  And it was a particularly frustrating one for him, too, because he is, by nature, a social animal, and he loves being around other people and in the thick of things.  Reggie is most definitely not a loner.  He likes being at the party.

When the subject of my applying to boarding schools came up I was stunned to hear my father, FD, say that he didn't think it was necessary for me, and wouldn't I prefer to stay at home?  The prospect of spending the next three years alone at home with my remote and distracted parents and attending the suburban country day school I was going to at the time was appalling to me!  So I mounted a concerted campaign to turn the tide.  I was determined to get the Hell out of Dodge and get on with my life, and I saw going away to boarding school as my ticket for doing so.

A view of a dormitory (or "house") at Middlesex School
Founded 1901

Through incessant cajoling, unbecoming near-tantrums, and never-ending churlish, surly behavior on my part I was able to convince my parents that it would be far better to get me out of the house and that everyone would be happier with me away at boarding school.  While I didn't get into Exeter, which was my first choice and where my brother, Frecky, had gone before me, and I was waitlisted at Hotchkiss, where FD had gone, I was admitted by a number of what my father rather snidely referred to at the time as "the lesser boarding schools," including one of the Saint Grottlesex schools.

I didn't get in to Exeter, much to my regret at the time

For those of my readers who may not be familiar with the term, Saint Grottlesex refers to a group of five college preparatory boarding schools established in New England in the latter half of the nineteenth century, all affiliated with the Episcopal Church.  The schools are Saint Paul's, Saint Mark's, Saint George's, Groton, and Middlesex—collectively known as Saint Grottlesex.  Which one of them I attended doesn't really matter, but what does matter, at least for me, is that when I arrived there I found myself, much to my relief, and then joy, in an environment where I now had boundaries that made sense to me, where there was a definite routine I had to follow—whether I cared to or not—where I was challenged intellectually, academically, athletically, and socially, and where hard work and determination to succeed were actually recognized and rewarded by those in a position of authority.  It also provided me with a religious education and framework grounded in the protestant Episcopal church that has been a sustaining force in my life ever since.  All pretty good stuff, indeed.

I didn't get in to Hotchkiss, either

Another aspect of boarding school that I benefitted from is that it was (at the time, at least) a sink or swim environment where there was no mollycoddling of the students, who were expected to get with the program, and where slacking off was not tolerated.  Saint Grottlesex wasn't exactly a cold-shower-and-fifty-pushups-before-breakfast kind of school, but it was a rigorous enough place where one was expected to learn and abide by the school's social, academic, and athletic codes and hierarchies.  I quickly realized upon my arrival that I had entered a whole new league and that I needed to rapidly acclimate myself to the rhythms of the place or I would find myself sitting on the sidelines, which is where I most decidedly did not want to be.  Fortunately, through a combination of hard work, perseverance, and the helpful mentoring of one or two of the school's admirable schoolmasters (that's what they called the teachers there), I was able to learn and master the skills I needed to successfully navigate Saint Grottlesex's highways and byways.  I emerged from its halls a better disciplined, better adjusted, and far better socialized person than I would have been had I not gone there.

Some of my readers may have assumed at the outset of this post that I was going to write that I most appreciated going to boarding school because it provided me with entrée to an elite and socially advancing world and paved the way for my Ivy League education and a career on Wall Street.  While I will admit that these may, in some cases, be pleasant side benefits of such an education and experience, it is most decidedly not why I am most grateful for having gone to boarding school.  No, it is because attending Saint Grottlesex was a lifeline to me—as it was to many of my schoolmates who also came from less-than-happy homes.  It freed me from a difficult and horizon-limiting situation at home and gave me the framework, support, and tools for managing my life's journey that I was not getting from my parents or at the school I was attending when I lived with them, and that I desperately hungered for at a vulnerable and formative time in my life.

And for that I am most fortunate and grateful.

All vintage postcards, with the exception of the ones of Saint Mark's School and Hotchkiss School, courtesy of CardCow.com; Saint Mark's and Hotchkiss postcards courtesy of USGenWeb Archives

45 comments:

  1. Bravo dahhling! You certainly made the most of the challenges of youth...what a wonderful post down memory lane.

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  2. Although I cried myself to sleep every night for a week when I first arrived and begged my parents to come and get me, I am most grateful that with their encouragement and the help of a very wise headmistress I stayed and profited from what was to become the most important experience of my life. For it was there that I learned the tools to survive in any situation, good or bad, and the STRUCTURE one needs in life.

    As to the education, Edward Albee said it best when at one of the commencement exercises he wrote " A good education is one that teaches you how to continue educating yourself after you leave school". I have never forgotten these words.

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    1. Thank you, m'dear, we certainly do have many experiences in common. I like the Albee quote.

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  3. Reggie, your success at ‘St. Grottlesex’ says a great deal about your attitude and determination. We admire you because although you considered the school a lifeline, you didn’t expect the school to solve your problems for you, and worked hard to fit in and earn a place there.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Thank you Parnassas,
      Attending St Grottlesex was both a lifeline and a wake-up call. I was fortunate to have both thrown at me!

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  4. Oh you are such a sweet person:). But I knew that already, right?

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  5. Excellent post, Reggie. While the dress codes at these schools have mostly been relaxed, the academics and athletics are still top-notch.

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    1. The dress code we had was jacket and tie to classes (six days a week), dining hall (breakfast lunch and dinner), and chapel (three times a week). No jeans, no sneakers, no army fatigues. Otherwise we were free to wear what we wanted, but only in off hours.

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  6. I quite enjoyed reading this - thanks for this very personal remembrance of childhood. Not having attended a boarding school myself I have heard many of the negative tales. The fact that your school served you as a "lifeline" is quite heartwarming.

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    1. I was fortunate to attend a boarding school where the experience was an overwhelmingly positive one. But then, I am a person who has always enjoyed the schools I've attended, the jobs that I've had, and the other (organized) activities I've engaged in. Otherwise, why bother?

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  7. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Thank you for sharing this very personal essay. I very much enjoyed reading it.

    From what you've written, it demonstrates that you were indeed a very wise and introspective young man, having the foresight to recognize that structure was needed in your life. After the basics (food, clothing and shelter), I truly believe the most important gift you can give a child is a structured existence. It sets them up for optimal growth and a successful life.

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    1. Thank you, LizaE: I was not so much a wise and introspective young man, but rather one with the fighter's instinct to keep it all going and not knuckle down under the mantle of the "you can't do this" or "you don"t deserve that!" which I was told time and again. My response that "I don't think so!" and taking the bull by the horns and giving it a jolly good shake, didn't always go so well, but it did stand me in good stead, I believe. I'm lucky that way, I suppose...

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  8. Dera LizaE: Thank you for your comment. I believe you have put your finger on it: in order to thrive, children need a structured environment. Children depend on their elders to set the stage and show them the way, and when they don't, or aren't capable of it, the consequences often are lost opportunities, failed realizations, and lives lived short of expectations.

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  9. Reggie,
    Thank god you did attend prep-school and all that beyond, otherwise it's possible you may never have written this blog and delighted us with so many stories and useful information!
    xo,
    ~Rebecca

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    1. That is charming and sweet of you to write. Thank you.

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  10. What a great and very candid post. Thank you. Makes me contemplate what I appreciate about going to a prep school (and what I hated). There is no doubt though, that mine too made me the man I am today.
    ~David.

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    1. While not always (or often) easy, the experience taught me many important life lessons, some of which I learned the hard way, as I can be rater obtuse in such matters. I followed St. Grottlesex with a year as an exchange student at Sherborne, a boy's public school in England (as I am sure you know) where I studied for the Oxbridge exams (even though I was already admitted at Yale and planning on going there). It was a remarkable cap off to my US preparatory school experience. Thank you for your comment, m'lord.

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  11. I read this to Martin in the car on the way to San Francisco and we loved it. You are a special person.

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    1. Hello Susan, Thank you for your kind comment. I am touched, indeed.

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  12. Without a doubt, boarding school gave me a life that I had never known before, and I remain better for it. The first term was one of the loneliest times of my life, but every one after was a pearl. I fear I will lack the finances to send my own offspring, which saddens me to no end. But I hope to find a way. My time in western Massachusetts was a gift.

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    1. Hello Cate, Thank you for visiting. I just spent an enjoyable fifteen minutes on your blog. You are a sensible and sensitive person, it is clear.

      As to the affordability of boarding school, as you may know financial aid is available at many of them, and the possibility of which is worthy of exploration before ruling out such an education for one's children. Just a thought...

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  13. I have heard other similar tales where boarding served as a "lifeline" and became a treasured experience. I wonder though, if the boarding schools still have a "sink or swim" atmosphere? It seems most schools coddle kids right out of an education.

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    1. I suspect the schools today are a lot more "warm and fuzzy" than they were when I wnet there. My only contact with my parents was a once a week, regularly scheduled collect phone call. Imagine that in today's immediate cell-phone world!

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  14. Loved your post. Took me back to boarding school days. My brothers
    were St. Grottlesex boys while I attended one of those "horsey" schools
    not far from Baltimore. FYI, this was eons ago. I'm wondering what shoes the girls wear to dinner as Pappgallo shoes are long gone. I think what I value the most from my experience are the very close friends that I made during those years. I'm pretty sure I wasn't as happy overall as you were as I missed my freedom to roam the streets of New Orleans. My brothers on the other hand were besotted with their schools.

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    1. Was it, perhaps, Oldfields, where MD went?

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  15. Replies
    1. Yes, well then, where did you go to school?

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    2. Presumably, he went to St. Mark's, but he's apparently not proud enough of his alma mater to come right out and say so. Anybody who already knows what Saint Grottlesex means doesn't find this post impressive in the least, and only a scholarship student would brag about it. I'd like to know what year he graduated and, more importantly, where he went on to university.

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    3. I'm perfectly proud of where I went, and no, it wasn't St. Mark's, nor did I attend on scholarship. Not that attending such a school on scholarship is anything to be ashamed about, as you imply. Funny you should think I'm bragging, old man, as I make it clear I was a disappointment to my father in that I didn't get into Exeter, where my brother went, or Hotchkiss, my father's alma mater. I did sufficiently well at St. Grottlesex that I was awarded a merit scholarship by the English Speaking Union to attend Sherborne School in Dorset for a year, where I did the Oxbridge course. And university? As I have written many times on the blog I not only went to but graduated from Yale, class of 1979, as have many generations of men in my family have done. So, where did you go to school, my dear fellow? Go ahead and brag, I'd be interested...

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    4. I've no need to brag, but since you asked, I went to St. Paul's, and I'm a Yalie myself. I graduated in '08, so I'm definitely not an "old man" as far as you're concerned. I'm sorry to hear that you were a disappointment to your father. What do you me to say? I haven't read your other posts as I only happened upon your blog yesterday, and I'm not terribly interested in reading more about your life story, if I may be frank with you.

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    5. "Only happened on your blog yesterday?" -- then I wonder how it is you commented on this post almost a year ago, and have left other comments on others as well. As far as not being terribly nterested in my life story then I suggest you go elsewhere, if I may be frank with you as well.

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    6. Look, I want to apologize for being rude. I have a bad habit of being a pompous ass sometimes, and I don't really know why. I guess my excuse is that I'm a spoiled brat. You seem like a decent guy, though, and I at least have to respect you as a fellow Yale alumni. As my late grandfather always used to say, "Keep your chin up."

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    7. Well, well, this didn't turn out the way I expected it would. I am impressed and pleased to read your apology which I accept with alacrity. I, too, am sometimes quick off the mark, so I identify with and thank you for your reply. Good night, Sir. Reggie

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    8. Did you disapprove my other reply, or did it just not go through? I honestly found your blog two days ago, so anyone who has commented anywhere on your blog as "Anonymous" before January 11, 2013, wasn't I. "Anonymous" is just an option this website gives you if you don't want to sign in to post a comment, but I believe you can disable that option on your blog if you want. So let the record show that I'm not stalking you or anything. In fact, this will be my last comment.

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    9. Hello LBF: I didn't disapprove of your comment, it didn't arrive. If you look at the initial thread of this comment from February 2012 you will find it is attributed to you and your photo accompanies it, at least the one that you used on Admiral Cod then. Seems most peculiar that someone would (or could) coopt it for such use. Bon voyage.

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  16. What a lovely post. I longed to go off to boarding school - going so far as to present my parents with a long pro/con list. My mother's own boarding school experience, however, had been so negative that it was never an option for me.

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    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    2. Hello Anon: I posted and then deleted your comment. Please don't leave your snotty comments here. It is easy to be a snark under the cloak of anonymity, isn't it?

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  17. Everybody in my family and my husbands went to boarding school,he and brothers at age eight it makes one more inclusive.Would love you take a peek at my blog and fall for Bumble ,who is adorable

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I did visit your blog, and find it delightful. Bumble is, indeed, a very lucky (and adorable) dog. RD

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  18. Reggie,

    I very much enjoy your blog. Why isn't Phillips Exeter or Andover considered part of St. Grottlesex ?

    All The Best !

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    1. Thank you. Exeter and Andover, and also Deerfield, are all known as the Academies, which is distinct from the St. Grottlesex schools. The Academies are much older, larger schools, mostly dating back to the 18th centuries, and are considered to be more academicaly challenging and selective than the Saint Grottlesex Schools.

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  19. Dear Reggie,
    I am delighted to have stumbled across your blog as a consequence of a google search for St Grottlesex. I am sending my own beloved daughter off to St Grottlesex in the fall and suddenly having panic attacks. Your posting reminded me of all of the reasons why this is a sound decision. I might add that my daughter has had no such reservations so I am confident that this is the right decision for all. Thank you for your inspiring and eloquent post.

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  20. Dearest Reggie,

    I have just re read this post after leaving a comment on your latest on Ella Fitzgerald. I just wanted to thank you, which I had forgotten to do in my original comment. It is one of the best things I have read on the benefits of a boarding school education, including the Albee quote. I am sending it to my son and daughter in law whom I have offered to pay the tuition for my grand children's education INSTEAD of college should my ship ever come in. The latter is on them.

    One of your best.

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