"Like the Algonquin Round Table
or the Old
WHAT MADE FRIENDS WONDERFUL, aside from a benign Quakerish (but not overwhelmingly Quakerish) ethos, was a collection of teachers who have taken up permanent positions in the memory and consciousness of a good many of my classmates. This terrain (the Marines would call it the high ground) is shared in my admiring regard by no more than one or two of my Harvard professors - only I.A. Richards, really, and David Owen, who taught 19th century British history. What is more, the faculty at Friends in the late 1930s and early 1940s most remarkably and reassuringly seemed to represent viewpoints and the values that matched subjects they taught.
Miss Ehlers in the Latin Room: classic, patrician in face and manner, chary of praise, intolerant of all sloppiness and excuse-making, whose (rare) hard-earned approval and (rarer) brief smile were as heartening as a flash of sun on a winter day. Madame Carmen, next door, was more indulgent, perhaps too kind, easy to get round on the subject of homework. But even if you didn't work very hard or learn it very well, she could make you love French, for the way it sounds, for its nuances, for the country that the language and the reading made you want to visit.
Some years later at a prep school in St. Louis, I was dragooned into helping teach a French reading course. I was there as an English master, but I blessed Madame Carmen for giving me a way to drill kids for their year end exams. Students who rightly held my instruction in low esteem, gave me (or rather Madame Carmen) high marks for review sessions on how to form irregular verbs from the five principle parts. Much later, as a Paris-based correspondent, I visited Rouen and found myself driving along the quay looking for the site of the beautiful Rouen poster she had in the French room. Now 50 years on, I still remember her pointing things out in Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, among them the chilling moment when Pierre Gringoire, watching the ghastly made-up faces at the carnival of fools, suddenly realizes that Ouasimodo's grotesque mask is his real face, that “le grimace était son visage."
Walter Hinman taught science: physics, chemistry, general science, plus biology which in those dark days was considered the only way most of the girls would be willing and able to acquire a serious science credit. He had fought with the Marines at Belleau Wood as a much decorated 1st Lieutenant in World War 1, wore rough wool sweaters (other men teachers wore ties and jackets), took time out at regular intervals to gulp down medicinal glasses of water, always made us stop everything in the lab at precisely 11 o'clock on November 11th to observe a moment of silence on Armistice Day. Europe and America were then past the time when traffic all over the Western world really stopped on that day, while cities went silent in remembrance of the dead. When I first stood in frozen silence with the other students, we were, in fact, on the brink of another war, but at those moments you could still feel a sudden softening of the noise of New York around you. Besides, Mr. Hinman was such a no-nonsense character that his almost mystical seriousness on these occasions compelled our deep attention.
Lest we forget, each year he also gave a history lecture in the lab, with a perfectly accurate map of Europe chalked on the blackboard, telling us how the Kaiser lost a war game with Bismarck (or was it Ludendorff?), how infantry divisions meant for the Western Front stayed in the East and how as a result the great wheeling motion of the German armies coming down through Belgium got strung out enough for the French to counter attack, causing the First Battle of the Marne in 1914 and saving Paris. I heard this lecture four times; it was always fascinating, particularly the last three times because by then we were acutely aware that Germany's 1940 attempt to sweep to Paris had been tragically successful.
Mr. Hinman was the first (of many, as life went on) to tell me that he thought The Brothers Karamazov was a greater book than War and Peace, a view, to my intellectual disgrace, that I still don't share. In his instruction he was the very personification of what I still take to be the scientific approach. Two and two always make four. If you do the math and get five, try again. Cause and effect apply if you can find them out and replicate the result. Things need to be measured carefully. Words have precise meanings. There is an absolute difference between what he called "kitchen cleanliness"and USP (for U.S. Pure), between USP and CP (chemically pure). If he asked for one, you didn't want to use something different. In short, the physical world is rational; its laws and physical properties can be measured and predicted. If it appears mysterious that is only because we have not yet found out how to take its measure.
We used a college textbook in physics, Millikin & somebody, I think it was, but he always wanted you to understand that there were physical realities behind formulas. Even in the simplest cases. Somehow he found a straight stretch of sidewalk along the East River where we could get a thousand feet apart and still see each other, dropped a flag and fired a starter's pistol at precisely the same moment at one end, and had us measure the difference in time between instantaneous sight and sound. It turned out to be one second, a figure none of us ever forgot. Another device was to clock the speed of each of the boys in physics class as they dashed up the long steep stairs that led (and still lead, I think) up to the top floor lab. You took your best time out of three tries, then, calculating your weight and the distance moved, you could determine how much horsepower (or fraction of same) you generated. It seemed very fitting that John Estey, class of '43, the best all-around athlete in the school, had the most horsepower. Girls did not try this.* footnote.
He cared a lot if you could bring common sense to bear on a problem. I was essentially a feather merchant but, it being wartime, he bore with me through biology, chemistry and physics. I had, I think, only one moment of real triumph using a rule from geometry to solve a problem in physics. It was pretty primordial, but if you didn't apply it you couldn't get the answer. As luck would have it that day, nobody else did.
I think it is safe to say that Walter Hinman was a Democrat and a truly tough and pragmatic liberal, a rare combination in my experience. His exact opposite in that regard was Rowse B. Wilcox, a romantic individualist and a conservative, the teacher whose wit, extraordinary skill at teaching writing and communicating an infectious love of literature turned a flock of Friends people (for better or for worse) into college English majors.
One of the few gifts the Great Depression gave to America was the fact that all sorts of talented folk, who really loved teaching but might otherwise have pursued more profitable careers in commerce, found there were no jobs and, figuring there was no serious money to be made anyway, went into teaching. This certainly applied to Rowse Wilcox, who had a master's, I think, in Sanskrit, left that world to try publishing and then came to Friends because he found publishing lonely and inconsequential.
He had total mastery of his field, could give a memorable lecture on the characteristics of the Romantic Movement in contrast to 18th century neo-classicism and the Age of Reason -- but would cheerfully make fun of the crotchets and weaknesses of famous writers, notably Longfellow, a favorite target, especially for the lines, "Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And in parting leave behind us/ Footprints in the sands of time." I thought (and think) that Longfellow was wise enough, despite his desire to uplift, to know that even the most lasting legacy will soon be blurred and washed away, but Mr. Wilcox fumed over the foolishness of using footsteps in the sands of time as an image to convey enduring achievement.
He was fond of the Romantic poets, some more than others, of course (Keats over Shelley, naturally) but would genially concede that in one way or another, they were "crazier than hoot owls," usually citing Coleridge in that connection and quoting "Tu whit! Tu whoo! ... the crowing cock, how drowsily it crew." In the age of Joyce and the New Deal he was an unreconstructed Dickensian, a disciple of Robert Browning and believer in free enterprise. Having been raised poor in Stonington, CT, with a crippled mother, he borrowed the money to go to Brown from local merchants who believed in him.
Browning was his favorite. We got the amazing and subtle dramatic monologues, but he also propounded the fight poems about enduring to the very end, about challenge and response, facing life and death alike with equanimity -- as in "I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more, The best and the last! I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, And bade me creep past." He could really work you into "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," especially its murky but heroic close "And yet/ Dauntless, the slug-horn to my lips I set/ And blew .... " If Browning wasn't confronting death with courage, RBW would come up with a minor poet like John Neihardt: "When I go, may it be as a tune-swept fiddle string, that hears the master melody and snaps."
To put it mildly, none of this was irony proof in the best modern manner. But his admiration for these heroic lines helped bear us along in the world of the early 1940s, which promised us an excItmg but uncertain future. It is extraordinary how in gloom or adversity, unless you have been taught that it is sophisticated to sneer, lines like that and the lines of hymns remembered from youth, recur in the mind -- and help.
In those days you were not judged by the labels on your suitcase as we are today. Wilcox insisted that nobody should go to college for the purpose of making money afterward. He did not think that learning a lot about literature and philosophy would be much help in that direction anyway, frequently citing captains of industry (Walter S. Gifford, then President of AT&T comes to mind) who never went to college. He knew enough about football, analytically speaking, to scout rival teams for the coaching staff at the University of Nebraska. He'd never played it himself, being a dapper and slender five-foot-six, a devastatingly good dancer, when he glided around the gym with one or other of the girls in the class -- usually the prettiest -- as "Tiny" Nordstrom banged out one more chorus of "Whispering," on an upright piano that was herded into a corner by the nurse's office for those occasions.
If you had any talent with words, or affection for literature, RBW could make you feel if not like a young genius at least like somebody whose efforts might some day matter. His instruction, however, was most practical. For half a century as editor, journalist, and occasional conductor of writing courses at Yale and Stanford, I have used his relentless insistence on specific detail ("Always be specific, never general; don't say 'Mr. Jones was angry that morning,' say, 'That morning Mr. Jones kicked the dog off the front stoop.'''), his preference for inductive rather than deductive logic in expository writing.
The Wilcox affection for Spoonerisms, and for his cat, Montague Tigg, stolen from Martin Chuzzlewit, were part of the school's cultural lore, along with Mrs. Winterbottom's iron black suits and incandescent passion for Handel's Messiah. Not to mention the blackboard messages between Dr. Hunter and Lucy Kiser '43, respectively signed "Ivan" and "Angel," the convention being that Earle Hunter, the head of the upper school who taught all history classes, was Ivan the Terrible, a slave driver, especially in his American history course which involved a detailed study of the Constitution. (Would that schools all colleges in the U.S. still required this).
Dr. Hunter could look fierce, did ask for a lot of work, and, outrageously, made you write serious research papers as if done for English, but was in fact a man with great sweetness in him, and a forebearing twinkle in his eye. Aside from the papers, his history courses were straight and sometimes soporific lectures as if delivered in college. To me he was most notable because, in contrast to Mr. Wilcox, he represented a New Dealish belief in the inevitability of social progress, with government and communal effort as the main instrument to furthering it. Except for characters like those in the famous Peter Arno cartoon, who would go to the Trans Lux "to hiss Roosevelt," that was pretty much the spirit of the age. Certainly at Friends.
The underpinning of that View was the belief, derived from Rousseau and others, that human nature is essentially good. Once freed of restraints long put on it by tyrants, kings, churches, exploitative bosses, etc. it would blossom into some kind of cooperative utopia. With the cynicism of youth I took a maverick, pessimist's view. It was hard to sustain just then because we had pretty much lumped the badness of the world into the person of Adolf Hitler and once he was beaten all would be well, we thought. Alas, much easier now that we live, at least in America, with quite a few of those restraints removed and see that, as Auden put it, "Man is changed by his living, but not fast enough."
Rotten kid that I was, I became a staunch defender of Alexander Hamilton as opposed to you know who, and was at odds with Dr. Hunter's lack of interest in the details of battles. He thought of war as regressive, something that could be put behind us for good, whereas wars and battles had until that time been my main connection to any interest in history. He would be shocked, though I hoped pleased, to know that for a dozen years I have been at work as an editor and writer smuggling popular history pieces into a national magazine on the back of anecdote. Like everyone I know who went to Friends then, I still carry all the faculty with me in grateful memory, but it is surprising to find that Earle Hunter is the teacher with whom, today at 71, I would most like to be able to sit down and talk over what is past, passing and (perhaps) to come.
Roland K. Reede did all the upper school math. A Quaker who I think had played football at the University of Pennsylvania, he was tall, deep-voiced, immensely dignified in double-breasted pinstriped suits with jacket always buttoned. We understood, vaguely, that he was some kind of a figure in the Society of Friends and he always conveyed a sense of gravity, whether because of that or for some other reason it was impossible to speculate, since none of the teachers except Mr. Wilcox told us anything about their personal lives. We were, moreover, young and self-absorbed; members of the faculty we took for granted as being successful and grown up, simply there, immutable, admirable and fully arrived like the old New York Yankees or a galaxy of congenial minor deities. That they might be underpaid or unhappily married or have a drinking problem rarely occurred to us.
Along with algebra, geometry and math IV (solid geometry and trig, etc.), Reede managed to make clear the marvelous fact that math is not a bitter mystery, as I had once thought, but something you could bring your brains to bear on and (best of all) finally wrestle to the ground. If you got a problem right you knew (really knew) it was right and could check it. Such certainties were reassunng.
In his low-key way he also conveyed that you were already building some kind of record that would hang around your neck for a lifetime, which was why you had to complete any incomplete assignments that might be left over at the end of term, and why he would take the time after school closed to turn up there and see that you dealt with those morally significant leftovers.
Taking that extra time, caring about character was typical, of course. "Tiny" (Harry Nordstrom), who not only played piano for dances but also coached all sports and taught math to the elementary and middle school classes was the prize example. He had played guard on the old New York Giants after graduating from Trinity in Hartford, and he did devoted wonders with a tiny school body, a minuscule gym (on three and a half sides its walls were out of bounds) and a narrow cement yard for touch football and softball. (If you hit a ball over the fence it wasn't a home run; it was an out because it was likely to crash against St. George's church across the street -- a system that swiftly taught you to hit line drives). Each year, with somthing like seven competent varsity basketball players he had us regularly beating equivalent schools -- Birch Wathan, Walden, Dalton and Brooklyn Friends come to mind -- and swapping wins with the likes of Adelphi, McBurney and the Lincoln School. But what made us fairly eternally grateful to him were the Saturday mornings, week after week, spring and fall and winter, year after year, which he spent at school so we could scrimmage in the gym, or play pick-up-ball in the yard. For boys it made going to school in the city tenable.
I didn't go to school until I was 10, but in the years since, man and boy, student, teacher and parent (of four kids variously schooled in three countries) I've been involved with a fair number of schools and I don't think it entirely delusion or nostalgia that makes us look back on the Friends faculty in those years as some kind of Pedagogic Algonquin Round Table never matched since. Was it sheer chance that brought these people together? Or some subtle infusion of the Quaker spirit? Or the judgement and character of Mr. Messner and S. Archibald Smith, a headmaster who took the time to write a booklet on the proper use of "shall" vs. "will?"
Almost none of the faculty went to Quaker meeting and we were for most of that period well into a global war about which it was very hard to harbor pacifist sentiments except in the purest or most absolute terms. Until 1941 much of the country was isolationist and antisemitic to a degree that we now try to pretend never existed, but Friends was neither of those things. The Quaker spirit was manifested in work camps, communal efforts like Farm for Freedom, one of Dr. Hunter's projects that I joined, picking crops alongside black migrant workers. Also by a disposition to think about the American Field Service and even conscientious objection as a conceivable way of confronting the challenge of war. I was born in England and mad keen about the planes and ships of war, so I had no interest personally in such courses of action, thinking that the choice of the few to exercise private conscience had to be bought by the will of the many to fight. But Friends made you aware of the claims of pacifism, and there were among us then some who seemed so gentle by nature that one did not grudge them, or doubt in any way the purity of their motives. Once the U.S. got belted up for war, that kind of understanding got to be very rare in the culture around us.
Timothy Foote served in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II and is married to Audrey Chamberlain, Friends '44.
Possibly relevant details. Was she perhaps the only girl brave enough to take Mr. Hinman's Physics course? Do today's readers realize that in those dark days, all schoolgirls wore skirts. back