"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Marland Country Day School

The Marland Country Day School was a repository for the offspring of the captains of industry of Brighton, Connecticut; or rather, former captains of industry.  After generations of inbreeding and indolent living off of inherited wealth, the current families were captains of nothing. 

The Barclays, Wiltshires, Knightsbridges, and Muirs had once been a part of American history.  Brighton supplied fine-tooled equipment to Allied Forces in World War I and II.  The city was an engine of the Industrial Revolution,manufacturing tools, bearings, machine parts, wheel casings and tubing sold throughout the US and Europe.  It had been a key manufacturer of arms and munitions during the Civil War; and the major supplier of the buttons, belts, and boots which outfitted the American Army in the Revolutionary War.

By the 1950s the entrepreneurial juice of Brighton had thinned just as the blood of its First Families.  The factories were running on their own – that is, there were few Barclays or Wiltshires at the helm – and the only economic activity of the West End, the exclusive part of this very red brick town, was managing wealth portfolios. 

Marland Country Day was indeed a repository.  West End families knew that their children would always have great wealth; and their family names would be etched in the tablets of New England and American history.  Anglophiles all, the West Enders affected a very English veneer of aristocratic remove – American frontier ruggedness and vitality were passé.  So the children – even if they could have excelled - grew up in an atmosphere of privileged indifference where excellence was never spoken of.

In fact, they never could have excelled.  Whether it was because of the thinned blood of married cousins, the lassitude of years of inherited ease, or the bad luck of the draw, none of my classmates at Marland had any intellectual gifts whatsoever. Billy Barclay, for example, was dim – not dumb, just below par.  His brother, Rob, told us of how when he was four years old and still unable to figure out the simple wooden puzzles designed for one-year olds, he took a hammer, and with an accurate and swift blow pounded one of the pegs into the square hole he had struggled with for days and splintered the board. 

His parents desperately tried to toilet-train him so that he could get into pre-school.  He was bumping up against the age limit for matriculation in St. Columba’s Preschool and he still carried a big load in his diapers.  The Barclays tried everything. They spent weeks filling Billy with roughage and enormous amounts of bulky food, watching his expression for signs of urgency.  When they sat him down on the toilet, it was as if some icy cold hand took hold of Billy’s intestines and froze them solid.  He could sit there for an hour inert.  One day Billy’s father decided to show him what he wanted and took a shit himself in Billy’s toilet. 

“OK, Billy”, said Mr. Barclay, “Now watch me”.  He sat on the toilet, made a big deal of grimacing, pulling in his stomach to show how the muscles were supposed to work, and dumped a load.  Billy’s brother said his father had also been frontloading fiber and bulk for a big fecal production, because when he dumped, it was like a boulder dropped into a quiet well.

Afterwards, he sat Billy down on the toilet seat, and encouraged him like a football coach.  “Ok, son, now come on.  Nothing to it.  Just push the sucker out.  Atta boy, give her all you’ve got”.  Again, nothing happened.  Billy just sat there, quizzically.  Obviously this theatrical lesson didn’t take at all.

The only indirect result of this episode was that Billy ended up hanging around his parents’ bathroom.  He must have figured that his father had decided to usurp his place where he went pee-pee and took baths, so he would go elsewhere.

As Billy got older, his comprehension and mental abilities never improved.  He stayed more or less with his age group, but scraped the bottom.  He eventually got the simpler concepts, like adding and subtracting, but used to come home and ask his father what multiplication was all about.  Four times four meant absolutely nothing to him.  His father got out his old blocks (the ones he hadn’t hammered to pieces) and lined them up in four by four rows.  “Ok, Billy”, he said, now here are four blocks.  One, two, three, four.  And here are four rows of them.  One, two, three, four.  Now how many blocks are there in all”.  Billy took his fat finger and touched each one, counting slowly.  “Sixteen”, he said. 

“That’s right, Billy.  You got the right answer, but you didn’t multiply”. Undaunted, Mr. Barclay kept trying, “Billy, see these nice eggs that your Mommy cooked for you.  What if we invited Bobby, Susan, Joey, and Sean to eat breakfast with us.  How many eggs would we need?

“Sean hates eggs”, replied Billy.

The problem was that George Barclay had lost most of his savings ten years ago.  He had taken some very bad advice and put all his inheritance in a uranium futures fund that went totally bust.  He could not afford the Country Club or summer at the Vineyard, or winter at St. Bart’s.  Far from it.  The Barclays had to watch every penny.  Billy – at least when he was very little and the full extent of the opacity of his brain not yet obvious – was to be their only hope of regaining the respectability if not the wealth that the family once had.

Marland Country Day School took anyone from the West End.  All families in addition to tuition ponied up thousands for the Annual Fund, the Building Drive, Teacher Appreciation Week, and just plain donations to the General Fund.  This was the heyday of the school – a limitless supply of dumb offspring from wealthy families who cared only that their sons and daughters graduated.  This cut down on administrative costs because the school could hire just about anyone.  Like Mr. Jones, the math teacher.  He knew just about as much as Billy Barclay, but he was dirt cheap, willing to work for nothing for this school which was reputed to be among the best in the state.  The reputation was based only on the fact that it was a premier WASP elite school, not performance. Everyone overlooked the fact that it was a repository for dummies and assumed that because of the high standing of the families who sent their children there, it had to be good.  Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth.

Everybody won at Marland – the parents who got their dopey kids off their hands.  The teachers who were convinced thy were teaching the elite; and the kids who didn’t know any better, and enjoyed not having to work.

Billy Barclay wasn’t the only intellectually challenged student at Marland. Susan Bristow was a beautiful girl with a permanent blank stare.  There was never anybody home.  Her eyes were bright and luminescent – a brilliant blue which seemed to reflect the light so that they shone like gemstones.  But despite all the color and brilliance of her eyes – which in most people would be the external expression of a lively and spirited personality – there was total vacuity.  An emptiness.  At first teachers thought she was just contemplative, or introspective, or thinking deep thoughts; but they soon found out that she was simply without resources.  They kept trying to find some evanescent interior beauty, something sylph-like in her nature, or a peace and inner tranquility; but they found nothing, nothing at all.

Bobby Parsons was not just dumb, he was a bully, and the combination was lethal.  Bigger than anyone else by half, he tortured all of us.  Teacher discipline made no difference.  His father was one of the wealthiest contributors to the school and he was untouchable.  The teachers banded together and agreed to fail him in every subject, hoping that would get the parents’ attention, but it did not.  He was a tenured student.  Until the Ninth Grade, the world of Marland would have to live with Bobby Parsons.

Most of the idle West End parents spent most of their time at the Sheffield Country Club playing golf and tennis.  Mrs. Parsons went up to the Club for a ladies lunch, played a round of golf, and then spent another three hours on the patio drinking gin fizzes.  Her husband did the same but in the gamey men’s rooms.  They drove home together, often taking gouges out of the 400 year old oak tree at the bottom of Club Drive, already splintered and mauled by their golf partners.  At least twice a year the car was so badly damaged that they had to leave the car and stagger down Lincoln Street, usually singing bawdy songs.  Mrs. Parsons fed Bobby TV dinners, and since as an only child he had no one to bully, he spent his evenings throwing rocks at the neighbors’ cats and dogs.

There were some exception to the Appalachian rule of inbred stupidity.  Nancy Blythe’s family was from the top 10 families in the West End – impeccable pedigree, Mayflower ancestry, riches on Wall Street during the robber baron days, recognition by the Society of Cincinnatus, an organization which only took descendants of Lafayette and for whom the DAR was definitely déclassé.  She was super smart, but she was adopted; so it was was her parents who were dimwitted.  She hated them.  She knew more than they did by the Fifth Grade, and hatched plans to run away to New York every year.  She concocted plots to poison them by putting ant poison in the sugar, or loosening the lugs on the wheels of her father’s car.  She was insulting and dismissive of the teachers at Marland and condescending and tormenting to her classmates.  Bobby Parsons might have been the master of the trip, the staircase bump, and the spilled water on the homework, but one knifelike thrust from Nancy Blythe’s tongue and the boys whimpered home to their mothers and the girls cried for days.

We all went on to prep school after Marland.  Once again, West End WASP money ruled the admissions process and even Andover and Exeter agreed to take in a few dimwits.  They calculated that the thousands in donor funds received from their parents more than balanced the potential damage to their academic reputations. In reality, it wasn’t that hard to hide them.  Susan Barstow’s ethereal looks and spiritual demeanor gave a certain solemnity to the Tenth Grade, and she was passed along and up from class to class without learning a thing. 

Bobby Parsons was more difficult; but as with all bullies, he had his comeuppance.  He got bushwhacked by some upperclassmen at The Loomis School, pounded bloody enough to spend two days in the infirmary.  His parents knew that this day would eventually come, exonerated the school, and gave them an additional thousand dollars for their complicit silence. 

The admissions director at Peabody, a small school in South Georgia, had been a child prodigy himself, and although he had wasted his talents in a dissolute life, Peabody had given him a redemptive chance (again and not surprisingly helped by the financial intercession of his father, the CEO of The Georgia Pine Company), and he wanted to do the same for Nancy Blythe.  She thrived there her first year where she took all accelerated classes, transferred early to Harvard two years later, and became a chemist.  This did not surprise anyone, not because of her brains but because of the aborted ant poison plot, the Drano exchange, and the gunpowder incident.

Billy Barclay was another story altogether.  He of course did not turn out to be the family savior that his father had hoped.  He plodded along through Marland, through a ratshit military school in West Virginia, and into oblivion.  He certainly never passed the intelligence test for the Army, so we know he wasn’t sent to or killed in Vietnam, which is a good thing, but we all somehow expected him to be something like a men’s room attendant at an elegant club, parlaying his WASP heritage into small change.  We never found him.

I went on to the Lefferts School, did well, went to Yale and despite the airless intellectual environment at Marland managed to learn something in those years.  I don’t regret the experience.  Marland’s menagerie of students, parents, and teachers and the idiocy of the school were just actors and scenes from the trailer of a bad movie.  Of all that happened, today, almost sixty years since I graduated, I still wonder what became of Billy Barclay. 

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