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Friday, September 11, 2015

Voluntary Incarceration At An Elite New England Boarding School – Becoming As Mean As A Prison Inmate

Lefferts Academy, a boarding school for the wealthy on the banks of the Farmington River, was an ideal choice for parents who, after years of helicoptering, snowplowing, and soccer, could leave everything to someone else. One-stop shopping, and a high-toned in loco parentis all rolled up into one.  Drop off your difficult son at the door of Choate, Hotchkiss, or Lefferts and be done with him until Thanksgiving.

Farmington River


The school would take immediate charge of his education (a demanding, Ivy League-type curriculum), his spiritual development (compulsory daily chapel), his socialization (strict, uncompromising discipline), and his athletic progress (mens sana in corpore sano). For those who could afford it boarding school was a way out of ‘the teenage problem’; and although most parents claimed that Lefferts helped build character and paved the way to Harvard, their real reason for sending their children there was to get them out of their lives, at least for a while.

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Handley Fox, the son of a wealthy Connecticut family who was sent to Lefferts, saw it differently. The school was a prison, and his stay there was no more than incarceration. His life was regimented by bells and buzzers, he had no privacy, and his behavior was closely monitored as any prisoner’s. The doors to the dorm were bolted and padlocked at night, the windows were shuttered, and the master power switch was thrown at exactly 9pm.

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To the the casual visitor, the Lefferts campus was idyllic. The architecture was colonial, reminiscent of Williamsburg or Cambridge.  The buildings were arranged in a quadrangle.  The Senior Path leading from the main entrance to the Commons was broad and lined with chestnut trees.  The athletic fields were spacious, and the view of the farmland around the Farmington River reminded many of the paintings of Watteau.

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Few parents who toured the campus with their children failed to be impressed by its elegance, simplicity, and history.  Portraits of successful Lefferts alumni - financiers, industrialists, teachers, statesmen, and writers - were  hung in the formal dining hall, the library, and in the headmaster’s office. The admissions officer was there only to counsel against high hopes, so elite was the school.

Lefferts, however, was unable to get a grip on Handley Fox. He was like a nasty boil on an otherwise Apollonian body – ugly, disfiguring, painful, and unpleasant.  Yet the school had been quite happy with their choice of the young man who had high test scores, a perfect academic record at Muirland Country Day, and parents who had one of the best pedigrees in New England.

Although there were telltale signs of trouble in Handley’s recommendations – suggestions of indiscipline and an antisocial streak – they were deliberately couched in the most delicate and circumspect language.  Because the Foxes had been longtime generous patrons of Muirland, the school wanted in no way to jeopardize the academic career of their son, so the subtle, almost hidden negative references were hard to find indeed, especially if Lefferts was not even looking. In cases of wealthy families with proven records of generosity, they were quite willing to overlook all but the most obviously impossible record.

Like most boys his age Handley had a problem with authority. Unlike everyone else, however, this anti-authoritarian streak was willful, overweening, and destructive. From the moment he first heard the door to his dorm clang shut and the bolt rammed home, watched the entire campus go dark, and listened to the clumping of the fat floor monitor up and down the hall checking each room, he revolted.

It wasn’t so much the pranks that upset the administration – pink dye in the milk on the day before the big dance with Miss Hall’s, fire in the window well beneath the rectory office, industrial padlock and chain on the door to the bell tower with the ringer inside – but his corrosive attitude. He was dismissive of every tradition and routine established by Lefferts to build morale, esprit de corps and pride in the school. He refused to stand during chapel hymns, objecting on the grounds of ‘moral abstention’. He never went to school events – football games, plays, and glee club concerts.  He belonged to no extra-curricular activity, participated only desultorily in compulsory activities, and formed insurrectionist cabals with likeminded students.

Brookfield Pope, the Yale chaplain who was a respected Biblical scholar, pastoral clergyman, grandson of the Boston Cabots, had sent his son, Mather, to Lefferts. Despite a principled moral education, Mather was a bad seed.  One of those children who unexplainably turn out with a moral inversion and social antipathy that could never be predicted by his parentage. Medelian Laws being what they are, however, any random bit from some sketchy ancestor could have made its way down the family tree and into the DNA of Mather Pope, turning him into a hateful person. Although Brookfield Pope had prayed for guidance, consulted his pastor, and discussed the issue of his son at length with his wife, he had to admit – although only to himself – that he was simply getting his unpleasant, unrewarding son out of his life.

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Handley thought that Mather was a jerk – a dumb, genetically-scrambled, and psychologically unstable misfit whom he could use for his own ends.  As much as it disgusted him, Handley befriended Mather, gained his trust, and saw his advantages.

Lefferts, although on paper a non-denominational institution, was actually a very Christian one.  The hymns were from Martin Luther’s prayer book, everything Catholic was excised or expunged from services, and the two Jews who were admitted to Lefferts thanks to the biggest family donations the school had ever received, had assigned seats in the back row of the chapel.

As part of this Christian mission, one boy was chosen every month to give the Sunday sermon.  Because Mather was the son of the illustrious Chaplain of Yale University, he was tapped for service. Mather, of course, was too stupid to have evolved any sophisticated anti-clerical or atheistic principles; but he hated everything that his father stood for. So, when Handley suggested that he give a virulently anti-Christian sermon and offered to help him, Mather agreed.  The sermon was brilliant.  The theme was ‘A Generation of Vipers’, and with Handley’s coaching, Mather worked himself up into an evangelical sweat, pointing at the known adulterers, drunkards, and buggers among the faculty. He railed against organized religion, denied the existence of God, and damned the sinners who believed in him.

In Handley’s hands, however, the sermon was always biblically correct, well-organized, disciplined, and referential to Luther, Calvin, and Heidegger. The faculty squirmed at the vile accusations that Mather hurled at them, but could do nothing because he had acquitted himself well.  He had indeed given an intelligent, serious sermon; and there was no way to censure him for what was sardonic, dismissive, and ultimately hateful.

Martin Luther

Somehow Mather survived that episode, Handley was never implicated, and both boys lived to plan even more damaging acts of rebellion.

Meals were compulsory for both students and faculty, and Mr. McCurdy, the young biology teacher with the impossibly sexy wife presided over the Washington table for dinner.  The students rotated, and so at least once a semester every boy had a chance to ogle Mrs. McCurdy. When it was Mather Pope’s turn, Handley had to do no priming or preparation – only slip him a bottle of Jack Daniels.  He knew that with only a few shots, the triple Y chromosome idiot would certainly grope the beautiful Mrs.McCurdy. As soon as McCurdy smelled whisky he should have had Pope removed from the dining hall, but out of some sense of inclusiveness or indifference, he let him stay; and before the soup dishes had been cleared, Pope’s hands were all over Bess McCurdy’s thighs. She yelped, stood up, smacked Pope across the face, and yelled at her husband.

Mission accomplished. Pope of course was dismissed from school the next day and Mr. McCurdy given a mild upbraiding for permitting his wife to act so disrespectfully.  Handley was delighted.

Everyone at the school suspected Handley’s complicity. The Dean of Students knew that Pope was too stupid to do any of this himself, and knew that he and Handley were friends. Handley was too smart, however, to leave any vapor trails, and so although the Dean alerted his parents to ‘possible antisocial behavior’, he could come up with nothing concrete and was forced to apologize.

Psychologists often talk about ‘defining moments’ in a Maslovian progression. Although a child will go through predictable steps of emotional, mental, and psychological development, there will always be particular moments or events which will encourage the emergence of one or more principle character traits which will then define the person for the rest of his life.  Lefferts was that event.

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Handley Fox graduated with honors, went to Harvard and earned the university’s highest honors, and then went on to a career in law and business.  Although the world of private enterprise is as cutthroat as any, it is very traditional and conservative when it comes it organizational structure, rank, privilege, and authority. As smart as Handley was, he could never move up because he simply couldn’t take orders.  No matter how the directive was phrased or presented, if it didn’t exactly match Handley’s own perspective and conclusions, he refused to follow it.

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He knew what the problem was, but try as he might he simply could not shed the compulsive anger he felt every time he was superseded in authority.  Since he was smart, ambitious, willful, and absolutely sure of himself; and because he had a family fortune behind him, it was not difficult for him to launch his own business and become a successful and wealthy entrepreneur.

So, Handley Fox hated Lefferts; but without it, he might never have become New Brighton’s first citizen. Admittedly, his competitors resented his arrogance and destructive attitude; but they had to admire how coolly and rationally he dismantled one of them after another.

No one ever said that Handley Fox was ‘a nice guy’. Every time some anti-authoritarian bile left over from Lefferts oozed up and burned his esophagus, he knew that he would never get rid of the place.  It had become part of him – perhaps the most important part and there was nothing he could do to change it.

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