row2k Features
Life is a Metaphor for Rowing, Ch. 21: A Nuanced World
August 12, 2022
Peter Mallory

Mercersburg Chapel

In 2019, the Mercersburg Class of '69 tracked me down and invited me and several other of the young masters they remembered fondly to join them in their 50th Reunion. I was very touched, and I'm so glad I made the effort to go. Turns out that during my last year at the 'Burg, the senior class had walked out of chapel, which turned out to be like pulling a loose thread on the sweater your mother had just knitted for you.

Soon mandatory chapel and coats & ties were gone, followed by an additional cascade of symbolic and meaningful changes which overtook and overwhelmed Headmaster Bill Fowle. Girls were admitted within a year, and the end result a half-century later in 2019 was an exciting, progressive institution with a modern campus, an impressive young female head of school and a very bright future. If only I could have imagined that future when I was there, but like so many times in my life, I was clueless as to what the future might bring. Still, I take comfort in having played a small role.

And I learned something else very important about myself during that recent trip to Mercersburg. The "boys" who had invited me were reminiscing about all the penalty hours they had earned and all the teachers who had imposed them - there had been a similar system at Kent - and I suddenly realized that in my entire three and a half years at Kent I had not received a single hour of punishment, and that in my entire two years at Mercersburg I had not assigned a single hour of punishment. Not a one!

"Now what was that all about?" I asked myself.

Well . . . eventually it came to me that I was a consummate rule-follower, still am, always have been. Never cut a corner over the grass.

Kent School
Kent School

Always early, never late, I was only truly comfortable in a world where I knew exactly what was expected of me, and I did it. I could not conceive of breaking a clearly stated rule, no matter how trivial or stupid or cruel or unfair it might be, and so it never occurred to me to do so. My record was clean. But what was more important, I could not even begin to understand anyone else who did break the rules, even the little ones. The behavior of such people was utterly incomprehensible to me. Such a world made me fearful and confused and insecure and angry . . . and a very lonely soul.

The night before my parents dropped me off at Kent, my Dad took me aside and told me what the rules would be. If a Sixth Former told me to do something, I was to do it . . . but not for anybody else. Simple as that. So when during my first 15 minutes as a Second Former somebody bigger than me (Everybody was bigger than me!) walked into my room and ordered me to shine his shoes, I asked him what form he was in. When he told me Fourth Form, I couldn't laugh it off . . . or make a joke . . . or tell him I'd be happy to do it this once as a favor but not in the future . . . or ask him his name and that I was very pleased to meet him. "I'm from Rye, New York. Where are you from? What sports do you play? Do you like comic books? I have some I could lend you."

Instead, I just told him no. Against the rules. Simple as that. I assumed he would gratefully thank me for informing him of the rules and straightening everything out between us. I was absolutely astonished when he failed to see the logic of my refusal and vowed to make my life a living Hell going forward.

I had none of the social skills I might have used to navigate a nuanced world which was utterly unfathomable to me. I was not the only person treated cruelly at Kent during the early 1960s, but somehow they managed better than I ever could imagine. It's still a mystery to me how they did it . . . so in a way it was my fault all those years ago that I never really fit in at Kent.

Don't get me wrong. I believe it is a good thing that the system of hazing by upperclassmen largely unsupervised by adults would soon end up in the dustbin of Kent history, but I think until now in my life I did not assume my fair share of the blame for my fate at Kent all those years ago.

But it's more than that. Throughout my coaching career, throughout my life, I have been way too rigid, too inflexible, unable to let little things go, unable to appreciate the many shades of gray between the black and the white. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't relax and go with the flow. My personal relationships suffered, and I regret that very much. If only I could have imagined myself even once in a while being late for chapel or cutting a corner over the grass, it might have made me happier and more effective in life.

To be continued . . .

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