Living and learning, Westchester County style

A Day in the Country 1956

Part of every Jesuit’s training was teaching for two or three years in one of the many high schools run by the Society of Jesus. In the New York Province, to which I  then belonged, the schools were all conveniently located in the New York metropolitan area, a happy prospect for me after four years on a wildlife preserve in the Hudson Valley and three more in a seminary in the middle of a decaying St. Louis. Did I really imagine I was going to be assigned to New York City, to Regis High School, for example, my old alma mater, which I would reenter in triumph, now clad in commanding Jesuit black, and blow those self-important little bastards right back on their adolescent heels? They wanted wise-ass, I thought? I’d give them all they could handle.

A sad miscalculation. Not quite all the Jesuit high schools were in New York City. In a fit of despair or carelessness, they must have thrown one away and it hit Buffalo. It was called St. Peter Canisius, named after the brave Jesuit who saved much of Germany from the Protestant peril but who could not save his own name from being taken in vain on the frozen shores of Lake Erie. The Jesuits had Pacific missions in the remote Caroline and Marshall Islands, where at least you could get a suntan and wear a white soutane, but they sent me to Buffalo, New York. I wanted wise-ass? I got it.

Actually I spent two entirely pleasant years in Buffalo, despite my initial wild misgivings. I enjoyed the teaching, I enjoyed the students, I enjoyed my colleagues, and God in His infinite compassion held off the first snowfall till the last week in August. I instructed respectful Poles, Irish and Italians in Greek, Latin and French, the latter a nation whose culture I sent reeling back to Frankish barbarism in the short space of eight months. Those polite youths sat behind their desks and smiled wanly at my opaque allusions to Sardi’s and Wrong Way Corrigan and the glory days of Fiorello LaGuardia. I was, after all, a cleric and so there was undoubtedly some point in my discourse, they must have thought, perhaps even a spiritual point, as unlikely as that seemed. And I, not to be outdone in gentility, learned how to pronounce the names of some of my students.

As a Jesuit I had taught and enjoyed it, and I had even begun graduate work in the Society of Jesus, and yet, when, age 27, I departed “this least Society,” as the Jesuits liked to call  it with a sly smile, it never occurred to me to turn in either of those directions. Perhaps being a teacher or going to graduate school were too closely tied to a very recent clerical past that I wished to disavow. But if necessity is the mother of invention, she is also pretty handy at aborting disavowals. As September approached, after six months on my parents’ living room sofa, it was already apparent that I had little choice left if I wanted a full-time job: I would have to teach. No, that was too spacious, too engaging a prospect. Since I had no state certification, I would have to teach in a private school, and given the lateness of the season, in whatever one would have me. Miraculously, I found one.

Rhinelander Country Day School still clung to its founding pretensions, a private school with just a tasteful scent of Presbyterianism in its halls and a suggestion of ivy climbing up its peeling stucco face. There had even been a chapel there once, but by the time I joined the faculty in September of 1955, it had become a laboratory. Or, to be more precise, a physics and a chemistry and particularly a biology lab where the students resorted between classes for some small sexual dalliance. But not Hope Miller, surely, not with her innocent smile and those generous breasts restrained from absolute altruism only by two hopelessly overmatched buttons on her white blouse? And who could ever think ill of her sunnily complaisant behind? Surely not I.

Rhinelander Country Day had fallen upon hard times. Hope Miller and the Headmaster were in fact the only two Presbyterians left on its slowly decaying grounds. The dwindling student body was by then mostly Jewish, dropouts who couldn’t make it in the more competitive public schools of Westchester County, and the faculty was made up of an elderly Quaker who taught a sibilant version of American history, from memory, it was inevitably said; a morose fellow who had long presided over the all-purpose lab and who was piously thought to have devoted his entire life to Rhinelander, though it was difficult to imagine what other options he might have had; a pleasant company of Westchester housewives who doubled up in history, French and mathematics; Debbie Hartman, who taught Phys. Ed. and Family Life; and the newly hatched layman who spoke Latin.

The Headmaster wore a tweed jacket, an oxford cloth shirt with bow tie, chinos and saddle shoes. So generally did the new recruit –the bow tie was still outside my sartorial range– but the Headmaster had come by his uniform honestly at Yale, while that of the applicant, who had never clapped eyes on a Presbyterian, was derived directly from a Rogers Peet ad in the New York Times. I could have been wearing sackcloth and ashes or the Great Seal of Albania for all it mattered, however. With my academic record and my obviously desperate need for a job, any job, I was engaged—seized is a better word–on the spot for a “compensation” that worked out roughly to twelve cents an hour. For that wage I would teach English I, II, III, IV and coach the Society of Players.

The Headmaster had a shiny Presbyterian wife and a number of nicely mannered Presbyterian children, so I was it, at twenty-eight and not a little disoriented, the only eligible male, by whatever lax standards could be framed, between Bronxville and Poughkeepsie. Who cared? Debbie Hartman for one did, just on general principle since she kept close track of such things, and she bolted speedily out of the blocks like the true athlete she was. Though she was in her late thirties and once, possibly twice divorced, the Hartman reflexes had suffered no deterioration. Debbie’s muscles began only below her neck, however, hard and round, every last one of them, and above that useful body was a perpetually tanned and carefully made-up face that had looked Miami Beach in the eye and left laughing.

“How about a drink, young man?”

It was already October and none too early for a drink.

“Sure. Where?”

“I live in Hastings. Follow my car home. Don’t speed and don’t get a flat tire, Frank.”

“Right.”

Right, I thought.

Debbie lived in a garden apartment with blond furniture and a number of pictures of herself and an older man at what looked like a beach resort. We had a drink.

Sooner or later I would have had to leave my Catholic womb, where the veriest toddler in pink ribbons and rompers turned out to be a moral theologian of unshakable principle. The common wisdom that circulated free of charge among my high school friends had suggested, however, that there might be alternatives to the present pinched circumstances. Celtic colleens were loathe to play ball, as was well known, but it might likely be a very different ballgame, it was argued, with some fanciulla del Sud. True, Italian girls chewed gum and had dangerous fathers and incalculable brothers, but it escaped no one’s notice that the Italians’ devotion to Mother Church and her teachings lacked much of the Gaels’ iron conviction, a theological weakness that might translate, who knew, into the kind of behavioral shoddiness we all so devoutly craved.

And out beyond the Italians lay the uncharted lands of absolute Heathendom. No one had ever met a real Protestant, though they loomed large and malevolent toward the middle of our Catholic history books. “But Jeez,” said Joe May, who knew someone who had a relative who once went out with a Jewish girl in East Orange, “you can’t even guess what she did!” No, we couldn’t, which left Joe May pretty much in the catbird seat as a sexual oracle and Pelham Bay’s resident expert on Judaica. And left me now sitting, gin and tonic in hand, undergoing the close inspection of Deborah Caplan Hartman.

“You don’t know much, do you?” she said.

Of all the women I have known, half have thought that I knew everything, the other half convinced that I knew nothing. Possibly they were both right, but I have been far more excited by the ones who thought that I knew nothing since I always expected that they intended to remedy my ignorance with some enormously engaging act out there Beyond Good and Evil. Never. Debbie’s contribution to my education, though not negligible, hardly shook the moral foundations of the universe. I wondered at her tanned and naked body, its firm and muscular voluptuousness, and she made me relax into her arms and into herself, where she held me gripped between her gym-tempered limbs until I had satisfied her and myself, and unmistakably in that order.

It was really quite nice, I reflected, no hard-sell, no coy turnings, none of the endless discussion couched in the futures, future perfects and all the other neglected tenses and moods in which most of my sexual conversations were conducted. And as we lay there on the bed afterward, Debbie reached somewhere below us and produced a bowl of fruit that had been grown and cooled in the Gardens of Paradise. Classy move. Classy broad.

Hope wasn’t classy. Who of us was classy at seventeen? But I always thought of her as sweet, my dear, sweet Hope Miller, a volcano tremulously capped with whipped cream. It was a trick of nature, surely, a happy concatenation of genes that put an angel’s face on a body that queens of the South once dreamed of possessing throughout a youthful eternity. It might be said in my feeble defense that I noticed her face first, smiling her sweet and disarming smile every day in English IV, third from the left, second row, between Ruth Hanselman and Etta Loewenstein.

Was Hope moved by my interpretation of Milton or my reading of Keats? Who knows? The question didn’t even occur to me when she started walking toward me across the lawn one day during the lunch period. She was smiling as sweetly as ever, but those breasts rising and falling to the slow rotation of her hips set a trail of flame across the rank grass, a fiery wake behind her, a fiery arrow before, and directed right at my groin.

The fire was not of Hope’s making; she was incapable of such gross study. She took things as they came, without plan or plot or complicity. We talked, about matters of no consequence, the problem of Hamlet perhaps, but I looked at her in an obvious and familiar way as if I were begging her to read my mind. If she did, she didn’t reveal what she had seen there, and when it was time to go, she said no more than “I’ll see you” and retraced her steps across the still smoking lawn.

How do you ingratiate a seventeen year old whose father is a minister and in a school with a total student population of forty-two? I felt, I confess, no responsibility for her morals, which seemed in rather good hands, her own, but only for my own skin. I gave Hope special assignments, which she did. I called her at home to check her progress. It was always she who answered; the Reverend Miller was obviously deeply engaged in pastoral duties. We had frequent discussions of theology, Hope and I, during which I attempted to take her moral temperature. The readings were inconclusive. I enquired about her father’s church and she asked if I wanted to see it. Well, yes, I thought that might be interesting.

We had sex in the sacristy. How could we not when she had the only key and Presbyterians were not much inclined to drop in for visits to the Blessed Sacrament? No words. The blouse I had been dreaming of for weeks came off in my hands, the bra, the black skirt, the powder blue panties. She left on her knee socks and branded me with a perversion forever. Oh yes, with knee socks! Hope, that was so good, so very good. And the next time, and every other time.

And she began to talk. At seventeen she had already explored half the known world. She had favored boys, favored men, lovingly favored other girls, even jollied herself with a black Labrador Retriever in a barn in New Hampshire. Hope was immune to lust; she knew only wonder and set about satisfying it without quaver or qualm. And with that marvelous sweetness that made me love her.

Or was it just envy? At seventeen I was still vainly attempting to talk, petition, insinuate myself into the eternally frozen pudenda of a professional Irish celibate in Brooklyn. Neither Hope nor Debbie Hartman wasted a single precious breath on dialectic, while I continued to pour out my energies on polishing arguments why Theresa or Cathie should go to bed with me to such a hard-edged fineness that they would have passed muster in the faculty room of a Yeshiva. Hope never gave me a chance to get out my card file. I was ready to pitch my goods like the well-schooled Jesuit salesman I was, but before I could so much as open my mouth, she said “I’ll take it.”

At Rhinelander the Society of Players had a single annual dramatic presentation, and it was always the same, a Christmas pageant. The senior class played the leading roles and the lower grades filled in as nameless shepherds, churls and Herodian spear-carriers. The text, cribbed from some forgotten apocryphal Gospel, had an appropriate Protestant air about it, and all the little Hopkins lads and Donaldson lassies who peered out of class photos from the Thirties must have warmed their parents’ breasts when they appeared around the painted stage manger amidst the ivy and the holly. But there were no more Hopkins and no more pinafored Donaldsons at Rhinelander. Joel Rosenbluth now played St. Joseph, Howie Scheinbaum turned the Holy Family away from the inn and Susie Schlick made a fetching, if unnecessarily cute, Angel Gabriel. And whether from malice or simply for their own amusement, dear sweet Hope Miller was chosen by her classmates to play the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I told the Headmaster that I thought it particularly appropriate that Jewish students should be playing Jews in the Christmas pageant and that maybe Judy Seltzer would make a better Virgin Mary, just for ethnic uniformity, of course. The Headmaster shuddered behind his oaken desk. Hanukkah was just beginning to make its ominous appearance as a public festival on the Westchester horizon and he knew far better than I that the Christmas pageant at Rhinelander was nearing the end of its days. The parents of Susie Schlick and Joel Rosenbluth were in fact becoming increasingly restive spectators at those annual celebrations of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Let Hope Miller play the Virgin, the Headmaster decreed. Vox populi, vox Dei. Her father at least would approve.

I was tempted, I really was. My Catholic fantasies were then at full throttle, and if Hope was going to get off as the BVM, well then maybe I…I dared not mention even the possibility to Hope because I knew that the two of us would have been in the crèche in a thrice, crook, cow and all, and I wasn’t sure I was quite up to that. I settled for a less dangerous compromise: not even the good Saint Joseph knew that my favorite Blessed Virgin was wearing nothing at all under her thin pale blue shift, evening performance and matinee, at the 1956 Rhinelander Christmas Pageant. Hope was Full of Grace, as always, though a trifle chilly, which had a dramatically visible effect on her nipples, and her mentor and guide never attended a more engaging Christmas liturgy. And after the pageant Debbie Hartman took me back to her fragrant cell in Hastings and we celebrated Hanukkah together. She even wore knee socks for me.

I lay on my back between Debbie Hartman’s steel thighs and regarded the ceiling with what even a casual observer would have judged was complete satisfaction.

“What are you doing in this junkyard school, Frank?”

Debbie was not a casual observer. A girlhood among the young princes of the Jersey shore and a womanhood later with their fathers along more southern shores made her remote from all merely casual observance.

“You know, you look like Susan Haywood,” said the diverting prince between her legs.

“Yes, I know. What are you doing in this place?”

“It took me a lot of pains to get to this place, coach. My last job was lying watching daytime TV on a Castro Convertible in the Bronx.”

“So what? This isn’t much better. Do you intend to die at Rhinelander and be buried under the Headmaster’s office?”

“If I die at Rhinelander, I intend to be buried under the sacristy of Dr. Miller’s First Presbyterian Church.”

“You be careful with her, Frank.”

I turned over and looked down at the still glistening source of my recent satisfaction.

“Stop that and listen,” Debbie said. “I’m serious. You don’t belong here. Maybe I don’t belong here either, but I’ll take care of myself when the time comes. But you’re crazy to get stuck in this cow pasture. If I were kind I’d say you were too good for this dead end, but since I put in seven years with Morris Hartman, I’ll tell you the truth. You’re slumming. You’re at Rhinelander because it’s an easy lay. In a year you’ll despise this place. In five you’ll be stuck.”

I looked at her and smiled. She didn’t smile back.

“Look, Frank. Get your ass in gear and go back to graduate school, why don’t you? I’ll give you a Hartman Gift Certificate as a going-away gift.”

She was right and I knew it. I had had a uniquely odd education and, the spiritual reading apart, had studied a variety of interesting but exotic subjects and acquired unimaginably impractical skills. There were remedies for that, but assuredly teaching four levels of high school English at Rhinelander was not one of the very best of them. I was by temperament and inclination an academic, I finally conceded to myself, but I had to find a place for myself somewhere in that vast universe well beyond the gravitational pull of the luminous Jesuit solar system and that dark little piece of space junk called Rhinelander County Day.

I spent most of January 1957 reading graduate school catalogues. By February I was already filling out applications, and on April 1st was offered and accepted a graduate fellowship to Princeton University. That June, at the end of my high school teaching career, I gave Hope a final sacramental benediction on the floor of her father’s sacristy and Debbie a nicely non-denominational salute in the girls’ locker room. I later found the gift certificate wrapped in a pair of beige knee socks in my attaché case.

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