“old Peabo” And The School

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Mere fashion and exclusivity were by no means the only ingredients of Groton’s success. In the eighteen eighties and nineties, the education of the rich boy was considered to be a peculiarly grave problem. “Inherited wealth,” said Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, “is an unmitigated curse when divorced from culture.” Conscientious parents, of old and new wealth alike, were eager to believe that large doses of “muscular Christianity,” sternly administered by Endicott Peabody at Groton, were the magic cure for juvenile indolence and indifference.

Groton also benefited from the spirit of rowdyism that often prevailed in the older and larger elite boarding schools. Many parents, mothers especially, were apprehensive about entrusting their sons at a tender age to schools where there was a lack of close supervision and where tales of brutal hazing abounded. By the 1880’s Exeter, for one, was regressing to the deplorable stage of Rugby before the coming of Dr. Arnold: when a new headmaster attempted to initiate reforms, the uproar was so violent that he had to have police protection and go about wearing brass knuckles.

Endicott Peabody never needed policemen or brass knuckles. He had the indispensable gift of the good headmaster of winning the respect and confidence of his boys. One of his outstanding achievements at Groton was to establish friendly relations between masters and boys, those natural enemies by ancient tradition. (If sufficiently provoked, however, his wrath could be terrifying. “You know he would be an awful bully,” young Averell Harriman once told his father, “if he weren’t such a terrible Christian.”) Moreover, no matter what wishful Anglophile parents may have thought, the British public school influence on Groton was greatly exaggerated. Peabody did import fives, an arcane and less plebian form of handball, but otherwise the influence of his own British experience on Groton was largely a matter of what not to do. There was to be no flogging, and, God forbid, no fagging. The exalted Dr. Arnold had paid little attention to fagging and was not averse to a little flogging if necessary to curb the innate rowdiness and depravity of young males in close confinement, but these ancient and dishonorable institutions were anathema to Endicott Peabody.

Corporal punishment at Groton was administered by the older boys under the direction of the prefects. Younger boys who were insolent to their elders or who violated the sensitive Grotonian canons of good form were subjected to an ordeal called “pumping” in which the culprit’s head was held face-up under a gushing water spigot. The time of submersion was carefully limited by stopwatch to ten seconds, but this was ample to produce the unpleasant sensation of drowning; and it would be repeated until the boy showed the proper humility. Little Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., a few weeks before his father was inaugurated as Vice-President, was pumped for being “fresh and swell-headed.” Half-drowned but still spouting defiance after two immersions, he escaped being put under for a third time: the boys admired his pluck. Malcolm Peabody, the rector’s own son, was pumped because the older boys didn’t like his “tone.”

The prefect system, which was used so extensively in the British public schools and which was often deplored for “giving ill-advised power to the already strong,” was used at Groton with prudent restraint. Before the opening of school each year, the rector would designate as prefects from the incoming sixth form the five or six boys whom he considered to have outstanding qualities of leadership. From this select group he would then choose a senior prefect. To be senior prefect at Groton was a high honor and a great esponsibility. Living in state, with a huge study and a private bedroom, this dignitary conferred daily with the rector and played an important role in the administration of the school. Later in each school year several more prefects were chosen, and the competition for this favor was so intense that the rector’s choices were not always gracefully accepted. When three additional prefects were selected in Franklin Roosevelt’s sixth-form year, and he was passed over, he bitterly assured his mother that he was glad of it. “Everyone is wild at the Rector for his favoritism,” he wrote, “but the honor is now no longer an honor & makes no difference to one’s standing.” Brave words, indeed. But a generation later, when the rector chose Franklin, Jr., as senior prefect, the President of the United States was enormously proud.

During much of his reign, the rector was haunted by the curse of maintaining and expanding the Almighty Wall. But he was fortunate in having the assistance of Bishop William Lawrence, long a dedicated member of the school’s board of trustees and one of the great money raisers of his time. Bishop Lawrence considered it a kindness to inform rich men and women of an opportunity to give generously to a worthy cause, and he was able to make them feel grateful for the privilege of doing so. The Rector and Sherrard Billings were pretty good at it themselves. On one daring sortie they not only soothed the indignation of a father whose son had been severely disciplined, but they also persuaded him to donate ninety thousand dollars anonymously to the school.