“old Peabo” And The School

PrintPrintEmailEmail

One weapon in the rector’s arsenal of intolerance was his devotion to a puritanical censorship of art and literature. As a vice-president of Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, he had long been a militant crusader for the indiscriminate banning of modern classics of which he had little or no comprehension. Making an intellectual laughingstock of himself was a personal foible for which the rector perhaps could be forgiven. But when he tried to extend his fetish for pious purity to the school, the boys rebelled. His “Index Purgatorius” included the works of Voltaire, Fielding’s Tom Jones , and even Kipling’s Stalky & Co. , an innocuous assortment of stories about boys in a British public school. (The rector, it was said, disapproved not so much of the Kipling stories as of the school where they took place—it was decidedly second-rate.)

The remarkable thing about the rector was that, after the crisis of 1927 had passed, he was resilient enough to regain his balance and even to mellow a bit with age. In his last years, he wisely relied in such matters on the judgment of younger men.

 
 
 
 
 

There were always those who condemned the spartan Peabody regimen of cold showers, frigid dorms, and compulsory football as needlessly harsh. Others pointed out that Groton boys on vacation often behaved like sailors on shore leave. If this deplorable tendency was due to the excessive solicitude with which their lives were regulated at Groton, what on earth would become of them when they were confronted with the free-and-easy ways of life at Harvard? This was indeed a sore point with the rector, and he was highly critical of Harvard’s President Eliot for allowing undergraduates so much freedom. It was true that no matter how closely he pursued his boys with chiding letters, the shock of sudden independence could be disastrous for some old Grotties. In most cases, however, a keen sense of “good form” enabled them to skirt the perils of idleness, drink, and disreputable females in relative safety. They settled down in commodious “Gold Coast” dormitory suites, associated only with their peers from other elite boarding schools, and ultimately scended into the celestial spheres of Harvard’s Porcellian Club, having glided through their courses with gentlemen’s C’s.

Peabody frankly admitted that he did not like his boys to think too much, and he had little patience with coddling misfits. Conformity was inextricably mixed with grim memories of compulsory football in the mind of one old Grottie, who accused the rector of “training boys so that they are more afraid of popular clamor than they are of making a difficult tackle in a football game.” What this quixotic former student wanted to see was a boy “who will have the courage to say that he thinks football is nonsense.” The rector would have said that a misfit of such magnitude had no business at Groton.

The normal Groton boy thrived on the Peabody regimen. Franklin Roosevelt was typical: he conformed eagerly and competed anxiously for rank in the school hierarchy. The location of his study (“one of the five best …”), his place at table, the importance of his part in the school play, these were only a few of the delicate shadings of preferment that mattered so dearly. But the major criterion of popularity and status at Groton, just as at other schools, was a boy’s ability at football. Though young Franklin was never a gridiron hero, he struggled valiantly up the long ladder of teams, taking his bumps and bruises with pride. When he finally made the second eleven, in his sixth-form year, and thereby won the arduous duty of facing the varsity day after day in fierce scrimmages, he proudly wrote home to his parents, “Football, bruises, afternoon teas, lack of sleep, gossip & engagements come thick and fast… a glorious time. ”

The rector himself did not always conform and he too could be quixotic. One time he dropped a bombshell, causing confusion and resentment in the ranks of old Grotties, by rudely resigning from his honorary membership in Porcellian in protest against the caste distinctions engendered by Harvard’s club system. But to many old Grotties, tucked snugly away in banks, brokerage houses, or family fortunes, his most shocking heresy was his open support of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Those who knew him well had always been uneasily aware that his attitude toward the acquisition of wealth was not entirely reliable. In his youth, at Cambridge, he had been an ardent disciple of Charles Kingsley’s subversive gospel of “Christian Socialism.” Once, he had even dared to criticize Groton’s lordly trustee, J. Pierpont Morgan, for his profitably ambiguous role in the Gold Crisis of 1895.