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Of Birds And Bees

May 2024
3min read

A number of the editors of this magazine happen to be graduates of Phillips Academy, the venerable preparatory school commonly known as Andover. One of them, going through a collection of Andover reminiscences recently, came upon the following brief memoir from the pen of Benjamin Spock, Andover ‘21, who later became famous as the author of a book on the raising of children that millions of parents have consulted as fervently as our ancestors did the Bible. Since Dr. Spock is known for his relaxed and liberal views about sexual education, among other things, we think “Andover and the Facts of Life” is a somewhat surprising as well as charming glimpse of the way things used to be.

Andover to me at sixteen was a revelation of worldliness. I had grown up in New Haven in an atmosphere that was certainly sheltered. The only dances I had attended were small 8-to-11 P.M. affairs in the homes of professional friends of my family. Someone’s parent would drive us, and among those in the car would be one or two of my sisters. All of us at the party would be what the fussiest parent would call wholesome. I had gone to a small country day school with other boys equally protected. I remember that the picture, in Breasted’s Short Ancient History, of the statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus seemed risqué to us and caused the master to blush crimson.

Andover opened up new vistas. It’s not that I did or saw anything wicked. But I listened attentively to all I heard, and dreamed of being a gay dog myself in Chicago or New York. The talk of friends about taking girls on individual dates was eyeopening. It seemed inconceivable to me that such freedom was permitted anywhere. A bit of gossip that made quite an impression was that, over Christmas vacation, one of our own classmates claimed to have been kissing an older woman of twenty-seven. That actual romances existed seemed proved by the arrival each day of tinted, scented letters, addressed to other occupants of the dormitory, in fancy girlish backhands. After I had been in school a few months, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I bought a box of fine stationery with the seal of the school heavily embossed, and composed a fairly ardent letter to a girl at home. It must have surprised her because I had given her no earlier hint of such feelings.

Two classical courses gave me glimpses of the out side world. In Professor Forbes’ class in Vergil I read that Aeneas had had an affair with Queen Dido in a cave, in which they had taken refuge during a thunder storm. It was surprising to me that a hero and a queen could forget their standards on such short acquaintance, and that this could be admitted in a text used in school. And one day in Greek, Professor Benner suddenly departed from his lecture and gave us a desperate-sounding plea to beware the faithlessness of women. It came so unexpectedly and was so obviously personal that it awed us into a goose fleshy attention. Looking back at this warning, I believe it increased rather than inhibited my interest in girls.

I did some outside reading. I found “Moll Flanders” in the school library through a pal’s tip, and also had a brief chance to read passages from a book called, I think, “Confessions of a Bride,” not from the library, which was being circulated privately at a rapid rate because of the urgency of the demand. I heard my first smutty stories. They made such an impression that I’ve never forgotten them, though I’ve had little success in remembering all the hundreds of funnier ones I’ve heard since. I had my first taste of liquor. An alumnus returning for the Exeter game had been billeted in our study. Since we hadn’t invited him, we felt justified in taking an educational nip from a bottle of whiskey which he left in an open suitcase while he was reuning at his fraternity. The drop which I swallowed caused such an unexpected burning and choking that I was astounded to realize that this was the stuff so famed in song and story.

On a Sunday afternoon in the spring of senior year I was invited to come along with several friends who were going to call on an Andover family that included a couple of girls our age. Though the family was quite respectable, I sensed from the gaiety of my friends that they were not going because they were homesick for a touch of family life, and that the girls would probably not be quite as stand-offish as the ones I knew in New Haven. We sat around and we danced a little to the phonograph, nothing out of line. Yet there seemed—to me at least—an undertone of expectancy. Later I found myself in the pantry with one of the girls, getting pop and glasses for the crowd. I felt fairly sure that some approach from me would not make her indignant and that this was the moment to begin to be a roué. I felt dizzy while I hesitated. But soon the tray was ready and I had failed to come to any action. It was bitterly disappointing to realize that I had not become the gay dog I thought I had.

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