Issue 128, Fall 1993
I tell this story not for my own honor, for there is little of that here, and not as a warning, for a man of my calling learns quickly that all warnings are in vain. Nor do I tell it in apology for St. Benedict’s School, for St. Benedict’s School needs no apologies. I tell it only to record certain foretellable incidents in the life of a well-known man, in the event that the brief candle of his days may sometime come under the scrutiny of another student of history. That is all. This is a story without surprises.
There are those, in fact. who say I should have known what would happen between St. Benedict’s and me, and I suppose that they are right: but I loved that school. I gave service there to the minds of three generations of boys and always left upon them, if I was successful, the delicate imprint of their culture. I battled their indolence with discipline, their boorishness with philosophy and the arrogance of their stations with the history of great men before them. I taught the sons of nineteen senators. I taught a boy who, if not for the vengeful recriminations of the tabloids, would today have been President of the United States. That school was my life.
This is why, I suppose, I accepted the invitation sent to me by Mr. Sedgewick Bell at the end of last year, although I should have known better. I suppose I should have recalled what kind of boy he had been at St. Benedict’s forty-two years before instead of posting my response so promptly in the mail and beginning that evening to prepare my test. He, of course, was the son of Senator Sedgewick Hyram Bell, the West Virginia demagogue who kept horses at his residence in Washington, D.C. and had swung several southern states for Wendell Wilkie. The younger Sedgewick was a dull boy.
I first met him when I had been teaching history at St. Benedict’s for only five years, in the autumn after his father had been delivered to office on the shoulders of southern patricians frightened by the unionization of steel and mines. Sedgewick appeared in my classroom in November of 1943, in a short-pants suit. It was midway through the fall term, that term in which I brought the boys forth from the philosophical idealism of the Greeks into the realm of commerce, military might and the law, which had given Julius Caesar his prerogative from Macedonia to Seville. My students, of course, were agitated. It is a sad distinction of that age group, the exuberance with which the boys abandon the moral endeavor of Plato and embrace the powerful, pragmatic hand of Augustus. The more sensitive ones had grown silent, and for several weeks our class discussions had been dominated by the martial instincts of the coarser boys. Of course I was sorry for this, but I was well aware of the import of what I taught at St. Benedict’s. Our headmaster, Mr. Woodbridge, made us continually aware of the role our students would eventually play in the affairs of our country.
My classroom was in fact a tribute to the lofty ideals of man, which I hoped would inspire my boys, and at the same time to the fleeting nature of human accomplishment, which I hoped would temper their ambition with humility. It was a dual tactic, with which Mr. Woodbridge heartily agreed. Above the doorframe hung a tablet, made as a term project by Henry L. Stimson when he was a boy here, that I hoped would teach my students of the irony that history bestows upon ambition. In clay relief, it said:
I am Shutruk-Nahhunte, King of Anshan and Susa,
sovereign of the land of Elam.
By the command of Inshushinak,
I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin,
and brought it back to Elam,
where I erected it as an offering to my god.
— Shutmk-Nahhunte, 1158 B.C.
I always noted this tablet to the boys on their first day in my classroom, partly to inform them of their predecessors at St. Benedict’s, and partly to remind them of the great ambition and conquest that had been utterly forgotten centuries before they were born. Afterwards I had one of them recite, from the wall where it hung above my desk, Shelley’s Ozymandias. It is critical for any man of import to understand his own insignificance before the sands of time, and this is what my classroom always showed my boys.
As young Sedgewick Bell stood in the doorway of that classroom his first day at St. Benedict’s, however, it was apparent that such efforts would be lost on him. I could see that not only was he a dullard but a roustabout. The boys happened to be wearing the togas they had made from sheets and safety pins the day before, spreading their knees like magistrates in the wooden desk chairs, and I was taking them through the recitation of the emperors when Mr. Woodbridge entered alongside the stout, red-faced Sedgewick and introduced him to the class. I had taught for five years, as I have said. and I knew the frightened, desperate bravura of a new boy. Sedgewick Bell did not wear this look.
Rather, he wore one of disdain. The boys, fifteen in all, were instantly intimidated into sensing the foolishness of their improvised cloaks, and one of them. Clay Walter, the leader of the dullards — though far from a dullard himself—said, to mild laughter, ’’Where’s your toga, kid?”
Sedgewick Bell answered, “Your mother must be wearing your pants today.”
It took me a moment to regain the attention of the class, and when Sedgewick was seated I had him go to the board and copy out the Emperors. Of course, he did not know the names of any of them, and my boys had to call them out, repeatedly correcting his spelling as he wrote out in a sloppy hand:
all the while lifting and resettling the legs of his short pants in mockery of what his new classmates were wearing. “Young man,” I said, “this is a serious class, and I expect that you will take it seriously.”
“If it’s such a serious class, then why’re they all wearing dresses?” he responded, again to laughter, although by now Clay Walter had loosened the rope belt at his waist, and the boys around him were shifting uncomfortably in their togas.
From that first day, Sedgewick Bell became a boor and a bully, a damper to the illumination of the eager minds of my boys and a purveyor of the mean-spirited humor that is like kerosene in a school such as ours. What I asked of my boys that semester was simple, that they learn the facts I presented to them in an “Outline of Ancient Roman History,” which I had whittled, through my years of teaching, to exactly four closely typed pages; yet Sedgewick Bell was unwilling to do so. He was a poor student, and on his first exam could not even tell me who it was that Mark Antony and Octavian had routed at Philippi, nor who Octavian later became, although an average wood beetle in the floor of my classroom could have done so with ease.
Furthermore, as soon as he arrived he began a stream of capers using spitballs, wads of gum and thumbtacks. Of course it was common for a new boy to engage his comrades thusly, but Sedgewick Bell then began to add the dangerous element of natural leadership —which was based on the physical strength of his features —to his otherwise puerile antics. He organized the boys. At exactly fifteen minutes to the hour, they would all drop their pencils at once or cough or slap closed their books so that writing at the blackboard my hands would jump in the air.