Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Life Before Linton Hall

Before I got sent to Linton Hall, I had attended both a private school and public school (both day schools.) I had also been to summer camp for a couple of summers (probably ages 8, 9, 10.) This wasn't Camp Linton, but another summer camp.

Just like others whose stay at LH was relatively short (2 or 3 years) I can compare Linton Hall to other schools. My memories of those schools, as well as those of high school, are generally positive. There were small imperfections, some things that could have been better, but even so I felt that the principal and teachers had our best intentions at heart. It is because I saw what other schools were like, and because Linton Hall had the potential to be as good as the other schools, that I found my overall experience at Linton Hall to be negative.

This is how Linton Hall Military School during the 1960s compared to other schools:

Upon entering Linton Hall I found it just as challenging as my previous schools, and academic standards were such that I needed to do as much or more work to do well. The quality of the teachers was similar. Linton Hall had some really good ones. I have to give credit where it is due and Sister Mary David was a really good Math and Science teacher and Sister Gertrude taught English and History well. They knew their material and had high expectations. There are probably others but I don't remember their names. After graduating from Linton Hall I had a normal transition into ninth grade, meaning that I was well prepared.

Of course, part of the credit belongs to me for doing the work and for taking advantage of second study hour, in spite of the fact that when I was in the eighth grade the prefect of my dorm did her utmost to discourage officers from going to second study hour, since the dorm became a wild zoo in the officers' absence. I am proud of being able to resist her pressure and making my academics a priority.

At private school it was really good, almost like home made. At public elementary school and high school it was similar to Linton Hall's, the standard school lunch. In elementary school (just like at LH) everyone from grades K to 6th got the same amount, which meant that the older kids didn't get quite enough and the younger ones got too much and had to be coaxed into eating everything. The big difference, of course, was that at day school I ate only five meals a week in the school cafeteria, and at Linton Hall it was every meal.

I did eat every meal at summer camp, but the summer camp was run by the same private school I attended during the school year, and the food was goog and there was always more than enough.

Summer camp lasted probably four weeks, and we were allowed visits from parents for a few hours on Sundays (maybe 1 out of 3 or 1 out of 4 kids had their parents visit on any Sunday.) I was probably 8 the first year I went there, knew a few (maybe 1 out of 5) kids when I arrived and the school principal ran the camp so I wasn't a total stranger. The kids were probably ages 7 to 12, but I don't remember any one of them crying from homesickness. I'm sure they missed their parents just as much as the boys at Linton Hall, but camp was a good, fun place. At LH quite a few of the kids cried from homesickness especially at the beginning of the year.

Mail Censorship:
We could not make or receive phone calls at camp, but we did send and receive letters from home. We wrote the letters and gave them, sealed, to be mailed out. Occasionally one of the adults would tell us, "when you write home tell your parents that Miss Smith says hello" but we would have been utterly shocked if any adult had asked us to leave letters unsealed or if any inbound letters had been opened.

At Linton Hall, we were told to leave letters to be mailed unsealed, purportedly so that if Sister Mary David needed to send a note home, she could insert it in the envelope without paying extra postage. In fact, the true reason was so that letters could be read and, if something negative was being sent about the school, the letter would not be mailed out. Sister Mary David actually admitted this to a classroom full of cadets, when she said that a certain cadet wrote that we went on very long hikes. One of his legs was maybe two inches shorter than the other and one of his boots was specially modified with a very thick sole. He had said that the hikes were a certain number of miles (I don't remember the exact number but he had overestimated.) So she readily admitted that she had thrown the letter away instead of mailing it.

I did hint at some things in my letters without being too critical, and those letters did get through. I don't know whether any of my letters were unmailed. I do have a letter in which I wrote my grades in percentages, and a letter grade was written next to each one. The letters were in pencil (my letter was written in pen) and in a handwriting that was neither mine or that of my parents.

You might be wondering about the Mexicans, who wrote their letters in Spanish. Sister Mary David said that she spoke Spanish. I don't know how well she spoke it or whether she was just bluffing. In addition to the Spanish speakers we did have one cadet from South Korea and another from Iran. I would have loved to read Mary David's mind when she came upon a letter with foreign characters followed by "Mary David" followed by more foreign writing. Was she going crazy wondering whether something positive or negative was being said about her?

Running away
Running away from camp never even crossed our mind. Are you kidding? It was a lot of fun.
At Linton Hall, many of us (myself included) spent a lot of time fantasizing about the perfect escape. A few tried it, placing themselves at great danger, preferring to take chances instead of putting up with Linton Hall.

Personal care
At private school we wore uniforms, and at camp we had to make our beds and brush our teeth.
But there was none of the pickiness about doing things in a defined, precise way as at Linton Hall.

Much of what was a punishable offense at Linton Hall (running indoors, yelling, etc.) were considered minor breaches of etiquette at school and camp. We were told not to do it, stopped doing it, and that was it.
For more serious offenses we might have been made to stand in the corner for 15 minutes during recess, or for even greater infractions, sent to the principal's office, who would give us a stern lecture and threaten to tell our parents if we did it again.
In all my years at elementary school I remember children being spanked on the bottom a couple of times with a bare hand, and there was one time wehn someone had his mouth washed out with soap (this was a last resort after multiple offenses.)
I will not re-state here all the physical punishments that were used at Linton Hall. An exhaustive list was written by another blogger,

Children sometimes have "accidents," especially the younger ones. When children peed or pooped their pants, which happened a few times in kindergarden, an adult would take them to a bathroom that was just like a bathroom at home, with bathtub and shower, and let them wash themselves. They then would be provided with something "on loan" to wear while whatever they had soilded would be put in the washer. If the accident happened early in their day, they would go home wearing their own clean clothes. If it happened later, one of the teachers would tell the parent what had happened (in a very understanding way) or would send a note home with the kid, if the kid went home on the school bus. The most important thing is that if any of the kids tried to make fun of the child who had an accident (as little kids are prone to do) the teacher would have told him/her in a stern voice not to do it, and explained the golden rule.

There was a girl who peed herself quite often on the bus on the way to school, but not on the way home, which makes me think that the problem had to do with her being made to consume too much liquid at breakfast. Understandably, no one wanted to sit next to her, and occasionally one child would make fun of her, but most of us were mature enough to pretend nothing had happened.

Contrast that to how bedwetters at Linton hall were publicly shamed and embarrassed by being forced to wear the wet pajama bottoms around their neck all day, in a way that other cadets were pretty much encouraged to tease them, all in full view and with the full knowledge of every single adult (teachers, dorm and playground prefects, Commandant, Bill, and principal Sister Mary David.)

Girls (and the lack thereof)
Both of the elementary schools I attended before Linton Hall, as well as summer camp, were co-ed. Of course the younger years are a time when boys have their own games and activities (toy cars, toy guns -- which were considered okay at that time, building forts and treehouses and so on) which are quite different than those of girls (playing with dolls, playing house, etc.) This was especially so back then. So we weren't interacting with girls constantly, although there were games such as tag which we both found enjoyable.

I think for many of us the lack of girls made us shy and awkward around them. It did for me. Only those who were in an all boys school can feel the pain I felt when I would get a letter from a friend on the "outside" who told me about playing spin the bottle or some other kissing game, and there I was, not having ever even called a girl on the phone under the guise of asking a question about homework.

We didn't shower at day school, but we did at camp. We showered one at a time, and never did any adult male or female even come in, much less stand there watching the whole time.
I do understand the need to supervise group showers; I have read of instances in juvenile detention facilities where (forgive me for being so blunt but I have to say this) rape by someone of the same sex, sometimes with a broomstick or bottle, happens in both all-boy and all-girl facilities. So I accept that the slim possibility of something so awful justified some supervision. But I think there were other, better ways of doing it.

First of all, the architect could have designed individual shower stalls. I understand that the building was built in the early part of the 20th century, when attitudes about privacy, nudity and sex were different.

We could have showered in swim trunks, and only pulled them down a bit, while turning our back to the nun, while washing our private parts.

We could have had the Commandant and Bill supervise showers. These were men who could be trusted. I know it would have meant extra work for them, and that they would not have been eager to go back to Linton Hall in the evening to supervise showers. Perhaps we could have showered immediately after school to make it more convenient for the Commandantand Bill.

If nothing else, the nuns didn't really need to be standing there looking for the whole time. They could just stood in the changing area, and occasionally have taken a look out of the corner of their eye. But they did not, and the fact that they never missed the opportunity to supervise the showers, while having a hands-off attitude about anything else that went on in the dorm, makes me wonder about their true motivations. Some may have been uncomfortable doing this, but if that had been the case I would have expected them, at a minimum, to avert their eyes and not stare directly.

I should add to what I said about juvenile detention facilities. Whatever can happen in the shower can happen at night in the dorm. One former cadet has written on my Facebook wall about being beaten up at night while he slept. Beyond the blue night lights, there was no effort to supervise and protect us while we slept at night.

I am white, and Linton Hall was the first place I met kids who were black. As a child my world revolved around school and neighborhood, and there was only one black child (in another grade) in my school before I went to LH. Not surprisingly, there were no black teachers, either. The janitor was black, which says much about opportunities and hiring decisions during that era.

As an aside, I use the terms "black" and "white" instead of "Caucasian" and "African American" simply because those were the descriptive terms used at that time.

I didn't treat black differently as a groupthan I did whites. Some I liked, some I didn't, but it was about who they were as individuals and not about race. A good thing about the boys at Linton Hall is that in general (there are always exceptions) most acted the same way. I had freinds but not really a best friend, but of those that did have a best friend, sometimes friendships were between two of different races.

On the other hand, there were racial taunts used as fighting words, not the "n-word" but others, both against whites and against blacks, and there were slurs about Mexicans as well, but interestingly they seemed to be used more against a specific individuals than against the group. It would not be unusual for one cadet to call another a racial slur as a way to provoke a fight, while still remaining friends with others of both races, and doing this in front of others. Unfortunately, there was little that the adults did to teach us otherwise. Someone doing this would get a verbal reprimand such as "it's not nice to say that" but I cannont recall a single instance of someone getting the same punishment of having to chew a bar of soap, as would happen when someone got caught saying offensive, but far LESS hurtful four-letter words.

I cannot generalize about adults, but I remember when a nun, not Sister Mary David but someone else who taught classes, reminiscing about having been principal of another school. She said something along the lines of "I was principal of the white school, and we had the black school right across the street." (This is a paraphrase, I don't recall the exact words.) We were shocked by this, and she answered something along the lines of, "well that's how things were done by then." I was and still am shocked that a purportedly religious order would have followed along with an offensive, immoral practice instead of having the moral fortitude to decide to integrate its own schools. I am not mentioning her name because I do not believe that the decision was hers alone to make, that there was a board of directors, or head of the Benedictine order, or perhaps the bishop or archbishop with jurisdiction over Richmond.

What Linton Hall could have been
The saddest thing is that Linton Hall didn't have to be that way. It had the potential to be much more. The building, the rural location the quality of the teachers, the resources were all there. As an administrator, Sister Mary David ran the school well, it was only in terms ofhow we were treated that the school fell far short. The school charged enough for room and board that we could have been fed more, and better.

Let's just look at the lack of fresh fruit as an example. One time (a year or two after I left Linton Hall) I bought one banana at the supermarket for six cents. I still remember this because it was all I bought and such a small, unusual purchase sticks in my mind. At the same time a small candy bar cost a nickel, a large one ten cents. These are all retail prices, not wholesale. Instead of the daily candy bars, we could have been given a banana instead. Distributing bananas is no more labor intensive than distributing candy bars, nor are bananas messy to eat. Apples cost a little more (depending on how large the apple is) but even so, we could have had half an apple. Cutting a hundred apples in half shouldn't involve more labor than putting two hundred dollops of apple sauce on two hundred trays. Plus, the school is in Virginia, where a lot of apples are grown. I doubt that two hundred apple halves, or even two hundred whole, large, crisp, freshly pciked apples would have cost more than two hundred candy bars.

Traffic was much lighter in the Washington area than it is today. LHMS had a school bus that was used to take us to parades, take the teams to away games, and so on. Gas, or diesel fuel, was affordable back then. Museums in DC were and still are, free. Could we not have been taken, maybe one or two grades at a time, for a field trip to DC? Wouldn't that have been a better activity than being cooped up in the gym on a rainy day, or watching a movie in the gym in the evening? As an aside, I should mention that we were charged for movies and that the money was deducted from our sundries account. They could have made a similar deduction for gas and wear and tear on the bus just like they did for movies.

Could they have been more careful with our parents' money? Not everyone is born with a silver spoon in their mouth, you know. Did we really need a pair of "white ducks pants" altered by a tailor of course, to wear just for a couple of hours on one day a year (Military Day)?

Why else would they need to censor mail other than to hide everything that went on? If a child at camp makes up stuff and writes home about it, whoever is in charge of the camp will get a call from the parents and there will be an opportunity for those in charge to discuss the matter and set the record straight. The need for censorship existed only to hide the truth.
Copyright 2011 by Linton Hall Cadet. Please respect copyright by linking to this post instead of copying and pasting. This blog is not affiliated with Linton Hall Military School and all opinions are those of the author. Comments are always welcome; please do not use your name or names of others.

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