Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My last days at Linton Hall: School is out!

The best thing about being in the eighth grade was knowing with complete certainty that it would be my last year at Linton Hall Military School.

That didn't really sink in at first, since I had a long academic year ahead of me, and was wrapped up in the novelty and demands of being an officer, but, sometime around May, I started counting down the days remaining. Then, a few days before graduation, I started counting the hours until my time at Linton Hall would be over.

One thing I remember about the last few days at Linton Hall is that the NCOs (non-commissioned officers, in other words, sargeants) from the seventh grade were left in charge, probably to give them some preparation for being officers the following year, but possibly because after we had received (or not received) our medals on Military Day, many of us didn't care too much about our responsibilities as officers.

We had more free time, and one afternoon the entire eighth grade got to go swimming. I can still recall us changing in a room in the poolhouse, a bunch of 13 to 15 year old boys as sexually developed as we were going to get before leaving Linton Hall Military School, having Sister Doris Nolte, O.S.B. (then known as Sister Mary David OSB) there in the room seeing us naked (watching is a more precise word) as we faced the wall while undressing, trying to avoid her seeing our private parts.

When we went to the pool she sat in the lifeguard's chair, fully dressed in her nun's habit. I wondered -- and feared -- what would happen if someone were about to drown. Would she be willing and able to jump in the pool in her habit and rescue the hapless boy? Just how important was safety? Why wasn't Bill or Linton Hall's Commandant there in her place?

Coming back to the dorms from the pool, I noticed that my bed had been remade, not as well as I had made it that morning, and my mattress had been replaced by one in better shape. The nun who was my dorm prefect said that it was being done so the graduating cadets would sleep better on the last couple of nights, and we would have better memories of Linton Hall Military School after we left.  She knew what was going on -- just like one of the cadets had observed that on the Fridays when we went home, the school lunch was better, so that if our parents asked us what we had eaten for lunch, we would describe that day's lunch, and not the typical meal we ate on other days at Linton Hall.

Another activity for the graduates was a "High Mass" at the Linton Hall convent. There was some really good musical accompaniment to the Mass; good singing by some nuns whom I had never seen before because they did not teach at Linton Hall Military School, and an especially memorable trumpet solo by a nun playing Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." I had not heard much classical music before, and did not learn the name of the composition until many years later, when I heard it again and recognized it, but I still remember watching the trumpet playing nun's face, her cheeks puffing out and turning red, as she played.

One evening, possibly our last evening at Linton Hall Military School, we graduates had dinner at tables that had been set up in the lounge next to the Principal's office. Some of the seventh graders served as waiters. If any of them are reading this, thank you. Over forty years later, I realize how uncomfortable it must have been to serve the graduates excellent food, when the "waiters" had eaten just another ordinary meal. Since we weren't allowed to have money, we couldn't even leave them a tip!

That was the only meal I ate from a china plate (instead of a metal tray) at Linton Hall Military School, and if I'm not mistaken, we each had a steak, same as those steaks whose smell we had noticed coming out of the nun's dining room so many times.

We had also done a dry run of the graduation ceremony, and the Linton Hall Commandant had said that if anyone was not graduating (because he had failed eighth grade) he would still be called to the stage and would receive a diploma holder just like anyone else, but there would be a blank sheet of paper instead of a Linton Hall Military School diploma inside, so that he would not be embarrassed in front of anyone. That was one of the few occasions I can recall of the Linton Hall school administrators not being concerned about embarrassing someone.

We wore white gloves with our dress uniforms at graduation, and paper is more slippery when handled with cotton gloves than with bare hands. One cadet, sitting near me, opened his diploma folder and found a piece of white paper inside, then struggled with his gloved fingers for several seconds that, to him, must have felt like an eternity, as he tried to lift it to see whether or not his diploma was underneath. I wanted to tell him that the white paper was just a protective sheet on top of the diploma, but of course we weren't allowed to speak. After a few seconds he was able to lift the paper to uncover his diploma. He happened to be the cadet with the second-highest grade point average, but Linton Hall Military School was such an unpredictable place that anything was possible.   Both he and the cadet with the highest grade point average had already arbitrarily been deprived of the honor of speaking at graduation, as I've related in my previous blog post, "How awards were given (or denied) at Linton Hall Military School."

When I left after graduating, I did not look back, literally or figuratively. I made no attempt to keep in touch either with those in my graduating class, or with others. Staying in touch would have meant reliving old memories, which I wanted to set aside. And how could I write to friends who were still there and tell them of how different, and wonderful, life after Linton Hall was?

Occasionally, I had nightmares about still being at Linton Hall, and when I woke up, I would feel my bed in the dark, notice that it was my bed at home and not the one at Linton Hall Military School, and go back to sleep. Such dreams became less frequent as the years went on, and less intense, since in later years I would dream that as an adult I was spending a weekend there (to relive the experience? -- dreams don't make much sense) but as an adult I dreamt that my car was parked behind the building, near the Commandant's Jeep, and I could leave anytime I wanted.

During waking hours I did not think about Linton Hall, but my focus was on all the opportunities that my newly restored freedom provided, from deciding what clothes to wear every day, to walking to school or the store, to what my first school dance would be like.

In 1972, I got an invitation from the school to an alumni reunion in observance of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Linton Hall Military School. I had no interest in going, and didn't.

Then in 1978, I happened to see an ad for Linton Hall in the Washington Post and sent away for a brochure, just to see whether the school had changed.

In 1980 I visited on Military Day. Other than the school having dropped the word "military" from its name, it seemed to be the same. Having grown up during the sixties and seventies, the thought had passed through my mind of picketing the school and handing out fliers on Military Day (I was in my early twenties at the time) but I didn't; I just observed for a couple of hours and did not speak to the nuns or Commandant.

It wasn't until around twenty years later that one day, when I happened to be driving on Route 66 in Virginia near Gainesville, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to make a detour to see Linton Hall Military School. The four or five mile trip to Linton Hall, which had previously been a deserted country road, was now packed with houses and townhouses. I wondered whether the school was still there at all. Then I saw it and drove up to the building. It was summer, and there didn't seem to be anyone around. I was about to get out of the car and knock on the front door to ask for permission to walk around the place, when a flood of memories came back, and I decided not to, but just drove around the building and left.

A few years later, as the internet grew, I found Charles Carreon's description of a typical day there, and later found Augustus Cho's book "Great Light Will Shine III: Linton Hall Military School" and ordered it. (1) Although he had written it decades after having been there, his recollections were crystal clear, as if he had written about everything the next day. I also saw the school's website, and found out that the school was now much different, and much better, than it had been in the past.

But there wasn't much else out there describing the conditions that I, and thousands of others, had experienced at Linton Hall Military School, things that had been actively hidden from parents through the school's long-standing practice of censoring all outgoing mail.

In March 2010, I decided to write about those things. A blog just happened to be the easiest way to share my memories on the web. I said what I felt needed to be said, and thought that would be it.

It wasn't until three months later that I wrote my second post, in which I discussed my experiences from an adult point of view. And I thought that would be my last word, which it was for the following six months.

Six months later, I started blogging in earnest, and have since written around 30 posts about Linton Hall Military School. Two of them I have not put on the web, but shared them just with other alumni on Facebook, since they were about specific individuals.

During the two years since I began writing this blog, I've heard from many other alumni, who attended Linton Hall Military School from the 1940s through the present day. I thank each and every one of you who has shared your thoughts and memories. Some of you view your experience there in a positive way, and although we disagree, I thank you for allowing me to consider your point of view.

There were cadet officers there who overstepped their authority. I forgive you for what you've done to me. At the same time, having been an officer myself, I realize that there were times when I called those under my command "a mess," "stupid," and similar words, trying to make them feel bad about themselves. I ask for your forgiveness, and hope that you did not believe what I said about you.

I believe that forgiveness is appropriate only for those who are truly sorry for their actions. I extend my forgiveness to those among the adults in charge who repent and apologize. Even those who did not mete out excessive punishment, tacitly allowed it through their silence. For example, when children who are seven or eight years old were humiliated and intentionally subjected to ridicule by being forced to wear their urine-soaked pajama bottoms around their neck all day, there was no was that nuns who taught or supervised the playground could not be aware of this. In a school where children wear uniforms, this can be spotted from a hundred feet away.

But no, in its official website the Benedictine sisters of Bristow, Virginia still deny this aspect of the past and claim that Linton Hall Military School "soon gained an international reputation for instilling leadership, integrity and character in its students." (2) Come on, the statute of limitations has long passed, why not do the right thing and admit what you did wrong?

I've since heard from recent alumni, and every indication is that today's Linton Hall School is a pretty good place, nothing like it was at the time I attended. I don't know what brought about these changes. Was it a desire to correct the past, or was it only a reaction to parental pressure and declining enrollment? When I look at my old yearbooks, I see that, without considering those graduating, only slightly more than half the students returned from one year to the next. Sounds like a big sign of dissatisfaction to me. Why did they simply drop the word "military" and start referring to themselves as "Linton Hall School" so many years before discontinuing the military program? Why did it take so long for the school to change and realize its potential?

Although I may have said many critical things about Linton Hall Military School, I've done my best to present a fair, balanced viewpoint and have written several times about the good academics and unique opportunities for camping and hiking that were provided by the school's extensive landholdings (over 1,700 acres when I was there.) With those resources, this could have been a wonderful school.

To my fellow cadets, we had a tough time there, and many of you had it far, far worse than I did. I wish you all the very best, and hope you had many good things happen to you in the years after you left.

1. "Great Light Will Shine III: Linton Hall Military School" by Augustus Cho, available at lulu.com
2. Brochure quoted in the June 8, 2012 entry at http://lhmscadet.wordpress.com
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