On the day after I sang a disarmament song for my father I was informed that I would be changing schools. The year was 1963, a month before the assassination of John F Kennedy. I was eight years old; a middle-class Manhattan boy living with my parents and two younger brothers in a 650-squarefoot apartment on 19th Street and 2nd Avenue (an area that, even in the gentrified New York of today, remains defiantly nowheresville). And I was just a few months into my fourth year at Downtown Community – an unapologetically progressive primary school located in the heart of the East Village on St Mark’s Place. Downtown Community was co-educational (rare for that era) and against any sort of aggressive punishment (also atypical at the time). If an infraction occured, a child was taken aside, gently talked through his or her wrongdoing and then asked to make polite amends. Our school playground was Tompkins Square Park – a notorious Lou Reed-esque corner of Alphabet City in which we romped on a small enclave of swings and slides while junkies shot up and park bench drunks pissed their pants and hustlers of both sexes practised their trade.
None of us young New Yorkers thought twice about such mean-streets vistas. Nor were we taken aback when our headmaster lead us in a decidedly Young Pioneers of Minsk song with the following telling lyric:
“… and into ploughshares beat their swords/ Nations shall learn war no more’.
My mistake was going home and repeating this ditty in front of my father. I had no idea that my Irish-Catholic dad – raised in a deeply working-class corner of Brooklyn and a proud veteran of the United States Marine Corps (the most fanatical branch of the US Armed Services) – would have such a virulent reaction. Halfway into my rendition he stopped me and: “They’re teaching you this Red pacifist shit at school?”
The next day my mother told me: ‘Great news… you have an interview at Collegiate!”
I had no idea what she was talking about. I soon came to learn that the Collegiate School for Boys was considered the ne plus ultra of Manhattan prep schools. It was the oldest extant educational institution in the United States, founded by Dutch merchants and their accompanying men of God in 1628 when our island was called Nieuw Amsterdam, and had retained its Dutch Reformed Church identity and its ferociously rigorous academic standards. After the bohemianism of Downtown Community the school’s intense sartorial formality was also a shock: a dark blue school blazer, a collared shirt, a tie, grey flannels and proper shoes were the enforced norm. I showed up for my interview dressed in these new stiff clothes. I first sat the exams they set for me, and then was dispatched to a classroom where I made a bad impression when I didn’t stand with all the other boys when am adult entered the classroom. The teacher – a stern fellow who looked Dickensian in a three-piece suit – ordered me to my feet, asking:
“Your last name.”
“‘Kennedy, sir’,” he said, correcting me.
“Sorry, sir,” I said in reply.
“You’re a fast learner, Kennedy,” he said with a curt nod, then told me I could sit down.
I remember returning home from my day’s introduction to the school, hoping the fact I hadn’t stood up would block my admission to Collegiate. Alas I was offered a place. And eight months later, outfitted in the Collegiate uniform, I entered fifth grade. I was the new boy – and I quickly discovered that new boys were given a very hard time. We’d moved uptown to a corner of the West Side near the school, taking over my grandfather’s rent-controlled apartment – the only affordable option for us – and I found myself to be one of the lone West Siders amid a sea of sons of familial wealth from the Upper East Side. These were kids whose parents owned big department stores or oil companies or were the most senior of partners in Wall Street law firms. Leonard Bernstein’s son was in the class behind me. John F Kennedy Jr – the late president’s son – would enter the school two years after me. After the East Village egalitarianism of Downtown Community this was a strange new world: a wealth divide. When I later started visiting certain of these classmates at their apartments I was conscious of things that weren’t part of our fractious domestic life: serious interior design. Serious art. Domestic staff. A noblesse oblige view of life as considered from a panoramic vista high above Central Park.
And then there was the immense formality of school life. I was assigned to the homeroom of a certain Mr Mitchell, an unmarried Irishman who was waspish and authoritarian, and brilliant when it came to introducing us to the poetry of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson – which he intoned in a voice brimming with lyrical intelligence. He was also known as a homeroom teacher with a low tolerance threshold and a need for absolute order and discipline. The inside of your desk had to be kept immaculately – all notebooks and pencils and books lined up with military precision. Were you to fall short of his standards you could be subjected to what was known as a Mitchell Movement – in which he would (during his weekly random inspections) throw open the wooden desk cover and begin to shout loudly at the offending boy about the chaos within it. Then he would hurl all its detritus across the room before finally lifting up the desk and sending it crashing to the floor. Returning to his own desk and mopping his brow with his handkerchief, he would calmly tell the now traumatised student to put his desk back together again… and demonstrate his new-found understanding of perfect order.
Collegiate was competitive and unforgiving. Some years later, when we were in 9th grade (around the age of 13), the 45 of us in our year were divided into three groups based on our then-perceived intellectual prowess. I was crushed to be told I was at the near top of the B group. Not to make it into the A group – the already ascertained high achievers – was a failure that haunted me for years afterwards. Moreover, if you were in any way unsporty – or someone who struck your classmates as quirky, strange, awkward (I checked all those boxes) – you were immediately targeted as a perfect bullying prospect.
There was a seriously badass bully in our class named Ames Sweet. From the moment I started fifth grade he made my life hell. Ames had a habit of kneeing me in the back and calling me “Bouncy” (having been born with severely knocked knees and fallen arches, I walked with a basket-ball gait). He also taunted me with the word “faggot”. When I asked my mother for its meaning it caused her to turn red (this was 1964, after all). It was, she said, a word I didn’t need to understand right now. I was not the only victim of Sweet’s vindictive repertoire.
By my third week at school I was dreading what the day would bring. When Sweet shoved my face into a plate of the school’s terrible beets, I snapped. Later that afternoon, in the hallway, I shoved Sweet hard, knocking him to his knees. Mr Mitchell witnessed this incident, and grabbed me by my blazer collar, telling me I was in serious trouble for attacking another student. I tried to explain that Sweet had been picking on me from the moment I entered Collegiate.
“He keeps calling me a faggot!” I shouted.
“How dare you use that word!” Mr Mitchell shouted back at me
“I don’t use it. Ames Sweet uses it against me all the time.”
“And you’ve just used it – and I’m sure you don’t even know what it means!”
“I asked my Mom. But she told me…”
“That you should never use words like that. And now I have no choice but to give you a Saturday detention.”
I started to cry. Because I had heard all about Saturday detentions – the Collegiate version of the Gulag.
“This is so unfair.”
“Welcome to life, Kennedy. It’s often unfair.”
My mother offered to plead my case to the school. My dad told her that “Douglas is going to take his punishment like a man” and actually congratulated me on fighting back, telling me:
“Next time wait until you’re outside the school and kick the little shit’s teeth in.”
Interesting advice to impart to a nine year old.
As the year was 1964, and corporal punishment was no longer condoned in the United States, Collegiate had (as I came to discover) invented a new form of harsh penalisation to replace the cane or the belt strap. There were seven of us miscreants outside the front door of Collegiate early that Saturday morning. When the detention proctor – an upperclassman – opened the door at 8am promptly he informed us that we were to form a line and follow him into a classroom. Once there he told us to occupy the first two rows of desks. Then he informed us that, once he ordered us to sit, we were to do just that and lace our hands together and stare straight ahead.
“One, two, three, sit” he intoned.
We all sat down.
The proctor then went to the chalkboard and, using white chalk, drew a dot the size of a 50-pence piece.
“Now you have something to stare at,” he informed us.
For the next two hours that is all we did: stare straight ahead at the chalked dot. We were not allowed to slouch or glance elsewhere. If your head dropped, if your eyes veered away from the dot, you were reprimanded. Two further reprimands meant coming back for another round of agony next Saturday.
Agony was the appropriate word for what might still be the longest two hours of my life. Blaise Pascal noted that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” – but tell that to a nine-year-old who still hasn’t developed much of an interior life. I was reprimanded twice for dropping my head. I needed to pee in the most awful and profound way. The chalk dot became an immense spatial hole into which my very young psyche was being sucked. I remember tears running down my face. Sitting bolt upright and not being allowed to move for two hours was not just physically taxing but psychologically vertiginous. It was a form of torture – something that you’d expect to be played out in one of the Kim family’s chambers of North Korean horrors or Guantanamo.
When I came home, with a urine stain on my pants, my father remarked: “I’d take staring at a blackboard over getting whipped by one of those Christian Brothers assholes at my old school. Those celibate fuckers beat the religion right out of me.”
As a nine-year-old I had no idea what “celibate” meant.
One of the great conservative bromides about harsh punishment is that it sets an example to reprobates of the horrors awaiting them should they transgress again. After those two hours of fixed-gaze torture I never shoved a bully back and suffered in silence as Ames Sweet continued to pick on me for the coming years. I was never subjected to a Saturday detention again. I also was immaculate when it came to all aspects of school comportment. I never committed an infraction again.
When the American Sixties finally began to swing – and the entire conservative/corporate/white male ethic of the country found itself under counter culture attack – even rigid Collegiate had to bend with the times. By 1968 jeans and trainers were allowed and school blazers were not de rigueur (though we always had to wear a proper jacket). The Saturday detention came to an end around the same time that I headed off to university in 1972.
As hard as I have tried to push it out of my memory, those two torturous hours remain a central painful childhood event. A year after the detention a new history master forced me to finish a plate of beets over lunch. When I explained to him that I had a serious problem with beets he told me that if I didn’t “clean” that plate in front of me I would get a Saturday detention. In panic, I wolfed down a mouthful. Several moments later I projectile vomited all over this history master’s grey Harris Tweed jacket. I began to cry, trying to make apologies with a mouth dripping with beet vomit, exclaiming:
“I told you I couldn’t eat beets, sir!”
To his infinite credit the history master didn’t rub acid into my still-open wounds and inflict a Saturday detention on me.
But since that day 53 years ago I remain anxious in the presence of beets.
Douglas Kennedy’s 13th novel, “The Great Wide Open”, will be published by Hutchinson in 2019
This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit