I think it was my mother who told me that North Country School, to which she was sending me in the autumn of 1942, was “progressive.” That meant progressive had to be a glamorous, advanced, and positive thing. I was only seven, but already I knew that everything my mother did was glamorous and advanced. She had been one of New York’s first women advertising copywriters, in the 1930’s when advertising was still a relatively unfashionable, dashing new field. She was, it went without saying, a Democrat and an ardent New Dealer. In 1942, she was advertising manager for Saks Fifth Avenue, and her clothes were all in the latest style; her cosmetics were samples of brands that weren’t even on the market yet.
Progressive education, it seemed, meant children being allowed to wear casual, practical clothes. At the Brearley School, which I’d been attending in Manhattan, I had worn frilly frocks. At North Country School, which was in the country in upstate New York, I wore blue jeans and lumberjack shirts. In New York, I took a bath every night; at North Country, two a week. In New York, Mrs. Johnson, the cook who looked after me, used to force my hair into corkscrew curls with the aid of metal rollers. At North Country, my hair hung straight, confined by only one barrette. My casual clothes and hair meant that I was much more comfortable in classes like “arts and crafts.” “Creativity” was something to be encouraged at progressive schools, In addition to Arts and Crafts, I could draw during regular classes at North Country.
In other ways, “progressive education” at North Country defined itself by the life we led, and a busy life it was. We were rousted out of bed at seven a.m., and we dressed hastily, both because of the chill in the air and because there were many things to be done before breakfast. When the children were assigned to “barn chores,” each had a horse to clean, or chickens to feed or cows to milk. If it was their turn for “house chores,” they would be expected to help lay the breakfast tables, sweep the halls, or clean the bathrooms. We ate breakfast at eight o’clock, falling to ravenously on oranges, oatmeal, eggs, and toast or pancakes. We knew that we could be asked to leave the table for swearing or being rowdy, that teachers would whack at our elbows with a knife if they saw them on the table—and that children who failed to finish what was on their plates would simply be left, after the meal, until they did eventually finish.
There were always, of course, a few such stubborn children, just as each class had its share of pests, brats, whiny little stinkers, and general all-purpose troublemakers. For “progressive education” was considered particularly wise for “problem children,” and this many of us were. We knew it, and we gloried in it. Board and room for grades two through eight at North Country was $1500 a year, and parents had to be either terribly rich or else terribly concerned about their children to pay that. Many of us had divorced or separated parents. Many of us had done extremely poorly in the schools we had attended before we came to North Country. Many of us came from exceedingly wealthy homes. I can still recall one little girl who bragged about how all her clothes came from De Pinna’s, and how she was in the Social Register.
I was, I suppose, a typical phenomenon, even though my mother was not rich. She decided to send me to North Country when she herself went to Washington to work for the Office of War Information. My father, whom she had divorced when I was two, lived in California. The cook, Mrs. Johnson, had let me amuse myself much as I pleased. My grandmother, a Methodist minister’s widow, was a saintly soul who picked up every last toy I left lying on the floor. The result was that, by the end of second grade in Brearley, I had become chubby, self-pitying, bossy, bookish, and spoiled.
I was sent first to Camp Treetops, which was located during the summer months on the same tract of land in the Adirondacks where North Country was during the winter. It was run by Helen and Douglas Haskell, who looked after the older children in “senior camp,” a series of summer houses and tents that decorated a ridge of high land overlooking the lake. The “junior camp,” in which I was enrolled, used the school buildings and was supervised by Leonora Clark. Leo Clark and Helen Haskell were sisters. Leo, I soon discovered, was a tougher customer than any adult I had hitherto known. She was short, squarely built, and forever bustling about, clad in a pair of grey flannel slacks. She had iron-grey hair, a mouthful of buck teeth, and a tendency to deafness. By the Saks Fifth Avenue standards to which I was accustomed, she did not seem very feminine. What she had was a preter-natural ability to see through childish defenses, nor had she the slightest intention of letting anybody get away with anything.
My first Sunday at Treetops, all the children had to write postcards home. My idea of a graciously witty postcard ran something like this: “Dear Mommy: We had soup for lunch today. I made Leo Clark lie down and roll in the soup.” To my amazement, Leo told me she didn’t think it was very funny. I had to write a totally different postcard. No one had ever challenged my sense of humor like that before. My mother and her friends usually cooed at my precocity.
Still, the camp otherwise did keep me occupied and moderately peaceable throughout the summer with an interesting new mixture of tastes, activities, and smells. On big grassy fields, we played “kick the can” and “capture the flag.” We rode the ponies who trotted out from the big old barn, smelling of manure, sweat, and saddle leather. We swam and canoed in Round Lake, and we picked juicy raspberries on the way back from swimming. I slept with three other children in a tent and discovered the arcane joy of sneaking out after “lights out” to pee in the fragrant balsam copse behind the tents.
The camp was set in the middle of friendly, tree-covered mountains. The counselors took us up some of them, starting with Trouble, a hillock at the back of the property. Eating our peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, we looked down on the naturally lovely landscape spread out beneath us—hayfields, pastures, woods, roads, brooks, and buildings. On drowsy July days we might see gnarled old Uncle Jesse, the tobacco-chewing farmhand, driving a huge load of new-mown hay along the camp’s dirt road, behind the draft team.
When my mother came to visit, she worked me into a conversation that got me saying how much I liked the place, then asked whether I would like to go to the school there in the winter. I said yes, sure, why not? though without any enthusiasm. The school I returned to in late September, after leaving the camp before Labor Day, was subtly different. The trees were already bare, and even in September, there was a nip in the air. The senior camp buildings on the ridge by Round Lake were all boarded up. The school was much smaller than the camp, with only 20 or 25 students, and the children seemed more serious about their endeavors. In some mysterious way, they seemed to feel that what happened to the school depended at least in part on them. It was a very young institution, only four years old.
Most of the weekday was spent in class. My teacher, Jerry Helmuth, was not very inspiring, and besides I felt ill at ease with the three other children in Group B, for they were really fourth-graders, and two years older than I. Group A was second grade, and I was the only child entering third grade in the school. They had hoped I could be persuaded to repeat second grade, since I had been a year ahead of my age group at Brearley, but after a day in Group A I was obviously bored stiff.
Leo Clark was back at the school, but the Haskells had gone back to Manhattan, and the school was really run by Walter Clark, Leo’s husband. Walter was tall and skinny, with a gentle smile, a small dark mustache, a hank of hair that fell over his forehead, and the kind of total dignity which awes the average child. He used to preside, in a blue denim jacket, at morning barn chores, and he had the same calming effect on spooky horses.
Leo helped to manage the school’s office work, looked after the infirmary, and meddled in children’s affairs just as she had at the camp. She and Walter lived in the Main Building. Like most of the other children in the school, I also lived there, and we all ate, studied, and played there. A handful of older boys lived with a couple of teachers in the old farmhouse, while a half-dozen others lived in the “Little House,” a new building not far from the Main Building.
I had never seen a building quite like the Main Building before. As might be expected for a progressive school, it was a progressive building, architecturally, with flat roofs, natural pine siding, large plate glass windows, and sunbays which jutted out to capture every last winter ray. We entered the building through a “locker room” where all the children had separate stalls in which to keep their galoshes and outdoor clothes.
The dining room was lined with bookshelves under the picture windows (it also doubled as the library). The stairs in the main hall, as well as the back stairs, had slides built into one side of them, so that children could whoosh down to breakfast, lunch, and supper. It was a school built for children to learn in and enjoy themselves in, but it was also designed by someone who knew a good deal about “progressive” architecture. Douglas Haskell, who had designed it, worked during the winter as editor of the Architectural Record in New York.
Jerry Helmuth posted a map of the Pacific on the classroom wall, and marked off Axis and Allied battlefronts with red-and white-headed pins, but I didn’t pay much attention. Our class occupied a sunbay in one of the classrooms, and I used to spend much time goofing off in class, gazing out the windows at the spindly balsam trees growing down the slopes outside, at the occasional rabbit or chipmunk or squirrel who hopped out onto the grass or snow.
Bill Newton and Dave McClanahan, the two boys in Group B, used to study plane spotters’ manuals avidly. Mimi Coletti, the only other girl in the class, was as bored by war games as I was. A delightfully whimsical, doe-eyed child from Massachusetts, she was also my roommate and a source of considerable awe. Despite the fact that she could not, and never did learn to spell “women” (it always came out “wimen”), she was two years older than I.
Bill Newton and I used to fight each other for the dog-eared copies of Life magazine which were kept in the dining room, near the fireplace. The winner got to study photographs of dead soldiers before lunch. So great, evidently, was the pleasure that Bill gave me a black eye once. On the shelf beside the magazines was the school phonograph. It was used in music classes to play things like Beethoven’s Seventh, but the boys also used it to play a Spike Jones record called In der Führer’s Face. It featured Bronx cheers in the chorus and was a smashing success with me and the two little girls who really were my best friends, Peggotty Namm and Kaye Clark.
Kaye and Peggotty probably didn’t like me all that much, but I was the only other seven-year-old girl in the school that year, and seven-year-old girls’ games all need three to play. Typical of them was what I now think of as “the bathroom game.” We used to lock ourselves into the bathroom and fall into torrents of giggles induced by peeing in the sink, manufacturing farts and belches, or using wicked words like “bowel movement” and “bosom.” But the bathroom game worked best when two of us were locked into the bathroom— and the third pounded haplessly on the bathroom door.
Peggotty was never the outsider. Named for the virtuous old lady in David Copperfield, she had snapping black eyes, black pigtails, and the charisma of a de Gaulle. Kaye and I were perpetually either her loyal follower, or else the sucker left outside the bathroom door. Kaye was harmless enough. Her only offense was to have Walter and Leo for parents, and to remind us constantly of the fact by having buck teeth just like Leo’s, and a lanky, bony build just like her father’s. But I had developed several nasty habits—hitting, scratching, biting, or kicking were my frequent means of communication. This tended to leave me on the outside of the bathroom door more often than Kaye.
Once, when Leo found me banging away, she marched me off to her room and gave me a short, crisp course on why other children didn’t like me. Then, when she had me snuffling, she cheered me up by telling me a saying her grandfather had taught her. “One girl is one girl,” she said, “But two girls is only a half-a-girl, and three girls is no girl at all.” Despite such homey advice, I was often homesick that winter. On the nights after we got back from vacation, I used to lie in bed and figure out how everybody in the school had something or somebody to keep them going—everybody but me. I would sob under the covers so loudly that a teacher would come and hug and kiss me and try to make me feel better.
On the other hand, I found it hard to remain feeling persecuted and rejected throughout the semester. There were far too many interesting things to do, from helping to harvest potatoes and turnips and carrots to grating cabbages for sauerkraut and scraping the bristles from butchered pigs. On Friday and Saturday evenings, if there was nothing else doing, we would square dance to records. Movies were sometimes shown. For birthdays, the tables in the dining room were shoved together at suppertime into the shape of the birthday child’s initial. Place-cards and decorations, the latter generally consisting largely of balsam boughs, were made by children who wanted to be the “decorations committee.” The games we played afterwards were planned or selected by the “entertainment committee.” “Murder in the Dark” was easily No. 1 on the Hit Parade.
Halloween was celebrated with a costume party. After supper, we ducked for apples and tried to cut piles of flour with a knife, without dislodging the penny stuck in the middle. The climax of the evening was the “torture chamber,” through which children were conducted one by one to experience electric shocks, view red-lit cattle skulls, and have their hands plunged into a bowlful of “eyeballs”— peeled grapes. It was all good for a giggling shudder.
Thanksgiving summoned parents forth from the city, and, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, the parents were expected to take their children into the nearby town of Lake Placid. Christmas included Santa, pageants, and Christmas trees in every bedroom, cut down by the roommates inhabiting the room and trimmed by them with paper stars, chains, and “cootie-catchers.” Valentines were made for weeks beforehand in Arts and Crafts classes, then posted—without any signatures allowed—in a large anonymous mailbox.
It was a bitterly cold winter. In January and February, the temperature got down to forty below on a couple of days. When that happened, none of us was allowed outdoors. We stayed inside and breathed icy holes in the lacy frost that rimed the window panes, in the bathrooms where we could lock the doors. The teachers didn’t approve of the sport, because it left grimy marks on the glass.
When the temperature got back up to only five or ten below zero, we were bundled out in snowsuits, or with ski pants and parkas wadded on over our sweaters, blue jeans, and long winter underwear. We each had our sleds, which were owned by the school and reassigned to different children each year, because we outgrew them so fast. Skis, skiboots, and skates were usually treated in the same way.
Our skis were made of wide, flat slats of wood, equipped with what I hear skiers today refer to patronizingly as “those old-fashioned bear-trap bindings.” Only the oldest and most expert skiers at North Country had skis with steel edges on them, as well as what we in reverent terms called “cable bindings.” Despite their crudity, our skis were ideal for cross-country runs, and easy enough to handle on the gentle slopes we skied. When we came out at morning “outtime,” the ground was often covered with several inches of fresh powder.
Kaye, Peggotty, and I barely reached the snowplow stage that winter. Skiing was difficult for us, and we enjoyed ourselves more in the afternoons after classes were over, floundering around in a large clump of ironweed near the school building. Immense, feathery flakes had settled lightly onto its branches, leaving huge airholes beneath, so that the soft white blanket would collapse under us at the slightest touch, sending us off into gales of laughter.
April, in the Adirondacks, means sparkling sunshine that sends icicles dripping and snow melting into a cavalcade of brooklets. We returned after spring vacation to find that morning outtimes were no longer for skiing, but for sugaring. We helped to collect the sap buckets that had been hung against the maple trees in the “sugarbush” over by Round Lake. Afterwards, we shared a cup of fresh, warm maple syrup from the sugarhouse tap, sipping it like nectar. In May, the snow disappeared entirely, and the grass began to look green again.
I returned to Treetops that summer. Among the new counselors at the camp were a married couple in their twenties named Edgar and Elsa Bley. Ed was short, bespectacled, curly-haired, and solidly built; Elsa was tall, skinny, and blonde. The following fall, when I returned to North Country, I learned that Ed was to be the teacher of my group, which was still called Group B but had grown to some eight students. With Elsa, he lived in the Little House and looked after a group of the Group B boys.
A tasty lot we were. Sally Deaver, the third girl in the group, was a pouty blonde from Philadelphia, and a born ringleader of rebellion. Bill Newton was not back, but Dave McClanahan, a mousy-haired, spectacled boy scientist, was— and he was joined by Dave Bernays, a whiny, curly-haired boy scientist, with a penchant for terrible jokes. Pink-cheeked Peter Franklin was an innocuous and charming child, but Steve Bowes was a freckled, shifty-eyed, and evasive little nuisance. Connie Caulkins was a bossy, miserable snob.
The group would have driven even an experienced teacher to the wall—and Ed Bley had never even taught a class before. He was, instead, a writer manqué who had graduated from City College in New York and spent his early twenties hitchhiking around the Kentucky mountains and trying to become a painter in New Orleans. Elsa was a registered nurse of Swedish extraction, and, when they first came to North Country, they were newlyweds and still moony-eyed about each other. They had a special song they whistled, to summon each other on hikes, and Elsa even had a private name for Ed. She called him Peter. Needless to say, this sort of behavior struck us as Grade A adult idiocy, and we razzed them about it whenever we got the chance.
Outside of class, we liked Ed well enough. He could be counted upon for a lively hit in baseball games, climbed mountains willingly, and skied just badly enough so that we could feel comfortably superior. But when it came to class, we reveled in Ed’s ineptitude. Spitballs flew through the air, and rubber bands stung against cheeks. Taunts delivered sotto voce mingled with outright threats. Ed had to force somebody to leave class at least once a week.
Then, gradually, he began to develop a more comprehensive line of defense. Insults and even bits of chalk came hurtling back at us, and with a college degree, Ed could easily upstage us when it came to invective. “That was a rude and uncalled-for remark,” he hissed once at Sally, when she had needled him during a session of diagramming sentences. Thereafter, we would chorus “That was a rude and uncalled-for remark” at him.
We were supposed to be studying the pioneers in Social Studies class. Alas, Mimi, Dave McClack, and I had studied the same subject with Jerry Helmuth, and we voiced our overwhelming boredom with the subject. Sally joined in, making the expression official. However, one chapter of our pioneer studies was difficult to denounce. That was our pioneer trip, undertaken in October. Elsa helped the girls to make long skirts, which we wore over our blue jeans. In shop class, the boys were shown how to cut out wood to make rifles, and I rather think Elsa helped them to make their coonskin caps.
We took an old buggy from the barn and made a small but remarkably convincing Conestoga wagon out of it by lacing saplings on either side of its body, then tying them over the top. On this skeleton, we stretched old potato sacks which had been sewn together. We threw our sleeping bags and foodstuffs into the wagon and set off with two ponies drawing it while we trudged afoot.
The second night out, we pitched our camp in a wooded valley. Suddenly, as we were unhitching the ponies, we were attacked by INDIANS, or to be more exact, Groups C and D from N.C.S. Without telling Ed, Walter had organized the raid, and the raiding party had ridden after us on the school horses. After the attack got boring, the Indians came out of the brush, and we all smoked a peace pipe consisting of one cigarette. Each child took a puff, and then the Indians rode back to the school for supper.
When we returned from Christmas vacation, we found that Ed had completely revised the Social Studies class. We were now going to study the different immigrant groups that had come to America. The English came first, so we studied them first, and then the Germans, Irish, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Chinese, Italians, Scandinavians, and Greeks. For each national group, Ed drew careful maps on the blackboard, showing where each group had come from and where they settled in the U.S. He wrote lists of foreign words that had come into English from each language on the blackboard, and we discussed these and the distinctive institutions which each nationality had brought to the U.S. Ed himself was fascinated by this aspect of American history, and we found ourselves catching fire from him, beginning to absorb information almost in spite of ourselves.
In music class, we sang folk songs of each national group. We put on plays, about a Polish family (based on Marcia Davenport’s The Valley of Decision, which Ed had read aloud to us in rest hour) and about a Chinese family. The plots were worked out by us in class, the lines delivered in more or less extemporaneous fashion. The roles were cast by majority vote. The technique was followed by other grades as well, and resulted in dialogue sometimes more natural than authentic. “Seconds on spinach, Mr. Lincoln?” asked one child once, when playing Mary Todd Lincoln at the dinner table in a performance about the President’s assassination.
Group B’s course in immigration with Ed flowed naturally onward into next year’s Social Studies. When we returned from summer vacation (which I had spent at a summer camp in New Hampshire), we had become Group C and Ed decided we would spend the entire year studying the Negro immigration (“Negro” was still a progressive term in those days; retrograde was “colored”). During the fall semester, we learned about the black man’s life in Africa. We made a huge, papier-mâché map of the continent. Painting ourselves from head to toe with brown poster paint (it itched), we staged a choral reading of an African folk tale.
Ed brought a primitive African mask to English class, and asked us to write short stories about it. He also showed us how to write free verse, encouraging us to coin words. To show us how this was properly done, he read aloud to us poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and e.e. Cummings.
The class had lost three children to a new Group D: Connie and the two Daves, it turned out, were really older than we and belonged in seventh grade, rather than sixth, which was Group C. In their places, three new boys had arrived: Neil Bry, a brawny, boisterous blond with acne and an extensive vocabulary of four-letter words, which we learned but did not use in front of the teachers. Peter Pratt, a beefy braggart with a slight German accent. And Timothy Asch, an earnest, gangling lad with tortoise-shell spectacles and a huge Adam’s apple.
“You’re Jewish,” Mimi informed Timothy shortly after he arrived, as much in the spirit of research as derision. Not long after that, by a curious coincidence, a stock of educational comic books arrived and were passed out by Ed to the class.
They dealt with “scapegoats,” and told vividly how the Nazis had used the Jews as scapegoats. No more talk was heard about who was Jewish and who was not.
The arrival of Sally, even during the first year in Ed’s Group B, had put me very much in a corner. I had grown up too much to enjoy playing with Kaye and Peggotty, but Sally inevitably claimed Mimi as her best friend. That left me as a perpetual third wheel. However, in group activities I could of course take part. One of our favorite diversions was called “catting,” and Sally, Mimi, Connie, and I did this by putting on hip boots and wading downstream in the brook which ran through the school property, to a farmhouse just beyond its boundaries. There we would play with the dozen-odd kittens who romped about the ramshackle stoop.
Under Leo’s prodding, I had pretty much given up hitting other little girls or trying to boss them around. The trouble was, I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I couldn’t ride very well; I couldn’t ski worth a damn. In both of these sports, Sally excelled. I didn’t have Mimi’s marvelous turn of phrase. “Oh, ish!” Mimi would exclaim, in tones of elegant disdain, much as an 18th-century duchess might have said, “Fie!”
Still, in class, I could see that Ed liked my short stories and poems. And I was also better than Mimi and Sally in math, which was taught by Carl Dennett, a cheerful, redhaired martinet. When Ed perched on his desk, blue jeans crossed, he rambled on passionately about the injustices of slavery in four-syllable words as often as one-syllable ones. Sally or Peter or “Breezy” (Neil Bry) might catch a tenth of what he said, but I found myself able to grasp at least a fourth. Secure in this knowledge, I began to assert myself slightly. When Group B was casting its plays, I had self-effacingly voted for Mimi every time. But in Group C, when we staged a play on Harriet Tubman, the black woman abolitionist, I voted for myself. Ed, who counted the votes while we hid our faces in one elbow and raised the other hand, announced that I had won the role by a vote of four to three.
I regretted it. On the night of the performance, Act I called for me, as the child Harriet, to sing “Go Down, Moses,” the spiritual of defiance, and thus outrage my wicked master. When the moment came, I found that I had forgotten every word, even the melody itself. A music teacher standing in the wings had to start the song.
All the girls were horse-crazy that year. We all drew horses during class, and read Black Beauty and C.W. Anderson and Walter Farley. Sally unofficially appropriated a high-spirited white mare named Sally, cleaned her at barn chores, and rode her whenever possible. Patsy Arens, an intense young lady in Group D who wanted to be a writer when she grew up, latched onto a silly but beautiful black mare named Lady. Mimi, more often than not, trotted out on Cricket, a sassy little bay. That left me with Step-Along, a stupid, rawboned, Roman-nosed gelding who never seemed to know whether he was coming or going. He made me feel poised by comparison.
To be sure, I never felt entirely confident on his back or on any other horse. They were such immense, heavy animals, and barn chores gave me the chance I really preferred to lavish affection on them from the ground. We would hustle out at the break of day, when the sky was only beginning to turn red in the east. The horses set up a hungry din as we shoved back the great barn door. One of us would scramble up the ladder to the dusty hayloft and pitch down forkfuls of hay, so that we could feed the horses. One by one, we led them out to the round wooden watering trough beside the barn. Even the largest horses sipped delicately at the water’s surface, like ladies sipping tea.
On very cold mornings in the winter, when the horses had been kept cooped up all week, they could get nervous and wild, and they snorted and whiffled at the water instead of drinking it. Younger horses would toss up their heads, rip their halters out of our hands, and canter impishly away from us. On Sunday evening, when we had more time, we would let them all out into the snowy pasture for a fling. They plunged about, bucking and kicking and farting into the wind like zanies.
Finally, we took them back into their stalls and curried them and brushed them. We shovelled the manure from their stalls, sprinkled fresh sawdust or straw beneath their feet, and parceled a can of oats apiece into their feed boxes. As we shoved the barn door back into place, the only sound would be the steady, gratifying grinding of 20-odd sets of jaws.
The summer of 1945 was an unsettling time for me. My mother remarried, and we moved for the summer to a rented house in Hartsdale, Westchester County. My new stepfather had two sons about my age. The three of us spent the summer playing baseball and listening to Yankee games on the radio, while my mother and stepfather took the train in to the city and work every weekday morning. When I got back to school, in the fall of ‘45, I contracted one irritating cold after another. Indeed, I spent so much time in the infirmary behind the kitchen that I missed most of fall Social Studies. My class, which was now Group D and still taught by Ed, was studying Canada and Latin America. I was in the infirmary, too, when Leo came to tell me just before Thanksgiving that my mother and my stepfather had decided to get divorced. After that, I recovered rapidly.
I was not sick again that year, which was lucky particularly because our English class was studying newspapers, and I was to become a journalist after I left college. Each group at North Country had some special task connected with running the school. Group D’s task was to edit (and print) Northern Lights, a mimeographed magazine which came out once a term. It carried stories and poems written by children in every class. Usually, Northern Lights, which was also sent to the parents, carried a kind of newsletter at the beginning, describing the events of the term. Ed decided to expand this into a miniature newspaper. He showed us the differences between papers like the New York Times and the Herald-Tribune, and the News and the Mirror, pointing out that the tabloids had the vocabulary of a child of 12. Since ours were, for the most part, comfortably beyond the average 12-year-old vocabularies already, we felt comfortably superior to the News.
We learned how both the tabloids and the more serious newspapers slanted stories, by selecting facts carefully and using charged words in headlines or text. And, of course, he taught us the five basic W’s of reporting (who, what, where, when, and why, plus how). We practiced getting them into the lead paragraphs of our reports, which dealt with local events. In writing such stories, Ed had a bit of difficulty convincing me that the correct word to describe the persons engaged in these activities was “children.” I automatically wrote “kids,” which was the word Ed and most of the other teachers used when referring to us. The only other word in general use was “people.” “Children” sounded very unprogressive and patronizing.
Insults and heckling were common also between teachers and children. Someone listening to them, indeed, might have had difficulty telling who was in charge at the school (although in reality, there was never any real doubt. The adults planned their strategies at lengthy faculty meetings, held after we were safely asleep, and we rejoiced in the ensuing sense of security without being aware of it). As a way of keeping us in line, Ed used to threaten us with improbable fates. “We took a vote in faculty meeting,” he told me once at lunch, when I was being particularly brattish, “and decided that you were the second-most edible girl in school.” I was going through a period, around then, when I tried to make puns out of every possible sentence. “A pun is the lowest form of humor,” he coldly informed me—several times.
A goodly number of the Bleys’ favorite children were living with them in the farmhouse that year. Mimi, Sally, Connie, and I shared one large room, with sloping rafters, over the living room. We talked and tittered after lights out interminably. Ed sometimes tucked us into bed, and once he tried to kiss us goodnight, but we fought him off (or at any rate, Sally did, and he was too embarrassed to come near anyone else).
We were just beginning to become aware of the fact that we were growing into women. Sally’s and Mimi’s bodies were starting to develop, but Sally’s way of coping with the event was to resist it violently (she could afford to—the boys were nuts about her anyway). The rest of us docilely aped her. Boys became, in our eyes, even more objectionable than they had been in Groups B and C. We wore not only blue jeans during the day but also pajamas at night, and any talk at all of “boy friends” and “girl friends” was strictly taboo. The household’s prime recipient of affectionate gestures was a fat gray cat named Timothy—although after Christmas we were also joined by Alexandra, a new baby whom Elsa had brought forth over the vacation.
Twice a week, in the evenings, we took showers, and Ed and Elsa often scrubbed our backs until they were red and tingling with delight. A favorite threat of Ed’s was that he would scrub through the flesh until only the bones were left (this had happened in the African folk tale we gave the reading of). If I secretly suspected I was Ed’s favorite child, Tim may well have felt the same way about Elsa. He had arrived at the school with a dutiful penchant for neatness, but he speedily developed into a champion slob. We had to dress and clean up our rooms extra quickly in the mornings at the farmhouse, because it was a good ten minutes’ walk from the Main Building and we never could come back after breakfast to finish the job. Yet somehow Tim always managed to leave a shirt or a towel lying about in his room. Elsa would call the Main Building during breakfast to make him walk back and pick it up—an irritating and yet motherly gesture.
On Saturdays and Sundays, when the Bleys had a day off, they would invite us, one at a time, to come to breakfast with them. If we strolled in late some Saturday or Sunday afternoon, we might find Ed practicing his clarinet or drawing pictures in a vaguely Cubist style, while Elsa sewed on the sewing machine, or practiced her alto recorder. She helped several of us girls to make skirts on the sewing machine. Ed played the guitar and accompanied us with Christmas carols and folk songs. In those days, the guitar was a rather esoteric instrument, but Tim Asch learned to play it, too.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the hang of skiing. Those slippery boards could scoot out from under me as fast as any horse, and they made me nervous in the same way: I was cautious and tense by nature. Still, it was infuriating to be the worst skier in my group, particularly since I had been at it the longest. Peter Franklin, Neil, and Sally were all light, deft, and dashing. Mimi and Peter Pratt were adequate, and Timothy at least managed to navigate with a certain flair. Two or three times a year, we would hold ski meets with other schools in the region. I invariably came in last, or next to last. These contests became a painful ordeal. They reminded me of climbing Gothic, a particularly steep and barren Adirondack peak which we had scaled in a freezing rain the previous autumn. Three-quarters of the way up Gothic, I was positive I would never get all the way. We stood at the warming hut near the base of the summit, and I shivered, too miserable either to go indoors or to plunge ahead to the top. Eventually, though, I made it.
And, though I was hardly prepared to admit it, I enjoyed being out in the woods, whether I could ski well or not. I had come to recognize the dozen ways that snow can fall, and sit, and blow, and melt. Mounds of hardpacked snow in a blazing sunlight twinkled through their crystals and cast up brilliant rainbow flecks of blue or red or yellow light. On a laden balsam bough, the effect can be dazzling. I also knew it to be murderous. In the autumn of my fifth, and final year at North Country School, several inches of snow fell in early October, before the hardwoods had shed their leaves. The accumulated weight, piled up on a million red and yellow birch and maple boughs, bent the saplings double. It sent mature trees crashing to the ground.
On the day after the snowfall, our class, which was now called Group E, sallied forth to help clear the roads interlacing the sugarbush with our axes. The forest looked as though a hurricane had hit it, and afterward, I tried to describe the destruction I had witnessed in a poem for English class. The effort made me realize that those trees seemed as lovely to me, rotting into leafmeal, as they had while standing erect. I could no longer stand aloof from this barren, modestly beautiful countryside of glacial rocks, half-grown timber, and overgrown pasture. It had become a part of my inner land.
I was queen bee by default that year. Neither Sally nor Mimi had returned, and, when I came back to school (after summer at a ranch in Colorado), I found that Group E consisted of Tim Asch, Peter Franklin, Steve Bowes, and myself (Steve returning after two years spent away from N.C.S.). We shared a classroom and outtime periods with Group D, which had about a dozen boys and no girls. I passed the year in a state of nervous embarrassment, most of it pleasurable. Still, there were some tense moments. Walter insisted on teaching Groups D and E a joint physiology class once a week. I doodled madly and kept my eyes cast down as he discussed the body’s mechanism for adjusting to heat and cold. “Have you boys ever noticed,” he asked cheerily, “How your testicles tend to descend when it’s hot?”
Ed, who still taught Group E English and Social Studies, had by now acquired more or less complete control over this smaller and more mature class. From high school and college textbooks, we took notes for Social Studies reports on the Egyptians and the Babylonians, the Phoenicians and the Jews, the Greeks and Romans. We were studying not only their monuments, but also the degree to which democracy existed—or did not exist—in these various societies. The pyramids, as Ed pointed out, could not have been built in those days without a brutal, hierarchical society. The Greeks and the Romans were only beginning to develop representative governments. The Jews ranked more or less in the middle: their leaders’ personal relationship with Yahweh was interpreted as reflecting a basic respect for the individual, while the Ten Commandments helped to establish a humane rule of law.
The ancient world’s advance to a more humanitarian religion, Christianity, was also significant, even though Ed advised us that “You can’t really blame the Jews who didn’t believe Mary when she said that Jesus was the Son of God foretold in the Testaments. After all, little Jewish girls who had gone off into the bushes without being married, and gotten themselves into trouble, probably had been claiming that their children were the Sons of God for centuries.” The phraseology of that remark as I recall it seems in retrospect awkward, but at the time I found it enormously thought-provoking, to be dealing with the sacrosanct in such down-to-earth terms.
Steve Bowes and I loathed one another. We jeered back and forth at each other during Arts and Crafts class and kicked one another’s shins black and blue under the table in the Latin class that the two of us alone took. At the same time, Steve’s behavior seemed natural enough to me. The boys I didn’t understand were Tim and Peter, who almost appeared to like me. On top of this, I discovered it was perfectly permissible to like them back—and still retain my standing in the eyes of the school’s female community. A remarkable peaceful revolution had occurred at North Country after the departure of Sally. Into the power vacuum created by her absence, several sixth-grade girls had stepped. Peggotty was no longer among them, but Kaye still was, and so were several others. I roomed with two of these Group C girls at the farmhouse in my senior year, Joan Harjes and Janet Spiegelberg.
Incredibly, both of them hated skiing and were not very good at it. Unlike Sally, who had a slim, boyish figure, both Joan and Janet were inclined to cuddly plumpness. They wore nightgowns to bed, instead of pajamas, and let Ed kiss them goodnight. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to that display of affection. I instinctively sensed, I think, that the daily insults we traded were in reality the mask for a truly deep attachment. Ed had become the first man in my life whom I had ever really loved, and the emotion embarrassed me to the point where I hid my face in the pillow at bedtime, and left him, suddenly self-conscious, to retreat toward the door.
Naturally, Joan and Janet and I began whispering as soon as Ed put out the light and closed the door. We discussed among other things the novel topic of which boys and girls were supposed to be “stuck on” or “going with” each other. Tim Asch was said to be fond of Edith Gammack, a blonde and terribly cute little fifth grader, and Peter Franklin and I were paired off with one another. I never could figure out the reasons for coupling me with Peter, considering that I and Tim made a more logical combination. He had developed into a master horseman, having tamed Do-Tell, the most vicious horse in the barn, and he wore a bridle chain soldered around his sinewy wrist.
However, I had little difficulty developing a powerful tendency to blush in the presence of Peter. He really was the school hero, possessing more than his fair share of glamorous attributes. He was 14, an older man. He was tall, blond, and handsome, as well as a fantastically good skier. Moreover, he was unself-conscious and friendly, with a cheery round face, pink plastic-rimmed spectacles, and ears that stuck out. Of course, the big romance between Peter and myself existed primarily in the minds of Joan, Janet, and the others. The two of us were hardly ever alone together. Goodness knows, we never held hands or kissed! We did dance a couple of foxtrots at the Lake Placid public high school dance we attended after taking part in a ski meet with them. Since I was only 11 and three-quarters, and this was back in innocent 1947, even foxtrots seemed pretty wild.
With the war over, the shortage of building materials had eased. In 1946, the summer before our senior year, the “Glass House” was built on the road to the barn. Walter and Leo moved in, with a handful of kids, and enrollment in the school increased to around 35. During the spring of 1947, the knoll in front of the Main Building, where the flagpole had stood, was turned into a sea of mud by several bulldozers. Soon, it was covered with a latticework of concrete basement partitions. A “new building” would rise on top of them that summer, with additional classrooms, bedrooms, offices, music rooms, a library, infirmary, and a gymnasium made of an Army surplus Quonset hut. The school’s enrollment would be expanded to 50 or 60. I wasn’t entirely happy about the new building. It would, I feared, change the school from the small, family-like place that I knew, into a larger and more impersonal institution. But it was time for me to graduate.
Tim, Peter, and I were all going on to Putney, a prep school whose main advantage, as far as we were concerned, was that it was most like North Country. Steve was going on to Exeter, a more conventional school. We felt sorry for Steve, but we felt even sorrier for ourselves. North Country had been, if possible, too perfect an existence. Leaving it filled us with a oppressive sorrow, and when I thought about it an angry ache that was half tears, half rage formed at the back of my throat. Where would we ever know a home as happy as the farmhouse? A pair of teachers as warm and cleaver as Ed and Elsa? A world where we could race about in the clean, serene mountain air to our hearts’ content, where we could ski and ride and climb mountains and love animals and eat raw, sweet, crispy-crunchy turnips and carrots fresh from the earth?
The rest of our lives seemed guaranteed to be an anticlimax. The only reason for living it seemed to be that we owed it to the school, to the Bleys, and to the Clarks to go out and be as happy and brilliant and successful as we possibly could.
We had graduation lunch on a warm spring day. The tables were lined up as they might have been for a birthday or Thanksgiving, and the graduates sat at the head table with Walter, all of us in “city clothes.” Walter presented us with our “graduation books,” loose-leaf notebooks filled with pages made by different teachers and children. Then we presented Walter with the class present we had made, as did every graduating class. Ours was a papier-maché relief map of the school’s property, to go over the fireplace in the new building’s library.
The play we staged in honor of the occasion was H. M. S. Pinafore. The casting had been done in faculty meeting—in this rare event, we were given no choice. Tim was given the role of Dick Deadeye, Steve played the Admiral, I was cast as Little Buttercup, and Peter played the Captain. This caused me to be filled with embarrassment during rehearsals, particularly during the love scene at the beginning of Act II that the Captain and Buttercup play together. Still, as graduation day grew near I began to realize that Peter had problems of his own. His voice was breaking, and the ballad with which we had to open the second act is an unusually difficult and melodic one. During the final performance, I found that I became so involved in listening to him fight his way through it that I almost forgot to be nervous. When we caroled our way through our duet, “Things Are Seldom What They Seem,” I discovered that I could remember—oh, practically every word.
Although the Clarks retired from the management of North Country in 1970, and Walter has since died, the school itself is still going strong. It celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but if I’ve come forth with my reminiscences of it, this is really not because I feel the school itself is in any dire need of them. Rather, it’s because I feel that what it stands for is something worth celebrating in a wider context. By this, I mean a fundamentally optimistic, pragmatic, and constructive approach which, more than anything else, is conducive to happiness and hope.
As I look back on it, I’m constantly amazed at how far in advance of its time my education was—not only in terms of the clothes we wore, or the subjects we studied, but in terms of the excellence of every kind with which we were surrounded. It was like a new and more beautiful world with standards vastly in excess of any still in general circulation, established with a kindness and humanity which made us want to live up to them and not resent them.
If I eventually became a modernist art critic, it’s at least in part because of the modernist environment in which I was raised, and the way I was taught to admire both the best of the present and how it had evolved from the best of the past. And, as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize how truly unique this orientation must have been.