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His Master’s Voice

ISSUE:  Winter 1984

I was walking around the Deerfield campus with friends not long ago when the beauty of that archetypal New England academy inspired thoughts of my own boarding school career. In 1971 I gladly left it all behind for an unfettered existence in college, renouncing my old Brooks Brothers wardrobe for a new uniform of jeans and flannel shirts, jettisoning owlish tortoise-shells in favor of a pair of rimless Trotsky glasses, and rebelling against a hypocritical headmaster by staying stoned on bad marijuana and 3.2 beer for the better part of my freshman year in Ohio. Sometimes I sobered up long enough to participate in peace marches and antiwar demonstrations, but on the whole it was a blissfully irresponsible year. I had attended a sprawling middle-class academy in New Jersey, a school modeled on Rugby but less self-conscious about its English roots than most of its New England counterparts. In those days the inanities catalogued in the Preppie Handbook were not much in evidence, and life-style rivalry had not yet arrived on the scene. Our social awareness as schoolboys did not much exceed that of Tom Brown, and we certainly never thought of ourselves as sociological data.

Peddie was a pretty traditional place in 1965, before the advent of what came to be known as student power, so at matriculation I fould myself at an institution firmly committed to authoritarian principles. Chapel was required four times a week (a friend called it the “God box” because of the prepackaged 15-minute homilies gratefully delivered by tyros from the Divinity School at nearby Princeton), and coats and ties were worn at just about all times off the playing fields. I recall a boy in my first year who used a bathrobe sash in place of the usual regimental tie and who could dress himself from top to toe while casually running through piles of autumn leaves on the way to required breakfast. He seemed like some hyperactive elf or woodland spirit as he skipped through his toilette in the pale light of dawn, his hair still tousled and his eyes still struggling against sleep, but he always completed his daily ritual by dropping his trousers at the dining room door for the final tucking in of his pink Oxford cloth shirt. Sometimes there was muted applause for his efforts. All masters were addressed with the obligatory “sir,” even the rankest B.A. fresh out of Yale, though that famous monosyllable could take on a petulance at times. New boys wore outrageous Eton caps until we won our first football game (usually sometime in November) and were herded through a series of rites calculated to induce both cheerful submissiveness and a high degree of school spirit. I had to cut firewood for a sixth former, shine his shoes, and entertain his friends by singing songs such as “Baby Love” while dancing on a tabletop in the school tuck-shop. I was what the English call a “fag,” though we never used that word, but I was a good one, so I never had to have my head flushed down a John, or my backside waffled with the aid of a wire brush and a squash racket, or my entire body smeared with mentholated Ben-Gay. Others were not so lucky.

But my concern here is with teachers, not students, and it seems to me that in their zeal for progressive ideas many American boarding schools inadvertently swept away a colorful race of instructors whose eccentricities were at least as pronounced as their virtues, and to my mind a good deal more interesting. It should be a source of regret to us that the figure of the schoolmaster has never enjoyed archetypal status in America, even though our educational history is a long and distinguished one. One must turn to Britain for the mythic magister, whose manifestations include everything from the squalid Wackford Squeers to the crusty but lovable Mr. Chips. School fiction in present-day England has run pretty far afield of Victorian Rugby and the redoubtable Thomas Arnold, though the typical British master is still stern and brooks no nonsense from teen-age charges. Behind this figure, of course, stand 500 years of monastic self-sacrifice in the service of humane letters, to say nothing of a gallery of martinets and fierce bottom-beaters such as Udall, Mulcaster, Busby, Keate, Joynes, and other sublimated types too tedious to mention. What still seems remarkable is that a fresh crop of these dinosaurs, many of them fully scaled at 30, always manages to trickle down to the public schools from Oxford and Cambridge, with no shortage of these latter-day Orbiliuses in sight. Frequently themselves aristocratic by education and temperament, if not by birth, these carefully trained scholars and likely bachelors go on devoting themselves unstintingly to the care and instruction of other peoples’ offspring. Low pay and the solace of the bottle remain major professional hazards, but somehow the respectability of the calling survives intact. This is as it should be.

It is symptomatic of America’s dubious spiritual health that we have never as a culture venerated the calling of the secondary-school teacher. To the extent that we have a stereotype at all, it is the appalling one of the shrill old maid with steel-rimmed spectacles, yelling and rapping knuckles with the repressed fury of a vestal virgin in the hallowed precincts of the elementary school. In our boarding school lore, which is not without dignity, though it remains a slight one when compared to the British, the situation is little better. Masters are almost invariably depicted as manqué. If there really is one thing every schoolboy knows, it’s Shaw’s old chestnut that “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” I’ve always wanted to delete the pause between the last two words of this Shavian barb while crying it back into the teeth of the person bold enough to quote it in my presence, but that, alas, is not what Shaw meant. On the other hand, seen in the proper historical context, these words should not seem so disheartening, since they were intended mainly as an attack on those bastions of imperialist elitism, the English public schools, where the leisure class was taught how to dominate the great unwashed. We should not imagine that Shaw in his capacity as political satirist intended to degrade an entire profession, though that remains a point beyond the grasp of most schoolboys.

In the American boarding school fictions, even the good ones by Salinger and Knowles, the typical master is dry as dust or sexually arrested somewhere in adolescence or both. Even Auchincloss, whose Rector of Justin I admire very much, can’t resist the device of the diffident and pious narrator whose journal entries smack of priggish Richardsonian sentiment. But at least there’s method in his counterpoint. The titular hero, also a devout Christian, emerges in the full light of his humanity, for Auchincloss does not hesitate to portray Dr. Prescott’s vanity, his emotional trickery, and his unwitting but real tendency to precipitate ruin in the young lives which he helps to mold. Paradoxical as it may sound, however, the author has still managed to ennoble a calling in his epic tale of a resolute and domineering headmaster, which is only to say that in order to lend credibility to Prescott’s successes, Auchincloss must also depict his shortcomings. In its ironic treatment of the decline of Protestant New England paternalism the novel achieves a wonderful poignance, and happily not a trace of mawkish old-boy sentiment intrudes to spoil the elegiac tone. Without a doubt, it remains our best school fiction, even though it is about a world which no longer exists.

Though their literary portrayals differ, American and British boarding school masters do share some common working conditions. European salaries, it is true, lag far behind ours, but in Britain that only seems to guarantee an even higher degree of dedication among those who are called, though admittedly one matched by a comparable degree of eccentricity. Both British and American masters typically receive room and board as part of their contractual arrangements, and they usually enjoy the privilege of servants and lovely grounds as well. Near the top of a carefully defined hierarchy, the schoolmaster enjoys a highly satisfactory degree of authority over his young charges, and this invests him with a kind of feudal dignity. As everybody knows, only in an aristocratic society can genuine eccentricity flourish, for men whose prerogatives are assured by rank need not concern themselves with conformity or the approval of the vox populi. A schoolmaster’s life, like a nobleman’s, is also prone to ennui, except that for the former it is deadening routine which constitutes the enemy, not idleness. But the ubiquitous “pygmies,” as Forster once called them, always need seeing to, and as “they hardly ever grow up, seldom marry, and never die,” that can make for quite a demanding job. And of course the schoolmaster is always getting older, while his charges stay forever young, always full of the same remarkable energy and always in need of the same amount of attention. Still, with the rights of a Roman pater familias, the schoolmaster can proselytize like Cicero and dominate like Caesar, and if he happens to be a refugee from Oscar Wilde’s London or Charles Eliot Norton’s Cambridge the effects can be quite dramatic. Like a Firbank character in a hothouse full of orchids, or an aesthete from the pages of Huysmans, he is free in many ways to breathe a finer air. But the breed, as I said, is a vanishing one.

I first met Mr. Simcott when I was a fourth-former living in Wilson Hall. The building was one of those absolutely immense structures of red brick erected just after the Civil War—you know the kind of thing I mean, with white wooden porticoes, French doors opening out onto second-story terraces, and a true Mansard roof—but doomed in spite of its size, or perhaps because of it, to a lifetime of just one century. The entire school had been housed there once, including library, classrooms, dormitories, faculty apartments, and administrative offices, though by the time I arrived at Peddie it served mainly as a residence for underclassmen and their hall masters. The school dining room was connected to Wilson Hall by means of two drafty old corridors at the second-floor level, and they were lined from floor to ceiling with glass cases full of tarnished loving cups. The attic floor above the dining room was inhabited by a strange assortment of creatures, mostly black I’m afraid, who washed dishes, laundered boys’ linen, and made themselves generally useful behind the scenes.

Wilson Hall also contained a huge reception room on the ground floor, complete with waxed wainscoting, red leather furniture, brass lamps, and a motley collection of 19th-century oil paintings. Various functions for parents and alumni were held there, including homecoming teas and post-game celebrations on Saturday afternoons. The student mailroom was in Wilson Hall, and also the business office, where on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons boys could be seen queuing up to receive their weekly pocket money. Three dollars was the recommended amount and satisfied all but the most prodigal, and the sum was usually squandered on luxuries such as Pepperidge Farm cookies and large Cokes in the school tuck-shop. The walls of Wilson Hall were painted in the now nearly extinct Eisenhauer green, a shade for some reason thought to be particularly restful for the eyes but to my mind sadly reminiscent of vomit. Four oak staircases quartered the building symmetrically, and they creaked and groaned fearfully no matter who did the treading, fugitive boy, weary master, or athletic team in the midst of a spontaneous practice. Sometimes an exuberant boy would slide down one of those massive bannisters on the way down from dinner, his coattail flapping behind him as if to salute the sprezzatura of the act, and the spectacle was a colorful one if he happened to be wearing a madras jacket, an ill-fated fashion which was enjoying great popularity at the time. The effect was somehow diminished when the feat was executed in tweeds of shooting brown.

Wilson Hall was doomed from about the time the school celebrated its centennial in 1965. Hopelessly dilapidated in spite of the expensive maintenance lavished on it, the structure was grotesque and unserviceable in its proportions. Like Mr. Simcott himself, who ruled its fourth floor with an iron hand, it stood for a past crumbling away faster than anyone knew. At times a dark and eerie place, Wilson Hall could also be light and festive, as at Christmastime, when the halls were festooned with holly and evergreen. Then there were the Saturday receptions after football games on golden October afternoons, when the lobby teemed with mothers elegant in sporty suits and fathers craggy but handsome in their camelhair coats. Amber beverages were dispensed from heavy silver urns, and parents sipped tea or coffee out of the school’s old porcelain service of blue and gold. The cups and saucers were taken round by varsity types rosy in their gold-key blazers, and these elite clubmen also offered, somewhat incongruously, small plates of petits fours which gleamed like tiny jewels by Fabergé on crested silver. Victorious athletes often appeared in triumph with an entourage of parents and hometown sweethearts, and those blond Adonises, if capable of perspiration at all on such occasions, must have produced cool little bubbles of brut champagne. On those afternoons the building glowed with gilded youth and patinated parents, but there were darker times, too. Wilson Hall could seem curiously Dickensian on late Friday afternoons in late winter, when the dimly lighted corridors produced a haunted chiaroscuro. Then one could almost hear the outraged cries of schoolboys from the past, the recalcitrant ones who found themselves unbreeched for caning in Dr. Swetland’s paneled study on the ground floor. Like all old buildings, Wilson Hall definitely had its moods.

So, too, did Mr. Simcott, whose fate, in retrospect, so curiously resembles that of the doomed building whose precincts he governed. Now that I think of it, Mr. Simcott’s decision to inhabit two rooms in that rickety firetrap was an odd one in view of his recherché tastes, but then, he was never one to question too deeply the ways of the institution. I have not been able to find out much about his past, though I have never tried very hard. For one thing, I have never quite figured out his name, which sounds English but isn’t, but I do know that he attended Peddie and Princeton. What is important is that he seems to have emerged as a gentleman of the old school as if by spontaneous generation, a quality I have noticed in many schoolmasters. Not that he was terribly self-conscious about which qualities made up a gentleman (the same cannot be said about today’s self-styled “preppies,” a term I feel certain he would have loathed), but he did concern himself more than most with matters of refinement and protocol. How he found himself at 45 as a kind of Mr. Kurtz among the savages I never wondered at the time.

His rooms were not large, yet they possessed an elegance unequaled by anything else in the building. Oak paneling, a marble fireplace, built-in bookcases, and 16-foot molded plaster ceilings conferred a palatial dignity on the sitting room, which also served as a study. Of the furnishings I recall only those things which Mr. Simcott impressed on my memory with grandiose gestures and encapsulated historical descriptions successfully calculated to impress schoolboys. There was a Louis XVI beech-wood commode (provincial), a late Federal sofa upholstered in red and white striped silk, an assortment of walnut side chairs perfect for peripatetic fourth-formers, and a Broadwood pianoforte of the early Chopin vintage on which he frequently played Clementi sonatas in the late afternoon. There were many old pictures in tarnished gold frames, some of them oval shaped. Mr. Simcott took delight in the atmosphere of contrived antiquity which his rooms afforded, even though, as with most collectors of old things, his fascination was symptomatic of something far deeper than materialism or the acquisitive impulse. To him, those beautiful objects so painstakingly wrought by patient artisans suggested a world less vulgar than our own, and a way of life all at once simpler and more ceremonious. Mass production, high technology, and suburban rootlessness were anathemas to him, and those bits of old wood and cloth and canvas stimulated his romantic escapism and offered refuge in an idealized vision of history. To a schoolboy, these rooms stood for something very dignified, so invitations to the inner sanctum, which were not uncommon, were even less commonly refused. Occasionally television could be viewed there, but only when Mr. Simcott was too tired to talk or, what is probably more likely the case, too drunk to listen. Then he liked his furniture emblazoned with phrenetic putti.

Like Louis XV (“apres moi la deluge”), Mr. Simcott seemed enamored of everything small. His favorite music consisted of solo compositions and chamber works—he introduced me to Haydn trios, what Charles Rosen has called the “doomed music”—and as I have already mentioned, he frequently played baroque and classical sonatas and suites on his small spinet. His favorite literary form was the epigram, and he loved to quote Martial (which he sometimes refused to translate) and La Rochefoucauld. Many of his pictures were miniatures, and I remember one small drawing of some chubby infants in the buff harvesting a pile of grapes which struck me as very exotic at the time. Like Freud, he surrounded himself with an array of artistic fetishes gleaned from antique galleries and curiosity shops, only instead of classical fragments, pre-Columbian artifacts, and tribal amulets, his rococo tastes ran more to bibelots and Meissen figurines. He also had a lot of small, brightly colored prayer rugs woven in complicated geometrical patterns, but because they were worn they were still on the floor to be walked on. As a teacher of geometry, he was no doubt attracted by their bold linear designs, though the lure of primary colors may have been atavistic. If anyone had ever so much as invoked the idea of Empire furniture in Mr. Simcott’s presence, I believe, even now, that in his passion for delicate proportions he would have fainted dead away.

Mr. Simcott was always trying to introduce us to the finer things in life—within limits, of course—and since the glories of Chambolle-Musigny and single-malt Scotches were closed to us, that left only what the vulgar call “culture.” Once I fell asleep during what must have been an exceptionally turgid performance of the “Lord Nelson” mass in the Princeton University Chapel. Another time I struggled with a French farce in the McCarter Theatre, while on still another occasion I puzzled over Grand Illusion, to my boyish mind the dullest war movie ever made. Now I take pleasure in many of the things which, in retrospect, I can see Mr. Simcott trying so hard to share with sullen adolescents and scrawny self-styled machos. I recall vividly the bewildered and even slightly terrified look on the face of one honey-curled third-former as he emerged from the master’s apartment accompanied by strains of Tristan and Isolde (the supernaturally beautiful Furtwängler version of 1952). That little boy was far more interested in jelly donuts at the tuck-shop than in redemption through love, and I think that he would gladly have renounced Teutonic doctrines of the spirit forever for a secondhand copy of The Pearl anthology.

Exactly why Mr. Simcott was so fascinated by children and therefore so devoted to them remains something of a mystery to me. No doubt their smallness made them easy to govern, as well as to impress. Still, I resist Dr. Johnson’s caustic pronouncement that a “schoolmaster is a man among boys, and a boy among men.” I prefer to think that our relatively innocent existence proved something of a tonic for the disillusionment of middle age, since he must at one time have expected so much more out of life than he got. He probably chuckled most of the time at our pitiful attempts at vice and sophistication, though he usually feigned a stern mask of paternal disapproval. Sneaking down to the basement to choke on a “Lucky,” blasting the Stones at full volume, and torturing our hair so that it just missed resting on our collars—these were the gestures of subversiveness that we reveled in. Sometimes we were caught and punished, but much of the time, I suspect, he turned a blind eye to our follies. No doubt he knew the suburban pitfalls into which most of us would eventually stumble for real—alcoholism, adultery, divorce, cash-flow crises, and unloving children—and foreseeing our insipid fates he granted us small latitudes.

No aspect of Mr. Simcott’s physical appearance was more remarkable than his suits, which even in the non-fashionconscious eyes of schoolboys were antediluvian. They came in two colors—brown and blue—and there must have been about a million of them, all looking alike. I say a million because they were always pressed and brushed to perfection even though they were nearly threadbare, and I just can’t envision Mr. Simcott ironing them at midnight. Double-breasted, they featured baggy trousers quaintly pleated, and their neutral colors served to set off dramatically the foulards of brilliant silk which were always tightly knotted around Mr. Simcott’s bulging throat. In dress as well as in mannerisms and speech, he reminds me now of Philo Vance, America’s slightly less languid version of Lord Peter Wimsey, though in the flesh Mr. Simcott fell somewhere between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s owl-eyed man and Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins. Unfortunately, however, the only mysteries which he succeeded in uncovering centered on who was smoking after lights-out or reading Playboy under the covers with the aid of a flashlight when he should have been sleeping. To accomplish such feats, Mr. Simcott simply walked around outside the huge dormitory at eleven o’clock at night checking windows, or sniffed his way along the musty corridors. At the slightest whiff of tobacco he barged in without ceremony. The tiniest crack of light drew him like a moth to scenes of delinquency. He cut a splendid figure when, as was sometimes the case, he made his rounds in full evening dress complete with opera cape after a concert in New York or Philadelphia. A latent dandy condemned to J. Press relics, he perhaps dreamt, incongruously, of luxuries from Sulka as he performed his humble police work.

Although opinions differed among the boys as to Mr. Simcott’s relative virtues and vices, all agreed on his intellectual prowess, but some found his brilliance tarnished by what was certainly a highly self-conscious brand of affectation. Having failed to complete his dissertation for the Ph.D. in musicology at Columbia University, he gave up teaching at what is now a very rich private university in the South in order to return to Peddie as a simple mathematics master. We all felt somehow flattered by this. Once I was bold enough to ask him why he had given up college teaching in favor of prep school, and while I received no direct answer his face clouded over for a moment. He must have been thinking about a decent salary, a reasonable workload, and the intellectual stimulation which a university can provide. In the end he scurried off to his bookshelves to retrieve a journal offprint of an article he’d written on some harpsichord pieces by Rameau, and this he placed proudly on my lap. He told me that he had begun a dissertation on keyboard ornamentation of the French baroque, but that after a lot of preliminary research he’d found that he had nothing to add to the scholarship on the subject. He quickly changed the topic to the relative merits of Dutch cocoa powder, however, and as he made us both hot chocolate he chattered away energetically in favor of the headmaster’s new ruling about haircuts. His ability to make the transition from the sublime to the trivial unhesitatingly was another characteristic which I now associate with secondary-school teachers, who, given the nature of their duties, must engage matters both mundane and earthshaking in short order in the ordinary course of things.

About Mr. Simcott’s politics I know nothing, though he seems to have been a monarchist with proletarian sympathies, a pin-striped Democrat, a penniless plutocrat whose inherent elitism always seemed at odds with the enlightened social consciousness which his fine liberal education had given him. Probably he had no party affiliation at all, a quiescent condition not uncommon among academics who, in their detachment, frequently don’t even bother to vote. I have likened him to a benign despot already, and like the Sun King himself he found complete satisfaction in his absolute rulership of a microcosm. Valuing order over equality and paternalistic justice over due process, he loved ceremony and tradition above all else but at least tried to keep an open mind about things. An authoritarian who remained sensitive to adolescent nature, he enforced discipline with a dignity that made consistency beside the point. In accord with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous caveat that general principles do not decide individual cases, he might punish a tough and stubborn athlete more severely than a lisping suburban neurotic with acne for the same offense (say throwing snowballs at cars from the second-story terrace of Wilson Hall), though not, of course, on the same occasion. The mills of his justice ground slowly and exceeding fine.

I remember the persecution of my fifth-form roommate with mixed feelings. One day Mr. Simcott spied him at lunch sporting two days worth of golden bristles on his chin, and ordered him cheerfully but preemptorily to shave by dinner time. The boy was a raffish sort—good-natured but forgetful and more than a little willful when the spirit moved him— and by late afternoon no change in his grooming had occurred. After supper we were strolling across the campus for a look at the Jersey Turnpike when Mr. Simcott accosted us on the way home from his office. In spite of an exhausting day, or perhaps because of it, he had not forgotten his ultimatum. His fury was genuine, and whenever his bottled-up rage emerged, as it did on this occasion, his voice rose dramatically to the falsetto range in a matter of seconds. He seemed to have a particular obsession with clean-shavenness—maybe he feared that youths sprouting whiskers no longer fell under his authority—and he proceeded to castigate my roommate with a nettlesome barrage of rhetorical questions. “How dare you disobey me?” and “How many times do I have to tell you?” were followed hard on by “Do I have to speak to the Headmaster about this?” and the persistence of his assault was all at once both pitiful and frightening. My roommate’s composure soon wilted under attack, and I was left to look on helplessly as his cheeks reddened with shame. While such displays of sadofascism occur routinely enough in English schools, they are rarer in America, where masters by and large distrust humiliation as a pedagogical tactic. Perhaps we can thank Pestalozzi for this, though I doubt he foresaw the extent to which verbal wrath would replace the tyranny of the rod as the authority of the teacher dwindled. Boys can forgive almost anything in an adult except the loss of control, yet so hamstrung are most American teachers by liberal institutional values that they often have no choice but to vent their frustration in the form of ugly verbal assaults. Unfortunately, such irrational outbursts accomplish nothing, and merely serve to undermine even further such potency and prestige as remain to the wearied pedagogue. But I suppose it can be argued that in school, as in later life, children need to learn that behind the mask of Solomon sometimes lurks the face of Dionysus.

Whether Mr. Simcott was an observing Christian or not I can’t say; his daily ethic in spite of its rigidity betrayed no metaphysical bent. He seems to have believed in some version of the doctrine of natural depravity, for to him schoolboys were by and large sloppy, self-indulgent, lazy, and inclined to be cruel. He did not share Rousseau’s view that children possessed an innate and enviable innocence only gradually corrupted by social bonds and institutions, and so he advocated a tight rein over impulses of the flesh. At the very least he was Spartan—the school, after all, in the eyes of most schoolmasters is a miniature state rather than a spiritual commune, though the two are not necessarily incompatible—and no doubt this strict control of others was a secret way he had of exorcising his own sybaritic demons. Staying in bed past the 6:45 rising bell, resting in the infirmary, and cutting meals were sins, while preparing homework diligently, grooming oneself carefully, and speaking respectfully to adults at all times stood out as cardinal virtues. His god, if he had one, was stern and Mosaic; though I think that for him the deity was only a metaphor for the earthly judgmental father.

At table he was fastidious, but there he consciously elevated pomposity to the level of comic drama, which he then pressed into the service of instruction. Once the son of a Southern governor began to eat his soup with a teaspoon, at which point Mr. Simcott, in full view of a titillated table of ten, rolled back his eyes, slumped in his chair, and pretended to faint dead away. A trick doubtless learned from Voltaire, it convulsed us 15 year olds even as it stung the blushing culprit into higher social awareness. Never again would he approach his potage so carelessly. Mr. Simcott did his best to include everybody in the table talk, though the results were often painful. No boy was permitted to indulge in shyness or sullen fits, but what an effort it required to get some of those lads to talk about classes or current events or Christmas vacations. It must also have taken patience as well as great powers of concentration to endure their insipid answers, though the patter of the older boys wasn’t too horrible. When the inevitable subject of school teams exhausted itself, sarcastic or otherwise, the talk of fifth- and sixth-formers could even run to books, movies, and political issues outside the school. No one got seconds without “please, sir” and “thank you, sir,” even if we never identified with Oliver Twist at the time. So demonstrative was Mr. Simcott about points of etiquette that one day a boy who had accidentally stepped on his toes during the nightly stampede into the dining room was told: “Oh excuse me, Charles, I didn’t mean to put my foot under yours.” Everyone within 50 feet winced at that one, even Rosa’s busty portrait of the Magdalena which some ironic headmaster had positioned incongruously over the huge fireplace at the back of the room.

Mr. Simcott never gave the impression that he would rather have been somewhere other than with students, challenging them with his questions, sifting through their responses, and generally engaging them with his histrionics. The fact of the matter is, he probably wouldn’t have, and that’s what made him so convincing as an instructor. He embodied the school’s Latin motto, Finimus Pariter Labores Renovamusque, though that, too, would be abolished at about the same time as Wilson Hall, along with the school emblem of a farmboy belaboring a haystack with his pitchfork. Presumably the board of trustees dismissed the tag as old-fashioned and the emblem as declassé; certainly they don’t quite square with one’s present idea of New Jersey. To Mr. Simcott, on the other hand, these pastoral pleasantries were of the essence, and his own zealous performance of duty more than matched the ideal of service expressed in an antique tongue. As for the farmboy, his innocence was a delight to contemplate since there is something undeniably bucolic about the nature of a campus. Like Virgil’s Alexis, he could never grow old.

Mr. Simcott’s most remarkable quality was undoubtedly his spoken vocabulary. Ostentatious as it was, it proved awesome to schoolboys who, even if they detected the slight fatuousness beneath the surface, found themselves exhilarated by such rhetorical finesse. The only other living person I have ever heard pepper his remarks with words such as “otiose,” “tergiversation” and “baculine” is William F. Buckley Jr., whose own semantic panache waves brightest before a student audience. But I owe Mr. Simcott a debt of gratitude, not, it is true, for crossword puzzle words like “tonsorial,” “frangible,” “nard” and “pottle,” nor because he explained to me that “inchoate” does not mean enrolled in a boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. He taught me how to use the Oxford English Dictionary and, even more importantly, encouraged me to study Latin so that I could become an amateur etymologist. He was even gracious when I surprised him in class one day with a word he didn’t know. That word was “murrain,” hardly a staple of the mathematician’s vocabulary, but the polymath joined the tyro in a laugh.

He loved to start a class with an impromptu lesson in vocabulary, though sometimes this technique backfired. These little exercises frequently took the form of rhetorical questions (at their worst the kiss of death for the so-called Socratic method, a form of teaching much overrated in my opinion), a typical example running thus: “If I have a parquetry chiffonier with ormolu escutcheons, then what do I have?” After a moment of polite silence, he would proceed to explain happily the significance of each word in the phrase. On one ill-fated day he posed the following dangerous query: “Now if I have a peccary, then what do I have?” There was nervous mumbling in the back of the room accompanied by some quick inaudible exchanges, and then, inevitably, a small, tremulous voice offered its courageous response: “That’s a hard one, sir!”

As I think about Mr. Simcott’s curiously formal and at times stilted speech—what he would have called his elocution—I can’t help but reach a sad conclusion now that I’m older. As with many well-educated people who have chosen the obscure life of the secondary-school teacher, his pedantic eloquence earned him a superior place only in a puerile hierarchy. I can still see him at receptions, bowing stiffly and retreating behind more and more complicated syntax while smiling mothers in mink uttered monosyllables and fathers tanned from golf and tennis barked “what the hell” or “dammit” and let their eyes wander from Mr. Simcott’s face in search of the headmaster or the football coach. How awful those occasions must have been for him.

But I also recall a room full of faces bright with amazement as Mr. Simcott dressed down a boy in euphuistic English for faulty preparation. Those faces had sat dumbly in front of television sets for all too many hours during childhood and reflected frank wonderment at a man so resourceful with balanced clauses, figures of speech, and recondite vocabulary. He talked like a book of the Pater vintage. Most of those boys have passed the sesquipedalian stage by now, I expect, but they have also outgrown the idiom of Holden Caulfield, and I imagine that they have Mr. Simcott’s Ciceronian influence, at least in part, to thank for that. Whenever I find myself beset by student persiflage abounding in “you know’s” (I don’t really, now do I, or there would be no point in telling me?), “like’s” (“The Sex Pistols are you know like the hottest group around”), “hopefully’s (“Hopefully, you know, you’re like already familiar with this one”), and “yeah really’s” (“Yeah really, well like hopefully I’ll get the paper in you know sometime tomorrow”), I can’t help but think of the sanguine example of Mr. Simcott’s aureate style. How much of his speech was intentionally overwrought for just this reason I will never know, but I do think he realized the importance of play in the instruction of young minds. He would have said that he was “ludicrous.”

Mr. Simcott taught me most dramatically that teaching, when it is done well, aspires to the status of a performing art, whether in the classroom or the study. I don’t mean that teachers have to be showmen, but they do have to generate enough energy and intensity to engage students, to convince them that no matter how many times they’ve articulated the subject matter at hand, they would rather be doing nothing else than communicating those particular ideas in that particular place at that particular time. Strange to say, his mock condescension completely disappeared when serious intellectual problems came under discussion—intelligence joined with purpose can almost always undermine conscious role-playing—though he would stoop to stage tactics when routine occasion warranted. Staring down a monkey face in the back of the room, he was as salty a slice of prosciutto as ever graced a podium. But when he played dottore, he did so with an ulterior motive: to prolong the attention span of fidgety adolescents.

Mr. Simcott’s rage for order and impeccable sense of decorum manifested themselves in nothing so much as his acceptance of Nietzsche’s injunction to die at the right time. Already an anachronism in 1965 and faced with a wave of changes which he dreaded—the school would become coeducational at long last, and it would admit more and more day pupils—he was to die in a terrible automobile accident on a dark road between Peddie and Princeton. The year was 1972, and whether it was too much liquor or fatigue or a lonely impulse of delight brought on by those two things, Mr. Simcott failed to negotiate a critical curve in his tiny but much envied ‘55 Thunderbird. He smashed into a tree and was killed instantly. The school, naturally, would absorb his loss as institutions always do in such cases, with memorial services, scholarship funds, and gifts to the library in the name of the deceased. But in this death there was also a sad poetic justice: he would not live to have his already brittle character descend into dotage or the painful isolation of old age. Not only athletes die young, it seems, though their melancholý admirers often fall unsung into their graves.

And toward the end of my sojourn at school there had been more and more signs of increasing shortness of temper, of advancing alcoholism, of diminishing interest in individual pupils, all of whom no doubt begin to look alike after awhile. His loyalty to the school remained steadfast, of course, but the bravura performances, inside the classroom and out, were becoming less frequent. By the time I was a sixth-former, Mr. Simcott began to appear in the hallways of Wilson Hall like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, only instead of armor he was clad in baggy pajamas and a ratty plaid dressing gown, exuding vapors of malt and rambling none too coherently to boys standing in the doorways of their rooms at nine-thirty at night. He still enjoyed receiving old boys in his rooms on weekends and during homecoming events. Yet if these visits constituted a high point in his existence, the guests rarely repeated themselves. Perhaps the good geometer proved too predictable for them. A clever man of 45 can discuss virtually any topic with a 15 year old, but the same boy at 20 is too full of experience and himself to be easily engaged by the conversation of a schoolmaster. Celibates often make great teachers and understanding father surrogates but hardly ever companions for life. Their service ethic spreads them too thin for that, and their habits of solitude discourage real familiarity.

If Mr. Simcott’s exit was characteristically theatrical, it also cued the entrance from stage left of a cast of lesser players. The last time I went back to Peddie, and I’ve only visited the school twice during the last 13 years, a young dormitory master already on the verge of “burn out” allowed sixth-formers to smoke in his rooms and even to nurse the occasional beer. A New Wave tune blared away on the FM radio (“I say whip it, whip it good”), and the walls of his living room were adorned with Warhol photographs and a comic poster of a man in a trenchcoat “exposing” himself to art. What conversation there was featured frequent “no way’s,” “far out’s” and “yeah realty’s,” though behind them was the same brooding intensity which typifies boarding school pupils everywhere. Life went on in its inevitable way, but Wilson Hall was gone, Mr. Simcott was gone, and even the teen-agers themselves, so feverishly alive and unconcerned with the finality of things, would soon be gone. They would leave with their own memories of the place, to be sure, but could know nothing of the strange, instructive spirit that in my mind hovered everywhere over the razed stones.


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