Latin: The end depends upon the beginning
I had to go.
I was completely finished.
Over with Beaufort, South Carolina.
I had been at the same school since first grade. I had gone to school with the same people since I was two years old. I had outgrown my hometown, or so I naively thought. What a brat to think that. Complete punk. But, those were my thoughts when I was in the eighth grade. I know better now. I see the magic of my home, her wonderful people, her beauty. In the mid-1980s, however, I hated her.
Over Thanksgiving, 1985, I announced to my assembled parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins that I wanted to go to boarding school. They were all in Beaufort for the holiday. We were going to Savannah that weekend to see our family there, too.
The reply to my announcement:
“Over my dead body,” said my father.
“Oh, my, that sounds expensive,” said one aunt.
“That sounds wonderful,” said my eldest cousin who was already in college at Wake Forest.
“We’ll see, Son,” said my mother as she made ready the next day’s feast.
This was not a request.
It was demand on my part.
It was a matter of survival.
Beaufort’s size then was tiny.
Like so many Southerners before me, I thought I was far too cool, too smart, too worldly, too put together to remain in the land where old times were not just forgotten but were ever present. The subtle racism. The not so subtle racism. The black housekeepers and nannies. The black yardmen. The segregated schools. The all white clubs. The all black clubs. The all white churches. The all black churches. The provincial attitude. The xenophobia. The busybodies who knew every one and every thing. The boredom of Sundays after church.
I had to go.
Simply had to.
Back then, Beaufort families of a certain….well….tone…sent their children to Beaufort Academy or sent them away to school. (And, by away, I mean Episcopal High School, The Asheville School, Christ School, Virginia Episcopal School, St. Mary’s, Salem, McCallie, Baylor.)
These were my people by birth and circumstance.
Back then, my father had an associate who was from Boston. She grew up on Beacon Hill on a street named for a South Carolinian. Her husband was in the Marine Corps, which was what brought them to Beaufort. When this strawberry blonde Bostonian heard that I was interested in going off to school, she told my father that I should look at schools in New England.
“They rilly are the best in the nation, George,” she said to my father. “Rilly. They are.”
Her father graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, as had one of her brothers. Her other brother graduated from Groton. What? Where? I had heard of Phillips Exeter somewhere, but Phillips Academy? Where? Andover? Where’s that?
I went to my school’s library and looked them up in reference books and guide books to schools.
According to the reference materials, our friend from Boston knew whereof she spoke.
The following summer, we took a family trip to Boston. We went out to Cape Cod and had a day on the water with our friends’ parents and grandmother, who asked, “Do ya need a fahk?” as she passed us our lobster rolls. (She sounded like a Kennedy)
My mother about fainted.
Granny passed us each a fork.
At their house near Woods Hole, the patriarch pulled me aside and said, “I think you rilly would be great at Ahndovah. It’s the oldest and best boarding school in the nation. Founded 1778. Oliver Wendell Holmes went thea. George Washington sent his nephews thea. Rilly, you’re just the type of fellah we need thea. Rilly. You are.” (He sounded like a Kennedy)
Back to South Carolina we went, but my head and heart remained in New England.
Parents of friends at Episcopal High School dropped off catalogues.
Parents of friends at McCallie dropped off catalogues.
I had no interest.
I wrote to Phillips Academy requesting their materials. I also wrote to Phillips Exeter, Groton, Lawrenceville. What hubris for a kid from the Sea Islands of South Carolina to write these schools with even the remotest inkling of matriculation at a later date.
Young and bold are sometimes the two best words in the English language.
The fall of my ninth grade year, I took the SSAT in Savannah. I filled in applications. I obtained what I hoped were glowing recommendations. I continued to do my work at Beaufort Academy. I ran for class office for the following year. I continued to hope I could go far, far, far away.
On a super cold day in January, 1987, my father and I boarded a plane in Savannah bound first for Philadelphia to go to Lawrenceville. Not a horrible place, but no fires lit in the belly upon arrival. We went back to the Philadelphia airport and flew next to Boston. We arrived in Boston on a lung piercingly cold night. We rented a car and headed north towards Andover, where we were booked at the Sheraton down on the Merrimack River. To get to the Sheraton, we had to pass Phillips Academy on Main Street.
There was a bright moon that night. There was snow. There were stars. As we drove up the road, Highway 28 turned into South Main. I saw a large bell tower by the side of the road. What college is that, I wondered? Wait, that’s it. That’s Phillips Academy. That’s Andover. I recognized the Bell Tower. We passed at 35 mph. A couple of kids were walking down the street in the cold. The school’s Great Lawn shimmered mother of pearl in the moonlight and snow. The fire in my belly began to be kindled. Immediate kinship.
We arrived at the Sheraton. Even after only a glimpse through car windows, I ate the first of what I hoped would be many meals for me in the Town of Andover. We went to sleep to the sounds of the heater humming away in the wall.
The next morning we headed back to Main Street and straight to the Admissions Office. My father in a suit. Me in the male applicant’s uniform of navy blazer, tie, khakis, loafers.
At the Admissions Office, a matronly lady with white hair and a faint Southern accent greeted us, “Well, hello, I’m Grace Taylor. Welcome to Phillips Academy. Someone will be with you in a minute.”
A young man walked up and smiled. He said to Ms. Taylor, “Grace, I need that file we were talking about – Southern kid, remember?”
I knew he was talking about me. Had to be. Already admitted before my interview. Praise God.
“Here, Bobby,” said Ms. Taylor, “Right where you left it.”
“We HAVE to let this one in,” said the man named Bobby Edwards. “My mother’s from North Carolina, you know.” I was not the object of his enthusiasm. Drat.
Just then, a lady with bobbed hair and Laura Ashley dress approached and stuck out her hand. My father and I immediately stood from our Windsor chairs and shook hands.
“I’m Jeannie Dissette, Dean of Admissions. Welcome to Phillips Academy. You must be Hamlin. You must be Mr. O’Kelley. Gentlemen, your tour guide will be here in a minute. His name is Mike Megalli. Your interviewer is Bob Hulbard. First, you’ll go on a tour, and then, when you get back, tell Ms. Taylor and she’ll get Mr. Hulbard. Well, here’s Mike.”
In walked a student who looked to be my age.
He introduced himself to me and my father. “Let’s go this way,” he said. Mike took us first to the old gym, then to the new gym, then to Bullfich with the English department, then to the Commons where everyone ate, then to Morse, the math building, then to Samuel Phillips Hall, history and languages, then to George Washington Hall, mailboxes and offices, then to see a dorm room, then back to the Admissions office: a blissful blur.
I don’t remember a word he said.
I remember gawking at the buildings.
I remember looking in on a classroom in the back of Bullfinch.
Mostly, I remember the students.
When one girl walked by with one of those cow shaped creamers dangling from her neck as a necklace, like David Byrne, I thought this must be the place. As I heard laughter coming from a group of bundled and huddled and smoking students from what must have been a designated smoking area, I thought to myself, “Those are my people.”
We went back to the Admissions Office. I went upstairs with Bob Hulbard to his office. Mr. Hulburd was a crusty older gentleman with the obligatory tweed jacket with leather patches, wide whale cords, v-neck wool sweater, and pipe in a holder on his desk. New England come to life.
“Well, young man, what does a nice boy from South Carolina think of us?” he asked.
I held nothing back. I had done my homework, “Mr. Hulbard, this school says its mission is to educate youth from every quarter. South Carolina is another quarter. On the statistics of where your students are from, the South is underrepresented. I could help with that, Sir. The school’s motto is the end depends on the beginning. This should be the beginning for me. I already love it here. I feel like I’m home. I have to come to school here. I have to, Sir. This is the coolest place I’ve ever been.”
He chortled and lit his pipe.
“I appreciate your enthusiasm. Let’s talk.”
From there, his script went out the window. We didn’t discuss a single academic thing. This was no interview. This was a conversation between long lost pals.
“Oh, this is so refreshing,” he said to me. “These New York and New England kids are so scripted when they walk in here. And, don’t get me started on the Asian kids. We could fill the damn place up with the Asians.” He actually said that to me in an interview. It was a much less p.c. time. I found out it was his last year in admissions. What did he care about such comments?
We ended the interview with me all but getting on the floor and begging.
My eyes did tear up, which should come as no surprise.
“Mr. Hulbard, I really have to come to this school.”
“Well, we’ll see what we can do. Please send your father up to see me.”
“Yes, Sir, but I really do have to come here.”
“Understood, young man.”
My father spent some time with Mr. Hulbard, too. They hit it off immediately.
After thank you and goodbye to Mr. Hulbard, Ms. Dissette, and Ms. Taylor, we were back out into the snow and into the rental car.
“Well, what’d you think?” my father asked me.
“This is it, Dad. This is it.”
“It certainly is, Son. It certainly is.”
Two months later, the Admissions Committee offered me a place at Phillips Academy as a member of the Class of 1990. I accepted that day.
I spent three years at Andover.
There were no harder years educationally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
There were no better years educationally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
As one of my best friends in the world who went to school with me there says, we were all fish out of water at Andover.
Thanks be to God that we fish out of water literally and figuratively schooled together.
Some thirty plus years later, these are still my people.
The Monday after our twenty fifth reunion, I had court in the small town of Hampton, South Carolina.
It was a hot June day in the Lowcountry and bright as hell.
Super important motions hearings that would ultimately decide the case.
I won in court that day.
Normally, I would have been elated. That day, I didn’t care.
My clients were thrilled.
I feigned relief and rapture.
I said goodbye to them in Hampton.
As I pulled away from their grateful congratulations, I burst into tears behind my sunglasses.
At the age of 43, I cried all the way from Hampton to Charleston knowing what and whom I had just left back at Andover. Motion hearing be damned.
Emotional wreck. Ugly cry.
Loved to pieces; falling to pieces.
I picked up my phone and called my parents. Through racking sobs, I thanked them over and over and over again for my three years at Andover.
Excepting my bride and my children, that education is the finest gift ever given me.
Again, through tears, thank you Mom and Dad. Thank you.
For the Class of 1990.
To my fellow survivors of Competence, Upper Year-long History 300, Donald McNemar, exploding Chicken Kiev, snows in late April, and Senior Probation, I love y’all more than you could ever know – Hammy