Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ten years out of the asylum.

The werewolf felt the warm rush of nostalgia as he read this assessment, by Stephan Metcalf, of John Knowles' boarding school classic, A Separate Peace, fifty year ex post facto. In one of his first bizarre stabs at setting himself apart, the werewolf unilaterally declared his independence from his charmed southern California lifestyle, folded up camp, and spent his last two years of high school as boarder at Phillips Exeter Academy(also know as the asylum). What the hell was wrong with him?

Anyhow, in a pathetic attempt to familiarize myself with my new school's lore, I rushed through the book during the summer prior to my enrollment. Twelve years later, although I recall enjoying it, I hardly remember much from the book itself. Shame on me. Metcalf, a fellow Exonian of sorts, wrote something in his piece that struck a deep chord with me.

"I remember fighting a daily losing battle with my homework and the boreal cold, both of whose powers of atmospheric contraction were so great, you believed organ failure a distinct possibility. I remember too the giant birdlike rectitudinous old men, Latin teachers who audibly aspirated the H in
while and whom, who looked down at you from tottering heights, and performed their most sacred function: They made you feel small. The mind of an adolescent is an inherently unstable thing, shifting between imperial expansion and shrinkage down to a vanishing point. How strangely stabilizing, to be given shape and proportion, however small, by a glance! I alternated reading A Separate Peace with watching the scandalously entertaining reality show Jersey Shore. You'll pardon me for giving in to the obvious contrast. These are a generation of American children (so sayeth the unkillable Puritan in me) who have never been made to feel small and, terrified by the possibility that they might be made to feel small, are insecure to the point of physical violence, the aura of which attends nearly everything they do.

My time in the asylum was both wonderful and tortured. I am convinced that Metcalf is referring to Latin class with the late Dr. Richard Morante, in the aforementioned passage. Morante taught Latin at Exeter for over fifty years. He started in the mid-1950's, and eventually retired in the mid-2000's. He tried to teach me Latin for two of those years. Thin ties, boldly framed black plastic glasses, accentuated his small tobacco ridden frame. The man was a glorious chain smoker. Like trumpets heralding a tinpot despot, the stench of cigarette smoke was always a precursor to his entry into our third floor classroom. Leveraging a razor sharp wit, keen eye for detail, and ability to size up students with scientific precision, he managed to use a unique blend of both fear and charm to teach us Latin. He had what could only be described as a Shakespearean ability to verbally dress down individual students or our entire class if he perceived we weren't giving his Latin course the effort it was due. I was told in no uncertain terms, to "do the world a favor, and fling yourself from the window" on multiple occasions for sloppy declensions. Another favorite, was "Unlike moving your bowels, learning Latin isn't a natural function of your body, you must work at it!" Sadly, my feeble memory of these quotes don't do the man and his legendary classroom justice. 2010 marks the tenth year since I was paroled from that asylum. Reading that article made Morante's Latin class feel like yesterday.

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