To Comprehend the Nectar
not expect Robert Martin to die. I fled The Witherspoon School
soon thereafter. That's not the gamble I thought I took when
Dr. Geoffrey Smitherman sat straight in a chair embossed
"W & N". I sank in leather. The cotton of my new
suit brushed a panel of the empire secretary which separated
us. I had to tilt my head slightly to look him in the eye. We
did not yet have air-conditioning. Early August. Not even a
"Mr. Smith, can you also teach Senior Bible?" he
"Well, sir, I suppose I could, but I would prefer to
teach only literature. I have finished my thesis on
"We will give you plenty of that, but we need someone to
take the Bible class. Mr. Foxworthy retired in May. I see that
you double- minored in religion and New Testament Greek at
Evangel University. Foxworthy lacked rapport. He talked about
missionaries and heathens. Quite candidly, our boys take the
course mainly to impress the colleges. Bible on their
transcript distinguishes us as a 'private' school. It also
alerts admissions people that our graduates understand
"I could do it. It won't be a crip course though. I'll
teach it as literature, not as Sunday School fare."
"Fine, Lee. I think you'll get along nicely here,
especially since you attended The O'Gorman School."
"But O'Gorman is Witherspoon's biggest rival."
"You know a fine Southern boarding school first-hand. New
faculty who went to public school often don't understand us.
Our reverence. Not the fanatic kind, but you know what I mean.
I believe Dr. O'Gorman wrote me that you won the Bonner Award
'For Unselfish Service' at O'Gorman. Did you not?"
"Good, can you attend faculty orientation the last week
"You mean I get the job?!"
"The boys won't arrive until Tuesday after Labor Day,
except for the football team."
My new trousers peeled from the chair as I tried to rise.
"Thank you, sir. I am much obliged."
"But you haven't asked what salary we will give
you," he smiled.
"Oh." I blushed. "That's not important. I'm
sure you will treat me justly. It's the teaching that
interests me, not the money."
"Excellent attitude!" he said. "Welcome to the
Later I learned how much Dr. Geoffrey Smitherman valued the
word family. Because I had not pushed, he began me at the rate
he gave to those without a master's.
But I had not exactly leveled with Dr. Smitherman either. I
doubted that he would hire me if he knew that I no longer
believed in God, or knew that at least I thought I didn't.
Four years at Evangel, the world's largest bigotry
institution, unconvinced me. I dropped my intention to preach
and took up literature as a better venue for "a living
O'Gorman, had delivered me from a bad public school into a
community of others who enjoyed homework. But teaching as a
graduate student at a large state university taught me that
too few others value their brains. I had found such people at
O'Gorman; I might find others at Witherspoon.
I tease fiercely, and teach best by what I call "creative
intimidation." Boys liked my classes. Since I began
school early, at age 5, I was only four years older than some
of them. Many got close, especially the brighter ones.
But my best student, Robert Martin, rarely said a word, except
in class, where he shined. At O'Gorman, I had groveled too
Robert's football teammates teased him about his early lead in
my class, and would importune me to tell how soon I would post
the grades for the latest Bible test. Robert himself never
asked. Was it arrogance? Robert seemed to presume that he
would best his closest rival, Edgar Bell; and on every test he
did, by at least three points.
Robert was prefect to second-formers in the Field House, but
he came to see his classmates on Senior Hall often and could
have dropped by with them to my apartment, had he chosen to.
His friend Philip Smethurst, heir to a textile fortune,
visited often enough, and even brought others, especially when
I bought one of the first stereo sets. Sometimes
second-formers, not even in my classes, came with him. But
Robert never once did. Even at the refectory, he seemed not to
notice. He didn't avoid me, just didn't notice and passed
right by the faculty tables without a nod.
The perpetual shadow of his black beard made Robert seem older
than the others, but not sensual. Even now, over twenty-five
years later, and on much maturer terms with myself, I cannot
imagine myself in darkness peeking out blinds to look at him,
as night after night I waited to see either of his classmates,
the two prefects in the next building, shirtless, scratch
Robert triggered fantasies less sensual. They had something to
do with power, not his modest skills as a tackle, but his
ability to stay with a commitment until he won.
At O'Gorman, I had escaped playing sports by becoming the
athletic trainer. At games I was a glorified water boy, but
after hours, with tongue depressors I swabbed many a hero's
jock itch with slabs of what looked like peanut butter and
smelled like axle grease. I aimed deep heat at others' sore
buns; ground analgesics into others' shoulders.
Four years of bowl fanaticism at "Bigotry U." made
me an apostate to sports religion. I worried that The
Witherspoon School might revive that. Since new teachers often
have to coach j-v teams, I made a point during orientation to
visit the varsity workouts, hoping to influence my luck.
It paid off. At a break in football practice, I asked a coach,
"What inning is it?" I got to advise the staff of
the student newspaper.
But Rubbings no longer threatened me. By then I had learned to
live with my secrets, to channel most energy into books and
music as easily as tackles thrust it into another's gut.
Besides, The Sound and the Fury and enough other works I
admired had committed me to suicide before I would ever act on
the passions that surged in the dark as I peeked out the
Instead, I feared the way that sports sucked me into their
definition of courage as essentially physical, an endurance of
pain and risk according to clear rules. That's why I never
liked Hemingway. But so pervasive is the point of view, I knew
I could easily fall back into thinking that only good athletes
can win courage, like a team trophy at the annual steak
banquet. In that world, waterboys like me live, if at all,
I preferred to read "A Certain Slant of Light" and
blast Mahler's Ninth down Senior Hall.
Robert Martin appeared to respect my terms. He never
volunteered to give a talk at chapel, though faculty often
recommended such speakers for the Ivy League. He never joined
the glee club to sip sherry in the director's bachelor
apartment and sit in the bachelor's chair monogrammed
"V." Robert kept to himself his athleticism and any
other religion he might have had; studied rigorously; and
never made less than a 96 on any of my tests. He worked less
hard for other teachers.
The more I learned about The Witherspoon School, the more I
admired Robert Martin. Witherspoon's trustees had given
Geoffrey Smitherman his "Dr." easily, since they
also served as trustees of a nearby Baptist women's college.
Dr. Smitherman's "publications" turned out to be
several editions of a workbook on sentence-diagramming, taught
in no other school and only in our own Form One. At his autumn
tea, I examined a dozen of the impressive leather classics in
Dr. Smitherman's living room and found not one with the pages
Claiborne was easier to like, if not respect. Dr. Smitherman
held the title "President," but Mr. Claiborne, as
"Headmaster" actually ran The Witherspoon School.
Claiborne did not even try to mask his pretensions.
"What did you buy that buggy for, Smith? Do you drive it
with a rubber band?" he teased me publicly when he first
spotted my new Falcon, parked so all could see it, by the new
I had gone $2,100 into hock to buy it -- $2,800 after interest
-- and I earned only $3,600 for the 9 months, plus my room and
"Seriously, Lee," he added when he invited me to
join him and Mrs. Claiborne at their table in the refectory,
"you will never know that you have arrived until you sit
behind the wheel of a big car, smoking a cigar, knowing that
it belongs to you."
I added Babbitt to the reading list for Senior Bible. Students
could earn up to 10 extra points for their annual grade (at
half a point per book) for each work that they tested well on,
in an oral examination.
"God makes 100. I make 99. The highest you can make,
98," I explained.
Robert put all 10 of his points into storage by the end of the
first semester, though he never needed them.
Amazingly, no boy ever let out that I had put Dr. King's
Strides Toward Freedom on the list; some even read it, and
those who did not, still seemed pleased to have a teacher that
had heard of the outside world.
On Saturdays when anyone went to town, he had to pass a
Hospitality Tent which the KKK had set up in a mill village.
Management had closed the mill and moved the work to Hong Kong
and Taiwan when local labor organized. News about sit-ins in
the Carolinas gave the white unemployed something different to
get worked up about.
Dr. Smitherman addressed the new unrest the same way that he
had addressed the "Race Problem" every year for over
thirty years. He talked at chapel about "Old Joe,"
the barber to boys when a young "Mr." Smitherman
first came to The Witherspoon School.
"Joe is one of the finest human beings I ever met."
Dr. Smitherman modulated a slight tremolo. "Mayors and
governors would do well to imitate his honesty and his good
humor. He loves Witherspoon boys. He helps us turn them into
Witherspoon men. You should respect good Negroes. Don't stir
up a fuss like unfortunate rednecks. If you treat the Negro
kindly, the Negro will serve you well.
"Of course Old Joe would be the first to say that God
does not intend for the races to mix socially. Right,
Venerable Joe Thompson, now in his eighties, hauled out of
retirement for this paid annual production, smiled generously
and said, "Yes, sir. You are a good man, Dr. Smitherman!"
He would smile to the audience and say, "Dr. Smitherman
is a good man, boys, a good, good man."
"Boys," Dr. Smitherman would close, "Joe
confirms what you learn when you study 'Mending Wall,' the
great poem by Robert Frost: 'Good fences make good neighbors.'
"He can't go behind his father's saying? What's 'behind'
it?" I would ask my fifth-formers in the next period,
given Dr. Smitherman's own prompt to teach the poem.
As far as I know, they never reported to Dr. Smitherman how I
used Frost's own words to mince his interpretation. Claiborne
probably would have enjoyed it if he could have understood it.
I felt that he didn't like Dr. Smitherman and impatiently
waited for Dr. Smitherman to retire so that he could replace
him in the President's Mansion. Perhaps I misjudged him.
I learned later that few boys or faculty approached Claiborne
for anything, except to listen. Isolated in my books and
music, I did not notice their reticence and had to learn the
collective wisdom on my own.
I had no discipline problems in class. Students respected my
work ethic. If a boy ever did sass, I would squelch him with
invincible sarcasm: "John, you are very perceptive and
therefore will understand how important it is that you meet me
here for two hours after class to analyze your
But in the dark, after lights-out, I could not defend myself
with words. As the newest faculty member of three on Senior
Hall, I had a hard time when the boys tested me.
They usually started off playful enough. Birdcalls. Frog
croaks. But I too soon took bait and shouted, "Who made
that noise!?" or guessed wildly, "Poindexter, the
next time you do that you'll sit in study hall for a
This licensed the circus as clearly as if I had walked to the
center ring. By three o'clock in the morning I might have
nabbed three culprits, but the hall would remain littered with
water bombs and other trash. Everyone, highly entertained,
would wait for my next turn on duty.
Next I decided to ignore them, not to take even the first
bait. Let the menagerie build to whatever crescendo their ears
could bear, I would wait fortressed in my room. They gave up
after about an hour, but resented me. My ploy might have
worked if I used it when they first played, but now I was a
spoil-sport. They turned mean, to jew- baiting.
Rabinowitz played right into their trap. The moment someone
made the wailing sounds used in the movie version of The
Diary of Anne Frank, Rabinowitz would run out of his
room and bang on my door. They loved it better than water
I would stand in the dark hall for hours, but no one ever made
the noises from a range close enough for me to catch him.
During Thanksgiving, I searched for evidence. With a master
key, I crept through all 45 rooms on the hall. Lawrence's Lady
Chatterly and Miller's Tropics had only recently broken the
censors' backs, but the porn these rich boys sported would not
be marketed publicly for another decade.
I stared for a long time, especially when I discovered in the
drawer of a weightlifter the pictures of men having sex with
men. If I had known such pictures existed outside my mind, I
might have predicted Poindexter would have a stash. He often
jerked off at the late bed-check; sometimes he waved! Yet he
hoarded only dirty letters from his girl friend, no pictures
Partly on instinct, partly because a box of my books had
pushed the back out of my own laundry bin, I decided to check
the backs of bins in several boys' rooms. I hit the jackpot on
my first try. It opened to a casino.
Yes, as in mine, the back of the laundry bin opened into a
low, narrow place under the roof, large enough to squeeze
maybe two people. But behind the boys' bin, unlike mine, the
narrow space opened into a much larger one that ran the full
length of the shower room midway down the hall. In this secret
space boys had placed a rug, several cases of whiskey, three
slot machines, and enough other paraphernalia to keep up to
fifteen gambling at any one time.
Even though I routinely eavesdropped, I had not expected
anything like this. Once I had overheard a prefect on the hall
say that the governor's son, a Form Two boy who lived in the
Field House, had lost $1,000 in one card game, but I presumed
that the prefect exaggerated, or referred to something that
had happened during the previous summer.
Knowing that this evidence could blow the top off
Witherspoon's reputation as one of the finest prep schools in
the South, I went cautiously to Claiborne's Office. Closed for
the holiday. I spotted his Ninety-Eight parked in front of the
gym and trekked through the rain to his apartment at the back.
Mrs. Claiborne, sensing my urgency, asked about my family,
pointed to some fruitcake, and quickly left me alone with her
Claiborne did not interrupt once during the whole time I told
him what I had discovered. I omitted the parts about water
bombs and jew- baiting, even the part about my plot to check
the boys' rooms. I fibbed a bit; I said that a stranger had
telephoned to tell me to look under the eaves.
Claiborne didn't question me. He didn't take notes. He just
listened. For half an hour he listened.
After I had stopped, Claiborne said, "Now, Lee, have you
told anyone else?"
"You've done a good job. Now let me take care of it
completely. Do you understand?"
He already stood at the door.
"Well, yes, sir," I lied.
He never mentioned it again.
I've told this story out loud at least a dozen times over the
past quarter of a century, usually to close friends, but
sometimes even to my classes. Since I don't know you, I'm
pleased and a little surprised you've gotten this far. I never
thought that in print I would risk sounding like Edith Bunker
when she loses her main point to give you ten interesting
minor ones instead.
But I never have come to terms myself with the main point. I
know the minor ones add up to something big. Maybe you can
I can easily conclude the part about the jew-baiting. By the
time the boys returned from Thanksgiving, for the two weeks of
term examinations, they had too much work even to think of
late-night play. Then after Christmas, that seemed like
Until April. Mistakenly I left my copy of Emily Dickinson in
my apartment. Only honor students could study in their rooms
during the day, and no one expected a teacher about. Philip
Smethurst ambled past the showers, his back to me, and as he
passed Rabinowitz's room, he let out the moan from The
Diary of Anne Frank. As much to my surprise as his, I
pounced on Smethurst before he ever saw me, lifted him off the
floor by his jacket, and held him against the wall, my fist
pressed into his stomach.
I don't remember any words. I just raged. I saw him only once
after that, when he gave the Valedictory.
I learned by the grapevine that after the summer break began,
The Witherspoon School notified the parents of several of
underclassmen that their sons could not return. Claiborne
placed in The O'Gorman School the one senior who flunked, and
the governor's son.
Viewed from a quarter of a century, Claiborne's seems a much
cleverer way to handle the gambling than to panic as I had
done with the water bombs, even though I still do not respect
When Claiborne succeeded Dr. Smitherman, he too metamorphosed
into "Dr." and built a garage beside the President's
Mansion for his new Lincoln. I heard he inherited even the
leather, uncut books.
I understand that it took a few more complete turnovers to rid
the place of all hints of scandal when marijuana hit in the
early seventies; but The Witherspoon School survives, its good
reputation intact. It has initiated even a few black students
into reverence, not just football.
"Old Joe" Thompson and Dr. Geoffrey Smitherman
eventually died, confirming my theologian friend's emendation,
"So long as there's death, there's hope."
When I fled, I taught first at an Episcopal school outside the
South. From there to London to teach poorer boys, in the
slums. From there to my Ph.D. and teaching adults in college.
Each year at its Commencement, The Witherspoon School bestows
several coveted awards, including the Bible Prize, given in
perpetuity by the family of an early alumnus who died of a
cold his first month as a missionary to Nigeria, to "that
boy who in the view of the Senior Bible Teacher best
demonstrates a rigorous understanding of Holy Scripture."
I surprised no one when I posted the grades for the final
examination outside the classroom: everyone had guessed that
Robert Martin would win it.
Then Claiborne called me to the President's tiny office for my
second and final visit. Dr. Smitherman sat high in the "W
& N" chair. Claiborne leaned against the wall,
stoking a cigar. I sank in leather.
"Mr. Smith, you have taught well for your first
year," Dr. Smitherman said.
"Thank you. Next year I expect to revise..."
"We hope that you will cooperate with us so that you can
teach here next year," Dr. Smitherman said.
"It's about the Bible Prize, Lee," Claiborne
blurted, ever impatient with Dr. Smitherman's delicacy.
"That's easy," I said. "Everyone knows that
Robert Martin has won it. He has led all year, and I posted
his final grade, a 99, which normally I reserve..."
"Not easy," Dr. Smitherman said, softly.
"We cannot tell you any details. You must trust us. But
Robert Martin has done something we prefer not to mention,
ever. He cannot win the Bible Prize or any other."
"But he already has. I have posted the grades..."
"Lee," Mr. Claiborne said as paternally as when he
advised me what kind of automobile to aspire to, "no one
has ever said that the Bible Prize has to go to the boy with
the highest score. You may freely consider other factors, like
character. I believe that Edgar Bell scored second highest. He
plans to preach. Robert Martin will study business at
"Mr. Smith, you have taught a good course. We hope that
you will cooperate." Dr. Smitherman urged, not looking me
in the eye.
Every other time that I have told this story, I have used it
as a model for endurance not orchestrated, for risk without
I have explained to all earlier audiences, as I told you at
the beginning, that I left The Witherspoon School soon
thereafter. Everyone charitably assumes that I walked away
from Witherspoon with this courage of a different kind.
But I didn't. Actually I stayed on for two more short years.
Edgar Bell won the prize and went to Evangel. Robert Martin
never got to Shackville. He drowned in a sailing accident two
I remember driving my black Falcon to the muddy lot behind the
Field House. Boys and their families sloshed everywhere. I saw
him several cars away, loading his gear.
My face said: "They pressured me; they made me; I'm
Robert seemed to see. I can't be sure. He waved from the gate
of his family's station wagon, shrugged his shoulders, and