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Episcopal Day School

From Venus Mons Iliad, early in the journey

Chapter 2: Episcopal Day School

After three violent years in grim public grade schools, the family matriarch decreed transfer to Episcopal Day School more suitable for my fragile soul. Seldom has a road to hell been paved with better intentions.

It started out okay. My first recess the third-grade class bully tried me out. He wouldn’t have lasted a day in public school; one punch and I bloodied his nose and wrecked his dominance. Like every good thing that happened in day school, the event came with baggage: my fists earned me the friendship of an eerie kid who turned out to be the real monster. But that was for later.

The second good thing was my drawing was recognized as talented, unlike public school teachers who ridiculed my notebook doodles. I participated in a mural contest: crayon on brown butcher paper. My depiction of an Indian village, tepees and a war-bonneted chief warming his backside at a campfire, was scissored out, mounted, and submitted to a Women’s League art show. I won the blue ribbon. Predictions of my success as an artist were frequent by fourth grade.

Aptitude testing by some national firm returned results pegging my IQ above 150. Classes were very small and each student got plenty of attention. I took for granted the attention my score got me from the principal, a silver-haired woman with almost the authority of my matriarch. Of course I was special.

But there was the issue of Sharon.

In the relaxed atmosphere of this strange new school, the girls ran in packs during free periods. Their fun was to gang up on a boy and tickle him, because of course boys were honor-bound not to fight back. Perhaps their behavior was a rebellion against all the genteel training on table manners and cotillion dancing. Every student but me was from wealthy Old South families where even grade-school training presaged debutante balls and college. The girl-packs were ignored by the teachers.

Sharon was the leader of the pack. I was fresh meat. The day they closed around me I was horrified. Grimly determined to defend my ticklish ribs. But I couldn’t bring myself to hit a girl. Despite my struggles they swarmed me and wrestled me to the floor. One on each leg, one on each arm, one with an arm around my head. Where the hell were the teachers?

That left only Sharon free, standing over me. Smiling like a devil as they told her to get on with it. She knelt over me and said I know something that will make him crazier than tickling. And she took my face in her hands and kissed me. Right on the lips. I jerked worse than if she tickled me, shocked almost senseless by her boldness. Even more shocked that I liked it. She pulled away, got up and told them to let me go.

Immediate chant: “Sharon’s got s boyfriend!” They let me go without a single tickle. I was never attacked after that. In Cotillion training, Sharon always seemed to be my dance partner. Lolly, the cute blonde from one of the wealthiest families, was named Queen of the Cotillion for the formal winter dance. She selected me for her processional escort, and stuck her tongue out at Sharon. But there was no other poaching. Sharon filled my dance card that night. My eerie buddy Stewart predicted I would be sorry when the sixth-grader who figured Sharon belonged to him found out. I heard but could not comprehend. From the long perspective of old age it seems incredible so much quasi-adult emotion filled those pre-pubescent days. We were a precocious bunch.

Christmas break, I was home amid Christmas baking and decorating and grown-up partying with highball glasses, school the farthest thing from my mind. A strange car stopped in front of the house. A poignantly familiar girlish figure stepped from the passenger seat and came up the walk alone. Sharon.

The matriarch, observing and apparently all-knowing, ordered me to the door alone to greet her. As we stood there, Sharon’s mother came up the walk with a wrapped Christmas present. Sharon took it and shyly presented it to me.

To say my emotions were in turmoil is understatement. I literally didn’t know what to do as grownups spoke over our heads. The paper looked expensive and the box was weighty. Sharon insisted on a present for me, her mother told the matriarch, wasn’t that just precious? Did I even thank her? Don’t remember. Remember praying for the embarrassment to end. Soon as they were gone I was hissing at the matriarch we had to get Sharon a present right now!

The women of my family made the selection, something a little girl would like as much as I liked the big red magnetic racing car Sharon gave me. Whatever it was is lost forever in my embarrassment as they simpered and fussed about the cuteness of young love. The matriarch dispatched my grandfather to drive me to Sharon’s house where the rich people lived. I made that long walk alone, just as she had. Men like the old man didn’t participate in such silliness. I dealt with my reception alone. Christmas passed without further incident.

But the very first day after Christmas break, a fat furious sixth-grader cornered me outside the school lunch room. He pinned me to the wall and threatened to kill me because I gave his girlfriend a present. Here was the first ugly twist to my psyche at that damn school: I learned I was a coward. Feeling totally helpless before the larger boy — gigantic in memory — I crawled. Oh, I crawled. I whined it was not my fault, I had to give her a present. She gave me one first! The shame of that lives, ever-raw.

He screamed like a wounded animal she gave you a present? He smashed his fist into the lunch room wall. Then he hurt me. Before he could beat me to death — which I believed imminent — grownups intervened. I didn’t throw a single punch for fear of making him madder. No memory of blood or bruises survives. Just bitter shame I was a coward.

I believe he was expelled. I know the matriarch got involved. The school principal, a trained psychologist, counseled me when it was clear I was traumatized, starting at shadows and sudden noises, though the sixth-grader was gone. I got through the year and the summer following unscathed. My eerie friend Stewart was not so lucky. His unmentionable summer experiences led to my second traumatic twisting. He took me into the bathroom to show his secret treasures: graphic photographs of naked people having sex.

The images not only rocked me, they caused a strange heat that suffused me and left my pulse pounding. Here was photographic evidence of the great mystery so much discussed in my family. He sniggered and touched me in a disturbing way. Said he could show a lot more if I came home to meet the family chauffeur.

Of course I could not go home with anyone unless I cleared it with the matriarch. That was beyond question. Which may have saved me from who knows what. But not from being harassed by Stewart, as if crawling to the sixth-grader signaled he could now bully and dominate me, and he did.

The relaxed teaching staff assumed our wrestling matches were friendly. They weren’t. He liked to jump me and ride me down when the recess bell went, hold me down and grope me as teachers disappeared from the yard, laughing at my fear of being late to class, whispering his chauffeur could teach me things class could not. I was a nervous wreck. I remember twirling locks of my hair around and around obsessively. It was inevitable my fascination guided my hand in art class.

The blow from a steel-edged ruler across my drawing hand came out of nowhere. The pain was shocking.

We had a substitute teacher that day. She snatched my pad. I had been drawing a naked woman in profile. The line the teacher’s slashing blow interrupted went out at an angle from the woman’s hips. Terrified and in pain I was thankful she struck before I completed the erect cock I meant to intersect the woman’s groin. The woman’s hair and face were complete, but only her front profile from neck to hip. I meant to sketch the cock first, then a man.

Dragged to the principal’s office I could argue, and did, that the silhouette was of a clothed woman, the line the beginning of her skirt. The shrewd old principal nodded and tapped the engorged nipple. And this? The pencil slipped I said. I was going to erase the bump. The substitute teacher snorted and demanded punishment for nastiness. The principal sent her back to class, tended swelling cuts on my hand and gave me an aspirin. The rest is a blur. Someone came and took me home.

There was no choice but to spill my guts to the matriarch. She was coldly furious. But not at me. At the teacher who struck me. At Stewart’s parents who permitted their chauffeur to corrupt their child. There was a lot of grown-up conferencing and telephone-calling. I went back to school unpunished. And I will be damned if a girl on playground monkey bars didn’t complain to the teacher on duty — the substitute with the ready ruler — that I tried to look up her skirt. He’s a nasty little creep, the teacher said loudly, but it’s no good to complain — you’ll just get in trouble like I did.

I never saw her again. She would never teach again, the matriarch reported with grim satisfaction, having reached out to church hierarchy and school licensing authorities. Stewart was sent to military boarding school. The pedophile chauffeur vanished. I had more sessions with the shrink-principal to the effect I was not “bad” and it was important to continue my artwork. But my sketches turned to knives and guns and violent combat. I never drew a woman again. Day School heritage was that I was a coward. Worse, a coward who could not draw the alien creatures that were the fountainhead of the great mystery of sex.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.