|Recollections of Chapel|
From grades 7 thru 12 (approx. age 12 thru 17), I attended a so-called preparatory school: St. Paul's School for Boys, in Brooklandville, Maryland. The school is part of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, a venerable (very old) church in Baltimore, noted for a certain prayer (which I think is the source of the Alcoholics Anonymous "serenity prayer"). Even at the time, I did not enjoy being there, although only in later life did I more clearly realize what a tragedy it had been: "The Sorrow and the Pity", but where deportation led only to a public school and not to a death camp. Like Galileo, only under far less historically portentious circumstances, I was twice subjected to star-chamber Inquisitorial proceedings. (Note: It is possible that the school has changed much since I graduated in 1964; Indeed I very much hope it has changed, for the better, and that my criticisms no longer apply!)
However: One could not include religious intolerance among St. Paul's School's many bad points. The chemistry teacher was an avowed atheist; and the only time he got in trouble over religion was when he told a mentally sub-normal minister's son that nobody in the 20th century could really believe in God. When this teacher left St. Paul's (in part, I believe, because he was an antique collector and stole some valuable pieces from the school...), and went to teach in a public school, he said he had much greater trouble from parents objecting to his religious views....
Each school day began at 9AM with a brief religious service in the school chapel, which event was called (reasonably enough): "Chapel". We had chapel every morning. Student attendance was compulsory (faculty attendance was generally optional). But chapel was not all bad. There was a psychiatrist's son who was supposed to take a big vitamin pill each day but, instead, would puncture the pill and squeeze out its contents, thus emitting a putrid odor which affected his fellow students over a radius of a few feet (as I here write about pharmaceutical stench in the pews, I think of the schlock prep-school romanticizing movie: "Chariots of Fire", and gas warfare in the trenches on the Western Front...). Myself and another intelligent but weird student would sometimes extemporize our own words to the hymns. The Latin teacher was at a certain point required to attend chapel because, so we heard, he had been found out doing things during chapel in the school bookstore with the French teacher, of which the administration did not approve.
The reason I am writing about this, here, is because, this morning (Tuesday, August 5th, 1997CE), shortly after getting up, I recalled one of the hymns we sang, which, even today, strikes me as constructive. Indeed, it seems to me that my most positive memories of St. Paul's School are of certain such good hymns, in this institution (chapel praxis) within the institition (school edifice and legal fiction).
When wilt thou save thy people, O God of mercy, when? Not thrones and powers, not nations [memory lapse here, so I'll repeat the foregoing to keep the rhythm...] -- not thrones and powers, but men?... When wilt thou save thy people, strength aiding still the strong?... "No!" say the mountains, "No!" the skies, man's clouded sun will one day arise, and songs be heard instead of sighs, God save thy people.What could be a more enlightened, noble and revolutionary statement of faith in universal humanity, and hope for an end to all oppression, unless one objects to appealing to an external agency for help, instead of getting on with doing it oneself? I could never have thought at the time (for I did not have words and concepts to understand my objective situation clearly), but the words of the hymn could have been applied to the situation in which they were sung: When would we children be freed from the domination of our teachers? -- these people, whose number included at least one ex-vacuum cleaner salesman who couldn't get any better job even in those most prosperous post-World War II years, who called themselves Masters and required us to address them always as: "Sir!", even though rarely did they merit such an appellation, and who had the power to hand out "demerits" at their discretion for any behavior of which they disapproved. (The usual consequence of "earning" demerits was to have to return to school on Saturday morning, and either sit silently doing nothing, or do yard chores around the grounds for a period proportionate to the number of demerits "earned".)
There was another hymn with the phrase:
"New situations teach new duties; new knowledge makes old wisdom uncouth."Someday, the oppression I was experiencing in this place which was far more like something out of Dickens than Jefferson or Emerson, not to mention John Dewey! would be replaced by something else: their "truth" would not endure forever. (In 1979, I read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which made the point clearly enough that I finally "got it": Kuhn observed that old scientific theories die off not because those who believe in them convert to the newer theory, but rather because the adherents of the old theory eventually all die, without being able to attract any members of the new generation to carry on their work. At last I saw the hope that one day all my tor-mentors would be dead, and their dark, repressive "world" with them.)
Somehow a faint flicker of the Enlightenment had found its way into the Hymnal of the Episcopal Church. Consequently, an individual passing for the first time through the entrance gate of this day carcel for children (there were also boarding facilities, which made the place, for some, a residential internment camp...), would have found, paradoxically, where they might a priori expect the worst dogmatic repression: i.e., in the daily religious services, instead, one of the few hints of hope for freedom, democracy, reason ("Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...")....
Such a person would also have found some contemporary fiction (Catcher in the Rye, e.g.) on the English reading lists. But I propose the person should not interpret this as a sign of real enlightenment, for, while the English teachers were conceited enough to consider themselves "advanced" (three of them even having graduated from Ivy League schools, one each: Harvard, Yale and Penn...), so that they would talk about potentially [mildly] subversive books in their classes, they still unstintingly demanded hierarchical obedience from the students, and subjected the students to punitive testing and "grading" of their studies in reality. The unthematized operational principle of the matter, in retrospect, clearly was that one would not apply what one read to one's immediate life situation in the classroom, but only to "life": a label which, if it had any referent, did not include the moment-to-moment ("here-and-how") actually occurring social relations within the school.
"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt. 18:20)This did not seem to happen at St. Paul's School, at least as I experienced it. There was no equalitarianly humble gathering together of students and teachers in conversation about how collaboratively to bring goodness into their midst and help one another. There were only relations of [teacher] command and [student] obedience, and mass student-body self-sacrificial arousal in the name of "school spirit" (we students were: "The Crusaders"!) to: "Beat Gilman!" [the athletic rival prep school]. When once a student with athletic ability decided not to "go out" for the team, the math teacher began math class by trying to shame the student in front of all his classmates into reconsidering his decision.
But some of the hymns we sang spoke of the hope, caring and community we did not have. (I also have always found such notions from Chapel as "the communion of saints", and "All Souls Day" constructive: the vision of a universal dialog among all persons, including the dead who would be raised, and where there would be no Masters but all would be peers.)
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