Perhaps the Divine Fisherman was thinking this poor fish had better not be pulled in too forcibly, lest he break the line. At any rate, the process of dragging me out of my little pond of earthly security became for me, temporarily, much more pleasant. After six months in Bucharest my health was greatly improved. I was eleven years old now, and my parents were anxious to see me resume my formal education.
A Quaker boys’ school in England had been highly recommended to us. Nestling snugly in the heart of the Malvern Hills near the village of Colwall, The Downs School was surrounded by verdant, rolling fields, and by narrow country roads that wound their way carefully between clipped, very English hedges. The buildings were attractive, and the grounds spacious. I was steeled to the idea, which months earlier had been so painful to me, of living away from home. The Downs seemed a better place than most in which to spend my exile.
The English have many wonderful traits: honor, loyalty, a sense of duty and fair play. Since this is a chronicle of my spiritual search, however, I cannot in good conscience ignore what comes across to me also as a certain blind spot in their national temperament: a reliance so complete on the ordinary that it gives almost no credence to the extraordinary. Something there is about the religious spirit of England that tries to mold Jesus Christ himself into the very proper image of an English gentleman, and casts the Old Testament prophets as fellow club members with him, perhaps writing occasional letters to the Times in protest against the lamentable want of good form in a few of their countrymen. Whether members of the Church of England or of any other sect, the English give one the impression of having neatly clipped and trimmed their religion, like a hedge, to protect values that are primarily social. I refer not to the courageous, free-thinking few, but to the many whose worship seems to close, rather than open, windows onto infinity.
I hope I am wrong. At any rate, the only memorable religious event for me during my two years at The Downs occurred one Sunday evening when the father of one of our students, an Anglican minister, delivered a sermon. This man’s body, almost perfectly round, was surmounted by a face that was dangerously suggestive of a pig’s — dangerously, I say, because his porcine appearance, combined with an attitude of immense dignity, reduced me and a friend beside me to fits of helpless, though silent, merriment. All I remember clearly now is looking up at one point through tears to see “the pig” describing a wide circle with his arms. “And the whole world…” he cried feelingly. His gesture so perfectly outlined his own global figure that fresh paroxysms of suppressed mirth overwhelmed us. The row directly behind ours was filled with faculty members, but to my surprise none of them endeavored to discipline us. Perhaps they, too, were finding self-control difficult!
The Downs was easily the best school I ever attended. Religious teaching there may not have been exactly ponderous, but in other respects the teachers knew how to draw the best out of their students. Character building is more basic to the English educational system than to the American. At The Downs, honor, fair play, truthfulness, and a sense of responsibility were given strong emphasis. To tell a lie was considered almost outside the realm of possibility. A boy was once caught stealing sixpence and a little candy from another boy’s locker, and so shocked everyone that he was expelled from the school.
In sports, too, though we did our best to win, we were taught that the game itself, not its outcome, was what really mattered. After rugby matches with other schools, the members of both teams dined together, rivalry forgotten, new friendships affirmed. I have sometimes wondered what would happen if opposing teams in America were to dine together after a game. Given our national emphasis on winning, I suspect there might be a free-for-all.
Once, in punishment for some peccadillo, a group of us were told to run several miles around a course of country roads. No one checked up on us to make sure we didn’t spend that time lying under some tree instead. Mr. Hoyland, the headmaster, knew it wouldn’t occur to us to break our word to him. He only told me to report in to him again when we returned.
Another time, as punishment for some infraction, I was told not to go swimming on three occasions when I really wanted to. The trust implied in this condition helped me to live up to it, though I must admit that on one of those occasions it was raining, so I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway!
Needless to say, idealism didn’t always win out over basic human weaknesses, nor propriety over boyhood’s natural exuberance. But on the whole I am impressed with what the English school system was able to accomplish.
The Downs School had a number of innovative features of its own: two kinds of marks, for example, one of them in Greek letters (alpha, beta, gamma, delta), to show how well (or badly) we’d done in the subjects themselves; the other in colors, to show how earnestly we’d applied ourselves to those subjects. Those bright colors seemed somehow even more worth striving for than the letter grades.
Wednesday afternoons were hobby time. We were allowed, on approval, to select our own hobbies, and were given qualified instructors for them. My first year there I studied sculpture; my second, painting. For what would have been my third year, a group of us generated enough interest to get astronomy approved. For me, however, as will become clear later on, that year was not to be.
In addition to sculpture and painting I studied piano and also sang in the choir. Our choir instructress, a puffy-cheeked, solemn, but good-natured lady, would peer at us myopically as she waved her baton. With great earnestness she taught us to sing:
Bach and Handel, as you know
Died and were buried long ago.
Born in the year one-six-eight-five,
Still they’re very much alive.
If this ditty fell short of the musical standards it celebrated, we had no quarrel with the sentiment it expressed. For we loved classical music. Actually, I seldom heard modern popular music until we moved to America. My parents and their friends occasionally threw parties and danced to records, but to us boys this was just “grown-up nonsense.” I remember how we shook with merriment the time I imitated for my brothers a recording I’d heard in England of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” sung in extravagantly nasal American accents by the Andrews Sisters. At The Downs, too, tastes ran generally to classical music, except perhaps among the older boys. It was quite unselfconscious on our part; we simply liked it.
Too many people treat the classics like something to be bolted down with water and a wry face. But if children’s tastes weren’t conditioned otherwise by their sexually awakened elders, I think most of them might grow up loving great music.
Life in England exposed me also to another kind of sound: the British accent. Not that I was unfamiliar with it; many of our friends in Rumania were English. But there at least we mixed with them on neutral ground. Here I alone was a foreigner. Placed at such a disadvantage, I worked hard to overcome it. By the time I returned home for my first vacation I was already saying “ne-oh,” and “shahn’t” with the best of ’em — much to my parents’ dismay.
At first I tried awkwardly to cloak my reserve under a somewhat ill-fitting mantle of jocularity. A boy named Randall decided my behavior lacked proper dignity for a Downs boy. When I passed off his scolding with another joke, he became so irritated that he challenged me to a fight. Randall was the accepted leader of our form,(1) and was accustomed to being obeyed.
Grudges at The Downs weren’t supposed to be settled on the spot. To win time for a possible reconciliation, the rule was to submit a formal challenge, after which a boxing match was arranged in the gym, complete with seconds and a referee.
I accepted Randall’s challenge. The date for the match was set. As the days passed and Randall observed in me no sign of apprehension, his attitude toward me gradually changed.
“Let’s be friends,” he suggested one day. I assured him I’d never felt we were enemies. In time our friendship developed into one of the happiest I have ever known.
Randall was good-natured, highly intelligent, sensitive, yet practical, and intensely earnest in everything he did. His friendship opened for me the door to acceptance by the other boys. Once accepted, I brought to them a lighter spirit — the ability, for example, to laugh at oneself. Our Latin teacher, Mr. Days, a formidable man whose bluff I somehow managed to penetrate, wrote to me years later, “Yours wasn’t, perhaps, the brightest class I ever had, but it was certainly the happiest.”
The months passed in study, good fellowship, and sports. A fast runner, I managed to play wing three-quarter (the principal running position) in several of the rugby games with other schools. Cricket, however, I considered an utter waste of a sunny afternoon. In practice sessions, which were obligatory, I would lie down in the outfield and wait comfortably for someone to shout, “Walters, get up! The ball’s coming your way!”
Sometimes there were inter-form “wars”—in fun, not in anger. One form would “board” the other, perhaps through windows that hadn’t been secured quickly enough. Fights at The Downs, even those initiated in anger, commonly strengthened the spirit of friendship. This was an outcome that, to my surprise, I never encountered in the schools I attended later in America.
But while we scrapped and competed merrily in classrooms and on playing fields, another more serious conflict was developing in Europe. The relentless approach of World War II made a somber backdrop to our school days, one that was never very far from our thoughts. Many of us, we realized, might have to fight in the next war. Many of us, probably, would be killed.
The pride of the English is intense. One boy, dignifying with the label, patriotism, what was really only a mean nature, once called me a “dirty foreigner.” I was inured to the second half of this role, so wasn’t offended. “If I’m a dirty foreigner,” I replied with a smile, “perhaps you’re a dirty Englishman.” Outraged, the boy leapt at me. I was stronger than he, and had no difficulty in holding him down while he writhed and spat up at me till he tired of hurling imprecations and cooled off. Later I related the incident to Randall and one or two other friends, and was impressed by the depth of their patriotism. Their laughter at the outset was generous; none of them liked the boy, and all of them liked me. But their laughter subsided when I reached the point where I’d said, “Perhaps you’re a dirty Englishman.” Sympathy returned only when I explained that it was purely a question of whether or not the other boy had bathed recently.
England’s Prime Minister, Sir Neville Chamberlain, went to Germany in 1938, returning with the welcome proclamation, “Peace in our time.” Much was made in the press of his glad tidings, though I don’t think people put much faith in them. At any rate, gas masks were soon passed out to each of us at school. On a trip to Rumania with Roy Redgrave, the son of family friends of ours there, we sang the English national anthem loudly in the streets of Hamburg, feeling very brave, though I don’t suppose the Gestapo felt particularly threatened by a couple of skinny English schoolboys. What children do, however, reflects the spirit of their elders. Throughout Europe, defiance was now in the air. It could only be a matter of time before open conflict broke out.
My two years in England gave me much for which to be grateful. The friendships I formed there, and the good times we had, left me with many happy memories. Though circumstances prevented me from returning for my third and final year, Mr. Hoyland had selected me for the second half of that year to be the head boy. My gain, moreover, was not only in the form of memories. I also learned many worthwhile lessons, particularly on the correctness or incorrectness of different patterns of behavior. Such teaching contains an important spiritual principle. For, as my Guru was to emphasize later, it is not enough to be guided by high ideals: One must also “learn to behave.” That is to say, one must know how to relate properly to every reality on its own level.
This balance of the inner and outer aspects of life is not easy to achieve. My two years in England helped me toward its fulfillment. Partly for this reason, England has always held a warm place in my heart. So great is my regard for the fine characteristics of her people, and so loving were the friendships I formed there, that I think I shall always remain, in part, an Englishman.
- The English equivalent of grade.
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