NEW BOY RULES
By Joseph Eastburn
When my parents separated in 1962, they decided to send my older sister and me off to boarding school to get us out of the turmoil of a disintegrating marriage. For me, the decision may have saved my life; for my sister, it was a disaster.
My sister was the kind of girl who liked to wear makeup and earrings and put on dresses and nylon stockings and heels. She was an editor of her high school newspaper. She was sent off to Woodstock Country School in Vermont, where everyone wore jeans and called their headmaster “David.” There are other reasons why she may not have fit in. My parents met onstage, and so we were all somewhat artistically inclined in our eccentric way—what I might call “literary,” though instead of actually reading books, my parents talked about them while they drank heavily. My father was also directing and producing theater in New Jersey, and we would drive into New York City to see the world premiere of a Harold Pinter play in Greenwich Village, for instance, or a Broadway show. We were theater people—which meant high drama.
In that context, my sister being shipped off to a windswept farm full of long-haired, sad, straight-faced girls (who in my mind’s eye all resembled the Manson women) was worse than my boarding school experience, even though mine looked worse. She was like a hothouse flower taken outside at full bloom and flung in the snow.
While my sister had thrived in public school, I was failing, constantly in trouble, and had already been suspended. It wasn’t until my forties that I realized I got in trouble at school because I was trying to get attention—even though the only kind I got was negative attention. I’d already been labeled a troublemaker. The school secretaries remarked that they knew I’d be the first student to try out the brand-new chairs in the principal’s office. When I was catapulted off to boarding school in seventh grade, it was a new start. I was out of the upheaval of my parents’ tunnel of acrimony and the crisis of their breakup. Except for a summer at sailing camp, it was the first time on my own.
There was only one catch.
I still remember the date I started attending the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey: January 11. By transferring in the middle of the school year, I didn’t have to go through the new-boy orientation that all the other new students had to endure.
And new-boy rules at Peddie were fairly extreme. You couldn’t walk on the grass; if an upperclassman caught you, he could make you do push-ups on the spot. The school colors were blue and gold, so you had to wear a blue and gold striped school tie; a blue and gold beanie; one blue sock and one gold sock. But the worst part was the hazing. Any new boy could be physically and mentally abused at will, and it was an accepted part of being initiated into the school’s community.
The culture at East Coast boys’ boarding schools in the sixties was very British in tone. You had to wear a coat and tie, go to classes six days a week, attend chapel every day, eat at assigned tables in the dining hall (another venue for being ostracized ), and submit to “lights out” at 9 p.m. It was strict. Once the dean saw me throw a snowball after it had been prohibited, and I had to stay on campus during a free weekend. The Junior School had emptied, so I had to move into an upperclassmen’s dorm with a kid who smelled, wouldn’t do his laundry, and wore my clothes.
One student who took it upon himself to put me through an impromptu (and more brutal) new-boy orientation was Albert Shaio. Eastburn was my middle name. Like everyone else, Albert started with a corruption of my last name, Blankenship. At the dining table, Albert addressed me as Blankenshit, then to save time, shortened his greeting to “Shitty.” He would decide whether I was to get any food or not, or what weird inedible items would end up on my plate as it was passed down to me. Albert was of mixed ancestry: Spanish and Jewish. I mention this only because in 1962, racial stereotypes seemed much more pronounced, and kids tended to be more willing than adults to use racial slurs out loud. Peddie was also in Central Jersey, close to Pennsylvania, so there were a lot of tough kids from Trenton and Philly. Albert was the lieutenant of a group of eighth-graders who called themselves “Murder Inc.,” after the 1960 movie with Peter Falk. Instead of taking a contract out on someone, they would fling a piece of lettuce down on the table in the dining hall and joke that it was a contract to beat some kid up.
Once I was invited to witness this in the privacy of a dorm room. The kid doing the beating was Murray Barrett. The kid being slapped around was Jim Snedicker, a tall, nerdy, rail-thin kid with glasses. As an audience of one, I wasn’t sure what I was doing there. After it was over and Jim had left, humiliated, Murray told me it was a fake fight, and that it had been ordered by the guys on the third floor. The implication was that it could happen to me. The whole thing was a little like a boys’ school variation on Lord of the Flies. Murray was our dorm go-between. He’d communicate with the tough kids on the top floor, yet he was a regular kid who had probably risen to his current status by getting beaten up himself—and who happened to be a born negotiator. At first there were only veiled threats of bullying. But because I hadn’t gone through the actual new-boy orientation, it was inevitable that the kids in the dorm would have to put me through their own personalized hazing.
It all kind of erupted one night just before dinner. Even though there were two single beds in my room, I was living alone in a back, corner room on the second floor of the dorm. It was dark outside. I was getting ready to walk over to Wilson Hall, where the dining room was. There were students milling around outside my door. I heard voices and someone kicked my door. I remember I was wearing my jacket and tie under my black raincoat. When I opened my door, the hallway was full of students, all staring at me. Nobody spoke. I think I said “Hi” and walked toward the down stairwell.
Out of nowhere, a tall kid I’d never seen grabbed me, accused me of calling him a name, and slammed me against the wall. He was Ken Walsh, a tough kid with a leather jacket who wore his red hair greased back in a “Chicago duck’s ass”—the greaser style of the moment—where his hair was combed around the back of his head, both sides meeting at the center in a line that grooved down to a little tail. Kids referred to it as a “D.A.” Walsh had me by the lapels of my raincoat and was demanding to know if I’d called him a certain name. I kept saying “No.” And he kept insisting that I had. Finally, he kind of pushed me away, threatened me, and with students lining both sides of the hallway, some kid tried to trip me and another called me “chicken” as I walked toward the stairs. That was the start of it.
That night there was a basketball game. I sat in the second row of the bleachers, and a group of five or more eighth-graders, all smiling, walked by me up into the stands. Each kid punched me in the arm, or smacked me on top of the head, until finally Walsh dragged the top of his shoe along my leg and up my side. I can still see the shoe. It was brown and extremely pointed, the kind of shoe in my hometown we had called PFCs, or Puerto Rican Fence Climbers. In the Northeast in the sixties, Puerto Ricans were the ridiculed minority—the “Mexicans” of today.
The hazing continued for several weeks, with students that I thought were friends accusing me of calling them names too. That was a common strategy. Or, kids would throw things out of the windows at me while I walked to class. At the same time, one of the eighth-graders from the third floor befriended me. Charlie Bryan, a tall dark-haired kid, used to invite me onto the lawn beside the dorm to play catch with a football. The point man for the hazing was always Albert, who kept challenging me to fight him. I just kept saying no. But the time would come when I would have to fight him—even though I didn’t know that yet.
The main classroom building on campus was Memorial Hall, a gigantic three-story brick edifice near the chapel, which dominated the main campus. In the other direction, the building towered over the athletic fields. It was there—after weeks of verbal abuse, snubbing, and getting shoved around—that the time finally came.
I was standing at the rear of the third floor, outside of the 4:45 p.m. study hall that all Junior Schoolers and freshmen had to attend. I had stacked all my course books on top of a loose-leaf notebook and placed them up on the open window, leaning forward, my elbows on the sill as I gazed out across the athletic fields toward a highway in the distance, wishing I could get away. Someone, I never found out who, pushed me hard, so my own elbows knocked my books out of the third-floor window. It had recently snowed. I walked down three flights and waded across the wet, frozen ground, picking up my ruined books. For a minute, I thought it had started to rain. Then I realized students were upstairs on the third floor spitting down on me. I walked back upstairs, placed my wet books on the radiator, and stared out the window again.
Murray came over and said, “Shaio wants to fight you.”
I said, “I don’t want to fight.”
He tried to talk me into fighting, and I just kept saying no.
Then Murray said, “But this is gonna keep happening until you do. Why don’t you just fight him and get it over with?”
I had to admit, that made a lot of sense. So I finally said, “Okay, I’ll fight him.”
Murray smiled his approval and shook my hand. The next thing I knew, he had spread the word, because friends rushed up and said, “I hear you’re going to fight Shaio.” Before study hall started, Murray came back and told me the fight would take place behind the gym after study hall. He shook my hand again, as if sealing a contract. Word had spread through the entire study hall. As we were filing into study hall, I heard a kid behind me whisper, “Shaio is going to fight the new boy!” Then in a muffled tone, another voice said, “Shh. That’s him.”
Oddly enough, Shaio sat across the study hall in the same row of desks as I did, in the kind of wood-top desk with the metal chair attached. I remember the book we were reading in English class at that time was The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings. I read the book for the entire forty-five minutes of study hall, but kept reading the same paragraph over and over. I probably never retained a single syllable of print. I looked down, as if engrossed, but I was thinking only about the fight. Once in a while I would glance over at Shaio out of the corner of my eye. He looked engrossed as well, but I would guess he probably wasn’t reading either.
After study hall, everything was a blur until we ended up behind the gym. There had to be thirty to forty kids there, milling around, waiting. I saw Walsh smile and place the heel of one pointed shoe up on the bricks of the gym wall and lean back with his arms crossed, as if that were the posture one should adopt watching a fight. Several kids imitated him exactly, so there was a row of kids with one shoe up and arms crossed. It was dusk on a winter evening, and the light was hitting the campus buildings at a sharp angle.
I don’t remember all the words that were said, or the advice friends whispered to me, until Charlie Bryan came up to me and said, “Give me your rings.”
I handed him my rings.
He looked at me and said, “All right, now hit that spic Jew in the nose.”
He could have said, “Pound that Spaniard in the protuberance. Punch the Basque bastard. Aim for the nostrils of that Latino-American person.” But he didn’t say that.
Years later, it would occur to me that the “spic” slur meant Albert was probably of mixed Puerto Rican and Jewish ancestry—and had himself probably been bullied wherever he grew up.
“Hit that Jew in the beak as hard as you can. That’s all you have to do.”
I remember saying “Okay.”
“Do you understand?”
I must have said “Yes.”
The sun had set and we were standing on a patch of grass, with the light fading. I remember Shaio had wisely chosen the higher ground. He was wearing a yellow shirt. I had on a striped sweater. The next thing I knew, we were facing each other with fists raised.
Shaio said, “Are you ready, Blankenship?” No “t” on the end. Looking back, I had already earned a measure of respect by just being willing to fight, even though I was clearly going to lose. We charged each other and I followed Charlie’s instructions. I swung as hard as I could and hit Albert Shaio in the nose.
His nose burst and he started spouting blood down the front of this yellow shirt. I heard a roar from the kids behind the gym. We traded more blows. I remember hitting him on the side of the head. The next thing I knew, Shaio had tackled me, put me in a headlock, and was punching me in the forehead. I had my eyes closed, and each time he hit me, I remember there was a shock of light, like someone had taken my picture with an old-fashioned flash camera. A teacher showed up and stopped the fight. I remember walking away, right next to Albert, who by this time had put on his sports jacket. I heard somebody say, “The kid in the sweater just beat up the kid in the jacket.”
A whole group of kids surrounded us as we crossed the main quad. When we got to the dorm, Albert disappeared. Walking up the stairs with Charlie and my classmates, I said, “Well, I guess I lost.”
They all said, emphatically, “No, you didn’t lose. You won.”
Was it the blood?
They followed me into my room. The seventh-graders began acting out the punch with sound effects. Everyone was really excited. More and more kids crowded into my room, congratulating me. One kid grabbed my wrist, raising my arm in the air the way a referee would after a real bout. Finally Shaio walked in, wearing a new shirt. Everybody cheered and he gave us a big halfhearted smile. He definitely looked chastened. It took guts for him to show up in enemy territory.
The next day I was walking back from the canteen and passed Ken Walsh on the road behind the dorm. He gave me a big smile and said, “Hi, Joe.” Real friendly.
There was no more hazing.
I realize this is a sad commentary on the human condition—that males have to go through this violent ritual to become accepted. At a time when bullying and racial slurs have become weaponized by the Internet and prominent voices in our culture are encouraging more harassment, I’m embarrassed to feel proud about this fight. But it’s what happened.
I was a troubled twelve-year-old from a broken marriage, away at school for the first time. It was maybe the first time I’d ever won at anything. And even though it took a lot of people hectoring me to stand up for myself—I finally did.
About the Author:
Joseph Eastburn was an actor and poet who began writing for the theater, which led to screenplays, books, short stories and finally essays.
His first novel, Kiss Them Goodbye, was published by Morrow in 1993, and HarperCollins brought it back into print in 2016. His new book, Take, was a 3rd Place Winner in the Operation Thriller Writing Competition. And he’s writing a full-length noir on Twitter, The Summer of Love and Death (http://twitter.com/darknovel).
His essays and short stories have been published in fine literary journals like: Existere, storySouth, Crack the Spine, The Apalachee Review, Forge, The Penmen Review, Slow Trains, Reed Magazine, Sliver of Stone, The Tower Journal, Sand Hill Review, The Sun Magazine, and Hobo Pancakes.
He lives in California, still reads the New Yorker, and drives a beautiful old wreck of a sports car, vintage 1985.