a lawrenceville story

lessons our daddies taught us

This essay is available in the US as an e-book at and as a free epub download.


The School Doctor

One of the first things you noticed about the Lawrenceville School, besides the green lawns, the leafy trees, and the world-class landscape architecture, was the funny doctor. His name was Blackmar, but we called him Quackmar. At the beginning of each year, you would have to go to his office and strip to your underpants. He would sit on a chair in front of you, tell you to drop your shorts, grab your balls, and ask you to turn your head and cough. That comes to 600 pairs of nuts!

Lesson: All abuse begins with sexual abuse.

I know that everyone has their own ideas about what they would do if only they were the headmaster. But if I had been headmaster, I would have imposed a strict limit on early-season feeling-up activities of no more than a hundred pairs of balls, tops. I mean, let's be reasonable.

Lesson: Not everyone in a position of
authority has your best interest in mind.

On a lighter note, the mandatory urine sample provided an inspiration for various pranks. Someone would sneak some apple juice into the infirmary and put it into his beaker. Then he would announce to no one in particular, "Looks a little thin — I think I'll run it through again," and drink the contents of the beaker. The nurses would freak out. Or so it was alleged.

Lesson: Don't believe everything you hear.

The English School System

Another challenge for a new student was the strange vocabulary. Many subcultures that are isolated from the rest of society have their own jargon. Modeled after the English public school, Lawrenceville had houses instead of dorms, masters instead of teachers, and forms instead of grades. There were five forms, with the First Form corresponding to the Eighth Grade, and so on, up to Fifth Form, or Twelfth Grade. First and Second Formers lived in one of the four houses that comprised the Lower School; Third and Fourth Former lived in one of the eight Circle Houses; and Fifth Formers lived in Upper House or any of several smaller houses for seniors only.

Lesson: Beware of subcultures that have their own jargon.

Besides the official jargon, there was an unofficial slang. For example, everybody wanted to know if you were a "suck-butt." Elsewhere, you might hear the term, "brown-noser." A suck-butt was at best an opportunist and at worst a dangerous collaborator with the enemy. Most students appeared to be convinced that those who got good grades were at least fawning and obsequious, if not prone to opening their anuses for the pleasure of their masters. A student who got good grades knew that they usually came through hard work, but such sentiments bought him little slack in the locker rooms or house bullsessions.

A related term was "having suck," as in, "Ford has super-suck with the science master." The expression meant, roughly, "teacher's pet."

Lesson: When expressing yourself, use only
the crudest kinds of excretory or sexual imagery.

A rhinie was a student who was in his first year at the school, regardless of his form. He was, of course, at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He was ignorant of the arcane rules, vocabulary, and practices, and needed to be patiently indulged until he mercifully escaped rhinie-hood in his second year. He would then be filled with condescension and barely disguised contempt toward the new crop of rhinies. In practice, however, a rhinie who is well-connected on the outside and who has prep credentials is often treated better than a longtime student who lacks such credentials.

The origin of the word rhinie is obscure. The closest analogy in the real world is the baseball rookie, another wonderful idiom. You can be thirty years old, but if you're in your first year in the big leagues, you're still a rookie, and you had better watch out for the hazing.

Lesson: Don't be a rhinie, unless you're well connected.

A "hacker" was a fellow who was creative in his efforts to avoid doing any real work. The other meanings of the word had yet to enter the language. No, there were no computers on our campus in the early 1960s, although I heard that there were one or two room-sized computers up the road at Princeton University. To our chagrin, you had to be at least a graduate student to use them. The hand-held calculator had yet to be invented. We used slide rules in science class, and nothing more than pencil and paper, or chalk and blackboard, in math class.

To "rack" meant to do well on a test, as in, "He really racked on that test." A more contemporary term might be to ace a test.

A "full boat" was a test that lasted the duration of a fifty-minute class period. As in, "Don't bother me; I've got three full boats and two quizzes next week." The image was presumably that of a sinking ship. A "Jap" quiz was one that came without warning. We considered any master who gave such a quiz to be only slightly more advanced on the evolutionary scale than crotch fungus. A student achieved racially insensitive jargonistic nirvana when he was able to describe a surprise full-period test as a "Japanese full boat." That was really something to talk about at lunch.

You can see the lingering effects on our speech of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war in the Pacific. These events meant little to us, as we had all been born after its conclusion. The jargon had apparently been handed down from class to class, from older brother to younger brother, and from father to son.

Lesson: Anwar al-Sadat said that land is immortal,
for it harbors the mysteries of creation. To paraphrase him,
language is immortal, for it harbors many historical mysteries.
One might add that slang, too, is immortal,
for it gives refuge to innumerable folk mysteries.

You had to wear a coat and tie to all official school functions, including morning chapel, classes, and meals. As in the military, you always addressed a master as "Sir." That is, you always said, "Yes, Sir" or "No, Sir" in place of a simple "Yes" or "No." You could also address a master by the title of mister, as in "Mr Smith," but never by his first name. The only exceptions were for the handful of PhD's on campus, whom you usually addressed as Doctor, as in "Dr Kiernan" or "Dr Harrison."

Meanwhile, masters and students alike usually addressed a student by his last name only.

Lesson: You might think of preparatory
school as a quasi-military academy.

The High Society

I heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, that may help you understand what the social life at Lawrenceville was like. A student on his summer vacation left a dance party without his date. Word of the transgression reached the headmistress of the girl's school. She in turn prevailed on the Lawrenceville headmaster to discipline the boy, which he did when the student returned to school in the fall.

Lesson: This is not High School USA.
Lesson: The upper classes have their own internal
systems of control, which have nothing to do
with the standard police, courts, and jails.


For a school where all the students were officially celibate, there was a surprising amount of sex at Lawrenceville. The atmosphere of an all-boys residential school was, to say the least, homoerotically charged. Someone once said in jest that there are three genders: men, women, and clergy. For the sake of argument, let's say, not in jest, that roughly a third of the faculty fell into each of these categories. That is, one-third were flamingly heterosexual with small children on their shoulders and a wife two or three steps behind; one-third were swishy and effeminate with no visible women in their lives; and the remaining third were of indeterminate sexuality.

Fully a third of the faculty was what we would today call openly gay. Except that this was the 1960s and few if any gays were out of the closet. They could easily lose their jobs, be committed to a mental hospital, get beat up, or get sent to jail. While being swishy by itself proves nothing about a man's orientation, the fact remains that some of the masters had a reputation for putting their hands all over you when you went to them for extra help. You learned quickly which masters you could seek help from, while maintaining the integrity of your body, and which ones you could not.

Lesson: Some people choose their profession for
its perks and benefits (namely, your rear end).

I used to feel sorry for these masters — grown men who were nuts about pubescent boys. Apparently, no one else and nothing else did it for them. They were condemned to either remain painfully frustrated all their lives, or else be a child molester, a criminal. The terror and excitement of it all overwhelmed our little minds.

Lesson: No one is as pathetic as a person who cannot satisfy
his sexual desires without breaking a major social taboo.

Although many faculty members were the equivalent of eunuchs, the sad truth is that all of them — gay, straight, or clergy — functioned as stand-in fathers for the boys. Though their families may have been wealthy, many students were the equivalent of abandoned children. What loving parent would pack a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old off to boarding school like so much luggage? I think of Lawrenceville as twenty-four-hour day care with AP courses and a state-of-the-art field house.

A sizable number of masters were known as Daddy, as in Daddy Down or Daddy Bear Girstell. Most of the Daddies were of the large, hulking, hairy type. Body type seemed to be the main criterion for surrogate fatherhood. I had heard of choosing a mate by body type, but choosing a parent in such a way was a new one on me.

Lesson: You cannot escape the imperatives of biology.

It's hard to describe the sexual dynamics of an all-male boarding school. I don't want to say that the boys were starved for female companionship, but I once watched as a student spent an entire afternoon talking to a three-year-old girl. She was the daughter of our housemaster. And the boy was no loser; he was the captain of the varsity football team.

At any given time, the only women on campus under the age of twenty-five might be two or three of the younger masters' wives. Of course, twenty-five is positively ancient when you're sixteen. If a young wife were beautiful, however, there would inevitably be rumors that she was fucking one or another of the Fifth Formers.

Finding appropriate female companionship at a single-sex school was impossible, so the boys often bragged about how many girlfriends they had at home. Knowing no better, I at first believed the hype. Until the later forms, that is, when someone said something that made me look at the situation a bit differently. Suppose, he said, you make a friend over the summer and then go away to school in the fall. Expecting her to still be there waiting for you when you returned home for the winter holidays would be wholly unrealistic. Things don't work that way, he said. I now know that, despite the hype, few, if any, of the boys were able to maintain meaningful, steady relationships with girls or young women.

Like prison inmates, the boys at Lawrenceville were distributed along a spectrum from masculine to feminine. Both settings mirror the real world, but in a perverted, twisted way. The difference, of course, is that in the outside world, biological females usually present the feminine qualities and biological males usually present the masculine qualities. Being slim, mild-mannered, and more of an aesthete than an athlete, I was taken as a fem. For my part, I was happy to leave the macho posturing and jock-asshole locker-room bullshit to others.

In the middle forms, I had a distant crush on a guy called Chris, a soft, gender-ambiguous name. I regret to inform the reader that, despite the crush, I never had a romantic relationship, hetero or homo, while in school, and I never had a sexual relationship of any kind until long after graduation. I was a late bloomer.

Like many in the formal prison system, I reverted to heterosexuality soon after my release from prep school.

Lesson: A minimium-security prison is a minimum-
security prison, even if they call it a prep school.
Lesson: People are people, whether they are over-
privileged preppies or convicts from the inner city.
Lesson (to those in prep school): Don't
worry — they do eventually let you out.
Lesson (Extra-Credit): Sexuality is relative.

Race & Religion

Okay, the girl situation wasn't so hot. How about the race situation? There were no blacks among the faculty, administration, or student body until my Fourth Form year, when the school admitted its first two students of color, both of them in the lower forms. Otherwise, the only blacks on campus were the kitchen help and maintenance staff, whom we referred to as "the boons."

Our intolerance sometimes manifested itself in even uglier ways. There was an older African-American worker in the field house who had a light, almost albino, complexion and frizzy white hair. Some of the boys had an ugly habit of taunting him mercilessly and repeatedly calling him "Snowball" to his face.

As far as students of other races and nationalities are concerned, there were two or three non-Europeans in each class. They tended to be from well-to-do families in oil-rich countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. But their position at home didn't stop us from calling them "Spics" or "A-rabs" to their faces and making fun of their accents or parentage.

Someone once said that Britain's austere public school system prepared a person well for spending time in Third World jails. Now, that's what I call the practical benefits of an education.

Lesson: Some lessons aren't worth learning.

cactuspear home
comments to comments at cactuspear dot org