A World Education - Part I

I am writing about this to relate the story of what I remember of my early education. My years prior to boarding school certainly must have taught me something, but I have always considered that my formal education did not truly begin until I entered Stonyhurst College in the 1970s. Prior to that, I think the majority of my education came from reading and knocking around the world. So, my early life, i.e., prior to university, that helped form my character to a very large degree, consisted of traveling around the world from country to country, and my years spent at Stonyhurst. And the years at Stonyhurst also served to forge my independence as it was at that relatively young age that I began traveling around the world alone.

British Council, Freetown, Sierra Leone

British Council, Freetown, Sierra Leone

One of my strongest memories, was that from an early age, I absolutely loved to read. At one point I remember going to the British Council Library in Freetown, Sierra Leone at least once or twice a week and hauling away 15 - 20 books each time. Granted I was only 7 or 8 and these were Hardy Boys mysteries …but nonetheless, reading is reading and it has paid off for my entire life. As my story will relate, it was instrumental in getting me into a good school later. I taught myself to read quite quickly at a very young age. I am not a speed reader, but even when young my reading speed and comprehension were quite exceptional.

I remember in what was then East Pakistan being sent to kindergarten although that is all that I remember … being sent to kindergarten.

I remember in Pakistan (then West Pakistan), being sent to school and there were a lot of other foreign children there, but I only have two clear memories of that school. One was getting in a fight with somebody and breaking my collarbone. And the other far better memory was that it was where I first read the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. That became a love affair that has lasted till today. I have probably read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit over 50 times (for many years I used to read it twice or three times a year).

When we lived in Sierra Leone I also remember going to a couple of different schools neither of which, I think, did me much good, although I did learn a good deal of West African history. And I suppose that was appropriate. The second school in Freetown was a school set in the main city and run by what were known as the White Fathers. The schools had a tendency towards corporal punishment using canes … not fond memories. But on the other hand I don't think that it did me that much damage either. Somewhere in between my father’s various assignments they put me into a Catholic school in Salt Lake City, (that seems strange doesn't it), but it was an abortive attempt as it only lasted about two months and then my father was reassigned outside the United States again. I can't remember exactly which country (I suspect it was back to Sierra Leone or maybe to Vietnam). But for me the end result was that I was unceremoniously yanked out of the Catholic school about which I absolutely ecstatic. I wasn't very happy there and the only thing that sticks in my mind about that school was one of the nuns telling me that I would never be any good at mathematics. And I do remember that years later in university when I decided that I would make mathematics one of my majors, quietly and internally chortling about that and wishing I could say neener neener to her.

Stonyhurst College was a watershed in my life. Up until this point, I had not really paid much attention to school, and in fact I had not done very well, no matter what country I was in. The schools in Africa and Pakistan are just dim memories and not very positive ones. Especially the ones in Africa where corporal punishment was involved. The American school that I went Saigon, Vietnam was interesting but it was a real shock for me because I was just entering puberty and this was the first place I kind of been exposed to coeducational facilities. Lots of American children. And I wasn’t used to that either. And then of course, the North Vietnamese attacked and Saigon soon fell and we were evacuated.

My father was going back to Africa to work, and had heard about a boarding school in England called Stonyhurst College. I took some exams at a local Catholic facility in Salt Lake City (I knew I did dismally) but somehow, they got notice I had been accepted.

So, on the way back to Africa, we stopped in England to go see the school. It was interesting. Stonyhurst College is an incredibly old school. Portions of it were constructed as early as the 1200s. It is near Blackburn, Lancashire, in the north of England, and it is the archetypal English public school. Not perhaps, as well known, as places like Eaton, Harrow, or Rugby, but a fairly significant public school in England nonetheless. We went up there in July and it was an imposing sight.

My parents and I were at the entry interview with the headmaster, a Jesuit priest by the name of Father Bossy. We were sitting there in his office talking and although I seem to remember my father trying to throw me looks meaning ‘shut up’, I finally could not resist and I piped up and I asked, "Father Bossy, I know I didn't do very well on the entrance exams. Why did you let me in?" My father, I believe, rolled his eyes and winced. Father Bossy, a slim older man with large black framed glasses, himself looked slightly, only slightly, taken aback. But his answer was simple; all of my scores had been in the teens (out of 100), with the sole exception of English language and English literature. There I scored in the mid-90s (due to my reading habits). And they allowed me to enter Stonyhurst based solely on the recommendation of the English master, a Mr. Roberts, I believe. Only later did I realize the debt of gratitude that I owe him. Because being in Stonyhurst truly changed my life.

So we took a tour, and went back to London on the train that day. I remember a shopping trip to Harrods to buy all the uniforms. Lots of goodies on the shelves as it was, after all, Harrods, an English institution. It was actually a very sensible uniform, green tweed jacket with black trousers and a white shirt with a black jacket for Sundays. If you were to ever look at some of the other school uniforms in England … well.

Then off to Africa (Sierra Leone), and in late August or September, I’m not sure exactly, my parents took me out to Lungi airport and put me on a KLM flight to Amsterdam. Oh, was I cool! Drank alcohol and smoked all the way to Schipol. Back in those days, nobody really cared. I may have been just a teenager, but certainly the stewardesses didn’t care. We called them that back then :-).

Looking back and calculating my age I must've been just barely 14 years old the time my parents first allowed me to travel internationally all on my own. I didn’t think about it until much later, but it was either an incredibly brave, or incredibly foolish thing for them to do. Of course, by this time, I was already, whether I knew it or not, fairly traumatized by the drunken screaming matches that occurred nightly in our house. So wild horses couldn’t have kept me there if there was any way to avoid it.

As for traveling alone … I guess that I have always been a fairly cautious boy. So I never truly took advantage of my independence or did dangerous things when I was traveling. I just remember it was really cool to be considered adult enough that I could travel on my own without being supervised.

And it was a long trip from Sierra Leone to Stonyhurst College. Basically two days. After flying to Amsterdam (about a 10 hour flight with a stopover in the Canary Islands), I would stay in a hotel close to Schipol airport. Amsterdam. The first time it was cold, dark, a little foggy. I was so proud of being able to navigate the busy airport and find a shuttle to the hotel that I was staying at close to the airport. Investigating the mini-bar, taking my books (because of course I already reading incessantly … I think I was deep in a Wilbur Smith phase at that time), and feeling very cool about being able to sit in the hotel restaurant and order a meal with a beer. Have to love Europe.

The Avenue

The Avenue

Then the next morning I would get up and catch a flight to London.  London. Although I have not been there for years it was always one of my favorite towns in the entire world. Unless you have been there, it is very difficult to understand what it is like. It is a vast sprawling beast. Full of relatively friendly albeit gruff inhabitants, all intent on doing exactly what it is they have to do every day. The old black taxis (of course they are not like that anymore I see), the drivers full to the brim with what they called the Knowledge. I always remember London in the winter, and being slightly cold. It is a dark gray city interspersed with green patches but welcoming nonetheless. I have always felt totally at home, and safe, there. Never one time in all the years that I traversed the city, or when I lived there, did I ever feel in danger, even as a young child. Then catching a train from Euston station up north to Preston some 200 miles away. Preston, a gray, stark, northern town. Taking a taxi a number of miles to the actual college. It was always a sight coming in at the top of what they call the Avenue. A long black road that ran down arrow straight between pristine green playing fields on either side. The kind of bright green that is almost impossible to describe. And laying there at the end of the road this is enormous dark stone edifice that was the college.

The first time I arrived I was a member of what they call the lower Grammar year. Stonyhurst had six divisions for the students. From the lowest to highest they were Lower Grammar, Grammar, Syntax, Upper Syntax, Poetry, and a very few people who hung on past their A-levels, called Rhetoric. I was to be in the college from Lower Grammar through to Syntax. Three years, some of the most formative of my life. To this day I still remember my school number. And we had ‘Houses’- yes. Just like Hogwarts. Although I don't remember being selected by an animated witches hat. I was in St. Omers. And yes. Each house had its colors. St. Omer’s was brown.

The upper hallway of classrooms - Stonyhurst

The upper hallway of classrooms - Stonyhurst

At Stonyhurst College, the total student population was approximately 500, approximately 100 students per year. And each year was further sub-divided into five sections, by academic ability. E.g. Lower Grammar 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 3c. I was in 3b for my entire tenure at the school. So not quite at the bottom. 😊

My introduction to Lower Grammar was Father McGinnis, a young, bearded, guitar playing, Jesuit priest. The sleeping area was an enormous dorm like room with incredibly high ceilings, cubicles that had squeaky iron bedframes, and a curtain across the front. There was a small bedside table, and a wardrobe to house your uniforms. The floor was wooden, the bathrooms and showers communal, and dated, I presume from the 1950s. It was cold, dark, and lonely there. Being one of probably not more than 10 Americans in the school was no help either. Although the student population was diverse, I will say that. There were Arabs, Indians, Maltese, any color skin you care to name. Children are cruel. I never understood that either. Although to my shame, there were some children in my year that I joined in with teasing, not because I hated them, but because it made me feel like less of an outsider. I am truly ashamed. I can't do anything about that but I believe that the best I can do is to lead my life in such a way that I never repeat behavior like that again. But still, overall, I enjoyed being there. It was, most of the time, better than being at home.

The Plunge

The Plunge

I have a lot of memories from Stonyhurst College. The tuck shop (tuck was the word for the snack shop), long hallways with hot water pipes that everybody would sit on during the breaks, the plunge (a Victorian era swimming pool) full of chilled water from the Ribble River, the gymnasium, the somewhat new science building in the back. Corporal punishment. Yes, they had that there. It was inflicted on me a few times. They called it the Strap. A heavy piece of leather encased whalebone I believe, administered to the upturned palm of one’s hand. Eh. Whatever. It wasn’t that bad. Dr. Knight the biology teacher.

I remember him mainly because of the day he told us that because of the religious background of the school, he could not teach us certain chapters in the biology handbook (evolution). I could tell he was not happy about that. It was only somewhat later in life I realized why. J.R.R. Tolkien’s son was a teacher there. He taught us… I can't remember exactly what. I think maybe Latin, but I'm not sure. But nonetheless he was my hero since he was Tolkien's son. Had a limp. Going to eat in refectory (dining hall) and the food was terrible but I loved it. Stewed tomatoes on deep-fried bread was one of our favorites. What a health food. And tea as a major meal.

Studies was in the evening, two hours of quiet ... time to do homework. And the Library. That was a huge room in the center of the building, two levels, all wood and iron and books. A lucky few Syntax year students had study desks in that room.  I loved that room. I was so lucky in Syntax that my study desk was there! The look, the smell, my love of books J. Even in my off time I spent time at that desk.

And I survived. I participated in sports, generally solitary ones, like swimming and fencing, although I was compelled to play rugby and cricket as well. I did relatively well in all my classes.

It was a religious school. Mass about 3 times a week, more if you wanted to. And at one point in time I did want to. I even thought about becoming a priest. Luckily one of the Fathers talked me out of it. He had been doing undercover missionary work in Chile and I was inspired. I wanted to go aid the oppressed. Oh boy. Was I young!

So, at the end of my third year there, we went through the ordeal of O-levels (O = Ordinary). I took, I believe, 10 or 11 of them. They had no such things as GPAs. You studied for three years. Your grade was what you achieved in the O-Levels at the end of 3 years. Totally different from the American system.

But overall it was a great experience. The Jesuits taught me logical thinking, how to learn, and (most importantly I believe), how to want to learn. That has stood me in good stead my entire life.

From there to an American University. But that will be next week.