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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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The Headmaster's Dilemma

BOOK: The Headmaster's Dilemma
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The Headmaster's Dilemma
Louis Auchincloss
Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents



















Houghton Mifflin Company

Copyright © 2007 by Louis Auchincloss

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from
this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Auchincloss, Louis.
The headmaster's dilemma / Louis Auchincloss.
p. cm.
-13: 978-0-618-88342-4
-10: 0-618-88342-8
1. School principals—Fiction. 2. Preparatory schools—Fiction.
3. New England—Fiction. 4. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
43 2007
813'.54—dc22 2007008522

Book design by Anne Chalmers
Typefaces: Janson Text, Arabesque Ornament MT

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To my friend and editor


thought afterward that it had all started on an early spring afternoon in 1975 when he and Ione and Donald Spencer were sitting in the small rose garden behind the headmaster's house having coffee after Sunday lunch. They had not eaten in the big school dining room at the main table because Donald Spencer, chairman of the trustees, had only limited time for what he had termed an important visit and had requested a meeting alone with the headmaster and his wife.

The residence that rose above them was a charming old New England manor house, and the great boarding school of which it was the center, to match it, had been tastefully conceived as a colonial village of sober and regular white house fronts grouped about a shimmering oblong lawn studded with elms and dominated at one end by the chapel, a chaste meeting house with a tall spire. As the institution had grown and expanded through the decades, other and larger buildings had been added and playing fields lain out, but these had been sufficiently distanced from the original village atmosphere of plain living and high thinking evoked by the school founder in the 1880s. Averhill, for all its four hundred students and great modern reputation, was still considered by many of its alumni and parents as a stalwart fortress against the creeping vulgarity of the day.

And so Michael liked to think of it. He had been headmaster for three years now, appointed as a result of the successful efforts of younger members of the board to convince the others that a leader was needed to make some adaptations to the exigencies of change in educational thinking. And he had already achieved some of these: girls had just been admitted; the limits of the courses widened. He had come to Averhill with a considerable reputation as a liberal; he had been the admired editor of a popular radical newspaper and a nationally known protester of the war in Vietnam, and although some of the more conservative of the school trustees had gagged at his appointment, the general feeling was that if change had to come it had better come through one of their own. Michael himself was a graduate of the school where he had had a brilliant record, and he was supposed to have a deep concern for the original ideals of the institution. It also didn't hurt that he was possessed of striking good looks and had a beautiful, charming wife.

Yet what did all this avail to alleviate the disgust that he felt at what Donald Spencer was now proposing? And the worst of it was that not a single item in the chairman's grandiose scheme was in the least objectionable. It was the case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Much greater.

What Spencer was offering was simply a major addition to the school plant, the cost of which would be provided by his own fortune and those of his wealthy partners and friends. There would be a huge new gymnasium with every conceivable modern appliance, a hockey rink, a nine-hole golf course, a ski run, a swimming pool, new tennis and squash courts, and a small theatre for movies and amateur dramatics. All of these structures would be outside the present campus, but they would double its area and to some extent dwarf the existing buildings.

Spencer saw no objection to this.

"People coming to the school for the first time would not be put off by its note of old-fashioned quaintness. They would recognize at once that they were visiting a thoroughly up-to-date institution with every modern improvement. They would see right away that they were dealing with a school that could rival Andover and Exeter in every sport that can be played!"

An acute observer might have deduced from the different appearances of the headmaster and his chairman the difference in their points of view. They were the same age, forty, and had been formmates at Averhill. Michael was tall, well made, and muscularly coordinated, with a serene pale countenance, a high noble brow, wide-apart calmly gazing blue eyes, and thick long auburn hair. Women were apt to call him beautiful. Spencer was short and plump, with an egg-shaped balding head and suspicious yellow-green eyes. The two were generally supposed to have been on friendly terms, even as schoolboys, and their families had enjoyed cordial relations, yet both had always known, without admitting it to each other or to anyone else, that a mutual dislike and mistrust lay fatally between them.

Donald had expressed no opposition when a unanimous vote of the trustees had invited Michael to take up his present position. He had voiced his objections privately to some of the older board members, but when he had seen that the battle was lost he had gone along with their desire to appear wholly agreed to the alumni. It was his habit, anyway, to conceal dissent so long as dissent served no purpose of his own. He had other ways of implementing his designs. As a boy at Averhill he had proved a rare example of the power of shrewdness over muscle. A poor athlete himself and with unprepossessing looks, he had yet known how to burrow his way into the confidence of the form leaders both by flattering their prowess on the playing field and at the same time letting it be slyly known that his gimlet eye had uncovered their vulnerable spots. He was also skilled at uniting a crowd against a selected opponent by the adroit use of prejudice, thus gaining for himself the reputation of a cleansing authority. The boys had respected him and feared his bitter and wounding tongue.

He had done well enough at Averhill and later at Harvard, but there was always an air about him that he was waiting, biding his time. His real success came after he joined the staff of his father's great Wall Street bank and rapidly achieved a position and a fortune that made the distinguished paternal career seem small in comparison. He took over the mergers and acquisitions department and eventually carved it into a separate company that became famous for its toughness and ruthlessness even in that tough and ruthless field. If the ever-triumphant Donald shed a tear over the destruction of fine old businesses or the widespread loss of jobs, he must have shed it very privately.

It was the envy in Donald's yellow-green eyes, an envy never expressed by his politic lips, that had first alerted Michael, even as a schoolboy, to the awareness that there were aspects of his own personality that might arouse this feeling in others. He had learned that modesty and even humility were the proper companions of self-respect from his father, the eminent and beloved professor of philosophy at Columbia, and had never regarded his own natural gifts as particularly special or given to him for any purpose other than to make the world a tiny bit better. It was hardly his fault that the kind of social success that he so effortlessly attained was precisely the kind that Donald so signally lacked and desperately wanted. Boys, and girls, too, loved Michael. They put up with Donald. One was the innermost of the "ins"; the other would always be on the circumference.

Donald's hostility had waxed with years. The alumni and older faculty members of the school might respect or even revere their famous (or infamous?) chairman for his huge gifts to Averhill, but most of the students (despite their often conservative Republican parents) and virtually all the younger teachers applauded the courageous liberalism of the popular headmaster. Donald knew it was said that he had to buy the approval of his peers; on Michael this approval seemed to rain down from heaven.

"When are you planning to submit this project to the board, Donald?" Michael asked, placing a blueprint on the coffee table before them.

"Just as soon as you okay it. You don't expect any opposition from that quarter, do you?"

"You mean, do I think they'll look this gift horse in the mouth? Never. They'll be dazzled."

A pause followed that Donald interrupted in a somewhat sharper tone. "What about you, Mike? You're with me, are you not?"

Michael was silent, but after some moments he nodded slowly, very slowly, several times. Donald looked at Ione, as if she might give him the answer.

"When Michael nods that way, Donald, it doesn't mean he's agreeing with you. It means he's thinking."

"I'm thinking of what this means to the school, Donald. Not just in terms of improved athletic facilities. But in what it may do to the image of Averhill."

"What can it do but improve it?"

"Aren't you a little begging the question? You know, of course, that in these days the choice of a boarding school has largely passed out of the hands of parents. It's the kids who now make the decisions. Every spring they take off on what they call the school tour, and the poor parents must drive them patiently all over New England to inspect St. Paul's, or Taft, or Hotchkiss, or Choate, or whatever. The day when a Groton grad registered his son on birth for admission to the school he then
to attend is long past."

"It's passed for some," Donald retorted, a sneer in his tone. "It hasn't passed for me. When my son Sam asked me when we were to take the 'school tour,' I said, 'Right now, if you like.' At my bidding and to his astonishment we put on our hats and coats and walked up Park Avenue to Eighty-eighth Street where I pointed to a building. 'But, Dad, that's the Robert Wagner High School!' he protested. 'Precisely,' I told him, 'and that's where you're going if you don't go to Averhill.' And hasn't he done well here?"

"Very well indeed. But there aren't many fathers as forceful as you, Don. Ask any of his formmates who made the decision to come to Averhill."

"Well, what's that to me so long as they made the right choice?"

"Because students don't always make it. It's not their fault. How can they have the right criteria at thirteen or fourteen to tell a first-rate school from a second- or even a third-rate one? Naturally, they're going to be impressed by appearances: big gyms, shiny classrooms, well-mown lawns, everything spic and span. What do they know of the quality of teaching or the preparation for a serious mission in life? Those things don't show. Of course, they'll be dazzled by your proposed additions."

"Well, I'll be damned if I see anything wrong with that! Who cares why they come so long as they come? And I'll tell you something else, my friend. The grander the plant, the easier your future fundraising. The rich like to put their money where other rich have put theirs."

"You mean charity tends to go where it is least needed?"

"That's a cynical way of putting it. I'd rather say that charity prefers success to failure. It helps those who help themselves. We're competing for kids in an area where the kids make the decision. Obviously we have to give them what they want."

"Which means, I take it," Michael commented in a graver tone, "that we have to offer the rich students all the luxuries they have at home. Which costs more and more, so that tuition must rise to pay for each new embellishment. Won't we reach a point where we will have to confine our student body to the
list of America's wealthiest?"

"You have your scholarships."

"Yes, but not that many. And there are plenty of parents already who hesitate to send their children to schools where they will rub shoulders with kids whose families have yachts and private jets and who are constantly talking about them."

"Maybe that will whet their ambition to get ahead in a commercial society. Is that such a bad thing? You talk about the
list as if it were a catalogue of America's most wanted. But those men are the leaders of our society. It should be our privilege to educate their offspring!"

BOOK: The Headmaster's Dilemma
4.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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