A Unreso EXCERPTS FROM "CHASING THE LION" lved Journey
Throuh the Phillips Exeter Academy
THE COFFIN/PATTERSON EPISODE (pages 64-70)
There was one memorable moment that spring in Latin class, which had two African-American lowers (10th-graders), Nate Gadsden and Mike Patterson, whose frequently angry demeanor and militant attitudes reflected the emergent viewpoints of many black people nation-wide – the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City, which took place that prior September just in the first few weeks of school, are perhaps best remembered for the clenched black-gloved fists that two black American sprinters, namely Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised on the medal stand after one of the events. There was a third African-American student in the class, Gary Humphrey, also a new lower (he was from Oklahoma while I think Gadsden and Patterson were from the northeast) but more easy-going than Nate and Mike. Gary eventually would become co-captain of the wrestling team and go to Harvard after graduation.
Nate and Mike sat next to each other to my immediate right (I had the seat directly to the right of the front of the oval table, where Mr. Coffin sat), and they had actually been reasonably friendly to me all year, though they seemed to like it when I got caught making an error in class. There was even one occasion during the winter, when we were going around the table in clockwise order (i.e. left to right) trying to place a Latin word, and they somehow realized that I didn’t know what the word was, and even though they both DID know it, when it became their time to say the word, they deliberately pretended that they didn’t know JUST so that it would then become my turn and I would have to acknowledge that I didn’t know what the word was!
In any event, as the spring wore on I started getting the sense that those two were wearing on Mr. Coffin’s nerves, and vice-versa --- they seemed a little less prepared for class, more inclined to see if they could try to take advantage of Mr. Coffin, who was not the kind of person it was wise to try to take advantage of. He was a real New England teacher-type, prim and proper, his bowtie always precisely affixed at the “right” angle below his neck, fastidious in his appearance and preparation, very much ready to affirm his being the boss if anyone tried to test him. I always got the sense with him, more than with any of my other teachers, that he had his courses thoroughly planned out, that on the second Saturday in November, for example, he would be covering exactly the same material and/or passages in his Latin One course that he had covered on the second Saturday in November one year earlier.
He and I have stayed in touch since --- he is one of the many Exeter teachers who taught there for several decades, retired at 65 (in his case in 1987) and are still alive today, twenty-two years later, and even playing tennis a few times a week with contemporaries. I don’t know whether it’s literally something in the (fresh New Hampshire) air up there, or the lifestyle (being around all those young people) or what, but Exeter teachers seem to live in disproportionate numbers into their late 80’s or early 90’s, and whenever I visit the campus I always see a few of them, long-retired octogenarians, walking slowly but self-sufficiently on Water Street or on the campus pathways.
Back in the spring of ’69, of course, Mr. Coffin was no octogenarian but rather in mid-career, a man in his late 40’s with seventeen years’ experience at Exeter who was in complete control in his classroom and who made that clear every day. Patterson, who was one of the better students in that class, was however not prepared for that mid-May class session and luckless enough to have been tabbed to take on one of the hardest passages of the homework assignment we had been given the previous evening. He made a few half-hearted stabs at it --- unprepared students would often try to somehow get away with it one way or another, either shrinking a bit back from the table in the hope of not being called on, or trying to ad-lib their way through an answer.
But in those Harkness tables, there is really no place to hide and it is usually foolhardy to try to avoid exposure, as the teachers are far too wise to be successfully bluffed and usually angrier when one attempts to do so than they would have been if the student had just been forthright about not having done the homework. Mr. Coffin tried a little to help him along, the tension both between them and throughout the room growing as the seconds passed, an edge mounting in both of their voices, until finally Patterson slammed the textbook shut, dropped it onto the table and rudely growled, “Shove it,” which was more than enough to push Mr. Coffin’s low boiling point over the edge.
“Pick up that book right now,” he snarled, standing up and pointing his finger directly at his wayward student, “or I’ll have you fired for direct disobedience.” Patterson made no move to accommodate him, whereupon Mr. Coffin loudly snapped his own textbook shut and said “Class dismissed! You and I are going to the Dean right now, Mike.” He started to advance on Patterson, who was getting up to take Mr. Coffin on. As noted, I was the only person sitting between these two, and I rolled out of the way against the nearest wall to avoid getting caught literally in the middle of the impending fisticuffs as my other classmates all stood up and backed away, uncertain of whether they should intervene somehow.
I think that all of us feared that Patterson might beat Mr. Coffin up and wondering what would be the best thing to do if that started happening. I also in that split-second of pushing myself out of the line of fire wondered what role Nate Gadsden would play, whether he would pull his friend Mike Patterson away, whether he might try to play peacemaker, whether he and Mike would gang up on Mr. Coffin, whether he understood, or cared, what the ramifications of whatever action he might take would be on his future at the school, on his standing with the other black students (there was no question that word of this incident would swiftly get around, whatever its outcome) and on his friendship with Mike. I also realized that Gary Humphrey might feel some pressure to get involved in one way or another, and didn’t envy the dilemma that this fast-developing situation had put him in.
This was an explosive time in terms of black-white relations and black pride in the country, as I have said, and the black students at Exeter were getting more militant as well. I clearly remember, especially in the first few weeks, seeing them often moving in fairly large groups (there never seemed to be groups anywhere near as large of white students, although maybe that was just my perception) and resolving to steer very clear from them. The linked memories of the prior spring, when I and my Dalton mates had been attacked first on the play-street and then a few weeks later in Randalls Island, were still very fresh in my mind, even in the comparative safety of this overwhelmingly white New England prep school setting, so far in miles and months and mood from that explosive spring of ’68 in the New York cauldron.
To Mr. Coffin’s credit, he advanced swiftly on Patterson, wrestled him against the wall and started shoving him out of the door, demanding “Are you coming with me to the Dean’s office or do I have to drag you there myself?’ Patterson mumbled his assent, whereupon Mr. Coffin released him, saying “Fine, then let’s go!” and Patterson gathered his books as Nate whispered some advice-type of counsel. After the two of them, i.e. Mr. Coffin and Patterson, had headed towards the stairwell, I shakily went to the empty Math classroom down the hallway There were still twenty minutes left in that first-class period, and from one of the windows I saw Mr. Coffin resolutely heading towards Jeremiah Smith Hall, where the Dean’s office was located, and Patterson straggling maybe fifteen feet behind him. Mr. Coffin never even turned his head to make sure that Patterson was following him, so certain was he that Patterson had capitulated.
I saw them disappear into the administration building and wondered if I had seen the last of Patterson. Surprisingly, he was allowed to stay in school those final two or three remaining weeks, though I don't think that either he or Nate Gadsden returned for their upper year that fall, whether by their choice or at the school’s request or simply as a kind of de facto matter, I never found out. There was some tension at the beginning of Latin class the following day, but Mike was prepared for that class and the year ended without the atmosphere ever becoming too awkward. But I would never forget that episode, nor did Mr. Coffin, who told me when we discussed it many years later that that was the first and only time in his whole teaching career that he had been involved in an incident anything like that.
RETROACTIVE BONDING (pages 81-83)
I was on some level dreading lower year and was very on edge those first few weeks back – not only was a whole array of new courses awaiting me, including the same math geometry challenges that I had been unable to successfully take on as a prep, but I kind of felt that whatever advantages having gone to a school like Dalton had brought me as a prep, and there’s no doubt that those advantages had been considerable, would have worn off by lower year. What I found threatening and dislocating more than anything else was the enormous number of first-year lowers --- our class more than doubled in size between prep and lower years, since so many students attended “junior high schools” that ended after ninth grade, in addition to which many parents felt that fifteen was a better age to be starting at a boarding school than fourteen.
Allen Stevenson, for example, a Manhattan private school much like Dalton and a Dalton opponent in football and basketball, ended after ninth grade. The best win that my 7th/8th-grade basketball team had had was in our final game of the season, where we thrashed an Allen Stevenson team whose star player, Andy Susskind, the son of the famous TV show host David Susskind, had scored sixty-four points in one game, an incredible total. He entered that last game just seventeen points shy of three hundred for the season. We set up a box-and-one zone defense with our quickest player and best defender, Curtis White (later a high-school All-City selection), shadowing Susskind, who virtually NEVER passed the ball, chucking up shots the entire game. He wound up with eighteen points, but shot a miserable percentage, maybe twenty percent, and we won 49-24. Andy and I had been our respective team captains, and when he showed up at Exeter at the start of lower year, I realized that he and I might well be vying for a spot on the JV a few months later, and that he was only one of a ton of talented classmates who seemed bent on commandeering the top of the class-of-’72 totem pole that had been so meticulously constructed during the now-seemingly-obsolete 1968-69 school year.
I had never felt any real class loyalty to or class solidarity with my fellow preps at any point during my prep year, but when all those new faces started appearing in my classes that opening week of lower year, people who hadn’t been in the Assembly when my name had been read out in the Highest Honors list in March and who didn’t know or care about the status I had earned as a good student, I suddenly felt far more loyal to, and far more bonded with, the second-year lowers than I had ever been when we had been preps. It was almost like the incoming lowers were interlopers, even impostors, even INVADERS --- where had they been when we were running the “woods” part of the cross-country course the previous fall?
The feeling of being bonded to the ninety-something of us who began with me at the September-’68 starting line remained quite strong not only with every passing Exeter year (there were a fair number of additions in both upper and senior year, with many of the one-year seniors being “ringers” who were brought in to play starring roles on sports teams) but subsequently as well, all the way to today. If you were to mention any of my classmates, I could tell you for sure whether they were part of the prep class of ’72 or not, and I feel much more loyal to those guys ---even the ones who didn’t last the whole four years, even the ones, and there were several of them, who only lasted ONE year --- and regard them much more as the “real” class of ’72, than I do towards anyone who came along later on.