When his horse took a fall jumping a hedge, his right kidney was ruptured, and this was enough to send him back home from boarding-school and make contact sports forbidden for the next two years with semi-bedrest for six months. The decision to bring him home and have him enter the local high school was deemed the safest course.
In those days there was no home-tutoring of invalids ? he would simply re-enter the tenth grade in the fall, so he surrounded himself with books on a variety of topics and passed the next nine months in reading modern American literature. Having been since the age of nine educated in England, much of what he read was at first surprising ? he having lived apart from American society. He read through authors one-by-one, gradually absorbing the American persona, psyche and experience vicariously. When he reached a point where he began to comprehend what was really behind the fictional plots, he delved into history: local, regional, national and the ongoing international events as reported in magazine and newspaper. What began in boredom ended in his Americanization, making his reintroduction into local society somewhat easier. He had, of course, spent vacations back at home, but at his present age and time he was ready to be reborn into his birthright.
School-time approached, and he felt confident and eager to reenter local teenaged society. He was not unhandsome, reasonably well-spoken and had an infectious sense of humor, which made entr?e into the ?popular' clique nearly automatic, but he found friends within both the ?ins' and the ?outs', and this was tolerated because he had returned from a foreign boarding-school and was thus an exotic specimen.
The next three years passed without remark. He gradually adjusted his accent, his views and his responses to those of his contemporaries. But there were two noticeable exceptions. The first concerned the matter of personal honor. He was at once amazed and embarrassed at the ease with which is classmates lied to teachers and parents alike, and cheated unashamedly in the smallest things; and was deeply though privately insulted that the adults reacted to what he considered lack of character by assuming in advance the guilt and dishonesty of all children under their care. The second exception was his own habit of saving up pocket-money until a day when he would take the bus for Boston on a school day, spending six hours of truancy haunting museums, libraries and enjoying a restaurant dinner. This imperfection was usually discovered, and he accepted parental groundings and after-school detentions with good grace.
He was not without deviltry. Upon one occasion he adjusted the school's master-clock to run in reverse. He switched water and gas lines in the science lab, with the predictable outcome when the first Bunsen burner fountained a foot high. But when group-punishment was threatened to effect a confession, his friends continued to be amazed that he spoke up at once rather than have others punished for his misdeeds.
This attitude was doubtless a carry-over from his years at boarding-school, where masters routinely gave out term exams and then retired to their smoking lounge, confident that the honor system would prevail. From time to time he would pull out the brief description of a gentleman he had been issued when first arrived at school:
What is a Gentleman?
It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself.
His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them.
The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; -- all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home.
He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring.
He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.
He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.
He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder.
At that school it was understood that its purpose was to mold character as much as to impart book learning, and this had been inculcated deep within him where he could not yet see. In addition to the formal definition of a gentleman, there were also informal, but nonetheless binding, Rules for Young Gentlemen. The former was a guide to be aspired to, the latter the requirements for students popularly referred to as the "Ten Commandments":
- A gentleman does not lie.
- A gentleman will not steal.
- A gentleman's word of honour is unquestionable.
- A gentleman obeys his superiors and assists his inferiors.
- A gentleman settles his debts as agreed.
- A gentleman is never a coward.
- A gentleman is always first to volunteer.
- A gentleman keeps his charity private.
- A gentleman never cheats.
- A gentleman recognizes his duty and does it without remark.
Certainly there was an unspoken snobbery attached to these codes; good British boarding schools presuming their young charges would go on to be leaders or persons of responsibility, and that the codes presented were neither taught to nor expected from those less fortunate.
Thus he carried within his bosom tribal rites and taboos not apparent within his American friends. He made no judgment on this fact; merely accepted that he was bound by rules that they were not. In all civilizations and in child psychology it is believed and demonstrated that certain imprintings are nearly impossible to change and that there are certain time/age periods in which particular skills, actions and responses are either then acquired or not at all. So it was with these codes of behavior. He did not consider them or himself as superior; he merely observed them instinctively, without knowing why.
Teen-aged girls can often be hideously cruel to the less fortunate among them. Beauty or brains are protection from the pack, but those having both are secretly hated while those having neither are often openly scorned in the worst sort of emotional bullying. So it was with Sally.
Sally was no moron, but she was hardly bright and definitely not brilliant. Nature had been unkind to this minister's daughter. At sixteen her hair was already beginning to thin, her eyes were small and mud colored and mostly obscured by thick glasses. Her teeth were crooked, her nose and chin too long, her ears too large, her mouth too wide and of every other physical attraction she had too little. She was completely shy, retreating behind blushes and giggles when addressed directly. By senior year, girls wore modest make up, discreet jewelry, nylon stockings and reasonably stylish clothing. Sally wore white ankle socks, nearly ankle-length skirts, plain white blouses and lumpy sweaters.
Senior Prom time came in mid-June, and as in those days committed dating was still a rarity, the girls in his class were preparing themselves by mid-April. A girl yet-unasked by the third week of May was, in her own mind at least, an unwanted wallflower.
At the end of April he became aware of a cruelty being put forth against Sally by a half dozen of the girls blessed by beauty alone but without moral character or intellect. They had drawn Sally to them in pretended friendship, to confide that she had a secret admirer who was going to invite her as his date to the dance. Little by little they duped this defenseless girl, going so far as to fabricate notes on the subject.
He was a prime catch for the prom, and he knew it, and the girl he intended to ask was not, definitely not, Sally Harkins. So he watched the plot unfold with a mixture of humor and disgust ? surely these girls would soon have to confess and atone by scaring up a date for Sally ? someone's cousin from out of town perhaps.
But by Mid-May it was obvious the young witches were not about to repent in the least. It was now generally known throughout the school, but not, alas, to Sally. He began to grow alarmed when he heard that Sally had gone so far as to announce to her family that she was not only invited for the Prom, but by him...
Several days later he was aghast to learn that Sally's mother was actively making her daughter a prom gown.
To make matters worse, Sally's father was well known, the local Baptist minister; and worse ? with seven children they lived in near poverty thanks to the stinginess of the Baptist deaconate, and a prom gown ? even home made ? would have meant an enormous sacrifice.
For the first time in his life he faced a serious moral dilemma on his own. He could call on Dr. Harkins and tell him the truth, watching that kindly face crumple in embarrassment and pity for his hapless, damaged child. Another option: ask someone else and let the chips fall where they may; he had not invited Sally after all. For a week he reviled himself as a coward and worse for not having stopped this earlier. His Each day was inspired with the most unspeakable dread; his nights were short and filled with frantic but impossible schemes.
Sally herself solved the problem. Summoning what must have been incredible courage, she cornered him after school and looking him squarely in the eye told him she knew what was going on. Obviously she had only just found out, but she shamed him totally by offering herself up as the butt of the whole school, if not the whole town.
It was then that what he had within him, what he would become, rose in defense of his character. As they walked along, he somehow convinced Sally that he had been too shy to ask any girl, and since fate had thrust them together, why not rise to the occasion? Using the time-honored words: Will you be my date for Senior Prom, he felt ten feet tall and somehow he knew this had been his only choice all along.
And the Prom came. He appeared with Sally on his arm. He held her chair. He danced every dance with her, including the ladies choice. He brought her cups of punch. They had their photos taken and he ordered the largest-size offered. He took her home to change and then to the all-night party in the gym. The next day he took her to the beach party that officially ended Prom week end.
They really had little in common, but both laughed together all week end at how things had turned out ? they had been elected king and queen of the Prom by acclamation. He noticed, with some satisfaction, that those who had set their scheme in motion were being ground up in its gears. The prom faded into graduation. Sally's family moved to another state while he was in the military and he gave little if any importance to that memory.
But twenty years later he was surprised to encounter Sally's younger sister in a shopping mall. To his amazement he learned Sally was dead. She had died just three years after high school of some heart problem he never knew she had. He felt badly her life had been so short but when her sister told him that long-ago Prom had been her sister's only date ever and that their Prom photo had hung in her room until she died, he realized the depth of her courage that long-ago afternoon.
They went their ways, hers heavy with remembrance of her loss; his light realizing the gift he had received from Sally Harkins. She had offered him that greatest of any woman's gift: the opportunity for a man to be a hero, and he had been the better all these years for that chance.
He thinks of her now, since that day, from time to time. They shared his fist adult decision and proved his early training would carry him through. He doesn't bother with what if, but he will always know it was she who helped him become a man ready to face the world as a gentleman should.