Monday, October 29, 2012

The Final Conquest

On my first day in attendance on September 8, 1964 at St.Bernard’s School in Gladstone, N.J., I was not only the youngest student in Form I (Seventh Grade), but the youngest student on the entire campus. I remained the youngest in my class through graduation six years later. In May 2010 at an all-class reunion, I was the oldest alumnus on the entire campus, no other member of my class or any previous one having shown up. (Class of 85 was the big turn-out.) It was not an altogether welcome reversal.

I lingered long enough for a singularly unflattering photograph to be taken in the Hockenbury Center. The building didn’t exist during my schooldays, though I did know Russell Hockenbury. I then left the party and strolled on an old familiar path past Founders Hall, which was there during my school years. Built in 1909, Founders Hall is the sort of red brick building that belongs on a prep school campus and nowhere else. In May 1970 it was the scene of the Great Porch Riot. There was a porch riot every year of my attendance, but the one in 1970 was the biggest. To my knowledge there hasn’t been another one since.

In 1970, St. Bernard’s was an all-male and nominally Episcopalian school of 120 students. It was backward-looking and proud of it. One anachronistic tradition was a privileged Senior Class, a sort of artificial aristocracy. There was not a general Student Council, but a Senior Council elected only by Seniors. Other perquisites were a Senior Lounge, a Senior Porch, and even a Senior Parking Lot. Naturally, Senior privileges rankled underclassmen. The Senior Porch on the front of Founders Hall was the most visible of them and the one most easily violated. Underclassmen therefore raided and seized the Senior Porch at some point each year in a symbolic overthrow of the Old Order. The school administration banned the raids, of course, but that only entrenched the tradition more deeply. The raids always began spontaneously.

During my Senior year on a sunny warm day in May, I stood on the Senior Porch and leaned against a white round column. The aroma of freshly cut grass was in the air. Underclassmen milled amid the apple trees on the lawn between Founders Hall and Conover House. I don’t remember the precise date or day of the week, but it was neither a Wednesday nor a Friday, because I wore a tie and jacket but not the school blazer – the dress code varied by weekday. One of the juniors suddenly threw down his books, let out a “Whoop!” and charged the steps of the Senior Porch. Scores of other underclassmen rushed to join the assault. Seniors rapidly formed a defensive line at the steps.

“U.L.F.!” some of the attackers shouted, which stood for Underclassmen Liberation Front.

Seniors also rushed onto the porch and put up a stubborn defense, but were heavily outnumbered. Younger students flew bodily over the rails onto the lawn, but kept running back up the steps. Two Seniors retreated into Founders and emerged onto the porch roof armed with a water-filled fire extinguisher and a bucket of water. The cascade of water from above briefly restored the Senior hold on the steps, but it was too late. The masses of Forms I through V flowed over the rails onto the porch. The Seniors fell back and the U.L.F. claimed victory.

“BREAK IT UP NOW!” shouted Mr Tilghman, the headmaster, as he hurried toward the porch from Conover House. The students scattered.

No one was punished for the episode afterward, not even the water specialists on the roof.

After my graduation, the special privileges of Seniors were revoked. St. Bernard’s merged with Gill, becoming co-ed and K – 12 in the process. The educational and social philosophy of the school morphed into something less 19th century.

Little did the underclassmen know on day in May 1970 that their victory really did mark the end of the Old Order.

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