Don Hagerman

Don Hagerman was a big guy with monster hands and a massive long forehead. I had heard he was a significant football player back when they played in leather helmets, long before he became headmaster of the Holderness School. I sat in front of him so scared that I could not form my thoughts into words, not even a simple yes or no which was surely the very thing that infuriated him so at that moment. I had no hand in the mischief of which he accused me but it had been my idea, passed on to my buddies like a joke. Hagerman’s fury reached a crescendo. He towered above me; his big knuckles like vices clamped white around the front edge of the desktop and blood vessels bulging from his big sweaty forehead. “I had a chance to kick you out of this school once and I didn’t, but believe me if I ever get the chance again…”

I was 15. I had been saved by the Baptists and the McCalister twins at 13, had read the Bible, had my own revelations and become a life long atheist at 14. At 15, I had read Anna Karenina, the Fosythe Saga, Huck Finn and Moby Dick three times and had found my way around 42nd Street & Eighth Ave. I understood that we were living in one of those brief warm spots between eons of ice ages. I understood the insignificance of this confrontation, yet I was too petrified to speak. I could only look directly at him and repeat over and over to myself, ”What difference will this make 2000 years from now?”

I hated school for 15 of the 20 years I spent there. My most vivid recollection of kindergarten with Mrs. Nickerson was squeezing a plastic bag of lard with a bright orange wafer in the middle. It was a new product from the government called Oleomargarine that one could use instead of butter. When we squeezed the plastic bag until the wafer was dispersed, the whole bag looked the color of butter. It didn't taste like butter; it tasted like yellow lard. There was also a trip 3 miles to Warren in a maroon car followed by a 15-mile train ride to Palmer with my mother and sister to purchase shoes with some kind of coupons issued by the government for a war effort I knew nothing about.

First grade with Mrs. Wiley would have been OK if I hadn't contracted Infantile Paralysis that spring. I remember the pain of my cramped muscles with every step as my father carried me wrapped in an orange checkered blanket to the car. I remember the Boston cop who stopped us, then escorted us to Children's Hospital. I remember the spinal tap and the enemas and my roommate who had been there two years by the time I left. I remember the next ten months in the hospital and the next ten years in therapy, which started in diapers in a wire basket in a swimming pool with a nurse named Dizzy. I remember being tutored (phonics in1949!) by Mrs. Murphy. I remember going back to school in the second grade with Mrs. Bedford. I remember getting the shit kicked out of me for the next six years.

I was skinny to the point of being crippled and my father was owner of the William E. Wright Co., the major employer in that rural, impoverished New England mill town. My classmate's parents were hardworking Polish and French farmers and/or mill workers who worked hard for my father. They were poor and I was rich and every one of them could beat me up singly or collectively and did so at every opportunity. The most dread part of my day in grammar school was recess. At noon hour, I would linger in the cafeteria until Mrs. Stedt, the cook, shooed me out. I would linger behind the green doors to the playground till I thought no one was looking, then try to make myself disappear behind the one old Maple or along the chain link fence that surrounded the playground on three sides. Sometimes I was successful. On rare occasions I would get picked (last) to even up sides in a baseball game but I rarely got up to bat. The dread days were those when some bored kid would notice me skulking around the edge of the playground and holler, "Let's get Wright."

There is nothing more one could do to get a mob of fifth graders to chase you than to run, which is exactly what I did. If they caught me on the cinder drive I usually ate some of it. They would form a circle around me and shove me back and forth till I fell down. They would start out kicking cinders at me and get so frenzied that they just ended up kicking me. At other times someone would step into the circle to personally rub my face in the cinders. Roger Chapman, a 200 pound fifteen year old sixth grader who had killed his father in a hunting accident had left me half conscious after one of these recess events. After I had spit the cinders out of my bloody mouth and before I ran into the schoolhouse, I yelled back at him. "You killed your old man on purpose."

I never thought that he would attack me right there in the classroom. He put me up against the concrete wall and punched me in the face until I couldn't hold my arms up in front of me. Every time he hit my face, the back of head smashed against the wall. I think he would have killed me if Mrs. Riley hadn't dragged him off.  She asked what was going on and Roger, with tears in his eyes, told her what I had said.

I had seen Mrs. Riley smack kids' knuckles hard with a ruler, but never on the face with her hand. I was still up against the wall trying to get my balance when she grabbed me by my torn shirt collar and slapped me a half dozen times across the face harder than I have ever been struck by a woman. I got expelled for that and my father strapped me when he got home.

Sometimes if I could get down the banking and into the freight yard, I would get away, although it is difficult to outrun 40 kids. I was at the center of almost every playground disturbance. I got thrown out of school for fighting, then got strapped black and blue by my father for getting expelled.

By the time my parents figured out that this was not a healthy environment, and sent me to a private boarding school, I was a complete social misfit. On one of my first days at the Holderness School, I met Ricky Bullock, nicknamed "Bulldork" because of the extraordinary size of his penis. I knew nothing of his affliction as we stood at opposite ends of a 100 yard, 8 foot wide sidewalk. I did however recognize him as aggressive, paranoid and belligerent as myself. We both walked directly down the center of the sidewalk till we were within swinging distance and slugged it out right there. You can see why I wasn't one of Don Hagerman's golden boys. Richard Bird was, and he and Don Latham taught me that at least some of the boys liked me.

I could tell a hundred horror stories of my prep school years culminating in the graduation attended by my parents, siblings and grandparents. I never did work up the nerve to tell them that I had flunked out right up till I was standing there (alphabetically last) in the line of caps and gowns, in front of Don Hagerman, who announced in his most booming voice,
"And to Mr. David William Wright, who has not completed the requirements for a Diploma from this institution, I award a Certificate of Attendance."
Which he handed to me with a broad, satisfied grin.

Reverend Judge, who flunked me in Latin and hated me almost as much as Hagerman, played "A mighty fortress is our God" on the chapel organ as we marched solemnly down the gangplank steps to my ultimate humiliation. I purposefully defocused my eyes so that I couldn't see the pained expressions on the faces of my family seated in the very front row and repeated over and over to myself, "What difference will this make 2000 years from now?"