PAT CONROY MONTH! went by way too fast. I spent much of the month catching up on reviews of books I read over the summer, but I did read two of Pat Conroy’s books – The Lords of Discipline and The Boo – which isn’t bad for someone who is working the kind of hours I’ve been working lately. I think this was my second rereading (therefore third total reading) of The Lords of Discipline, although there are sections of that book that I’ve read so many times that I’ve memorized them. Unless I’m mistaken, though, I’ve never actually read The Boo straight through, although I’ve owned it since high school and have definitely read parts of it. The Boo is not a straightforward narrative, and I would be at a loss to even call it a novel, exactly. It’s a celebration of a person – Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, the Assistant Commandant of Cadets at The Citadel when Pat Conroy was a cadet there. It’s part biography, part file cabinet, and part yearbook. The book consists of a series of anecdotes, some only a few lines long, some taking up 4-5 pages. It also contains word-for-word reproductions of any number of letters and other written documents. It includes cartoons and photographs and handwritten notes from cadets begging the Boo for mercy.
This book was written in an effort in an attempt to set the record straight about Courvoisie’s reputation. Courvoisie (whose nickname is “the Boo”; hence the title) was demoted by the Citadel from Assistant Commandant (a position similar to that of Dean of Students at civilian schools) to Transportation and Baggage Officer (a position in which his primary duty was to organize and stand guard over the cadets’ luggage) shortly after Conroy graduated from The Citadel. Conroy ran into the Boo shortly after he was demoted, and – in the inexhaustible youthful enthusiasm that marks pretty much everything Pat Conroy did before the age of thirty or so – offered to write a book to vindicate him. Courvoisie waited a while, but he did eventually contact Conroy and take him up on his offer.
Like most of America in the 1960’s, The Citadel was – in its own way, and minus the tie-dye – struggling to define its identity. I don’t remember for sure where I read this – and it seems to me that I’ve read it in a number of places – but apparently during the Korean War, the North Korean and Chinese authorities made it known that American POW’s cracked almost immediately under torture, that the process of retrieving information on troop movements, fortifications, and other government secrets from young American soldiers was laughably easy. These reports were probably exaggerated, but they hit the military authorities hard. The top brass at this time had come of age either during or immediately following World War I, and they had been lionized worldwide for their role in defeating the Axis Powers in World War II. By the early 1950’s they were already entrenched in the Cold War, and the news – however fabricated – that young soldiers were cracking easily under pressure filled them with terror and shame. Nationwide, basic training programs in all branches of the Armed Services, as well as military academies and ROTC programs were called upon to make the training of soldiers more intense. The goal was that any torture or interrogation technique inflicted on a POW should seem like a game of freeze tag compared to what the soldier had experienced in training. As the fifties became the sixties, and as the war in Vietnam began, and as many Americans began criticizing the military for its brutality and its seemingly imperialistic mission, the military did what militaries do best: it dug in. If peace activists and nonconformists were going to define themselves by their opposition to the military, then the military was ready to entrench itself and define itself even more aggressively in opposition to the peaceniks. It was like a mini-Cold War, taking place within a nation only slightly less divided in the 1960’s than it had been in the 1860’s.
The brutal plebe system that Pat Conroy describes so vividly in The Lords of Discipline, and to a lesser extent in The Boo, was a consequence of this escalation of hostilities between the America’s military and its civilians. Conroy only barely alludes to this system in The Boo, probably because its most intense excesses were conducted by student cadres and were kept out of sight of the administration. The Boo is a yelling, screaming, cigar-smoking advocate of this system, but he is also its humanizing force. He loves the system, but he also loves his students. He welcomes them into his home and listens to their problems and worries. He also thinks his 17-22 year-old students are hilarious, which in my opinion is the most obvious sign that a person is a natural to work in education. In his introduction to the book, Conroy writes that “if the cadets ever decided to riot, Courvoisie was the only one on campus who could stop them” (13).
Reading this book, I learned that The Boo and I have something in common: we both collect letters of apology. I don’t remember exactly when I ‘officially’ started my collection, but I do remember where I was when I first realized how hilariously funny letters of apology can be. It was 1995. I was visiting a tourist attraction called the Desert of Maine, which looks like a golf course covered with several tons of sand. The tour guide gave a spurious speech about the geology of the alleged desert and about how it managed to appear in the middle of Maine, which is otherwise famous for its beaches and forests. Then he took us for a ride in a glorified golf cart. I don’t remember anything about the tour, except that there was a fake camel named Sarah. The tour ended at a fenced-off area that was labeled “Gem collection area.” Children were allowed to go into the Gem Collection Area and hunt around in the sand for colored rocks of some kind. A prominent sign declared that each child was allowed to take home two gems – but no more. We didn’t have any children in our tour group, so we proceeded inside the Visitor’s Center, where there was a room entirely dedicated to the display of letters of apology written by children who had taken home more than two gems. These letters hung on all four walls of the room, and their dates went back a couple of decades. Some of the letters describe the moment when a parent discovered that the child had taken more than two gems, and most detailed the great remorse and shame that the children felt. Some were illustrated: crying children clutching gem collections, unable to pick two favorites. Others were entirely minimalist: “I’m sorry I took too many gems. Ricky” scrawled in pencil on a torn-out sheet of notebook paper. I was in college at the time, and I can’t even imagine a situation in which someone would have written me a letter of apology at that time, but the image of all those letters stuck with me, and over time – especially after I started teaching – I acquired a few ‘gems’ (ha ha) of my own, and soon I was aware that I was cultivating a collection.
Samples from The Boo’s collection are in the form of two chapters devoted to ERW’s. ERW stands for ‘Explanation Required, Written.” Any time a cadet was cited for a minor rule violation, he was required to write an ERW to the Boo explaining the infraction and any extenuating circumstances. For the most part, the ERW’s are hilarious. One cadet, explaining his lateness to a required activity, offered more than the Boo likely wanted to know about his sexual habits: “Realizing that my liberty was in jeopardy, I quickly (but quite efficiently) concluded my affair and with all due godspeed, my fair damsel clinging to my neck, took leave of her most hospitable abode and made for my chariot” (60). Another explains the report that he had been keeping an unauthorized pet as follows: “That the Hamstros be properly taken care of since the health of the two species was in a condition of pregnancy. We were concerned with the present condition of the Hamstros because we felt we owed an obligation to the species of properly caring for them since the status of pregnancy occurred while they were boarders in our company headquarters. Moving the species at that time would have meant possible physical damage” (134). In an earlier paragraph, this cadet matter-of-factly indicated that the pet in question was “species Hamstro,” which for some reason I find hilarious – almost as hilarious as the implication that this cadet and his roommates knew for sure that the hamster became pregnant while in their care. These two ERW’s and many others are perfect examples the way a certain breed of adolescent male writes – stilted yet comical, formal yet overwrought, wordy yet full of lacunae, intrepid yet often incorrect in its word choice. I’ve read a lot of adolescent writing over the last fifteen years. Much of it was dull, some of it was brilliant, and a fairly significant fraction of it was put together exactly like the samples I quoted above (in one case, on a midterm exam, a student matter-of-factly informed me on the first page of his blue book that he couldn’t write his essay unless there was a word in the English language for a married woman’s male lover, and since he knew of no such word, he would have to coin one: mastress. Then he proceeded to write his essay using this word whenever necessary).
When the Boo was demoted, the reason given by the Citadel was that he was ‘bad for discipline.’ The authorities didn’t like the fact that the Boo was compassionate with the cadets and often became their friends, in spite of the fact that he was efficient about administering punishments when necessary. Conroy never actually makes this statement in his book, but my guess is that – if the increased intensity of cadet training was intended to prepare soldiers to keep their mouths shut during torture – the authorities thought that cadets should feel completely alone. No matter how fairly and firmly the Boo enforced the rules, he refused to abandon the cadets emotionally. He welcomed them into his home, joked with them, listened to their problems, and granted exceptions to rules for cadets with extenuating circumstances.
Any pressurized system has to contain the mechanism for its own release. At many high schools and colleges, this release takes the form of athletics. This is why so many private high schools require participation in sports: sports make teenagers tired, hungry, and happy. Kids who play sports are less likely to skip meals (and, by extension, are less likely to isolate themselves in their rooms guzzling ramen, thereby failing to develop social skills). They’re less likely to stay up all night. Teams give kids a sense of belonging in a group and experience working collectively toward a common goal. The ups and downs of an athletic season teach kids how to handle mistakes and failure within a safe, controlled atmosphere. I know from my own teaching experience that athletes don’t sulk over low grades. They quietly approach the teacher after class and ask what they can do better, and then they do it.
The Boo provides this sort of release at the Citadel. He understands and buys into the system, but he doesn’t let the system govern all of his actions. Systems work when humans control them, not when systems control people. As silly and sophomoric as this book sometimes is (and as it often looks), I couldn’t help thinking as I read it that this book ought to be studied in classes on educational leadership and by administrators at schools and colleges. As much of an anomaly as The Citadel is in the world of American higher education, I think that most high school and college administrators struggle with the question of how to foster mutual respect between students and administrators and of how to build a climate of trust on their campuses. I worked in boarding high schools for ten years. For three of those years, I was the Director of Residential Life at a high school devoted to the arts. That school couldn’t have been more different from the Citadel, but as I read The Boo I found myself thinking of students, colleagues, and incidents from those years that mirrored – emotionally, at least – situations in this book. The Boo is hardly a great work of literature, but it is a valuable book and I’m glad that I took the time to read it again.