December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

1. Memories of Truancy: Mr. Major and His Minor

By |2023-02-15T19:55:53+01:00February 1st, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
Maret School prides itself on its pupils social development.

his much I know for sure, no tricks or embroidering:

I arrived in Washington, D.C. from France toward the end of 1957. At the time I knew no English and was thus enrolled in a school tailored for diplomatic families with children unfamiliar with English. That school was called Maret, and it was at that stodgy, elite place that I learned I was, in fact, uneasy with the stodgy and the elite.

I learned this the hard way, through my own awkwardness and my teachers’ efforts to make me, not yet five years old, into a more functional gentleman.

The school failed terribly in this effort because I resisted it with a willfulness that I still possess, making recollection easier. In simple terms, I did not like being told who to be or what to do, which at the time was not a satisfactory state of mind for a child, since children were to be seen, not heard.

So, before plunging headlong into my jagged stories, I must call out and portray a man called Major Hyde. This Major Hyde, a man whose first name I thought was Major, was in fact a retired member of the British army who had held the rank of major. He was a stern and unyielding man who taught many subjects but whose primary role, since I was still too young to be taught specific subjects, was to teach little boys the preliminary steps toward becoming sound men, if not British army majors.

His role in my regard (and with others of my tiny age) was as an instructor in physical education, which included running, football, or soccer. The goal, of course, was to make us, we wee bits of flesh, into creatures who comprehended the nature of a society, a group, a team, and learned the discipline of hierarchy. Even though we were tiny, or perhaps because we were tiny, learning how to use and share a ball was fundamental, as was the act of gathering together to play other teams composed of equally tiny creatures. In this way we would allegedly absorb camaraderie and the importance of taking orders before we even knew the language of our new land.

As a clumsy child, I fit poorly into this ensemble, and Mr. Major almost immediately situated me on the bench, where for months on end I did nothing except watch my fellow tinies play matches, usually losing.

Major Hyde did not know that by keeping me sidelined he was contributing to shaping my identity as an amiable but determined outcast.

Losing enraged Mr. Major, and this I remember because he was, from time to time, chided by other teachers for making unreasonable demands of us non-adults. To which the military man responded that they were talking nonsense. We were small boys, yes, but the trenches of life would be real, so better we learn about them sooner than later. In this he may have been right.

Yet Major Hyde’s categorical demands and his fiery temper elicited in me a stubborn wish to deny both the categorical and all things angry. I early on decided I would make my way through self-reliance, internal invention, charm, and mischief, all of which had little to do with how any army works.

I begin the odyssey of me in this way for a reason. I decided I would vex Major Hyde long before I even knew what vexation meant or how best to use it.

My time with him, and at Maret, came to a head in 1960, when I was six-and-a-half. The half matters because at that time, and even now, halves counted in the upward pecking order of boyhood status.

I had not once played in a game, and as I neared age seven, after three years in the school, I stood out as the only boy player to have never risen from the bench, as if such an act (or so I thought in my surreal moments) would have hurt its venerable wood feelings and left it to wonder what it had done to wrong me.

Maybe someone said something. Maybe a teacher intervened. Maybe Mr. Major was stricken with a late middle-aged moment of self-awareness. I will never know what came over Major Hyde that day in 1960, in the waning moments of our final game of the season at home against archrival Landon.

Major Hyde did not know that by keeping me sidelined he was contributing to shaping my identity as an amiable but determined outcast, a little speck of something on the fringes of things that, if taken in and told to do things one way, would invariably choose to do them in another.

This identity was already well-entrenched when Mr. Major barked in my direction and all but shoved me onto the field.

Almost ironically, the game was played on a field only blocks from my own home, a place where I would soon put my outcast’s mischief skills to good use.

Though we now live in an era in which nothing has occurred unless there is a winner and a loser, soccer remains among the very few competitive sports that permits draws. To hold potent Landon 9-0 (they had previously defeated us 9-0) would have been a great moral victory for Mr. Major and his little charges.

Major Hyde thrust me in literally a minute before the end, when all I was doing was waiting for the piercing sound of my favorite instrument, the whistle.

Once on the pitch, as Mr. Major called the field of ball battle, I was dumbstruck, with no idea what to do. So I chose to linger near the sidelines, still hoping for the whistle.

It was when I looked up at the referee that I tripped and all but propelled myself closer to the middle of the field, where, in some drunken divinity’s idea of an intervention, the ball sought to associate itself with my feet.

I felt as though I’d placed myself on the map, a presence, a boy, a rebel, an article of nonsense in the form of flesh.

I froze, literally, until I heard someone shout, “Run!”

And with the ball in my clumsy keep, I did. And as I ran I heard all sorts of screaming. They appeared to be encouraging me.

And the opposing Landon players appeared to part before me in some kind of biblical imitation of the parting of a sea. And through that open slit I continued my run, all the while trying hard to control the ball, and perhaps wondering inside why it was that the small beasts of Landon did nothing to impede me.

Finally, in less than ten seconds, I found myself in front of the goalkeeper, who had a shocked look on his face as he waved at me.

It was then that I recognized that small goalkeeper as one of my own.

Inside, I knew, or I believe I knew, just what had happened, but my truancy had been awoken, and Mr. Major had put me in a position of anti-glory so deep I couldn’t resist it.

Lamely, I struck the ball, and it wobbled into the side of the net. An instant later I heard the whistle, and was elated.

I had won the game.

But I had won it, of course, for Landon, by kicking the ball into my own net.

Major Hyde would have had me executed if he could, but he could not. He could not even find words to speak to me, his face too red and his wrinkles too stitched up. My fellow littles yelled but I understood none of what they said.

How better to begin a satchel of memoirs?

Already in trouble with my teachers for failing to play properly with other students, I had now gone a step too far.

My father was called in, great shouting matches occurred, and I was almost instantly withdrawn from the school. I was the tiniest of disgraces but didn’t feel that way at all.

Instead, I felt as though I’d placed myself on the map, a presence, a boy, a rebel, an article of nonsense in the form of flesh who could only do more of what he’d just done, but as politely as possible.

Thus my days of truancy began, and I would carry those days with me everywhere and all over, though I’d mute my capriciousness depending on the circumstances. Above all, I had defeated Major Hyde, something no other boy had done.

Imagine what lies in store, I told myself. Imagine! Soon I would learn English and the gates of mischief, and life, opened wide.

— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.