Among the Bachelors

August Kleinzahler

The cover story in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is entitled ‘Prep School Predators: The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual Abuse’. Amos Kamil, who left the school in 1982, names several teachers, including the headmaster, as pervs. I was at Horace Mann 15 years earlier than Kamil – class of ’67, near the bottom of the fifth quintile and a great disappointment all round – and knew a couple of them: one was waving his baton as a young music instructor and the other, a large boy, a few years older than I, Stan Kops, later became a teacher at the school. Poor Stan wound up killing himself. I believe he swam butterfly on the varsity swimming team.

As a seasoned old gent of 62 looking back, I’d say nearly half the teachers were ‘bachelors’: it was no secret what that meant. I suspect any number of them would have been quite thrilled to play pocket pool with us (aged 12 to 18). Naturally, some of us were more enticing than others, though there’s no accounting for taste. But I honestly don’t recall any ‘predatory’ behaviour when I was there – unlike some of Amil’s interviewees, I was never invited for gin and tonics or on camping trips.

One poor fellow made the mistake of bringing his camera to a junior varsity wrestling practice while Mr Quinn (‘Biff Quinlan’ in a couple of novels by Jack Kerouac, class of ’40) was elsewhere and wound up being fired, about which I feel badly, even today. I was one of those little fellas grunting and sweating on the mat, being photographed, and I have no doubt that Mr X would have had the pictures developed and enjoyed a wank, several, maybe even shared the photos with friends.

We all knew, pretty much, who was ‘a bit off’. Some of them were good teachers, some less good, some sweet-natured, some sadists. I ran across one of the more obviously gay former Horace Mann teachers out here in the Bay Area years ago, now retired, a lively teacher and admirable man in most regards, if a bit expressive in manner. He had taught my older brother, who was a beautiful-looking young thug of a boy, and me. Mr Y was quite emotional. He may have even given me a buss on the cheek. ‘I cried and cried, Augie, when I heard of your brother’s death. He was such a lovely boy. I always kept a picture of him on my desk, you know.’


  • 7 June 2012 at 3:25pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I was at a boys-only secondary school in the 70s. My overwhelming impression, looking back, is that it was a foreign country.

    There was a teacher who offered to supervise Saturday morning sessions in the school pool on condition that the boys swam in the nude; it's hard to imagine that his motives were entirely pure (he wasn't even a PE teacher). The swimming sessions were stopped, but there wasn't much of a fuss; he was a good teacher, apart from anything else. As far as we were concerned, the idea of teachers taking an unhealthy interest in us was a running joke that nobody really took seriously; teachers were singled out as suspect more because it was funny than because we actually suspected anything. (There were most jokes about a teacher who we knew to be married with a family; he even had a son in our year.) Some teachers did occasionally use corporal punishment, and some of them may have taken a bit too much relish in it, but we just thought it was part of school life; you never supposed that such and such a teacher might genuinely fancy boys, any more than you imagined that John Inman actually was gay. When push comes to shove, as it were, I never heard of any boy actually being molested (as we said then); certainly I was never approached myself, which is more than I could say of my first year at Cambridge.

    • 8 June 2012 at 6:48am
      streetsj says: @ Phil Edwards
      @ Phil E I could have written that word for word.

    • 17 June 2012 at 8:57pm
      jcfried says: @ Phil Edwards
      During the 50s thru 70s swim classes were held in the nude at grammar and high schools in the Buffalo, NY, area. When we boys asked why only the boys class was held in the nude we were told it was something about our swim suits blocking the drains - no i'm not kidding. Many years later when i asked friends if their schools had done the same, i found that many schools throughout the US had the same policy of nude swim classes for boys. Decades later when i asked about this of a friend who had lived in a city near Buffalo during the same period, he said that his school had the same policy. When i asked him why he thought they had this policy, he replied it must be some "greek thing", then paused and said, "Ohhhhh".

      At the same time i don't think any of us had any concerns that this was somehow sexual. We were probably more than a bit naive, and i mean that in the best sense, yet even now at the age of 65 i still think it will remain a mystery that really was without evil intent.

  • 8 June 2012 at 3:48pm
    simonpawley says:
    "I’d say nearly half the teachers were ‘bachelors’: it was no secret what that meant. I suspect any number of them would have been quite thrilled to play pocket pool with us."

    I find this piece deeply unsettling, because a series of juxtapositions appears to suggest significant links between homosexual teachers and the sexual abuse of their students. Perhaps that was not what the author intended. Perhaps it never really occurred to him in those terms. But the fact is that homophobic associations between homosexuality and paedophilia persist, gathered together under the umbrella of 'deviant sexuality'. These associations are more frequently implied than they are articulated these days, but they have certainly not disappeared.
    For that reason, much as the author might never have had any intention of implying such a link, it would be welcome if he could clarify his view.

    I hope very much that I have got it totally wrong, but it would be nice to know for sure.

  • 9 June 2012 at 5:10pm
    FionaM says:
    I agree with simonpawley that this piece is deeply unsettling. But not just because of the homophobic associations between homosexuality and sexual abuse of children. The whole tone is utterly dismissive of the very real and appalling experiences documented in the New York Times magazine article. Does August Kleinzahler have no empathy or understanding for the boys who were abused? Referring jokingly to “pocket pool” with boys of 12 is offensive. The piece for me reads as if the author does not believe that sexual abuse is that serious in the first place. Yet anyone who has read the original article would be able to see the long term impacts, including one former pupil who killed himself. All credit to Amos Kamil for painstakingly over a long period gathering such a range of disturbing testimonies and credit to those who felt able to speak out. August Kleinzahler may have meant only to comment on his experience of the school but his words speak volumes about his attitude to teachers sexually assaulting children in their care.

    You can have fond memories of a place or a person, yet also condemn the things that went on that were wrong. Amos Kamil is very careful to provide a nuanced and balanced account. He includes evidence of the ways in which grooming has such a devastating effect by making the child feel complicit and even ‘loved’, although this is no love. This is made clear in the fact that ‘M’ attended the funeral of the teacher who abused him (yet treated him as special, including with solo trips to Europe), struggling to understand why he wanted to go. He said, “Still, today, after the drinking and the heroin and the therapy and the battered relationships, I just can’t bring myself to fully hate the man who gave me so much.” I hope August Kleinzahler can look again and realise how much damage those teachers did – including to him if he feels sorry for a teacher fired for taking pictures that the author presumes would have been used by the teacher and his friends to enjoy “a wank”.

    • 10 June 2012 at 11:29am
      outofdate says: @ FionaM
      It's a powerful temptation, to think that people who disagree with you must in some way be damaged in the head, but for the sake of civility you'd perhaps better try and resist it.

  • 10 June 2012 at 10:36am
    Simon Wood says:
    Some may find it unsettling having the w-word thrust in their faces provocatively dressed in double-inverted commas. August's post was not very cobwebby, it's true, nor bleeding-hearty, but from a place where people do not always rush for therapists and lawyers at the drop of a hat.

  • 11 June 2012 at 9:46am
    Stephen says:
    August's post far from not being 'bleeding hearty' showed an almost complete lack of empathy for those who were betrayed, abused, molested and violated. Going 'meh, so what, that was then, get over it' isn't a morally adequate response - as is being pointed out to the Church in Ireland.

    Equally Mr K seems quite sanguine about the prospect of a teacher taking photographs of pupils in order to wank over them .. and oh yes, pass round his friends to do similar. I doubt this pose would hold if he found out that any of his own children were the subjects of such polaroid gratification. In those circumstance, well before a hat had time to hit the ground, most parents would be taking fairly swift action - which might well include lawyers and therapists, but I suspect that wouldn't be the entirety of the response .

  • 12 June 2012 at 5:42am
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    For what it's worth, my experience was generally that many of the best teachers were those who took what would now be regarded as an 'unhealthy' interest in their charges. In those days, we were sentimental enough to believe that men who devoted their lives to nurturing the minds, souls, and bodies of boys should generally have a passion of some sort for their profession.

    Some of us also came away from school with the distinct impression that those relationships which did occasionally develop between teachers and pupils did not always involve the latter being "betrayed, abused, molested, and violated" by the former. Indeed, the negative side of such a liaison was more likely to arise from the jealousy it engendered in less-favoured lads (such as myself, naturally). But that is such an unfashionable notion as to be almost literally unspeakable today...

  • 12 June 2012 at 8:37am
    Stephen says:
    Not so much "an unfashionable notion as to be almost literally unspeakable today…" as condoning and supporting behaviour that is unethical, unprofessional, and oh yes,illegal to the point of attracting lengthy prison terms. Would you be content if it was one of your children being 'nurtured' via use for sexual gratification by their teachers?

  • 12 June 2012 at 3:10pm
    outofdate says:
    Without wishing to preen, I used to be on the whole favoured, and wouldn’t have liked it otherwise, but maybe I therefore set less store by it. At any rate nothing untoward happened. I did, however, have a run-in with a teacher with a terribly steady moral compass, who on one occasion impressed his manly certainty on me by way of the stiff thumb to the soft part of the shoulder. On one occasion only; he shortly went to Australia before the mast. The point being, I suppose, that children are remarkably resilient unless somehow impeded by their parents, who are a devious lot and will try every which way to keep you nice and dependent on them.

  • 13 June 2012 at 9:17am
    Stephen says:
    Some children are remarkably resilient, but as the NYT article and countless cases across Ireland and elsewhere show - many are not(and of course if there was no element of abuse then their would be no need for resilience on the part of the child). What part of saying pupils should not be used for sexual gratification by teachers is an attempt to impede a child or keep them dependent? Would you be happy if your child's resilience was having to be called into play by sexual interest on the part of a teacher - or are you so straightforward and keen to foster your child's independence that you wouldn't intervene?

  • 13 June 2012 at 8:31pm
    scotfish says:
    In 1948 in a far off Dominion, aged 7, I entered a "private" school.Underwear was forbidden,small boys half frozen at 6.30 a.m, were subjected to naked showering supervised by a bachelor Headmaster, clutching a slipper for those who cut short their one minute cold shower.He had rowed for Oxford. The toilet cubicles were doorless.Staff patrolled. Low level sadism occurred perpetrated by musical and artistic tutors. A bogus "Major" poked a ruler up trouser legs in class.This was the most expensive church school, it was Anglican. Once a month parents were allowed to visit (it was a male only boarding establishment. The Padre was a decent, kindly married man. The boarders were as young as 5 years old. Swimming was conducted nude and photographed for the School Magazine.Yes, quite. A large scrotum on the diving board was ironically cheered. The smallest boys had a respected young female teacher. 3 male staff had been married. All this was stoically endured by frightened children, by and large we unattractive boys were less prone to being fiddled with. Corporal punishment and simple assault-punches to the head- were frequent, especially at choir practice..The system was based on the English model, and the "hardiness of the breed"supposedly intended simply broke many spirits. We did not report any incidents to our parents as far as I know. Every letter home was censored, each child taking their letters for perssonal scrutiny by the Headmaster. Sexual play among boys in age groups was very frequent and provided an underworld of comfort and support. In my seventies I still have nightmares about this and my later secondary alma mater.But the boys, except for the occasional arithmetical exceptions, were not turned into homosexuals. That was not the intention,the regime was intended to make men of us.But the male staff had fun doing so.None had seen active service in WWII.Pleas to parents (mine were UK surgeons) were treated with scorn. Now the same school is mixed, there are grooms for the Pony Club girls' mounts, and food is by menu. Among my contemporaries, 90% married, with no unusually high divorce/remarriage rate. That is more tan 65% of first marriages failed. But that is social history.
    However, it was better than being born in Post Colonial Africa!

  • 14 June 2012 at 2:43pm
    alex says:
    I went through some of this and found it pretty innocent. A schoolmate didn't, complained, and got the teach fired. What's annoying here is not so much the position Kleinzahler takes but the pretty obvious fact that he hasn't thought any of this through. Not the brightest poster on the wall.

  • 19 June 2012 at 1:50am
    Xynthia says:
    Sorry, Kleinzahler, but I'm just not seeing the lighter side of pedophilia and child rape.

  • 9 November 2016 at 11:32am
    Parissing says:
    I must have lost my sensitivity hat. Kleinzahler is 62, his memories are quaint. The piece is unsettling for what he doesn't know, or remember. The criticisms above imply, if not outright declare, that he must show outrage. But somehow standards have been lowered. I find "referring jokingly to 'pocket pool' with boys of 12... offensive" moldy Victorian ha-ha. I realize this article is old old-hat but I came because of something K said about Trump supporters. None of it evidently permissible, even on November 9. It's a bit much.

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