On the first day of ninth grade, I was dropped off at the wrong high school—an all-boys Jesuit academy called Fordham Prep—and through a series of tragicomical misunderstandings too complicated to explain here, wound up staying through graduation.
Up till that point, I’d been exclusively a New York City public-school kid, where I’d spent nine years as a reliably mediocre student. In truth, my “C” average was deceptively flattering: My overall GPA was given a crucial bump out of the “D”-level basement by the lone “A” I could be counted on to earn in my English classes.
Despite my subpar scholastic track record, however, when I advanced from elementary school to junior high, I was, in what can only be explained as an administrative error, placed in the city’s now-defunct SP program (“special progress”—essentially a gifted-and-talented curriculum), in which students completed three years of schooling—seventh, eighth, and ninth grade—in only two. During that time, I took two years of Latin, algebra, biology—all before I ever set foot in high school. I passed them all, too—painfully and often barely, but still.
And this was at a junior high school, I should add, that was at the time regarded by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood as a disgrace—an unfortunate but unavoidable way station between elementary school and high school. (I wonder what Neil deGrasse Tyson, an alumnus, would have to say about that?) Parents simply pinched their nostrils, registered their kids, and counted the days till they’d move on to the Bronx High School of Science or some other esteemed learning institution where their real education would resume in earnest after a two-year waste of time—an institution like, in my case, Fordham Prep.
THE “ZONE UNKNOWN”
When I wound up at the Prep’s doorstep, however, the syllabus I was handed looked alarmingly familiar: introductory Latin; algebra; biology—I think you see where this is going. The lion’s share of kids who attended the Prep were coming from the parochial school system, and Fordham’s curriculum was designed to pick up where that left off. Trouble was, I’d left those courses in the dust already, but when I explained my predicament, the administrator—I’ve long since forgotten his name (or more likely just willfully repressed it)—got a look on his face like he’d just swallowed a lungful of bus exhaust and said, “But… that was public school?”
Indeed, this was a “fresh start”—one whereby Fordham would graciously overlook my plebeian origins, and that meant erasing all trace of them. Good news: None of it ever happened! Admission to the Prep was a rarified privilege, I was assured, for which to be grateful. Fordham Prep’s name, after all, was uttered almost exclusively in whispered, reverential tones—the Prep!—and the honor of attending was one most of its students had been anxiously anticipating since preschool. It all meant nothing to me, though: Six months earlier, I’d never even heard of the place. This perhaps gave me a more sober—a more realistic—perspective on the school, even at fourteen years old, than my peers or their parents.
The Prep’s sterling reputation for academic excellence, I argued without success, was largely a product of skillful self-mythologizing. Christ, how good a school could it have been, really? After all, I got in! Shouldn’t that have been the first red flag? Bronx Science—a public high school—walked the walk: They quite rightfully wanted nothing to do with me.
And my own dismal grades notwithstanding (though I did make the honor roll freshman year, but any idiot can ace a bunch of classes he’s already taken—and passed—before), there were some objectively intellectually challenged students at the Prep. I was a longstanding public-school kid, and knew a knuckle-dragger when I saw one (I preferred their company, for the most part), and that place was wall-to-wall with them. All of which prompts the question: How did Fordham achieve—and sustain—such impeccable standing if they were admitting riffraff like yours truly?
But, then, the Prep has always suffered from something of an identity crisis—at least since I first came to learn of it. There’s the school it wants to be—one of those proudly
elitist elite learning institutions, à la Dead Poets Society and School Ties and Scent of a Woman—and then there’s the one it really is, whereby the only two requirements for admittance seem to be a dick and a cleared check. In other words: It’s less Regis, and more St. Raymond’s, than it would comfortably care to admit.
My sentiments on the entire four-year ordeal are probably best expressed by legendary music producer (and Brooklyn native) Jimmy Iovine, who recently shared this reflection on his own scholastic experiences in the aptly titled HBO documentary series The Defiant Ones:
“I don’t remember one moment of high school that I enjoyed. Catholic school: nuns, suits, jacket, tie, no girls, all guys. I hated every second of it.”
Now, I’ve spent decades making the lawyerly case I outlined above to old classmates, fine men and good friends all, who vehemently and unanimously disagree, who look back at the experience with soft-focus fondness (for reasons I trust will be made manifest in the afterlife), whose own sons are now approaching high-school age, and for whom there is only one option in their immediate future: Fordham Prep. Poor bastards. But, hey—maybe they’ll enjoy it, too. (If by chance any of you don’t—and you’re reading this—feel free to bitch in the comments below. This is a safe space for you.) I am admittedly and perplexingly in the minority on this one; the I argument make here is one I lost over a quarter century ago, and I guess it still smarts.
But the reasons for my feelings, I should hope, aren’t hard to understand: I spent freshman year—and even part of sophomore year—repeating public junior high school at a private (read: expensive) college prep school, only now with a dress code, and with kids I didn’t know, and religious rites I didn’t understand. That put me in an irredeemably shitty mood, to put it mildly, and I went out of my way over the next four years to register my discontent the most obvious and effective way I knew how: my physical appearance.
My neckties were proudly stained with mustard (and never tied properly, anyway, since I didn’t bother to learn how), my shirt half-untucked at all times, my hair worn well below the collar in flagrant violation of regulation. (There were no girls to impress, so what difference did it make?) Such transgressions put me, immediately and perennially, in conflict with the man in charge of enforcing the Prep’s standards of uniformity: Mr. Bruce Bott, Dean of Students.
THE HEAT IS RISING
Mr. Bott wasn’t merely a man—he was a presence. You felt his energy in a room oftentimes before you even saw him. He never yelled or raised his voice; on the contrary, he spoke in almost hushed tones—an admittedly cool power move few can credibly pull off. He never smiled or laughed (not in my miserable company, anyway, but can’t say as I blame him for that). He never looked flustered, despite how often I would overtly defy his orders to tuck in my shirt or cut my hair. (This is what passed for being a badass at the Prep, yet another instance in which it woefully failed to reach the bar set by my old junior high.)
Running into Mr. Bott daily—you couldn’t not run into him; he was everywhere—was the least favorite part of my day, because there’d be no sympathetic ear or “good cop” routine or use of honey over vinegar: He’d simply cite you for what you were doing wrong, and expect it corrected by the next time he saw you. To invoke a pop-culture analogy of the day, he was less Mr. Rooney, more Mr. Strickland.
He ran an impressively (albeit maddeningly) tight ship. You couldn’t cut a class at that school. Mr. Bott dutifully collected attendance slips from each classroom, every period, and if a student wasn’t where he was scheduled to be, he’d find him and make him answer for it—it wouldn’t slip through the cracks. Seriously—you couldn’t even ditch last-period study hall in that place! He was on top of everything and everyone that went on there; nothing evaded his radar.
I’ve often thought, in the years since, his talents were probably underexploited at a school where most of the student body was well-behaved, happy to be there, and more or less toed the line voluntarily. Imagine the troubled schools a peerless disciplinarian like that might’ve turned around had he relocated throughout his career—an itinerant Dean with No Name, so to speak. (What a pitch that would make: It’s Lean on Me meets A Fistful of Dollars! Don’t laugh—stupider ideas have sold.)
But that observation notwithstanding, Mr. Bott knew where he belonged. A graduate himself of the Prep—class of ’59—he elected to spend a forty-year career there, committed to the institution that had educated him. Committed to its Jesuit ideals. To its academic program, and its objective of inspiring young men to live service-oriented, faith-based lives. He was a man of quiet dignity—I mean, that guy was nobody’s fool—with the courage of his convictions, and, after over forty years on this earth myself, I’ve met dispiritingly few people like that.
Mr. Bott led an honorable life doing a job he loved and believed in, and he did that job exceptionally well; I’m far enough removed from the experience to recognize what a truly remarkable dean he was. That he and I never got along—never once saw eye to eye—is probably the best testament I can offer as to how consistent and effective a disciplinarian he was; if, at the age of fifteen, I’d have liked him, he’d have surely been doing something wrong.
THE PAST IS CALLING
On April 25th of this year, I received an e-mail from an old Prep classmate—we’ll call him “Spinner,” an in-joke very few will appreciate—with this simple message:
“I know this is morbid but Bruce Bott passed away. I don’t have any details. I know you interacted with him a lot during high school. Just thought you’d want to know.”
I know you interacted with him a lot during high school. That’s nothing if not an old friend putting it diplomatically!
For reasons I can’t adequately explain, this news left me in a state of melancholy for several days. The fact is, I haven’t been back to the Prep since the day I graduated. Never have I attended a reunion, either. And I’ve made no effort whatsoever to keep in touch. (Only somewhat recently have I come to realize we don’t lose touch with anyone—we choose to be out of touch; it’s not a passive act but an active one. But that’s an essay for another day.) If it wasn’t for Spinner—as dear and true a friend as I’ve ever had—I’d never know what became of anyone we went to school with; I certainly wouldn’t have heard about Mr. Bott’s passing. The news shouldn’t affect me on any level save the most basic sorry-to-hear-it one, but it hasn’t really left my thoughts four months later. (Hence the reason you’re stuck reading about it now.)
I suppose, on some level, I regret not allowing myself a chance to see him again, to talk not hardnosed-dean-to-disgruntled-student but rather—imagine it—man-to-man. Mr. Bott was the same age, give or take, as so many men in my life that I loved and admired as a boy yet never got to be friends with in adulthood, like my father, and my father’s best friend Richard, and my father’s younger brother—my dear uncle—Jim. (I know—“daddy issues” much?) They’re all gone now. Why are they gone? Why couldn’t they be here to see the man I became?
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR
And though I didn’t have the same emotional tether to—the same pure fondness for—Mr. Bott as I did those other late gentlemen, he was in a unique position, as a male authority figure in my life, to have seen and evaluated the changes that have occurred in me over the last twenty-five years. I robbed myself of that opportunity, and the chance to have buried the hatchet with a man who—I see now—had appreciable influence on me during my formative years. (It’s worth noting that I can barely recall the names of more than two or three teachers I had at the Prep, but I never forgot his.)
We’ve studied the hero’s journey on this blog—the monomythic narrative pattern that’s given shape to most of Western literature—and one of the early stages of any young protagonist’s odyssey is known as the Meeting with the Mentor. This is the scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi offers Luke Skywalker his father’s lightsaber and asks him to join the mission to deliver the droids to Alderaan. It’s the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where wise museum curator Marcus Brody cautions cavalier archaeologist Indiana Jones on the magnitude of the undertaking he’s agreed to. It’s the scene in Creed where Donnie asks Rocky to be his trainer. It’s a narrative beat that can herald the Call to Adventure, as it does in Star Wars, or simply underscore the peril of the journey ahead, as in Raiders, or serve as the basis for the central relationship of a story, as is the case in Creed and Wall Street and Whiplash.
“In his study of Russian folktales, Vladimir Propp calls this character type the ‘donor’ or ‘provider’ because its precise function is to supply the hero with something needed on the journey. Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure” (Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd ed. [Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007], 117).
Indeed, we tend to think of mentors—partly because our popular narratives reinforce this image—as benevolent and nurturing, like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother or Mr. Miyagi. Who isn’t still waiting for a mentor like that? Yet other times the mentor is covertly subversive and/or antagonistic, like Alonzo Harris (Training Day) or Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada) or Henri Ducard (Batman Begins). But I think the archetype operates on a much richer, wider spectrum than those oft-invoked extremes suggest, and it seems to me that one such example is what I’ve termed the “resistance mentor”; in my life, on my own “hero’s journey,” as it were, Mr. Bott filled that role.
“Mentors in stories act mainly on the mind of the hero, changing her consciousness or redirecting her will” (ibid., 120).
At a time in my youth when I was looking to define myself, when the best I could muster with regard to self-identity was a hollow Axel Foley impersonation, Mr. Bott gave me something to bump up against. (And there’d be a lot more of that later in life, I discovered.) By enforcing the rules and expectations of Fordham Prep—ones I still oppose on the grounds that they don’t provide sufficient developmental space for teenagers to be teenagers, thereby depriving them of certain rites of adolescence they only get one shot at—he in many respects catalyzed a journey of self-discovery that men much closer to me, like my father, couldn’t incite, by virtue of how emotionally entangled we were and always will be. Mr. Bott was not a loving, paternal figure in my life, but his role as a “resistance mentor” had a value I am only now coming to better understand and appreciate. Yes, Albus Dumbledore was Harry Potter’s mentor, but so was Severus Snape.
THE THINGS LEFT UNSAID
Now, despite all the fun I had in the opening section of this post setting the record straight about Fordham, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the values it espouses or the course of study it offers (and its teachers, at least in my experience, are nothing if not learned and devoted educators, as exemplary in their roles as Mr. Bott was in his). And as for their annoying rules: If they want you to wear your tie straight and your hair short, then you accept that with eyes wide open when you enroll. Mr. Bott was simply there to ensure Fordham’s standards—whatever I or anyone might have thought of them—were being observed and respected, something he had every right—every obligation—to do. He did his job, and he did it excellently. The problem was me: I didn’t belong there. Rather than making a pain in the ass of myself, I should’ve just walked out the door and never come back; it would’ve been fairer to both of us.
Because knowing where you don’t belong is as crucial as knowing, as Mr. Bott so enviably did, where you do. Up till that point in my life, I’d either known the warm embrace of acceptance (at home, or with my friends on the streets of the Bronx) or the cool shade of anonymity (it was very easy to blend in the crowd at a school like my old junior high); Fordham Prep, on the other hand, was a place where I always felt a bit like an unwelcome outsider—eventually to the point of reveling in it, because that’s what Axel Foley would have proudly done. I was too academically advanced for Fordham’s curriculum (the irony of which, given our respective scholastic reputations, cannot be overstated), and too socially out of step with its same-sex, private-school culture. It was just a bad fit. It would’ve been nice to have looked Mr. Bott in the eye, years after all the bullshit had receded into irrelevance, and told him that; who knows how he might have responded?
But as the personification of Fordham’s rules and regulations—as my very own “resistance mentor”—echoes of Mr. Bott resound in my life to this day. I still wear my shirt untucked. I still keep my hair well below the earlobes (partly out of celebration to still have it). I’m not rebelling anymore, however; this is who I am. This is how I’m comfortable, and how I express myself to the world around me. This is the man I grew up to be. And whether it would’ve earned my father’s approval or Mr. Bott’s is ultimately immaterial; it meets with my own, because I know who I am.
It’s the unforeseen challenges we face—the tragicomical misunderstandings that throw us off our course—that define us; Mr. Bott holds the distinction of being the first resistance mentor on my own private Road of Trials. And as it was in the halls of Fordham Prep all those years ago, his solemn presence continues to make itself felt over my shoulder long after our paths diverged, never to cross again.