In an unfading light

For many, Sunday evenings will not be quite the same now that the TV program ''To Serve Them All My Days'' has run its course. A surprisingly large number of people have been held in suspense from week to week wondering whether ''P. J.'' would or would not marry Chris, whether he would become headmaster of Bamfylde, whether he would, more deeply, pull together a shattered psyche so as to be able to stand the buffets of the world. The fact that P.J.'s struggles with himself and others were set within an English boarding school gave to the story a special poignancy in the eyes of many who followed the program.

A boys' boarding school as it exists not only in England but in communities of the New England states can well be a world in itself, with the world's tests and challenges played out on a small stage. Now that girls have come to almost all of them, they can be lively and picturesque indeed. A few years ago I wrote the history of one such school - St. Paul's, in Concord, New Hampshire - and as I sorted out the documents and began my story, I had the impression I was writing about a mountain kingdom with its own remote and unique existence. ''Every school,'' one student had written in the 1880s, ''is a commonwealth in miniature.'' St. Paul's had its own legal systems, its own disciplines and methods of government, its lords and its commons, and a line of nobly eccentric rulers such as few nations could boast. Within the history of this place one could trace out not only changing ideas of education and religion, but changing concepts of justice, of work and leisure, of freedom and duty.

Bamfylde, though younger than St. Paul's, revealed itself in the public broadcasting series as having these same characteristics of a bounded and finite universe, sufficient unto itself yet shaped in ways it hardly knew by distant forces outside its control. It prospered or declined according to movements in the great world outside its gates. Yet within, as the generations of students passed, the tides of youth brought constant renewal, and something unchangeable was sensed by all who responded to youth's optimism, to its essential decency and pervasive good humor. Here the battle-scarred P.J., a stricken veteran of World War I, was to find his own being renewed.

P.J. could have landed in a lot worse situations. ''If you want to be rich,'' I was once told, ''the thing is to be a schoolmaster.'' My informant was one of the trade himself, Henry C. Kittredge, son of Harvard's famed Shakespearean scholar and later to become rector of St. Paul's. He was at the time of his remark earning perhaps three thousand dollars a year; but he confessed to satisfactions and to amusements (for he was a man who could see the humorous side of most incidents in school life) that were worth millions to him. Henry Kittredge would write a book now and then, tales and histories of his beloved Cape Cod, and these as they came out permitted him to add wings and additions to the Cape Cod house where he spent his summers and where he eventually retired. He was a rich man certainly - and a wise one.

P.J. was rather underplayed in the TV series, I thought. He never lost the underlying nervousness and insecurity that was his heritage from the war. The authority he wielded over the boys seemed almost inexplicable - until one remembered that all authority is mysterious in one way or another, and that boys yield themselves perhaps more readily to fairness and understanding than to the big guns of command. Watching the weekly incidents unfold, one sometimes wondered apprehensively whether the school would hold together - or, for that matter, whether P.J. himself would emerge a whole and unbroken man. This very uncertainty accounted in part for the series' hold on the viewer's imagination.

For it is true that the balance within every life is a delicate one. We walk a tightrope with darkness and chasms lying below the sunlight of our treacherous foothold. And certainly in every community whether large or small the elements of disorder sleep fitfully at best. When one thinks of a school and all the energies it contains, the physical and emotional forces that pervade it, one marvels that it presents so frequently an image of relative calm. Yet at any moment things can go wrong. Like the fire that broke out, in one of the weekly installments, the contagions of disruption can penetrate the small community, revealing rules and penalties to be the slight things they are.

Bamfylde is strictly a fictional school and the author would undoubtedly deny its similarity to any actual institution, alive or dead. Yet Bamfylde stands now in an unfading light. It is as real as this table on which I write, more solid than most of the endowed and well-founded establishments of the world. We have seen it and its brave headmaster, and though we shall miss them on Sunday nights we are warmed by the thought of their indestructible existence.

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