When Work Really Wasn't

When I went off to boarding school in the fall of 1940, there were maids to make up our beds, waitresses to serve us our meals, and even someone to shine our shoes. A year later, with Pearl Harbor, all that changed. Little Lord Fauntleroys had been turned into Huckleberry Finns.

Not without a good deal of resistance, however. "My father did not pay good money to have me do this," said an irate classmate who was mucking out a farmer's barn with me.

"They're not going to like it when they find out you haven't helped," I said. Stevenson (as I will call him) sat down on a sack of grain and looked at me scornfully.

"I am not a slave."

Actually, I preferred this to football. And I loved working in the woods. But then I was a minister's son, here only because my father was a good friend of the new headmaster. Cutting down trees and dragging and burning was what my parents, my sister, and I did during summers in Maine when the weather was bad.

"Come on," I said. But Stevenson just sat there. And as a result, the following Saturday he was back at barn detail working off three black marks.

Black marks were punishments. One black mark equaled one hour's work. But it had to be useless work. If the weather permitted it, you worked off your black marks by jogging around "the Circle," the quarter-mile gravel path that connected the various buildings of the campus. If it was raining heavily, or snowing, you copied pages out of the dictionary. The pointlessness of these activities was exactly the point. Useful work - something like mucking out a barn - might give you some feeling of accomplishment, and that would lessen it as a punishment. If you walked around the Circle, chatting with friends, you would actually be enjoying yourself. If you copied passages from Shakespeare, say, committing them to memory, you might even become a playwright or a poet.

And there was something else: a reluctance to have you associate useful, physical work with punishment, something the Lord Fauntleroys already had a suspicion was the case. Certainly the school didn't want to suggest that those who worked with their hands - maids and cooks and janitors and groundspeople - were somehow guilty of something. The dignity of labor had to be maintained even though, at the same time, you weren't asked to do any. The result of all this was that punishment and pointlessness were linked - with the hope, I suppose, that the idea would get across that crime does not pay.

But then came World War II. And the "help," as they were called, were drafted or took lucrative defense jobs, leaving all sorts of practical things that needed to be done. So the powers-that-be were forced to change their thinking, and we all made our own beds, waited on tables, washed dishes, polished shoes. We also served on various work crews: grounds maintenance, housekeeping, woods work, snow shoveling, and, the worst job of all, coal squad.

We also helped out the neighboring farmers by, among other things, mucking out barns. Boys who were being punished simply did more physical work than the rest of us. Work was still work, but because we all had to do it and there was an obvious point to it, work gained in dignity. What resulted was a breakthrough - the idea that it was OK to soil one's hands.

The war brought about other positive changes: the abandoning of stiff collars at dinner, for instance, as well as blue suits on Sundays (the Navy wanted the material). It took 15 more years for coats and ties to go, but never again was the figure of the dandy held up as an ideal. When it was discovered that the Nazis used the concept of useless physical work as a form of punishment, it must have come as a shock to those who still defended the idea. Certainly, in my case, such punishment was counterproductive. I was well into college before I could look at a dictionary with anything but loathing, and only later in life did I come to understand that jogging could be thought of as exercise.

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