House Mastering Recollected in Tranquility
“But that was in another country, and beside the mensch is dead.”
It has been a sixth of a century since I was housemaster at Senior House. Times change and so does house mastering. This is a reminiscence of what it was like then.
The day after we moved in I received a visit from the president of the house. I offered him a cup of tea. He declined. He wanted to get straight to business. He told me that my job as housemaster was to stay in the apartment, enjoy its appointments, and whenever the house needed my help in protecting it from the great Satan across the street – that was the Institute – he would let me know. I told him that I would try in every instance to be fair. He looked at me as if I were an exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
The second week I gave a picnic for the students, a social at which the students in the house might get to know one another (and me) better. It was held in the courtyard, a friendly, leafy area comfortably enclosed by the house itself and the walls that surround the Gray House garden. At one point two young men came up to me. I asked them about a course I knew they were both taking. The conversation went something like this:
First student: I think it’s a great course, one of the best I’ve had so far.
Second student: I think it’s a lousy course, the worst yet.
First student: Well, you’re an ***hole.
Second student: F*** you.
They stalked off, leaving me with two unclaimed hot dogs.
Life as housemaster often demanded that you make split-second decisions on matters of life, death, or serious injury. In this instance I ate one of the hot dogs and gave the second to a passing student.
There were other occasions that tested my mettle. I recall one evening when I received an urgent summons from a student in Runkle, one of the house’s vertical living divisions. The student said that I had to come over right away, that his girlfriend kept passing out.
When I got to the room, sure enough she was lying unconscious on the floor.
“She was O.K. a minute ago,” he pleaded.
I picked up the telephone and called the emergency number for Medical. I told them the situation and asked them to send an ambulance immediately.
“Is the student conscious now?” the nurse asked.
“Yes,” I said. She had, indeed, opened her eyes.
“In that case we can’t send an ambulance. You’ll have to walk her over.”
“Got it,” I said.
I hung up.
She passed out.
I punched redial.
“She’s unconscious again,” I said. “Can you get an ambulance over here right away?”
Just then she sat up.
“Never mind,” I said.
I remember this event not only because of the oddity of a young woman passing in and out of consciousness (in the end she stayed awake long enough for me to walk her the one block to Medical), but because of her boyfriend. He seemed conflicted, as if having a girlfriend who exhibited such behavior was both a privilege and a problem.
About a year after this incident a man came to my door, flashed an official looking badge and told me that the boyfriend had applied for a sensitive job and he needed to ask me some questions.
After a few perfunctory ones relating to the student’s study habits and ability to work with others, he asked, “Would you trust him with atomic weapons?”
“Absolutely not,” I blurted out.
The agent’s eyebrows shot up.
“I wouldn’t trust anyone with atomic weapons.”
Like I said, housemasters have to be fast on their feet.
I was housemaster during the heavy drug use days. There were always people hanging about in the shadows of the trees on Memorial Drive, especially during parties. One could never be sure if they were plainclothesmen or drug dealers. One dealt with it as best one could. I remember one incident, a student disappearance. The grapevine had it that this student was dealing drugs in the house and that he had somehow come into conflict with his supplier. One winter weekend he went north with some friends to Mt. Washington and during a trail hike to the top, peeled off on his own. He was never heard from again. Search parties went looking for him and were subsequently called off. People were sure he had frozen to death. During the winter of his disappearance I received a call from Medical informing me that a frozen corpse had been found up a tree on the mountain. The authorities said the unfortunate hiker had climbed the tree to get his bearing. He froze to death in the process. I was certain it wasn’t our student. I was sure he had staged his own disappearance. His body was never found and to the best of my knowledge that is still true.
The student’s disappearance was well within the spirit of the house’s motto; namely, “Sport Death.” It appears most frequently on a banner at Senior House’s annual steer roast.
On the banner is a death’s head, decorated in the colors of the American flag and with “Sport Death” painted in broad white strokes. I remember asking the students where the motto came from and being told that it was in memory of a Senior House student who had gone skydiving one weekend with several of his fellows. His chute didn’t open and he plummeted to his death. The next day his undeterred colleagues were up in the air and skydiving to beat the band. That was “Sport Death,” thumbing one’s nose in the face of extremity.
I was suspicious. The story sounded like a tribal myth. I went to the Dean’s Office and asked for the names of all students who had been killed in a skydiving incident in the last 50 years. Not surprisingly there was none. Armed with this information I returned to Senior House and, when the time seemed appropriate, I laid it on the table. I might as well have told five year olds there was no Santa Claus. That was when I learned that science’s relentless search for the unvarnished truth stopped at our living group door.
Every year the President of MIT – then it was Paul Gray – gave a tea in the president’s garden for the parents of incoming freshmen. A high stonewall separated the garden from the dormitory. Only it wasn’t high enough. Each year several students dressed up as figures in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, scaled the wall and mingled with the parents. The idea was to snarf free food, embarrass the President, and epater le bourgeois. A trifecta. Of course, it fell to me to deal with it. I am sorry to say that the best I could do was to mingle with the parents as well and, whenever I saw a particularly uncomfortable parent, I would intervene and explain that the students were rehearsing for a play.
Several of my friends are housemasters. They have sought these positions. They have even asked my advice when it comes to the day-to-day management of things. I often see them in the corridors these days. I notice that there are no dark patches under their eyes, no telltale stoop of the shoulders, no desperate look as if they were being hunted. Some-thing has changed. Maybe it’s the times. Maybe it’s me.