Nichol and I ganged up on Higgins. Sometimes our learning curve away from self is forced on us, if not by God then by God's angels say, by Mr. and Mrs. Parke.
Certain experiences changed my life. Being sent to Great Walstead School in 1962 (a boarding school for boys in Lindfield, Sussex, England) when I was ten was one such experience.
Mr. Parke was the headmaster, and Mrs. Parke was both a teacher and his eagle-eyed helpmeet. She (like her husband) gave "her" boys opportunities that I came to fully appreciate only years later.
In my book Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism) I tell this story. To me it is the story of what Christmas is, or should be. It is also what religion is, or should be about.
We called him "Higginbottom," and it drove him mad. Higgins was about my age and had something wrong with him. He flew into sudden and uncontrollable rages over even petty provocations. The rest of the time he kept to himself. He had no friends.
Higgins was short and stocky and moved like a clumsy bear cub. He had a rather dark complexion, ruddy as if he had spent most of his days outdoors. Higgins would glance up from under a shock of thick, wiry hair falling over deep-set, dark, and brooding eyes just a bit too close together, giving his face a pinched look. When he was upset, his cheeks suddenly flushed crimson, as if Higgins had had a splash of vermilion paint dashed onto his face. Tease him a bit more, and he would put his head down and charge in such a blind, incoherent, roaring fury that his aggression was totally ineffectual, reducing Nichol and me to fits of laughter -- and Higgins to tears.
One night Nichol and I were asleep in our dorm, which happened, that term, to be way up near the water tank in the top of the school, almost in the attic. Mr. Parke woke us up. He told us to follow him.
The other four or five boys in the dorm room watched us put on our dressing gowns and follow the Head. I didn't bother with my slippers. Mr. Parke had already stalked out and I didn't dare delay following him. The others seemed to shrink back into their pillows and stare through eyes wide with curiosity, and not a little morbid pleasure, at someone else's dramatic and highly unusual misfortune.
Mr. Parke was young for a headmaster, handsome, tall, and thin, his thick, wiry salt-and-pepper hair divided by an uneven part into a shaggy mop that bounced as he walked. He had dark eyes that -- from the point of view of a terrified little boy -- seemed piercing. Mr. Parke was wearing a dark green plaid tie, a white shirt, rumpled gray flannel trousers, and a shabby tweed jacket. His golden Labrador retriever Bret pressed against his legs as Mr. Parke walked and always left hair on his trousers.
What on earth could merit this abrupt hauling away in the middle of the night? From time to time during summer term, the Head was known to roust us all out for rollicking midnight swims, but whoever heard of two boys being summoned at this hour? It was winter term. The pool was frozen. And no one could have mistaken Mr. Parke's equally frozen "Schaeffer, Nichol, come to my study -- at once" as an invitation to anything pleasant.
We walked in near darkness, finding our way by the occasional glow from some single low-wattage bulb far down a hallway. We followed Mr. Parke down three flights of narrow, rickety back stairs, out to a landing, then down the wide, grand staircase to the main hall. That was a shock. What could this breach of protocol mean? Expelled? A firing squad?
Striding on legs twice as long as ours, Mr. Parke was far ahead of us. We began to run after him and then remembered the "no running indoors" rule. No point compounding the trouble we were in. We slowed to a panicked fast trot.
We found ourselves in the Head's study, staring at the usual clutter and trying to avoid Mr. Parke's eyes while we stood at attention in front of his big Victorian mahogany desk. It was piled high with papers, open books, letters, and assorted lost and found items: a cricket bat or two, several air rifles, pens and watches, and two swords Mr. Parke had recently confiscated from a boy who had wanted to carry naval cutlasses to class.
"Do you know why you two are here?" Mr. Parke asked.
"No, sir," we replied.
"It came to my attention that you've been bullying Higgins. He didn't sneak on you. You know I have my sources?"
Indeed we did know. There was no point trying to deny anything -- ever. We believed Parke when he said Higgins hadn't told on us. No one ever sneaked, and also we knew that Mr. Parke knew everything!
Adam and Eve were never so naked before a just and angry God as Nichol and I were before Mr. Parke. We stood there praying for the floor to swallow us. He'd used the word bullying. We knew that we stood accused of the worst crime. We were dead men.
"My sources tell me you two have been winding him up. Is this true?"
"Yes, sir," we whispered.
"Very well," Parke said quietly. He looked down at a book, opened it, and began to read.
Mr. Parke didn't look up. Nichol and I shifted uneasily. Then, almost as an afterthought: "Stand outside the study door while I decide your fate."
We stepped into the darkened hall. The only illumination came from Mr. Parke's desk lamp. It cast a long square of dim light through the open door and across the black and white marble tile floor. The rest of the hall was a black void, something that went nicely with the feeling in the pit of my stomach.
We stood silently facing the wall next to the study door -- it was always open -- shivering in our pajamas and dressing gowns, which provided inadequate protection from the frigid air. The tile floor felt like ice below my bare feet. The stale, sour mayonnaise smell of the ubiquitous "salad cream" (all-purpose and awful salad dressing) wafted out of the open door of the staff dining room nearby. The hall clock chimed. We didn't speak but exchanged frozen, despairing glances as the doom-laden minutes dragged past. The half hours came and went as the bell on the school clock struck 10:30, then 11:00, then midnight, then 1:00, then 1:30. Legs were numb. Heartbeats slowed. Then he spoke.
"You may come in now."
Blood pumping, hearts pounding, we were sure that after so long a wait we'd each get 'six of the best,' trousers -- or in this case, pajamas -- down. (Mr. Parke, like all school masters in those days sometimes used corporal punishment.)
"Well?" asked Parke, looking up from his book, "How did you enjoy that?"
"Not very much, sir," we mumbled.
Mr. Parke closed his book with a snap and sat back in his chair. He sighed then nodded slowly before he spoke.
"Now you know how Higgins spends his days. You see, you chaps are happy boys. When you get up in the morning, it isn't with a sense of dread. You're expecting a pleasant day. When Higgins gets up, he's expecting unpleasantness. He knows that chaps like you think it's funny to wind him up, to take advantage of the fact that he loses self-control. Well, for him that is a sort of hell. Would you make fun of him if he were a cripple, Schaeffer?"
His words hit home. No one at the school had ever so much as mentioned my polio and my thin atrophied left leg. This had been a great relief to me, and the shame of my hypocrisy welled up.
"And you, Nichol? Would you fight a boy smaller than yourself, some little chap in First Form?"
"No, sir," Nichol said, and his face flushed. He was powerfully built and tall for his age, a great athlete and one of our best cricket bowlers. The idea of being labeled a big chap who picked on the little chaps was intolerable.
"Well, here's the thing, lads, now you know how Higgins feels not knowing what will happen to him. You've been waiting for several hours not knowing. Not much fun, eh?"
"What do you think I should do to you chaps?"
"Give us a whacking?" Nichol suggested in a shaky voice.
I cast an involuntary glance in the direction of the school safe. Yes, there it was, the dreaded gym shoe surrounded by dust balls and nestled under the old safe. Mr. Parke almost never actually used it, but the idea of that shoe-of-death hovered in all our brains, the final guarantee of order among 183 boys. Any teacher could get our attention by casually saying, "Would you like to explain this to Mr. Parke?" There was ultimate justice waiting for anyone who pushed his luck.
We expected the fateful, "Fetch the gym shoe." But Mr. Parke was saying something else. "You certainly deserve it, but no, I think that wait was enough."
Heartfelt stunned relief: "Thank you, sir!"
Mr. Parke held out a biscuit tin. We each took one of the slightly stale cookies with trembling fingers. We ate them in silence, solemnly.
Then, brightly smiling, his usual friendly self: "I have a job for you two! From now on I want you to provide Higgins with just as many pleasant surprises as you've given him nasty ones. Mercy, gentlemen! Mercy! Take him along. Change his life! I'm holding you two personally accountable. You are to become his secret guardian angels. And he mustn't know. I don't want to find him alone in the library again. I want to see him coming back from the woods with the whole gang, muddy, happy, and bedraggled as you lot!"
"Words are dreadful weapons, aren't they?"
"Never bully anyone again."
"We won't, sir."
Mr. Parke smiled. He held out his hand. We shook. A handshake was a sacred bond between gentlemen, between men like our Head, men we wanted to be like someday, and be liked by. Higgins's life was about to change for the better.
The wisdom and mercy of our headmaster was what I followed, not a theory. He did not try to convert me to a better way. He was the better way. His teaching me didn't depend on my believing what he believed. It depended on his setting an example for me to follow -- an example that cost him a night's sleep. Mr. Parke spoke no grand words. He traveled with two scared little boys a few steps down a path to greater kindness, to empathy, to learning to walk in another's shoes.
Peace on earth.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book (now in paperback, and from which the story reprinted here is taken) is Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism)