A new school year is upon us, with all the annual rituals that accompany it: friends to be made, rooms decorated, class schedules to figure out. An essential opening-of-school tradition is our attempt to instill into all our students’ consciousnesses the concept of “A Certain Minimally Consistent Standard of Behavior,” also known as “The Rules.” Yes, friends, this is when Alma Mater actually asserts her rights in loco parentis.
When I began to compile this essay, it occurred to me that it was a great topic for alumni input. A brief and wildly unscientific sampling of Facebook friends elicited many responses, some of which are reproduced here. But Amy Goodwillie Lipkin ’77 noted, “what I thought was ridiculous in my mind as a 16-year-old, I may not see as ridiculous now as an adult.” It’s a good point, one with which most parents or deans, if not every teenager, might concur. On the other hand, alumni recollections suggest that sometimes, even after many years, passions, or at least the memories of outrage, run high. It is also a reminder of the essential conflict between common sense and regulatory detail. Even today, the idea of having, say, a simple conceptual dress code of “neat, clean, and appropriate” is utterly impractical in a community of approximately 700 students and adults, who will voice as many opinions over exactly what that means.
So instead, we parse details. It has always been so — even though any student worthy of the name is capable of meeting every letter of the dress code while still looking like he was run over while returning from a hobo convention. And students are masters of false logic. Some years ago I was attempting to explain the inappropriateness of the library as a venue for overenthusiastic affection. I was told, “But we aren’t allowed to use our rooms.”
The earliest surviving compendium of school rules dates from the late 19th century, with the rise of printed student handbooks. But there is no question that from the 1840s forward, there were regulations, and lots of them. In 1856 newly-arrived student Abner Austin wrote a friend back home, “We have just heard the rules in black and white and we might as well die as to not mind.” And as early as 1846, students published a wicked parody of the Annual Catalogue. The real Catalogue did not include a list of rules, but by definition, the parody must have mimicked something the students recognized. Some excerpts:
“When the bell rings for study in the evening, all the Students are required to retire, without delay, to their respectable rooms for study, and are not allowed to leave them without permission of the Teacher on guard in the halls.” (We actually still have this rule, or something very similar.)
“Students are not commanded to attend Divine Service on the Sabbath, the eloquence of the preacher alone being sufficient to draw them for miles around. But they are commanded not to sleep in meeting if they snore, lest they wake up the natives.”
“It is not expected that any of the Students enter into the marriage relation during the term, without first insulting the Principal.”
Here follows a sampling of school commandments over the decades. It’s not comprehensive; reading a century’s accumulation of good ideas from the Dean’s Office had, in all honesty, limited appeal. And in fact the 1950s and early 60s were an especially rich source of regulatory oddities. We have left recent decades alone, so not to appear to subvert the efforts of current or recent administrations, of which, after all, this writer is an enthusiastic member.
A couple of additional observations: first, that many detailed rules never made it into print, although our alumni survey suggests they are clearly fresh in the minds of many graduates. Notwithstanding that, it is a fact that throughout history, student handbooks have never gotten shorter. They are constantly revised. This is, of course, a credit to our students’ creativity and their stubborn literalism. Or put differently, having in one year mandated jackets and ties, in subsequent years it inevitably became necessary to specify shirts and trousers.
“Each boy is responsible daily for the care and appearance of his room and for an assigned job in the school. Immediately after breakfast each boy makes his bed, puts away his clothes, dusts and sweeps his room, and waits for his Student Council member to inspect it. Then he begins his work job.” – Williston Academy, 1950s-60s.
“You are expected to be gentlemanly at all times. The boy with a cheerful, cooperative spirit gets the most out of boarding school life.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“Each student is permitted one 60-watt incandescent, or one 40-watt fluorescent light, and one 100-watt bridge lamp. A charge will be made for extra wattage. Radios are not permitted except for Senior Council members, but Victrolas are allowed unless the boy is below “C” Group or on “General Warning.” No electrical equipment is allowed except razors and clocks.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“No electrical equipment is allowed except razors, record players, clocks, and radios.” – WA, late 1960s.
“The School does not desire that students be visited by unchaperoned girls.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“Students are forbidden to meet boys at any place not on the campus.” – NSG, 1950s.
“A code of good grooming will be enforced. This precludes mustaches, beards, and lengthy sideburns.” – WA, late 1960s.
“We have no time to read any magazines not on the approved list. Trashy magazines, books, pictures, or music will be confiscated.” – NSG, 1940s & 50s.
“The area behind the Main Street Campus . . . which is not cleared and any property across the Manhan River is closed to students at all times and any person in those areas is trespassing. No student is permitted below the top of the hill after dark.” – Williston Northampton, 1980s.
“Bermuda type shorts may be used after Daylight Savings Time has begun in the spring term provided they are accompanied by knee-length stockings, jackets, and ties. They may not be worn off campus.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“Long coats must be worn over gym tunics and over Bermudas when going from building to building.” – NSG, early 1960s.
“In general parents are notified in writing by the Headmaster’s wife if a boy is to spend more than two nights in the Infirmary. Telephoning parents is not necessary and is discouraged.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“No observances, however minute, that tend to spare the feelings of others can be classed under the heading of trivialities.” – NSG, 1969, reprinted in WNS, 1971-72.
“With the exception of the waiter, no one begins eating until all have been served.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“No girl may keep more than ½ pound of candy in her room.” – NSG, early 1960s.
“All members of an athletic squad go neatly dressed to tea after the game for our visitors and stay with them until our guests must leave.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“Sunday papers may be ordered at the office. No purchases are made on our way to and from church.” – NSG, 1940s.
“Memorial Dormitory boys may smoke immediately after the noon and evening meals only, at the extreme east end of the pond near the spillway. Ford Hall boys may smoke only in their rooms. No Memorial Dorm boy may smoke in Ford Hall.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“Students may not smoke on campus or in the Town of Easthampton.” – WA, late 1960s.
“Smoking is permitted in the Ford Hall Waiting Rooms during meal hours and one half hour after the dining room closes. Students may also smoke in specially designated areas on the campus grounds.” – WNS, 1971-72.
“Smoking or chewing tobacco is forbidden at Williston Northampton. Students may not smoke on or off campus in Easthampton.” – WNS, 1987-88.
“Eating on the street or chewing gum is a breach of good manners.” – NSG, 1930s & 40s.
“Laundry washed in the dormitory bathrooms must be removed by 8:30 A.M. or it will be confiscated.” – NSG, early 1960s.
“Tuxedos are required only for the spring prom and by members of the Glee Club for concerts.” – WA, 1950s-60s.
“Remain seated after morning Chapel exercises until the Seniors have passed out.” – Williston Seminary, 1898.