Written by Rick Archer
- ST. JOHN'S
Following World War II,
several wealthy benefactors in the River Oaks area decided Houston
would benefit from a fine college preparatory school.
Following the grand tradition of Eastern prep schools such as Exeter,
Andover, Brooks and Groton, St. John's was
established in 1946.
St. John's definitely earned its elite
reputation. The Puritan ethic -
work, study, get ahead - was pervasive throughout the school. St. John's
stressed the importance of 'education' and 'achievement'. I
completely bought into the school's purpose. I was certain SJS would help gain
admittance to the college of my choice and prepare me to excel once
I got there. Getting into college became a nine-year obsession.
This is how I planned to escape my miserable home.
The stated purpose of
St John's was to prepare its students for college. The founders were successful in their mission. I was
once told that only four students in 22 years had
failed to go directly to college after graduation. Given the
caliber of students at this school and the wealth involved, I always
wondered how even four students had missed.
Then came the day when I
suddenly realized I was in serious danger of becoming the fifth not
to go to college. Talk abut panic! We will get to that
Over time, St. John's developed a reputation as the strongest academic school in the city.
During my nine years of attendance, I became firmly convinced my
deserved its lofty academic reputation. I received a
magnificent education. However, St. John's was much more to me
than just a school. St. John's was my sanctuary and
the absolute center of my life for nine years. Trust me, my
teachers went way beyond the call of duty. The Latin
term 'in loco parentis' refers to teachers who are
responsible for children in the place of a parent. Thanks to
St. John's, I took plenty of Latin. I preferred to say
the meaning was 'in place of loco parents.'
Randolph, my Latin teacher, liked that joke. She was one of
the teachers who were very kind to me. One morning I stayed
behind to ask her a question. Someone opened the door and
announced President Kennedy had just been shot and was probably
dead. Mrs. Randolph and I
immediately looked at each other in shock.
We were instantly grief-stricken. Mrs. Randolph took one step
forward and collapsed in my arms. She was in so much pain she
would have fallen I had let go. That is how weak she was.
The two of us
cried in each other arms for the longest time. It was a sad
moment, but it was also a very touching moment for her to trust me
There were four teachers
who took me under their wing. Mrs. Randolph was one. Mr.
Powell was the teacher who encouraged me to write. Mr. Curran
and Mr. Weems took a personal interest in me. I visited their
homes on several occasions and poured out my soul.
I would have to say the teachers at
St. John's were the major reason why I didn't turn into a sociopath.
These were the people who saved me from my miserable childhood.
Considering I probably caused the Administration
more grief than any other student in the entire school, it is ironic that
so many people worked so hard to guide me with nothing but aggravation to show for
To this day, I am still amazed
at the lengths my teachers went to keep me on the path.
I owe my teachers and the people who ran St.
John's School quite a debt.
Although St. John's was
the main reason I made it to adulthood intact, it is with regret
that I have to say my tenure turned out to be a double-edged sword. While on the one hand St.
John's was the great blessing of my childhood, my time spent at this school would cause me unbelievable
amounts of pain.
The St. John's Mother's Guild
Having a child at St.
John's bestowed a special honor to their mothers. It gave them
entry into an exclusive club
known as the St. John's Mother's
Academically, I was able to hang with the best and
brightest from the start. However, socially, I was
seriously out-classed. Fortunately we were all
required to wear school uniforms. This helped
disguise my lowly status. I was able to get
through my first three years without anyone realizing I
was by far the poorest kid in the entire school.
One of the benefits of
having a child attend St. John's was the chance to rub elbows with
the River Oaks elite on a regular basis. The school made a
point to serve as a daily meeting place. In a manner similar
to the French court of Versailles, it was a definite privilege to associate
with the women who dominated Houston's society columns.
While Houston's men of wealth
pursued their business careers in skyscrapers downtown, women of wealth pursued their social
here at my school. The ladies of Houston's social
elite gathered here at SJS on a regular basis to see and be
Borrowing a tradition
from English and New England prep schools, St. John's served high tea at 1:30 pm every day in the
Commons Room. Not
surprisingly, the mothers of the children who attended
this elite institution enjoyed coming to St. John's on
a frequent basis to network, visit with their friends
and pursue various business projects and charitable
events. St. John's was very good about accommodating them.
Mother's Guild was a group of confident women who helped
guide the fortunes of St. John's behind the scenes.
In particular the Mother's Guild was concerned with the
"Social" side of SJS. These ladies
planned various social
activities for the students.
The activity I remember
best were the dance parties
held at the River Oaks home
of various St. John's students after every home football game. These dance parties were sponsored
by the Mother's Guild and open to all SJS high school students.
I first became aware of the Mother's Guild in the 4th grade during
my first year at the school.
One day early in my
first year I noticed a large group of women wearing
expensive dresses as they congregated near my home classroom. These
ladies were meeting in the Commons Room, a
spacious reception area designed as
a greeting spot for private events.
These ladies were all
chatting and milling about. I was so taken by these
animated women that I stopped to watch.
With their fine clothes, furs, jewelry, perfectly styled hair and
perfect figures, these patrician
women were unusually attractive.
At age 10, I was easily
impressed. I made sure to stop and watch these ladies whenever I
had an extra moment. With my 4th grade
locker situated right next to their meeting area, I had the perfect vantage
point to study these women on a daily basis.
I had never seen wealth displayed like this before. I was from a middle class
home with parents who did not socialize. I had no idea
women who looked like this even existed. Compared to my own
mother who dressed modestly, these women acted like celebrities.
Based on the way they
carried themselves and spoke with such confidence, I concluded these dynamic women must be very
John's was an educational institution, but it was also a
major social hub for Houston's female power players and
social climbers. SJS
understood the importance of catering to these important
women. By making these ladies feel at home here on
the St. John's campus, these women in turn gave the
school their loyalty and support. It was win-win
for all involved.
Room was the key arena. This is where the afternoon social events were held.
It was conveniently located right next to the area where
the St. John's mothers would meet their children when
school ended at 3:30. It made perfect sense for
the mothers to attend an hour of coffee and tea at 1:30
pm to hobnob with friends and acquaintances. That
gave them plenty of time to chat while they waited for
It seemed to
me some of these ladies practically lived in the Commons
Room. I saw the same faces all the time. The
mingle in a lush, carpeted area decorated with wood
paneling, valuable paintings and a fire place.
With plush leather
chairs, comfortable couches, expensive tea sets, and
soft lighting, this was a warm, luxurious setting indeed.
From the moment I attended St. John's, I was unusually curious
about the Mother's Guild. Although I never consciously understood why,
in hindsight the reason is obvious. My issues with my hapless mother
made me overly
curious about the subject of motherhood in general.
could not help but compare these high dominance women with their
perfect posture and regal bearing to my struggling mother and wonder
what kind of mothers they were to their children.
I was ten when I first
developed my fascination with this group of wealthy, polished women.
As a small and quite harmless little boy who was the anonymous child
of God knows who, my invisibility was practically guaranteed.
Therefore I was able to do a lot of watching without anyone
noticing. Or at least I thought they didn't notice. I
guess small kids aren't as smart as they think they are.
Since my 4th and 5th
grade locker was right next to the Commons Room, it
wasn't much trouble for me to keep track of their comings and
Students were given
ten minutes to get to their next class, about eight more minutes
than I needed. With time to kill, whenever I noticed the
group of ladies, invariably I would invest my extra time in
the ladies were laughing; sometimes they were deep in serious
conversation. One thing for sure - they definitely liked
I studied the women on a
regular basis because I was
star-struck. I was drawn to these women due to their trappings of
power. I watched these women for the same reason people once
watched Dallas and Dynasty. These
rich and powerful ladies had an irresistible attraction about them. Unfortunately it did not
take long for me to discover that some of those rich women were also
It was here in the
Commons Room spread over five key years - 4th Grade through 8th
Grade - that I initially developed my resentment of rich people.
I apologize for generalizing... there are many very classy rich
people who send their children to SJS... but the
disdain directed at me was real.
15 years in the future there would
be seven women... I called them the River Oaks Seven...
who would make my life miserable. The River Oaks Seven had
power over me because they reminded me of the frequent rejection I
experienced at the hands of these haughty St. John's women.
Oddly enough, the River Oaks Seven would one day play
a dramatic role in shaping my dance career.
One day in the
4th grade, a lady noticed me watching them. Frowning, she
pointed at me and barked in a harsh voice, "Young man, who
are you? You have
no business being in here. You need to leave right now."
With that she
pointed her finger to the hallway and stomped her foot. As
I left, she glowered darts at me. I was stunned by her
harsh rebuke and quickly became unusually mad at her blunt dismissal.
I was being quiet and I wasn't hurting anyone,
so what gave her
the right to talk to me like that? She wasn't a teacher. If this woman had
asked politely, that would have been one thing, but her rude,
imperious manner upset me. Why was she so mean to me?
I suppose in her
opinion I was invading her privacy. However,
this was a public area and this was my school. I may have
been just some lowly kid, but I had just as much right to be
here as this powerful woman did. Was there some rule against watching?
If so, no one had told me.
That incident was a
turning point. It is important to note I was a
troubled child with anger issues. I was still bitter over
the divorce and as lonely as any boy can be. Yes, St.
John's was the perfect place to challenge me academically, but I was still the same
angry kid who nearly got suspended
from public school due to my constant classroom disruptions.
Given my grouchy state of mind, this woman's bossy attitude rubbed
me the wrong way. On the spot I lost my admiration for
I didn't like these women any more.
In this new light, they seemed phony and preoccupied
with social status. There was something about
their haughty air of superiority that made me feel unwelcome.
Mind you, I did not
this sweeping decision based solely on the rudeness of just one woman.
No doubt many of the ladies were nice, but there was no doubt
that others were definite snobs. I could read their
contempt in the sneers directed at me.
The demand to leave
marked the beginning of the chip on my shoulder that I felt
towards the rich and famous at St. John's. This
was my first realization that I wasn't very important.
way of this event plus several less dramatic incidents over
time, I would conclude I occupied the absolute
lowest rung on the St. John's social ladder.
Without anyone to
reassure me, I began to feel inferior. There was a part of
me that felt like I didn't really belong here.
I faced a huge crisis
at the end of the 6th grade. My father
announced he would no longer pay for my St. John's education. Forced to honor the
terms of the divorce agreement, my father
had paid the first three years of tuition at St. John's
(4th, 5th, 6th grade). However, now that my father was no longer
obligated, he refused to
I was furious. Dad's words to me at the time were
pathetic. He said it was "far more
practical" to put all that tuition into a savings account for
college. Those were some of the most bitter words ever
spoken to me. Since St. John's was the only thing
holding me together, I begged and pleaded with my father to change his mind.
"Dad, I love my
school! I have done really well here. I have never
missed the Honor Roll once. Besides that, St. John's is the only thing
that keeps me from going insane!
Please don't do this to me."
Those words fell upon
deaf ears. Although I practically begged him on my knees, my father
After my father bailed, my mother appealed to St. John's for help.
Mr. Alan Chidsey
helped found St. John's in 1946 and would go on
to serve as Headmaster for twenty years. Mr.
Chidsey did not know much about me, but he took a quick
look at my grades.
Noting that I had been an honor student from the moment I
entered the school three years earlier, he was impressed. My academic record was a real point in
my favor. In the same manner as a
powerhouse football team can
never have enough athletes, St. John's valued its best-performing
students highly. In addition, I had not yet turned into the first-class pain in the ass
that my future held.
Seeing the financial crunch my mother was in,
Mr. Chidsey offered a half scholarship. Well, Mom couldn't pay
that either. But she knew how much the school meant to me, so
she got her brother Dick on the phone.
Mom asked Uncle Dick if he could help. After talking it over
with his wife Lynn, bless their
heart, they said yes. Uncle Dick and Aunt Lynn generously went on to pay
half of my tuition during the 7th
and 8th grade.
on the one hand I claim that St. John's was the
only thing holding me together and then I claim
that St. John's was the source of my feelings of
inferiority. How do I reconcile this
contradiction? The men who
ran St. John's such as Mr. Chidsey were gifted educators, but they
had no way of shielding me from the heartache my inferior social
status would cause me. When I returned for
the 7th grade, I was in for some rough times
at this school.
Social status has its winners and
losers. When it comes to social climbers, we focus
on the glamorous go-getters and forget about the people clinging to the lowest rung.
Trust me, these people do exist.
From my humble perch on the bottom rung, I
spent nine years at St. John's observing the
elegant trappings of wealth - mansions, cars,
expensive clothes, and country clubs.
Add to that the stories I overheard about my classmates'
beach houses, summer camps and amazing vacations,
one can imagine the envy I felt.
little doubt I was the poorest kid in the school.
For the nine years I spent at St. John's, the
disparity between my socioeconomic standing and
that of my classmates was about as wide as the
Although I had been born into a middle class home, that
changed dramatically after the divorce. The
divorce created a terrible seesaw effect. While my
gifted father continued to rise in his
career as an electrical engineer after the divorce, his contribution to my
life was reduced to $100 a month in child support, my
mother hit a terrible tailspin.
Due to my mother's revolving door of
jobs, she really
struggled to cope financially. Mom and I clung to the lowest possible
rung of Middle class. For the most part, we lived
in modest apartments in the Montrose area of town
because this allowed me to ride my bicycle to school. However,
whenever Mom lost a job, invariably we would have to move again.
I had 11 homes in nine years.
St. John's experience was a trade-off. The
quality education I received and the support of
my talented teachers is what kept me going
during my painful childhood.
However, there was a serious price to pay. Socially speaking, I
would have been better off attending the neighborhood public school
where I lived. Instead, I faced daily 'Upstairs-Downstairs'
reminders for nine years.
Like I said, there were times when my envy was
hard to handle. However it wasn't the mansions
that upset me. I was not a
person who was especially interested in material things.
Like anyone else, I wished to be comfortable, but luxury
was not a necessity. What I really wanted was a solid home
and two parents like all my classmates.
There are not enough words to explain just how truly
strange my life space was compared to everyone else at
school. I was the only kid in the school who rode his bike
to school. I was
the only kid who opened the front door in the afternoon wondering
if the lights would turn on. I imagine there weren't many other students who wondered if his only parent would be staying home
that night or leaving to hit the bars. For that
matter I don't imagine too many SJS students awoke to
find strange men in their mother's bedroom on a frequent
basis or were forced to deal with live-in tramps.
My biggest problem had to be the
loneliness. Because I
was an only child, I lacked brothers and sisters to help
me learn how to get along with other people my age.
Because we moved so often, I was unable to make neighborhood
friends. Although seven of our eleven homes
were in the Montrose area, I was never in one of these
homes longer than a year. This explains why my dog
was my only friend after school.
never a chance to make neighborhood friends, that forced
me to rely on St. John's for my social interaction and
education. Surprisingly, that worked
well enough for the first three and a half years.
I did make several friends in my class. Since St.
John's used a mandatory dress code to avoid
distinguishing the rich from the not so rich, my
disguise of white polo shirt and khaki pants worked
liked a charm for my first three years. During the
4th, 5th, and 6th grade, my social status was unknown
and I was one of the pack. Since no one had any
idea just how poor I was, I was occasionally invited to
visit my wealthy classmates at their homes for birthday
parties, Saturday afternoon basketball games and
maybe even the occasional sleepover.
situation changed drastically in the 7th grade thanks
to a terrible mistake.
In the 7th
grade, I joined a boy scout troop affiliated with St.
John's. Several of my SJS classmates were members
as well. That was back in the days when I was
still accepted as an equal. We had a weekend
camping trip way out in the Texas pine forest. It
was freezing cold to begin with and then it began raining heavily
once we arrived. One degree
colder and we would have had snow.
There was no
let up in the downpour, so we had no
choice but to huddle in our tents. I shared a tent
with three other boys. Unfortunately, our tent was
no match for the intense cold that seeped in.
Since my sleeping bag was of low quality, I absolutely could not get warm. At first I
shivered constantly and then I got sick. I became so sick that my body ached all over.
Soon I had a fever and was in real pain.
Now I was scared. I could not remember being this
sick and we had another full day scheduled to be here.
One of my
classmates, Fred, wanted to go home. He wasn't
sick, but he didn't like the cold at all. Somehow
he got word to his parents. How he did it was a
mystery because there was no phone in that isolated
campsite with no buildings. I have to believe Fred
persuaded one of our counselors to drive somewhere to
call. When I found
out someone was coming to pick Fred up, I begged him for
a ride to my apartment. I felt like such a
quitter, but I was afraid whatever I had was too serious
to tough it out. Fred took pity on me and agreed
to help. Thank goodness.
hours later, I was astonished when I saw an enormous
black limousine pull up in the middle of this remote
forest. Out came a uniformed driver who walked
with extreme dignity to the tent to fetch Master Fred.
With an umbrella in one hand and water boots in the
other to help Fred navigate the deep mud puddles, all the boys stared in amazement at the spectacle.
If I hadn't been in so much pain, I might have even
smiled. This was a
scene straight out of a Richie Rich comic book.
There were rumors that Fred was among the richest kids
in school; now I believed it.
I was very sick, so sick that Fred insisted I sit in the
front seat lest he catch whatever I had. I am not
quite sure if Fred realized how the driver might feel
about that insensitive gesture, but I was in no mood to discuss
I was barely
hanging on. After I gave the driver my address, I
quickly fell asleep in the deliciously warm car. I slept the whole way home. The driver woke me
up from my deep sleep when we got there. I was so
weak, it took me a minute just to
get my bearings again. The moment I
became alert, I groaned. Sure enough, my instincts
were correct... I had made a serious mistake.
As the limousine idled
in front of my run-down apartment on Travis in a lower middle class neighborhood, Fred's
eyes bulged at the building I lived in with siding
erosion and peeling paint.
"Dick, do you really live
After I nodded
yes, I died a million deaths when I saw the look on
his face. I instantly hated myself. When I
first got in the car, the driver had asked me for my
address. I was so sick and groggy that I had
forgotten to give a fake address. Ordinarily I
would have asked Fred's
driver to drop me off at one of the nice homes a few
blocks away like I usually did. This was a trick I had
previously used with other
kids from my school when their mothers gave me a ride
once I fell asleep, I was unable to redirect the driver
to another location before it was too late. What a dumb
mistake. As I
staggered out the car door mumbling my gratitude, I noted
Fred's wide-eyed stare of astonishment continued
condition, it was a monumental effort just to climb the
steps. When I finally I made it to the top, I
looked back. To my surprise, the limousine was still there.
Why was Fred still here? At first I wondered
if Fred stuck around because he was worried about my
safety. But then I changed my mind. Fred had
rolled his window down and was gaping at me in
disbelief. Fred's face was covered with the most profound look of
pity I had ever seen directed at me.
It irked me that
Fred was hanging
around. I believed Fred had remained because he wanted to make
absolutely sure this was where I lived before driving
away. Despite my pain, I felt a wave of bitterness come over
me. Did Fred expect rats to run out the front
the Real World, Fred. Yes, some people who go to
St. John's live in run-down apartments with peeling
Fred incident, something changed at school. I felt
like some of the kids began to avoid me.
I had a hunch that Fred had said something. The
timing was unmistakable. I doubt that Fred said
anything to be mean. Fred wasn't that kind of guy.
But whatever he had said had real consequences. I
suddenly felt very alone. If Terry had been my
best friend before, now he seemed like my only friend.
Nothing could explain my sudden isolation other than
Fred's likely whispers. It seemed
suspicious that my invitations to birthday parties
were discontinued. Nor was I invited to spend
Saturday afternoons with classmates at their homes any
more. I couldn't be sure what was going on.
Was this really happening or was it my imagination?
The Fred moment
in the 7th grade marked the
beginning of my alienation at St. John's. Please
understand that my classmates were never deliberately
mean to me. Although I was allowed to observe
my classmates' lives from a respectful distance, I was
no longer included. They were not interested
What hurt was
'knowing about what I was missing.'
St. John's was a small
school. With fifty kids in my class, there were no secrets,
I ate lunch every day next to
my classmates. Since they had no reason to
be guarded around me, they talked openly about what was going on in their
lives. That made it easy to overhear stories about
the recent events I had been left out of.
enjoys watching a birthday party through a window, but
that is how I felt. Maybe four kids met
at the River Oaks Country Club yesterday afternoon to watch a pro
tennis match. Or three boys went to Memorial Country Club
to practice their golf swings. Or six boys and girls got into
a convertible for a weekend
jaunt down to someone's beach house in Galveston. Or there was a big birthday party at someone's mansion for twenty kids.
Or a group of boys and girls were going skiing over spring break.
They never knew I
was listening. I had become the Invisible
Kid. Keep in mind this
was not 'deliberate' meanness. Only
one student in nine years ever displayed open animosity towards
me and he was from a different grade than mine.
As for students in my own grade, I
was never the victim of any snobbery. Okay, there were a couple
liked to needle me about my inferior clothes or
my lack of fashion sense, but I am not even sure
their comments were meant to hurt. It was
just teasing to them and I had a very thin skin.
classmates were cordial to me at all times during school
hours. I do not have an axe to grind with a single
student from my graduation group. However, outside
of class they ignored me... as was their right. It
wasn't their job to worry about my self-esteem issues or
my wish to be included.
It wasn't their job to worry about me.
Every one of my classmates had problems of their own to
worry about without worrying about my problems as well.
I felt increasingly alone at my
was there, but I wasn't there. I
wasn't part of their world any more. By
the end of the 7th Grade, I felt about as
significant as a light fixture. In very small ways, I received subtle messages as to my inferiority.
Slowly over time, these messages about my inferiority
would be implanted in my subconscious that would have
serious consequences later in life. The results
were disastrous to my self-esteem. I grew up
believing I wasn't good enough in many social
A loner by
nature, it required a real effort to make friends to
begin with. The longer I
went to St. John's, the more I became convinced I was
socially inferior to my classmates. To avoid being
reminded of my inferiority, I kept to myself
outside of class.
This self-imposed alienation prevented me from acquiring the
various secrets of popularity. I never discovered
ways to become interesting or the
benefits from learning to listen. I had no idea how to
tell a story or crack a joke. I never learned to dance, I
never learned to tease, nor did I know how to offer encouragement
and pay compliments.
I never acquired the knack of showing interest in other
people or how to approach them. I avoided the
phone like the plague. These
important lessons in friendship went right over my head.
Let me add I was self-centered to a fault. It
never dawned on me these people might be pretty nice if
I gave them a chance. Truly, if I was lonely, it
was my own fault. I simply lacked the confidence
to let down my guard.
place where I felt any pride was my
academics. Even that area bothered me. Here
I was competing with the smartest children in
the city. These kids were not only
brilliant, they had every
advantage one could ever ask for. It became crystal clear to me that I was a huge underdog at
this school in every possible way.
did have one advantage. As my
bitterness grew, I became
determined to out-work every single one of them. Someday I
was going to overcome these problems. I was
determined to prove... first to myself, then to
others... that I was their equal. Someday I wanted
St. John's School to be proud of me.
Cut my eye out
(01), Near Miss with the Stock Car (02)
Divorce, start 4th grade at St. John's,
Mom falls apart, Dad abandons me
inferiority begin to develop vis a vis the Mother's Guild
Dad refuses to send to SJS beyond
6th grade, Granted half-scholarship to SJS
Illness at boy
scout camp leads to invisibility