St. John's
Home Up Maria Ballantyne


DESTINY


CHAPTER THREE:
ST. JOHNS

Written by Rick Archer
 

   
 
 


SUBCHAPTER 010
- ST. JOHN'S SCHOOL

 

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 me 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 later. 

 

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 school deserved its lofty academic reputation.  I received a magificent 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.' 

Mrs. 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 like that. 

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 their efforts.  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. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 011
- 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 Guild

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 agendas here at my school.  The ladies of Houston's social elite gathered here at SJS on a regular basis to see and be seen. 

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.

The 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 important.

 
 

 

St. 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.

The Commons 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 their children.

It seemed to me some of these ladies practically lived in the Commons Room.  I saw the same faces all the time.  The ladies would 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.

I 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 goings.  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 observation.  Sometimes the ladies were laughing; sometimes they were deep in serious conversation.  One thing for sure - they definitely liked to talk.

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 serious snobs.

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 this group.  I decided 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 make 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. 

By 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.  

 


SUBCHAPTER 012
- UNDERDOG

 

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 continue. 

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 wouldn't budge.

After my father bailed, my mother appealed to St. John's for help.  Mr. Alan Chidsey had 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.

 

So 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.

 

I have 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 Pacific Ocean. 

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.

My 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.

Since I 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. 

 

However my 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.   

 A few 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 the issue. 

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. 

Fred asked, "Dick, do you really live here??

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 home.  However, 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 unabated.

In my 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 door?  

Welcome to the Real World, Fred.  Yes, some people who go to St. John's live in run-down apartments with peeling paint. 

After the 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 in me.   

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, especially since 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. 

No one 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 boys who 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. 

My 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 school.  I 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 situations. 

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.

The only 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.  

However, I 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.

 


part one: CHILDHOOD

Chapter FOUR:  MARIA BALLANTYNE
 

 

 

   TIMELINE

  1955   Cut my eye out (01), Near Miss with the Stock Car (02)
  1959   Divorce, start 4th grade at St. John's, Mom falls apart, Dad abandons me
  1960   Feelings of inferiority begin to develop vis a vis the Mother's Guild
  1961   Dad refuses to send to SJS beyond 6th grade, Granted half-scholarship to SJS
  1962   Illness at boy scout camp leads to invisibility
  1959-1968   St. John's

 

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