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« In Which This Can't Be Happening At Macdonald Hall »

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As children my brothers and I attended a Jewish day school. The flavor was a loose mix of denominations, prayer preceded graham cracker snack time, and the basketball team, called Judah and the Maccabees, always beat our Orthodox school rivals, who had to pause and bless their yarmulkes when they fell off during the course of a game. On Fridays we had an assembly called Shabbat Sing, where we sang the Israeli national anthem before adjourning to our classrooms to bless Dixie cups of Manischewitz grape juice.

This all took place in the not overwhelmingly Jewish state of Wisconsin, although where precisely we lived was hard to say, since we commuted between our parents’ two houses, duplexes located on opposite sides of the Milwaukee River. We had a library card for each side of the divide, separate Blockbuster memberships, different breakfast cereals. Children of divorce learn to manufacture their own forms of certainty, and for me that lay in the books I put in the black back-and-forth bag, the alternate universes to which I could depart upon demand. For years, the book I carted with me from one side of the river to the other was Gordon Korman’s This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, the first in a series set, in the way I like my books, somewhere thrillingly just beyond the world I lived in:

Kids love books about boarding school. Before you know anything about class, before you encounter the circles in which examining one’s privilege is the highest form of recreation, boarding school above all represents a world without parents and who wouldn’t want, for at least a little while, to reside in one of those? With the every-other-Wednesday and every-other-weekend custody schedule we were on, my brothers and I spent more time with parents on the brain than our single-home friends, whose parents were mere figures in the background, not acting in careful accordance with a legal mandate. Free of all that — and of daily recitations of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I found, even for its subject matter, excessively depressing — Macdonald Hall sounded great to me.

Bruno and Boots occupied a world wholly unlike mine, one of flagpoles, panty raids, practical jokes, dish duty. They had a headmaster and a Nurse Hildegard and morning calisthenics. The girls shriek, the boys shrug, and everyone strolls around the picturesque grounds, up to no good and very little actual schoolwork. The characters fit into molds that you don’t yet, as a child, know to identify as archetypes, and therefore can find comforting rather than cliché. There's Elmer Drimsdale (science nerd), George Wexford-Smyth III (rich hypochondriac), Wilbur Hackenschleimer (voracious eater), and Sydney Rampulsky (the clumsy one). No one is truly loathsome, everyone has at their core something that redeems them, which is how it should be in children’s books and—perhaps it’s the years of Yom Kippur atoning that leads me to this conclusion—also in life.

Macdonald Hall’s occupants are endlessly exonerated for their pranks and mistakes, and within my sibling structure I, too, was taught that pardons were not so hard to come by. With my brothers, cruel words could eventually be unsaid without apology, and it was a long time before I learned that this was not how things worked outside of our trio, that with other people in your orbit the damage cannot so easily be undone. But the flipside of a bond tight enough that forgiveness remained unspoken was the thrill of our assembly, what Tolstoy calls “the exceptional feeling that life was possible only in each other’s presence.” When you read about Bruno and Boots, you imagine this is how they also feel, the warmth of their mutual pleasure emanating off the page. 
The origins of Bruno, who spearheads the pranks, and Boots, who reluctantly goes along with them, remain a source of mystery in the first book in the series (Boots’ brother arrives in a much later book: “Were we ever that young?” Bruno asks, hilariously in the manner of Joan Didion). Kids mired in the building of their own roots — even kids who spend an hour a day in Judaica class, studying their ancestry — don’t wonder about backgrounds in the way adults do; it is not the way in which they choose to seek order. When you’re older, everything must have its source. Someone who acts out comes from a troubled home, or is seeking the attention they didn’t get when they needed it. Now, in reality, Bruno and Boots would be fuckup kids whose parents could afford to send them away, the ones we'd alternately pity and roll our eyes at in college. But then they embodied all my unrealized fantasies of childhood, a kind of boundless energy dispensed without care — something that, amid the car rides back and forth across the river and the various anxieties that accompanied them, I never seemed to possess.

Bruno and Boots were nothing like my brothers, who had their select rebellions but not much in the way of innocent mischief — innocent mischief being something that doesn’t really exist in life, where there tend to be greater casualties than in fiction. My brothers now have an adult poise that on occasion surprises even me; it’s difficult to imagine Bruno and Boots eventually acquiring the same, although Bruno would maybe have fit in at Goldman Sachs. But to revisit Macdonald Hall now is to remember vividly a time at which two slightly older, amusing, and often frustrating boys were the center of my world off the page, too: the ones who whispered consolations to me when I couldn’t sleep at night, shared the books we hid inside our siddurs at synagogue, and taught me through example and instruction, in a way more profound than any religion could, how to be and not to be.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Iowa City. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Brighton Beach. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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Reader Comments (1)

My escapist boarding school series was Riding Academy by Alison Hart. It also features character archetypes (the rich one, the wild one, the shy one, the clumsy one), who are, of course, the best of friends. Also, not only do they not have their parents around, but they get to ride horses every single day (again, escapist entertainment).

It's interesting how many children's books contain these archetypes (though not only children's books, of course) -- it seems to encourage the sort of "Which one are you?" questioning that provides a sorting system in which to define pre-teen identity.
August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAbby

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