The Club from Hell
Chapter SEVEN, by Rob Dinerman
As for Sam, Steve had seemed to take a special interest in him, which no one had done during those growing-up years when his more charismatic twin sister had enjoyed most of the spotlight. With her good looks, prepossessing natural talents (on the squash court and in the classroom) and flair for the dramatic, Jessica was always getting most of the attention, while Sam had lingered (not always as contentedly as he let on) in her shadow. Steve had seen a potential in Sam that no one else, including his parents, had ever noticed, and some of those overlooked qualities had steadily emerged under Steve’s encouragement and prodding.
As winter turned to spring, Steve became more and more convinced that, although Sam was improving in his schoolwork and his game, he would benefit from a more disciplined and structured environment, and that a prep school in New England, the Ault Academy in northern Massachusetts, with its rigorous academic standards and emphasis on athletics and citizenship, would be exactly what Sam needed. Under normal circumstances, a late-May application for the following academic year would be far too late, December 1st being the deadline date to apply, with acceptances mailed out by mid-March. But one of Steve’s squash teammates at Harvard, an Ault Academy alum, was now a member of his prep-school alma mater’s Board Of Trustees, and Steve, who had swung several lucrative business deals that had made his friend a ton of money, was (with Jill’s somewhat reluctant blessing) readily able to persuade the fellow to pull some strings and secure a spot for Sam in the lower-year (i.e. 10th grade) class.
It had not been an easy transition at first, and Sam in his early letters and emails home frequently complained of how demanding an environment he had brusquely been thrown into. As one of maybe 50 new lowers joining 100 or so classmates who during their ninth-grade year at Ault had already firmly established their own pecking order, Sam and the others who entered in 10th grade were regarded by the returnees as interlopers, impostors, indeed almost INVADERS eager to usurp the top spots on a totem pole that had been meticulously constructed throughout the course of the prior school year. Plus Sam and the roommate he had been assigned to in Webster Hall dormitory (a snobbish fellow 10th-grader from an elite private-school in Connecticut who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and acted the part) had gotten off to a bad start right off the bat, arguing unnecessarily on the first afternoon of registration who should have the larger of the two rooms comprising Webster 15. The roommate along with his parents had arrived in the room about 20 minutes before Sam, just enough time for them to have plopped down their suitcases in the bigger room.
It wasn’t being consigned to the smaller room in back that had bothered Sam, but rather the attitude of the roommate, who clearly felt that he DESERVED the larger area, and the relationship had deteriorated from there, to the point where by early fall it had become clear that Sam and his roommate would never become chummy, that, without there ever having been a blow-out argument, there were just enough small resentments, a look here, an offhand remark or smirking putdown or overheard comment there, to cause the two to be doomed to spend the entire year circling around each other like wary cats who would have preferred not to share the same owner but had accepted their situation and divided up the turf more or less to both parties’ mutual if grudging satisfaction. Indeed, Sam had privately gotten quite a bit of pleasure at his roommate’s pratfall one afternoon during a home football game.
Sam had no idea how American football was played, but everyone on campus had been talking with such anticipation that October Saturday morning about the upcoming contest with one of Ault’s main prep-school rivals that he had felt compelled to walk the half-mile to the small stadium on the far end of campus to see what all the excitement was about. He found it difficult to understand the game but had no difficulty understanding what happened to his roommate, who played trombone (and bragged about it) in the Academy’s marching band, which was performing at halftime, all precision and straight lines and carefully detailed patterns — that is, until suddenly the perfection was marred by a trombone lying clearly out of place on the grass for several seconds before it was frantically scooped up by its errant owner, Sam’s roommate, as Sam cackled with ungenerous but undeniable glee.
Beyond these diplomatic interpersonal issues, coping with the sheer volume and pace of the school work had been the most challenging aspect of all for Sam, who had always thought of himself as being a competent student, a complacent self-impression that within weeks – really within the first several days of the FIRST week — had been severely jarred by the reality of the Ault curriculum. Keeping up with the course load required intense between-classes study (teachers each assigned several hours of homework from one session to the next, serene in what to them was the comforting two-part view that, 1, Ault wasn’t for everybody, and, 2, there were plenty of high schools who would gladly absorb an Ault casualty) and class sessions were conducted according to the extraordinarily innovative but equally double-edged Bowditch Plan. A rich alum of that name nearly a century ago had purchased oval and circular tables for the classrooms in every discipline but the sciences; students (usually 12 to 14 per class, a remarkably low teacher to student ratio) would sit not at individual desks but in chairs arrayed around those tables facing each other, with the teacher either also sitting at the table or, more rarely, illustrating a point at the blackboard, the operative theory being that a more free-ranging and spontaneous classroom exchange would result from this novel format.
Rather than having to raise their hands to participate, students would interact in the discussion of a topic or the solving of a problem much in the manner of friends gathered around a dinner table, with the teacher giving his charges relatively free rein while still making sure that the conversation did not go totally off course. One thing for sure about the Bowditch Plan, as Sam had discovered first-hand and in chastening fashion by mid-September — whereas in the “regular” classroom structure if you hadn’t done your homework, you might get away with sitting at the back of the room behind a large student to avoid being called upon (Sam had occasionally pulled this off in grade school), at Ault there was absolutely no place to hide, or for that matter to hide the fact that you weren’t prepared. Just as someone’s non-participation at a dinner table discussion is often swiftly noted by his/her table-mates, usually with some discomfiture and concern, similarly no one could come to those oval/circular tables unprepared and realistically expect to get through the first TEN MINUTES of the fifty-minute session, much less the entire class, without everyone in the room becoming aware of his silence, and its implications. If for no other reason than to avoid being embarrassed at being exposed (and not only silence, but also body language, could be counted on to give an errant student away), Sam resolved early on to never come to class without having done his homework.
Jill, who had had her doubts (as had Sam) about the wisdom of sending Sam across the ocean to Ault in the first place before both of them had, albeit with some misgivings, yielded to Steve’s judgment, was concerned by her son’s grousing communications (which included an occasional phone call) home, but Steve saw them as confirmation of the decision to enroll Sam at Ault. The kind of hands-on prodding that the setting there provided – indeed imposed — upon its students was exactly what Steve accurately perceived Sam needed to emerge from the shadow of his sister and reach his potential. And indeed as the autumn months moved along, Sam came to realize that Steve had been right and that, slowly but surely, he was growing into this new environment, propelled by its demands and the excellence of many of his classmates to a higher standard than he ever would have attained had he remained in his particular school system in England.
He fed off the quiet energy that permeated the leafy campus, and when he ascended the marble steps of the Academy Building six mornings a week (yes, there were Saturday classes through the morning) and read the Latin engraving above the doorway “Huc Venite Pueri Ut Viri Sitis” (“Come here as boys that you can become men”) — founded in the mid-1700’s as an all-boys school, Ault had been co-ed for nearly 50 years, yet the engraving had never been adjusted — it was with a sense of excitement and anticipation that he had never experienced prior to coming to Ault.
Sam had to admit as well that the change of scenery had done him a world of good, representing as it did a needed escape from the multi-front troubles that had engulfed his family ever since the fatal incident at the Vale Squash Club, his sister’s still unexplained and unsolved disappearance, and the legal quagmire and his father’s overdose that had ensued. Thankfully one of John’s closest friends, Malcolm Pearson, the one who had placed the phone call right before John had swallowed his pile of pills and a person whose ability to think coolly under stressful circumstances had bailed him out several times in the past as well, had gotten the medics to him in time to save his life; John had spent all these interceding months in a psychiatric facility, receiving treatment, counseling and therapy for his emotional wounds, with no clear-cut timetable for his release.
In a way it was just as well that Sam was of necessity fully immersed in his activities in this new school, so distant in miles and mood from the worries that had been dragging himself and his mother down back at home. Reference was often made to the “Ault bubble,” and in fact the place did function as a world of its own, almost an oasis (albeit an extremely demanding one) from the outside world, and the challenges of whatever came next, the next paper, the next exam, the next athletic event (all students were required to choose a sport for the fall, winter and spring, with practice every weekday afternoon and players assigned to varsity, JV and club teams) were enough to commandeer all of Sam’s focus, energy and attention.
All, that is, except for the quiet moments of reflection that occasionally surfaced amid the hubbub, maybe in his dorm room after he had finished a reading assignment, or between classes as he headed on the pathway from one building to another, the buzz of his fellow students around him, when Sam suddenly found himself wondering what had happened to Jessica, if she was okay and indeed, if she was still alive. Sam respected his sister for her drive, her passion (even when it caused her to lose her temper) and the aggressive way she confronted challenges, whether on court or off, and he clung to a belief that somehow she could, and would, find her way out of any predicament that befell her. Still, it had been well over a year and to this point even the investigator Steve had summoned, as noted, had been unable to come up with a solid lead to work with.
Of course one of the times Sam thought of his sister was when the squash season began shortly before Thanksgiving recess. Even though ice hockey was the “glory” sport at New England prep schools during the winter months (neighborhood kids as young as four or five years old were already skating on double-bladed skates on patches of ice in their back yards), with basketball a somewhat close second, still Ault had an amazing squash facility as well, 10 glass back wall courts, two of them exhibition courts with seating capacity of several hundred, within the confines of the cavernous gymnasium. As a newcomer to the program, Sam had initially been inserted at the bottom of the ladder (to play in interscholastic meets as a member of Ault’s varsity one had to be in the top seven, with Nos. 8 through 14 comprising the JV) but by mid-December, aided substantially by the lessons Steve had given him and others Steve had arranged with some of the better teaching pros (which had improved the power and placement of his drives, added sharpness to his front-court game and increased his confidence in his volley as well), Steve had steadily progressed to No. 5.
He had capped off this climb with an uplifting breakthrough win against an upperclassman who had beaten him handily (and partly by psyching him out) the first time they played. In the rematch several weeks later, Sam, refusing to be distracted by any of his opponent’s mind games, had arm-fought his way through a pivotal 12-10 tiebreaker in the third to go up two games to one and won the fourth going away 11-3 with an exhilarating sprint to the tape as his demoralized foe essentially conceded the last few points, too far behind to have a realistic chance to catch up and too depressed to try. The fifth position might be the highest that Sam could hope to attain that season — the No. 1 player had learned the game as a youngster in the elite program in Malaysia and the No. 2 had represented the USA the previous summer in the World Junior Championships in Toronto— but all four players ahead of him were upperclassmen, which meant that Sam would move up as the players above him graduated and therefore was well positioned to become captain-elect at the end of his 11th-grade season and to eventually inherit the No. 1 position if he held his spot in the lineup.
Sam’s win had come on a day that fell smack in the middle of what was dubbed “Holy Week,” when many of the final exams for the fall semester would be administered and the final papers and presentations were due. He had spent only a little time that evening savoring his squash result — he had an important Latin exam scheduled for the following morning and therefore after dinner he devoted several hours to reading the speeches by Cicero that the class had been studying. Mr. Easton, well into his 60’s and nearing retirement, was “old school” in more ways than one and throughout the semester he had shown a knack for plumbing any passages in the text that Sam had not attended to.
Still, by 10:25 that night, just a few minutes before lights-out for everyone but seniors, Sam relaxed back in his chair (to the extent one COULD relax on the Academy chairs, which were made of hard wood with no cushioning), confident that he was ready for whatever Mr. Easton threw at him. He couldn’t think of a day that whole semester that had gone better; in just 10 days he would be flying back home for the Christmas holidays, thanking Steve for the changes he had made in all their lives and basking in the glow of a triumphant first term at Ault.
The knock on his door surprised him – it wasn’t 10:30 yet and besides, the dorm faculty members were being lenient with the lights-out edict that week, aware that their charges needed to get that extra little bit of studying in with it being Holy Week and all. When Sam opened the door, a fellow student, who lived two stories below him on Webster’s ground floor, was there, telling Sam that someone had called the dorm’s common phone asking to speak to him. Sam hurried downstairs, a kind of nervous chill coursing through him, and when he picked up, the voice on the other end of the line was so familiar to him that he sometimes felt he must have heard it even when they were both in Jill’s womb.
“Sammy, it’s me!”
There was only one person in the world who called him by that name.
“I’m in New York — you’ve GOT to help me!” Then a gasp, sounds of a struggle, and the line went dead, leaving Sam holding the phone, KNOWING he had to do something to come to the aid of his twin sister, who for once was the one needing HIM (it had always been the other way around).
Next Up: Chapter EIGHT by John Branston