x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Life at the school that shaped John McCain

Richard Pretorius looks at the boarding school where he, and McCain a generation prior, spent their adolescence.

The US Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain greets supporters as he arrives at a rally in Belton, Missouri on Oct 20 2008.
The US Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain greets supporters as he arrives at a rally in Belton, Missouri on Oct 20 2008.

Much has been made of John McCain's time at the US Naval Academy and how it shaped his life. We know about his ordeal as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But when it comes to what experience he says truly formed his character, he says of his high school English teacher, William Ravenel: "His influence in my life was more important and more benevolent than that of any person outside of my family".

He "was simply the best man at the school", Mr McCain told the audience at his alma mater, Episcopal High School, in Alexandria, Virginia, across the river from Washington, this spring. "I discussed all manner of subjects with him from sports to the short stories of Somerset Maugham, from his combat experience to my future ? Every child should be blessed with a teacher like I had," Mr McCain said.

Episcopal was indeed about life-changing teachers. A generation apart, Mr McCain, class of 1954, and I, class of '77, attended the then all-boys boarding school that was, during Mr McCain's years, a somewhat spartan southern version of Holden Caulfield's Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye. Journalist Ken Ringle, also an Episcopal graduate, described the school during the McCain era as "then-bare-bones, near-military boarding school where boys, many from wealthy families in the south, were sent to be taken down a peg from the country club indulgences at home and toughened into manhood with academic rigour, compulsory team sports, and cold fried eggs for breakfast. It was a bizarre kind of boot camp of the mind and soul. We slept in curtained alcoves on sagging pipe-frame bunks in ageing dormitories light years from the preppy privileges of popular myth."

Twenty-three years later, the school was not so lacking in privileges, resembling a small college campus with all the amenities. It had a field house and American football stadium that were the envy of area sports teams. It was, after all, a short ride from the nation's capital, giving students many cultural and educational opportunities they could not have received anywhere else. Not many 16-year-olds get chances to attend Kennedy Center plays and National Symphony concerts on a frequent basis.

But in the 1970s, Episcopal was still a school filled with traditions: coats and ties to meals, mandatory chapel attendance, first-year students called Rats, who had to wake up the upperclassmen for breakfast and hold the doors for them, among other servile duties. As to be expected, Mr McCain hated being a rat, saying he made "his resentment clear in my usual immature ways to upperclassmen and school officials, piling up demerits and earning the distinction at the end of the year of 'worst rat'".

Seniority was given special status. Those in the graduating class during my years enjoyed privileges ranging from internships off campus to pool playing. The school aimed to be the quintessential we-are-all-in-this-together male bonding experience. Episcopal was also much about honour. The code - I will not lie, I will not cheat, I will not steal, I will report the student who does - is ingrained in one's conscience long after graduation day.

For Mr McCain, that sense of honour helped him survive his ordeal as a prisoner of war. "I learned to appreciate [the honour code] when my own honour was challenged by more serious threats than I ever faced in high school," he said during his spring speech. There are many who might scoff at a politician upholding such high ideals, and Mr McCain has had his own ethical controversies. But what is so deeply ingrained in a youth of 15 serves as a guiding light for a lifetime. You might not always follow, but you do know the right way to go.

"If there is any reason for my success in life, it is because of what I learned at The High School, much of it through the honour code," Mr McCain said. "I learned that character is what you are in the dark ? I have been in the dark, not just in prison but also in my public life, and during those times and throughout my life, the principles of the honour code are the compass that I've tried to follow."

As for his English teacher, Mr Ravenel, the Arizona senator told journalist Robert Timberg that "he was the one guy I wanted to see when I got out of prison ? There wasn't anybody I felt I could talk to about it. I just wanted to see Ravenel. I wanted to tell him that I finally understood there in Hanoi what he had been trying to tell me all those years about life and what it means. I wanted to thank him and apologise for being so stupid."

Mr Ravenel died at age 53 when Mr McCain was still a PoW. Now, as the presidential campaign winds down, it is a telling tribute to teachers everywhere that a person who has endured and succeeded as much as Mr McCain has said simply of his high school mentor: "One of the best men I have ever known". rpretorius@thenational.ae