Sunday, November 1, 2009

Part 16: The Dinner Ritual

"A man seldom thinks with more earnestness
of anything than he does of his dinner"

~ Samuel Johnson

"Bless us O Lord, this food to our use and us to Thy service. Make us ever mindful of the needs of others. Through Christ our Lord, Amen."
~ Brent School Prayer

When I think back to my days at Brent, the images that first come to mind are those in and around the dinning hall; waiting for meals in the rainy season in the student lounge, trying to find a warm spot by the fire, in the dry season we would sit outdoors on the steps. Housed in a large, three story building directly across from the main building (Ogilby Hall), it had originally been built as a dormitory and was called Toddler Hall. As the student population grew it was continuously expanded and enlarged over the next six decades and eventually would be renamed Binsted Hall, after Norman Binsted, a former Episcopal Bishop of the Philippines.

In the 1950's and 1960's, as American involvement in Southeast Asia increased, so did the need for good boarding schools. By the mid 60's the boarding students at Brent numbered over 100 and keeping track of everyone and making sure all students were fed became extremely problematic. Meal-times were a raucous affair, necessitating strict rules.

These rules carried over to later years even as the enrollment dropped.
During the school week, mandatory attendance was required at all meals for the boarding students. Dorm masters would count heads at every meal. While breakfast and especially lunch were more casual affairs, students were allowed to leave after they finished eating, the evening meals were much more structured. At times, when we got too noisy, an order of "silence" was imposed on us. Offenders were issued demerits on the spot.

Suppertime for the boarding students was always special. The sound of the dinner gong clanging to that Kalinga beat sent us scrambling
from all over the campus, soon we would be getting the best meal of the day!

More than that, it was an important daily ritual that made up the social fabric of dorm life. It tied us to the past, to the beginnings of the school. Dinnertime was where we came together to learn about each other. We youngsters listened to the teachers talking politics, we told each other stories about our families. We watched the older students interacting with each other. It was a laboratory, teaching us skills in dealing with the opposite sex.

Just as I had learned how to get to dinner unscathed, over the previous six months I learned my place within the pecking order. There was an undefined Class System for the male boarders and the divisions ran by grade and dorm: At the top were the Seniors in Binsted, then the Juniors and Sophomores in Weiser and finally the Freshmen in the Infirmary. Anything lower that and you really didn't exist on the social register. I was in that lowest group of
untouchables. Although it technically was a first come, first seated affair, tables were segregated along those caste lines, although from time to time some of the cockier kids tried to sneak in to a "cool" table. Transgressors were severely dealt with; they would be unceremoniously dumped from their chairs on to the floor, repeat offenders would be taken out for a cold shower. As for the girls, well they were enigmatic and mysterious, all grades living together in Hamilton Hall. They had rules and a class code of their own that we didn't know anything about.

Sundays were extra special and the biggest and best meal of the week was preceded by mandatory Chapel services. A formal affair, we all turned out smartly dressed, girls looking especially lovely, usually in dresses or sometimes in a pantsuit. Among the boys, those that had them wore sport coats, the rest of us in shirts and ties or Barong Tagalogs. After Chapel we would walk to the dining room, where it would be warm and glowing, candles flickering, white tablecloths and napkins on every table. In those early days there might be a reading from the Bible, or a few words from a visiting Bishop. Then, after any announcements from dorm masters or the assistant headmaster, we would stand for the mealtime prayer, followed by the boys holding out the chairs for the girls, waiting for all the ladies to be seated before we took our seats. Occasionally there might be classical music playing softly in the background from Mr Craig's stereo.

Then there was the food; served in courses, there would be salad, soup, rolls and an entree. A teacher at every table would educate and enforce proper etiquette: napkin upon the lap, which fork to use for the salad, please and thank yous.

Smiling waiters appeared, bearing steaming platters that smelled so heavenly. The kitchen did all the baking for the week that afternoon so the bread was fresh and warm. But for me the highlight of the week was ice cream! The only thing that might have made it perfect would have been a little chocolate syrup for the ice cream. Not an item readily available in sufficient quantities from the local stores to make it a regular part of the kitchen's menu, we had to do without.

One Sunday evening, just as I was about to pass through the Chapel doors, I was collared. St. Nicholas Chapel was
Sanctuary, Hallowed Ground so I was quite surprised to be nabbed right at the threshold. Actually, I was grabbed by the arms on either side, lifted off my feet and carried into Weiser Hall. This was off limits territory for any underclassman, and the only time you were ever allowed inside was when you were having your head flushed in the toilet, you were being given a cold shower, or having your stomach pounded on with spoons. So naturally I was quite terrified when I was deposited in front of Pat Dillon. As Head Inquisitor, the majority of my hazing had been by his hands. But apparently I was not there for sacrificial entertainment but for a business proposition. I was very relieved to not be a victim and looked about excitedly. Pat's room was decked out with psychedelic black light posters and a collection of wooden owls. He ran an after hours canteen, selling soft drinks, chips and American candy to the boarders and the goodies lined his shelves. It was a treat to be allowed into his room and especially so since it did not involve torture.

Pat had determined that to overcome the lack of chocolate syrup we would have to make our own. And we would make it before supper. During Chapel.
Getting caught making contraband during the service was a serious offense, so the person making it would have to be
expendable. Thus, the reason for my presence was explained.

His game plan was simple: at Chapel surround me with the biggest upperclassmen and during the hymns they would sing extra loud whereupon I was to stir like crazy. The trick was to stop stirring when no one was singing. I was given the ingredients and the tools and we proceeded to Chapel.

I quietly added the ingredients to a large beaker and waited for my cue. Then when my conspirators began to sing I stirred furiously. The noise of the spoon sounded awfully loud, but my pew mates just sang all the louder. With the end of the hymn I would rest my weary arm and waited for the next song. A few of the teachers looked over at us suspiciously but they couldn't see that we were doing anything wrong. I'm sure Father Houghton was very gratified by our enthusiastic participation that night. The culmination of all this was some tasty, though still rather lumpy chocolate syrup. The biggest treat for me, however, was being allowed to sit with the upperclassmen (but not the seniors!) during supper that night. I had risen a grade in the pecking order.


  1. Great story about making syrup during chapel!

  2. A lot of visual " action" and suspense in this scene. Glad that you weren't caught making the chocolate! I can see your blog developing into a graphic novel.

  3. I was thinking the same thing this would turn out to be a great novel.

  4. Nice job Mark - It brings back a flood of memories.

    One night we had pot roast. I was at the table with Pat Dillon, Mr. Ginesta (one of the dorm parents), among others. Pat was sitting next to Mr. Ginesta. He leaned forward and made a big show of smelling the scrumptious-looking pot roast. Mr. Ginesta followed suit, and Pat pushed his face into the plate. I think he got in trouble for that. I may have gotten in trouble when I fell over laughing.

  5. Now, 35 years later, I find out what was going on during chapel that evening.