I had a delightful conversation recently with a journalist who was interviewing me about my new book, Old Money Style.
I related what I was hoping to achieve with the book–the complete and total extinction of flip-flops, T-shirts, and cargo pants from the planet)–and who the book was written for–young men graduating high school or college, and older men ready to upgrade their look.
Once we’d covered all of the fundamental points, the journalist confided in me that he’d attended boarding school (all boys, at the time). He understood intimately ‘the uniform’ that I discuss in the book, both in theory and in practice. Then he shared a remarkable and memorable (for him and me) moment in his education.
He and his classmates arrived for their first term at school. Shortly, thereafter, his entire freshman class was called to the main hall. They were to be informed of the ‘rules and regulations’ that would inform and moderate their conduct as students. Expecting a monotonous litany of fatiguing ‘do’s and don’t’s’, the freshman class shuffled in, plopped down in their seats, and readied themselves for a dusty rendition of what they could and could not do, what was obligatory and what was prohibited, what was expected and what was not tolerated. Ho hum.
The headmaster approached the podium, cleared his throat, and welcomed the class. He then said, ‘As for our rules and regulations that govern your behavior while you are a student at this institution, let me begin.’
Exhales and rolling of the eyes commenced among the student body. The headmaster continued, ‘You are expected, at all times, to conduct yourselves as gentlemen.’ He then cast a firm eye over the assembly of young men. And left.
Initially baffled, then delighted, the freshman class looked at each other, shrugging and laughing off such a thin, vague edict. Then, a few of the freshman (I suspect the journalist I spoke to was among them) began to realize how restrictive the simple, straightforward commandment was: they would have to conduct themselves, it began…directing the governance of behavior to be the sole responsibility of the student, not the faculty. This, they soon realized, would put the burden of honorable, ethical, moral, and polite behavior squarely on them, collectively and individually.
Furthermore, there was no grace period and no recess. ‘At all times’ was comprehensive, complete, all-encompassing, and immediate. They didn’t get to ease into the concept at the start of their junior year. They didn’t get to be gentlemen only during class, or only when someone was watching. And when they left campus for spring break or summer…? What then? No, ‘at all times’ meant ‘at all times’.
And the term gentlemen…? Everybody knew what a gentleman was (and wasn’t), and what gentlemanly behavior and conduct was (and wasn’t), but why didn’t the headmaster go into more detail? Provide some more definition? Clarify some term or quantify some boundary.
No, the genius of it lay in its conceptual and ephemeral nature: like the water that fish swim in and the wind that carries the birds across the sky, the concept of ‘being a gentleman at all times’ would at once surround and support these unsuspecting freshmen. Moving easily within its currents would become second nature. Rising effortlessly upon its breeze would lift them, and carry them. It would be a constant, unseen, but essential part of their existence.
No fence or wall or threat of punishment could perform this function. Only a concept.
Not unlike ‘Old Money’, I suppose.