By Nick Noble ’76, Communications Manager, Editor, and School Historian
Before it was LOST: The Sixth Form Room at St. Mark’s
In 1890, when the Main Building was first occupied, Headmaster William E. Peck set aside a small room along the Chapel corridor exclusively for the Sixth Form. A small narrow room, it had a fireplace, mailboxes for the Sixth Form (there were 27 Sixth Formers in 1893, the largest senior class up to that time), and Sixth Formers took to marking the window frame/sill area with Groton game results. That space is currently room 132, where Dr. Glomset teaches. That original Sixth Form Room was under the direct supervision and authority of the Monitors.
In 1894-95, the new Headmaster, Dr. William G. Thayer, decided to give the Sixth Form a larger room, , to reflect their expanding leadership opportunities during his tenure. Under Dr. Thayer, the number of Monitors was increased; the position of Prefect (for dorms and dining tables) was established; the St. Mark’s Athletic Association began to exercise authority over an expanding athletic program (there would be no official athletic director until 1934-35); the number of clubs, publications, and activities grew (requiring captains, presidents, editors, and other officers, etc.); and community service opportunities also emerged, primarily St. Markers in volunteer leadership roles at the local boys’ club and at Brantwood Camp. Dr. Thayer acknowledged that seniors at SM were taking on more and more responsibility, so they were given a newer, larger Sixth Form Room. Today it is Room 136 on the English corridor—home of Mr. Camp’s “Getting LOST” seminar. The proximity of the Sixth Form privileges should not be overlooked. The Sixth Form stairs were the easiest way to get from the Sixth Form dormitory to the Sixth Form Room, while the Sixth Form Room looked out onto the Sixth Form Quad. It was, in a sense, their contiguous fiefdom.
Actually, the Sixth Form Room was two rooms. The original (Dr. Glomset’s classroom) still had the Sixth Form mailboxes and sometimes a billiard table (when covered with a wooden plank it did double duty for table tennis). And Groton results (football, baseball, later crew) still went on to the wall. The main Sixth Form Room (now Room 136) was furnished with armchairs, a couch, tables for study, and in the 1920s, a phonograph player.
The original furnishings had more of an air of clean but seedy frat house chic. The Sixth Form Room was in so many ways the center of power for the Sixth Form. Sixth Formers had the authority to command any lower school student (Forms I-III) to appear in the doorway. The younger students could then be ordered to run errands (“pick up my laundry from downtown” “bring me a snack” “carry my bag to my room” “take a message to Mr. ____” “get a book from the library for me” etc. – akin to the old British public school tradition of “fagging”). Should the younger student refuse or respond insubordinately, they could receive “Sixth Form Room treatment: being paddled, sometimes severely, by a Sixth Former (or more than one). In the winter, when there was snow, the alternative form of hazing was “cocking up” – the young victim would be permitted on the quad, ordered to face the wall and bend over, and he would then be a target for snowballs (some thrown very hard, occasionally reinforced with ice).
Both fagging and hazing were banned in the early 1930s. The former practice ended when the mother of a Second Former arrived on campus to visit her son and was told he was “unavailable” because he was going downtown to pick up a Sixth Formers dry cleaning. She had not, she determined, come fifteen hundred miles to be so inconvenienced, so she strode downtown, intercepted her son, collected the dry cleaning herself (it was, according to all accounts, quite a hefty collection of suits, blazers and flannel trousers) and delivered it to the Sixth Form Room. The embarrassed Sixth Former apologized to the indignant parent, while the embarrassed school authorities put an end to the Sixth Formers using younger boys as servants (there was some disappointment, however, among the younger boys, as this practice had regularly resulted in tips from the Sixth Form beneficiaries, during the prosperous 1920s often sizable, and some were upset at losing a reliable source of income). The latter practice ended when the entire Sixth Form paddled a group of Second Formers so severely that the School’s physical trainer, Mr. George B. Velte, seeing their bloodied backsides when they came to him for liniment and gauze, marched right into the Headmaster’s office and demanded that an end be put to this barbaric brutality. The Headmaster, Dr. Francis Parkman, himself a St. Mark’s alumnus (Class of 1915), agreed. One of the punished Second Formers—Edward T. Hall ’37—would later admit, however, that he and his classmates had certainly been obnoxious and disrespectful toward their Sixth Form “betters ” and might have deserved some form of remonstrance.
Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, the Sixth Form Room was also the repository of Sixth Form secrets and shenanigans. It was in the Sixth Form Room that St. Markers concocted schemes to get permission to travel to Boston “to pick up sheet music for the Choir” so they could surreptitiously rendezvous with their Cambridge bootlegger or an enthusiastic young flapper. During that same time, from the Sixth Form Room could be heard the syncopated cacophony of jazz records played on the phonograph. Older faculty and many parents considered jazz “the devil’s music” and a sure sign of the decadence of youth.
In 1935, following the tragic death of Harvard Freshman Donald McKay Frost, SM Class of 1935 (he was aboard a plane piloted by his SM and Harvard classmate Edward Mallinckrodt III that crashed into the ocean off of Cape Cod; there were no survivors), the Sixth Form Room was completely renovated in Frost’s memory by his parents. Almost all the photos of the Sixth Form Room date from after that renovation.
In 1936, as the school population dwindled rapidly due to a frightening polio epidemic (dozens fell ill, one died, more than one hundred went home for the duration), hardy Sixth Form survivors would gather regularly in the Sixth Form Room to plan morale-boosting activities and entertainment for those who remained.
In the fall of 1941, the Sixth Form Room was a haven for young progressives, who working with Headmaster Parkman initiated a series of democratic reforms to student government, including the establishment of an open Town Meeting for free discourse, with actual power to make decisions about life at the School. But it was also while relaxing in the Sixth Form Room on the afternoon of December 7, listening to a radio production of Gogol’s The Inspector General on NBC’s Blue Network, that a group of seniors were stunned when their program was interrupted by a bulletin announcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Priorities would shift, many St. Markers would accelerate their studies, graduating early in order to enlist, and the promising enterprise of student democracy and Town Meeting government would quickly end. It would not be resurrected in Southborough for thirty years, and then not at St. Mark’s but at the Southborough School for Girls.
Over the next three decades, the Sixth Form Room would continue to be an unofficial club room for St. Mark’s seniors. In the late 1950s, a television was installed against the wall to the left of Donald Frost’s portrait, and throughout the 60s, 70s, and beyond, the oldest St. Markers would gather to watch baseball, hockey, and occasionally basketball. Sometimes football. And in the early morning, reruns of the Three Stooges were very popular. And it was still actually two rooms. Indeed, by the early 70s there was only one classroom on the quadrangle side of the Chapel corridor. A large religion classroom was just to the Chapel side of the Sixth Form Room (encompassing what are now Rooms 138 and 140—Rev Talcott and Mr. Hebert’s classrooms) while to the other side was the day students’ locker room (currently Room 130, Ms. Matthews’ room—it had been a classroom before and would be again).
Before the Second World War, it had been much easier for St. Markers to get into college. Harvard and Yale were the most popular, followed by Princeton (especially if you were a hockey player), Trinity (an Episcopal college, would always admit a student from a good Episcopal school), and the military academies (West Point and Annapolis). But after the war, with the advent of the G.I. Bill, competition for college places became more intense, and over the next couple of decades, St. Mark’s—like every other private boarding school—had to expand the list of prospective colleges for its graduates. The first College Adviser (Mr. Monheim’s first predecessor) was hired in 1948. Coincidentally, the first to hold that post was Edward T. Hall, SM Class of 1937, who we last saw as a second Form victim of Sixth form Room punishment, and who would later serve as both Assistant Head and later Headmaster at St. Mark’s.
In the late 1960s/early 1970s, a tradition began at St. Mark’s that reflected the growing challenges of college placement. Any Sixth Former receiving a rejection letter from a college would post the letter on the wall of the Sixth Form Room. As St, Markers were applying to many more places than in the past, each spring the walls of the Sixth Form room would be papered with rejection letters. It became a point of pride to have at least one letter on the wall, and those who got in everywhere they applied often felt a little guilty (perhaps even ashamed) about having none to post.
And for another quarter century—through the advent of coeducation and an ever-increasing St. Mark’s enrollment—the Sixth Form Room remained a haven for St. Mark’s seniors, a place for down time, a holder of secrets, and the center of shenanigans. Oh, if those walls could talk.
In 1995, the Class of 1945, for its 50th Reunion gift, funded the complete renovation of the Chapel corridor, turning it into the English corridor and the Sixth Form Room into a seminar classroom, Room 136, where students would eventually find themselves “Getting LOST.”
Still, if those walls could talk.
Richard E. “Nick” Noble, SM Class of 1976, currently works in the St. Mark’s Office of Marketing and Communication as Communication Manager, Editor, and School Historian. In the latter capacity he is the author of The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark’s School (2015 – Hollis Publishing – 750 pp).