When Sam Brandt was a student at Leverett, the elite Connecticut boarding school, he developed a close relationship with English teacher Theodore Gibson. Years later, he returns to become an English teacher himself, continuing to be inspired by Gibson’s mentorship. Those memories are challenged when Gibson is alleged to have abused one of Brandt’s classmates. Sam is forced to relive those school days, confronting the battle he waged with his own sexuality.
Jonathan Galassi (Photo credit: Tenoch Esparza)
Although there’s a mystery at the center of Jonathan Galassi’s School Days, the novel is character driven. In the sections devoted to the 1960s, we meet Sam and his classmates, an eclectic group from all parts of the country. Leverett is a testosterone fueled environment, with an all-male faculty and amped up adolescent males eager to learn and explore, in and outside of the classroom. Coming from a small town in Massachusetts, Sam is putty in the hands of his more experienced classmate, Ray Kaiser. “Sam became Kaiser’s half-willing, horrified, and fascinated pupil as Ray exposed him to affluence, liberal politics, psychoanalysis, auto-suggestion, classical music, and sexual perversion,” Galassi writes. Then Sam meets and falls for Eddie Braddock. “Eddie and Ray became the poles of his existence at Leverett. Eddie would own him body and soul.” During break, Sam, missing Eddie, writes to him. When school resumes, Sam greets Eddie with a hug and is pushed away. “My father read your letters. He says you’re queer and I should stay away from you,” Eddie tells him. Sam protests, describing his love for Eddie as not sexual, but “another kind of love.” But what kind? They never figure that out.
Theodore Gibson stands out, not only as a teacher, but also for his eccentricities. The specter of homosexuality follows Gibson around. While he lives alone, he often seeks out the company of the young men, taking some of them on jaunts into New York City. He’s not afraid to play favorites, usually the athletic, attractive students. Sam is viewed as Gibson’s pet, the student he mentors, whose work he watches closely, whose guidance helps Sam plan his future.
After graduation, Sam, like several of his classmates, heads to Harvard. Eddie decides to move back to Seattle to be with his girlfriend, Sally. Much to Sam’s distress, they eventually marry.
Sam marries, too, and has a daughter. But the union stands little chance to succeed and they eventually divorce. Back teaching at Leverett, Sam develops a close working relationship with the head of school, Boris Krohn. When Boris receives a letter from Ron Bryden, class of 1967, alleging that he was sexually abused while at Leverett, he brings Sam into the investigation. Although Ron doesn’t mention who abused him, Sam can see that the man is tormented. Ron soon opens up to Sam and, in graphic details, describes the encounter with Gibson.
Ron knows that Sam was close to Gibson and asks, “Did he do it to you, too?” Sam’s denial throws Ron into a rage. Sam believes he’s telling Ron the truth about Gibson. But what about the other students? Sam travels to other cities to meet with his former classmates and ask them whether they, like Ron, were assaulted by Gibson.
Galassi’s novel is a compelling coming-of-age story, but beyond that gets to the heart of relationships, how they begin, how they are defined, and how they shape character. Like Ron, Sam is a tortured soul, and only after examining his past is he able to move ahead and embrace the future.
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