I am the least American American that I know. Born in France of a French father and an American mother, and then subjected to so many country moves that I am usually unable to give an accurate chronological account when asked where I have lived, I eventually settled in England for what has been my longest stint in one country: six years.
In the classroom of Milbourne Lodge, a school housed in an old countryside mansion, vines climbing the red brick walls, surrounded on one side by dairy farms and on the other by a public forest, my character was built. I absorbed the dry humor of Mr. Angus, French teacher and speaker of Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Swahili, and the values of Mr. Hale, eighty-five year-old Latin teacher and headmaster. I learned that these teachers, like the soldiers Henry V ordered to “upon this charge/ cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”, valued honor and loyalty above all else. They ingrained in me a sense that once one’s honor has been lost it is nigh impossible for it to be regained. Mr. Angus had me translate the French short story “Mateo Falcone,” in which a Corsican man shoots his own son for the dishonor of revealing the location of a rebel in exchange for a few gold coins and a shiny pocket watch. This sense of honor is present in all tiers of English society, although perhaps not to such a degree, from the Queen herself to the skinheads of Staines. I am convinced that my politeness, and my ‘stiff upper lip’ – my tendency to mask internal emotions – are both characteristics owed to the English practice of holding honor in high regard.
My final year at Milbourne Lodge was a confirmation of my integration into the English system. I was, to my surprise, elected by my teachers as Head Boy, and was also awarded an academic scholarship to St. Paul’s School, a day school in London, much to Mr. Hale’s disappointment – he had wanted me to attend one of the prestigious boarding schools (Eton, Winchester, or Charterhouse), but my parents would hear none of it. My name has been immortalized in golden paint on one of the black plaques that hang on the walls of the lunchroom, and so I am partly anchored in my old home. A year later, I moved back to Minnesota, and left behind the rolling countryside of the British Isles for the city of Minneapolis, but I continue to use the lessons I learned in England. When confronted with any dilemma, I do not ask myself, “Will others respect me in this decision?” Rather, my question is: “Will I be able to respect myself?” This is the sense of honor England fostered in me.
I say I am the least American American that I know not out of lack of respect for American values, but out of a greater respect for English values. Although my English accent disappeared within the first year of my move back to America, the English ideals that have been instilled in me as a boy in an English school will stay with me as long as I live.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.