Friday, December 7, 2018

Hope for The Good Ole Boys

If you know something of how I think, what I value and how I live—and this blog tells all—it might surprise you to learn that I went to a Country Day School for Young Gentlemen for my high school years. All boys, suit and tie, call your teacher’s “sir,” the whole nine yards of breeding to be privileged young gentlemen ready to take over the world. Fit me perfectly. NOT!

Pingry was founded in 1861, so there was a lot of tradition behind it. We had daily chapel services with a large written sign staring back at us—“The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom.” There were Senior “prefects” invested with the power to give the underclassmen “restrictions.” One restriction meant you gave up your free time after lunch to copy paragraphs from random books for 20 minutes. Five restrictions meant you came in on Saturday morning to do the same for one hour. I did a lot of time in Restriction Study Hall and I wish I could say that copying over the wisdom of Emerson or Shakespeare opened new worlds to me, but truth be told, can’t remember a single book I copied from. It was just mindless busy work that paid back nothing to the community and un-ecological at that. And as you can imagine, power-hungry Seniors delighted in punishing underclassman they didn’t like or didn’t know, but liked showing off their muscle. (Peter Cowan, I almost forgive you.)

It was the “good old boys” club, but it was Eastern seaboard semi-liberal style rather than Southern style. There were scholarship students from the neighboring working class towns (and these were mostly the kids I hung out with) and the school sponsored tutoring programs for poor kids “in the ghetto.” I remember a day of seminars on other religions and the brother of my friend from Newark coming to speak about Black Power. Yet I also remember a graduation speaker who was a corporate businessman reading Robert Frost’s poem ending with “and I took the one less traveled by” and my emerging bullshit detector lighting up and thinking, “I don’t think so.” Many years later, I realized that someone I knew slightly in the class below had risen to a top government post. His name was Michael Chernoff and he was the head of Homeland Security during the Bush years. Always wondered if he had my name on his list.

There were two memorable personal slights that taught me that my sense of not fitting in was true and endorsed, consciously or not, by the powers-that-be. Every day at lunch, the Headmaster announced the sports scores and gave a special shout-out if anyone had broken a record. The day after I broke the pole-vault record with my 11 foot 6 inch jump, I awaited my moment of glory and it never came. I’ve told this story in the years to follow and once I received a little medal in the mail acknowledging my feat. I was amazed that Pingry was finally following through on its promise and later discovered that a group of friends (not from Pingry) had done it so I’d stop telling them that damn story!

The second one was at the end of graduation when it was time to announce the winners of various contests. I had entered the Public Speaking Contest and was awaiting the results. They never came. When I inquired later why no one was announced, I was told that the committee felt that none of the speeches were good enough to merit winning. I protested, “But it was a contest! They might all be bad, but still you have to pick the best of the bad!” They didn’t agree.

Do I sound bitter here? Well, fifty years later, I believe I’ve gotten over it and forgiven them. And in spite of all these stories, there was much that I appreciated and valued from my four years there. The English department was excellent and helped open worlds with a great selection of books. I got to practice the 2,000 pipe organ in exchange for playing for the chapel service. I was close to the two Spanish teachers and got a great foundation for a language that would prove to be important in my later years. And perhaps most important, my education there helped get me accepted in the college that did fit my way of thinking—Antioch. I’m grateful for it all.

All of this is prelude to my unexpected reconnection to Pingry. I did visit once some 10-15 years ago and as noted in my November posts, I taught a guest class there recently. Then last night, I went to a Bay Area gathering of Pingry alums and got an update on the strategic plan from the current headmaster and one of the teachers. The theme? A move toward more experiential education, exactly the kind of things that I experienced and appreciated at Antioch and have spent my lifetime developing at the school where I work. At the end, my question was; “Where were you guys 50 years ago?”

In short, Pingry has changed radically. It started some seven years after I left with the admission of girls, then relaxing the dress code, then dismantling the “sir” and “senior prefects” atmosphere, then moving to a whole other campus, then increasing the diversity of both students and teachers. I felt all of that in my recent visit. The headmaster, who had been there 14 years and was now leaving, was an excellent speaker and I could feel his values aligned with my own. Speaking after the formal presentation, he admitted that Pingry wasn’t quite ready to identify itself as a “progressive” school, but indeed it was aiming in that direction. I believe I would have fit in wonderfully with the Pingry that is now and certainly would have appreciated the presence of the girls!

So while the moral arc bends towards justice, I’d like to believe that the educational arc bends towards progressive and Pingry is a good case in point. I’ve decided to attend my first ever—and most likely, last ever—class reunion this May. It’s the 50th (!!!!!!!!) and seems like enough of a landmark to check back in and see where my classmates ended up. The two I most would want to see are among the departed, but there are certainly others I’m curious about.

Check back in in May.

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