Below, I’m re-posting an essay from earlier this year, which I can’t help but run again in light of this weekend’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Prep School Predators: The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual abuse.”
What struck me about NYT piece most was this exchange, right at the start:
Shortly after my arrival, a new friend walked me around the school, pointing out teachers to avoid.
“What do you mean? Like, they’re hard graders?”
“No. Perverts. Stay away from them. Trust me.”
I heard about some teachers who supposedly had a habit of groping female students and others who had their eyes on the boys. I heard that Mark Wright, an assistant football coach, had recently left the school under mysterious circumstances. I was warned to avoid Stan Kops, the burly, bearded history teacher known widely as “the Bear,” who had some unusual pedagogical methods. Even Clark came in for some snickering: he had no family of his own, and he had a noticeably closer-than-average relationship to the Bear, another confirmed bachelor.
I mean, seriously: this could have been written about MY prep school. EVERYBODY AT HORACE MANN KNEW about these guys … just like everybody at my school knew about Mr. Amazing-Inspiring.
So here it is again, because it bears repeating over and over and over again — the best defense is TEACHING YOUR KIDS TO QUESTION AUTHORITY.
ALL AUTHORITY. ALL THE TIME.
Once upon a time, I was one of four or five students in a Classics seminar led by a mysterious iconoclast. We were a tight knit bunch, loyal to each other and our tutor, perhaps slightly incestuous in our dealings with one another … and eventually that led us to murder one of our own.
Wait — that’s not me. That’s the plot of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I didn’t kill anyone. The rest of it, however, is absolutely true of who I was and where I was the year that book was published, right down to the character of the teacher at the center of it all.
Seriously, it was like Donna Tartt had been taking notes at my high school. How else could she have known so much about my teacher, Mr. Amazing-Inspiring, whom we all called A-I, for short?
When I met him, A-I was in his 50s, had taught at my school for more than 20 years, and was a huge deal on campus because he had a reputation for breaking all the rules in a place that really, really liked rules.
For instance, A-I had been the biggest booster of integrating my WASPy prep school in the ’70s. And he’d been the biggest booster of co-education, which happened shortly afterwards, too. This gave him a lot of cred among the student body, because he was seen as being on the side of the righteous little guys (us) against the monolithic Man (the school).
We were angsty teenagers. We spent a lot of time thinking about ourselves in opposition to the school.
Anyway, because he was so cool, he somehow made Latin seem cool — probably because he taught it in a sort of volatile fashion. This is a guy who could get wound up enough about a dead language that he could lift you out of your seat. No, really. As in: one minute you’d be at your desk, staring at the ceiling, the next he’d be dragging you into the hallway and slamming you up against the cinderblock wall to try to get you to express a similar level of excitement to his own.
What can I say? He was cool, so Latin was cool, and somehow the small circle of us whom he selected for his honors seminars seemed cool (unlikely as it sounds) — just because he’d chosen us.
Which is why were SHOCKED — SHOCKED, I tell you — when he was summarily dismissed my sophomore year for having had an inappropriate relationship with a student. Not because we didn’t think he’d done it — he was famous for doing it. His wife, mother of his two young kids, was rumored to be one of the first girls who’d matriculated at the school. His babysitter, who he’d helped get into Yale, was widely believed to be his girlfriend. (Last I heard, they’d gotten married — I saw photos on Facebook — hello, people, yet another reason to LOCK UP YOUR FACEBOOK PAGE!)
So it came as no big shock when we learned the parents of a third girl had come forward and threatened to sue the school.
What was shocking to us, his students, was how cavalierly the school had fired a man who had served them for so many years, without offering him a chance to offer up an explanation, or a defense.
Let me repeat myself one more time: we knew he’d done it.
We just didn’t think they should have FIRED him for it.
Because we were stupid. And we were teenagers. And flirting with danger seemed cool.
How did I know he was a danger? EVERYONE KNEW. Not just because of his past behaviors — but because everyone — teachers and faculty — expected him to keep fucking under-age girls until he finally got so old he couldn’t get it up anymore.
For instance, when his babysitter graduated, a friend of hers came to me, knowing I was the only girl left in A-I’s classes, and actually said the words, “Be careful around A-I next year.”
And after they fired him? I actually had a TEACHER come to me and say the words, “I always thought YOU’D be the reason he finally lost his job.”
Why wasn’t I the reason A-I lost his job? Why didn’t he ever come on to me? Why didn’t we embark on the same sort of affair he’d had so many times before?
I was a stupid teen, sure, but I wasn’t a pushover.
I wasn’t the sort of kid who thought just because you were an adult, and you took an interest in me, I had to take an interest, too.
No, I was the one kid in my entire bio class freshman year who had refused to attend office hours with the lech who taught the class because I’d heard that at those office hours, he expected girls to sit in his lap. So I didn’t go — despite a full semester of his ending every single class by saying, “SOMEONE in this class has yet to attend MANDATORY office hours this semester. SOMEONE in this class is in danger of being docked 10% of their final grade.”
Instead, I did enough extra-credit that even though Mr. Bio Lechy-lech docked me the 10%, I still averaged out above 100.
Screw you, Mr. Science Man.
And screw you, too, A-I.
Not to put too fine a point on it, here’s the most important thing we can teach our children to help them protect themselves from bad guys in positions of power:
Question authority, always — don’t just fall in line.
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