Deerfield Academy was for me transformative. A new start, out from under my older brother’s shadow and away from my midwestern roots. For the first time, it was in the shadow of Mount Pocumtuck that I was truly “on my own” in the world. Only, I wasn’t alone. There were about 500 of us, or so. Not college freshmen. No, we were high school students. But Deerfield became our home. They were my brothers. And the faculty, our parents by proxy.
Most high schoolers never experience the life we lived. Dorm life as a teenager. Classes from 8:00-3:00 each day, followed by mandatory sports each season of the school year. After practice, family style sit-down meals, with a faculty member presiding over thirteen tie and blazer-clad student-athletes. Later, mandatory study hours from 7:30-9:30 each evening, two hours that but scratched the surface of the 5-6 hours of studying we did each day. There was curfew at 10:30 p.m., with mandatory check-ins with the faculty member who lived in the apartment at the end of the hall.
“Was it like Dead Poets’ Society?” I’ve often been asked.
In many ways it was nothing like that, and in many ways it was just like it. Our teachers were are friends, our coaches, and yes, they served us “in loco parentis.” Their roles, encapsulated by the mantra “Triple Threat,” were all-encompassing. They taught us Chaucer and Fitzgerald, led us on geology field trips through the mountains of western Massachusetts, and prodded us to an understanding of Euclidean geometry and calculus. They grabbed a whistle and coached us on the fields, ice, and hardwood of New England prep school athletics. And they taught us respect and manners, not in a military school sort of way, but through insistence of actions and modeling of behavior. But their days stretched on, with evening “feeds” of tacos, pizza, and cookies interrupting the steady flow of students seeking additional mentoring for their studies. Yes, their days stretched on, until each and every student was back safely in their dorm for the evening, each and every night.
As a student, I was in awe of the demands placed on our faculty and the sacrifices they made for us students. And years later, when I returned to Deerfield in a faculty role, I experienced the joys, rewards, and challenges of the faculty lifestyle. It was an experience never to be forgotten and always cherished. So, to say I have a warm place in my heart for Deerfield is an understatement.
Earlier this winter, the Deerfield community was rocked with news of a sexual assault scandal involving one of the most highly esteemed, long-time faculty members from my days as a student. In the intervening months, further investigations have implicated yet another bastion of Deerfield teaching for a similar offense. For those of us still engaged in the institution, there have been numerous stunned interactions. Many of us have strong feelings not only for the institution, but for those accused of these crimes. I was taught and coached by one. In fact, as a faculty member, one of my fondest memories was a trip he and I took on behalf of the school. To say I was shocked by the news would be an understatement.
But while it’s been heartbreaking to learn of these alleged transgressions, for which there seems to be mounting evidence, it’s also been a quieting moment of pride for the school that Deerfield has become. Now, I don’t know all the details around when the school learned of everything, nor do I understand the extent to which the school previously chose (poorly, if so) to handle suspicions and accusations against these faculty members “in house.” It sounds like some very poor decisions in that regard may have been made.
What I do know, however, is how the current administration at Deerfield has chosen to move forward with this “scandal” in a refreshingly open and transparent manner. They have strongly condemned both the transgressions AND the apparent transgressors, including in their report that was publicized this past weekend an admission that perhaps the school itself decades ago had done less than it should have to address these situations. They haven’t attempted to spin the story (or if they have, it’s a spin that still places much accountability right at their own feet).
With today’s New York Times article, as well as earlier Boston Globe reports, this story will certainly continue to play itself out. But I have confidence that Deerfield (and its administration) will follow the right road. And in this case, that road may be a very rocky one. Yet, their willingness to adopt a humble, forthcoming, and accountable perspective is encouraging, and speaks to the integrity of Deerfield’s top administrators and its Board of Trustees. By proactively and openly addressing the situation, the school has chosen the moral path, perhaps better later than never.
As a young man, I looked up to the school for guidance and inspiration for my life ahead. I’ve succeeded because of what Deerfield taught me, inside and outside of the classroom. And where I’ve failed, it’s in part from the lessons learned in the Pocumtuck Valley that I’ve picked myself up and started back up life’s hill. I’ve lived by the school’s motto…. “Be Worthy of Your Heritage.” For doing so does not mean living a perfect life, but for taking accountability when one falls short.
So, I am inspired by the way in which the school has handled this scandal thus far. And as the road gets rockier in the upcoming months, I am confident the leaders of Deerfield Academy will live up to its motto.