My Baldwin School Education
The Baldwin School
"It's the genteel anti-Semitism of the time. Jews were politely shut out of the country clubs and the higher echelons of WASP culture." Dan Wackerman
My alma mater's been in the news lately. Some parents claim a teacher mistreated their child. The school fired the teacher, who then sued. The parents counter-sued. Baldwin and the teacher just reached a settlement.
The parents who sued are Jewish. I don't know if it's relevant to the teacher's alleged attitude. Their own behavior has been over the top, so the whole thing comes down to "they said, she said." Plus, they pledged millions for a new athletic building, which blurs Baldwin's claim of impartiality.
I was a Jewish student at Baldwin in the 60's. This all brings back painful memories of what happened to me there. Blatant anti-Semitism. From a teacher. A department chair. The Headmistress. And thus, the school.
No firings back then. No lawsuits. Just a lesson in bigotry and intolerance that haunts me to this day.
The Baldwin I attended was far different. My sister and I were the only Jews in the school. Many of our WASP Main Line classmates had never met a Jew. Today Baldwin has a large Jewish population, parents active on the board and in school life.
But some things never change.
In my case it couldn't have been clearer. And it seemed to come out of nowhere.
I had a bad case of mono during Junior year. Teachers came to our home (for a fee) to help me keep up. I especially liked the Latin teacher. She seemed to appreciate my gift for languages and I thought we bonded.
So I requested her advanced Latin class for Senior year. But she was different. Cool and distant in class. Corrected my homework papers with big red slashes ... though I had made no mistakes.
Then I failed two quizzes in a row ... questions marked wrong that I'd gotten right. On the last quiz she included some new sentences I could translate into Latin to improve my grade. My father is a thief. My uncle and my aunt beat their children. Huh?
Okay, I thought, this is weird but I'll approach her in a mature way. "If I've done something to upset you," I said to her, "please tell me and I'll try to correct it."
Her answer was stunning. "There's nothing you can do," her voice was cold, dismissive. "I just don't like your kind."
At first I didn't know what she meant by "your kind."
Until she went on, "All you Jews are liars and cheats. I know you can't be trusted."
Wow. Such unapologetic anti-Semitism. From a teacher. To a student. Surely the school would intervene. Yeah, right.
I went in tears to the Senior class advisor, who said I must have misunderstood and sent me to the school's venerable Headmistress for clarification.
Rosamond Cross. A well-educated maiden lady of a certain age, straight-backed, white-haired, bespectacled, prim and proper. The perfect Protestant proprietress of an elite preparatory school for girls.
And a stone cold bigot.
Her reaction to the Latin teacher's unconscionable behavior? "Our teachers know best. You must try harder in class."
In answer to my mother's subsequent outrage, her tune didn't change. "We always support our teachers," she told her calmly. "There's nothing I can do."
Then the SAT AP scores came. I had taken French, Latin and History. My Latin score was the lowest: 651.
We appealed to the chair of the Latin Department, Mrs. Gamble, who, though bewildered, echoed the party line. "There's nothing I can do." And threw us a bone. "I'll tutor her myself this summer and make sure she passes."
Small consolation. No consolation.
There I was, an honor student in all classes ... except one. An F in Latin. Facing the shame of unwarranted summer school, not the exciting, carefree summer of transition from high school to college. My early decision acceptance to Penn put on hold. Ultimately rescinded.
There's more. Yeah, really.
I had to sit alone in disgrace at my own High School Graduation and watch my classmates march onto the stage to receive diplomas without me. A special indignity mandated by Miss Cross. If I didn't attend the ceremonies I would never receive a diploma, period.
My first day at Mrs. Gamble's house for summer tutoring. She handed me a page from Cicero to translate into English. I read it flawlessly. She said, "You've seen this before. You've practiced it."
I was so hurt and angry I wanted to scream. Throw something. Hit someone. But I sat quietly, ankles crossed, a Lady. "No Ma'am."
Three random pages later, she was finally convinced. "What did they do to you?" she cried.
I just looked at her. "Go home," she told me. "Your diploma and revised transcript will be mailed to you." As I was leaving, I heard her talking on the phone to Miss Cross. Heatedly.
Too little, too late. I spent the first half of my "freshman" year at Penn in the College of General Studies (i.e., night school for adult GED holders). Living at home. Humiliated. Frustrated. Bored to distraction.
My 4.0 grade average that first semester, new, even higher AP exam scores and --finally-- a letter from Baldwin earned me entrance as a full time Penn sophomore ... ironically ahead of my own class as a result of my quality Baldwin education.
Quality. Yeah, right.
Yes, I turned out okay. Received an advanced degree, am leading a varied and rewarding life. But you know as I know --no matter how much time passes or how great our achievements-- we never forget High School. Especially the pain.
This is the first time I'm taking this story public. All the principal characters are dead now. But their disgraceful actions will live with me forever.