Friday, November 16, 2007

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.

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Anonymous tami said...

i'm speechless.

of course, on no where near the same level as yours, i had teachers tell my fellow students i was the devil's spawn because i wrote with my left hand.

i forget people from my past, friends, acquaintances, enemies, but i never forgot my teachers!

9:41 AM  
Anonymous Fred said...

I went to public schools in Burbank (CA) in the '50s and '60s, and in the 5th and 6th grades they had something called 'religious release'. Students could spend an hour at a church once a week. (As far as I know only at Protestant and Catholic churches.) I was a Unitarian and during this hour the Jewish students and I stayed behind in the classroom. Our teacher had us copy definitions out of the dictionary for the hour. (I did go to a Christian church a few times with friends and realized I was an atheist.) But I really didn't mind the dictionary work. I was young but I don't think there was much anti-semitism then in Burbank (although it was almost all white and conservative, so there were bigots of other stripes.) I live with a Jewish woman from Portland OR who has roots in Selma and Peabody MA.

I went to freerice and had a lot of fun. (Level 47 my first time!)

I am sorry you had that experience at Baldwin School but I am glad you shared it. I don't know how or if the human race will survive itself.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Rina said...

I can understand that you are marked forever by what happened to your spirit at Baldwin. What I cannot understand is why these awful people did not teach you to write grammatical sentences.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

Well. I guess I've really been given what for. (Lots of bad grammar right there. Can you spot the mistakes?)

Rina, are you the Grammar Police? I cringe also at incorrect grammar and try to avoid the most annoying mistakes -- split infinitives, dangling participles, etc.

However. This is a freeform column. Sometimes I use Certain. Words. In Certain Ways. For. Emphasis.

Because I also learned the importance of being a free spirit and not so much a tight ass.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Doug Blank said...

Thanks for the story! You should write a book about these times and your adventures. We'll get Rina to edit the manuscript, and add humor. Not!

8:37 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

This mystifies me. I found these postings by accident. I was a boarding student at Baldwin in the late fifties and sixties -yes, I was Jewish - and took plenty of Latin - from Mrs. Gamble, from Miss Ayer and from Miss Morris (private lessons in Greek or when you got very advanced in Latin - beyond Catullus, I think). In any case, no one ever graded me with anything except scrupulous fairness. (Grading was hard, of course.) And Miss Cross was a monument to integrity - Baldwin was the first school on the Maine Line to admit Jews. Rosamond Cross had unimpeachable dignity and a sense of fair play. She was certainly of the Old School in terms of how she lived her life and what she expected of others and her own churchgoing habits. But anti Semitic? Never. Baldwin was a Main Line school where teachers actually valued the life of the mind - unlike many other Main Line Schools of the times. Were there anti Semitic families whose daughters attended? Absolutely. Did I occasionally sense that in this or that day student? Yup. (The boarders were divided from the day students and tended to be more diverse and more intellectual). Would Miss Cross ever have bowed to them or allowed one of her teacher to do so? I can't believe it. She carried immense authority and she feared no one. Wealthy and accomplished people bowed to HER. I never saw anyone in the Philadelphia community do anything except defer to her sense of fairness, discipline, dignity and fair play. I am sorry you got caught in some terrible cross fire and I can't of course deny what you say (except that the AP grading does not and so far as I know never has worked the way you are saying and I don't understand what you mean by the numbers you use. Could you be misremembering the?) But I must step up here to defend Rosamond Cross.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

Anonymous, my story is 100% true. Defend Rosamund Cross all you like, she was exactly that cold and adament in defending the teacher, stonewalling my mother, refusing to review my Latin grades and abilities and then forcing me to attend graduation without graduating.

If you would care to share your name with me I would be happy to share the names of the other teachers in return, since you might remember them. For oblique reference, the class advisor who refused to intervene was in the gym dept, as was her "roommate." Their relationship was not acknowledged as anything more at the time.

The AP grading system to which I refer was not from Baldwin but from UPenn.

I'm curious, at the start of your comment you say, "I was a boarding student at Baldwin in the late fifties and sixties -yes, I was Jewish..." Are you no longer Jewish? Just curious.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Urban Exile said...

Interesting blog. A few comments...

You imply that you did not receive your diploma as scheduled because of one class? That's pretty hard to credit. Also, I take some issue with your intolerant tone when you speak of Miss Cross's companion, your advisor: Remember, back then being gay was harder than being Jewish by a long shot. It still is.

in my class, there are some people who are alienated from their Baldwin experience for different reasons: Some are Jewish, some are not. Bullying by staff and peers was not by any means limited to Jewish kids.

I have heard this charge of anti-semitism leveled at Baldwin before now, many years later, by some of my former classmates. I can't know what the deal was because I am not Jewish and wouldn't have received such treatment if indeed it were being reserved for non Anglos, nor did I hear about it from my classmates when and if it was happening. It's a complicated issue, and whatever was going on at Baldwin was a reflection of and not separate from the general tone on the Main Line at the time. That doesn't excuse it, it simply clarifies that Baldwin can't be singled out for greater condemnation than any Main Line country club, retail store or neighborhood association of the time.

Private schools like Baldwin do a lot of good educating and are at the forefront of learning: I basically slid through my first year of college, I was so well prepared. But they can also be hotbeds of scandal and unfairness like any closed community. In my experience at Baldwin, many times the administration closed ranks to protect a teacher who had clearly done wrong. I am thinking specifically of a woman English teacher in my time (later than yours) who was involved in lesbian sexual affairs with her students and getting them high off campus. She not only was never punished, she was given a recommendation from the head of school and sent on to Shipley where undoubtedtly she continued in her sick ways. Only years later have I been able to compare stories with classmates and we have been appalled at the serious things that were happening that, at the time, we were too stunned, shamed or afraid to share with each other.

I hope that Baldwin has become a better place. I still reserve great fondness for my experience there and feel gratitude that I was gifted the experience of attending. But I imagine that, since the fictional days of Miss Jean Brody and Tom Brown, the private school remains to some degree what it has always been: A proving ground for privileged youngsters where sometimes things are very, very good, and sometimes things are very, very bad indeed.

BTW, the recent scandal involving the firing of the teacher was a weird one, and gave me an odd feeling in the belly. It seems as if the wealthy donors to the school now basically run the place and have final say on everything which, if true, is a bad thing for the school as a whole. It's a devil's bargain to accept parental interference like that in exchange for big donations.

I'd be interested in having an ongoing dialogue about this with you. For my part, I have felt very sad about the way the school is going and don't feel much connection there anymore, though I feel closer and close to some of my former classmates as the years pass.

11:57 AM  

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