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September 28, 2016
School’s in! And has been here in Los Angeles since August, with lead and follow-ups in the Times on test scores, sorted by ethnicity and gender, on Common Core standards, on magnet, charter, and single sex schools, on how to build better teachers, who receive the brunt of blame for low scores, on the concerns of unions and of parents, on changes in LAUSD administration, disputed dates for beginning and ending the school year, on Hillary’s views, on Donald’s, on solutions to problems both quick and long range.
While reacting to these articles with wavering interest, approval, bewilderment, and outrage, I’ve been preparing to discuss Shakespeare’s The Tempest with a group of friends, thinking of Prospero, who abdicates his dukedom in favor of studying the liberal arts (now out of favor in American universities), a scholar and magician, who uses his daughter, the islander Caliban, and several other characters as lab rats in a nature-nurture experiment. He invents tests to determine whether empathy, pity, and compassion are innate or can be learned. He wants to explain evil, to understand what could cause greed, cruelty, and treachery in a brother. He entraps his enemy specimens for study and is not above corporal punishment.The play is strewn with questions, and some answers, about education, is as much about self-discovery as about book learning, and suggests strongly that we may refuse to learn, but we can also go on learning into advanced age. This reading and thinking has taken me far from the Los Angeles Unified School District and The Tempest, back to my experiences as a boarding student at the Shipley School for Girls (now a co-educational day school) in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, between 1953 and 1957.
Shipley seemed to take care of everything. The required college preparatory subjects of the time, of course, as well as history of art, English history, and the Bible as literature. There was an extra-curricular woodshop class and a connossiurs club for girls interested in architecture and design, furniture and decoration. We were bused to museums, to a steel factory, to plays in Philadelphia. We listened to the Philadelphia orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. We camped out on bedrolls in the open air; one teacher had us on a street corner handing out flyers for a militant workers’ party. We worshipped with some Holy Rollers, plastered walls in inner city homes.Two of the Hiroshima maidens came to speak to us about the effect of the atomic bomb on their lives. We could choose which church to go to on Sunday, but attendance, hats, gloves, and nylon stockings were required. We visited Washington, D.C. where we lunched with JFK, then a senator from Massachusetts. Where did he stand on government subsidized lunches for Catholic schools? It was a bold girl indeed who asked this question. We played field hockey, lacrosse, softball, tennis, volleyball, and basketball. We vaulted over the horse in gymnastics. For posture, for tall girls like me, round-shouldered slouchers, there was “correctives,” an extra gym class. At table, we were reminded to pass the gravy boat or cream pitcher with the handle toward the receiver. As members of “serving squad,” we learned to “crumb” the table discreetly, never allowing crumbs to land on the floor or on laps, and to “serve from the left, clear from the right.” We learned to hold open doors and to pull out chairs for our elders. Mere performance perhaps, because behind their backs we called them old bats, old biddies, the teachers and housemothers who imparted these lessons. But perhaps it was their indirection that made these lessons stick. Instead of lectures, there were expectations. What was meet right and “seemly so to do,” intoned in the school hymn, was to be drawn out of us, not painted on.
There are ways in which my education at Shipley was one long lesson in self-effacement, in renunciation, which is central to The Tempest, as far as Prospero is concerned, as well as a lesson everyone who lives to be old must learn. Prospero seems to have grown old during the twelve years he has lived in exile on an island far removed from European civilization, but I was not old when I arrived at Shipley. I was 13, more or less the age of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, and before my father left me there wearing a handmade dress with long sleeves too warm for the weather, I had achieved a certain eighth grader’s confidence. I had mastered fractions. I could ride a bike, ice skate, carry a tune, and conduct a conversation in French. In a picture of me taken in those early September days, I am sitting on my bed wearing store-bought clothes this time, a gray skirt, pleated from waist to hem, starched print blouse with a mandarin collar, legs crossed at the ankle, blue and white saddle shoes, an amazingly open smile. I hate this picture. I hate this girl with her high hopes and her high forehead. The first time I found it, I tore it up. But another print surfaced in another pile, and this time I kept it.
Surely, anyone who has been a teenager can understand that whatever I was wearing, whether made by my Haitian dressmaker or picked out by me, my father, and godmother in a New York department store, was wrong. I was wrong. To make things worse, I didn’t get my period, shave my legs, or realize I needed to wear a bra all the time. I was still a child, a little girl. I didn’t know how to play bridge or knit an argyle sock. I should have waited. I should have brought nothing, bought nothing, until I saw what was up. That loafers were in, never mind what the catalogue said, that I needed an Oxford weave, button down, Brooks Brothers shirt, a square shouldered polo coat made of camel’s hair, not the romantic fitted one with a full skirt I had chosen. I needed to chuck everything I owned, and start again. Oh, brave new world! As I did over the years, piece by piece, though stubbornly I still loved that gray coat. I needed a charm bracelet, a scarab bracelet, a circle pin, sweaters made of cashmere, or at the very least lamb’s wool, a closet full of Lanz dresses, which were too high-waisted to suit me and made me look fat when I wasn’t. I needed to be good at team sports, a boyfriend, preferably one who went to a prep school like Lawrenceville or Choate, a record player, a formal portrait of my parents for my bureau, stuffed animals, though I thought they were silly and only for babies, a more sophisticated vocabulary, including whore, masturbate, and don’t get your balls in an uproar, as well as the right friends here at school, certainly not anyone who was out of it like me.
I find I cannot reduce Shipley to any sort of common denominator, detach it from conventional attitudes toward women in the 50s, from its snobbishness, its wealth, its policy of noblesse oblige, its thoroughgoing white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, its anglophilia, its blindness, its indifference to me, nor square these offensive qualities with others I somehow perceived to have value beyond price. Shipley admitted me with a generous scholarship, but from the first day, I chose to suffer the myriad sea changes I imagined necessary to staying there. Being an outsider was nothing new: I had been a Protestant on an Irish Catholic street in New York, an ugly, stingy white child in an impoverished black republic, and though I saw them very little and told them almost nothing negative for the next four years, I knew my parents loved me, would support and protect me no matter what. This was not true for every girl. Some had been sent to preserve their virginity, to be got out of the way because of illness, death, divorce, their own rebelliousness, apparent academic or social failure. My father had already told me that no one at Shipley would be interested in my past life, in Haiti, my mother that life, passionate, intense, meaningful adult life, would begin later. My ideas of boarding school had come from glossy catalogue pictures in which there was nothing but pleasure to be found in every activity, a welcoming expression on every face. My constant companion for many years had been Beverly Gray, heroine of a mystery series for girls. Beverly, described as dauntless and lithe, goes off to college where she provides equilibrium for her group of amusing and artistic friends, becomes president and valedictorian of her class, acquires an adventurer fiancé, heads to New York, lands a job at the Herald Tribune, travels, becomes a playwright. The film Casa Blanca was another imprint I clung to.
It was necessary to be subtle, to pretend. Even to lie. Shipley was subtle. The end of reading was appreciation, not analysis. A’s were scarce, no honor roll, no cheerleaders (though that changed while I was there), no valedictory or salutatory speeches, no Pomp and Circumstance; Shipley graduates processed to the War March of the Priests from Mendelssohn’s Athalia. No pledging of allegiance, no display of the American flag. At the end of the year, a prize was awarded, in the form of a silver cup with names engraved, for “Faithfulness, Justice,Truth, and Humility.” Naively, I aspired to this prize, but I was neither truthful, nor truly humble. When more than half the boarding population lined up outside the “blue room,” as the headmistress’s office was called, to confess to smoking, I did not join them, though I had taken a few puffs while on a sleepover at a day student’s house. One girl who lived in Chicago was punished with suspension, sent home for a week by train at her parents’ expense. This certainly alarmed me, but I also saw that the disease of confession was catching and that the severity with which the offensive smoking was regarded by both girls and adults was absurd, even funny. And yet, even now, I cannot decide whether I should be proud or ashamed of my behavior.
So it went. And so it goes. My education plays on in my mind and indeed continues as I am once again in need of correctives, physical therapy for a stiff neck and headaches caused by stress, by tension, by hunching my shoulders. I make intermittent progress. I ponder Prospero, a helicopter parent if there ever was one, who forgives his enemies, who renounces dictatorship of his daughter and much else besides. I identify with Miranda, who, after falling in love, begins immediately, with some remorse, to disobey her father. More interesting to me these days is the fate of the non-European Caliban. Will he become a sideshow, a freak in a cage, if transported to Milan? Or will he, now that Prospero has grudgingly acknowledged him his own, be allowed to continue his education. Caliban is touching in his affection for names of the sun and moon, taught to him by Prospero and Miranda, sensitive to language, music, and dreams. He is a learner, having recognized what a thrice-double ass he was to bow down to foolish worshipers of appearance like Trinculo and Stephano. Perhaps he will become a teacher of his captors, who would have died if he had not shown them where fresh water could be found on the island. As usual, Shakespeare points the way to the future in the faintest suggestion of this possibility.