Missed stories: About that Horace Mann School article in the Times

I attended the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, N.Y., from 1971 to 1977. I’ve generally thought well of the school as a great environment for a brainy, socially awkward kid like me to learn and grow. I became a writer largely based on my experience there, I learned to love journalism there, and I learned almost as much from my peers as I did from my teachers.

Horace Mann was, plainly, a place of great privilege. (My parents paid a fortune to send me there, and I remain deeply grateful for that.) I took a crazy-long trip each day from my central Queens home to the northwest corner of the Bronx to attend. I did that because the school embraced unorthodox teachers who inspired students. Also because it made ample room for the weird kids. It helped them find other weird kids to share their weird alienation and feel a little less alienated.

Now there’s this. The article is, I believe, thoughtful, fair, and sensitive. The author is a few years younger than I am, but his account accurately reflects the school I remember.

Except, of course, for the part about a decades-spanning pattern of sexual abuse of students by teachers, a pattern that it seems the school largely ignored and that I knew essentially nothing of during my student years.

I’m not a victim myself. I experienced no molestation, or anything even borderline or ambiguous, during my six years at H.M. Still, in the wake of this article, I find myself spending a lot of time and thought re-examining my own past — as I’m guessing are the great majority of my classmates and everyone else who had anything to do with the school in those years. (There have already been extraordinary conversations both in private e-mail and in the public comments on the Times story, and they’ve challenged my assumptions and stretched my thinking on the matter.)

So here’s what i’d say if I could punch a hole in time and send a message to myself on the day, almost exactly 35 years ago, that I graduated from Horace Mann:

You’re not going to believe this, but 35 years from now, H.M. is going to be on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. The humongous article will tell the world, in voluminous detail and with pained concern, about a “secret history of sexual abuse” at the school. Some of the events have already happened, while you were here; most are still to come.

It’s a story about troubled people abusing power, about changing mores and standards, and also about institutional failure and betrayal. A big story, I’d say. And — sorry to break the news — but you missed it.

You were the editor of the Record! You and your friends prided yourselves on attempting to tell the full story of life at the school in print every week! You published exposes of pot-dealing and polled the student body of drug use and thought, in those post-Watergate years, that you were ripping the lid off the truth. But you missed something bigger and more consequential.

I guess you couldn’t have done otherwise. You’re all of 18 years old. You think you know everything — but you’re smart enough to realize how wrong you are, too.

So now that you know this, I want you to think about two lessons.

One lesson for your work: The story you think you’re living is almost never the story of your time that the future will write. For journalists this is, and should be, humbling. It should make you ask questions every time you think you’ve told the truth about a situation. What’s the next layer down? There’s always another one. Never believe you’ve gotten to the bottom of anything. Even if you’ve done a good job, the world keeps rethinking everything. And those decades-spanning changes in how we think and live are the ones will make your head explode. Expect it.

Also, one lesson for your life: Eccentricity can be inspiring. What many of your Horace Mann teachers did, with their arrogance and their mystique and the cults that some of them spun around their subjects and themselves, can be amazingly effective at persuading monkey-minded adolescents to buckle down and care about science, literature, math, Latin, or music. The cult of learning can be beautiful — but it can also be a stalking-horse for something destructive and dangerous, ugly and evil. When seductive eccentricity crosses a line into control and victimization, it becomes a curse, and it can wreck lives.

Like a lot of your teenage friends, you’ve done a pretty good job of distinguishing between these kinds of eccentricity and avoiding the kind that could hurt you. Good for you. But not everyone is as confident or as fortunate. Kids can’t reasonably be expected to draw all the lines that adults, by rights, ought to be drawing for them. It’s up to institutions like schools (and churches, businesses, and governments!) to organize themselves in a way that leaves room for creativity while protecting the participants from abuse. Power always requires accountability. There are no exceptions.

That’s hard. But it’s something adults owe the children they’re raising. Try to remember that!

And then, if I can run this conceit out one more step, I think my newly minted Horace Mann graduate self would probably say something like this in response:

Thanks for the feel-good message on graduation day! There’s not much I can do with what you’ve told me, is there? Shouldn’t you have used your time-lord powers to dump sermons on the Horace Mann trustees?

Teach me this trick and maybe I can deliver you some wisdom in your retirement home. In the meantime, I’ve got a suggestion to throw back at you.

Yeah, I do think I know everything. But I also know I’m actually still a kid. I don’t yet know who I am, but you do, right?

Forget about Horace Mann. You live 3000 miles away from the place now, anyway. You should take all this introspection and turn it on that future world you’re living in.

I know that one of the things that happens to people as they get older is that they become more willing to just go along with the patterns in their lives, to accept a “that’s the way the world is” complacency. Fight that, will you?

You can’t do anything about what happened decades ago. But look around now, in your “now.” Find the stories that are the ones that one day, you’re going to wish somebody had told sooner. Tell them.

Point and match to the 18-year-old. What could I possibly say in response to that except, “I’ll try”?

Post Revisions:

  • 9 June, 2012 @ 9:26 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
  • 9 June, 2012 @ 8:57 by Scott Rosenberg

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Comments

  1. Amy Schwartz

    Scott, what a great piece.

    And the second box you reproduce above? With the notice of the organizational meeting Sept. 17? Well, that would be the notice box that brought me to you and the Record . . . and changed the course of my life.

  2. Hm. Well, evidently we have somewhat different recollections of Horace Mann. “Made room for the weird kids?” More like, totally oblivious, and with a hostile culture. The most miserable time of my life, other than my divorce, obviously.

    Though, I too never encountered anything like sexual abuse. Of course, I also loathed much of the faculty, and can’t imagine any of them thinking I was a likely compliant subject.

  3. Mark

    To Greg,

    It is as if your comment was a direct quote from me.

    I always tell people when they ask me about my time at HM. Especially when they call to solicit donations. That HM was the most miserable time of my entire life.

    I too never encountered any substantive sexual abuse, although there were some overly intense in class shoulder rubs from Kops when he substituted briefly for one of my teachers.

    I also loathed most of the faculty and their contemptuous attitude toward the students, and can’t imagine any of them thinking I was a likely compliant subject for their pedophilia…

    As much as I have always disliked HM and have done my best to distance myself from both the place and the experiences I had there, these revelations serve to make me realize that the place was even more evil than I perceived it to be.

    Shame on anyone in power at the time who heard these allegations and ignored them or helped to cover them up. You are just as guilty as the perpetrators themselves.

    Shame on you for allowing young people to be mishandled and damaged by the known predilections of these sick old men.

  4. You were the editor of the Record! You and your friends prided yourselves on attempting to tell the full story of life at the school in print every week! You published exposes of pot-dealing and polled the student body of drug use and thought, in those post-Watergate years, that you were ripping the lid off the truth. But you missed something bigger and more consequential.

    I was the news editor of The Record in 2000-2001, and this rings very very true to my ears. I’ve thought it repeatedly since I finished reading Amos’ account on Wednesday.

  5. Jerome

    Scott, I maintain we did know, and simply took for granted our own power and that of our classmates to draw the line with overly solicitous faculty members. This behavior was considered a private matter in that era. We put up with ass-grabbing in English class and underwear displays in History; this was in seventh grade, and elicited humor rather than outrage. In tenth grade, Mr. Tharp would let a cigarette fume in his ashtray for the entire length of every class. All unthinkable today.

    Did we not all read Catcher in the Rye in eighth grade? Official corruption, including the sexual, was something to contend with and grow through, if one did not wish to land among the fallen. HM was so much about that tension between cosmic understanding and the corporate spirit.

    I do wish I’d vociferously objected to that cigarette. Here’s to those who fought back.

  6. Dan Melamed

    Dear Scott:

    This is a very fine reflection. I think you are right about the value that so many of us took from the (legitimately ) eccentric teachers; on the NYT comments, an alum astutely calls this the “long leash” that HM teachers were given. Used responsibly (that is, not criminally), this was inspiring, but it evidently also served as a cover for abuse.

    I knew about some of this; I was clearly groomed and set up myself but the chairman of the molestation department never moved in for the kill. Much of this was insidiously portrayed as mutual and romantic, which was part of the deception and of the method. Some of it (particularly the cults around certain teachers) was passed off as intellectually sophisticated, which is doubly repugnant.

    The really difficult issue now–the one you address–is what we could have done about this as students. You are extra hard on yourself as a journalist. But I think there is little we could have done that would have been believed or acted on. In fact that’s the problem (beyond the sex predation itself): Adults did things to kids, and the grown-ups in charge chose to protect the adults, not the youth.

    What, then, could we really have done other than steer people away from dangerous situations?I know it sounds like an excuse but it might well be true–and no less for the editor of the Record than for anyone else.

    I received a great education at HM but find myself wondering whether it was at the expense of my classmates’ lifelong well-being.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Dan Melamed HM ’78

  7. Scott Rosenberg

    Everyone: Thanks for all the comments and thoughts.

    Amy: pure coincidence that I grabbed that paper to post. But there it is. Happy to have rung that bell! I still remember the room and the meeting and how cool it was to have a whipsmart 9th-grade girl show up and want to learn about reporting.

    Greg, Mark: Sounds like we have different memories *and* probably had different experiences. I don’t doubt yours are as valid as mine, but they don’t match mine.

    Jerome: I should have known you’d come up with the most substantive challenging response! I’m with you about 2/3 of the way.

    We *did* know there were teachers who were bad news. Some of us were more adept than others at maneuvering around those teachers who gave off those vibes.

    And yes, for sure: “Those were different times.” Today’s vocabulary around this issue did not exist then.

    And yes, even, I think, to the idea that we believed we had power to draw the line ourselves.

    What the Times piece — and subsequent further testimonials by our classmates and graduates from other classes — made clear, at least to me, is that for everything that we did know, there was more that we didn’t. The “more” being, not the ass-grabbing and cigarette-smoking you mention, but all the details of the seriously over-the-line molestation that these accounts describe. The stuff that, plainly, as we now know, can and in some cases did destroy lives.

    I don’t think I knew about any of that. Much of it seems to have happened in the years after you and I left the school. But there’s also perhaps some connection or continuum between the misdemeanor-level infractions that “everyone knew about” in our era and the worse things we are now learning about.

  8. ML Frank

    Scott, thanks for giving words to some of the confusion stirring my thoughts and emotions. Above, you concluded your comment suggesting “… some connection or continuum between the misdemeanor-level infractions that “everyone knew about” in our era and the worse things …” Exactly.

  9. Allison Sands

    Scott, Thanks for sharing. So well written. We all knew there were odd teachers and that things went on. In speaking to about 10 individuals from the class of ’78 to ’86 many of us kids chose to walk far away from some of the creepy teachers who made us feel uncomfortable.
    Allison Sands
    Class of ’82

  10. Scott,

    I too thought: All those issues of The Record, and we missed the big story!

    Your lesson rings true:
    “Find the stories that are the ones that one day, you’re going to wish somebody had told sooner. Tell them.”

    But what a high bar that sets. To step out of one’s time and see what we don’t let ourselves, or can’t, see.

    Meanwhile, I’m still swimming in memories of Clark and Kops and Somary and Wright. I see them all vibrant, in their prime — I had no idea their lives were all train wrecks-in-progress.

    The past keeps changing.

    Charlie
    (HM 76)

  11. Scott Rosenberg

    Charlie –

    Yes, I agree — it’s a high bar.

    I think the only thing I can add here is that you were my first example at setting the bar high!

  12. Jerome

    Hi Charlie. I disagree with the premise that we missed this story in the late 1970s. Even now, there was no story until the last alleged offender left the scene. A story for us would have required an indictment, a public document. Not a mere allegation, and not even a faculty or staff dismissal. If I’m wrong about this, perhaps one or more of our editors can describe how they’d have structured a contemporaneous story, given what we’ve learned.

    This topic came up at my class’s last reunion, with our Governor present but probably not party to that conversation. It’s difficult to be shocked by any human story, but we marveled at the sorts of behaviors we’d accepted as ordinary when they were happening.

  13. Marc

    Thanks for launching this exchange, Scott…I think Jerome has it right: We surely thought we knew something back when we were 16 and 17, but what we “knew” then is rather different from what the Times tells us now, different from what we know now, and differently understood in the context of our current era of sensitivity and evolved mores about abuse and other such problems.
    It’s too tempting to judge our young selves by today’s zero-tolerance mentality, when in fact the 70s at HM were a time of extraordinary experimentation in so many ways. That’s not to excuse the molestation, which is appalling, of course. But in every single case we’ve all been discussing over the past week, there are alumni who vociferously defend each teacher as well as others who view them as monsters. There is gray in each case. There was gray then, which is a large part of why we never said anything, to authorities, to our parents, barely even to each other. And there remains gray, in our memories and in our collective desire to understand why we can still have affection for Somary’s genius, Kops’ intellectual enthusiasm, or Clark’s infectious love of learning, even as we know them in a new and disturbing way.

  14. Scott Rosenberg

    To be clear, by “missing the story” I’m not literally suggesting that we should have done an investigative series on sexual malfeasance in 1976. I mean the phrase in a wider sense. Our first draft of history omitted something that now turns out to be pretty significant. And of course it did, and would.

    For me, the salient lesson is, this is not some isolated instance of blindness to a particular phenomenon that we’re now wiser to. It’s a fact of life all the time. We can’t describe the water we’re swimming in. And for those of us doing journalism or trying to tell the stories of our times, that remains hugely humbling. And this HM story was a big slap-in-the-face reminder of that.

  15. Barb

    There are many kids at Horace Mann whose parents pay a staff of tutors to make it through. It is a school for really smart kids. However, many parents feel the need of preserving their status by keeping kids there. That makes them vulnerable to the power of teachers… it shouldn´t be the case. Who to blame? Parents, parents, parents. If your kid doesn´t belong there because of socio-economic status or because he or she is not as smart, don´t send them!!!! I´m reading comments about “being the worst years of my life”. Not the case with my kids. I don´t pay tutors, they have wonderful teachers, I keep an eye on every single aspect of their lives, and they are truly happy.

  16. Bob F.

    Scott,
    Thanks. This is a painful for moment for many and for different reasons. I also very much appreciate Marc’s comment about “gray.” There is a great deal I wish to say but am unable to do so here.

  17. Ed Lay

    Rather than gray, I see swirls of black and white, gray only from a distance; If there is so much more black than we knew at the time, the white is undimmed by it, though in no way does it excuse or compensate for the black.

    Sorry if this a bit elliptical, like many of us, I’m still processing.

    Greg, I remember you as one of the more fully realized people from my time at HM. No doubt that was more problematic for the powers that be than the unbaked cookie I was back then.

    Thank you Scott for both the original article and this space.

  18. I’ve been digging through boxes in my garage for Jerome Slote’s 1976 HM Record story about drug use on campus. This story earned Jerome and Charlie Varon, the Record’s editor, suspensions. The following year, I wrote a story for the Record on Mike Malkan’s, a bar on East 79th Street in Manhattan that catered to HM students and other under-age drinkers. You were editor then, Scott, and I appreciate your running my first story in the Record. The administration stopped short of suspending us, but a red-faced Robert McCardell, the paper’s faculty advisor, pulled me from math class. Trembling with anger, he escorted me to the headmaster’s office where a reporter for the New York Post waited to interview me about the story. Considering the allegations of child sexual abuse by faculty and allegations that Headmaster Clark entertained students with gin and tonics, I can only think that stories about student drug use and drinking crept a little too close for comfort. In hindsight, it’s easier to explain the administration’s distaste for the real reporting that Charlie brought to the Record.

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