Last week, I was sitting outside a classroom at the community college where I teach. My eyes were leveled at the floor, watching student and faculty feet pass by in sneakers, or heels, or grimed Ugg boots. Then, a pair of sockless feet slipped into worn boat shoes, and above that, bright red chino shorts. I looked up and watched this out of place prepster pass down the hall and disappear into the crowd, and then I trailed this ghost back to Phillips Exeter.
I was fourteen when I started classes there, a smart kid from a run down former mill town ten miles from the Academy. I was a day student, driven to school each morning and then retrieved by my father each night while the boarding students remained in their stolid walled dorms. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. In our class portrait that first year, I am in the front row, flagrantly violating dress code in a faded flannel shirt and jeans, the thrift store blazer that never fit me well tossed somewhere out on the quad.
People didn’t talk much about money directly at Exeter, but we knew who among us went on the day trips to Boston to shop for clothes on Newbury Street, and whom one might see in the lending library in the basement of the admissions building borrowing a paperback copy of Hamlet instead of buying one.
I was in agony in most every class at Exeter. Classes there are discussion based and small, and the oval tables at which we sat had no corners and thus, no places to hide. Cripplingly shy, I rarely spoke, and every semester took my grade reports with their tone of head-shaking bewilderment that I would not open my mouth even to save my GPA. I sat through every class sweating, heart pounding, willing myself invisible.
The past few weeks, stories have appeared in the local and national press about teachers at Exeter who had sex with students decades ago. We have received several carefully worded letters from the school administration attempting to explain to us what happened and why it was handled the way it was. On the closed Facebook groups for alumni, the tone is varied. Disappointment, anger, frustration, defensive crouching, but also frequent pleas to our better natures and to the training we were taught there–to assemble, to listen, to argue from evidence.
I was listening to NHPR the other day, and a guest on the show, speaking about these cases at Exeter said, “Well, you have to understand, these schools are a different world.” I know what he means, having been an alien in that country. The money flowing through that place, and the power, and the privilege that I cannot resent because without it, they would not have their stockpiles of scholarship for a kid like me. The reserve, the hush, the eye to reputation and name, the Latin above the great doors, the cupped divots worn into the marble stairs in the Academy Building by generations of students, the instinct to “handle it quietly.”
At the very beginning of my first year at Exeter, we gathered for Assembly and to sing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” It’s a plodding Protestant hymn I’d never heard before, and I had never learned to read music either, so I kept my head low until it ended. I knew Catholic hymns, post-Vatican II 60’s style guitar and choral numbers, and the chanting of the priest while I stood by his elbow as an altar server. The secret, sanctified dark of the sacristy where I pulled my robe on and cinched and knotted my rope belt. Where I learned the names of all the vestments, the chasuble, the alb. Where I learned poetry.
My father grew up in a parish that Father Geoghan rotated through as he was passed from place to place abusing children. I read about the priest sex abuse, watched Spotlight and all that, and felt my guts twist. As a child, I was alone in the church with the priest many times before the early morning services, in the broken, multi-colored light through the stained glass. I fetched and carried, eager as a dog, and I would have done anything I was asked by this man who was our magical bridge to God, who whispered words only I could hear as I poured the water to wash his hands before communion.
I know many people, wearied of these abuses, want to throw off all the tradition and ritual that surround them, and oftentimes obscure them from view. These institutions are slow to change if they do at all, and quick to draw in and protect themselves. They are conservative in the original sense of the word. I know that, if not for pressure to modernize, liberalize, I would never have worn those server’s robes in the Church, and I would never have set my shabby sneakers into those marble toeholds at Exeter. The feet on those stairs over the last centuries were all Wasp boys’ first. Then they were the feet of a black boy in the 1860s, and of the four white Kentucky boys who demanded (unsuccessfully) that he be expelled. The feet were boys’ feet exclusively until the school turned coed in the seventies. In 1996, while I was a student, a new Latin engraving added girls to the summons to come and be educated.
The teachers at Exeter who admitted to the sexual encounters with students claimed they were consensual. In at least one case, the student was under the age of 18. Some of the voices on the alumni fora online decry the sullying of the the school’s reputation over questionable circumstances. In any context, sex between a teacher and student is beyond questionable. At Exeter, where the majority of students live on campus, teachers serve not only as teachers, but in the place of parents. All the usual teenage angsts and anxieties are compounded, breathing that rarefied air while scrambling to keep up. It’s high altitude education. The normal susceptibility of adolescents to special attention from a figure of authority is greater in such a place, with parents nowhere nearby, and those authorities must therefore be even more restrained. There were so many days I felt erased at Exeter, trailing my scraps of self confidence behind me, swooning in my juvenile crushes on teachers. To feel seen, recognized, by one such man would be heady enough. To feel desired by one would be another order of magnitude, overwhelming the capacity of an adolescent frontal lobe. Exeter students often seem unusually poised, the way precocious children so often seem old for their age. The ideas and arguments they make in classes are sophisticated and intelligent and they are young and beautiful to look at. And of course, teenagers all think they’re adults, that they can handle it, that wisdom does not exist, or, if it does, that it is doled equally to sixteen year olds and sixty year olds alike. For a young teacher, it’s not hard to see where temptation might creep in along with a retinue of justifications. But where the individual is weak and cannot take the strain, the institution must step in, must be the conscience of the place, and must be the absolute defenders of these vulnerable kids. The Church’s failure in this is utter and obvious. Exeter’s is less so, but still, there have been failings.
Despite everything, all their failings, I love the Church I grew up in, and I love Exeter, which changed the whole course of my life. I met my husband there, and our children came to be because of Exeter. My elder son serves at the altar now, though in the Episcopal Church of his father’s upbringing. Though I am lapsed, I feel the memory of all those Sundays, kneeling, attentive, in service to the Mystery, then standing, ready to wash the priest’s hands, our heads bent toward each other, I would tip the silver ewer as he said, “Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me of my sins.”