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Horace Mann Abuse, a Pink Mohawk, and Me

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Like most Horace Mann alums, I read Sunday's New York Times article about the alleged sexual abuse of students by teachers with horror and sadness. I was also shocked, but not surprised. Many HM alums had enriching, enlivening educations, but my time there, from 1985 to 1987, for seventh and eighth grade, were the worst two years of my life.

This was only partly due to the school -- I was stewing in a toxic brew of hormones, family issues, and my own narrative arc crashing around those universally awful ages. (There's a reason a gut-wrenching movie was called 13, not 31.) But the school was also a particularly unhappy place for a multi-color-haired, combat-booted, artsy girl, or anyone slightly "different" -- by sartorially questionable choice or otherwise. The unspoken values I experienced at HM were in stark contrast to the warm-n-fuzzy ethos of my Quaker elementary school: compete and conform. You could probably say that about nearly any New York City private school at that time (and now, likely), but I didn't go to those.

I went to Horace Mann, and reading the school's lawyered-up response to the Times piece, I saw my entire, hideous junior high experience writ large. "Providing our students with the best education possible is our top priority," begins the second paragraph of its letter to the HM community. Next sentence: "At the same time, a critical component of our mission is to create and maintain a safe and secure environment..." First, "top" and "same time" = not possible. Second, color me crazy, but shouldn't the top "top priority" be safety? As in, make sure no one is secretly schtupping the kids, then helping them get into the top tier school of their parents' dreams?

Sorry, when I get angry, I get snarky. I'm angry in part because of the school's abysmal, inadequate response. In the Times article and this letter, Horace Mann is stonewalling -- Not our problem! It could never happen now! -- while the administration, its lawyers, and PR team could be learning from the wreckage of the Catholic Church, Penn State, and others to offer its community transparency, humility, and remorse.

Plus, a school spokesperson told the Times, "We can't comment on the past." Really? While the school is celebrating its 125 anniversary, it has a lot of fund-raising and recruiting tactics resting on that past, also known by its more marketable name: tradition. And records were lost in a fire? In an attic? That may be true, but a school should know that it sounds an awful lot like blaming a homework-eating dog.

I'm also angry because this same vibe -- protect the brand above all else -- permeated my days for two years. I was not molested, but I had my creepy episodes. A crusty, often explosive dean once sent me home for a ripped skirt because, as he said, staring at me intently, "I can see your panties." Another teacher seemed to have a crush on me: he often called me in for private conferences to "talk;" he asked me to re-hand-write my essay, "Anarchy + Utopia = Peace" (ah, to be 13), so he could have a personal copy; and he used content of another essay to approach the boy I liked to ask him how he felt about me. That teacher was booted after weeks of odd behavior -- like singing "Get Off of My Cloud" during class apropos of nothing -- culminating in him throwing lacrosse balls at us.

On the Horace Mann Facebook alumni forums there are similar tales -- which I have been reading greedily, finally realizing I had company in feeling tortured by a harsh culture ruled by pressure to get into a top tier college by most means necessary. As a student I also made the mistake of being obviously, visually different. (Though by today's standards a girl with a hot pink mohawk would likely not elicit more than a "where'd you get your hair dye?") Kids regularly sneered rebel at me like it was the C-word; one guy tossed pennies at me in the cafeteria to many laughs; teachers told me regularly to dye my hair a normal color.

I mean duh, of course that happened: I was basically wearing a clown suit to the country club. I wanted attention. But actually, mainly, I was expressing myself. Yes, loudly -- I was an angsty adolescent, but also one of the "creative" kids, writing terrible poems and making clothing out of beach towels. But in a place that pathologized difference, self-expression was not welcome. There was a lot of academic talk adulating critical thinking and diversity, but none of it seemed to apply to our daily reality.

What do conformity and casual cruelty have to do with a history of decades of alleged sexual abuse? Well, Horace Mann's cultural DNA -- its past, its history, its tradition -- is embedded with many things. Some positive -- stamina, tenacity, endurance, sharpness of thinking, factual recall, logic -- some negative: intolerance of difference, emotion, and self-expression; extreme deference to authority; and value on appearances and reputation above all else. All of these contributed to an environment that effectively silenced ugly truths, big feelings, and anything that endangered the endowment.

In his horrifying and beautiful New York Times piece, Amos Kamil says the school is different today. Current students echo this on the Times' comments thread. I am less optimistic. I don't claim to know Horace Mann today -- it's been decades since I stepped toe on its admittedly lovely campus. But I do know from years of my own therapy and introspection that what's past is present. I have a lot to learn from that pissy pre-teen I once was.

The conditions that created a situation don't magically vanish just because the clock has rolled forward. Things change when we bring awareness, shed light, and look at what we don't want to see. And when we don't look -- out fearing how ugly truths will damage us -- they fester. I don't see Horace Mann looking in the mirror. I want honesty and transparency and a willingness to look past appearances into what is true. I want to hear: We obviously don't know everything about our past. We will look into it. We are sorry for thinking we knew everything -- then and now. Until the school calls for an investigation of the rotted parts of its past, to examine the burnt papers in the attic (so to speak), there's no way to know whether current students are safe.

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