The fact that almost none of us knew him would likely lead you to think that while we would certainly feel disturbed, sorry, and sad for the family of the Junior High School student who fell to his death from an 11th floor dance studio at the Dalton School last Wednesday, we would fairly quickly move on. But, then, you probably didn't go to Dalton. What we are, truly, is devastated.
While the headlines are focused on the dark dramatics of the event (quickly changing the headlined description from a fall to a plunge), the so-called elite nature of our school and its several famous alumni, these stories have and will continue to miss the ineffable quality of what it actually meant to go to school there. To wit; I am thirty-six years old and nearly all of my closest friends remain Daltonians, which, as I explained to someone recently, is the proper way to refer to an alumnus. This type of life-long friendship is typical of those of us who attended the school that begins at the nursery level and, spanning two buildings (forever known as Little and Big Dalton respectively), goes all the way through High School. Even those of us who didn't stay through graduation or start as small children remember it well, though to spend upwards of twelve years there as I did, is very common.
As evidenced by the growing numbers of us gathering over the past year in class groups on Facebook, compulsively uploading old photos and lovingly rehashing old grievances, we remember. We remember the warm smell and busy thrum of the cafeteria, squeezing into overcrowded elevators when we were old enough not to have to climb the mountain of stairs, the particular way you threw your body against the heavy doors to get in or out -- that very desire to get in, and then the almost palpable need to get out. We remember the words used that no one elsewhere could ever quite translate, still completely evocative of what they referenced; House and Lab, Greek Festival and Phase, Candlelighting and Arch Day. We remember the teachers we loved (and occasionally tormented), many of whom remain there and with whom some of us maintain strong bonds.
There are changes, of course; spaces redecorated, rooms moved, facilities expanded. The semi-famous spiny black gate enclosing it all was taken down several years ago. Naturally the technology is vastly improved; we had two pay-phones and a bunch of first generation computers big as trunks with no such thing as email or internet much less iphones or communication via bbm. These differences, are virtually all superficial, however. When you come right down to it Dalton is still as much our school as it ever was and so come the thoughts we can't now shake. For we too played on 89th street between Park & Lex every day as fourth graders. We can still recall who you did or didn't want on your dodgeball team. So, when we imagine the unimaginable...When we think of the boy and his family and his teachers and coaches and friends...
I can remember other things, when pressed. How important it was to succeed, socially, athletically, artistically and, of course, academically. It wasn't just getting into college; that was a given, but getting into one with a name we could proudly flaunt on our Champions brand sweatshirts. By mid-high school (and sooner for some) receipt of that necessarily hefty acceptance letter became so important there was little room left for anything else. It was a profoundly stimulating environment at Dalton, but not exactly a spiritual one. Living in the moment could not really be encouraged when every moment was in preparation for another one, the thing after this thing. But Dalton is indeed a prep school and I can honestly say, have often said, I was perfectly prepared for college.
One may ask at what cost, this preparation, and one is right to ask. At what level does such pressure, alone or on top of whatever else is being contended with personally, become too much for a young person to bear? I do not know what drove this widely acknowledged, beloved and gifted young man to end his life or to do it at Dalton in the way he did. Right now it really doesn't matter.
What matters is the loss of him. And it matters, I believe, that his family and all those who loved him know he has legions of people mourning for him in places across the world, simply because of their abiding connection to Dalton. I know that our school will survive this tragedy because its community is deep and devoted; its teachers unparalleled in their commitment to the thriving of each student, and its students -- beyond whatever typical gossip and drama -- unequaled in their love for one another.
For all of us Daltonians who are thinking of all of you: Keep your beacons burning. Gather your courage and lean on each other. We are willing you our collective strength and resolve. Go on until you can again go forth. Do it in his name.