It seems many of us from the Northfield Class of 1970 feel estranged from our experience there. We were the last class of “Northfield School” before the merger with Mount Hermon. One hundred percent of our classes and our lives were spent on the Northfield campus which now feels more like Brigadoon than alma mater.
Even when I lived there I felt a bit like an outsider because I was assigned to live in one of the two “off-campus” dorms that housed a total of about fifty students. There was Northfield campus, and there was Moore-Daley. We weren’t quite day students, but we weren’t in the heart of the campus either. That long, wind-pummeled Bookstore Path, the occasional voluntary stroll for most students, was a four-times-a-day slog for us living in either Moore Cottage or Daley House. Out and back in the morning, out and back in the afternoon. The time others spend bonding with classmates we spent walking.
Being a teenager is crazy enough, but being a teenager living more or less monastically in a remote location during the late 1960s was surrealistic. We lived there when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. We were there when Bobby Kennedy was killed. For me, and I suspect for many of us, there were no ‘in loco parentis’ adults present to help us make sense of that insanity; Moore Cottage’s buxom old house mother and strict ‘dummy’ instructor were not trained to do trauma counseling. They usually treated us like kids who needed to mind our studies and nothing else.
Then everything changed Monday, May 4th, 1970. I know exactly where I was when I heard the news. I was sunbathing with a few other seniors, wallowing in the freedom of no final exams. After all, we had our places firmly secured in the colleges of our choices, and felt we had earned a break. The music on my transistor radio was suddenly interrupted soon after 12:24pm. Four students had been shot and killed at Kent State University. Nine more were injured. “Welcome to the real world, kiddos. This is the new normal.”
My best friend at Northfield for all three years was Leslie Simmons. She was my roommate sophomore year when I arrived at the school for the first time, just five days after the sudden death of my father. Her family was so kind to me, her dad especially. We stayed in touch after graduation, and I remained friends with Leslie’s parents. Her mom was talking with Les and me once, and she told us something I have never forgotten.
“You know,” she said, “people your age, your exact age, have a unique bond between you. Just when kids are supposed to be building their own sense of self by rebelling and pushing back against their parents, many of your parents were questioning everything themselves as well, providing a flimsy backboard at best. You demanded we make sense of the madness of assassinations in our own country, and we had no explanation. You wore armbands to Sacred Concert on May 10th, the Sunday following Kent State. Many of us parents (especially alums) were stunned by those black armbands boldly worn over the white dresses and dark suits of the students from both campuses, but the fathers and uncles among us had never been assigned a draft number that basically said if they had a drop in their college grad point average they would be shipped half way around the world to be shot at. And now, because of Kent State, you realized even a 4.0 GPA wouldn’t save you.
“You in the Class of 1970 left boarding school and entered a maelstrom of insanity, and at the same time were asked to invest in a future that was far from clear. Never forget, you grew up in a moment like no other. So if at times you feel just a bit more insecure than folks a little older or a little younger than you, remember you came by it honestly.”
I have mixed feelings about my time at Northfield, sweet and salty. But for better or worse, these are my roots, the only roots I have. When others say high school, I think Northfield. I think of Mr. Shin and Miss Palmer who have influenced my entire life. Taosim and a love of writing, what more could I want? Faith in nature, faith in oneself, and the ability to write about both.
Northfield was a strange time, one that I still mine for all the uranium and gold it had to offer.