Monday, June 19, 1995
WHEN MY PREP SCHOOL HAD CLASS
NORTHFIELD — When my classmates and I began life as freshmen at Mount Hermon School in the late 1960s, we seldom were seen without ties around our smooth little necks, attended chapel five times a week — twice some Sundays — and sat in assigned seats at meals, with the exception of Sunday breakfast. It was up to us whether we ate.
We carried six courses plus a speed-reading class, worked with the grounds crew and the kitchen staff, and served hitches as waiters, enduring the gleeful ovations of hundreds of schoolmates whenever we dropped a tray.
An untidy room might be rewarded with a demerit; a class or chapel absence was worth three. Nine, if memory serves, meant probation, but I can’t imagine what was left for them to do to us.
For those who found the system somewhat stifling, and there were few of us who did not, there were curmudgeonly “profs” who related how, in the time of founder D. L. Moody — when Mount Hermon was a “real school” — playing cards and Hearst publications were forbidden, and students rose at 4 a.m. to milk cows and muck out stalls and were grateful for the opportunity.
Yet 25 years later, as we gathered the weekend before last for a reunion, I found that my classmates looked back on their years on “The Hill” with pride and deep affection, even if as students they had rechristened the place “The Hog.”
Certainly, we are now at a remove from which we can appreciate the rigor, discipline and worship that framed our education, whether as adults we jog 3 miles each day, as some of us do, or sit home, watch C-SPAN and snort coke, as one classmate said he had taken to doing.
One dormitory neighbor from my sophomore year told me over the weekend that Mount Hermon, which enjoyed a relationship with Northfield School for Girls described in brochures as “co-education with a five-mile hyphen,” had helped him in his dealings with the opposite sex. He did not say whether he had learned how to deal with women, or how not to.
Relationships with Northfield girls were cultivated through the mail, and it would be difficult to overstate our preoccupation with the postman’s twice- daily comings and goings.
Envelopes were sniffed at once for the presence of perfume — a sure sign love was in full bloom — and inspected to see if postage had been applied upside down — a promise of unspeakable delights.
Saturday nights we were delivered to each other’s campuses and herded to well-chaperoned affairs. Public display of affection was verboten, except for 20 debauchery-filled minutes in the parking lot at night’s end known as recitation — in honor of a nearby classroom building that has since burned down — although not in ardor. The cardinal rule during recitation was that couples remain upright.
Vast changes took place at Hermon during our years on the Hill. By the time my generation of Hoggers graduated in 1970, the chapter on neckties had been deleted from the student handbook and chapel attendance was by and large optional. A caterer had taken over cavernous West Hall and installed a cafeteria. Attendance there was no longer required, but who could stay away? — we could drink soda with every meal. A separate student union had been sanctioned for black students.
This liberalization, which as students we certainly welcomed, reflected an institution searching for new solutions in a country racked by assassinations, racial unrest and an unpopular war.
Institutions have a way of being unkind to transitional figures. I suspect, although I have only the evidence of my intuition that the school came to look upon my class, if gently, as spoiled children. I would not want to make too much of this, since few of us, I think, were the committed idealists we wanted to be taken for. On the other hand, it did not seem a particularly outrageous bunch who after 25 years poured forth from their Volvos with spouses and children in tow.
Coeducation is the greatest change that has since visited Hermon. Although my senior year a handful of classes were opened up to students from both campuses and the school newspaper was renamed The Bridge, coeducation at Northfield Mount Hermon today is an entirely unhyphenated proposition.
Saturday night of reunion weekend, several of us old-timers gathered outside a large tent, perhaps because music from KC and the Sunshine Band was playing inside. A young man wearing shorts, a baseball cap and a “class of ’90” name tag on his T-shirt lurched over and, wringing every last drop
from a Bud Light, explained how, in the twinkling of an eye, he had conquered Northfield Mount Hermon, then Cornell and now the Fortune 500. Give him 10 years, he said, and he’d have a PhD and would be teaching others how it was done.
“How ’bout choo?” he asked me.
“I haven’t done anything,” I said. “I work for a newspaper.”
“Shoot, man, that’s too bad.”
“But I’ll tell you one thing,” I said, adjusting my tie, “when I went to this place, it was a real school.”