Monday, March 25, 2013

Boarding School Years - Protestant (Part I)

This journey back in time might take a couple of days . . .     .
My father's plan for all of us kids was that we would attend boarding school, as he and his brothers had done.  I ended up at what was then the Northfield School for Girls, founded by evangelist D.L. Moody in the 1870s.  The Mount Hermon School for Boys has been opened a couple of years later across the Connecticut River.  D.L. or Dr. Moody -- we tended to refer to him one way or the other -- envisioned schools that would provide outstanding educations for young people unable to afford the traditional New England prep school fees.  In fact, he saw Northfield as a base for preparing young women to become missionaries, whom he thought should go into the field only with the best of academics in their pockets.  He was born here, at the foot of what is still the Northfield Campus:

When people hear that I went to one of the schools founded by Dr. Moody, they immediately think "evangelist" and "Moody Bible Institute."  In fact, Northfield is an extremely progressive school. 

We were indeed required to attend chapel daily. (Okay, yes: I could tell you all the ways to exempt yourself without drawing the attention of the attendance takers, but in fact I loved chapel.  I would have described myself as an atheist in those days, but I reveled in the mid-morning respite, and I loved the music and preaching which came our way via some of New England's finest.) 

We were also required to take a religion course each year, which for my three years there meant the required classes in OT and NT and then an elective. Those first two classes meant that much of my first year of seminary decades later was a repeat ~ a good thing, due to the 35-40 hours a week I had to invest in keeping afloat in Greek.    And as one of my friends has since said, "Isn't it amazing that they took us so seriously?  That our first discussion in religion at the age of 15 was on the documentary hypothesis?"

My senior year elective provided me with an introduction to Freud, Bonhoeffer, Tillich ~ and, as usual, the more important learning that takes place outside the classroom.  It was the teacher for that course who asked me, as we walked to class through the snow one morning, where I was applying to college, and then castigated us all as "so parochial" in our reluctance to leave New England.  ( I later discovered that his degrees were from Chapel Hill, Duke, and Vanderbilt, which would explain why he recommended those schools to me that morning!)  At any rate, I did go to college in New England, but I have never forgotten that conversation. and have tried hard to be less parochial in my adult life.  I can't say that I've succeed, but I have tried.)
When I realized during my 9th grade year that a move from the comfort of the Catholic boarding school in which I had been ensconced since 7th grade was inevitable, I started looking closely at the catalogs that came via mail.  My father, I suppose, liked Northfield because the small classes were all run seminar-style around big tables, and because of its stratospheric academic reputation.  I was too angry to pay attention to those things.
I liked Northfield for one reason, and one reason only.  Most of the schools seemed to have been created entirely for wealthy New England families; even the dress code requirements reeked of elitism.  But Northfield girls, I discovered, had to work ~ preparing and cleaning up from all meals, cleaning the halls and classrooms ~ an hour each day. It was called "domestic work" ~ "dummy" was our name for it ~ and it governed our lives.  The biggest barrier to a week-end away from campus was finding someone to take over your dummy job -- either as an exchange or for pay.  I recall how flabbergasted we all were when one of our friends didn't show up for dummy -- she simply forgot.  You might forget your algebra assignment, but how could you possibly forget dummy?
This photo is from slightly before my era -- we did wear those smocks, but our caps were not so hideous.  The image is one of my very favorite dummy assignment ~ after-dinner tins.  Many girls hated tins ~ it was hard work to scrub those pots and pans clean!  But . . .  tins took so long for our dorm of 60 girls that it inevitably cut into our evening 7:00-9:30 study hall, during which we were supposed to be in our rooms or in the library.  Senior year we could go and do whatever we wanted, but after-dinner tins was how I took care of the problem junior year.   On warm spring evenings, we turned up the radio and danced around the  kitchen for a long as we could, until Mrs. Powell materialized to say, "Girls!  The tins!"
I was not a good student in high school (actually, except for English and French and 12th grade religion, I was a TERRIBLE student in high school), and I was a fairly miserable person in general.  But in retrospect, those days ~ from algebra (a disaster on a par with Greek) to preachers from Harvard and Yale and musicians from Julliard, from Tillich to T.S. Elliot to tins ~ they did have the predicted influence on my life.  They made me not a little weird and ambitious and brave and resilient and curious and extremely impatient with impositions and with limitations ~ most especially my own.  These things create problems for me, but they are not bad problems to have.


  1. Glad to know you a bit better.

  2. I'm always impressed when I hear about your boarding school days, and your education in general. Such a rich background!

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