In the fall of 1968, my father, and probably my stepmother as well, although I don’t remember whether she was there or not, dropped me off at the Northfield School for Girls in western Massachusetts. I was assigned to a 1950-60s dorm, a nondescript red brick building on the edge of a campus strewn with majestic Victorian and solid turn-of-the-century structures, and a roommate from the Massachusetts coast, with whom I became fast friends for the short time we were together.
I had chosen Northfield from a sea of school catalogs presented to me because it had a domestic work program (which we somewhat affectionately referred to as “the dummie program”). Every day we donned long smocks and white caps to work in the kitchens or public areas of our dorms. Among the catalogs directed my way in rural Ohio, filled with girls in expensive clothing seated at expensive desks and riding expensive horses, Northfield stood out as an island of solid practicality.
I had no idea at all about its the school’s founder, 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody, or his original goal of providing women for the mission field with the best possible of academic educations, and then, across the Connecticut River, boys of little means with an education equivalent to that found in the most elite prep schools, peopled by the sons of bankers and lawyers. I did not know that many of my classmates would be scholarship students, the daughters of teachers and ministers, or what that might mean in terms of the campus atmosphere (one distinctly lacking in a sense of economic privilege). Boarding school in that era, with its universal cinder block bedroom walls, its lack of student vehicles, and its uniformity of dress (jeans and jean skirts, clogs and sandals, turtlenecks and sweaters) tended to have a leveling effect upon its students.
Northfield was a tough place for me. I was already experienced in boarding school and summer camp life, and made friends easily. But the academics were hard ~ I was immediately dropped back a year in Spanish, and could barely keep up in some of the advanced classes to which I had been admitted. I didn’t make the basketball team or receive even a non-speaking part in the fall play. And school counseling being what it was in those days (not), and me being at perhaps my lowest point in lifetime maturity (age 15! ~ although 14 or 16 might have been worse), I did not seek out, and no one offered, the kind of support that would have encouraged me to see a tutor, increase my basketball skills in a gym class, or spend some time on the stage crew in order to learn the ropes (no pun intended) of a high school drama program.
The late 1960s were also upon us, and cultural changes slow to make their way to Ohio descended upon New England’s boarding schools almost as swiftly as they appeared on college and university campuses. For us, it was everyday life. For our teachers, I was to learn later, the changes in clothing, music, and recreational activities (!) were swift and incomprehensible. I recall my French teacher’s angry announcement one spring morning: “I don’t care WHAT changes have been made in the school dress code! You will not display bare toes in MY classroom!” Of course, it being 1969, she might have discovered far more consequential matters with which to concern herself, had she not been so distraught about sandals.
To be continued . . .