After the last few crazy weeks of conferences, the launch of a significant book I represent, and my son’s bar mitzvah, I had anticipated that this week’s post would be a discussion of BEA and Deadweather and Sunrise (and maybe a word or two about a beautifully rendered Haftorah).
But then I got an email from my cousin Glen last Wednesday with the subject line “Holy Crap!” and the week went in a completely unexpected direction. I will get to BEA and books next week. For now I need to talk about my High School—the Horace Mann School in New York—and the aftermath of this past week’s cover story in The New York Times Magazine; its revelation of sexual abuse by faculty members of students during a period that included my high school years (and implicated teachers I knew). What I want to talk about is less the story itself (which you can read at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/magazine/the-horace-mann-schools-secret-history-of-sexual-abuse.html?pagewanted=all) than about the extraordinary way alumni gathered on Facebook to discuss the Times story; their own high school experiences; and, at times, their own experiences—both good and bad—with these and other faculty members.
It started a few hours after the article appeared, after I’d already forwarded it to my friends around the country and we started a mini email discussion group. I was invited, as a Horace Mann alum, to join a closed Facebook group where other alums could safely and privately go through their feelings and help each other out. I went to it, expecting (I think) to take a look, shrug my shoulders, and log off. After all, I’d not been a victim. As far as I know, none of my close friends had been abused by their teachers. I figured that looking in on the conversation would feel voyeuristic and uncomfortable. I also figured it would be a small, closed group of people in crisis, and I didn’t feel I had either the credibility or knowledge to provide solace.
It is now six days later. There are currently more than 2,000 alumni on the group. There have been thousands of posts. Person after person talks about how they are being completely inefficient at work and home because they are compulsively reading the posts. I have never seen anything remotely resembling this extended, intense, constructive, relevant, compelling conversation among an enormous group of people from around the world. And it’s not a group of teenagers gossiping, either. Rather, it’s a couple of thousand forty- and fifty-somethings working through decades-old issues together. And considering the population—largely cosmopolitan graduates of a New York prep school who were jaded in ninth grade and grew up with both pressure and privilege—there is an almost complete absence of snark. The writing is great, the emotions raw, the reminiscences sometimes surprising, sometimes funny, sometimes bitter.
I had a pretty institutionally unremarkable tenure at Horace Mann from 1981-1986. I was reasonably well-adjusted most of the time, and no more miserable than most teenagers when I was miserable. I was in some plays and on the tennis team, worked very hard all the time, formed a band with some other students, and went to college (in my mind) very well prepared academically. I made a good number of friends, many of whom I’ve stayed close to for more than 25 years. We talk a little about HM when we get together.
But I don’t think I’ve had a round-the-campfire discussion about kids and teachers, who’s cool (and who’s a jerk), where this was going to lead us, how are we going to make it through, social striving and resentment, in decades. Now it’s more likely to be about our own kids’ schools and issues, or our current professional angst. I haven’t thought in years about what it meant to sit on the left side of the cafeteria or get picked on by the chem teacher.
But for the last six days, as alum after alum has gathered on Facebook and just talked out issues of Crossed Lines and inappropriate gropes during drivers ed and fallen heroes and institutional responsibility, I’ve found myself riveted to the page. And I’ve found myself, guiltily, enjoying myself. It’s inappropriate, like when you see out-of-town relatives at a family funeral and make inside jokes at the cemetery or shiva, and are happy to be together even when you should be more solemn. I’ve made contact with old classmates and heard stories of 25-year-old hijinks. I’m constantly impressed with the intellect and sensitivity of the people on line—and of the varied and fascinating careers they’ve had, which have come out in their writing.
And the reason for all of this—the catharsis, the collective grief and healing and discussion and argument and reconciliation—has been Facebook, remarkably. So many of us use Facebook for either time wasting or business or keeping in touch with relatives or keeping track of old lovers, that it sometimes becomes a ubiquitous punchline. In this case, it’s become a virtual auditorium, self-policed but remarkably non-anarchic. The self-appointed administrators have been diligent and serious but not obtrusive.
We hear all the time about the dangers of the internet. Unlike my generation, which apparently had enough trouble policing predators in their midst, my kids’ generation has to deal with people they don’t even know looking them up on line and virtually abusing them. But most teachers are not child molesters, and schools like Horace Mann have implemented policies to work toward eliminating abuses like the ones the victims in the article endured. We talk to our kids about sex and safety in ways our parents had no reason to think about discussing with us. And when social media works, like it has so brilliantly these past six days, you can see carefully past the danger and to its almost limitless constructive potential.