^ Boston Latin School (BLS) : anger and frustration lead to major confrontation

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UPDATE 2.10 PM 06/23/16: This morning we were shocked to rtead that Head of Discipline Matt Flynn has now resigned from Boston Latin School’s management. This makes two major resignations. Peter Kadzis of WGBH also reports a very heated confrontation between BLS leaders and Mayor Walsh. Clearly the operation of Boston’s top achievement school has reached a turning point.

We don’t know the details of the events that seem to have resulted in the resignation of both Flynn and Boston Latin School headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta, which means that we cannot opine about them. If the Boston Globe report is correct (follow this link to read it : ), her resignation was not requested by anyone. But she was evidently facing a civil rights violations investigation by the U.S. Att0rney, and discussions had taken place during the school year in which she felt obligated to allow others than her, as headmaster, to impose rules to govern the school.

There may well be good cause therefor. Much that happens in controversial events goes unreported, or is erroneously credited. All sorts of assertions have come my way via social media friends . The purpose of this article, however, is to set forth how I think an achievement school ought be mastered.

An achievement school like Boston Latin is no student’s right to attend. Students compete to be admitted. An achievement school must be challenging, academically and socially. I myself went to an achievement high school — Phillips Academy Andover — and I can assure you that it was a difficult place. As a kid there, I spent much time afraid : of my teachers, of my housemaster, of bullies. Almost every kid walked in fear of the “jocks” and big guys who ruled the campus Trump-like. They, like him, were crazy — unpredictable, secretive, noisy, arbitrary. One day they’d befriend you, the next day make merciless fun of you. And then ignore you. Or short sheet your bed.

Did our faculty step in to save us ? Never. You were on your own. I recall one time when I could not take the bullying by one particularly gross kid in my dorm and made complaint to my housemaster. His response ? He overturned my bed and laughed at me.

It was hard enough for the Jewish kids in my class; for the very few Black kids, life was never anything but one ambush after another by those who felt it smart to imitate the “jocks.” (Note : the “jocks” were far from the worst social offenders. It was the wanna-be’s who made campus life truly nuts.) As for the school administration : Catholic kids are supposed to not eat meat during Lent, but at my prep school they had to ask for a fish meal — it wasn’t supplied otherwise — and that meant outing themselves to the overwhelmingly Protestant majority.

In class, there was no escape, no mercy. If your attention happened to wander, in Mr. McClement’s math class you could expect a chalky eraser to come crashing against your suit coat shoulder as he screamed at you, “take one demerit !” (Five “demerits’ and you were on probation; seven and you were expelled.) Other teachers resisted the eraser caper but were, if anything, more ready to toss you a “demerit.” (I was an unusually lucky kid. I got only two during my entire three years at that school.)

There was a dress code. It made no sense. You had to wear suit coat, tie, and white shirt, but nothing was said about pants and shoes, so many kids got their licks by wearing dirty khakis and taped up loafers without socks. This was a great way of being “jock like” and helped gain you much cred with the Trump types.

But the rules were the rules. Once, when the junior class went on meals strike because we could no longer stand the cardboard and putty that went by the name of “food,” our Headmaster, one John M. Kemper — a former commandant of West Point — called us to assembly and told us that if we continued, he would expel the entire class. We knew that he meant exactly that.

We suddenly, all of us, decided that it was OK to eat putty and cardboard.

In my opinion, that is how an achievement school must be run. The Trustees set the rules, the Headmaster enforces them, no exceptions. And no talk back from the students. You are not at an achievement school to talk back. You are there to grind it out, to take what is thrown at you, just, or unjust, or egregiously unjust, and keep on keeping on: because life is difficult, and unfair, and unjust, and you had better learn pretty quickly that if you don’t learn how to reshape yourself accordingly you will be forever out of shape, and very quickly.

At an achievement school, you must learn that you can always do better; that, as my American History teacher put it to us, “no one will get an A because no one of you can master the subject well enough.” That course was the most demanding I ever took, in high school or in college. And F was never far from catching up to us.

Which leads me to this insight: perhaps the uneasiness that was evidently complained of by students at Boston Latin School gathered steam because school wasn’t difficult enough ? At Andover there was, for a senior taking American History, so much research and dorm room work to do that no one had time to worry about identity grievances. Plus : we were seniors and brutally aware that college admissio0n loomed immediately ahead and that if we didn’t “grind,’ we wouldn’t be admitted to an A list school, maybe not even a B school.

I do not know what possessed students to hurl identity grievances at Boston Latin School administrators, or what possessed those administrators to honor them; perhaps the problem is that BLS is not a boarding school. At a boarding school, kids have no escape, no safe place to hide in, no retreat to Mommy’s skirts and Daddy’s influence. (Let us keep in  mind that, back when I was at school  Daddy and Mommy not only did not sue schools on my behalf, they made it clear they would punish me worse than the school auth0rities.)

Boston Latin School may not be on the edge because its students go home to parents every night : but I do feel that the devolution of a school reputed to be the best in New England says that its academic demands aren’t nearly difficult enough, nor its college admissions demands scary enough. At an achievement school, you work almost all the time at courses which, if you do not work all the time, will bury you; and you do it because college admissions demands you do it. If Boston Latin School is failing to inundate its students in this level of challenge and scares, it probably does require new leadership.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




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