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An Illusion of Progress

“It has changed—they got new curtains,” a faculty member told me. We were discussing what’s changed about Deerfield since I graduated in ’05. Indeed, the Dining Hall has some very nice new curtains, a new floor too. The fitness center shines where squash courts used to be; the Greer, complete with jukebox, flat screen, and faux fireplace, lounges over what used to be—I’m not sure; and now, in the Koch Center, I can walk across stars or stare at them on a ceiling. Despite these cosmetic changes, Deerfield feels the same—still well-mannered, well-manicured, and incoherent.

I took a quick poll of my advisees, team, students: “What’s our school’s mission?” They did not know. They made up answers. “What does it mean to be worthy of your heritage?” What does it mean to be worthy of your heritage? Whose heritage? What’s the significance of the tomahawk gashes on Sheldon’s door?

What does the Deerfield development office mean when it says, in an e-mail asking alums for donations to the financial aid program, “It’s imperative that our students have familiarity with those who are different from them”? Who are “our students”? Who are the “different”?

We’re still talking about how to build a stronger community, the definition of respect, how much time we spend talking (and how little time we have to talk) about community and respect and what to do about the dominant culture, what to do about the girls, and the boys, and the dress code, wondering when we’ll ever do anything, wondering who’s responsible.

As Rajab reminded us at the sit-down lunch following the Respect Forum, we, a room full of faculty, staff, and students devoted to improving Deerfield, had failed to mention race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class.

He worried for the next generation of black students and hoped they would have a more affirming Deerfield experience than he did. Some of us heard him over the din of the dining hall and most of us clapped—politely? reflexively?

Why are we uncomfortable talking about the students of color, the gay students, the non-rich who feel marginalized, unheralded, unheard? Why are we uncomfortable talking about wealth, privilege, legacy, and secret societies? Probably because these are uncomfortable topics; but, to become the inclusive, ethical community we want to be, we need to discuss them openly.

Conversations are happening in small pockets of the school—in classrooms, alliance meetings, living rooms and dorm rooms. We do the personal well. Why don’t these discussions flourish on a larger scale? What would that look, sound, feel like at Deerfield?

I leave Deerfield again with happy memories, new skills, and new friends. I leave again confused by the difference between who we are, who we say we are, and who we say we want to be. Perhaps that’s a symptom of high school, but we don’t seem to want to be “just high school.”

I am grateful for Deerfield—its complexities, the opportunities it provides to be confused, to be inspired, to ask questions, to learn, to talk and to listen with intelligent, passionate people. I love those conversations and I love those people. They challenge and support me.

Do you remember Alcides onstage on MLK day, declaiming, sharing, reaching, pacing, singing, questioning? He was right—we are rich in people. Let us hear each other. Let us be open and discuss and learn who we are! Maybe then we can change.

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