I remember when my fifth grade teacher, on whom we all had major crushes, insisted on challenging me on the tennis court. I was flattered but my mother seemed annoyingly skeptical. “I think Mr. K …is getting too close to you, “ she would say as I threw on my short whites and raced to the school courts on Saturday mornings. Nothing beyond game set and match happened: Mom usually showed up and while I was a dreamy kid, I was hardly Lolita behind my lovesick lob. Yet I do think he probably crossed a line and I paid a price in my fear of male intimacy for awhile.
That was in bucolic Ron Howard-ish Santa Monica. I bring it up because Martin Scorsese-ish New York City has been recently rocked by stories of past (or is it?) sexual abuse at one of its toniest private schools. The disclosures about Horace Mann School have named names and depicted incidents that took place several decades ago. Its current administration says it’s old news that could have happened anywhere. And this should make us feel better?
Defensiveness, diversion and denial are intertwined as the powers at HM bury their heads. But six weeks after the initial expose, this story is not going away. Three Facebook pages for members of the HM community, and an independent website organized by abuse survivors, have been created. They are flooded with personal horror stories and a palpable sense of shared healing. While most the publicized episodes involved male professors on young boys, there were exceptions. I know of two former female students—now in their 40s—who discovered the same school driving instructor had abused them verbally. Both realized that all these years later, neither has gotten her license. There is even a counter-narrative going on among some female alums. One told her former classmates that the infamous music teacher at the school “ruined my life.” Others have asked the larger question of why when a female teacher crosses the line with a male student, it’s immediately termed sick. For the male teacher, garnering a young female student still qualifies as conquest.
Trust me, more revelations are coming from Manngate. One beloved English teacher has been discovered living in an exclusive community in upstate New York. He is in his 70s now and lives with one of his former students. His former victims are starting to open up on the sites. One former class alone experienced four student suicides. While no direct link can be confirmed, surviving classmates are openly speculating and investigating.
Many alumni from HM, even if they personally escaped abuse, are rabidly obsessed with the story. It has made them reconsider their whole experience at the institution. Says Arthur Drooker, class of ’72, “now it turns out we didn’t just manage to survive a tough academic atmosphere, we managed to survive in another way. For years, it was a point of pride to have been a Horace Mann graduate. Since this came out, it is a source of embarrassment and profound disappointment.”
The school has hired a public relations firm to handle its spin, and has made some minor concessions to the past, such as removing the honorary titles of former professors’ names on departments. But why hasn’t the entire Board of Trustees stepped down? One victim, a few years ago, went with his attorney to the Board head to report on his abuse and seek support. The Trustee told them, “This is not Horace Mann’s bill to pay.” In the mid ‘90s, an alumnus who was an abuse victim met with the then head of the school, also seeking answers and support. He claimed the headmaster told him to “bury it, let it go, this would cause too much trouble.” As we know from history, the cover-up is usually worse than the crime.
MannGate is a New York story because it deals with such a well-known institution in the city. (PIty those now making phone calls seeking funds for a major capital campaign.) But the more one talks, travels, and listens, the more such incidents really do appear to be rampant. (Even if not on the grand scale of the Sandusky case that has forever blemished a State College institution and world renowned sports program.) Just this week a friend in New Mexico told me her brother was abused by his Boy Scout master. “As far as I know,” she said, “that master was not punished at all. My brother was in therapy for years.” Ask anyone, anywhere. The kids are not all right.
Even my idyllic childhood home is currently witnessing a sex abuse scandal erupting in Los Angeles city schools. For many reasons, young people grow to adore teachers, coaches, priests, scout masters. To be preyed upon by such heroes can only lead to life altering, even life-ending confusion. While it doesn’t get Horace Mann off the hook, it is happening far beyond its exclusive enclave. The school’s motto, ironically, is “Great is the Truth and It Prevails.” We shall see.
Michele Willens is a journalist and playwright who coined the term “tweens” for the New York Times. She is editor of FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change, a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearance.