Over the weekend, while visiting a friend from high school, I learned of the horrifying revelations of grooming and abuse in my high school program in the time just after I was there. Seyward Darby spent 9 month investigating this abuse and exposed in a recent piece of journalism that rivals anything that Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens achieved in their day. Though it is painful, I urge you to read her piece, “Fault Lines” on the Atavist. Indeed, if you have to choose between this piece and hers, read hers.
I spent much of last night thinking about my own experience in the humanities magnet program at Cleveland High in Reseda, California. I attended the school between 1987-1990, and I have written about the positive effects the “core” program had on me. Darby’s piece was like seeing that program through a mirror, darkly.
Before I continue, I want to make a couple of points upfront:
- I have no words to express the horror that the students who experienced abuse by teachers in the core program must have felt, nor can I adequately comprehend the bravery it took to come forward. I can try to comprehend what these students experienced through the distant gulf of biography, which while descriptive, certainly doesn’t come close to conveying the true horror of living it and living with it.
- As a straight, white male, I play the game of life at the lowest difficulty level, to borrow a phrase from John Scalzi. My experience at Cleveland (and in other areas of life) is through this privileged perspective. Being aware of that is important.
During my time at Cleveland, I had several of the teachers mentioned in the piece. I had Ray Linn as a teacher in both 11th and 12th grade, if I remember correctly. I had Michael Helwig for some math class, I can’t recall which. I honestly can’t remember if I had Chris Miller, or not, but I certainly remember him. After my friend told me about Darby’s investigation, we sat around talking, he and his wife and me and Kelly. I tried to explain the program to Kelly, though she’s heard me talk about it countless times. My friend mentioned the way Ray Linn frequently denigrated students, and my response was almost exactly that which appears in Darby’s piece, “He taught through the Socratic method.” Ray Linn was something of a character in the school, and I always took his jaded view of the world to be a persona that couldn’t possibly represent who he was when he was at home.
My friends and I all knew about Miller letting kids out of school through his window. That was about the worst-kept secret in the program. There was a familiarity among students and faculty that I hadn’t experienced before that. I can’t remember if students referred to teachers by their first name, or not. I know that I never did. Back then, all adults were “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss”; it was unthinkable for me to refer to any adult, let alone a teacher, otherwise. But I don’t doubt that it happened.
I frequently speak fondly of my time at Cleveland, and I’ve often attributed my ability to write essays to that core program. I must have had some natural talent as a writer before entering the program, but it was that program, and the essays tests we took that shaped that raw talent into something more. Would I have been able to write and sell stories and articles without the program? Would I have maintained a blog for 17 years and more than 7,100 posts if not for that program? It’s hard to say, but my gut says no. The thing I’ve often thought is that the core program made us feel special. Perhaps I should just speak for myself and say, it made me feel special. That is the closest I can come to understanding how teachers went about grooming students for abuse. It was a window of access, that feeling of being special.
Even within the school, the “core” program was, as Darby states in her piece, “a school within a school” and I recall times when Neal Anstead would bring guest into our classes to see us in action, something that I imagine did not occur in the standard English and History classes outside the humanities program. Many of our classes were discussions, in particular our philosophy classes, and once, I remember Ray Linn going off on something (I can’t remember what) when Neal Anstead and a guest crept silently into the back of the classroom. “Their just a bunch of fucking idiots,” Linn said to finish his tirade. Then he paused, glanced toward the back of the classroom, and with a mild look on his face, said, “Oh look, it’s the boss.”
In 12th grade we were studying Renè Descartes. We had intense discussions in Linn’s class about existence, whether or not you can trust your senses, and perhaps this is all a dream: Descartes, cogito ergo sum. Darby writes about Miller lining up girls in order of attractiveness. I have no doubt that happened. There were other ways we were competitive. Writing essays was one. All of our core tests were essay tests and we were expected to write essays that made use of all of the disciplines we were learning: philosophy, literature, social institutions and art history. Linn’s essay question for the essay on existentialism was put to us as follows: “Prove you don’t exist. If there isn’t blood on the paper when you turn it in, you can’t get an A.” There wasn’t blood on my essay back then, but it feels like there is blood on this essay now.
After our essays were done, we commiserated on how long they were. It wasn’t uncommon for us to write 8-10 handwritten pages in the 2 hours we were given, but there some students who could write much more.
Though I went through the program feeling that “core” made us special somehow, I never felt particularly noticed by teachers. There are only two teachers I can think of who probably knew my name, otherwise, I felt I was just an anonymous face among many students who shined more brilliantly than I ever did.
There was one teacher my friends and I liked particularly in our senior year. After our graduation ceremony, we went to a friend’s house to celebrate. It was an evening pool party, and this teacher was invited, and much to my surprise, showed up at the party. I always felt there was a social gulf between teachers and students (I do so even today when I find myself talking to my own kids’ teachers) and so it was a little odd to see this teacher there. But he was invited and as I recall, he didn’t stay very long.
I mention this for the same reason I mention Linn’s essays question and that “special” feeling we had being “corebabies”: all of it was cast in a new light after reading Seyward Darby’s piece. It is why I wholeheartedly believe the women who have come forward. Even though I didn’t experience the grooming and abuse they did, the environment that made it possible was there in the years that I attended. Three decades later, as a middle-aged parent with a teenager and two younger daughters, it seems to me I should have recognized it for what it was, but I didn’t. I was a teenager myself with no worldly experience to speak of.
It is a shame. I believe the interdisciplinary program we had is what we need more of in education. In grade school I learned to read. In high school, in Cleveland’s humanities program, I learned to think critically about what I read. It seems to me that this critical thinking is more important than ever. Lack of critical thinking leads to what Michael Rich, president emeritus of the RAND Corporation, and his colleague Jennifer Kavanagh refer to as “truth decay.”
I am grateful for my experience in Cleveland’s humanities program. To this day all of my best friends were the friends I had during my years at Cleveland. Yet I am horrified by what students who came to the program shortly after I graduated had to endure and live with for decades thereafter. I hope that somehow they can find peace in all of this, but I also know that isn’t always possible. All night I have wondered if there was anything we did to foster the environment that made core students feel special. After all, we participated in that familiarity and camaraderie with the teachers in our classroom experience. Did that help make it seem okay to cross a line? I like to tell myself that it takes a certain kind of person to cross that line, and that it would have happened with or without us, but it is impossible to say.
If you have read this far, please, please, please take the time to read Seyward Darby’s “Fault Lines” as it is the only way to truly see what the environment was like, and what these women had to endure.
Written on September 6, 2022.
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