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INTRODUCTION: HELL FOR SURE
A few years after graduating from college, I went hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with four of my Horace Mann buddies. It had been ten years since we left the prestigious New York prep school, and we had remained in touch as our paths took us in different directions. Though we hadn’t had much actual face time since high school, the bonds among us remained tight. Horace Mann had been for each of us a unique, life-forging experience. It had made us who we were.
For four days we hiked through the woods and over the streams in the mountainous region west of the Inyo National Forest, climbing mountains as we caught up on each other’s lives. I was twenty-seven years old and I had packed five minibottles of tequila, limes, and a shaker of salt so that I could share a toast with my friends when I announced that I was engaged to be married.
One day “Andrew,”1 our self-appointed guide, miscalculated the length of the day’s hike and we raced to beat the setting sun to our next camp location on the banks of Hell for Sure Lake. We hastily set up our camp and scorched some vegetarian meals over the raging campfire we’d built.
After we’d eaten, and our aching joints were melting, Andrew cleared his throat. “Guys, I have to tell you something that happened to me when we were at HM.” We looked up from the mesmerizing flames; this didn’t sound like your typical campfire chatter. “You guys remember Mark Wright, the football coach?” We all nodded at this clearly rhetorical opener. Although Wright had “moved on” before my time, everyone knew his story, or thought he did. The rumor in the Horace Mann cafeteria was that the imposing assistant football coach and art teacher, a Princeton graduate who had reportedly tried out for the Washington Redskins, had left the school suddenly after being accused of molesting several boys.
“When we were in eighth grade, he raped me,” Andrew said deliberately, his eyes now fixed on the flickering yellow-blue flames. “First he befriended me, made me feel special, and then he raped me. Not just me. There were a whole bunch of us.”
The silence that ensued was brief but grave, as Andrew’s own silence on a subject that had tortured him for so long was finally broken. What followed was a long night of questions and revelations. How had Andrew managed to keep all this in for so long? we wondered. We explored whether Wright’s big personality—his easy laugh, his familiar manner—which made him so popular with both students and faculty, had also enabled him to hide in plain sight. Who would think ill of such a man? To echo a refrain that has been heard about countless child molesters: everybody loved him.
Andrew’s confession awoke our collective memory. There were the persistent rumors about the female gym teacher who each year would pick a new football player to “have an affair with,” as we tend to call it when female adults abuse male students. “Paul” told us about the times he’d been trapped in the office of Johannes Somary, the school’s charismatic and wildly arrogant music department head. Behind the closed door, Somary subjected him to long, uncomfortable hugs.
“Then came the trip to Connecticut,” Paul recalled. A prize pupil of Somary’s, he had accompanied the maestro on a road trip for the ostensible purpose of helping him prepare for a performance there. After arriving at the hotel, he discovered that the teacher had booked one room with a double bed. When they returned to the room after the rehearsal, Somary emerged from the bathroom in his underwear, sat on the bed, and beckoned Paul to join him. “I went back outside and stood for hours in the rain, waiting for Somary to fall asleep,” Paul said.
Our conversation then turned to a student who was rumored to have slept with Tek Lin, a popular English teacher known for his green thumb and his whimsical teaching style. “Wade,” who had been extremely close with Lin, suddenly got very uncomfortable. “All that was just a rumor,” he insisted with a passion that surprised us. When we quizzed him further, Wade admitted that he, too, had spent many hours with Tek—drinking tea, talking about Eastern philosophy and poetry—sometimes with their clothes off.
“That’s outrageous!” we said. “That was completely out-of-line behavior between a teacher and a student.” But the more we pushed, the more he denied that Lin had in any way acted inappropriately. Though none of us were buying that—the intimacy occurred at the teacher’s house, on a weekend, there was alcohol involved, and Wade had been a minor at the time—we let the matter drop.
Denial takes many forms. After listening to Andrew’s confession, and Wade’s tortured explanation of his relationship with a teacher more than twice his age, Paul and I launched into a “hilarious” story we’d been telling for so long that it sounded like a well-oiled comedy routine.
When I was a senior, my mother went abroad for an extended period of time. Her absence wasn’t a secret; I’m sure I bragged about it to my friends. R. Inslee “Inky” Clark Jr., the headmaster and baseball coach who had recruited me for Horace Mann, invited me and my brother Dan out for dinner. Although I trusted Inky, I didn’t want to be alone with him and my little brother on a Saturday night. And I certainly had no intention of being anywhere near Stan “the Bear” Kops, Inky’s creepy sidekick, drinking buddy, notorious groper of JV swimmers and eighth-grade history students, and alleged lover. It wasn’t that I feared gay men. Having grown up in a house with an openly gay brother, it simply wasn’t my issue. Perhaps it was my average teenage awkwardness, my anxiety at the thought of having to make small talk with two grown men for several hours, but whatever the reason, I coerced Paul into tagging along.
The evening involved a lot of drinking, free steaks, and ultimately little more than some uncomfortable moments spent with men old enough to be our parents. We had reduced it over time to a single punch line—“I’m not taking any shit from the Bear!”—but in the context of the campfire talk I began to see the outing in a different light. Five hikers, four stories of teacher-student relationships gone somehow awry. This was starting to look like a pattern.
* * *
The stories we told one another that evening would make headlines around the world. Twenty years later, I published an article in The New York Times Magazine revealing an epidemic of abuse at Horace Mann. The number of teachers and students involved made it far worse than most school scandals—“Catholic Church bad,” as one investigator said. Our alma mater, it turned out, was the site of perhaps the biggest sexual abuse scandal in the history of American education, a scandal characterized by denial and cover-up and an unwillingness on the school’s part to be transparent about its past.
Defenders of the school have insisted on putting the matter in context: Most of the abuse took place in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s—a more lax time, they’ll say, an age of sexual experimentation. Some have mentioned the repression of homosexuality that was the norm then, as if these teachers might not have taken advantage of boys (and it was mostly boys who were abused by men) if they had been able to be more open in public. And still others have pointed to the British boarding school system and its legacy of child sexual abuse. “What do you think happens in the English schools?” a bestselling novelist who graduated from Horace Mann in the 1960s said when asked about the revelations. A peer of his even suggested that sexual abuse made British schools better—an attitude some across the pond seem to share.
“Nobody said anything about it, for the same reason that people were mercilessly bullied and that wasn’t dealt with,” said a former student of St. Paul’s School in London—where countless children were molested for decades—to a writer for The New York Times. “Public schools are built on the idea that it’s good for you to be abused while you’re young, so that you toughen up for when you go out and run the empire. That’s the point.”
The graduates of Horace Mann were meant to run other empires—hedge funds on Wall Street, law firms in D.C., international media companies. And while there was not any tacit understanding that abuse was good and even necessary for some, the methods used to cover it up were similar. Students who reported abuse were asked to think about what it might mean to the school, to say nothing of their future, if what they said went any farther, and teachers who relayed students’ accusations to administrators had a drink poured for them while they were asked to close the door …
After my article appeared, the shroud of secrecy was lifted at last. Victims of abuse contacted one another, other journalists took up the story, and the scandal grew and grew. Eventually, twenty-two Horace Mann teachers and administrators would be credibly accused of abuse over a period of thirty-plus years, and former students would join together to seek redress. In Internet forums, they vented their feelings, sought consolation, and quarreled. In person, they banded together to hold Horace Mann accountable, seeking financial damages, a definitive and honest accounting of what happened, and a commitment from the school to become a leader in the fight against abuse. Their efforts were stymied by a Board of Trustees that was more concerned with protecting the institution’s reputation than acknowledging the truth.
But Horace Mann did not have to handle the accusations as it did. As I came to understand, other schools and institutions have responded forthrightly and compassionately to allegations of abuse.
What happened at Horace Mann has changed the landscape of education. Just as the sexual abuse of small children became better known in the 1980s, so today we are learning about the abuse of older victims, in public and private institutions, and what we can do about it. The odds are against the victims; in most states, the statute of limitations on sexual abuse prevents serious crimes from being prosecuted. But those laws are being challenged, and today’s teens and young adults are less likely to keep silent when they are mistreated. Horace Mann offers one sort of example—the wrong kind—but the importance of its story cannot be diminished. What began for us as a confession on a mountainside is now a chorus of voices, and the fire started that night is raging still.
Copyright © 2015 by Amos Kamil and Sean Elder