Convocation Remarks by Bill Bailey, Teacher Emeritus
Posted September 4, 2008
It is quite wonderful to have the opportunity to speak to you on the opening day of school. Jake, I greatly appreciate your words of welcome. When I retired from CA six years ago, I knew I would miss the students and my peers. I knew I would not miss faculty meetings and grading papers. And yet, as you know from the introduction, I am back teaching in New York City. When Mr. Dresden asked me to speak today, I had a conflict with my schedule for today is an all day faculty meeting which I was allowed to miss for this occasion—a blessing in disguise.
Mr. Dresden has introduced me as a teacher emeritus, a title I have now borne at CA since June of 2002. I was never that sure about the meaning of that title which a number of us have received as retired CA faculty in recognition of our years of service. So prior to writing this talk, I checked the dictionary—teachers should do what they ask their students. Needless to say I looked in a hard cover, not having any idea how to access Wikipedia. And there it was with several citations including:
#1—honorary title following retirement bestowed upon teachers and professors
#3—(by far the most interesting definition) “an old fart”
I think a number of my students here as well as some of the current faculty at CA thought I had reached the latter status some years before I actually retired.
I’ve chosen this morning to devote my time with you, tracing the history of Concord Academy’s commitment to social justice, to tolerance, to embracing of differences, to being a leader in these areas rather than a follower. Institutions—governments, schools and universities, religious denominations, professional organizations—express a belief in values that they see as goals to guide them and their communities. We all know, for example, that in the Declaration of Independence, the signers pledged to create a society based on the premise that “all men are created equal”, a premise modified at the Seneca Fall Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 when the signers redefined that premise to read “all men and women.” Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, called for a “new birth of freedom.”
And so it is with Concord, a school that has, I believe, a remarkable story of commitment. CA is, however, no different from our country or any democratic society, no different from religious institutions that profess openness to all, and to social and economic justice. Our story is not without blemish, not without hypocrisy, not without failure or at least hesitation to carry through on our mission.
But I am not here to give a balanced view of Concord. I am here to introduce you or to remind many of you of how CA has attempted to create a school whose values are clear and, I dare say, noble, appreciated, and supported by its students, faculty and administration, and alums. What follows is a story of moments when we did not shrink from our responsibility to ourselves and members of the larger community. I’ve chosen not to name names as I’d like you to concentrate on the sense that you are a part of a remarkable place rather than dwelling on the obviously vital roles played by key people at Concord. Please keep in mind, students, that some of these milestones were made when the climate was not auspicious for change. What appeared radical and courageous in years past may be far more widely embraced in your world, both within and beyond CA.
It was in the early fifties. CA was an all-girls school with a considerably larger number of students living in the Concord area than at present. Each year, a cotillion was held at the Colonial Inn where many girls were making their debuts—a term to describe the event when girls of seventeen and eighteen were presented to society. All CA girls were traditionally invited. Except they were not. When the head of CA learned that invitations had not been issued to the handful of Jewish girls at the school, she wrote to the cotillion committee, informing them that CA boarding girls would not be attending. And you may say, of course, what else could the head do? Yet Concord, in the fifties was like most suburban communities in the northeast. The country club here did not accept Jewish members. Emerson Hospital’s doctors had a bitter fight over whether to allow the first Jewish doctor who came to town to affiliate with the hospital. Real estate companies told prospective Jewish buyers that there were simply no houses on the market in whatever price category they were seeking.
Before I came to Concord in 1967, I was teaching at another New England private school with an all-white, overwhelmingly Christian student body—so typical of that era. A group of faculty petitioned the head to admit students of color. A program had recently begun, called ABC, A Better Chance, a form of affirmative action, seeking qualified students for admission to private school. We had been told that no such students had applied, an argument always used to preserve the status quo, and that no, our school would not join ABC. The fall of my first year of teaching here, I spoke with the head of the school, expressing admiration for CA’s commitment to ABC. I asked if there had been a problem with the board of trustees. He looked at me, “Bill, it never occurred to me to consult with them.”
At about the same time, the U.S. was heavily involved in the Vietnam War with 500,000 American troops committed to defeating communism. Opposition to the war was growing—in Washington, on university campuses, on editorial boards of newspapers. It was a day in the spring of 1968 at CA, and time for an assembly. Kids here (as maybe now?) were thinking, oh no, why do we have to go? A Harvard University Nobel Prize winner, scientist and teacher, George Wald, was speaking. His topic: the war. His message: the Vietnam War was a travesty, contradictory to and destructive of what our country should stand for. Concord did not realize that the school was a kind of testing ground for Professor Wald’s speech, the very same one which would be delivered soon after at Harvard by Professor Wald and reprinted in newspapers and journals across the nation.
At the time, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and other universities staged what were called “teach ins” with professors and outside speakers educating (with a bias, of course) about the Vietnam War. CA responded with its own teach in, setting aside a day of seminars with all classes cancelled.
When Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a state holiday with all public schools closed, CA instead devoted the day to learning about MLK, his message, and the need for justice for all. I assume you still do. Just so you know about alternatives—one neighboring school (not in Concord) chose a different option for a year or two, giving those students of color the day off and requiring the whites to attend classes!
In the early eighties, a CA girl became pregnant. Abortion was not an option. She and her parents met with the head of the school. The girl had chosen to have her baby and to give it up for adoption. The head proposed that the girl remain at CA until she was due to deliver. He then asked her to come back as soon as she was able. Once again, students, please be aware that almost no private school that I know of would have offered the girl that opportunity—even now many would not. She returned to CA to graduate with her class. She gave her chapel talk in late spring, making reference to her pregnancy. The closing music—my guess is that picking that music is just as important to all of you as it was then—was a tape of the popular song, “In the Heat of the Moment”! Only at CA!
In the late eighties, Concord formed a gay-straight alliance. It was reputed to be the first at an eastern seaboard private school. It was a long step toward acceptance, ultimately embracing gays and lesbians at CA, both students and faculty. More recently the CA performing arts department produced The Laramie Project, a dramatic presentation of the story of the horrible murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepherd. Once again, Concord made history for itself as a community, giving the first east coast public performance of that play.
Many of you know that the country of South Africa was governed by a small white minority for well over a hundred years, fostering a policy known as apartheid, a legally enforced segregation of the races, akin to Jim Crow as practiced throughout our South through the 1960s. Our own government refused in the 1980s to condemn and isolate the South African government. Many educational and religious institutions in the U.S. challenged the government and chose to end investments in American corporations that engaged in business in South Africa, a big step to take, as such institutions rely on their endowments to make as big an increase as possible. A faculty member here and a group of students proposed that the board of trustees divest its holdings in such companies. They did a great deal of research and made their proposals before both the school community and the board. They were expressing a commitment to justice for the African majority led by Nelson Mandela. The group failed in attaining their objective, but the effort was not lost sight of.
More recently I understand that Concord has made a remarkable effort to respond to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Most of you know of the welcoming of a couple of students from New Orleans and of the numbers of students and faculty who have made the trek to the city to help in its rebuilding.
When I was preparing this talk I found numerous other examples of CA’s commitment. I was awed, in part, because I had never put it all together. So what’s the point? You can make a difference. You can take a stand on an issue that might challenge Concord Academy, that might challenge your country and the world that you are a part of. More importantly, you would be challenging yourself. I wish you an exciting year at Concord. Thank you again for giving me this opportunity.