My radical school

Sarah Ream '75
November 4, 2021

As a 10-year-old growing up in San Francisco, I was obsessed with the Summer of Love. I would save my allowance and take the 22 Fillmore bus down to Haight-Ashbury and stare with envy and longing at the flower children there. I wanted to play guitar like them, to drop out like them, to belong to a radical movement like them. Instead, I baked brownies for the Girl Scouts and did my homework. My one radical gesture consisted of spending the rest of my allowance on tarot cards from the Mystic Eye Bookstore and then doing readings for gullible friends.

But the longing to belong to a radical community never left me. Little did I know that, in interviewing at Phillips Exeter in the fall of 1971, I would be fulfilling that dream. At the time and for some time afterward, Exeter seemed the epitome of the very opposite of that vision: It seemed staid, restrained and committed to convention and tradition.

But over the last (God help me) 50 years that I have been connected to the school as a student, teacher, parent and, now, emerita, I have seen what is precious and radical continue to emerge in a variety of different and unexpected ways. Yes, when I arrived in the fall of 1972, the engraved Latin slab over the entry to the Academy Building read, “Here come boys to be made into men,” but I also walked under that sign into a history classroom with Ms. Jane Scarborough, who modeled fearless inquiry at the table — and made me realize that a woman could more than hold her own in a room full of men. If she could do it, then so could I. As a lower, I learned to never let gender keep me from speaking my mind. The dictionary’s first definition of radical? “Relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.” Yes, indeed.

When I returned to Exeter, 22 years and several careers later, I was again surprised. I thought I was returning to the school I had left.

But in the intervening time, the Academy had pushed forward in surprisingly progressive ways. Harkness pedagogy, originally intended as “a real revolution in methods,” had continued to evolve, becoming even more student-led and student-centered than I remembered. As a teacher, I always loved the moment when a student would say something about a book that I thought I knew well, making an offhand remark of such fresh insight that I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

But more exciting still was seeing a Harkness approach applied to student life outside the classroom. Activities, clubs and meetings, whether the Gay-Straight Alliance, Middle East Society or Pirate Club, seemed to be asking, “Who are you? And how can we help you be who you are?” Dorm life evolved with the option of all-gender dorms, providing more choice for students. A second meaning of radical? “Advocating thorough or complete political or social change.” Change was in the air and Exeter was part of it.

My own children felt that change as students there and responded to it in ways that helped them grow into the engaged people they are today. A term at Mountain School turned my son into a climate warrior, while Dramat fed a dream of writing for TV. And Exeter gave my daughter the support to begin a quest in search of gender identity and expression that led to her happy pursuit of a career in social work and psychotherapy. At the conclusion of a year commemorating 50 years of coeducation at Exeter, I look at my children and see yet another expression of what it means to be radical: “Of, or springing direct from, the root or stem base of a plant.” They have sprung from the same base, the same soil that nurtured me. And I cannot wait to see the ways in which Exeter will continue to thrive and help her students grow into who they are meant to be. As an emerita, I will stand on the sidelines and cheer for the radical change to come.