By Amos Kamil
From the elevated platform of the No. 1 train’s last stop at 242nd Street, you can just about see the lush 18-acre campus of the Horace Mann School. The walk from the station is short, but it traverses worlds. Leaving the cluttered din of Broadway, you enter the leafy splendor of Fieldston, an enclave of mansions and flowering trees that feels more like a wealthy Westchester suburb than the Bronx. Head up the steep hill, turn left, then walk a bit farther, past the headmaster’s house. From the stone wall that runs along Tibbett Avenue, you can see practically the whole school: Pforzheimer Hall, Mullady Hall, the auditorium, the gymnasium and, right in the center, the manicured green expanse of the baseball field, home of the Lions, pride of the school.
It was this field that drew me to Horace Mann 33 years ago, pulling me out of Junior High School 141 in the Bronx, with its gray-green walls and metal-caged windows. At 141, my friends’ résumés read like a crime blotter: Jimmy stole a pizza truck and dropped out after ninth grade; Eggy was done with 141 after he smashed the principal’s glasses with a right hook; Ish liked to pelt the Mister Softee truck with rocks; Bend-Over Bob OD’d and lived; Frankie was not so lucky. My future would have tracked swiftly in the same direction but for one factor: baseball. By 14, I had a sweet swing, with the arm, hands and game smarts to match.
That’s what brought me to the attention of R. Inslee Clark Jr., then headmaster of Horace Mann, a private school so elite that most students at 141 had never even heard of it. Inky Clark, a tireless scout of baseball talent, started showing up at my games, and he was not someone you could easily miss. He was a big guy with a powerful handshake, bright blue eyes and a booming voice. In his loud pink cardigans and madras pants, he always looked as if he came straight off the Kennedy compound or the bow of a yacht. He drove a bright orange Cadillac convertible, its rear bumper covered with Yankees stickers.
Clark was a legendary reformer. As dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale in the 1960s, he broke that institution’s habit of simply accepting students from fancy boarding schools, whatever their academic standing; instead, he started scouring the country for the most talented, highest-achieving students from any school and any background. “You will laugh,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1967, “but it is true that a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement test and identically ardent recommendations from the headmaster, has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul’s School.” As more minorities started appearing in the freshman classes, the university’s alumni and trustees did not laugh. But the rest of the Ivy League followed Clark’s bold lead, forever altering the history of the American meritocracy.
He brought that same crusading spirit to Horace Mann, where he welcomed girls to what had long been a proudly all-boys school. And he used his passion for baseball, the sport he coached, as a Trojan horse to bring promising students from rough schools to a campus otherwise reserved for the city’s most privileged children.
Clark could work a room like a politician, zeroing in on whomever he was speaking to, making him feel like he was the most interesting person in the world. He started calling me “the Mouse,” as my friends at 141 did, and he suggested I might find a home at Horace Mann. Touched, as was everyone who met him, by his tremendous personal charisma, I took it as a thrilling compliment. My parents saw the bigger picture: the opportunities that a Horace Mann education could bring, the ways it could change a kid’s life.
So in September 1979, I stood in the glassed-in breezeway through which students entered campus, wearing the pink Lacoste shirt my brother had somewhat optimistically insisted would help me fit in. All around me, the natives swarmed past — to the classrooms, to the science labs, to the brilliant futures they had been born to assume.
I was an outsider, but I was one of Inky’s boys and, as I quickly learned, that counted for a lot. I gathered with my new teachers and classmates in the auditorium and proudly sang Horace Mann’s alma mater: “Great is the truth and it prevails; mighty the youth the morrow hails./Lives come and go; stars cease to glow; but great is the truth and it prevails.”
Shortly after my arrival, a new friend walked me around the school, pointing out teachers to avoid.
“What do you mean? Like, they’re hard graders?”
“No. Perverts. Stay away from them. Trust me.”
I heard about some teachers who supposedly had a habit of groping female students and others who had their eyes on the boys. I heard that Mark Wright, an assistant football coach, had recently left the school under mysterious circumstances. I was warned to avoid Stan Kops, the burly, bearded history teacher known widely as “the Bear,” who had some unusual pedagogical methods. Even Clark came in for some snickering: he had no family of his own, and he had a noticeably closer-than-average relationship to the Bear, another confirmed bachelor.
It was juicy gossip, of course, but not all that different from what already swirls around the minds of sex-obsessed high-school students. Certainly it wasn’t that different from what swirled around the hallways of typically homophobic high schools at the time, when anyone who was a bit different was suspected of being gay and any teacher who was gay was suspected of being a pedophile.
(To read the full essay, visit this New York Times link )