I came to Field in 1977. Field was in its infancy, but it was the only school I’ve been to before or since, that didn’t have a baby-food approach to education. Field wasn’t teachers coaxing tiny spoonfuls of Shakespeare down our throats. Field was an intellectual brawl. Field was Sharaine Ely perched on a stool, with a scarf around her neck, having us read 18th century poems about seduction and passion. Out loud. In front of each other. Boys and girls. Once we realized, and we all did at once, that “a spangled breastplate” was a bra, and that this guy wanted this girl to take hers off—we were hooked – I still read 18th century poetry. Sharaine not only woke us up to John Donne and Ben Johnson, she woke us up to our minds, which is the greatest and rarest gift a teacher can give.
Sharaine was the kind of teacher most people get, if they’re lucky, once. At Field, she stood tall but not alone. Elizabeth knew how to pick teachers: Mark Olcott turned the chaotic jumble of history into an orderly sequence of cause and effect. The stream that was early America became a widening and deepening river that rolled towards us. David Lear taught Economic History using Galbraith’s “Age of Uncertainty” and Heilbronner’s “The Worldy Philosophers” for text books. Both books started with Adam Smith, trudged through the Industrial Revolution, Karl Marx and the World Wars, but one came from a liberal perspective and one from a conservative. That was Elizabeth all over. She didn’t want to drive us to her point of view, or the school’s, she wanted to drive us to think. She encouraged the teachers to give thesis and anti-thesis, so we could come to our own synthesis. Very few schools do this and yet it’s what education really is. The right to think was a deeply-held value for Elizabeth. She understood that in order to risk thinking, people and especially young ones, have to feel safe. So she made a school where they were.
One of the people we read and debated about in Economic History was a man with the delightfully Wodehousian name of Thornstein Veblan. Mr. Veblan had ticked off every one of the 400 families that made up 19th century society in New York by comparing them to the primitives tribes of New Guinea.
Both, he wrote, liked to wear their wealth on their bodies, (coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption”), both steered their children into marriages that were at least partly, mercantile arrangements, and both shunned people who were different.
Thornstein Veblen was right, most of the world does operate along tribal lines, but I remember thinking that Field was an exception. At Field, people had their friends, but no one group was deemed superior, and no one was shunned. There was one boy in my class who wore a three piece suit to school every day, with a tie – this was in the 70’s – he was not only liked, he was respected. That was a direct reflection of Elizabeth’s values. She respected him, as she respected all of us. It didn’t matter that he didn’t dress like the rest of the tribe. He mattered because humanity matters.
Elizabeth built a school where it was okay to risk saying the wrong, silly, odd or dumb thing. Coming to Field was the beginning, for many children, of unclenching. Nothing grows when it’s clenched, at least not as it’s meant to. Under Elizabeth, children straightened up and reached for the sun.
In April of 2003, my brother, a reporter covering the war, was killed in Iraq. In one phone call, the family we were was gone forever. My husband and I packed up our two children, Sally and Tommy and moved back to Washington to be with my parents. It was June. Sally was going to be a sophomore and we lived in North East where the high school was failing. I called Elizabeth, not because she was the founder of The Field School, but because she was one of the touchstones in my life. As I drove up to the new campus, she was standing outside the Cafritz House, waiting for me. I didn’t even park; I just got out and ran into her arms. It was like coming home. I never did ask her advice about where to send Sally. I never had to. Before the hug was over, she’d invited Sally to Field.
I was so happy that my dear daughter was going to be under Elizabeth’s wing, and so upset when Elizabeth flew away. It took me a while to see that Field was still Field. It started with seeing Sally smile all the time. She’s always been a smiley child. But death ends the care-free part of childhood and Sally had been somber since my brother’s. Field made her care-free again. It didn’t know it was possible and am still grateful and amazed.
Then there was the day when she said, “You know what I love about Field? Nobody judges you.” It was like hearing my voice echo back after almost thirty years. Then there were her teachers, the great poetry she wrote, the math tests she flunked, the excitement when she talked about her classes, especially Tait’s. She was thrilled. I didn’t have to remember that thrill, it’s still with me. The thrill of finding your mind, what it’s good at, what it stinks at and what rockets it to the next stratosphere lasts forever.
This fall my son Tommy started Field as a junior. When I dropped him off on his first day, I saw Will Layman leading a band up to the balcony to play welcoming music. I suddenly remembered walking up to Field on my first day with my little sister, Nell. A boy was on the porch welcoming people with an Italian opera, making it up as he went along. I drove off teary with happiness about the great journey Tommy was about to begin—and a little worried. Field was no longer in its infancy. It had grown-up pressures and grown-up competition and Elizabeth was gone. I wondered if grown-up Field still had room for smart kids who don’t get smart kid grades. Or kind kids who aren’t going to an Ivy. Or kids who would rather kick a soccer ball than read a book. Or kids who were playing catch-up because they couldn’t hear when they were little. I hoped so because Tommy was all of those kids.
Tommy’s voice quickly became part of what is now, a family echo. When he talks about not being able to figure out if a teacher votes Republican or Democrat because the teacher gives them both points of view, I think of my teachers giving us thesis and anti-thesis, so we could learn to think. When he talks about how nice the kids are, I think of the boy who wore the suit and tie to school every day. Looking different still doesn’t matter at Field, humanity still does. When he talks about loving school, loving his teachers, his friends, the kids, poker club with Chris Lorraine, Officer Bill, Dale and classes (first time loving classes), I see a through-line connecting the teachers I had, to the teachers Sally had and the ones Tommy now has. Field is still a place where exceptional teachers with exceptional hearts and minds are trusted to find their own way to teach and reach kids.
When alumni talk of how Field changed their lives, one of the things we mean is how it informed our lives. The lessons I learned at Field still help me put things into context.
One of them, again from economic history, was the Hegalian Law of Change: everything living must grow or decay; it can not stay the same. That truth will sometimes break your heart, but, as I’ve learned in the last eight years, not always.
Field today is different than Field of my day, so is the world and so is Washington D.C. In the 70’s, this was a town where people left work at five o’clock; now you can’t throw a brick (not that you would) without hitting someone who got up at 4 am to train for a marathon before going to the office to put in a twelve hour day. Field has to adapt and they have, I think, beautifully.
As Hegal said, things do change. Schools and children grow up. But when they are rooted in values, they grow up to be someone we still love, who still feels like home.
I feel at home at Field because Elizabeth’s philosophies, values and beliefs are part of the school itself. Dale’s commitment to using them as the school’s touchstone to guide growth is firm integrating them is a priority. When I drop Tommy off, or come to a game, I see unclenched kids reaching for the sun. There are still parents who want their child to be excited by school rather than burdened by it. And they bring them to Field.
So to all of you who have served on the board, past and present, be assured the foundation Elizabeth laid – a lively approach to education, respect for an individual’s mind, a commitment to free-thinking – are still the blocks Field is building on. And as long as it does, Field will always be an exceptional school.