"Harkness made me unpack myself, made me question and understand how I related to the world."
It is no exaggeration to say that Exeter is where I became myself. I arrived in the fall of 1992 to start my prep year, fresh from a childhood in rural Maine. I arrived at Exeter a girl — a bit nerdy, a bit of a tomboy. The school was a total shock to me. In Maine, all my classmates and teachers had been white, everyone had spoken (only) English, and my family had been the source of the small town’s diversity, as the only Jewish people around. In my childhood, I had heard the word “gay” used exclusively as an insult. I had seen the buses of mostly black migrant laborers come through seasonally to pick apples and harvest potatoes and heard the hateful words that people lobbed at them.
At Exeter, my roommate was a Latina from south-central L.A. My history teacher was African-American. Girls in my dorm spoke Korean, Spanish, French. There were teachers and coaches who were out as lesbians. And there were lots of other Jews.
In short order, Exeter went from being foreign and intimidating to being a haven, a sanctuary. By my senior year, I’d come out as transgender. Even though the term and concept were very new in 1995, the Academy welcomed me back as a boy for my senior year. From the official reception by the administration to the casual encounters with my peers and instructors, everyone was cordial and many were enthusiastic supporters.
I believe it was because of Harkness, and the community that teaching methodology creates, that I was able to come to terms with who I was and figure out how to live as I was meant to. Around the tables in those classrooms, again and again, I had to articulate not just a viewpoint, but my viewpoint, my understanding — not just what I thought, but why I thought it, and how I had arrived at that thought. Harkness made me unpack myself, made me question and understand how I related to the world. Harkness is talking to others, certainly, but — in the best way — Harkness is talking to yourself.
Now, twenty years after I graduated, I am back teaching English at Exeter. There’s no question that I was drawn into teaching as a career because of my time at PEA. And there’s no question that it is Harkness, and the potential it creates for self-discovery, that made me want want to teach at Exeter.
The school now is different in ways that inspire me, and the same in ways that comfort me. What’s different? Among other things, there are lots of faculty, staff and students who are out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. There’s much more discussion of social justice and many more student groups organizing events around inclusivity and equity.
What’s the same? The table. It’s there in every classroom and, in a metaphorical way, in every dorm, on every sports team, in both of the dining halls. Sure, there are other aspects that have remained untouched, but the table is the important thing. It is the governing structure of not just pedagogy but community life; it is the gravitational center of Exeter. It is where each Exonian, whether student or teacher, comes to terms with what they believe within the context of what others believe.
It’s different being on the other side of the table (as it were — I realize that an oval has no sides). I do much less talking and a lot more listening as a teacher; I think not just of a point I could make, or an angle I hadn’t previously thought of, but much more about which voices haven’t been heard from, which points were raised and then too hastily dismissed, which topics in the reading are being skirted around. I monitor what isn’t there as much as what is.
That’s a new role at the table for me. And as I sit there and nudge and guide and comment and ask, I can feel new understanding rise within myself. What it means to be a teacher but not predicate that teaching based on hierarchy or even subject area expertise…what it means to be both a part of the discussion and apart from the discussion, within and without.
In this new role, learning to think in this new way, with these new students who understand themselves so differently from how I did — who have new terminology and categories and containers for their identities (or who, perhaps, don’t yet have those things but are discovering them), I realize that though I am no longer a student, I am once again in a place where I can continue to become myself.