Harold Brown

Year of Graduation: 

"Living and learning within a diverse community expanded my horizons, fostering an appreciation for different cultures and perspectives"

In the vibrant tapestry of my life, a pivotal chapter unfolded in 1970 when I journeyed from the St. Nicholas projects in the heart of Harlem, New York City, to New Hampshire, to Exeter. This expedition, sparked by the encouragement of my seventh grade teacher, Bill Heffernan ’64, and fervently embraced by my mother, became the defining chapter of my life.

The socioeconomic disparities between the streets of Harlem and the privileged enclave of Exeter were stark. My parents borrowed a car from a family friend to drive me to the Academy. We were greeted warmly by the Snows in their apartment. My parents were invited to stay for refreshments. I could tell that my father felt unsettled by the whole affair. Truth be told, we all were unsettled. Their living room was half the size of our apartment in St. Nick. The culture shock was palpable.

My parents could only stay for two hours because the family friend needed the car for work on his third-shift job. We had just enough time together to buy a watch and The 5th Dimension Greatest Hits (the only album that had Black people on the cover) at George & Phillips. With warm hugs and tender kisses, they said their goodbyes, told me to work hard, and began their five-hour trip home. I was left to adapt to a world where affluence was commonplace and utterly otherworldly to me. I secluded myself in my single room on the fourth floor of Webster South and played my new album until I fell asleep. To this day, I am amazed that no one, adult or student, knocked on my door to check on me. I spent my first night at Exeter, in this place with redbrick buildings, that were not the redbrick projects of my neighborhood. Hugo St. John ’74 knocked on my door the next morning, and that is when my journey and my first friendship began.

The educational disparities were equally conspicuous. In a word, Exeter was hard, really hard. The curriculum was a demanding landscape, requiring intellectual acumen and discipline previously unexplored. At home, I never had to study. I could knock out my homework in an hour. In nine years of school, I never received a grade lower than 95%. I was a recipient of the Governor’s Citation for Academic Achievement. The transition from the conventional educational system in Harlem, even in its lauded class for the “intellectually gifted,” to the Harkness table, the D+s and the accompanying embarrassment posed difficulties that demanded resilience and tenacity. The fear of disappointing my parents was my sole motivation in my prep and lower years.

However, amid the trials, the positive impact on my life was profound. The academic challenges became crucibles of personal growth, pushing me beyond perceived limits and instilling in me a passion for intellectual pursuits. Living and learning within a diverse community expanded my horizons, fostering an appreciation for different cultures and perspectives, even while discovering and embracing my own. This, in turn, became a source of strength in navigating a world that was far more intricate and interconnected than I had imagined.

My Exeter experience didn’t just cultivate academic prowess; it sowed the seeds of lifelong values. The pursuit of excellence was balanced with a commitment to service, encapsulated in the principles of non sibi. Looking back, my journey from the tumultuous streets of Harlem to Exeter was a voyage of self-discovery. The challenges I encountered were not roadblocks but steppingstones, and the positive influences endured. The experience left an indelible mark, shaping not just my academic trajectory but imbuing in me the enduring values of non sibi and the art of listening, which continue to guide my path to this day.

As a serendipitous bonus, my Exeter journey introduced me to Vivian Haskin ’75, otherwise known as Ewunike (A-won-noo-kay) or Nini, the girl who would become my wife and life partner. This unexpected blessing and joy added a profound layer to my transformative experience, creating lasting connections beyond the academic and cultural realms.

I am eternally grateful for Exeter. I am grateful for my teachers — all of them. I am grateful for my classmates and our time together at the Academy. I look forward to our reunion in May.

Editor’s note: This reflection was written as part of a series that members of the class of 1974 shared with one another over email in the months leading up to their 50th reunion. This article first appeared in the spring 2024 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.