In his novel Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” While that seems an apt explanation for the seemingly intractable cultural and political fault lines that have emerged so clearly these past few years, it’s equally true for GDS. As we head into our 75th anniversary, which will coincide with the opening of our unified campus in September 2020, I have been doing a deep dive into the school’s history.
As I dredge up one dusty memory after another, what strikes me again and again is how the questions our founding parents and teachers wrestled with remain so pertinent today: What’s the proper relationship between the individual and the community in a school setting? What are the limits of free expression? How can teachers have authority if they aren’t called Mr. or Ms.? (In the old days it was Miss or Mrs.) Is it better to downplay differences (“No one is different from you and from me…”) or recognize that we each bring something unique to the classroom and the workplace, and rather than being color blind we should be color conscious? (In an essay written in the mid-sixties for the National Association of Independent Schools, our second Head of School Edith Nash asserted unequivocally that GDS would henceforth be a color-conscious institution.) What should students know and be able to do at each grade level? How do we carry learning from inside to outside the walls of the classroom? What does it mean to be a parent-owned school and how is that different from a proprietary, parent-run school? Whom can we serve and how can we best serve them? Should the purpose of discipline always be redemptory?
As Philleo Nash, founding parent and first President of the Board of Trustees, once noted, those first parents and teachers had no idea that the little seed of a school they planted would flourish as it has. They knew, though, that segregation was wrong, educationally and morally. They knew that all children deserve the best possible education. They knew that we all learn more deeply when we learn with and from those who don’t see, experience, and understand the world as we do. They believed strongly in the notion of global citizenship and understood that students do their best work when they are happy and engaged. (Interestingly, in keeping, perhaps, with the times, their notions of what it was okay to do to a misbehaving child seem to have been a little harsher than ours. Aggie, our founder, apparently thought nothing of putting errant children in trashcans when they were insufficiently polite or attentive.)
They were also clear in times that were just as politically charged as ours that GDS’s mission was an ethical not a political one. We would take a stand when it came to matters of human dignity, but we would not get caught up in political controversies. When Philleo Nash became the first government official named as a communist sympathizer by Joseph McCarthy, Philleo made it very clear that GDS as an institution would steer clear of the matter and concentrate on the business at hand: educating children. The adults would fight their fights on their own time.
In those early days, GDS thought of itself as a do-it-yourself school. Whatever it took to make the school work, the teachers, parents, and administrators did. (One year Aggie even asked the teachers to forego their salary!) As GDS alum, parent, and current Board Chair Jenny Abramson likes to remind us, the idea of GDS took place in a living room as, eyeball to eyeball, parents decided to stake their time, their resources, and their children’s future on the possibility that they were building a little engine that really could get up the mountain and bring good things to all the little children.