During the summer after my freshman year at Deerfield, I staged a protest. I sat my parents down and told them that I would not be returning to the Pocumtuck Valley for a second year. When asked why, I flatly responded that I hated everyone. “Oh really,” my Dad retorted in sarcastic disbelief, “you hate every single person?” a comment that only sparked further outrage and an even more resolute decision on my part to not return. Luckily, my parents, who always seem to be right in the most frustrating fashion, didn’t let me give up on Deerfield. Even when faced with militant silent treatment, three months’ worth of door slamming and profuse sobbing throughout the entire two hour drive back to school in September, their response remained unchanged: I would be spending the next three years at Deerfield.
Almost eight years later, it seems laughable that I was ever unhappy at school, as I often reflect with nostalgic pleasure on my high school experience and am in constant communication with many of the friends I made during this time. However, through recent conversations with my younger sister, now a senior at DA, I am reminded of the difficulties of finding yourself and growing into an adult while far from home and under overwhelming pressure. Reflecting on my plea after freshman year to escape and return to my cozy day school with childhood friends and constant familial support reminds me of exactly how and why I felt utterly unequipped to navigate the throes of boarding school.
One of the knocks against Deerfield from an outsider’s perspective is its elitism. One of the knocks against Deerfield from an insider’s perspective is its male elitism. This deep-rooted, male-dominated culture was something I loved to complain about for sport with my friends, and still discuss with my family on a regular basis, as my dad and two sisters are all alums or soon-to-be alums (fingers crossed!). We poke fun at my dad for having vehemently opposed co-education, only to send his three daughters here. We also laugh in a semi-horrified manner when my little sister informs us that Varsity Softball wears old JV boys’ football uniforms. I love to talk about taking an unheated green machine to a Varsity Field Hockey game in the bitter cold of November, while boys’ football took two luxurious coach buses to their game.
When I arrived freshman year, I let this entrenched aspect of Deerfield culture intimidate me. I also let every other aspect of the social scene wear me down until I was ready to give up on a place I had wanted to be part of for my entire life. When I returned sophomore year, however, I decided that if I was going to have to endure the hell that I had made Deerfield out to be in my angst-ridden teenage mind, then I would at least do it on my own terms. I stopped focusing on social hierarchy and groups; I befriended students older and younger than me because I liked who they were as people and not because they were ‘cool’ or ‘popular.’ I embraced my weirdness and reveled in other people’s quirks. Most importantly, through this new lens, I began to appreciate Deerfield and everyone there instead of condemning its social politics and bitterly denouncing my peers. As I felt more connected to the people around me, I found myself rooting for them, happy for their successes and in turn happier myself.
In the same vein, I reflected on my position as a Deerfield girl and what my role within the community was. While I spent a lot of time thinking about this throughout my four years, I had a hard time finding a solution to my laundry list of patriarchal grievances. What I wish I had figured out during this time, and what I hope my sister can understand during her last year at school, is that change has been in the hands of Deerfield girls all along. Just as I decided to alter my focus after freshman year, Deerfield girls need to decide to change if they want our beloved institution to evolve with them. We can complain about the culture until we are blue in the face and swap stories about various injustices like sports uniforms and leadership positions. But have we or do we ever really do anything to start the change that so many of us yearned for as students? Instead of complaining about the culture as I did my freshman year, I hope Deerfield girls today will change the ways in which they approach the everyday.
High school, and boarding school in particular, should really be a celebration. Everyone is in a confusing, transformative time together and, unlike at regular schools, Deerfield students do not have a nightly escape from the burden and pressure of school – we live in it 24/7. Therefore, students should be more understanding, more supportive, but above all more celebratory. Our experience is unlike that of pretty much anybody else in the world, and in spite of all its difficulties, it is fantastic! I think many of my fellow alums would agree with me when I say that some of the memories I treasure most come from those formative four years.
Girls always seem to be particularly hard on one another, not as supportive as we should be, and maybe a little too quick to tear one another down. Changing this pattern of interaction is, in my opinion, the key to change. Instead of whispering behind the back of someone who has chosen a particularly eclectic outfit, girls should be celebrating the welcome punch of color among an otherwise Barbour jacket and Hunter boot-riddled landscape. When you pass a girl (or anyone, for that matter) on the sidewalk, you should say hi, regardless of whether you ‘know’ them or not. Deerfield has less than 700 students; you should be friendly to all and celebrate the intimacy of campus.
Older girls, strive to be the person you looked up to as a freshman or sophomore. Not the girl who intimidated you, but the girl who was kind and made you feel welcome. Younger girls, make an effort to celebrate your strange side. Revel in every small aspect of your personality that makes you different from the person next to you in the first waiting line. My sophomore year proctor once told me that she knew we would become close the moment she caught me and my best friend dancing to “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child in the Mac I common room. I was mortally embarrassed at the time, but later realized that stumbling upon moments like this were part of what made Deerfield special. The eccentricity is part of the magic.
None of these suggestions I make here are new or ground-breaking in any sense, but they can be easy to forget amidst the day-to-day stress. And, who knows, maybe a gentle reminder from a graduate who wishes she had practiced what she is preaching more often during her time at DA might be a small catalyst to a larger movement!
The truth is that everyone at Deerfield has something important to contribute. It might be something as small as a booming laugh that echoes throughout the dining hall and makes someone smile on his or her way to first period, but it is essential. These small components, seemingly minute yet distinguishing, make up the overall landscape of campus and brighten each moment of the day. It is these we should be celebrating and, girls, it is up to you to lead the charge and support one another. Deerfield as a school, in all its tradition and historical splendor, will follow suit. After all, isn’t it usually students who spur change anyways? Why should a cultural shift be any different? Support your all your fellow students. Deerfield will support you in return.