photo manipulation by nacrowe
i came across the works of COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY literature professor EDWARD SAID while still in high school, which made since given that he also attended NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON. he is primarily celebrated for his post-colonial book ORIENTALISM (PANTHEON, 1979) which discusses the ways in which the west misperceives and distorts their perceptions of near-eastern cultures based on various remnants of outdated colonial thinking.
i believe i read it as part of a history or comparative religions class my sophomore year, but what it did embed in me, much like the work of HOWARD ZINN which i read years later, was the idea that my perception of the world was based on narratives with agendas.
within a year of being exposed to ORIENTALISM i was living in KUWAIT and unfortunately i was there on 9/11. my family lived in a PALESTINIAN enclave (most people don't know that KUWAIT has a large PALESTINIAN population, YASSER ARAFAT being one before returning to run the PLO) and on that fateful day people around me were celebrating. it twas my understanding of SAID that made me not go ballistic, especially at school the next day. the world is complicated and there are competing narratives, one of which was the UNICEF figure of 500,000 IRAQI children dead as a direct result of AMERICAN sanctions on SADAM HUSSEIN. i don't remember that being spoken about much in the aftermath of 9/11. i'm not promoting any conspiracy theories here, i am an AMERICAN who knew someone that passed on that terrible and was worried about the safety of my family, as we were physically in the MIDDLE EAST during that period. what i am saying is that just like in GESTALT PYSCHOLOGY and POST-STRUCTURALISM, the same event/sign can have different interpretations and both can be true.
being abroad most of my life i was always searching for these native understandings and narratives, not that i agreed with them but i certainly made an effort to acknowledge and understand them. to me that is the legacy of SAID.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
for some reason i was reminded of this anecdote recently and i'm surprised i haven't written about it here before.
for my freshman and sophomore years of high school i attended the NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON SCHOOL in western MASSACHUSETTS. its a private boarding school that, at the time, had a student population of around 2,000 students (now i believe it is closer to 650). i basically couldn't get in now if i wanted to as it went smaller and more exclusive (joining the EIGHT SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION, a mirror of the IVY LEAGUE). but back then it had a reputation for being the most liberal of the elite northeast boarding schools having in the past educated the children of MARTIN LUTHER KING, MALCOLM X and even NAT KING COLE when other similar institutions wouldn't due to racism. i attended because my parents lived overseas and attending school where they were stationed in NIGERIA was not an option.
those two years were beyond weird and still affect me to this day. just the privilege and power dynamics that i saw there seem to be on display to me all the time in AMERICAN civic life and none of it deserved. it might be because i was a public school teacher, but witnessing fellow students with straight Cs go on to YALE and HARVARD still churns my stomach when i consider the number of bright, hard-working youth from limited means get turned away. such is life. i'll probably go into it in detail in subsequent posts, but fellow peers at NORTHFIELD included sons and daughters of ambassadors, HOLLYWOOD directors, WHITE HOUSE officials, heads of industry, foreign dignitaries and world leaders. it was a dizzying experience at point in my life when i was still figuring out who was.
so here's an example of a typical NORTHFIELD random event. our school had a chaplain, which was a holdover from the school's initial mid-19th century roots as a seminary founded by famed evangelist DWIGHT L MOODY. the chaplain was non-denominational and not even associated with a particular religion, in fact she was a graduate of HARVARD SEMINARY and was married to NOEL PAUL STOOKEY of PETER, PAUL & MARY fame. he lived on campus as an "artist-in-residence."
once a year he would play for all the students, which was quite the sight. this old bald dude with an acoustic guitar, from a bygone era, connecting brilliantly with the most jaded of crowds. just to give you a sense of how privileged this student body was, past guest speakers when i was there included MAYA ANGELOU and KEN BURNS.
i vividly remember STOOKEY introducing a song saying, "contrary to public opinion, this song is not about drugs" to which he played the introductory chords to "PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON." all my dorm-mates looked at each muttering under our collective breath "yeah right." he also played "LEAVING ON A JET PLANE" and "RIGHT FIELD" and others, but honestly nobody cared. everyone was there to hear "PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON." and everyone sang. like everyone. me included. and i am the last person to ever sing in unison at a big collective event. but this was different. it was "PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON." didn't hit me until later what a feat he pulled, as i was often asleep or near sleep at those formal school meetings, all dressed up in my sport jacket and all. ugh.
so there you have it. just one instance of my very odd high school years in boarding school and beyond. to be continued.