Two days before my 40th high school reunion this summer, I received a letter in the mail. It was from the Seattle law firm, Floyd, Pflueger & Ringer. I had never heard of them, but the neat buff-colored envelope made me nervous. Had I libeled someone? Was it family troubles? In my experience, good news rarely arrives from attorneys.
The letter was addressed to the Lakeside classes of 1971-75. "With regret, we inform you that Lakeside School was recently notified in December 2011 that a former faculty member...had an inappropriate relationship with a then 17 year-old male student in the 1970s." The letter went on to say that law enforcement had been notified, but no criminal action would be taken due to the statute of limitations. The school "nonetheless felt it prudent" to let former students and subsequent employers of the teacher know what happened and the teacher's "admitted behavior." The female teacher was named, the victim was not.
That certainly gave us something to talk about at the reunion. But it was not really that much of surprise. It seemed fitting that the scandal occurred in our era. Ours was a class that had been in the middle of another major sex scandal when a part-time Lakeside instructor and judge, Gary Little, was found to have preyed on some students and other juvenile males, including some who had been before him in court. On the eve of Little's exposure by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in August of 1988, he committed suicide at the courthouse. Some of his victims were in my class.
In the newly revealed incident, the school is aggressively dispelling any idea that such behavior would be shushed, ignored, or tolerated. Such was not the case with Little, whose serial predation was the stuff of gossip for years before the P-I developed its story. Sources included Lakeside teachers who wanted the well-connected Little investigated, but the story seemed too hot, or too hard to nail down. When it broke, the school distanced itself from the scandal.
Now we're in the post-Jerry Sandusky/Penn State era, when educational institutions are being scrutinized for how they've handled sex scandals. A recent example is the New York Times Magazine's story on New York's private Horace Mann School's "secret history of abuse" that took place back in the '70s and '80s. "Prep-school Predators," was the headline on a story that vigorously washed the dirty laundry.
One has to assume that there was damage done in the Lakeside case outlined in the recent letter, if for no other reason than the student came forward nearly 40 years after the fact. Victims of abuse have different experiences and timetables. Such delayed reporting is not unusual. The letter stated that the teacher involved had admitted the "behavior." The letter affirmed that the school has "zero tolerance" for past or present sexual misconduct. The mere existence of the letter suggests that pretty emphatically.
Still, as a bystander, one is left with the feeling of being given a glimpse of an incomplete picture. Were there more victims? More perpetrators? Was there a loss of institutional control, or is it explained by simply saying it was "the '70s?"
That period in Lakeside's history was a time of huge change within the institution. In the fall of 1971, the school had merged with St. Nicholas, an all-girls girl's school on Capitol Hill, and thus went co-ed. The last all-male senior class erected a gravestone to commemorate the event. In the '70s, the coat-and-tie dress code was abandoned, student government was abolished, and many senior privileges given up. The front door of Bliss Hall had been an entrance reserved exclusively for upperclassmen and faculty, but it became a democratic doorway to all classes. Even younger students took to smoking cigarettes in the "Senior Circle" with impunity.
The old-school traditions didn't simply drop away; they were mowed down. Students in Robert Fulghum's art class were allowed to splash paint on the walls, a kind of psychedelic graffiti; classes were taught in Guerilla Warfare and batik. Students and teachers had hair and lots of it. Drugs were common; affluent kids could afford the best stuff. Even the nerds were hippies: Have you seen the old photos of the long-haired Paul Allen (class of '71) with sideburns and a Fu Manchu mustache? In 1972, a record (to that time) number of Lakeside grads did not immediately go on to college, a challenge to the whole notion of "prep" in prep school.
The school newspaper, The Tatler, was also in full rebellion. It was as if a student paper had mated with the National Lampoon and foreshadowed The Onion. There was satire, chaos, hoax stories, creative writing, occasionally a tidbit of news. I knew I had to work there when I saw a sports story headlined "Itchy Track Nuts." Clearly, adult supervision was lax, which was how we liked it. In 1972, even the freewheeling Tatler was a target of rebellion: The school also featured two "underground" student newspapers.
The Lakeside I attended was a '70s furry freak, not the school it was before — or after. When the Gary Little scandal broke in 1988, I returned to the school to do some reporting and quickly realized that there had been a return to basics: academics, tighter control, order. The faculty was on a tighter leash, former teachers told me. Less student-teacher fraternizing, no touching allowed. Some old-time teachers blamed the new uptightness on the school's being co-ed, or the Little legacy, or the Reagan era. The pre-60's and '70s rebellion school, while smaller and more intimate, had been very old school too. Hippie Lakeside wasn't the school of the future or the past, but an adolescent phase.
I have heard it said that my Lakeside class was a victim of the cultural collisions of the time. Authority was questioned, odd for a school that used to quietly boast in (to use Mitt Romney's phrase) "quiet rooms," of preparing Seattle's future leaders. It was an elite institution in a time when people were questioning the very notion of elitism. All the old ways were ripe for questioning and reinvention. We read Vonnegut and Brautigan along with Dostoyevsky and Hemingway. The teachers wanted to be cool too. Some Lakesiders I've talked with said they are not surprised by the contents of the lawyer letter, citing a looser, more sexualized atmosphere in the '70s. One thing didn't change: high academic standards. Even in batik.
It was also an era that many people quickly forgot, or wanted to. The school has evolved. It is more global, more serious, more diverse, and more famous due to alums like Allen and Bill Gates. The campus is now like that of a small university. Lakeside is a leader among prep schools nationally, no longer simply the place where a provincial city sent its sons. Students seem very, very directed. I wouldn't trade my time there for another, though I sometimes look at the current school with envy. The students and faculty seem to have such...clarity.
The lawyer's letter seemed a strong reminder to us students of another era. All should not be forgotten. Abuse of students by teachers is not unique to that time, nor has it been the norm in any era. But there are things, hard things, that need to be remembered and talked about sometimes — even 40 years after the fact.
That long ago time of questioning and rebellion, of rewriting the rules and expanding boundaries, carries a mixed legacy.
Lakeside seems to be saying that it's better to get bad news out than pretend it never happened. I agree. But I am left with the feeling that I've learned something and I don't quite know what to do with it. Filing it under "blast from the past" doesn't seem quite enough.