Remembering Stanley: A School Reflects on the Death of its Founder

Imagine the basement of an old church: one room, a few flickering light bulbs, a small collection of chairs and desks, and a blackboard. Suddenly, a tall, beak-nosed man of 39 years, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and hair combed to one side to ward off the ages, jumps on top of his desk and begins to shout French grammar with enormous bravado. He then leaps from desk to desk, surprising each 11-year-old with his graceful landing. Imagine this and you will know what a typical day was like in the class of Stanley Bosworth, the first headmaster of Saint Ann’s School, when he founded it in 1965.

“Stanley,” as he is known by both students and colleagues, was the inspiration for and brain behind a truly remarkable educational philosophy and institution. Together, he and Canon Melville Harcourt, the rector at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, sought to create a place of learning that nurtured bright and, perhaps, nonconforming, young people. One way Stanley chose to do this was to abolish letter or number grades, which were replaced by long-form evaluative essays from teachers. Despite this lack of conventionality, Saint Ann’s School’s reputation for academic excellence has steadily grown, resulting in its being characterized by the Wall Street Journal in 2004 as one of the top private schools in the United States.

But Stanley’s school is much more than statistics and ratings: it is a family of pioneers in the world of education. So, it is unsurprising that his passing on August 7, 2011 from Alzheimer’s disease caused a wave of sadness, nostalgia, and celebration of Stanley’s life throughout the Saint Ann’s community. Over time, especially since his retirement in 2004, the founder of the school has been both idolized and idealized at Saint Ann’s, and has come to stand as a symbol of the school itself. His passing marks a movement into what could be considered the second generation of the school. But to those who knew him, Stanley wasn’t simply a set of ideals or an educational philosophy. To many alumni, teachers past and present, administrators, and parents, Stanley was a “genius” educator, a second father, a friend—someone to inspire them to challenge convention, to champion their thoughts and feelings when nobody else would, to confront authority for them, and, most of all, to believe in them. Over and over, people have said that Stanley Bosworth saved their lives.

Ann Herendeen, Class of 1972, was 10 years old when she first met Stanley. She had been attending Brooklyn Friends School and was doing well there, but when her friend decided to transfer to Saint Ann’s, Ms. Herendeen thought she should at least see what the school was all about. She described her sense of shock when the bell rang during her tour and children came streaming out of the classroom (there was only one), running, jumping, shrieking. “It was total chaos,” she said, “And Stanley was very proud of it.”

This pride over the students at his school is something many people remember about Stanley. In many ways, Stanley was like a proud father to every single child who attended Saint Ann’s. Marty Skoble, a long time friend of Stanley’s and the current head of the poetry department at Saint Ann’s, shared some words that Stanley said to him when Mr. Skoble was considering sending his sons to the school. “If you give us your child, he’s ours,” Stanley claimed. Given the flood of emails about Stanley sent to the school by alumni, it appears that this statement holds true. Once a child of Stanley’s, always a child of Stanley’s.

Many people who knew him took notice of Stanley’s fascination with children. Mary Watson—alumna, former teacher and administrator, and parent—shared a story of a dinner with Stanley and her own son, John. “He was at the dinner table one moment, and the next moment he was on the floor playing with John. He loved watching John grow. You understood why this school was so exciting for him and why he never got bored of it, because he really did love kids.” Mr. Skoble also described how Stanley was drawn to studying children, saying Stanley was often distracted from conversations by children passing by. This intense interest in children caused Stanley to respect his students and value them as unique and wonderfully creative individuals, a characteristic that is in part the reason why Saint Ann’s has no grades.

What is most evident from the wider Saint Ann’s community’s reaction to Stanley’s death is that he had enormous faith in his students. He played a central role in the college application process because he believed that Saint Ann’s kids, despite their unconventional education and maybe because of it, could succeed in the most difficult and prestigious schools in the country. As part of this process, he not only advocated for them at these schools, but he flew them to colleges all across the country, paying for their plane tickets and hotel rooms. Justin Gerald, alumnus of 2003, wrote, “I was convinced I wouldn’t get into any sort of elite school because I wasn’t all that special on AP’s or SAT II’s, and I assumed that schools would value these above all else.” Stanley, on the other hand, was certain that Mr. Gerald could succeed anywhere. “Stanley believed in me long before I learned how to believe in myself and I will always be grateful to him for this.”

Stanley’s belief in these young adults had an enormous impact on their lives even after college. Ms. Herendeen, who is now a published author, said that Stanley recognized a creative talent in her that no one, not her parents, not her friends, not even she herself, had recognized before. She firmly believes that without Stanley’s faith in her literary abilities, she would never have become a writer.

Stanley’s influence was not limited to his students. His colleagues also found him to be very important to them either personally or pedagogically. Mr. Skoble, who now teaches poetry to St. Ann’s students in all grades, is grateful that Stanley “gave [him] the freedom to experiment.” The unique poetry program at the school is a perfect example of what Stanley wanted education to be: creating. “Stanley had this wonderfully playful mind,” said Mr. Skoble,” and a love of language that came from his enormous intelligence. So it was a natural affinity for him to see poetry as a vehicle for creative expression.”

Jane Avrich, whose teaching style could be characterized as iconoclastic, or at the very least idiosyncratic, owes a great deal to Stanley Bosworth. “I came from a very conventional background, in terms of pedagogy,” said Ms. Avrich, who graduated from Brearley and then Radcliffe, “but Stanley, with his madness, gave me permission to be mad.” When she started teaching at Saint Ann’s, Ms. Avrich was convinced that it would be inappropriate to permit her personality to shine through. Stanley freed her from this constrictive view of teaching by speaking to her in what she described as “code.” “He had been a cryptographer in the Second World War,” Ms. Avrich wrote in a 2005 essay about Stanley, “and he understood that delicate information (re art, children) had to be kept covert. Classified. And since I needed to know, he slipped me info with devious cunning, his messages disguised. Besides, Stanley always deplored linear learning.” Through these cryptic messages, which included phrases like, “Tell me, have your feet ever touched the earth?” Stanley changed Ms. Avrich’s approach to teaching. She described a particularly frustrating seventh grade class that was studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Ms. Avrich recalled feeling “uninspired, unmotivated, unprepared.” Like one of Shakespeare’s apparitions, Stanley popped his head into the classroom and whispered, “Art lives within these walls.” When Ms. Avrich contemplated his mysterious statement, she realized that Stanley was giving her the liberty to make art in the classroom. She employed this advice by asking her students to act out the banquet scene, complete with jam for blood, right then and there. Her lesson became living art.

While Stanley’s positive effect on his students and colleagues is clear, what is not so clear is what effect his death will have on the future of Saint Ann’s. Though the school has been more or less without Stanley Bosworth since his retirement in 2004, his passing has certainly brought “finality,” in the words of Mr. Skoble, to the late headmaster’s departure. And the Saint Ann’s community has offered mixed opinions about what a separation like this means for the school. Current Head of School Vince Tompkins believes that the school is, always has been, and always will be on a steady course of evolution and change. “Stanley was clearly a complex, brilliant, irreplaceable figure at Saint Ann’s and in the history of education,” said Mr. Tompkins. But Saint Ann’s does not need “a slavish devotion to [Stanley’s] original vision. That’s not what Saint Ann’s is about. From its conception this has been a school about innovation.” Assistant Head of School and close friend of Stanley’s Linda Kaufman agrees, saying, “We would be stale if we didn’t change. Stanley’s vision of the school changed over time” as well. In addition, Ms. Kaufman pointed out that there are many “distorted views of Stanley” as both an individual and as a symbol, underscoring the fact that it is in many ways impossible to know what Stanley would or would not do because many students, teachers, and administrators have views of Stanley that are based upon word of mouth and stories.

Maybe deviation from Stanley’s exact course is inevitable, especially because the number of faculty members and students who knew Stanley is decreasing. This year’s senior class was only in fifth grade when Stanley retired, so the younger students have little to no personal memory of Stanley. And to make matters worse, the school has not gone untouched by the current standardized test-obsessed cultural trend. Even since Stanley’s 2004 retirement, students have felt more pressure to excel on SATs and AP tests. Mr. Skoble, however, hopes that Stanley’s death will cause a resurgence of interest in Stanley’s original vision of Saint Ann’s among faculty and students and that more of his original writings will be collected and read by the school community. Ms. Avrich also believes that there should be an active effort to explain to young students and new teachers who Stanley was as an individual, not just as a “philosophy.” Stanley’s huge personality made it possible for him to “take the fall for everything,” she said, and to give the school “a strong center.” This unification of the school was a function not of just Stanley’s values, but of Stanley as a human being. “The school has to evolve and it has,” but students have “to know where the school came from.”

It is difficult to predict the course the school will follow, but the hope is that Stanley’s principles will abide. Mr. Tompkins, who has read nearly all of Stanley’s available writings, described the key values of the school as “a commitment to excellence, not to meet some external standard, but to be the best that we can be, and a commitment to each student as an individual.” And if there’s one thing that Stanley left us with, it’s the belief that we can do what we have to do to allow Saint Ann’s to inspire and empower our “second generation.”

Rebecca Anne Brudner
Age 17, Grade 12
Saint Ann’s School
Gold Key

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