Andover: Better Than Ever

“Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide to the future.” –Ancient Chinese proverb. So often do the Cassandras of Phillips Academy disparage certain institutions, opinions, or events at Andover that any day now one would expect the Four Horsemen, clad in navy sweatshirts and turned-around baseball caps, to trot into Commons. Let’s face it: our school is no stranger to complaint. To understand whether Andover has set its GPS on a direct course to Hell, we should really understand what Andover was like before any of us were around. I interviewed some Post Post Graduates (P.P.G’s), students who returned as teachers, about the gradual changes at this school. One recent graduate is John R. Dugan Jr. ’92. With his youthful looks, boyish laugh and hearty smile, he has occasionally been mistaken for a current Andover P.G., In fact, he was a PG twelve years ago and now serves as an Instructor in English as well as an admissions officer. He admits, “I’m not that far removed from the Andover student body. A lot of the ’92 kids could be ’04 kids. The student dynamic hasn’t really changed all that much.” “I came back to Andover, mostly because of some of the great teachers I had here, like Paul Kalkstein ‘61 who was a superb English teacher and my lacrosse coach.” “When I was on the lacrosse team here, we were 14-1; our only loss was to Harvard JV. To beat Exeter last year with some fellow class of ’92 in the stands, I felt like everything came full circle. It all sort of crystallized.” “Andover’s only gotten better. The student body is more talented. The plays, The Phillipian, everything has improved. [Columnist note to reader: I offered no money for this quote.] Andover has been on the same course that they were when I was here, but they’re farther along it now.” Another P.P.G., Instructor in English, Paul Kalkstein ’61, offered the perspective of an older, more distanced faculty member. He wrote to me in an e-mail:“Recently, I have heard colleagues maintain that today’s students are not doing as much work as Andover students used to. I believe this claim is quantitatively accurate, and verifiable. However, much of the work we did in 1960 was rote learning. There is so much more information every day that learning how to find what we need and separating the gold from the dross is much more important than memorizing stuff about the grain elevator cases, I think. Students in 2004 are getting an education of higher quality than Andover used to provide, even though the quantity is diminished, and they are doing a lot of it themselves.” But not every Andover P.P.G. had such a splendid time. Henry Wilmer, Instructor in French, described to me in an e-mail a much more hapless scenario: expulsion. Mr. Wilmer wrote, “I had such a miserable experience at Andover when I was a student I have totally scarred it over. I guess my fondest memory, if any, was of pouring water under a friend’s door in Stevens so it floated placidly on the tile floor just inside, then floating lighter fluid on it, then lighting it, then screaming, ‘Fire! Fire!’ It was 2 a.m. My most vivid memory was of the ride back to North Carolina after getting kicked out and watching my mom take out her first cigarette in 10 years.” “I would have been class of’63, but I missed it by two days.” In stark contrast to the reflections of Mr. Dugan and Mr. Kalkstein, Mr. Wilmer did not return to Andover to revive happy memories or to preserve a “forever young” mentality. He wrote, “Since I never got a diploma from PA, [coming here] was a way to prove I had been worth one…at least subconsciously. Beyond that, I came back to PA because it was the only school that would hire me, which is all the more strange since the dean of faculty at the time had been my house counselor when I got kicked out eight years before.” You have got to admire Mr. Wilmer’s resilience. He continues by stating that “[the biggest changes over the years have been] coeducation, student services (Graham House and the Dean of Students services), the cluster system, better food, far more things in student activities (we had a movie in GW and that was it), two-strike rule (instead of one). Overall, Andover has become a kinder, gentler place, again due mainly to the merger with Abbot.” All three P.P.G’s, whether reminiscing nostalgically or ambivalently about their experiences as students, seem to describe a juggernaut of progress over the years, in athletics, education, and extracurricular activities. So maybe those who cite certain administrative changes as portents of Andover’s demise are misinformed or confused. Perhaps such critics need the perspective of someone who attended in the 1960’s and who is willing to recall his expulsion from an austere school which did not take Senior pranks lightly. Perhaps they need to contemplate an Andover without coeducation or to understand how an Andover student’s education has become more profound and more useful over the years. Perhaps they even need to embrace the wonder of a guy who has beaten Exeter both as a player and as a coach. Even more importantly, if this school can attract P.P.G’s back to Andover because they recognize potential in this school, because their post-graduate experiences showed them it was a place of opportunity, then Andover surely must have something pretty special going for it.