President and Teenager

My role as School President was fun, complicated and only somewhat satisfying. Fun was where it began. It was fun—just like running races in grade school—to beat some boys. It was 1981, and beating boys at 200 year-old games was still a thrill. Was there a platform or a set of issues on which any of us ran? I don’t remember one, and I’m not sure if I had one. Service of some kind was simply what was expected of me. Like the boys I ran against, I imagine, I’d been raised not to flinch from the possibility of serving out in front. A girl running and winning was a bit of a novelty. It got publicity and made the local papers. In retrospect, however, iall of this attention was a bit empty-headed. As for the presidency itself, the tasks evolved over time. Some content entered the picture in the summer, between the election and the start of Senior year. There was a change in administration, and, as I remember it (others may remember it differently), there was concern among some faculty or board members or the Admissions office or a combination thereof, that Andover was losing good candidates to other schools because of a reputation for being too liberal, too permissive and too lax in its rules. It was believed that a summer between administrations represented an opportunity for change. A great deal of respect, independence and responsibility had been handed to students during the Sizer years. It seemed to some that a summer between headmasters might be a good opportunity to tighten up on rules, rewrite something called “The Blue Book” and have new rules, standards and consequences in place by the start of school. All of this would take place without student input, which didn’t sit well with the students upon our return in September. So, for the 12 or so elected student leaders working that fall, much of the fall term was spent trying to build new and mutually respectful relationships in a tense atmosphere with a new administration. But we also had to persuade folks that some faulty decision-making had taken advantage of the summer transition and needed to be undone. For the student leaders involved, the struggle and growth were creative, healthy and somewhat behind the scenes. We faced challenges such as how to find a voice in creative problem-solving, keep discourse constructive and speak authoritatively to authority. Things got complicated when these 12 or so folks, many of whom had not known each other prior to Senior year, got to be good friends. Enjoying spending time together, working late charged up on caffeine and cigarettes and, in a memorable case or two, falling in love, resulted in an unfortunate insularity to the conversations. It was, in some ways, a slapstick of taking oneself too seriously at times and not seriously enough at others. But thank goodness for the pokings and proddings of old friends, twinges of conscience and a free press — The Phillipian. They did a good job of keeping us humble, pointing out our inadvertent elitism and pointedly asking in editorials such subtle questions as, “Just what has Hadley Soutter accomplished this term?” So if things started out fun, they did get a little complicated. At times, they had a well-earned sting to them as young people sorted out priorities, accountability and integrity in a semi-public view. Ultimately, the year’s work turned even further inward but, in my view, constructively so. The task, it turned out, was to reform student government by reasonably integrating student-led decision making into certain realms of administrative and faculty-led decision-making. There was a fairly thorough reformulation of student government proposed, voted on and passed. And then the year was over. Among all the “Congratulations, Biffy!” ads in the graduation issue of The Phillipian, my father ran an impish half-page: “All is forgiven. Hadley, come home.” It was funny, and it also felt like a relief. So, somewhere between my torturously poor public speaking gigs and the assumption on the part of my peers that simply attaining the title of School President would guarantee entry to the college of my choice, lay an ample middle ground. There was some hard work, there was some fun, there was some growth and there was some sting. When I attended Ted Sizer’s memorial service in November, I saw many, many beloved teachers for the first time in 27 years. There was some chatter about how few females had held the position of School President in that time. Some folks wondered why. My general sense is not that girls passing through Andover are somehow less capable or confident of taking on the duties of School President than their predecessors. On the contrary, my sense is that they may simply be wiser. Maybe toppling a boy from the historically Alpha Male role is no longer a thrill. Maybe the position as formulated is, in fact, a bit vacuous, overly distracting or simply uninteresting. Maybe there are more immediate and appealing ways to weave and uphold the integrity of the school’s fabric of life. Perhaps there are more localized networks of nurturing and leading with purpose, thinking critically, contributing creatively and living in balance with work, peers and self. Isn’t it possible that young women at Andover aren’t saying that they can’t meet the model of governance, but rather that it is not up to them? Who knows? Tipping my hat to Ted Sizer, I would simply suggest: Ask them, and see what you find out. Hadley Arnold was one of the four female presidents of the Andover Student Council. She is now an adjunct faculty member in the Architecture Department at Woodbury University, as well as a private architect in her own firm.