Saturday, May 8, 2010

Woodberry Forest experiment


It was an interesting, and maybe even a noble experiment. 

Ron Long, Terry Jones, and Art Gaines led the charge in 1969.  They were the first generation, the pioneers.  I think they had some interesting experiences, but I’ll leave that story to them to tell.   In the second year,1970, Ron Lipscomb, Kevin Miller, Wayne Booker and I arrived as boarding students, and Gary Mance and Wayne Williams came in day students, tripling our numbers and making a significant addition to the number of variables in the social experiment. In 1971, Clifford Johnson and Robert Long, Ron’s younger brother, joined us, both as boarding students.

Of course, it didn't take long for us to discover one another. Kevin and I both came from Greensboro and from Lincoln Jr. High.  (Five Lincoln students went to Virginia prep schools that year under the Anne C. Stouffer Foundation.  Veda Howell went to Foxcroft, another girl went to Chatham Hall whose name I can’t remember.).  I don't remember if we came together officially or if we just gravitated to a center.  Gaines, Long and Jones were the big brothers we went to for advice.  Ron Lipscomb and I had classes together.  And we all played football that first fall: Ron, Art, Wayne and Gary on JV, Terry, Ronald, and I on Junior Orange, Kevin and Wayne Williams on Junior Black.  In my second year I gravitated to cross country after showing some promise as a middle distance runner in the spring.    Several of us continued together in winter track, though Ronald Lipscomb early on distinguished himself in JV basketball in the winter, as did Ron Long in varsity baseball in the spring.

We got into the habit of sitting together in the dining hall for Saturday and Sunday breakfasts, which were buffet and informal (no coat and time, and no assigned seating).  It is amusing looking back on it, and maybe even a bit contrived, but at the time it seemed the natural thing to do.

My favorite teachers.  Dave Bloor tripled as my earth science teacher, track and cross country coach and assigned academic adviser. He was definitely one of my favorites.  I learned so much from Mr. Bloor, in the classroom and on the track.  I will never forget him.   Wilfred Grenfell ranks right at the top; I lived for his history lectures, and he, more than any other, bears the blame for my insatiable curiosity about Middle East issues and about foreign affairs in general.  Robin Breeden, our dorm guy, maybe we called him dorm master, would invite us into his apartment for tea and biscuits and tell us about the time he swam the English Channel.  How I adored those “civilizing” chats.  And the Bond couple, Tom and Vicki, with whom I studied both Spanish and French, started me out on a foreign language track that continues until today, with Portuguese and Arabic added along the way.

I have warm memories of running cross country.  Those long autumnal runs, named Arrowpoint and Chicken Ridge, and the long 13 mile trek to Achsah and back, introduced me to and acquainted me with the beauty of Orange County.  Those runs were the ambrosia that nourished my soul.  The habit I formed, of finding wonders and magic in routine and mundane chores, like long distance runs, would later prove the key to my personal and professional strength.  But I digress.  We had a great cross country team, eventually winning the Virginia Prep League championship.  The camaraderie of that team filled a social and a personal void for me.

Still, though, for reasons perhaps imagined and perhaps real, thoughts lingered and grew within me that I really didn’t “belong.”  Those thoughts reached a height in the spring of my second year, a growing and knawing loneliness that I couldn’t explain or even understand.  At the end of my second year, I told myself I would not return.  The loneliness and alienation I felt at Woodberry, I would later come to learn, had a lot less to do with Woodberry itself and a lot more to do with my own emergence from adolescence and puberty.  It would stay with me through college, where, like a ship without a rudder, without an anchor, and without a means of propulsion, I bounced around for three long, uncertain years.  Finally, in 1978, the year I should have graduated from college, I left school, degree-less, and enlisted in the Navy’s submarine force.  It was there that I finally hit my stride.

In the intervening years, I lost track of everybody.  I bumped into Ron Lipscomb on Duke’s campus, maybe in 1976.  Kevin Miller (God rest his soul) and I had mutual friends in Greensboro.  In 1985, I went back and finished college and upgraded my Navy status from enlisted to commissioned.  My tenure as a commissioned officer lasted the required four years; I finishing my obligation and transferred to State and the Foreign Service in 1992.  I stumbled on Ron Long’s name in the late 90’s at SEC and got back in touch.  Ron put me in touch with Art Gaines, who by that time was doing humanitarian relief work in East Africa.