Woodstock School Meta-History

The reason (well, excuse, really) for this trip to Mussoorie was to get started on a project for Woodstock School. The school will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2004, an occasion which calls for a book of some sort. Detailed histories have previously been published, covering the period up to 1983, and a glossy picture book was produced a few years ago. The school has also recently published a collection of essays by alumni (yes, including me), and a book about alumni artists and their work. A group of alumni is working on a history made up of personal stories collected during reunions (see Living on the Edge).

So what could we do that would be new and different? And how can we attract a larger audience than the few thousand alumni, former staff, and families who are somehow personally connected to the school? And why me to head this up?

I puzzled over that last question, but, the further I get into this project, the more it seems that I was destined for it, in spite of a lot of things that I am not.

My connection with Woodstock, unlike others’, does not stretch back generations. The epitome of the old Woodstock family is the Alters: D. Emmet Alter was principal from 1940 to 43. One of his sons, Bob, graduated in 1943 and later returned to the school several times in several capacities, finally as principal from 1968 to 1979; he was instrumental in transforming the school into the international institution that it is today. Bob and Ellen Alter’s three sons (Steve, Joe, and Andy) all attended Woodstock; Steve, a novelist now teaching at MIT, wrote about it in All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas.

Tom Alter, a nephew of Bob, took Indian citizenship and is now a well-known actor and cricket commentator, based in Mumbai. He married a woman who taught at Woodstock at one time. There are other significant Alters; I need to construct a family tree to sort them all out!

I had never heard of Woodstock until Bob and Ellen Alter came on a recruiting visit to Dacca, Bangladesh, around January of 1977. My family had arrived there in October of 1976 (my dad as local head of Save the Children), confidently expecting that I would be able to attend the American school in Dacca for the 8th grade. We were wrong. The school was so small that it had room for only 15 students per grade, and the 8th was already filled. We considered a Bangladeshi school (“English medium”, meaning that all teaching is done in English) but the standards were too different: they were way ahead of me on math and sciences, way behind me on English and writing.

So I began 8th grade work by correspondence, through the Calvert School in Maryland. I initially started it with another girl in the same plight as myself, being taught by her mother. That didn’t go too well, either: I didn’t like the mother.

This had been going on for a few weeks when the Alters appeared. Clearly, my school situation needed fixing, and Woodstock seemed like a good solution. All I remember about my meeting with them was being very concerned that I would be allowed to put up my own posters in my dorm room; I had carried those posters carefully from Pittsburgh to Connecticut to Dacca; they were part of my travelling “home.” The Alters assured me that I could stick up whatever I wanted in my room; I sought detailed advice on what sort of tape to bring.

My 9th grade year at Woodstock would begin in July of 1977, and, having gotten a late start, I had to finish 8th grade in a hurry. I abandoned my study partner and finished 8th grade at double the speed recommended by the Calvert School. I had some help with algebra from an American friend then living with us; otherwise, I did it all on my own (both my dad and stepmother were intensely involved with their own work).

I started 9th grade at Woodstock just in time to save my sanity. The four years I spent there nurtured me, gave me self-confidence, and helped to heal the wounds of my parents’ divorce and other upheavals. Years later, my therapist told me that if I hadn’t gone to Woodstock, I would probably have ended up “gibbering in a corner somewhere.” So my involvement with Woodstock, though it does not (yet) span generations, has been extremely important to me.

In my time, the school was undergoing an important demographic shift, from a student body composed largely of American and Canadian missionaries’ children (mish kids) to a more international mix. My own class represented the “ideal” of 1/3 North Americans (mostly mish kids) – 1/3 Indians – 1/3 Other.

As usual for me, I didn’t fit in with any particular group. In fact, I took pains to set myself apart from some, being vociferously atheist in a Christian school. Nor was I a typical Woodstocker in many other ways. Hiking was popular, given our stunning Himalayan environs, but after a horrible (for me) required 9th grade activity week trek, I never again went on any sort of organized hike.

The school is famous for its music program. I dutifully took piano lessons for three years, but was the despair of my teacher, combining beautiful, long-fingered piano hands with no musicality whatsoever. I gave up on choir after less than a semester because the music was boring.

But Woodstock is so all-embracing a community that I soon found my own niches and ways to contribute. I became a public works artist: I painted murals on the walls of the girls’ dorm; made large batiks to decorate the elementary school; was called upon to create Bottom’s ass’ head and the lion costume for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I was for a time editor of the school paper, and later president of the girls’ dorm. I worked on the yearbook. And, during my senior year, I got interested in the community around us, Mussoorie and Landour.

I originally had an ulterior motive. During Activity Week every autumn, students leave campus in chaperoned groups, in pursuit of activities that interest them: trekking, community service, tourism, sports, music, etc. The tradition was that seniors could set their own programs for Activity Week and go pretty much where they liked, or at least the boys could. For safety reasons, girls could only leave town with chaperoned groups, although they could do independent projects alongside whatever the group was doing. The only way for me to avoid supervision was to stay in Mussoorie and do some sort of project right there. So I elected to stay in a guest house near the school, and learn about Mussoorie and its history.

There wasn’t much printed material available in Mussoorie, so I had to get out and see things and talk to people. My homeroom teacher, a long-time staff member well integrated into the local community, arranged for me to meet some of Mussoorie’s leading lights, such as Ruskin Bond, a famous Anglo-Indian writer.

Though I reveled in my week of unsupervised freedom, I did not actually break any school rules. But I had some adventures, met lots of interesting people, and got better acquainted with some I already knew. Mr. Abhinandan, the tailor who had been making my clothes for years, invited me to his house for lunch. I hadn’t realized that, being strict Jains, he and his wife were prohibited from actually eating with me, so the lunch consisted of them serving me! Which was somewhat embarrassing, but the food was excellent, and I enjoyed talking with them.

So that was how my interest began in the town beyond the school.

Now, It’s Personal

A few weeks ago I wrote about Woodstock School, and you probably guessed from the tone as well as the content that the place means a lot to me. Before I arrived at Woodstock, I had led a tumultuous life which included attending nine different schools in several different countries. Woodstock was a haven and a refuge, and it provided a much-needed stable point of reference in my chaotic life.

So, if there is any place in the world that I truly call home, it’s there – on a beautiful campus tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, far from the world and all its troubles.

Or so I thought.

Today, through the alumni network, I learned about the publication in The Indian Express newspaper of the prison diary of Ahmed Omar Sheikh. A British national of Pakistani origin, he was jailed in India in 1994 for kidnapping four people. His objective was to hold them for a very particular ransom: the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, a Kashmiri separatist militant then in an Indian jail. In 1999, a plane was hijacked in India, and this time Sheikh succeeded: the planeload of hostages was released in exchange for the freedom of Azhar, Sheikh himself, and another. According to the Express, “The FBI is exploring leads that Sheikh could have been involved in the transfer of $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks in the US.”

The diary recounts Sheikh’s arrival in India in 1994 and his various attempts to find foreigners, preferably Americans, to kidnap. His plan was to befriend a foreigner travelling alone, and invite the person to visit his “family”, who would then take the traveller hostage. While travelling about in search of victims, Sheikh wrote:

“Next morning, I went to Woodstock School… and applied for a job as a teacher. … if I got it, I could easily bring one of my co-teachers down to visit my ‘relatives’… I had an interview with the vice-principal and I didn’t get offered the job!”

In other words, he hoped to take a job teaching at Woodstock so that he could kidnap one of its American teachers.

In the event, nothing happened; the vice-principal either smelled a rat, or simply didn’t care for Sheikh’s qualifications. But this news was a fist in the stomach to me. I had already accepted, reluctantly, that now is not the time for me to go to Mussoorie for the 20th-anniversary reunion that I and my classmates were so looking forward to. I’m not so concerned about my personal safety – I have a very good sense of self-preservation and am alert to possible dangers. But, with war going on in the vicinity, things could get messy and travel become more difficult, and I didn’t want to leave my family in Italy to worry about me if I got stuck.

But now I must even more reluctantly accept that my beloved school is a potential target. And that truly hits me where it hurts.


Postscript

In July, 2002, Shaikh was sentenced to death in Pakistan for masterminding the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl.

 

About Woodstock School

This year is the 20th anniversary of my graduation from an international boarding school called Woodstock School, located in the foothills of the Himalayas in India.

Woodstock was founded 150 years ago for Protestant girls. India was a rough place for children then, so it was usual for westerners to send their kids to boarding school back home, or to the hills in India where cooler weather meant less disease.

By the mid-1970s, the missionary population in India was diminishing, and Woodstock realized that, to survive, it would have to change direction and emphasis. A new school charter was adopted, aiming to recruit a student population of 1/3 North Americans, 1/3 Indians, and 1/3 others.

So Woodstock is a very international place. The 60 graduates in my class represented 14 different nationalities, plus every major religion and several “minor” ones. We were intensely together – studying, playing, living, growing up – ten months of every year.

When you grow up with people of other cultures, you know in your gut that, beneath surface differences, we’re all human, with similar feelings and aspirations.

The only thing we didn’t tolerate at Woodstock was intolerance itself. One girl arrived in 1979, fresh from the US where her father had been in India’s diplomatic service. One day she wore to school a “Nuke the Ayatollah” t-shirt she had bought in the US. None of us were fond of the Ayatollah, but many of our schoolmates were Iranis who had left their home during the Iranian revolution because they were in danger from one side or the other. (One boy exhibited horrifying drawings of violence he had witnessed firsthand, such as soldiers machine-gunning a crowd.) All of these kids still had friends and family back in Iran, and of course nuking the Ayatollah would have meant nuking those innocent people as well. I don’t think anyone actually said anything to her about the t-shirt, but she never wore it again.

Woodstock taught us not only to accept the different, but to embrace it. Miscegenation was the rule: most of the teenage couples were mixed by race, religion, culture, or nationality. Many of us went on to marry people of other cultures, races, religions, and nationalities, and are raising children in countries we were neither born nor raised in. This is only the most obvious manifestation of the culture of tolerance that Woodstock instilled in us. Even Woodstockers who go back to their hometowns, marry, and raise children there, have a different attitude than most of their neighbors.

Most of the world’s strife is born of ignorance and misunderstanding. Many people cannot comprehend how someone else could see things differently than they do; their instinctive reaction is: “Anyone who doesn’t think the way I do is evil, stupid, or insane.”

Woodstockers, however, accept that others see things differently, and are able to respect others’ opinions and beliefs even when we do not agree with them. The world could use more people with this attitude. If there were more schools like Woodstock, there might be fewer wars.

I don’t have the money to create more schools like Woodstock. But this idea has been in the back of my mind for a long time: What if we could fund scholarships to bring more kinds of kids from all parts of the world to Woodstock, for at least a year, maybe all four years of high school? Kids from all countries, cultures, and social strata, especially inner city/disadvantaged kids who otherwise might not have much of a future. And, in the present context, we might specifically “target” kids from areas like Israel/Palestine, for whom a chance to meet “the other” in a different context could change their attitudes – and, in a small way, their country’s future.

But I wanted to talk to you all about Woodstock in hopes of reaching some “ordinary” kids as well. If you have or know a teenager who has a sense of adventure, let them know about this extraordinary school. BTW, it’s also a well-recognized place to get a great education. Woodstock grads go on to college pretty much wherever they want (two of my classmates went to MIT), and thrive on higher education (my class can so far boast at least six PhDs, two MDs, and almost everyone got at least an undergrad degree). Great music instruction, sports, lots of hiking, and fantastic scenery. And an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.

ps One of our distinguished alumni is TED’s Chris Anderson; here’s what he has to say about his Woodstock experience: An international school in India with a message for the world