Left in Andover: From the pages of Northampton

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

My early morning marches along the dike overlooking the Connecticut River floodplain were a mortification for me on the coldest winter days. Not because I had to walk, but because the exertion caused my face to turn beet red.

My Northampton yearbook photo from 1969.

The unforgiving gauntlet of female eyes at morning assembly made me feel like a zoo animal fresh from the wild. I identified neither with the fashionable boarders strolling in from their dorms nor the pallid day-students alighting from their cars and limos. I was in a class of my own as the only walker at Northampton School for Girls in Massachusetts.

Although no one ever teased me, I felt like an alien. I was not the only scholarship student of course. There were several African-American boarders as well as one white day girl from Hadley who, like me, never mastered the art of Fair Isle sweaters and blazers.

Whenever the student body boarded buses to watch a play at Williston or to ski at Mt. Tom, the two of us, losers at the game of in-crowd musical chairs, sat together. I despised her for the same superficial reasons others likely avoided me. I cannot say if this was because I felt threatened, or if I had a genuine aversion to her. I imagine the two were synonymous.

Mme Cantarella, Susan’s senior English teacher

I stuck to myself most of the time, sublimating my loneliness in academics. I spent marathon hours in the library speed reading stacks of Sir Walker Scott, Thomas Hardy and James Fenimore Cooper. Northampton had required sports, so I played soccer, basketball and lacrosse. But pairing up on the bus with the other leftover girl for away games was torture.

My adult self knows those perfect looking white bread girls I found so intimidating were just as miserable as I was. Many were the children of wealthy broken homes.

The handful of minority scholarship students likely felt culturally displaced and unsupported. But I was so absorbed in my own misery that I never connected with them.

One thing we all endured together was the absence of males. The Northampton of my time, from 1965-69, was an all female cosmos except for Mr. Heath, the cute young French teacher we all had crushes on.

Of course, my school’s founders, Miss Whitaker and Miss Bennett, were rumored to have roomed together. But that was before the sexual revolution, and identifying as lesbian or bi-sexual would have been suicidal.

The school sponsored something called date dances with brother schools such as Williston. You had to sign up by height to attend. Without the requisite semi-formal apparel and girlfriends for support, I never risked attending one of these. If a boarder wanted to entertain a male visitor, there were strict rules such as being required to remain on the sidewalk and, of course, only girls were allowed inside the dorms.

Susan in bangs, in the back row, second from left, during a Vietnam protest march.

Finally, senior year, I made friends with a couple of new hippie girls entrusted to Northampton for safekeeping. We got on the school newspaper together and I started to have fun. Having long participated in a weekly Vietnam War vigil with my family in downtown Northampton, I attended major protest marches in New York City.

A couple years ago I googled “image of hippie.” To my shock, up came photos including my shy, 16-year-old self at a rally labeled “Summer of Love.” If only.

I could hardly wait to escape my stultifying school environment. But first I had to fulfill the unrelenting demands of Mme. Cantarella, my battle axe senior English teacher. The social unrest of 1969 in no way influenced her to lower her standards or expectations of us. We read and analyzed Moby Dick and Shakespeare in our preppy outfits as the revolution raged outside our primly landscaped confines. I owe any semblance of having an education to her.

For graduation, May 1969, attired in virginal white and carrying bouquets, we girls promenaded through the school’s formal rose gardens. I wore an antique white nurse’s dress from an estate sale in Holyoke. Although I would soon attain my dream of playing hippie at Antioch College in Ohio, this is the only long dress I ever remember wearing. If there was a prom, I never knew about it.

Close up of antique nurses gown.

By August, I was a freshman at Antioch, deciding for myself whether to spend my birthday on campus attending class, or hopping into a micro bus and heading back east for Woodstock. I chose the former, not from any high work ethic, but because I had my heart set on heading west to San Francisco as soon as possible.

In the meantime, I signed up for a live/learn group at Birch Hall for aspiring creative writers. I soon discovered I had not much to write about. Gravitating instead toward the art department, I created in that way.

Partly in reaction to my cloistered high school experience and partly as a child of my times, I became markedly anti-intellectual during college. I desired to act out in the world, to make things with my hands, to live outside of social norms on communes.

I loved making pottery more than anything else, and I had had my fill of book-learning. It was almost by accident that I graduated from college; two-thirds of my entering class of 1969 dropped out.

Features editor Leader and a cartoon she drew for school paper.

June 17 marks the one-year mark for my column “Left in Andover.” When Cynthia Prairie drafted me last June, no enterprise could have been further from my mind. I thought nothing of it when my fellow vendor – she and her husband make lemonade in the booth across the way – came dancing across the meadow to my booth by the West River where I was selling pottery. We farmers market vendors spend a lot of time visiting and egging each other on each week.

Not since my days living up to the high expectations of Mme. Cantarella have I felt as intellectually challenged and supported as I have since taking the bait from Cynthia.

When she invited me to write a weekly column, it became my wildest goal to keep the ball in the air for a whole year. Many weeks, barely making deadline, I thought my juggling act was over.

At least five things have proved essential to making my 17-year-old self’s dream of becoming a writer reality:

  • Cynthia Prairie, the demanding but ever kind editor of The Chester Telegraph.
  • You, my encouraging and very forgiving readership.
  • Author’s class at graduation, May 1969

    Facebook and a smart phone, the interface of which enables this Luddite to format and share effortlessly.

  • The prescience of my brother Emmett in organizing countless family photos onto a downloadable CD.
  • And of course my parents who kept (some would say hoarded) so many old documents they could easily have thrown away. Here and there among these I still find notes from my mother labeled “Susie, for your book.”
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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Bruce Farr says:

    Susan, what a poignant look back at a slice of your personal history. I found it all the more interesting because Northampton (the city of my birth and where I lived for many years) was my stomping ground as well. I had many local friends who were students when you were at NSG, and it made me wonder if our paths had ever crossed back then. Kudos on an excellent piece of writing!

  2. Cynthia Prairie says:

    You can find all of Susan’s columns by clicking this link:
    https://www.chestertelegraph.org/category/community/left-in-andover/

  3. Micki Sloane Lisman says:

    Susan, I loved your article and it certainly brings back memories of my younger days. I’m a little bit older than you but the ’60s were my years too….as well as VT…UVM. If you’ve written other columns, would you please send copies.
    A Happy Reader
    Micki

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