As we gathered in the gazebo, sitting on the hard white benches with the paint peeling off in strips, nursing Marlboros—the girls wielding cigarette-holders, like scepters—we decided then and there who and what was the main obstacle to our goal. Sheryl called it the “Marshmallow Conspiracy,” and of course we didn’t need a translation, although perhaps you do. It was, in short, the liberal Establishment embodied in the school administration, which would soon yield to our demands for “student power.” We knew they’d yield: After all, weren’t liberal school administrators capitulating before triumphant student mobs all over the country? Yes, they were soft and squishy—like a marshmallow.
The year was 1968, the country was divided into opposing camps, and the whiff of gunpowder was in the air along with talk of revolution. Riots in the streets, with those damned college students always in the thick of it. The Black Panthers. The war in Vietnam. On college campuses across the country, self-described Marxist revolutionaries had launched an insurgency; the New Left was all the rage.
But not at my school.
Admittedly, Cherry Lawn School, in Darien, Connecticut, wasn’t a college, but it felt and functioned like one. Most of the students were boarders, with a few token Townies thrown in for the sake of diversity. Yes, Cherry Lawn was ahead of its time: a progressive school founded in 1915 by a doctor who abandoned his practice to educate and care for his polio-stricken niece at her home in Stamford. As additional pupils were added, Dr. Fred Goldfrank began to develop “advanced” theories of education and moved the school to 20 acres in Darien.
I had been through four high schools by the time I went to Cherry Lawn, including my disastrous encounter with the public-school system, and I’d heard of it from someone I knew at one of the “progressive” schools I’d been sent to. “Oh, that place is the end of the line. That’s where you go when they kick you out of everywhere else.” There were only two kinds of schools outside the public-school system: the ones that outwardly resembled jails, and the “progressive” joints that eventually wound up feeling like jail. Cherry Lawn was a prime example of the latter.
Yet I have to say that Cherry Lawn was unique, at least that first year, at the very start of which I sat around with Sheryl and Francesca and her beau Steve, who wasn’t really part of our group, but since he was with Francesca we made a temporary exception. He hadn’t yet read the complete works of a certain Russian-American novelist whose eccentrically named philosophy inspired and united our little group there in the gazebo, a place that soon became a kind of command center for our campus revolution, the details of which we plotted in the weeks and months to come.
While Harvard and Yale and Princeton were firmly in the hands of various Maoist and Trotskyist tribes, the campus of Cherry Lawn witnessed a full-scale assault by a very young and determined claque of Ayn Rand cultists. And for a while it looked as if we had taken the inner fortress of the enemy.
We had fellow travelers among the faculty. The history teacher, Mr. Smith, and his young elf-like wife, the art teacher, became the official sponsors of our Ayn Rand Club, which held regular meetings where droning lectures from cult headquarters were played while we munched on pizza, on which the pepperoni was arranged to look like a dollar sign.
Our other adult fellow travelers included a few members of the Cherry Lawn faculty who stood out as eccentric and even singular characters: A scion of an old Darien family, Rex Manford—not his real name—rode in on his motorcycle every morning, black leather jacket buttoned up against the wind, jet-black hair flying. One could almost hear a collective sigh go up as he passed the girls’ dorm.
Oh, we had everything on that faculty: a mulatto who was nevertheless a fanatical devotee of the ideology of black nationalist Ron Karenga (the Panthers were “sellouts”); the athletic director who also taught science and spent his long boring lectures trying to sell us on a body of ideas that I later came to recognize as sociobiology. Of course, as far as our little group was concerned, this was all determinist nonsense, and for sport we hectored him in class—a policy we pretty much aggressively pursued in all our classes.
This was by design. Our roundtable of student revolutionaries, sitting there in the gazebo in solemn conclave, had conceived a plan that would put an end to the power of the Marshmallow Conspiracy, and deliver the school into our deserving hands. It involved waging a war: not a military campaign, but a battle of ideas, one in which our superior “premises”—a favorite Randian term—and skills would surely prevail over the weak-kneed liberals and old-fashioned progressives who embodied the Cherry Lawn Tradition. The spirit of this heritage was illustrated in the brochure sent to the parents of every prospective student, on the cover of which was emblazoned this stanza from Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That’s all I had to see; I was sold. My parents, who had tried the jail-like alternative on previous occasions, went the progressive route for a change, and I flourished in this atmosphere of newfound freedom. And we utilized that freedom to carry out our revolutionary plan and reorganize Cherry Lawn into a “free-market” utopia. As a concession to student demands, the school administration had agreed to the creation of a joint Student-Teacher Senate, in which the ultimate authority to make the school rules was invested. The students were given three seats, the teachers two, and the administration two. This arrangement, they thought, was a fail-safe method of making sure the students were always outvoted by, and subject to, adult supervision. They never imagined we’d manage to elect the motorcycle guy and Smith, and thus gain complete control.
After the election, we celebrated in Mr. Smith’s cottage down by the lake while listening to Ayn Rand denounce “Faith and Force, the Destroyers of the Modern World” in the background. And there we plotted the next phase of our revolution. From now on, all classes at the school would be voluntary. Instead of having students assigned to them, teachers would have to attract students by interesting them in the subject matter. After all, this was a free market, students were consumers, and teachers were entrepreneurs entering the marketplace of ideas.
The result was that the motorcycle guy with the wavy black hair and the freshly minted degree in sociology had more students than could be crammed into his room, whilst Basil Bourgeois, the English literature teacher who specialized in James Joyce and had directed that year’s production of Under Milk Wood at the local theater, faced a room that was near empty. He had been at the school for 35 years.
We pressed our victory: As mean as we were, we pushed their noses in it. As each new day dawned, all were required to attend Morning Meeting, which convened in the outdoor atrium, even in stormy weather. Announcements were read by Mr. Zuber, the teacher-administrator who was really the heart and soul of the Old Cherry Lawn, before we got our hands on it. Zuber resented us openly and bitterly, as did all the teachers who had been there for years, and he grimaced as if in pain every time one of our little group went up to the podium. For every Morning Meeting featured a reading from some literary work, fiction or nonfiction, a poem or an essay, and our increasingly numerous group invariably chose from the works of a certain Russian-born novelist-philosopher, a choice that we intended to become irritating after a while.
Ah, to be that young and stupid again!
The situation at Cherry Lawn was, I believe, unique in the whole country: While SDS was taking over buildings at Columbia and students were demanding free tuition and other goodies from the government, we free market revolutionaries were intent on creating a “capitalist” utopia.
All revolutions come to an end, alas, either reversed from without or betrayed from within. In this case, the next year the dissident teachers weren’t invited back, troublemakers like myself were either isolated or graduated, and the Old Cherry Lawn was restored.
Yes, we were dogmatists, as fanatical in our own way as the New Leftists we disdained, and there is much in our behavior to regret—especially the way we disrespected the veteran faculty, who deserved better. But we were right about the Marshmallow Conspiracy.
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