Stanley Bosworth 1927–2011: A Former Student Remembers the Eccentric Visionary of Saint Ann’s

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Bosworth in 2004.Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times/REdux

"Harboring Max cries out to the heavens as a justice warranted," wrote Stanley Bosworth, the founder and, until 2004, the headmaster of Saint Ann's, in a letter to my parents. That's not a typical line from a private school administrator. But Stanley, who died Tuesday, was not a typical educator.

Stanley — as all of us Saint Ann's students, teachers, parents, and alums called him — founded Saint Ann's in Brooklyn Heights in 1965 with a radical, original vision. Stanley's dual insights were that individuality, rather than conformity should be fostered and that learning should be prized for its own sake. From that flowed all of Saint Ann's unique pedagogical commitments: that there would be no grades, honors, or awards of any kind; that high-school juniors would have as much freedom to select their classes as most college students. Choosing Saint Ann's for high school, I felt liberated. There were no rules! No phony pretense that kids don't experiment with dangerous behaviors, no dress codes, no prohibition on chewing gum or wearing headphones in the hallways.

Stanley cheerfully tossed aside the admissions standards, official and unofficial, that govern every other private school. Instead of looking for the well-rounded and well-behaved, Saint Ann's selected for talent and curiosity. My brother Max, who was intellectually precocious but physically disabled, was unwelcome at the other, less selective, private schools in Brooklyn; but Stanley didn't care. Just as he routinely accepted the children of artists over the children of bankers, he and his staff embraced Max with open arms. Saint Ann's was a haven for gifted misfits, and it developed a large number of startlingly successful actors, writers, musicians, film makers and fashion designers.

Stanley's vision may be a victim of its own success. As Saint Ann's attracted talented students with its rich curriculum, its college admissions rates passed even those of many fancy uptown schools. Now bankers line up to send their kids there.

As is often the case with brilliant, visionary leaders, Stanley became a bit odd in old age. By the time I went there he was largely out of day-to-day management, focused on teaching his seminar, writing erudite and sometimes political letters to the school’s community, and getting kids into college, a talent of his that took on mythically outsized proportion among New York City students and their parents. His politically incorrect and lascivious proclamations — memorably captured by Ariel Levy in a 2004 profile for this magazine — were a turn-off for many parents. And his fervent belief in the validity of IQ tests as an admissions criteria offended some who thought it was culturally biased. But what sticks with me is the memory of him indulging that argument from me — as we wandered through the caves of Lascaux, when he crashed our high-school French trip — as if I, a 17-year-old, had as much a right to an opinion as he did.

Related: The Devil & St. Ann's [NYM]