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The Continuing Education of Mrs. Ross

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Thompson had homeschooled his own son, but the former MIT professor had little experience with primary and secondary education. Ross captivated Thompson. “She’s not an intellectual, and she doesn’t pretend to be,” he says. “She’s modest and straightforward about that, but she’s very intelligent and imaginative and entrepreneurial. She’s so busy she can’t sit still and read a book from beginning to end, but that’s true of a lot of politicians.” Mrs. Ross sometimes has employees read aloud to her, and has paid for summaries of books.

It was Thompson who introduced Mrs. Ross to the ravishing concept of the Goddess, a controversial theory that enjoyed a moment of cosmic voguishness in the late eighties after primarily female fertility idols turned up at archaeological digs and some postulated that, early on, women had shaped a pacific course of history, only to be subverted by men. Even after boys arrived at the Ross School in 1998, students continued to be taught that women were the creators of culture—the progenitors of ceramics, botany, agriculture, medicine, astronomy—until a runaway system of conquest and perpetual warfare initiated by men displaced women from traditional authority and power. “I wanted to make sure the girls were empowered with the sense of culture, and everything wasn’t biased toward a military narrative,” says Thompson.

Ultimately, Thompson’s vision was out of sync with Gardner’s. Thompson believes Gardner stirred the pot with Mrs. Ross, telling her that “Bill Thompson is New Age,” and that if the school was identified as such, she’d lose Harvard’s respect. Gardner did find the curriculum New Agey. “But what I really thought was foolish was all that stuff about how everything came from matriarchies,” Gardner says. “How can we possibly know this?” He pleasantly allows that Thompson’s curriculum is impressive: “It’s important to have a backbone, even if it’s not one scholars are going to approve of.”

The faculty was skeptical that Bill Thompson’s curriculum would work. Following a strict chronological approach, one wouldn’t hear a whisper about America until the tenth grade—since America didn’t yet exist. The challenge was to find ways to discuss things that the chronology left out. Discussing slavery in Egypt, a teacher could draw parallels with slavery in the Deep South. Math and science were always problematic, since the major breakthroughs occurred in fits and spurts not neatly coinciding with key moments. Students wound up having deficiencies in math, which the school has been trying to rectify, with some success, thanks in part to Ross’s SAT classes. Mrs. Ross had always had her admissions department “choreograph the class,” as she phrases it, with purposeful recruitment of minorities and other students whose passions and potential might never be revealed by test scores.

At age sixteen, the school has been forced to grow up. Some of its proggy ideals have been flung on the pyre as Ross comes under pressure to teach to the test. The cultural-history classes used to go on for three hours at a stretch. Tai Chi every morning in the big gym with the entire school was discontinued so classes could start earlier. “My personal feeling is that Ross is under the thumb of the system,” says Roy Scheider, whose son Christian is a Ross junior. “They are fashioning themselves into a college-prep academy and not necessarily preparing children for life.”

Bill Thompson is no longer affiliated with the school: “The role of an architect is not to hang around the building and tell people how to live in it,” he says regretfully.

People who’d worked for Mrs. Ross claim she invested money in the search for Atlantis, but she is more than a dilettantish dunderhead with a vanity institute. Still, she does like her summits and symposia. She met her second husband, Anders Holst, at a ted conference in 1997, five years after Steve Ross died. A Swedish management consultant with soap-opera looks, he was nearly a decade younger and had been married with kids (“what Jung would call a puer eternis” is how Thompson pegs him). A year later, he’d moved to the States, and she was talking about doing a school in Stockholm.

Mrs. Ross appointed him her unpaid co-chair of the Ross Institute, and he worked hard to find a role for himself. They were wed in June 2000 in Florence’s Orsanmichele, which reportedly received $1 million for its restoration. A special libation was prepared, a blend of Armagnac vintages from the years she and Holst were born. Ten members of the First Baptist Church of Bridgehampton choir were on hand to sing a single song: “I Believe I Can Fly.” Holst compared the event to being awarded the Nobel Prize. But now, inspired by hanging out with Billy Joel and Mrs. Ross’s friend Quincy Jones, Anders Holst repackaged himself as the Sting of smooth jazz. Mrs. Ross prepared a studio for him and hired him the best sax backup guys in the business, but she viewed his music as a hobby, and he was spending an awful lot of time in Sweden, working on his songs. They divorced in 2005, after which Holst bought himself a $3.2 million penthouse loft on lower Broadway.


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