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The Devil & Saint Ann's


Stanley Bosworth in his Saint Ann's office in 1975.  

“The whole school is about freedom and the intellectual adventure and always has been. And that comes from Stanley,” says Gabe Howard, the head of Saint Ann’s lower school, who has taught there since 1973. On an early spring morning, Howard gives me a tour of the new building, which houses grades one through three. “I put the library right here,” she says as we enter, “to make a statement about our values. It’s the first thing you see when you come in.” She runs her hand over the undulating curves of the wall opposite the library. “That and the wiggly wall, because we also value wiggle.”

Upstairs, the children, the “funny, woolly creatures,” as Stanley calls them, are running around a table covered with dreamy, puffy crêpe-paper trees with pipe-cleaner trunks. On the wall, there are “Poems and Paintings Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Chandra and Anne’s Class” (third grade). It is Stanley’s fantasy made real: little people unleashed to engage their mini-minds and fledgling bodies in the unlimited quest for creativity and wisdom.

“My 4-year-old was in the preschool opera two weeks ago,” says Laura Walker, the president and CEO of WNYC radio, who also has a son in the seventh grade at Saint Ann’s (he’s been studying Japanese since he was 11 and is cultivating a serious interest in anime with the art department). “They did this great opera-rap about eyeballs. It was a very well-conceived production.” Now her 4-year-old is starring as Hera in a film her class is making as part of a unit on ancient Greece.

Mary Watson, a former Saint Ann’s teacher (and student, and now a board member and the mother of a kindergartner), puts it like this: “There’s no grades, there’s no discipline, so the challenge as a teacher is that you have to make it fun for them. My parents were what Stanley would call the bourgeoisie. They were terrified of Saint Ann’s. My father was going to take me out. He said, ‘You seem too happy to be learning anything.’ Then I fell in love with Latin and my father became a total convert.”

According to Watson, the board’s reasons for pushing Stanley to step down were a bit less sinister than he likes to imagine. “He’s 76 years old,” she says. “We’d all like to believe—well, I’d like to believe—he could be here forever and ever. But it was time for us to do this. You just don’t want to wake up one morning and find he’s not there. We want him involved with the transition, we wanted to do it while he’s around. He built the school! In terms of his outrageousness, talk to anyone who’s known him for 25 years: That’s unchanged.”

Stanley is not convinced. “One of them called me a fiscal disaster,” he says with a contemptuous snort. “I give a shit? If they said I was a physical disaster, I would have been hurt. They have me bent over. I’m still a very virile man.”

In the sixties, the vestry of Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church sought to establish a nonsectarian school in the hopes of attracting parishioners. Stanley was a “proselytizer” who’d taught at NYU and at the Walden School on 88th Street. “He was flat-out the best teacher I’ve ever had,” says Marc Landy, one of Bosworth’s early Walden students, now a professor of political science at Boston College. “He didn’t teach subjects as if they were just subjects, he taught it like, These ideas are really important, so you better come to grips with them, you’d better bring intellectual courage. I liked his show of toughness. It made it so I could think about the life of the mind as something I could do, something manly enough. He didn’t treat us like teenagers, he taught us like we were important people.”

Bosworth somehow accomplished the unlikely feat of selling his nontraditional educational approach to the church. “I was saying to them, quoting Nietzsche, ‘Thou must harbor chaos to give birth to a dancing star,’ ” Stanley says. “And the chaos, of course, is in fact: Children are chaotic. And the dancing star is the child itself! And I seemed to get enough of them to apply to the school.”

According to the Saint Ann’s Website, “As for the 60-plus children who came to the Clinton Street undercroft in September 1965, they thought of Saint Ann’s as a kind of amusement park (these words are from a graduation speech by one of them)—and, indeed, some of that early creative chaos has survived.” Saint Ann’s has remained its own kind of academy of magic, with wiggly walls and preschool operas in lieu of Quidditch and the dark arts; a place where the dangers and rewards confronted by students are of a different caliber than the detention-and-gold-stars routine experienced by regular children. To gain admittance, you don’t have to be a little wizard like Harry Potter, descended from parents with legendary powers, but the selection process is similar in that a child’s lineage and gifts are central criteria. “I always say to the parents when I meet them, ‘If you’re an artist—an artist artist—I’ll take your child,’ ” Stanley says. “Parents are not necessarily the people I would love them to be—I’ve got one who gets me crazy at the New York Review of Books. But when his kids came here, I took ’em like a shot. No exam. I don’t have to give an exam to a kid whose father is that brilliant!”

Stanley used to tell people that he planned to turn out 10 percent of the nation’s poets at his school. And certainly, many a bright-eyed youth has passed through the halls of Saint Ann’s and come out the other end an artiste of one sort or another (Zac Posen, Jennifer Connelly, Paz de la Huerta, et al.). Many, many more have come out with artistic ambitions. “I’m 33 and I’m in the knitting industry, and it still hasn’t occurred to me that I’m not going to win an Academy Award,” says Adina Klein, class of ’88. “That’s thanks to Stanley Bosworth.”

Stanley says he first started thinking about starting a school while stationed in Germany after World War II. “I was having a grand old time, really, because my girlfriend was quite intelligent. She was an older woman—I was 21, she was 26—and she read Goethe. I was sent to the building which was for code-breaking, cryptanalysis, because you had to have a certain IQ. I was there locked and closeted with maybe 100 people, all cleared for top-secret. Frightened my old man to death! ‘What do you do? What do you do?’ In cryptanalysis, one of the things you do is find anything that is reproduced . . . You look for a frequency count. We had maids, cleaning women, everything but dancing girls . . . and plenty of those, too! We had girlfriends who would go back and forth. But I couldn’t wait to get out because I couldn’t bear all the chickenshit, all the trouble, the nuisance, the epiphenomenal fact of having to do something that has no meaning at all.”

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