“The Old MA”: A Myth That’s Here to Stay
April 30, 2019
It was a hippie haven. It was artsier. It was less academic. It was more accepting. It was less stressful. Students took greater pride in the school. Teachers had better relationships with their students. Kids were more unique.
With the exception of the first four classes to graduate after Marin Academy’s inception, there has pretty much always been an “Old MA”. Forty-Eight years later and it’s practically legend status. And I must say, as a current student, it’s no wonder these tales are still alive: quite simply, they are enjoyable to entertain. It’s exciting and comforting to spend days imagining a place we call ours to be less this or more that, feeling like MA, whatever it was, used to be a place with more people like me, “a place I could have belonged more” as Julia Chanin ‘11 remembers feeling.
I decided to write this piece because of that feeling. The comfort I’ve felt as well as the longing, a nostalgia for a time I never experienced. I knew that writing it would involve parsing through the jungle of people’s high school memories, and I originally intended to “get to the bottom of it,” but the main thing I’ve come across is that all that’s really real about any of this is people’s feelings about it because I believe, as I hope you will come to, dear reader, that the “old MA” is just that: a feeling.
You might be thinking, “a feeling? What a rip off! The school has definitely changed over 48 years! Wouldn’t that mean there IS an old version of MA?”. And yes, I’d have to agree with you in part. But you see, it’s not the notion of change I wish to dispel, it’s the idea that whatever we had in the past was intrinsically better than today and that we are on a path to the total destruction of the true essence of Marin Academy, because it seems to me, this is something people have been worried about for a long time.
This became plainly evident when I spoke not with alums, but with faculty, those people whose stay at MA surpasses the four years students have of an intimate, on-campus relationship with this place. When Josh Kalkstein, longtime soccer coach at MA, overheard me proposing this idea, he kind of laughed before saying, “I’ve heard kids saying that for the last 22 years.” Or how biology teacher Mark Stefanski who has been here, “since the Paleozoic” as he likes to say, responded to my question about the existence of an “old MA” with another question: “which one?”.
Julia Chanin says the one she pictures, “was more holistic, like even looking at my brothers time, it seemed like education for the whole person.” She laughs and touches her chest remembering often feeling so strongly about these things: “When I was there, my big fight was over the garden because they wanted to turn the garden into a swimming pool and it was like so personally horrific.” She takes a deep breath and adds, “I’m glad they haven’t done it, but there was such a strong feeling then and then when I left and kinda got some perspective. It’s still really sad but it’s, I guess I’ve come to appreciate how complex it is. I think running an institution is really hard and I think there’s something about belonging too. Part of why that was so hurtful was because we thought the ‘old MA’ appreciated who we or my social group was or what I identified as and felt like.”
While a feeling of belonging is central to any community, I’d go out on a limb to say these feelings are amplified in high school. When there’s a suspicion that this place so central to your life and development is changing, veering away from your values, that’s bound to feel like a personal attack. And unfortunately, this hurt tends to be directed at someone, most often an administrator or someone new.
In 1995 Bodie Brizendine was both of those things as the new Head of School. She reflects on when the “old MA” came up: “Even though sometimes those comments would make me smile or I would get frustrated, I think when you have a school that is so loved, like MA is, that there’s a healthy turning back to make sure we don’t lose our way when we move forward.” While she was definitely able to view it in the positive, these comments weren’t something Bodie just faced as a newbie. There was a lot of change on campus in her time, particularly structural change, which meant nine new buildings in 11 years. Everyone had something to say about the construction, Bodie tells me. Whether it was the type of building it was and what it would be used for, “every single move was centered around what MA used to be.”
A lot of people point to the campus when they talk about change, but for Sunjya Schweig ‘91, if anything, it’s a good thing. Sunjya has recently had more of a stake in today’s MA as the parent of current senior Kaia Schweig who transferred to MA after her freshman year. “I remember this really clear moment I had Kaia’s freshman year when she was at Bentley and she was in basketball tournament at MA and I dropped her off early for her games and I was just walking around campus and it felt nice to be here, not just to have a fond memory of the place, it was also impressive. With building this science building I just remember this feeling of like man, I really wish Kaia was here.” Sunjya explains he wouldn’t necessarily want to send Kaia to the same high school he went to; he’s come to expect change and growth.
Beyond that, he thinks a lot of things have stayed the same, both positive and otherwise. In terms of the MA student demographics, the main topic of the myth’s I heard, he says it was, “pretty similar to what it is now. There was a mix of different groups like there’s the Waldorf kids and the artsy kids and the music kids or the hippie kids and then there’s more like the Marin conservative kids and everything in between.” He’s delighted that in a mixed group his daughter seems to have found her place and that the two of them can happily bond over shared experiences of Wilderness Quest, Outings, and Mark Stefanski which he views as staples of his MA experience.
Mark smiles at this as he remembers having Sunja in his class his first year teaching at MA and now gets to have experiences with Kaia. To Mark too, “a cornerstone of MA is the relationships between students and teachers,” which he’s grateful to say “hasn’t shifted. That’s just the kind of school we have.”
This feels pretty fitting to be my last assignment of high school, looking back on my four years and even farther back. Julia, Mark, Sunjya and Bodie’s experiences, each unique in their perspective and emotions, only reaffirms that the “old MA” will always be a part of this institution. It’s not just because we like to look back and point at how things were better, nor is it just the growing pains that come with the endless cycle of retirements, it’s because this place is loved and it’s hard to see something you love change.