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Insular prep school world gets very public

Scholars back a teacher who was removed after writing a satirical novel.

June 11, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A teacher at an elite prep school here followed the adage "write what you know" in his satirical first novel, but his superiors were apparently uncomfortable with parallels between events in the book and life at the school.

Andrew Trees, author of "Academy X," was told at the end of the school year that his contract to teach history at the private Horace Mann School in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx would not be renewed. The novel about an English teacher's encounters with spoiled students and overbearing parents was published by Bloomsbury last June.

News of Trees' departure has sparked an outcry over free speech from dozens of scholars across the country, who signed a letter to the editor of the school's newspaper, the Record.

But the Horace Mann administration prohibited that letter and others about Trees from being published in the Record, according to a note that ran in the paper recently from Editor Elyssa Spitzer, daughter of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

"Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly informed us that 'personnel issues' should not be 'vetted' in the paper; as a result, we were prohibited from printing these three submissions," Elyssa Spitzer wrote.

School officials have not said whether the novel was a factor in Trees' departure. Reached by phone, Kelly said: "This is something we cannot comment on. It's a personnel matter."

But staff members said they believed Trees was unfairly pushed out.

Trees said he could not comment on the issue, on his lawyer's advice, because legal action is under discussion. But he said his book was a satirical look at elite private high schools, not a representation of life at Horace Mann.

Edward Zuckerberg, parent of a Horace Mann student, said he did not have a problem with the novel but he thought some parents "were kind of ticked off by the book."

Parents pay almost $30,000 a year to send their children to the school, Zuckerberg said, and for some "it's like being a member of an exclusive club." He said many expected preferential treatment.

In a letter to the editor, which ran in the Record in May, Horace Mann history teacher Peter Sheehy wrote that Trees' novel "angered some because the themes and issues he explores correspond very closely to issues with which we struggle. It puts some of our practices and parts of our culture under the microscope."

Sheehy called Trees' exit a "forced departure." Although people may have considered Trees' novel to be in "poor taste," he wrote, if people dislike the book, they should "counter it with more free speech."

Horace Mann has a distinguished reputation, with graduates who have become Pulitzer prize winners, composers, authors and politicians. Eliot Spitzer is an alumnus.

In the novel, Trees writes about John Spencer, an awkward, underachieving teacher who is forced to deal with demanding, self-important parents set on getting their children admitted to the nation's top colleges and scheming students from rich families, including a haughty girl whom he encourages to become more humane.

"I would describe it as an insider's account of a part of the world that many of us are curious about but haven't really experienced," said Brian Balogh, a history professor at the University of Virginia.

Balogh worked closely with Trees, a former graduate student in the University of Virginia history program.

He said he considered Trees to be "among a small handful of extraordinarily talented teachers," which was one reason Balogh signed the letter to the Record's editor.

More than 60 notable academics from Yale, Rutgers, Columbia, Ohio, New York and Duke universities signed the letter, along with the chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond.

"Given Horace Mann's reputation, we believed that the school would consider academic freedom a principle to be celebrated, rather than an action to be punished," the letter stated. "Restrictions on academic freedom have invariably chilling effects."

According to a recent article in the Record, about 150 students signed a petition supporting Trees and "academic freedom for both teachers and students."

The article stated that about 30 students held a protest over his departure, in which they listened to the Beatles song "Revolution," and called for the administration to bring back Trees.

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