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Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Jamaica Plain: The Children's Museum

Written by Mike Spock

In one of my courses I met a fellow oddball, Les Cramer. He was a student of recorded sleep learning and artificially compressed speech who later worked on the suspicious erasures of the Nixon tapes and the audio traces of the Kennedy assassination shots. Les kept telling me that the directorship of The Children's Museum in Boston had been open for some time and that I ought to apply. The museum had been a customer of his when he sold heating oil in his other life. It seemed like a preposterous idea. I hadn't run anything and didn't have a clear idea of what a children's museum really was anyway. Still, as my personal educational crisis deepened I realized I had no way or desire to hang on in graduate school. I had almost convinced myself that I had skimmed off the cream of what the School of Education and Harvard had to offer in the first year and the next years would only ad X to what I thought I already knew.

So I sent in an application and soon found myself with three young board members, who had volunteered themselves for the search committee, sitting in a dark booth at the Midget Restaurant in Cambridge explaining expansively to them, in Dr. Seuss's words, "What I would do if I ran the zoo." All of the committee members were committed educational reformers, and sensing an opportunity at The Children's Museum, were looking for ways to seize control and transform the sleepy, almost 50-year-old organization into a experimental platform for innovation in informal education. Choosing to look beyond my limited and checkered background they saw me as a possible stealth candidate to lead an ambitious but low-key revolution. But the problem was my resume. The committee spent the next few days hatching a scheme to present me to the two people who really counted: Helen Claflin, the most generous but quite conventionally inclined board member, and Phyllis O'Connell, the acting director and former assistant director under the previous director. The search committee decided to start down the path of least resistance. Phyl was a plunger and she and I hit it off immediately. She came aboard the cabal. Mrs. Claflin was another matter. Helen Claflin for years had been the museum's largest personal contributor—and behind the scenes the most influential member of the board. She thought The Children's Museum was just fine as it had always been, thank you! The trick, as the co-conspirators Tom Sisson, Ham Coolidge and Charlie Walcott saw it, was to win Mrs. Claflin over, and hence the board, by emphasizing Harvard not Antioch, and by making a lot of the fact that they could get me for $2,500 less than they had paid the director they had fired the year before. As a failed and unemployed graduate student that had never run anything at all, $7,500 sounded pretty good to me.

We climbed Belmont Hill to meet with Mrs. Claflin for tea in her spacious, formal home as the late October dusk fell and the Cambridge and Boston lights came on below us. I made what was for me an almost subdued presentation avoiding the dangerous rocks of my most unconventional and barely formed ideas. I tried to be charming, not spill my tea or leave cake crumbs on the chair cushions. The search committee's careful strategy seemed to work. With Phyl O'Connell's enthusiasm and Helen Claflin's reserved endorsement, the full board fell in line and I was offered the job.

I showed up on my first day in a suit—my only suit. The children's museum was housed in a spacious converted mansion located across from Jamaica Pond, one of the jewels in Olmstead's Emerald Necklace tying the Back Bay to what had once been the elegant southwestern edge of the city. The director's office was the vast master bedroom. The large corner desk reminded me of the corporate office of an intimidating boss in a New Yorker cartoon. The high-backed leather swivel chair faced out towards the door that opened many steps away onto the formal second floor hallway. Phyl came out of her office, the master bathroom connecting to the former bedroom, and greeted me warmly. We chatted for a while and then I said I probably should get to work and closed our shared door. I sat down behind the desk and opened one drawer and another. There were sheets of letterhead and envelopes, a yellow pad of lined paper, several sharpened pencils, ball point pens and even a school kid's compass and ruler. I closed the desk and adjusted the leather-cornered blotter. Now what? I realized I hadn't a clue.

I kept the door closed for the rest of the day. Phyl O'Connell told me many years later that her heart sank when I finally emerged at the end of that mysterious first day and asked "Do you suppose I could have an 'In' box and an 'Out' box?" and left.

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