MOST SCHOOLS, if they have any public image, are known for things such as standout sports teams or magnet arts programs. Their identity comes from within school walls, and the outside environment stamps little influence on this inner culture.
This makes sense, given that teachers and administrators and coaches, not a neighborhood or local landmark, work hard to create a specific climate. Which is why, after all these years, I still marvel at the influence that the landscape surrounding St. James Academy, the school where I teach, has on our identity.
It's not that the head of St. James, Betty Legenhausen, doesn't have a significant impact on our school, because she does. But Ms. Legenhausen and the heads of school that came before her have been shrewd enough to realize that they are conservators more than arbiters. They have always understood that when you live or work on My Lady's Manor, the land imposes itself upon all who come in contact with it and not the other way around.
It's easy to imagine what "the manor," as locals call it, must have looked like when St. James Academy first opened in 1821 and you had to pay $2 in annual tuition for reading, writing, ciphering and grammar; $3 for math and geometry; $5 to learn Latin and Greek; and $1 for firewood during winter.
Farms still populate the area (originally a royal land grant to Lord Baltimore in 1713 before it became part of Monkton in northern Baltimore County), except now they cultivate thoroughbreds, not tobacco.
Many descendants of the early settlers -- including Hutchinses, Cockeys, Pearces, Merrymans, Pattersons -- still live in or near their ancestral Georgian homes, an anomaly in this rootless, peripatetic age. This is a world out of Masterpiece Theatre, where it's not uncommon to see the Elkridge-Harford Hounds, replete in black riding helmets and red jackets, bounding across St. James' fields after fox on early autumn mornings. Like the fog that often blankets manor pastures where slaves once picked tobacco, the past shrouds more here than just landmarks.
There's still a Southern planter-class lifestyle, postmodern style, on the manor. Quite a few St. James students live on the once-gracious farms and dream of someday attending what many sub-Mason-Dixonites consider their own Ivy League, the universities of Virginia and North Carolina.
The younger boys' idea of literature out here is hunting catalogs, hidden inside their books during class. For girls, it's novels in which horses feature prominently. (Our version of an annual school fun fair is the Pony Show, a competition sanctioned by the Baltimore County and Harford horse show associations.) In keeping with tradition, invitation-only cotillions are held for children at the school once a month on Friday afternoons. All sixth-graders at St. James are required to take classes in basic etiquette and ballroom dancing.
Such customs can seem dated to outsiders, but the implicit messages from them seep deeper for many people. When a fellow teacher's home was nearly ruined after Tropical Storm Isabel, students, their parents and teachers rallied together and not only raised money to help her but also helped reconstruct and paint the interior structure -- doctors and developers alike.
"It really is a family here," one of my colleagues said recently. She is one of 15 teachers and administrators whose children either attend or graduated from St. James.
If there is any rub about such a fanciful, idyllic place, it is that geographical insulation can limit a child's field of vision. Still, there is something refreshing about working in a place such as the manor, where the present opens its ears to the past and where a culture that existed for two centuries still thrives amid the unceasing, eroding pressure of modernity.
In an age of profound alienation, our school is fortunate to have a landscape that cultivates a shared sense of identity and, as a result, a strong sense of community. It isn't perfect. But, like families, communities never are.
Adnrew Reiner teaches writing to middle-school students at St. James Academy in Monkton.
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