It was the day after Labor Day, one of those perfect, golden September mornings in Massachusetts, as the students of Saint Ambrose Preparatory School began to arrive. The school was over a hundred and twenty years old, and its imposing stone buildings looked as distinguished as the colleges where most of the students would be accepted once they graduated. Many illustrious men had attended Saint Ambrose and gone on to make their marks on the world.
It was a historic day for Saint Ambrose. After ten years of heated debate, and two years of preparation, a hundred and forty female students were about to arrive and join the eight hundred male students. It was part of a three-year program that would ultimately add four hundred young women to the student body, bringing it to a total of twelve hundred students. This first year, they had accepted sixty female freshmen, forty sophomores, thirty-two juniors, and eight seniors, who had either recently moved to the East Coast, or had some valid reason to want to change schools as a senior and not graduate with the class they’d gone through high school with until then. Each of the female applicants had been carefully vetted to make sure she was up to the standards, morally and academically, of Saint Ambrose.
Two dorms had been built to accommodate the new female students. A third would be finished within a year, with a fourth scheduled to be built the year after that. So far, all the new additions and changes had gone smoothly. There had been lengthy seminars for the past year to assist the existing faculty with the transition from teaching at an all-male school to co-ed classes. Its advocates had insisted that it would improve the academic standing of the school, as girls tended to be more dedicated to their studies at the same age, and settled down to academics earlier. Others said it would make the students better rounded, learning to live and work, collaborate, cooperate, and compete with members of the opposite sex, which was after all more representative of the “real world” they would be entering in college and thereafter.
The school’s enrollment had diminished slightly in recent years, with most of their competitors having already gone co-ed, which most students preferred. They couldn’t stay current and compete if they didn’t go co-ed. But the battle had been hard won, and the headmaster, Taylor Houghton IV, was one of the last to be convinced of its benefits. He could see endless complications as a result, including student romances, which they didn’t have to deal with as an all-male school. Lawrence Gray, head of the English department, had asked if they would be renaming the school Saint Sodom and Gomorrah. After thirty-seven years at Saint Ambrose, he had been the most vehement voice against the change. Traditional, conservative, and privately a bitter person, his objections were eventually overruled by those who wanted the school to keep up with the times, no matter how challenging. Larry Gray’s sour attitude stemmed from the fact that ten years into his tenure at Saint Ambrose, his wife had left him for the father of a tenth-grade boy. He had never fully recovered, and never remarried. He had stayed for another twenty-seven years since, but was an unhappy person though an excellent teacher. He wrung the best academic performance possible out of each of the boys, and sent them off to college well prepared to shine at the university of their choice.
Taylor Houghton was fond of Larry, affectionately calling him their resident curmudgeon, and was fully prepared for Larry’s grousing throughout the coming year. Larry’s resistant attitude toward modernizing the school had resulted in his being passed over as assistant headmaster for many years. He was two years away from retirement, and continued to be vocal about his objections to the incoming female students.
When the previous assistant headmaster retired, faced with such a major change at the school, the board had conducted a two-year search, and was jubilant when they succeeded in wooing a brilliant young African American woman, assistant headmaster of a rival prep school. Harvard educated Nicole Smith was excited to come to Saint Ambrose at a time of transition. Her father was the dean of a respected, small university, and her mother was a poet laureate teaching at Princeton. Nicole had the academic life in her blood. At thirty-six, she was full of energy and enthusiasm. Taylor Houghton, the faculty, and the board were thrilled that she was joining them, and even Larry Gray had few objections to her, and liked her. He no longer aspired to be assistant headmaster himself. All he wanted was to retire, and said he could hardly wait.
Shepard Watts, as head of the board, had been one of the most ardent supporters of the plan to go co-ed. He readily admitted it was not without ulterior motive. His thirteen-year-old twin daughters would be coming in as freshmen in a year, followed by his eleven-year-old son in three years. He wanted his daughters to have the same opportunity for a first-rate education at Saint Ambrose as his sons. The twins had already filled out applications and been accepted, contingent on their performing well in eighth grade. No one had any doubt about that, given their academic records to date. Jamie Watts, Shepard’s oldest son, was one of their star students, and would be a senior this year. His scholastic achievements were notable, as was his success as an athlete. He was an allaround great kid and everybody loved him.
Shepard was an investment banker in New York, and his wife, Ellen, was a full-time hands-on mother, and head of the parents’ association. She had worked for Shepard as a summer intern twenty years before, and married him a year later. Taylor and his wife, Charity, were extremely fond of them, and considered them good friends.
Taylor and Charity had one daughter. She was married, a pediatrician, and lived in Chicago. Charity taught history and Latin at the school, and was excited that she’d be teaching girls this year. From a staunch New England family, she was perfectly suited to the life of being married to the headmaster of a venerable prep school. She was proud of Taylor and his position. He was ten years away from retirement and loved the school. Despite its size, there was a family feeling to it, and Charity made a point of knowing as many of the students and parents as she could. Like other members of the faculty, she served as counselor to a group of students, whom she followed for all four years. She would be working on college applications with her senior counselees almost as soon as they started school, writing recommendations for them, and advising them on their essays. Most of the students of Saint Ambrose applied to Ivy League colleges, and an impressive number of their applicants were accepted every year.
Taylor and Nicole Smith were standing on the steps of the administration building, watching students arrive, when Shepard Watts and his son Jamie drove in. Shep left Jamie to find his friends, and came up the steps to greet Taylor and Nicole. She looked bright-eyed and excited as she watched the procession of SUVs file in and go to designated parking areas for each class of students.
“How’s it going?” Shepard smiled at the assistant headmaster.
“It’s looking good,” she said, smiling broadly. “They started arriving at 9:01.” The parking lots were almost full as Shepard glanced at Taylor.
“Where’s Larry?” He was usually on hand to observe the arrival of the students.
“They’re giving him oxygen in my office,” Taylor said, and all three of them laughed. Taylor was tall and athletic looking, with salt and pepper hair and lively brown eyes. He had gone to Princeton, like all his male relatives before him. Charity had gone to Wellesley. Shepard was a Yalie, a handsome man, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes, and was their most effective fundraiser. He simply would not take no for an answer, and brought in an astonishing amount of money from current parents and alumni, and he was a generous donor as well. Despite the demands of his business, he was a devoted father. For the past three years, he had amply demonstrated his dedication to the school.
The three stood on the steps, watching the SUVs arrive and go to the parking lots where they could unload bicycles, computers, and as many of the comforts of home as the students were allowed to bring. There were long tables manned by teachers, who were handing out dorm assignments. As always, there was a mild degree of confusion, as parents wrestled with duffel bags and trunks, boxes and computers, while returning students went to look for their friends and find out what dorm they would be in. All the information had been sent to them digitally a month before, but the dorm assignments and schedule for the day were being handed out again for those who hadn’t brought the papers with them. Freshmen were assigned to suites with four to six students, seniors were in singles or doubles, and sophomores and juniors were in rooms set up for three or four students. The female dorms followed the same system. There would be a female teacher in each dorm to help anyone who was sick or had a problem, and to see that everyone behaved and followed the rules.
Copyright © 2020 by Danielle Steel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.