Groton’s iconic Schoolroom will be stepping beyond its 1904 origins to better represent the school of today.
Four new busts will join the eighteen currently on display, adding diversity and with it, role models to whom more students can relate.
Sparked by student activism and supported by the Board of Trustees, the school plans to add busts of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi to the eighteen now on display.
The bust discussion, long percolating, gained attention in 2018, when a school club known as Groton Feminists began advocating for a female bust in the Schoolroom. The group gathered 180 names on a petition and received 80 percent support for a new bust in a student poll. Headmaster Temba Maqubela remembers Lucy Chatfield ’18, Josie Fulton ’18, and Layla McDermott ’18 asking him for an urgent meeting. “I reminded them that while I had the authority to do many things at Groton, I did not have the power to do them all," he recalled. "To this end, I would put them in front of the Board of Trustees—which I did.”
The student conversations with trustees made an impression. “It put this up on the priority list,” said Trustee Diana Chigas ’79. “I was very pleased students spoke up. It’s great that they took the initiative to shape their own learning environment.”
Board of Trustees President Jonathan Klein P’08, ’11, ’18 remembers how persuasive and compelling the students were and supported their cause without hesitation. “With 50 percent of the students female and not all of the students being white boys, it’s unarguable that we need more visual representation, and it shouldn’t stop at the Schoolroom,” he said.
Layla stirred the student and faculty community as well, with powerful words during a April 2018 chapel talk by Groton Feminists. “Newton. Milton. Shakespeare,” she began. “Franklin. Hawthorne. Emerson. Hamilton. Lincoln. Washington. Homer. Demosthenes. Caesar. Socrates. Dante. Goethe. Scott. Christopher Columbus. These are the names of all the white men whose busts are on display in the Schoolhouse today."
Layla was surprised when she saw how engaged the students in Chapel were. “I looked out and I knew that people were listening,” she recalled. “Everybody felt like it needed to change.”
Layla had known that for a long time. “I was twelve when I first sat in that Schoolroom. Groton for me has become a home in so many senses of the word. To see women there—to know that there were women moving mountains and changing the course of history, to look up to these women and know they had even more sexist, cultural obstacles in their way—would have been amazing,” she said, adding that many teachers provided strong female role models while she was at Groton. “Having female teachers in disciplines where it’s mostly male has helped me relate to the subject matter and helped me feel I could succeed in that subject. I think the busts would do the same.”
In 2018, adding busts was not a new thought for Lucy either. “I remember standing in the Schoolroom in Third Form and thinking, ‘We need to fix this,’” she said.
Trustees understood that what the community sees day-to-day is important. “I do think that the space that the students are in sends messages,” said Professor Chigas.
The Board of Trustees unanimously supported the addition of female role models, and agreed with the headmaster's imperative to "add, don't delete." In light of the diversity of the student body, trustees also decided to to add role models who would resonate with students from outside the United States.
The first eighteen busts, chosen by school founder Endicott Peabody with input from Harvard Professor Charles Elliot Norton, represented Western, European thought, said Professor Chigas, an expert on international negotiation at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “Having some non-Americans there communicates that Groton is engaging with the rest of the world,” she said.
One international choice was inspired by a heartfelt suggestion from Grace Mumford ’21, during a Global Education Opportunity (GEO) in South Africa. She had just visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years in prison, and urged Mr. Maqubela to consider a bust of Mandela for the Schoolroom. The idea, she said, “was definitely inspired by what I saw in South Africa, after visiting Robben Island and shaking the hand of our tour guide, who was a prisoner. Inclusivity is one of our main values and Nelson Mandela is the model of inclusion.”
It may come as no surprise that the board president, a native of South Africa, believed Mandela was an appropriate choice. “Mandela belongs to the world and is a role model, not just for people from his continent, but everywhere,” Mr. Klein said. “When faced with decisions, people would do very well to ask themselves what Mandela would have done.”
School archivist and shop teacher Douglas Brown ’57, who has taught at Groton since 1970, applauds the changes. “When the Schoolroom was built we were a boys’ school. The role models for boys in those days would have been men, and these were supposed to be inspirations to those boys," said Mr. Brown. "To add more people—people who are good role models—who are going to be inspirations to kids that we have here now who can say, ‘My God, there is somebody like me who really did something, and maybe I could do something like that too!'
"I see no reason to preserve that room precisely as it was in 1904.”