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Roads Taken and Not Taken: Sarah McMane ‘94

Somewhere in the back of my closet in an old shoebox, I have the letters I received from my Customs people in the summer of 1990. I can still picture that day vividly: sitting on my bed under a poster for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, reading the carefully scripted words of the two young women who would guide me through my first year of college. There would be a group of us, a family on Barclay 2nd North, and together we would navigate the world of the black squirrel, eat meals together in the Dining Center, share a co-ed bathroom like brothers and sisters, dance to Madonna in the hallways, and … dominate Dorm Olympics. Well, I wasn’t at all sure about that last one, but the rest sounded good. In fact, the Customs Program was one of the major reasons I decided to attend Haverford College.

Before coming to Haverford, I had attended another similarly prestigious liberal arts school—and lasted only two weeks before dropping out for the year. The school was excellent, the academics top-notch, but socially, well, you were on your own. As a freshman, I was placed in an upperclass “quiet” dorm, meaning that all the other students kept their doors closed and their lips sealed, and no one had any need to meet some mousy freshman from suburban New York. This was a disaster for me. As a homesick 18-year-old, I desperately needed the guidance and enthusiasm of older students to acclimate me to college life. This is what I saw when I toured Haverford.

“Are you on a college visit?” asked a complete stranger in the Dining Center on my first visit to Haverford. “You should come here. It’s great!” That happened to me three times during my stay. Complete strangers approached me, smiled, and told me I would love the school. To this day, I tell prospective college students, “Go to the Dining Center. See if you feel comfortable there.” Because the thing I learned most about my college experiences is that you can get a good education in a lot of places, but if you don’t feel at home where you are, you won’t be able to appreciate or enjoy your life.

After a great first year at Haverford, I, too, became a Customs person, then an Upper-Class Adviser in my junior year, and finally a Student Resource Person in my senior year, all with the same intent of helping others as I had been helped. (Plus, that Dorm Olympics thing turned out to be pretty cool.)

Seven years later, after graduating from Haverford and Columbia University Teachers College, I began my second year teaching English at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, N.Y., a suburban district about 25 minutes outside New York City. And that’s when I got to wondering: What if you could create a Customs Program for high school freshmen? What would it look like? How would it run? Thus was born the idea for the Tappan Zee High School Peer Leadership Program.

The philosophy of the TZHS Peer Leadership Program is not unlike that of the Customs Program: train upperclass students to help underclass students, for kids are more likely to talk to one another than to seek adult assistance. Replace the notion of freshman hazing with that of freshman helping, and aid students in acclimating to life at a new school. At Tappan Zee, every ninth-grade English class comes with its own set of Peer Leaders: juniors and/or seniors trained to help their freshman class. They give freshmen their first tour of the high school, encourage them to join extracurricular clubs, and then meet with them in their English classes once a quarter to run specially themed workshops on issues like diversity and communication. Peer Leaders also meet regularly with their freshmen outside of school to go bowling, play laser-tag, or go to the mall. They are also good for a sober ride home from a drinking party.

Like Customs people, Peer Leaders are not out to rat out those who break the rules; rather, they are big brothers and big sisters there to help those in need, and sometimes those who don’t even know they are in need. Adolescence is a difficult time, even for the most well-adjusted, and sometimes all it takes is one person to make a difference.

Over the course of the last 16 years, our Peer Leaders have helped kids find the guidance office, study for midterm exams, and pick out homecoming dresses. But they have also helped them deal with issues as serious as bullying, depression, eating disorders, and even suicide. As a Customs person in the ’90s, I learned how to listen, to validate, and to problem-solve—and also how to let go and have fun. Luckily for me, as the adviser to the Peer Leadership Program, I still get to do all of these things, as I have made a career, in part, of being a lifelong Customs person. The best part about it? I never have to graduate.

Sarah McMane ’94 teaches English at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, New York.

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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