Head of School discovers strength of community on top of the world

Kate Sibery, Editor-in-Chief

Head of School discovers strength of community on top of the world

At 27 years old, Laura Danforth was gifted $20,000 from the parent of a former student and was given two options: to go and see the world alone or to spend it on herself and never tell anyone where she got it. So, she booked a round-the-world ticket, took a backpack, t-shirt and jeans and off she went. 

“[The trip] was hard, it was really hard, but incredible. I think about my trip every single day–every single day I think about that trip.” 

Danforth was born in October of 1960 in southern Texas; her parents had met years before when her father, an Air Force pilot, had a layover and met her mother, a Texas beauty queen.

“She loves the idea that she was Miss Ruby Red Grapefruit, which was a big thing in Texas back then.”

Danforth’s family moved 13 times before her eighteenth birthday, first from Texas to Connecticut and then all around the northeast. Each time she enrolled at a new school, Danforth joined a sports team, usually soccer or lacrosse, but for a good portion of her youth and into young adulthood, she was also a long-distance runner. It was as a member of these teams where she met new people, even if it was just for a year. As an Air Force pilot, where her father was stationed often prompted the moves, but it was also his alcoholism that induced their near-nomadic lifestyle. Her father, she said, struggled with alcohol until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous when she was sixteen, which heavily influenced the family dynamic. 

“He was never a violent drunk, he was often a happy drunk, but he was drunk nonetheless pretty much all the time.”

Within the alcoholic home, she recalled, kids often play different roles in response to the alcoholic individual and she took up that of the responsible perfectionist. She earned all A’s, her oldest brother was the “quiet one that disappears,” and her sister fell into the role of “the favorite”. The family dynamic often balanced upon her father’s alcoholism informing not only her childhood, but later career path. 

“I started my career in schools as a school counselor and I think it was because of my childhood and because I was just kind of fascinated with family dynamics.”

As a double major in psychology and anthropology, she found her natural desire to understand people and behavior served her well. Danforth’s father picked Colby Sawyer College, a small women’s college in central New Hampshire, for her to attend and said that if she didn’t like it after her sophomore year she could transfer. But he felt it would be the best place for her. 

Danforth said, “I think he just felt really guilty about all of our moving so he said, ‘Look, I really want this for you, this is where I want you to go,’ and so I didn’t have much of a choice, and I loved it–I absolutely loved it, and he was absolutely spot on.”

Her entrance into the field of education was by sheer coincidence. Tracked down to a job fair in Cambridge, Mass., at 24 years old, Danforth was asked to be the first female counselor at the prestigious boarding school St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire, 32 miles from her beloved college campus. 

In her career, she said she has observed that the best educators come from one of two experiences: they either had an important educator in their life and they want to be that person for someone else, or there was no one there for them and they don’t want that to happen to other kids. Danforth identifies with the latter. And having lived on boarding school campuses for nearly her entire career, she has, for the most part, always been there for students. 

The true value of community was a lesson Danforth had come to learn years earlier, alone at the base camp of Mount Everest in northern Nepal.

The principal condition of her year-long trip was that she travel alone, yet in a lodge near the base of the mountain she came upon an advertisement to climb with a group of men who had just passed the bar exam and, in celebration, decided to climb Everest. She made it to the summit with the group of aspiring lawyers, but, upon descent, and in her exhilaration from the climb, she mistakenly drank the local tap water and subsequently she fell violently ill. A fellow traveler told Danforth to travel to a small island in Thailand to stay with a family that would nurse her back to health. This act, she said, was a true testament to the “power of building communities around yourself all around the world.” Years later, she was devastated to find out that the family later died in a tsunami. 

She learned that while learning being alone is important, most times, humans function best when they work together. This notion has become central to her life as an educator and an administrator. She said she thrives in a tight-knit school community.

Boarding life at Masters has been silent for nearly a year. This loss, Danforth said, has not gone unnoticed as someone who has, for nearly the last 35 years of her life, been a dorm parent, counselor, teacher or administrator living alongside her students. 

“Looking over Green Family Field right now, it’s so beautiful, but I can’t help but feel saddened by the fact that the boarders can’t be on campus right now. I love walking around on the weekends with Dr. Chu and just seeing them enjoying each other’s company.”

Dr. Paula Chu, Danforth’s wife, has always lived on or adjacent to school campuses herself. Her father was a professor at Yale University for 17 years and then went on to establish the Chinese program at Connecticut College, where the family lived on the edge of campus. 

“I’ve always been, except for a year or two, attached to a campus and there’s a part of me that feels like the wonderful thing is that you have kind of a built-in community,” she said. 

Chu and Danforth met at The Ethel Walker School, an independent all girls boarding school in Simsbury, Conn. Chu, who was the academic dean at the time, interviewed Danforth for the Dean of Students position and vividly recalls writing, “Must hire!” on her evaluation sheet. At that time, however, after starting up a romantic relationship, both of them could not stay at the school.

Chu said, “A girls boarding school, particularly because of the international population and all that, is going to be among one of the last glass ceilings to actually break. So, we were actually told by the Head of School, who remains a friend of ours, that one of us had to leave.”

In truth, Danforth said she didn’t have a true ‘coming out’ experience––she didn’t become aware that she might have feelings for a woman until she met Chu. 

“I met Dr. Chu and it was the first time that my heart just started racing and just the first thought that came to my mind was this is the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. I just didn’t know that was ever going to happen with a woman. We met, and we fell in love, and we created a family.”

Their relationship presented challenges to Danforth’s career progress though. For many years, Chu said, being one half of a lesbian couple acted as a hindrance to Danforth’s trajectory toward a school headship. If not for their relationship, Chu said, “She could have been a head of school 15 years earlier.”

Danforth recounted, “These headhunters would call me and say ‘I’ve got your school, they’re ready. They’re ready for an out person.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s cool. I don’t think so.’ And they would call back and say, ‘You’re right.’”

Masters was the first independent boarding school to say yes to having a same-sex couple live in the Head’s house. It is the eighth school she has worked at and has become home to the couple, and, for a time, their daughter and her family, and her youngest grandchild, Kaia, was even born in Park Cottage last July.