Pranks Parties And Politics Ron Desantiss Year As A Schoolteacher

Pranks, Parties and Politics: Ron DeSantis’s Year as a Schoolteacher

Pranks Parties And Politics Ron Desantiss Year As A Schoolteacher

At a private school 20 years ago, the future Florida governor was a popular history teacher and coach. But some students were taken aback by his comments on the Civil War and abortion.

Twenty years ago in the foothills of northwest Georgia, a new history teacher joined the faculty of one of the state’s oldest and largest boarding schools.

He was a brash young Ivy League graduate, an athlete who made it clear to anyone who was listening that this sojourn at the Darlington School was a pit stop on his way to bigger things; maybe he would even be president some day, he told his students.

Amid the revolving door of recent college graduates who taught at one time or another at the independent private school, the teacher, just 23 at the time, was the talk of the 20-year class reunion last month at Darlington for one important reason: he is now governor of Florida.

The episodes that former students describe about Gov. Ron DeSantis’s year at Darlington offer a window into the formative years of one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, a rising Republican politician who is expected to easily win re-election next week, and then possibly set his sights on the White House.

As a baseball and football coach at the school, Mr. DeSantis was admired and respected by his team. As a teacher, he was remembered by some former students as cocky and arrogant. He once publicly embarrassed a student with a prank, hung out at parties with seniors and got into debates about the Civil War with students who questioned the focus, and sometimes the accuracy, of his lessons.

The governor who has taken on the “woke left” over the teaching of history, gender identity and sexual orientation showed signs back then of being a committed conservative, a young, cool teacher whom girls liked and boys envied.

“He was a total jock; that was his personality,” said Gates Minis, a 2003 graduate who lives in Colorado. “He was definitely proud that he graduated Ivy and thought he was very special.”

But Mr. DeSantis was popular among many students.

“He was definitely one of the cooler guys,” said Trip Barnes, a student whose mother taught at the school. “There were other young teachers who tried to be everybody’s friend who didn’t have nearly his mystique.”

He was “charismatic” and “very smart,” Mr. Barnes said. “People liked him.”

Mr. DeSantis’s office did not respond to requests to discuss his year at Darlington, or his students’ recollections. The governor does not include his year as a high school teacher in many of his official biographies, and does not appear to have spoken publicly at length about his time at the school.

Mr. DeSantis taught at Darlington in the 2001-02 school year after graduating from Yale University and just before attending Harvard Law School.

The coed independent boarding and day school in Rome, Ga., founded in 1905, was among the first private schools in the South to admit Black students, according its website. Several students of color who spoke with The Times said they had been recruited with generous scholarships.

Boarding students live in one of six dormitories on a lush, 500-acre campus northwest of Atlanta in an area now represented in Congress by a conservative firebrand, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Students visit the nondenominational chapel once a week, tossing their backpacks on the lawn in a manner that suggests no one is worried about theft. Tuition, room and board for resident students now tops $50,000 a year.

Nicole Craine for The New York Times

With about 750 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, the school’s students are not just from well-to-do local families but also from liberal enclaves like New York and California. In Mr. DeSantis’s history and government courses, that made for spirited debates.

Danielle Pompey remembers Mr. DeSantis, a Florida native and recent Yale grad, being an outsider like her, a New Yorker with a thick accent to match. But Ms. Pompey, who is Black and was on an academic scholarship, said she felt that Mr. DeSantis treated her worse because of her race.

“Mr. Ron, Mr. DeSantis, was mean to me and hostile toward me,” said Ms. Pompey, who graduated in 2003. “Not aggressively, but passively, because I was Black.”

She recalled Mr. DeSantis teaching Civil War in a way that sounded to her like an attempt to justify slavery.

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“Like in history class, he was trying to play devil’s advocate that the South had good reason to fight that war, to kill other people, over owning people — Black people,” she said. “He was trying to say, ‘It’s not OK to own people, but they had property, businesses.’”

Ms. Pompey said she saw parallels between Mr. DeSantis’s views as a young educator and his policies as a governor 20 years later.

“He had a good opportunity to enrich people, to come there from the Northeast and show people in the South that we can blend,” she said. “It seemed like he didn’t want to do that.”

Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Ms. Minis, who is white and was in the same history class as Ms. Pompey, also remembers debating issues around the Civil War. Mr. DeSantis wasn’t so much politically opinionated, she said, but, in her view, factually wrong. She remembers him claiming that every city in the South had burned, even though she knew her hometown, Savannah, had not and she called him out on it.

Another student who requested anonymity because he feared repercussions for his job said Mr. DeSantis’s takes on the Civil War were the subject of so much talk that students made a satirical video about him at the time for the video yearbook.

The video, which was reviewed by The Times, includes a short snippet in which a voice purporting to be Mr. DeSantis is heard saying: “The Civil War was not about slavery! It was about two competing economic systems. One was in the North. …” while a student dozes in class. (A student voiced the role of Mr. DeSantis, because students did not have any actual footage of him, according to a student who helped put it together.)

Abortion was another issue that came up in class at least once, according to Matthew Arne, a former student. Mr. Arne, who was a senior, said students talked among themselves about Mr. DeSantis expressing his strict belief that abortion was wrong. He said it troubled him when his girlfriend, who was in Mr. DeSantis’s history class, told him about what Mr. DeSantis had said. He had grown up in California, he said, and disagreed with Mr. DeSantis’s stance.

“He’s pretty much held fast to what he believes in,” Mr. Arne said. Ms. Minis added that he always seemed to have his eye on the future. “He seems like someone who, as a young person, was in it for the long game,” she said.

Several students described Mr. DeSantis as having an air of superiority.

“Mr. DeSantis was kind of a smug guy,” Mr. Arne said. Students were well aware that he had just graduated from Yale, he said. “It was like a, ‘I’m kind of better than you,’” he said. “And we were all just kids.”

Several students recalled that Mr. DeSantis was a frequent presence at parties with the seniors who lived in town. Most spoke about socializing with him on the condition of anonymity because they feared backlash for speaking publicly about it.

“As an 18-year-old, I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here, dude?’” one former student said.

Ms. Minis said that when she was a senior, the fall after Mr. DeSantis left, she found a memo on a teacher’s desk reminding the staff that fraternizing with students was inappropriate, even after they graduated.

“‘That’s got to be about Mr. DeSantis!’ That’s what I remember everyone saying,” she said. Other students remembered at least one other teacher who had socialized with students that year.

Last year, Hill Reporter, a blog put out by a Democratic super PAC, published a photograph of Mr. DeSantis taken with several female students from Darlington in 2002, one of whom was holding what appeared to be a bottle of beer.

Two former students, both women, remembered him attending at least two parties where alcohol was served, but they that said the parties took place after graduation and that they were not bothered by his presence at the time, although they question it now. “It was his first job out of Yale, he was cute. We didn’t really think too much about it,” one of the former students said.

Two other students remembered a prank involving Mr. DeSantis and a student who had bragged about how much milk he could drink.

They said Mr. DeSantis challenged the boy to guzzle as much milk as he could in one sitting. The boy did, and threw up as dozens of students watched.

“I think about it, now — I’m a teacher now in public school,” said Adam Moody, who was a freshman on the baseball team and witnessed the incident. “I put myself in that moment, and it’s just unthinkable. There’s a cruelty to the sense of humor. There’s a cruelty to the mentorship.”

A spokeswoman for Darlington declined to comment in detail about Mr. DeSantis’s time there.

The spokeswoman, Tannika King, said in an email that Mr. DeSantis taught five classes, coached two sports and did “dorm duty,” supervising students outside of class hours in the residence halls.

Ken Wempe, who was teaching at the middle school when Mr. DeSantis taught history, said that lineup was known as the “triple threat,” meaning that many boarding school teachers had larger workloads than at traditional day schools.

“You teach, coach and work in the dormitory,” said Mr. Wempe, who is now a middle school principal in Indianapolis. He said he earned about $27,000 a year at the time, with free housing and food in the dining halls.

Like other first-year teachers, Mr. Wempe said, Mr. DeSantis was “drinking from a fire hose” and learning the job on the fly. “My impressions of him were all positive,” he said.

Lee Graddy, who graduated in 2004 and was on the baseball team that Mr. DeSantis coached, also recalled him fondly.

“He kept to himself, but when you connected with him he opened up and had a lot to give,” Mr. Graddy said. “He helped a lot of us out there on the field, especially when some of us were distracted by being young adults.”

As a teacher, Mr. DeSantis “was able to hone our minds to at least show that with hard work comes results,” he said. “I know a few of us weren’t the greatest; with his guidance we became good baseball players and better people.”

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.

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