This past summer, the Belmont Hill all-school read was The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel Brown, a heroic tale of nine working-class boys and their struggles to overcome adversity to win gold in the 1936 Olympics. Along with the story’s crew component, it is a tale of class struggle, the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the economic devastation caused by the Great Depression. The group of young rowers from the University of Washington succeed against the odds in beating their west coast rival, Cal Berkeley, their privileged east coast rivals (including Yale and Penn) and eventually international crews, including the Nazi German shell.
To ensure that every member of the Belmont Hill community understood these messages, and to encourage discussion about such a meaningful book, the entire school gathered for a long school meeting on a Friday in early September. Mr. Richards, Belmont Hill’s head crew coach and a lifelong rower, started the meeting by outlining the history of crew. He explained that crew, as a sport, originated among water taximen on London’s Thames River and became an annual race, starting in the early 1700s. Eventually, crew emerged as a sport associated with elite colleges and schools, at places such as Oxford and Eton, and later on the American east coast, predominantly at Ivy League and other prestigious schools. But the sport migrated westward, leading to the expansion of crews at western universities like those featured in Daniel Brown’s book.
Mr. Richards was followed by Mr. Zamore, who explored the craft of boatbuilding. Mr. Zamore first described the craftsmanship required to construct the crew shells, and then tied the story of these vessels to the experience of teaching and observing boys as they constructed their own canoes in an Inquiry course last spring. Mr. Zamore’s observations on craftsmanship were enhanced by the presence of the two Belmont-Hill owned George Pocock boats on display outside the Chapel; seeing one of these boats in person allowed many Belmont Hill boys who do not row crew to imagine just how impressive the craftsmanship is, and to picture more vividly the Washington University crew’s relationship with their boats.
Mr. Leonardis next took the stage to discuss the Great Depression and provide some historical context for the story. The Great Depression was an economic collapse throughout the world in the early 1930s, and played a pivotal role in The Boys in the Boat. The Washington University crew team was composed of working class men, the group of society hit the hardest by the Great Depression; Joe Rantz, the protagonist, was abandoned by his family because they could not afford to feed and house him, and the disadvantaged crew as a whole was constantly working overtime and throughout their summers to overcome economic disparity.
Mr. O’Leary’s presentation on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the rise of Nazism throughout Germany emphasized Hitler’s intention to showcase Germany’s success to the world. Using photos and quotations, Mr. O’Leary explored how propaganda was used during the German games to portray the country as prosperous, virile, admirable, and to disguise its racist and Anti-Semitic policies. Mr. O’Leary then screened the University of Washington’s astounding gold-medal race, in which the boys beat back their competitors, the Germans among them, and rowed to their remarkable victory.
Mr. George, also a Belmont Hill crew coach, was last to the podium, and described the historic and ongoing rivalry between east and west coast crews. The east coast crews had dominated since the rise of crew in America, and were often powered by the children of elites. The west coast crews, on the other hand, were often manned by those from more humble origins, and they did not achieve the same success until the early 1900s, when west coast crews began consistently beating east coast crews. Eventually, in the 1930s, the west coast crews were consistently favored to beat their east coast counterparts as the west became a dominant power in the crew world.
Overall, The Boys in the Boat was a phenomenal story of an underdog crew team winning Olympic gold, during a time global economic and political crisis. The school meeting enhanced students’ understanding of the book’s context, in terms of its rowing, along with the Great Depression and rise of Nazi Germany, allowing students to better absorb the book’s core themes. To complement their understanding of the book, all students were required to write an essay comparing The Boys in the Boat to Belmont Hill, and excerpts from the best of these essays are included below.