“I’m very used to people — my grandparents or people’s parents — saying things they don’t mean that are insensitive,” another student, who was then 17 and is now attending an Ivy League college, told me. “You correct them, you tell them, ‘You’re not supposed to talk like that,’ and usually people are pretty apologetic and responsive to being corrected. And he was not.”
Ms. Shepherd said she thought the word was inappropriate but hardly the worst thing that happened on the trip, which she documented in a diary that she referred to in describing details to me. She also felt sorry for Mr. McNeil. “There was this atmosphere where people didn’t like him,” she said. “He was kind of a grumpy old guy.”
But Ms. Shepherd hadn’t really connected with the others on the trip either, so she kept seeking him out. A few nights later, after a hike up Machu Picchu, she sat with Mr. McNeil at dinner at El Albergue, one of several rather nice restaurants in the town of Ollantaytambo in the Andes.
On the walk over, she said, she talked about her favorite class at Andover, a history of American education that covered racial discrimination. He responded, she recalled, that “it’s frustrating, because Black Americans keep blaming the system, but racism is over, there’s nothing against them anymore — they can get out of the ghetto if they want to.”
Ms. Shepherd said she tried to argue, but he talked over her whenever she interjected, their voices getting louder and attracting the attention of other students, two of whom confirmed her account of the conversation.
“This is the thing with these liberal institutions like Andover — they teach you the world should be like this but that’s not how reality is,” she recalled him telling her. (I sent Mr. McNeil a full account of Ms. Shepherd’s recollections; he said he won’t be responding publicly until he has officially left The Times on March 1. “I’m sure we’ll have different memories of conversations that took place that long ago,” he said in an email.)
Those complaints could have been dismissed as the whining of entitled teenagers, or as an episode in the rolling national sitcom of aging baby boomers trying to reckon with fearless Zoomers. There’s obviously some truth to both.