The Return of Dr. No

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noffsingerNo, this does not have anything to do with the first arch-villain brought down by James Bond.  This is about a visit paid by Dr. John Noffsinger and his wife, Mary, to our campus last Monday.  At the behest of John Tucker, John had been in the Outer Banks speaking to folks on the topic of “Women in the Fiction of Charles Dickens” the preceding day.  It was only a minor detour for him and Mary to swing by school for a tour and to meet old acquaintances.

You see, Dr. Noffsinger (known by the Bond-villain nickname by his students) taught English here and acted as Chairman of the English Department from 1990 to 2000.  As such, he continued the legacy of the great Arthur MacConochie and turned the reins over to the equally great David Kidd.  Over that decade he and I became fast friends – in fact, he would later act as the official editor of my book, Norfolk’s Academy – the Heart of Tidewater. Nothing else I have published in the intervening 12 years has been without his thoughtful and always helpful edits.

As I toured him around almost every corner of our campus, we kept running into old friends of his from the last century.  Here was Tom Duquette, with whom he team-Noffsinger 20001taught a senior English semester course. There was Elbert Watson, who chose music and choreographed several of John’s favorite musical pieces.  And over there was Kathy Warn, who taught John and Mary’s daughter in the third grade.  Even more heartwarming were the exchanges with former students of his who have returned to teach here, most notably Charlotte (Hudgins) Zito and Mike Duquette, both of whom shared their accomplishments, photos of their children, and laughing recollections of days gone by.

I tried to give him as much space as I could for each of these conversations. As one followed another I began to appreciate anew the continuity of this place.  Dr. No, as the morning ended, remarked with satisfaction how pleasantly surprised he was to have run into so many people he remembered.  The stark contrast between the emergence of sparkling new, cutting-edge buildings and the enduring warmth of old familiar handshakes and hugs was profound.  This school really can transform itself while retaining its original mission and, well, soul.  “The stuff of school hasn’t changed much,” I had assured him. Two hours of catching up with old colleagues utterly without awkwardness proved me correct.

At one point we were sitting by the faculty buffet in the Youngkin refectory with Mike Duquette, looking towards the beautiful expanded space at the far end.  Also in our field of vision were a group of middle-school faculty members who have taken to catching a snack together at morning break while discussing issues of the day, usually but not always school-related.  I am normally a part of this group, which styles itself the “Sandwich Club” after the classic 1980’s film of similar name. At any rate, there they were, many of an age to have young children and at the point in their careers where they have committed fully to this profession, and if we are lucky enough, to this school.  Again I thought here is the old in the midst of the new.

There sat Glassman and Borum and Merklin and Moore and Gibson, all part of the next great generation of Academy faculty. The legends who brought me into this place to stay are gone, and it won’t be but so long until my generation has moved on as well. But with the Sandwich Club members and the dozens of others like them here that are preparing to take our place, I am absolutely certain that the school and its students will be just fine. What they are building together, with the love of children and the passion for teaching and coaching, is every bit as fundamental as what we are building with steel and glass.

Nice to see you, Dr. Noffsinger.  Thanks for reminding me of what is so good about this place.

Angels on the Move

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Those of you familiar with the Royster Middle School know that three of its faculty were diagnosed last year with cancer.  Trudy Gaba, Heidi Pollio, and Brooke Fox each received that news within weeks of one another.  Without going through details, you might also know that each withstood difficult and painful procedures to eradicate the tumors that threatened them. If you or someone you are close to has had to endure that fight, you know what a challenge it can be.

The last of the three to get the “all-clear” was Ms. Fox, who had her final treatment on Monday, October 30.  Many oncology centers have in the past few years put a brass bell in the waiting area which each patient rings as they leave having had their last session.  It’s a nice way for the patient to declare some sort of independence as well as to thank the members of the medical team who have served them.

So Heidi got the idea that Brooke, on behalf of the three of them, should ring the recently re-installed bell in the Bell Tower out by the Wynne-Darden Stadium.  You should be aware the primary function of the bell is to be rung by players of any Bulldog athletic team immediately after a victory.  Surrounded by the Middle School faculty, her Spanish I students, and a handful of others who had gotten the word, Brooke, fighting back tears, thanked the school community for its support.  She turned specifically to her students and asked them if they understood what a great and loving place Norfolk Academy is.  Their faces registered unanimous understanding of that fact.

DSC_9564Then the three triumphant women each took a turn at pulling the rope and the bell pealed out its message of their victory for all to hear.  For a few seconds there was no sound of trucks on Northhampton Boulevard, no worries about the English test later that day, no concerns about social issues.  For a few seconds there was simply joy.

The kids bolted back to the buildings – after all, it was “H” Bell and the bookstore beckoned.  Some leapt from the side of the inclined walkway to the bell, while others sped down the ramp, turning a quick u-turn for the main part of campus.  Faculty, not so motivated by snacks and a drink, ambled back to Royster in twos and threes, many talking about how cancer had touched their lives.  I heard two faculty members celebrating the idea of heavenly grace.  It was the kind of moment that solidifies a faculty and makes it remember that we do this thing call teaching together.

I held back for a few moments to take in the physicality of the scene.  You had 50 or 60 middle-school youngsters bobbing and weaving crazily and racing each other, really not to get to the snacks first, but instead to translate the joy of the moment into the bliss of running without tiring.  I thought to myself that in her brief words Brooke had armed the students with another tiny dose of optimism.  “We have won!” their movements said to the world, and their legs and arms signaled a confidence that nothing could stop them, especially at this moment.  And the adults, most of whom can no longer run like that without tiring, enjoyed a moment of languor, what Evelyn Waugh calls “the resting of yet-unwearied sinew.”  But they walked together, full of the thrill of the moment, ready to get back to the task of working with those remarkable young people.

I decided that I was looking at an army of angels, each moving to the beat of their stage in life.  I wondered what joy and confidence each of those angels might transfer to their friends and families.  Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely understand that your average ninth-grader was on to the next chapter in his life by the time he hit the flagpole out front.  But I insist on believing that each was also a little lifted up by what had just transpired.

All of this makes for a sweet and sentimental story, but it has an even better coda.  It turns out that English teacher Elizabeth Staub had videoed the affair with her phone and sent it to Price Massey Hall ’02, who directs our International Programs and who was at home packing to travel to England for her sister Ashley Massey’s ’00 PhD ceremony. As Price replayed the video on her phone, her daughter Mercer heard the bell and asked her mom what it was. As she was hearing the question, Price realized that little Mercer had walked across the room to satisfy her curiosity, her first steps on this Earth. That’s how far the joy had spread – to a living room miles away with such force that it caused a child to walk for the first time.

One more tiny angel on the move.

Scrubbing the Stage

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I was wandering around campus last Friday around 11:00 a.m., having made the necessary preparations for the students to arrive in my class on Monday, when I came across Caroline Bisi on the stage in Price Auditorium.  She had in her hand the working end of a Swiffer floor scrubber, and she was leaning on it pretty heavily.  While intent on her work, she did not look unhappy or frustrated.  In a paragraph or two I’ll get back to why this is so important. 

Mr. Manning greets students with a handshake on their first day of school.

Mr. Manning greets students with a handshake on their first day of school.

 

 

The week of faculty meetings prior to the opening of school has followed the same pattern and rhythms since I arrived in August of 1986.  We hear from the President of the Board of Trustees (this year it is Tim Stiffler) first thing Monday, and then Dennis Manning introduces each new member of faculty and staff – this year it is 22! –  along with each one’s mentor.  And then he turns the tables, asking the rookies to retake their seats while he calls to their feet the most long-serving members of the faculty.  He invites the men and women at both ends of that spectrum to come together and support each other in this enterprise we call a school year.

Faculty members are excited for the 2017-2018 school year.

Faculty members are excited for the 2017-2018 school year.

After lunch we have the necessary nuts and bolts of information from the business office.  This year Jeff Martin got us done in time to view the eclipse.  Tuesday and Wednesday are filled with various and sundry meeting by interest – school divisions, academic departments, athletics and the like.  Thursday morning brings a discussion of our honor system led by members of the Tunstall Honor Council, an annual exercise of supreme importance, by the way. The week concludes with serious professional reminders and charges from the Headmaster, and finally his annual reading of “Magic in September,” by Father Timothy Healy, long-time President of Georgetown University.  It evokes beautifully the miracle of education and ends with the perfect tag line – “It is good to begin again.”  I get weepily sentimental every year.  Rising seniors arrive for lunch and we are officially underway.

While the week is long and absolutely necessary, it is in large part not very exciting.  It has the designed purpose of getting faculty really charged up to get out of their seats in Johnson Theater and other meeting rooms and into their classrooms and their coaching spaces.  Friday is labeled a “teacher work day,” and the faculty takes full advantage of the time . . . which brings us back to Ms. Bisi leaning on a modern day mop.

The students’ joy was evident as they were reunited with classmates.

That work symbolizes a passion for the act of teaching.  She is, like all of the rest of us, so committed to giving her students the best possible experience in her space that peeling marking tape off a painted wood floor is not a chore – it’s what she does.  (When I asked her about it Monday morning she beamed and said something on the order of, “OMG, that floor really needed the work!  But now it’s beautiful!!”)  After seeing her Friday morning I reversed my field and walked the halls of Royster.  There was Suzie Coker putting new colored paper over her bulletin boards, there were Woody Poole and Witt Borum hunched together over a desk-top computer, putting their year’s calendar on the new Canvas course page, there was Elizabeth Staub working on speech deadline sheets for each of 109 ninth-graders. All smiling and upbeat.

Every single one of us is, to use an old phrase, “fired up” for the kids to arrive.  I know, I know, there’s the old idiom, “Those that can, do – those that can’t, teach.”  Not at this place.  As I wandered around my building I wanted to sneak in every middle school family to watch these dedicated professionals basking in their work.  The same applies, of course, in the other two divisions.  In lieu of being able to do that, this chronicle is to let you know that we, as a faculty, are once again elated to be able to follow our respective callings.

Father Healy says that one of the real pleasures of being on a great faculty is the “silent conspiracy” that forms among them for the benefit of students.  The conspiracy doesn’t just happen.  It springs from the love of children and the happy willingness to do what it takes to serve them.

The stage looks awesome, by the way.   

The Best Teacher I Ever Had

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Charlie Cumiskey passed away earlier this week. An obituary accompanies this piece which I wrote several years ago.  Rest in peace, Mr. C.

Mr. Cumiskey’s photo as Director of the Lower School.

Charles J. Cumiskey, Jr., was simply put, the best teacher I ever had.  In 1965, my sixth-grade year, he was head of the Lower School, the baseball coach, and the math teacher for the sixth and seventh grades.  With only one section per grade level in those days, there was no need for designations such as “6A,” much less “4GB.”  Mr. Cumiskey had been a catcher in college, and a very good one.  He still could peg a ball from home to second base on a line and on the bag.  (I’ll return to this in a moment.) He was diminutive, and like a good catcher, solidly built.  And also like a good catcher, there was something in his voice that commanded attention from those around him.

Coach Cumiskey.

 

Mr. Cumiskey loved teaching, and I believe he loved all of his students.  He would nickname each of us, not right away, but as the year progressed.  As much because I was a year young for my grade as for my five-foot-tall mother’s genes, I was noticeably shorter than my classmates.  Mr. Cumiskey set upon “Toe-High” as my moniker.  I wasn’t even “knee-high to a grasshopper,” he said, I was “toe-high to a tadpole.”  I loved the play on my unusual first name, and smiled every time he used it.  In the nicknaming and in countless other ways, he communicated his joy at working with young people with crystal clarity. He was boundlessly enthusiastic, clear, and demanding.  His math class was seldom easy, but it was never dull.

 

He and his wife even sponsored what we called “cotillion.”  Upon the merger with Country Day School in 1966, he saw an opportunity to break the ice between eighth-grade girls and boys.  So on Saturday evenings we met in the dance room with a simple stereo.  For the first hour, he and Eileen (that’s Mrs. Cumiskey to you, young man) taught us ballroom dancing.  For the second hour it was “our” dancing to “Let’s Twist Again” or “Doo-Wah-Diddy.”  All the boys became nervous when he put on a slow song like “Willow Weep for Me” or, worse yet, “Unchained Melody.” You know it’s love when a grown man gives up Saturday nights to teach 13-year olds to two-step and then watch them fumble and lurch trying to do the Watusi.

Mr. Cumiskey was not afraid to be physical.  Don’t get me wrong – I am dead set against any form of corporal punishment, and don’t buy the argument for a second that it builds a bond of trust between student and teacher.  But in his case, it was so clear from the start how much he cared about you and how much he wanted you to succeed, that he could do stuff we might frown on today.  For instance, just suppose you turned your head to speak to the boy in the seat behind you; within an instant an eraser would ping of the back of your skull, throwing a halo of chalk dust and leaving you marked for the rest of class.  It didn’t hurt except for the embarrassment, and with that catcher’s arm he never missed.  Of course, he only had to throw erasers once or maybe twice in early September to stop the practice of turning around in your seat until at least Christmas.

He also knew when to quit kidding and get tough.  Faculty have all read “Nurture Shock,” the latest science on over-managing kids as they grow up.  It has as one of its premises that kids lie to parents and teachers because they so deeply value their relationships, and fear that admitting some error or omission might jeopardize that relationship.  With Mr. Cumiskey it cut the other way.  We all adored him so much that few of us wanted even to put ourselves in the position to lie.  When he asked you a direct question you gave him a direct answer, simply because it was Mr. Cumiskey.  You couldn’t lie to him.

Finally, he was very, very good at getting angry.  I committed some transgression in his sixth-grade math class, and he sent me to his office to wait for him until class was over.  I’d like to say that the anticipation of his reprimand was worse than the actual thing, but no, they were both pretty bad.  So on top of not being able to fib, there was a positive element of danger in his class that helped keep us in line.  I’m not sure I ever transgressed again when he was about.

It’s probably overkill to say that Charlie Cumiskey was the perfect teacher, but he comes as close as anyone I’ve ever seen.  He lived out his last years in Georgia, pater familias to a very large collection of children and grandchildren.  I last saw him in October, 2015, together with the other members of the “Fab Five,” those master teachers from the 1950’s that made our school what it is today.  There is a part of me that laments not having gotten to know him better now that I am all grown up, but another larger part prefers to enjoy the memory of how much I learned from him as a child.

Some time ago, in making remarks to a group of alumni when he was present, I called him “the best teacher I ever had.”  I watched the tears come to his eyes.  There it is.  Forty years later, praise from a former student about his qualities as a teacher can make him emotional.  That’s why each of us loved you, Mr. Cumiskey.  You always cared for each of us.

Toe – High.

Mr. Cumiskey’s obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ledger-enquirer/obituary.aspx?n=charles-joseph-cumiskey&pid=186072686&

Oh Auntie Em, There’s No Place like Johnson Theater!

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For much of America, the High School Musical is a cliché, the subject of abundant and tender good humor.  Both television and the silver screen have had their fun with the concept of high school students singing and dancing their amateur hours across the stage.  To be fair, there have also been times where the take was not so genial, and when the hurtful drama of adolescent relationships has been the target of a screenwriter’s pen.  But generally speaking, thinking about musical theater involving high-schoolers brings indulgent smiles and gentle memories.

Unless, of course, you’ve been to a Norfolk Academy Winter Musical in the last decade or so.

This year’s edition is The Wizard of Oz.  I saw the initial performance last Wednesday and, like T. S. Eliot’s famous traveler, “knew it for the first time.”  It is a production beautifully choreographed, wonderfully acted, and presented in costumes and onstage sets a professional performer would envy.  It is an enterprise breathtaking in scope.  We had invited members of the Cornerstone Society (alums more than 50 years beyond graduation) to attend, and at the end they were agog.  Each had the same questions. How can we do this?  How do the thirty-some odd Munchkins or Emerald City denizens know where to go? How can we make people fly? How do the kids remember all those lines?  And most importantly, who taught those students to sing so beautifully?

I realized I had become spoiled over the years, and had gotten used to something very special, if not unique.  First of all, the theater itself is spectacular.  I remember when my sister, who made a life out of writing, producing and directing high school musicals at the Madeira School, visited Johnson when it was 2/3 complete.  She shook her head, emitted a low whistle, and said, “I feel sorry for whoever has to put on shows in here.  That person is going to have a hard time living up to this.”  Well, I don’t know how hard it has been, but first Ron Newman and now Caroline Bisi have put on shows every single year that more than live up to the space in which they are presented.  Oz may be the finest yet, although I can bring to clear recognition scenes and numbers from over three decades of shows.

There’s Tim Oliver and Brianna Yacavone singing “Tonight” from the West Side Story balcony.  There’s Amelia Zontini screeching, “Oh Nathan!!” at a befuddled Jason Kypros in Guys and Dolls.  How about Richard Crouch, stunning the crowd (none of whom had any inkling he could even sing) in the opening number of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a role magnificently reprised a decade later by Michael Protacio, who has made a legitimate career out of his perfect, pure tenor.  Then there’s Lex Booth and Rebecca Nelson, locked in a romantic, whirling dance to the tune of Beauty and the Beast.  And more recently, Maggie Pecsok soars off to Neverland as Peter Pan. I simply don’t have room to list every show, and no disrespect is meant to those shows absent here.

The point is I can recall them all.  And like Oz, each has been an artistic achievement. I, we, have grown accustomed to the excellence of these shows. When we meet someone for whom Oz was a first, we realize again how much talent–student and faculty, on and off the stage–comes together in the Tucker Arts Center.

There’s one other aspect to this, a subject I tend to dwell on in these musings.  The Tin Man is being played this year by Rice Webb.  He’s wonderful in the role.  He’s also the same little guy that sat in my Ancient History class four years ago and wracked his brain to solve Zeno’s paradox.  Seeing that young man, brilliant but once pre-adolescent and timid in Middle School, have the confidence to dance stiff-legged and joyous while singing, “If I Only Had a Heart,” makes my job deliciously satisfying.

This school changes its students, or, better yet, arranges things in ways in which students can change themselves.  The Winter Musical stands as annual proof positive of this.  Caroline Bisi, Dean Englert, Elbert Watson, and all the other adults involved with its production are not, in the end, just putting on a play.  They are bringing young men and women into a fuller life.

And we get to stand and applaud.

California, Here I Come

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I had the privilege of attending a reunion of Norfolk Academy alums at the San Francisco home of Drew McKnight ’96 several weeks ago.  A number of folks from the Development team went, including the heroic Ruth Payne Acra ’86, who traveled cross-country with a newly broken foot courtesy of the recent snowstorm.  Herb Soles and I had travelled out to the Bay area separately several days earlier, which, if you remember, was at the height of the historic rain/wind event that caused severe flooding in Sonoma County and points west.  My plane made it through the gales because we had a medical emergency on board and were put at the head of the line waiting for the one available runway.  Herb was not so lucky.  His flight was forced to put down in San Jose to refuel and finally made it to San Francisco four hours late.  I remember thinking as we pulled into our hotel at what was 3:30 a.m. our time that this FullSizeRender (21)reunion had better be worth it.

It was.

For two hours or so I was able to catch up with 25 or 30 folks, some of whom I’d seen recently but most of whom I had not seen in years, maybe decades.  Drew and his wife Amy put on a wonderful affair, catered with an eye to California twists on traditional Southern fare. His house has an impressive view of San Francisco Bay – the Golden Gate Bridge is beautifully framed by his living room window.

But it was not the food or the view that drew this collection of folks, stretching from Bob Nusbaum ’66 to Bucky Henry ’12 in age, to town on a rainy Thursday.  It was certainly not the presence of any one of us from the Development team.  And it was something more complicated and important than just reliving the good old days.

For one thing, as a fellow who grew up with four channels on the television, single 45 rpm rock and roll music records and rotary dial phones, I constantly underestimate the influence of social media.  Two or three folks who indicated they would attend could not, which was disappointing to me personally but not worrisome.  Within seconds we could discover that this one’s child had taken ill or that one was called back to work on an emergency.  I guess we’ll just have to do another reunion soon.

Back to the subject of the good old days, to my surprise I spent the overwhelming percentage of my conversations on the present lives of these alums and the future life of their high school.  It was uncommonly pleasant to do so.  As I look back on it, it felt like the 80’s cinema classic The Big Chill in reverse.  For those of you too frighteningly young to know the movie, it is the story of a reunion of a group of University of Michigan grads from the hippie 60’s who have discovered that life as a post-college adult is difficult and grubby and filled with such delights as difficult marriages and professional failure.  For the group on Divisadero Street that night, at least, life as a grown-up is just the opposite.

I have written at some length about the nostalgia and the desire for recapturing a lost childhood that sustains the D.A. Taylor Foundation and those who still grieve for him, and I stand by that assertion.  But what I saw last Thursday (and the reunion group included at least four members of the Foundation) was a gathering of young men and women who are confident, independent, and optimistic.  I won’t list any particular individual by name for fear of implicit omission of another, but exchange after exchange left the impression of success.  Certainly each of us defines that word differently, so the fellow working for Teach for America seemed equally fulfilled as the woman working as an  interior designer as was the Assistant City Attorney for San Francisco.  But no one, really, wanted to focus on that famous eighth grade moment or even the big basketball win junior year over a rival school.  The here and now was just fine for everyone.

It’s probably self-indulgence, but it would be nice to think that their days at Norfolk Academy had something to do with their present situations in the City by the Bay.  Dare we here on Wesleyan Drive give ourselves credit, if only a little, for these wonderful people’s taking on the world in such powerful strides?

I may not have left my heart in San Francisco, but on a cold and raw Thursday night there it grew a little bit fuller.

What We Are Building With

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There are construction workers everywhere you look around campus these days.  Work is ongoing to expand the Smith-Hofheimer Lower School, primarily to add space for the teaching of STEM and the Arts.  A new stadium is erupting on the south side of the football field, including locker rooms, rest rooms, concessions, and a rejuvenated Bell Tower.  Most dramatically, the James B. Massey Jr. Leadership Center, at the very heart of our campus and of our mission, is almost completely under roof.  The indefatigable leadership of Stewart Howard ensures daily that the energy and care going into these projects is breathtaking.

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All of which got me to thinking about the Three Little Pigs.  Trust me, dear reader, this one’s going to end well.

You remember the story.  Pig #1 builds his house of straw, pig #2 uses sticks, and pig #3 uses bricks.  And when adversity comes in the guise of the ravenous Wolf, the first two pigs learn quickly that if you want to build something to last, you must take the time and effort to do it right.  The first two pigs end up very grateful that their brother put in the extra time and labor.

Okay, what does this have to do with the Massey Center and the other two projects?  Surely I cannot be suggesting that we are using anything but the finest materials and labor.  Of course not.  I pass within feet of the Massey Center many times each day, and while I don’t know much about construction, I can see (and hear!) a whole lot of steel, aluminum, concrete and bricks being hauled around, lifted up in the air, and joined together.  To paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a whole lotta welding goin’ on.

No, what the children’s tale got me to thinking about was a modern-day fourth little pig.  If it took place today, what material would a fourth brother use?  If I understand its history correctly, bricks were the strongest building material around when the story started making its bedtime rounds.  Yet I sense that we are using something much stronger.  And it isn’t steel and it isn’t concrete.

rendering-2First of all, these buildings are not monuments.  They will house human beings – students, athletes, teachers, and administrators – as we together seek to perfect our mission of supplying communities with graduates that will make wherever they dwell a better place.  To do that we must have the wisdom and the drive to determine properly what things we should do here on Wesleyan Drive to make our graduates better people so that they might follow that call. What will follow from the creation of these spaces is youngsters who become technical and social innovators, young men and women who know better how to act as teammates seeking a common goal, and adults who, when called upon, more naturally lead those teams of citizens trying to make the world a better place.  That sounds a little corny, but it is nothing less than true.

rendering-4So what are we building these lofty – minded structures with if it’s not just steel and concrete?  To answer that, you must remember that while these buildings are not only not monuments, they are also not free.  They are the result of the overwhelming generosity of the members of our extended Academy family.  The sheer number of donations making all this possible is unprecedented for our school.  And in the last few months I have learned, more clearly and more poignantly than I might have understood before, that the overwhelming majority of that generosity stems not from a vague desire for philanthropy, but from a regard for the power for good that resides in this place.  For many that regard is deeply personal, often specific to an individual like Mr. Massey.  And so I have come to understand what building material we are using that is stronger than bricks or steel or concrete.

It’s love.

Patting the Bulldog, and So Much More

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As I have referenced from time to time in these musings, my emotions sometimes get the best of me too easily.  Well, it has happened again.  Here’s the story, and I promise it’s not about me.

On August 29, some 70 parents of first graders arrived with their little ones for the beginning of what each hopes will be a wonderful journey – school at Norfolk Academy.  To give parent and child alike our complete attention, we ask them to show up at 9:00 a.m. rather than the usual 8:15 starting time.  They gather in the Multi-Purpose room in the Lower School to hear a message of welcome from Mr. Manning, including a reading of the poem “The Lamb,” by William Blake.  Then Lower School Director Patty McLaughlin introduces the four first-grade home room teachers and calls out the roster for each, and the children line up as the newest members of a first-grade class.

And then comes, as they say, the moment of truth.  One by one the kids approach their Headmaster who is standing next to an adorable stuffed bulldog bedecked in a bright orange collar on a waist-high pedestal.  Each kid pats the bulldog on the head and shakes Mr. Manning’s hand.  With that each new student becomes part of the Academy family.  The symbolism is actually quite powerful.  Finally, the kids leave for their new classroom homes, each child filled with an individual mix of apprehension and excitement.  It’s a moment that’s pretty tough on some of the parents, particularly if their child’s actions betray nervousness.  This year I caught one Dad out in the hall dabbing his eyes.

I had arrived about five minutes after the first-graders had been excused.  Three or four of the parents there were former students of mine.  There were many other bulldog alumni and alumnae that I may not have actually had in my classroom, so I recognized a bunch of folks, and had fun shaking hands and laughing about the old days.  Suddenly, however, I found myself face to face with Rebecca Deal Poston ‘95.

Thirty years ago Rebecca was a student in my fifth-grade classroom for my second year back as a teacher here.  I can remember as if it were yesterday her entering room 5C in August of 1987, as I welcomed that year’s batch of kids on the first day of school.  I remember her smile and her terribly grown-up handshake as she wished me “Good morning.”  It occurred to me then that she was welcoming me to room 5C every bit as much as I was welcoming her.

Over the years we have kept in touch.  I taught her brother as a senior in my English class, and her parents are good friends with my wife and me.  She still calls me “Mr. Savage” when the truth is that as an accomplished adult (a Ph. D. in nursing, for goodness sakes!) she equally deserves the respect of a formal name.  But there are some things that habit will not allow to change, so if she wishes to maintain the original sense of a relationship three decades in the making, I will not object to it.

It was when I saw her in her new role of first-grade parent that the sweep of it all overcame me.  If you are here long enough, you become immersed in a joyful rhythm of growth, departure, and return – but always belonging.  That young woman who thirty years ago greeted me at the door of room 5C flashed the same smile and offered the same handshake last week – oh heck, it quickly turned into a hug.  To see her now struggle (if only a little bit) with the act of letting go of a six-year-old daughter was to grasp the power of this place.  Norfolk Academy has always been bigger than any of us as individuals.  When things are right, we each bring our best selves to this institution, and when things are really right, we leave a bit of ourselves to add to the common good the Academy does.  Like so many others, Rebecca and her brother and her mom and her dad have all added capital to this school.

And now she, her husband, and especially her little girl Margaret, get to start all over again.

What We Believe

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Upon his arrival at Norfolk Academy as Headmaster in 1978, John Tucker convened a special committee of the faculty to rework and update the school’s mission statement.  It emerged in two parts – a “Statement of Philosophy” only four paragraphs long, followed by a detailed list of individual “Goals and Objectives.” Arthur MacConochie, who taught English here for forty years and was considered to be the conscience of the school, acted as scribe as teachers went word by word to scrutinize a philosophy that captures what we agree we stand for.  If you knew Mr. Mac, and his alter-ego, the inimitable Patty Masterson, who taught English for seven years at Country Day School for Girls and thirty more at the post-merger Academy, you can hear their voices in the words today.  It is a remarkable document.

In any event, this year Dennis Manning decided that on the last day of faculty meetings prior to the arrival of students we would read the Philosophy together.  The senior faculty members of each Division (Diane Wallace, Suzie Coker, Pat Hume, and Richard Oberdorfer) read aloud their assigned paragraphs slowly, carefully, and with emotion.  For about ten minutes, teachers with varying degrees of seniority sat next to new arrivals and remembered as one why it is we do what we do.  It felt to me as if we were traveling together down a flight of stairs to examine and understand better the foundation of our school.  I hope Mr. Manning repeats this exercise every August.

I urge you to read the Statement of Philosophy.  It’s on the school webpage under “About” and then “Our Story.” I even invite you to go word by word as the faculty did 38 years ago. As Patty herself liked to say, “There’s so much there there.”  But if you don’t have the time or energy to pore over its contents, let me quote two passages and ask you to consider how fundamental they are to the soul of the Academy.

We trust that students and faculty will be stimulated to teach, learn, and explore, to think practically and creatively, and to move toward wisdom and understanding.  First, this idea puts faculty and students unapologetically in the same boat.  The idea of a there being a closer association between teachers and students than at most other schools holds great appeal for me because it is in the daily back and forth with kids that I find my affirmation and my joy.  Second, the goal is not a finite “thing.”  Our goal for our students is much more profound, one we realize we can only “move toward” and perhaps never fully achieve.

We aim to prepare students to become ultimately useful and responsible citizens of a democracy. This country has seen crisis – civil war, even – but undoubtedly it has been a long time since the need for responsible and useful citizens has been so imperative.  The creation and construction of the Massey Leadership Center, which will house the Center for Civic and Global Leadership and other student leadership programs, is an implicit recognition of this reality.  Over the centuries our graduates have shaped this community, making it better, stronger, and more just.  May we stick to our philosophy and continue to supply future generations to continue that work.

Welcome back to a new school year.  It is good to begin again.

Guten Tag, Enkelin (Hello, granddaughter)

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Last Wednesday, Leah Waitzer, long-time trustee and pillar of our community, paid a visit to Dennis Manning to discuss several matters of school importance.  As she made her way through the arch, she passed the assembled exchange students from Copernicus-Gymnasium Löningen in Germany together with their American counterparts and hosts.  Ms. Waitzer thought back to 1978, the year her son Brad participated in what was then the sixth year of our German exchange.  And so she went looking for one particular student in the crowd. waitzer kbf fix

You see, Brad and a fellow named Marcus Willen had been paired for that year’s exchange. That is, after Brad’s stay under his roof in Europe, young Marcus (who would go on to become Mayor of Löningen) had stayed with the Waitzers here.  Evidently the kids hit it off very well and kept in close touch over the years.  Similarly, Leah and husband Richard had struck up a continuing correspondence with Marcus’s parents inasmuch as both had come to know the other’s child so well.  In particular, Leah and Lieselotte Willen, Marcus’s mom, because as close to one another as could be given the circumstances. You have to remember that this is the 70’s and the 80’s, and “correspondence” means sealed envelopes with stamps bearing words such as “Air Mail.”  As the exchange wore on, other means of communicating developed; perhaps younger siblings, cousins, friends, or repeat chaperones might be counted on to bring messages and maybe even gifts from one side of the ocean to the other.  But the long and the short of it is that against long odds the two mothers somehow maintained a real friendship.

And so when Ms. Waitzer realized the incredible felicity of the encounter, she asked if she might be introduced to Pauline Willen, son Brad’s exchange partner’s daughter and thus  Lieselotte’s granddaughter.  Suddenly, Ms. Waitzer found herself face to face with a young woman two generations along, one who might legitimately call her an adopted grandmother.  The two hugged and chatted and exchanged promises to continue in more depth when there was time.  And in fact, Pauline went to dinner with the Waitzers for something of a family reunion.

As I say from time to time, there’s a lot going on here.

The first is simply the cumulative passage of time.  We point with pride to the longevity of the German exchange, but numbers become more real when two women three generations apart celebrate that span of years by embracing under the arch.  Exchanges are fragile things, vulnerable to changes in politics and culture and the unpredictable fortunes of schools, but ours has survived more than just intact – it has flourished.   It hasn’t hurt that leadership at both schools has been consistent, most incredibly in the fact that the NA side of the equation has been directed by the same person for all those years, the inimitable Katherine Holmes.

The second is how much circumstance had changed from the time Leah and Lieselotte might have been eligible age-wise for such an exchange.  Suffice it to say that for obvious reasons a school like Norfolk Academy would not have been at all interested in an exchange with a school in a nation at war with most of the world. The delight of the reunion of adoptive grandmother and granddaughter stands in sharp contrast to the misery of 1942.  And yet these two adult women became so very close despite realities that would have kept them apart as girls.

Third is the enduring notion of family.  It’s a word we don’t use here as often as we used to.  I guess with a school community some 1400 strong now for two or three generations it is a pretty big family, but I miss hearing the word all the same.  Family connotes more than just blood relation, even more than love.  I believe that at the core of the idea of family lies shared experience.  It can be as simple as the memories of young siblings in the back seat of the family car on a summer trip or as complicated and perhaps even as painful as the loss of family members, either by death, distance, or disagreement.  But in all of these things there is a sharing that takes up personal residence in the soul.

When it is two families, kept apart by oceans and generations, that reunite through a hug under the front archway, then the sense of sharing explodes with all the energy stored up by time and physical distance.  I am closer in life’s timetable to Leah Waitzer than I am to young Pauline, so perhaps I identify more with the former. For example, just a few years ago I got to spend a little time with a young woman whose father was my best friend from summer camp and whose mother was my wife’s best buddy in high school, neither of whom we had seen in quite a while.  It was a wonderful few hours, almost as if I had been transported through time.  I cannot imagine how delicious it must have been for Ms. Waitzer to have an additional generation to travel.

Finally, this whole episode reminds us that our school is fundamentally about the business of sending men and women out into the world to do good.  A hundred years ago the “world” might have been a small place – Tidewater, or maybe Virginia.  Today the word “world” means exactly what it says, including a small town in the north of Germany.  And to have that first meeting of these two women happen under an arch is incredibly meaningful.  Norfolk Academy is in many ways an arch, connecting and holding up pillars, helping them sustain weight, and letting air and light and life pass underneath and through. In this particular case, our school spans three generations, an ocean, and the tide of history.

Auf Wiedersehen, Fräulein Pauline.  Till we meet again.