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.
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 reunion had better be worth it.
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.
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.
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.
First 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.
So 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At a place like Norfolk Academy it is important that every member of the faculty have a range of experiences outside the narrow world of a field of study. That is, when you set about the noble task of helping youngsters turn into adults, knowing your Shakespeare or your physics is necessary but simply not enough. It is one reason we put so much stock in the teacher-coach model. The intellectual development of young men and women is an important part of growing kids up, but it is hardly our sole objective. Perhaps the best way to phrase it is that we seek to ensure that our students will be wholly prepared to deal with the unpredictable nature of the world they enter upon graduating.
It necessarily follows, then, that each member of our faculty needs to have had experience dealing with the unexpected. We strive to hire and retain teachers and coaches who can pass along what they have learned in confronting the unfamiliar in their own lives. I have polled the Middle School faculty and have confirmed that we have achieved considerable success if that is in fact our goal.
To wit –
Jack Gibson once saved a lamb from drowning in a river in Germany.
Nick Merklin played semi-pro football in Serbia.
Lisa Marie Priddy taught English in Thessalonica, Greece.
I once posed for a summer camp catalog cover photo with a 350 pound brown bear. Concealed from the camera was the squeeze jar of honey I had previously offered to get the bear to rise on her hind legs and come for me.
Elbert Watson danced in New Zealand as part of a multi-media presentation featuring former lower school art teacher Tim Mark.
Heidi Pollio served as an au pair for the children of two nudists in New Jersey. She needed the money, okay?
Woody Poole ate a five-year-old fermented chicken egg while stationed in the Philippines. The fact that he was in the Navy provides no explanation.
Mike Horstman was air-lifted overnight to the jungles of Vietnam while training in sub-zero Alaskan temperatures for “Operation Polar Strike.”
You can’t top that one, I’m afraid.
Our kids will certainly be stretched intellectually here. In the Upper School alone there are four PhDs. (I love that Richard Oberdorfer, who shares an office with Natasha Naujoks and David Rezelman, refers to his space as “two doctors and a patient.”) But Tunstall students are also exposed to a lifelong EMT and an emergency room volunteer and a former Navy Seal. Not only do the students rub shoulders daily with these men and women, but as a faculty we do as well. I cannot tell you how much my view of the world has been expanded by sharing a campus with such a stunningly broad scope of personalities and life stories among the faculty.
I think I’ll go get some advice from a fellow (Mike Duquette) who beat Andy Roddick in tennis twice, once on a hard court and once on clay. Bet he has a thing or two about competition he could teach me.
Happy New Year!! It’s been a long while since the last Chronicle, and one of my Resolutions for 2016 is to be a better and more frequent communicator in that regard. So . . .
The current state and future of our Honor System was the main focus of our annual day-before-second-semester faculty meetings last Monday. In that vein I was asked to give a brief history of that system, focusing most heavily on its present incarnation, the one started by Mr. Massey and Mr. MacConochie upon their arrival in 1950. I could not help but look at more ancient texts, and with my wife the archivist’s help dug up some jewels. For instance, in the “Rules of the School,” published upon the Academy’s 1787 reopening after the Revolutionary War, the standard for expulsion was set at “Notorious Immoralities.” Heaven knows how that phrase might be defined today!
In trying to bring what was a new idea in 1950 to its present condition, my wife scoured many issues of The Belfry and found quite a treasure trove. (For those of you born in the last two decades, there existed for some four decades a monthly newspaper called The Belfry, printed on heavy paper and full of legitimate news, opinion and humor. The rise of digital communication has rendered such a publication relatively obsolete.) In any event, there were many opinion pieces on this or that problem with the Honor System as well as many pieces extolling its virtues. At one point Frank Batten, Jr. and Craig Slingluff went toe to toe on several aspects of the system. Young Mr. Batten opined, among other things, that students should be shown more freedoms (unproctored tests for seniors, for example) to give the concept of “community of trust” real meaning. In the next month’s issue, the future Dr. Slingluff replied that this would create too much temptation and that the Honor System was here to “teach” students, not “test” them.
As I read piece after piece about the very same things we debate in earnest today – on Monday, in fact – I became initially saddened that after 65 years we still haven’t perfected the use of open lockers. I regretted that after 65 years we have still not figured out exactly what is the duty of a student upon witnessing a violation. Why, I asked myself, have we not yet arrived at a system of consequences for honor offenses with which everyone is comfortable? Are we ever to get this exactly right?
And then after a few moments’ reflection, I realized that the answer to that question is an emphatic “No.” More than that, I realized that “no” is the best answer. Many years ago Mr. Massey famously observed that our Honor System has not “arrived.” The clear implication is that it never will. Trying to improve the System is our currency. It is what we trade in. Discussing vital questions of good and bad and of right and wrong brings us together as a faculty. And if after all these years there is still no resolution on these important issues, perhaps that is because in the realm of the possible there can be no such resolution.
My presentation was followed by a short film showing what an Honor Council meeting looked like, followed next by Cosby Hall’s summarizing the results of the most recent poll of Tunstall students as to their views on the state of honor at Norfolk Academy. There was much discussion among faculty about several of the issues raised by those results, again, with no definitive resolution.
But it was uplifting to sit in a room with valued colleagues and talk about concepts so central to the soul of our school. I certainly might have differed slightly with a few of the things said, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that on display for a few hours on a cold January morning was the embodiment of that phrase we use so often and I have already used once herein. We are all lucky enough to be members of a real, functioning community of trust. And that is a rare privilege, indeed.
The recent past has witnessed the departure from this earthly reign of Lucy Singleton Penzold and Mary Lou Murray, who taught in our lower school for a combined 48 years. As such, their impact on the school, but more importantly on the Hampton Roads community, cannot be overstated. And while I will take occasion here to remind us of their many fine qualities as teachers and human beings, it is the passage of time that demands my attention just now. Some of Mrs. Penzold’s students are approaching 70; some of Mrs. Murray’s have just reached 40. That is an enormous, even a daunting number of living years to consider . . . but let’s try anyway.
Mrs. Penzold was, in the words of long-time Lower School Director Charlie Cumiskey, “one of a kind of the ‘old school marms.’” Mr. Cumiskey goes on to say that while technically he was her “boss,” in fact he was more accurately her colleague and quite often her student, that he learned more from her about teaching than vice versa. She somehow managed to be “proper” without being “prim.” Similarly, she ran a very strict classroom at the same time that her love for her kids was always evident. In a very formal classroom she made Greek mythology come absolutely to life for a room full of 10-year-old boys. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t grateful that he had Mrs. Penzold in either the third or the fifth grade. (Pictured right)
Mrs. Murray took a slightly different route to pedagogical greatness. Unlike Mrs. Penzold, Mary Lou wore her love for her kids on her sleeve. She ran a class bubbling over with joy. There were hugs and smiles daily. Every year she picked an animal as a mascot for her first grade girls. Her last class, the one that will graduate this year, had pink flamingoes as its mascot. Those girls, every one of them, including those no longer at school here, entered the sanctuary at her funeral, hand in hand, each wearing pink. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. (Picture right with students Tabor Furr ’13, Kathryn Fink ’13, Rachel Cook ’13, and Allison Bernert ’13)
But as I said at the outset, this is not intended to be simply a celebration of two lives. It’s just that Mrs. Penzold’s students are five decades plus out of her room, and Mrs. Murray’s are well into their fourth. And yet most remember their lower school days and their beloved teachers with a clarity that defies the passage of time. What is it about the time with a loving elementary school teacher that shortens the temporal distance between then and now? The brain scientists will tell you that early memories are changed every time they are brought to the surface – that the next time we dredge up an old memory we are really remembering the preceding call-up, not the event itself. Thus, we have learned, childhood memories can be greatly altered simply by the act of going to them from time to time. But the brain is not all about cognition and memory.
The connection, I believe, must be emotional. Whether or not your second-grade teacher said exactly what you remember her saying, it is the emotional bond you are really experiencing and not some particular event. I have had students from long ago tell me that they remember with great fondness something I said without my being to recall any of it. Maybe I didn’t say exactly what was referred to – but I must have said something that stuck. I hope it is because the young man or woman had forged some relationship with me that went beyond a lesson. It’s what we do here when we are at our best.
I sat in Mrs. Penzold’s third-grade class in the little red schoolhouse on North Shore Road for the 1961-1962 school year. My daughter Caroline sat in Mrs. Murray’s first-grade room for 1989-1990. I remember loving every day of school, and my daughter says she feels the same. And 80% of lower school days are spent in one room with one teacher, so the love comes from the woman at the head of the room. Multiply the good will generated in each child by the many generations of kids that were there in those rooms and you get a massive supply of emotions, almost all of them good. The best part? That the phenomenon is ongoing today.
Goodbye, Lucy. Goodbye, Mary Lou. Thanks for the memories.
On Friday, September 11th, the entire Middle School ventured out into the community as part of the United Way of South Hampton Roads “Day of Caring.” Nineteen buses carried kids and their faculty chaperones to nineteen different locations to perform community service for most of the day. The entire undertaking was a huge success.
There was much weeding and cleaning to be done around the visitor center in First Landing State Park. There was a mighty lot of trash to be picked up in two Virginia Beach community parks. There were senior citizens to be sung to (and in the case of Caroline Bisi, to be serenaded by) at Atlantic Shores Retirement Community. There were first graders at Little Creek Elementary school to be read to. At these and the other fifteen locations, students gave of themselves in differing ways. After 3 hours or so the kids enjoyed the lunches each one had packed and they headed back to school.
Upon returning to school they stayed in their groups for an hour or so and reflected on how the day had gone and how each of them had managed to contribute in some way. Most groups made slide shows or short videos, all of which were shown to the now-reunited student body in Price Auditorium. The combination of the breadth of the kids’ service and their considerable creative talents made for a very impressive display. As the kids headed off to practice or to rehearsal I sat doing some more reflecting of my own.
My first conclusion was that this event was masterfully conceived, planned, and executed. (This coming from a fellow who spent six years as a lawyer organizing sometimes very complicated financial transactions and bringing them to a successful close.) What Maria Moore and those who worked with her pulled off was nothing short of amazing. 352 Middle school kids are essentially 352 wild cards. You must anticipate the unexpected at any turn. For example, one group had to endure a lockdown at the school they were visiting because of a police matter several blocks away. No problem – just another day at the office. No one missed a bus, no one went hungry, and no one got lost or mislaid. You will have to trust me on this one –conducting this endeavor without a hitch was a major miracle.
My second conclusion was that the big miracle spawned many small favors. The gentleman at Atlantic Shores who crooned “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to Ms. Bisi had a slightly better day than he might otherwise have had. The first-grade girl in Room 157 at Mary Calcott School’s day was made just a little better by playing word games on the floor with one of our eighth graders. The people who visited First Landing the next day were just a little more impressed with the visitor center. All those hundreds of small favors add up to another major miracle.
My final thought was more a wish than a conclusion. I sat there hoping that perhaps the day itself did a small favor for our students. You bring middle schoolers through their years here one small step at a time. While there are a few “Ah hah!” moments, you have to take the long view to see them develop and mature. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, we brought them a little closer to the realization that they are crucial parts of a larger and often imperfect world. Maybe we helped them, in the words of a very wise mentor of mine, “get outside themselves” for a little while. You can only hope.
Hate to do this to you, Ms. Moore, but let’s do this again. Soon.
Click on the link below to see some of the student presentations and a slide show put together by Middle School Science Teacher Elizabeth Glassman. I promise you’ll be impressed, and maybe even a little moved.