Since the Savage Chronicles debuted in 2011, the opening-of-school edition has always sprung from words uttered by Headmaster Dennis Manning in the final faculty meeting prior to the beginning of classes. At the risk of endangering job security, this year we will focus on the first divisional meeting of Royster faculty on Tuesday, Aug. 25. I have been attending faculty meetings in some shape or form since 1975, and I can say that never have I been more inspired than I was at the end of that meeting.
After a few minor matters of business, Royster Director Matt Sigrist dug into the real “stuff’ of a middle school – the formation of meaningful relationships between faculty and students. He reminded us that grades seven through nine can be tumultuous, confusing times, and the availability of a caring adult for each student is at the very heart of what we do. He talked of our designing schedules and systems that maximize the opportunities for those relationships to develop and flourish, and he urged each of us to focus on simply being there for the kids. Heady words indeed.
But what followed really got to me. One by one, Cecil Mays, Ari Zito, Brooke Fox and Trish Hopkins stood up and answered the question “Why I teach.” Cecil talked of the role of teachers in the creation and maintenance of civilization. Ari talked about teaching being in his genes. Turns out both parents and his sister are all teachers. He has always been drawn to this vocation, including his remarkable leadership of the Breakthrough at Norfolk Academy program, which has done so much for so many children of promise in the Norfolk public schools. Trish Hopkins reminded us that the purpose of teaching kids can only be fueled by passion for both the lesson and the learners. Her own passion for teaching flowed into the room on her words.
It took Brooke Fox to put me over the edge. She played an excerpt from what I assume is a motivational speech given by Charlie Plumb, who was shot down over the Sea of Hanoi during the Vietnam War, parachuted to safety but was captured and incarcerated as a POW for six years. Evidently, this gentleman was out to dinner one night many years later when a complete stranger approached him and asked him his name. When the reply came as expected, the fellow said, “You know the day you were shot down? I packed your parachute that morning.” The implications were obvious – as teachers, we never know when some mundane exchange with a student will end up being very important to him or her, so we better pay close attention to every one of those moments. We may be packing parachutes daily.
Except Brooke turned it on its head, and talked about the times in her life that being a teacher acted as her parachute. She recounted several moments in her life roughly equivalent to being shot down, and how returning to a classroom gave her what she needed to hit the ground safely and fly another day. In doing so she unplugged my basket of memories of the same times in my life, where the smiling faces of those before me in a classroom or on a field sustained me when I needed it most. I had to fight back the tears.
So I have never been more excited for a school year to begin. As a faculty we cannot wait to get to the work of providing students fabric, factual and emotional, that they may hold on to in their lives. The joyful mystery of that work is that in packing other people’s parachutes, we receive fabric in return that lifts up us and keeps us well.
Thank you in advance to all those colleagues and students who have reconvened in this marvelous place. Whether or not we intend it specifically, if we go about it the right way we will all keep each other aloft.
It is good to begin again.