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.

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