Small Favors

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Paws for a Cause Reflection Video

The Calling

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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More than a Diploma

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A Prayer for the Class of 2015

I used to make the following remarks, or something very much like them, to my senior Political Science students on the last day of class each year. Now that I am no longer teaching at that level, I guess a print version will have to do.

Odds are I will not see any of you again until graduation festivities.  Those will come and go in such a blur that I will not have the opportunity to wish you a proper farewell at that time.  So let me take a few minutes to tell you something very important and absolutely true.

Since faculty gets to sit down front, we can see the many expressions that float across your faces.  I have studied seniors from that spot 28 times now, and I always see a mixture of the same emotions.  Some of you will not want to leave that stage you look so beautiful sitting upon.  For some, the notion of leaving home to start a new life with strangers, including roommates very much unknown to you, fills you with a dread you may not wish to admit.  Especially if you have been here for twelve years, the unfamiliar may seem frightening.  And so deep down, some of you may want high school never to end.

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At the other end of the spectrum are those for whom the end of senior year simply cannot come soon enough.  You will sit on those hard chairs under those bright lights straining to hear your named called, desperate to get your diploma, flee the stage, and start a new life.  I have noticed a few of you for whom the time of leaving seemed to come in February or March.  I am not sorry to have detained you until May, but am glad for you now that the time for ending is actually here.

The majority of you feel some mix of those two emotions.  I watch you smile as a close friend gets a graduation award.  That smile is born of union, a feeling of shared experience, that is so real to you now but may well prove elusive in the future.  A part of you wants those relationships to last a while longer, if not forever.  But then when your name gets called, your smile turns into a beam, revealing a pride in accomplishment, a deep sense of completion, and the willingness to move on.

Whatever your frame of mind is that Friday, you must know this.

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The faculty members have been seated in front of you for a reason.  Given the investment they have made in your growth, they deserve to get one last really close look at you.  I want you to stop and think for a moment what must be going through their minds – through my mind.  We practice this craft because we love you, or more precisely, because we love watching you grow up.  I know, I know, “those that can, do; those that can’t, teach.”  That may be true for many teachers across this country, but it rarely applies to any of us here.  And even if it is the case in some degree for some of us, the incontrovertible truth is that we feel intense satisfaction at helping you grow from first graders (Glenda Holbrook once called you “worms on a hot sidewalk”) to the accomplished and confident seniors we see before us.

Consider for a moment what Mrs. Warn must be thinking as she watches her third-grade girls, now so mature.  Think of what Mrs. Wallace is feeling as she watches those men on the stage that used to be runny-nosed, shirttails-out little boys in 4A.  Think about how Mr. Horstman took you into his world cultures class but really into his life.  Think about the endless hours Mr. Watson spent coaxing you, driving you, to be brave enough to present yourself for who you really are in dance.

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Remember the countless times Coach Duffy “bumped” you in the halls, and what that knuckle-to-knuckle contact stood for.  And as for me, I remember as if it were yesterday when many of you first walked into Room 239 and were confronted by me with Xeno’s paradox.  Watching you wrestle with that unexpected problem on opening day was delightful.  I have kept tabs on you more than you might know, delighting in your intellectual growth, and celebrating your accomplishments.  But it is seeing each one of you grow over the years into a person – strong, outgoing, and so optimistic – that fills me up and pleases my soul.  As you leave the stage I will try my best to avoid direct eye contact with any of you, for I have no interest in bursting into happy tears just at that moment.

So when that recessional tune you have picked begins and you rise to your feet one last time, feel the wave of support the entire faculty has for you.  Ride it as long as you can, down those aisles and perhaps even out into the courtyard.  The wave will recede quickly enough. But please, please realize that you will leave that stage with much more than a diploma.  You will also carry all the love, the pride, and the earnest hope for your continued success that each member of this faculty can give you.

Upper School Graduation, Friday, May 29th, 2015.

So this is goodbye.  Be well. Be good.  Don’t be a stranger. And as you go forward, make me, somehow, even prouder of you than I already am.

He’s Everywhere

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The annual confluence of Easter and Passover occurred earlier this month.  Each celebration asks its believers to consider what is important in this life and what is not.  Surely, with the possible exception of Memorial Day, Easter and Passover are the most reflective of observations.  Regardless of your specific faith, or even if you have no particular faith to follow, taking time to be reflective is crucial, I believe.

For years my family, or that portion of my family that was within traveling distance, would attend the Easter service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  We were only able to do so because my sister was the Director of Development for the National Cathedral School for Girls, a venerable independent school that shares the so-called “Cathedral Hill” with the church and with the St. Alban’s School for Boys.  In that position she could obtain “tickets” to the 11:00 service. (As an aside, a part of me always rued the notion of needing “tickets” to go to church.  But the reality was that thousands more desired to attend than there was room to accommodate them, and a line would start forming à la Duke basketball down Wisconsin Avenue on Saturday evening, so I guess those associated directly with the church needed entry documents.)

I adored the service, not for its specific religious content but rather for the grandeur of the celebration, and particularly the music.  The organist, accompanied by two kettle drums and a brass section, would play as the last prelude Charles-Marie Widor’s  “Toccata in C,” which actually has a more formal name not necessary to be set forth here.

It is a stirring piece, fabulously difficult to play, which, a little like Ravel’s more famous and profane “Bolero,” grows in intensity and power in an unstoppable rush of sound until it finally rouses itself up and concludes with a glorious fanfare. It would take eight to ten seconds for the sound to finish reverberating around all that granite and give way to silence. And then for a few seconds the silence would be punctuated by a squeak of a chair leg being moved or the rasp of a throat being cleared.

And then would come the moment that I had anticipated ever since the previous year’s Easter.  Way in the back of the church, singing in the soft soprano of small boys, the Cathedral Boy Choristers would begin the hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” You can live by the words of the hymn, or you may ignore or even reject them, but at that moment there was absolutely no way of denying that angels had in fact arrived on Cathedral Hill.  The juxtaposition of the mighty organ and the pure, unsullied voices of those children would convince me that, at least at that place and time, God exists.

And then my sister moved on to a position with Marts and Lundy and there were no more passes to the Cathedral.  Yet each member of my family and I craved a way to re-create that moment.  What could persuade us, if only for a second or two, that there is a higher power in our universe? We found an equally glorious and affirmative answer at the bottom of the Great Falls of the Potomac, scarcely four miles as the eagle flies from the Cathedral. The river, having gathered up all the rain and melted snow from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, encounters there several rows of huge granite rocks, each trying its best to keep the water from making its way to its appointed destination.  But the river, several hundred yards across at that point and facing an 80-foot drop, will not be denied. The water crashes and cascades and swirls on its way down, throwing great sprays of mist and making a noise that at once deafens the ear and touches the soul.

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Here I will employ a word much overused – the sight and sound of that falling water is majestic.  Both created by granite, the majesty of cascading water is much like the majesty of a church organ in a mighty cathedral. So by the river, as well as in a cathedral, one must conclude that, in whatever form you choose to believe, God indeed exists. And in the presence of majesty you are freed to reflect upon what is important in this life and what is not.

Every morning before classes begin we ask our older students to stop and reflect.  I am glad we do so. I wish I could import the sound of that organ or that waterfall every morning, but alas, I cannot.  But that’s okay.  It does not take several hundred tons of granite for you to become reflective.  A seat in the Johnson Theater or Price Auditorium is enough.

After all, He’s everywhere.

The World According to … Runzo?

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Bill Miller spoke at a Captain’s Club meeting a few weeks ago.  Having been my wrestling coach over forty years ago, Bill enjoys a special niche in my memory.  I was lucky enough to have a few minutes’ conversation with him after the meeting, and it was lovely catching up.  We shook hands, even hugged, and exchanged the typical “How are your kids?” questions and eventually wished each other a sincere farewell.  We spent no time reliving the good old days.

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Which is remarkable, particularly when it comes to the sport of wrestling.  Of all the sports we undertake here, I think wrestling creates the strongest, most unbreakable bond between coaches, especially those who no longer spend their time on the mat.  Of course there are contenders for that honor like baseball and lacrosse – actually, I think lacrosse finishes a close second – but when you put two former wrestling coaches together they simply cannot resist talking about this incident or that from their days in singlets.  Make it three or four coaches, and at that precise instant the rest of the world will cease to be relevant to them.

I am not being critical here.  You want every coach to be passionate about his sport, and there is a collegiality among former coaches that is generally positive.  But it tickles me how inevitably grapplers will engage in remembrances of things past (forgive me, Monsieur Proust) when they sit and talk with each other.

Wrestling, I think, produces those connections for the same reason that it is not as popular with the students as it might once have been.  That is, wrestling is without doubt the most intimate of sports.  It is based entirely on the skill of physically manipulating another person’s body.  As such, it requires the most constant and intentional skin-on-skin contact.  Many boys in young adolescence these days will react to that fundamental fact with “Eeeewwww!” To work out on the mat with a classmate practice after practice is to get to know that person very well.    Wrestling is also completely dependent on aggression as a motivator.  The kind of gentleman that would rise to the level of a wrestling coach has somewhere in him a ferocity that when met with equal and opposing ferocity gives rise to respect and friendship.

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I wrestled my junior and senior years here because, at least initially, Mr. Massey told me to.  I was helpless as a basketball player and had no desire to play soccer slogging around in the mud on 35-degree afternoons.  (Yes, soccer was a winter sport lo, those many years ago.)  And when Mr. Massey informed me one November day that we were short one heavyweight and that I had been nominated for the post, my response was, “Yes sir.” In 1969 one simply could not say “no” to Mr. Massey.

Coach Miller welcomed my arrival on what was the third or fourth day of practice without ceremony.  He then made the next three or four weeks a living hell.  In addition to getting me into wrestling shape, he understood that I might be at actual physical risk.  You see, “heavyweight” was in those days called “Unlimited.”  My second match was against a young man from St. Christopher’s who weighed in well above the 300 lb. mark, and it ended poorly—at least for me.  After 50 or 60 seconds of submergence and the consequent pin, Toy_Wrestling_CroppedI could not help but detect a smile on Coach Miller’s face as I dragged my flattened self back to the bench.  I asked him what was so funny, and he said that I had made the sound of air being squeezed out of giant bellows.  I saw nothing remotely funny at the time.

See?  There I go.  Forty-odd years later I remember that moment as clear as crystal and cannot help retelling it.  I think that’s because in the weeks and months and years after that moment Coach Miller pushed me beyond that which I thought I was capable of.  I can remember sitting on the locker room bench after one particularly grueling practice, unable to rise to my feet and wondering why on earth I was permitting this sort of foolishness to continue.  But you know what?  I can also remember walking out to my car twenty minutes later in the cold dark of a winter evening feeling strong and full and very happy.

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The image of some present senior shaking hands or even hugging a 70-year-old Coach Runzo decades from now fills me with delight.  I wish more of our guys could have that to look forward to.

Great seeing you, Coach Miller.

It Was A Wonderful Life

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John Goodlad passed away last New Year’s Eve.  Who is John Goodlad, you might ask, and why would he be the subject of a Savage Chronicle?  Good questions, both, and questions that deserve answers.

Goodlad-Profile-200x275Mr. Goodlad was a career educator, as well as an education scholar and reformer.  He was born in British Columbia, and spent his early years as a teacher in a rural one-room schoolhouse serving those children of all ages within driving or riding range.  The space was close and confusing, but it was ultimately his, and over his years there he came to some conclusions about what true education really looks like.  When he moved on to the more urban and modern world, he also came to the conclusion that our public schools today had wandered very far from that ideal.  He spent his final four decades in Seattle researching and writing about ways that our schools might rediscover some of the best things about the little red school-house.

Okay, you say, that answers the first question.  Why the second?  For that, I want you to get in your mind’s eye the final scene from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey discovers just what a difference he has made to his hometown of Bedford Falls simply by being there.  In ways he has never considered, George discovers how much the lives of his friends and neighbors were improved or even saved by something he did.  At risk of torturing the analogy, if Norfolk Academy is Bedford Falls, then John Goodlad is our George Bailey.  I can think of no other person not directly associated with the school who had such a large role in making this school a better place to teach and learn.

You see, Goodlad published his masterpiece, A Place Called School, late in 1984.   Armed with both massive empirical research and his formative experiences as a teacher, Goodlad was able to show how so much of the structure of our school systems and the schools within them was actively impeding the crucial act of learning.  large-538e19780b45eA Place Called SchoolBit by bit he took apart the old certainties about age grouping and curriculum and the layout of our classrooms in favor of maximizing those magic moments of learning between student and teacher, student and text, and student and experience.  When I read the book the first time I found myself thinking, “You know, that’s right!!” every couple of pages.

The reason I read it was that John Tucker made me. In fact, every faculty member and much of the non-teaching staff at Norfolk Academy read it.  And while much of the book focused on the downward spiral of public education, there was plenty of “red meat” for us to digest.  Goodlad had coined a very ordinary phrase for what he was suggesting needed to happen – “school improvement.” He urged every teacher to reexamine his pedagogy and to look for areas in which he could, simply enough, get better.

Many of us concluded that to do that we had to break the cycle of lecture, note-taking, and assessment, a rhythm we were falling into more and more.  And so we took the official “Great Books” curriculum, the brain child of Mortimer Adler.  This led to the creation of seminar days, which in the first years were very rigorous examinations of difficult texts by Upper School faculty and students.  We began at the beginning by exploring the Book of Genesis.  Soon we were tackling behavioral science through “Imitation of Film-Mediated Aggression,” by Bandura and Ross, one of the first comprehensive looks at whether violence on screen stimulates violent behavior in reality.  We went after political theory by working our way through J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty,” perhaps the most challenging text we ever confronted.   We even tried to get at the heart of the protest movements of the 1960’s by reading song lyrics from the likes of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger.  But always it was never about a topic – it was always about a text.  And the techniques learned in seminar days became integral parts of daily instruction.

Not everyone on both sides of the teacher’s desk came willingly.  Many students saw three rigorous seminar days per year as an unjustifiable add-on to an already hectic academic routine, particularly the required writing of critical essays at the end of the day.  Many teachers worried about the loss of class time and the additional preparation required for each seminar day.  But John Tucker and his chief executive officer, Tunstall Director Will Stacey, would not be deterred.  John understood Goodlad’s primary message—that the old comfortable forms, curricula, and teaching methods were beginning to get between teacher and student and actually inhibit learning. After A Place Called School, teachers here learned the habit of constantly and consistently exploring ways to better reach our students, a habit which continues to this day.

17.Tucker_cropped Put it this way.  The two giants of our 20th century school, J. B. Massey and John Tucker, have their official portraits facing each other in the lobby of our reception area.  Each gentleman is holding a book near and dear to his heart.  Mr. Massey has the Bible in his hands; Mr. Tucker is holding A Place Called School, which had been published 16 years before the portrait was painted.

 

They both picked the right book.

What a Piece of Work is Man, How Noble in Reason

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I was sitting in front of my F Bell Ancient History class as kids came in from chapel.  It was the morning of a quiz of some heft, so the students were a little hyped up, asking each other questions as to this type of statuary or how Osiris was normally portrayed, etc.  I told them that they could have a few more minutes to review their notes.  As they dug in again I saw one young man, an excellent student and a well-liked classmate, cavorting in his seat, if such a thing is possible.  After a few seconds it hit me – this young man was doing the chicken dance.  Let me repeat myself – the chicken dance.

At 8:30 in the morning.  In room 239.  Prior to a history quiz.

Immediately I began to wonder how he got from Tut’s tomb, et al., to the chicken dance.  I could tell he was playing that annoying tune in his head as he flapped his elbows, so he was “all in.”  I would not let myself jump to the conclusion that it was just random.  There had to be some sequence of events, or maybe even a simple starter moment, that led to this odd performance.  So as they began to take the quiz, my mind raced with ideas as to how the chicken dance had come to Royster 239.

Perhaps he came to school in a carpool and there was some advertisement on the radio that contained the chicken dance song.  Perhaps he was using the motion as a way to relieve some stiffness or soreness in his arms.  Perhaps the plug for the Happy Club’s “turkey trot,” which has been made at every chapel and after every lunch for a week now, had put this young man in the world of edible fowl.  It’s not such a leap from turkey to chicken.  Throw in a duck and you have a Thanksgiving delight!  No, none of these theories seemed likely or even sufficient.  There must be some back story, I concluded, so I resolved to ask him after class was over.  I think my exact words were, “Billy, the chicken dance?”

He was utterly unaffected by my question.  It seemingly did not strike him as odd that I should ask. He looked at me directly, and with total honesty replied with the three magic words that reverberate through the Royster hallways every day.

“I don’t know.”

I have heard this response often enough to accept it, but in this case the behavior in question was so ridiculous that I was forced to follow up.  “Really?”  He searched his memory for a few seconds and said, “I just kinda’ felt like it.”  I wished him well as he went on his way to Algebra.

There’s actually something very important going on here.  This is a very smart young man. As I have said before, I dislike intensely the use of the word “smart,” but in this case I guess it applies. Somehow the melody had been planted in his brain in the recent past.  It just bubbled to the surface at that precise moment.  We could get all into left brain versus right, the function of the cerebral cortex and such, but the short version is that the adolescent brain seldom travels in straight lines.  It’s why we stick to teaching subjects like Latin and Geometry.  It’s why we spend as much time as we do on the periodic table of the elements.  Adolescent brains, especially those lodged in the male skull, crave straightening out.  Declensions and CPCT (corresponding parts of congruent triangles, for those of you who have forgotten geometry) and noble gases vs. halides all help to discipline the unruly noggins of 13-year- olds.  We owe it to these folks to try and straighten them out a little.

But not too much.  It’s a neat but difficult trick to help young people think more clearly and in a more linear fashion without suppressing the ability to be creative, even fanciful.  I want this young man to be able to give me a timeline for Ramses II, but I also want him, at his age, to break into dance at the weirdest times. It’s good for him and it’s very good for me.  To jump three hundred-odd years from the Bard of Avon, I quote from my favorite Robert Frost poem, Birches;

            It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

            And life is too much like a pathless wood

            Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

            Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

            From a twig’s having lashed across it open . . .

Frost goes on to describe swinging a birch tree as a way to get away, “good both for the going and the coming back.”  Well, there’s nary a birch tree in sight from room 239, so I’ll have to rely on the antics of an eighth grade boy to take me away for just a moment.  Many, if not most, people dealing with the unpredictability of young adolescents find it tiring and even unpleasant.  I’m proud to be a member of a middle school faculty that finds such moments delightful and even refreshing.

How about the hokey-pokey next time?

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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So sang Andy Williams on his classic 1963 Christmas album.  As ancient as the song may be, it has been an unbreakable tradition in the Savage household to play it nice and loud to bounce my children out of bed on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving.  The earlier, the better.  For many years I loved seeing the mix of exasperation and delight on my kids’ faces as they said, “Da-ad?!”  (When questioning the pater familias the word “Dad” always acquires a second syllable.)  Now that the young ones are grown and gone I call them and play the song into the phone.  It loses something in transmission, but I actually think they appreciate the effort.

So when thinking about what to say as this year’s winter holiday, I got to thinking about what, in fact, makes this time of year wonderful.  Certainly the holidays can be stressful and even difficult for those with families rendered by time or incident.  There can be unpleasant memories that bubble up around now. None of us is immune from all this. But I cling to the belief that Andy Williams was singing nothing but the truth.  Here is my take on the wonderfulness – I wonder how much it overlaps with yours.

First, let’s stick with where we started – the music.  From the majesty of Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus to the childlike hilarity of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” my holidays are dominated by music.  Since I am from the pre-MP3 generation, I still generate the music from CD’s and – wait for it – vinyl.  For each of the 39 Christmases my wife and I have shared, we have added one “good” holiday CD and one “bad” one.  And our bad ones can be really bad.  Mel Torme’s (Google him, if you dare) scat-singing a Christmas version of “Glow, Little Glow Worm” has to be the worst.  But then follow that up with Judy Collins singing “Silent Night” a capella, or perhaps John Denver’s duet with one of my favorite Muppets, Rowlf, on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and you can be moved to tears, or smiles, or both.  My youngest even put together playlists (burnt to CD’s for me, of course) from her four years at Vanderbilt, so I am the proud owner of “A Very Fratty Christmas” and “A Very Fratty Hanukkah.”  Speaking of the latter, go find “I am a Latke” by Debbie Friedman if you want to wear a warm, broad smile for the rest of your day.

As much as I love the music itself, I love it more for the role it plays as catalyst. Music, and in particular holiday music, brings memories to life in a way words or even pictures cannot.  I will not bore you with individual recollections, but ironically enough, the act or “re-remembering” the past seems to make the present much more meaningful.  It is one thing to hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the first time.  It is a moment of much greater import to hear it for the 60th consecutive year.  I have celebrated Christmas in three houses, two apartments, in Augusta County, Virginia five miles west of Staunton, at a rental at Sandbridge, and even in a hospital room with my wife and two three-day-old children. But the music has always been the same, and hearing it again compresses all the memories into a very dense and pleasing experience.

But it’s much more than reviving traditions or even enjoying a short bit of time travel. Music makes the holidays the most wonderful time of the year because music must be made to be heard.  And it is best made surrounded by those you love. The act of gathering around the piano presupposes the gathering, and it is that coming together that provides the real joy.  Whether it be lighting candles or hanging ornaments, it is the act of reunion itself that spins the magic.  No doubt the gathering of family and friends can spawn some difficult moments (I have been party to some real screaming matches over the years), but when that countdown to New Year’s Eve concludes and folks start to go out on their own way again, I find myself suffused with satisfaction at having been once again together.  And if there is music playing, that satisfaction is even deeper.  It is my heartfelt wish that each of you has, in your own way, a holiday that is restorative and filled with joy.

The holidays provide us with special opportunities to do four things.  We can pause and say what we need to say to those no longer with us.  I miss you, Mom. You can thank the Almighty for the blessings that have been heaped upon you.  Dear Lord, thank you.  You can tell those around you and those who you wish were how much you love them.  To each member of my family, including the newest, little Savannah Hunter, I love you very much. And while doing all of that, you can play and dance and most of all, sing.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Remembering to Smile

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The following was first posted three years ago in advent of that year’s D. A. Taylor tournament. This year it will begin on Thursday, December 4th and conclude on Saturday the 6th.  And the “staying power” described below has only increased since I first wrote of it.

This Thursday we will be hosting the annual basketball tournament in honor of D. A. Taylor.  Whenever I permit myself to think about him, I find myself wincing and smiling at the same time.  The staying power of the foundation formed by his friends in his memory is remarkable.  Rather than fade, it seems that with each passing year the memories grow sharper and more distinct, and each year his old buddies grow more committed to preserving them.  And while that says a lot about D. A., it says perhaps even more about his friends.  Finally, it says something about this school.

If you never knew DeShannon Artemis Taylor, you missed something.  This young man, cruelly taken from us by meningococcemia at age 16, had a personality larger than life.  To quote the Bard of Avon, he really could “set the table upon a roar.” He was a fabulous athlete and a top-notch student, but most of us remember him primarily for his style and razor wit.  Tom Duquette will tell you that when traveling with the lacrosse team there was a certain quality of laughter that would roll to the front of the bus when D.A. was at work.  And if it needed quelling, there in the middle of it all would be the young Mr. Taylor, trying his hardest to suppress that smile but not really succeeding. When it bubbled to the surface of his face, there was something about that grin and those flashing eyes that was utterly disarming.  That quality of joy made his prolonged suffering especially hard to endure.

But this is not to memorialize D. A.  That has been done superbly many times and far better than I can manage.  I can remember Jordan Jacobs, Drew McKnight, and Russell Carter, stripped to the waist and dancing out their grief under the tutelage of Elbert Watson while a large group of seniors pressed into the old dance room to watch and to share in the intimacy of the moment.  I think of the poetry written for him, one piece particularly by Gail Flax.  Every time I pass the sculpture made for him, I think how perfect it is – black, strong, and bubbling up from within with life and motion.

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No, this is about his friends.  This is about a group of adolescents who were visited by terrible tragedy and found purpose in it.  To list them here would be to omit someone, but few people have any idea as to the scope of activity of the D. A. Taylor Foundation.  There are dinners in Manhattan, a basketball tournament in Norfolk, concerts in San Francisco.  And none of it is partying for its own sake.  These former schoolmates, now fully men, have figured out a way to transform grief into good, and they find the experience ultimately rewarding. It has become much more than honoring a lost friend.  For them, friendship has taken root in the soul.  There is a spirituality to their celebrations that these days is very, very rare.

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Where is that coming from?  I think it has to do with two things.  The first is “team.”  Not all of the Foundation members were D. A.’s classmates; some were older and some younger.  But many of them played either lacrosse or football with him.  To the extent that belonging to a team connotes the sharing of sacrifice, each of them is drawn to an annual replication of that experience. The events put on in his memory have a sense of communion, and to use a very old word, the making of an oblation.   Each of the celebrants feels as if he owes D. A. something, and each is glad to join with others in acknowledging the debt.

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The other source of the Foundation’s staying power, I think, is the longing for innocence.  These folks have passed the age of thirty, and they work in law offices, in investment banks, and in businesses all across this country.  Of course they hit the elliptical and they play pick-up basketball, but for all of them life has become, if nothing else, more complicated.  There are bills to pay and meetings to attend and family obligations to observe.

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What could provide better respite from all that than to re-immerse yourself in the triumph of locker-room exhaustion after a particularly grueling practice?  What can block out the typical concerns of adult life better than re-living the moment of winning the TILT championship?  What can banish everyday worries better than the memory of the smile on D. A.’s face after one of his particularly successful bits of mischief?  And because those moments of innocence and joy were riven for a while by his passing, who wouldn’t want to recreate them?

The Foundation does Good Works.  There are scholarships to deserving young students and awards to those who distinguish themselves on the playing field.  More than that, the Foundation preserves a time in which life was as simple as intercepting a pass or breaking away to the goal.  Although it comes with a terrible cost, the memory of D. A. Taylor provides those who were close to him a very special place to go. He can still make them smile.

“for the proper use. . .”

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This week Norfolk Academy will celebrate its 286th birthday.  That’s an awfully long time.  When you try to wrap your mind around the idea of our school being that old, you find yourself unable to get it all in.  Being as familiar with the school’s history as I am, I tend to narrow my focus to specific anecdotes and the people they contain.  Here are five small ones, all chosen for a reason.*

01.1682 Platt

I envision Col. William Byrd, stopping at Norfolk for a weekend in the summer of 1728 while on his way up the South Branch of the Elizabeth River.  He is leading a team of surveyors trying to settle the dispute between Virginia and North Carolina as to the exact location of the dividing line between them.  I see him joining in a sequence of social occasions, including church on Sunday, in the company of all five signatories to the school charter.  I know there is no evidence of this, but I wonder if somewhere in all those meetings Col. Byrd did not urge his hosts to finally start the school for which a lot in town had been reserved in 1680.

Norfolk Academy photo of the 1804 Greek Temple building in downtown Norfolk.

I can see Reverend George Armstrong, one of the pitifully few residents who survived the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1855.  I can hear his words as he describes the grand building that just months earlier had held a vibrant Norfolk Military Academy but is now a Post Office, rising over a deserted and defeated City.  I feel the lament as he mourns for the gentlemen coming to get their mail and walking away “without even the courage to look one another in the face.”

Robert Gatewood, Headmaster 1865-1888

Robert Gatewood, Headmaster 1865-1888

I can enjoy happier times as a reborn Norfolk Academy opens one of its rooms in 1872 to house the initial collection for the new Norfolk Public Library.    Over there talking are Robert Gatewood, the intense and dedicated Headmaster since the school reopened in 1865, and William B. Selden, Jr.  Chairman of the Academy Board of Trustees and Norfolk’s leading citizen.  Back at the Selden home that day is daughter Anne with her husband Cyrus Wiley Grandy I.  Together they would begin a line of citizenry central to the life of both the school and the community.

I can feel the frustration of the school’s Board of Trustees as twice in 22 years (1917 and 1939) the school is forced to suspend operations, each time unable to overcome the rush of events caused by the coming of a world war.  But I can also sense the patriotic pride of the Board as the schoolhouse is converted in 1942 into a facility for training upcoming Navy officers in the art and science of navigation.

Finally, I was actually there to experience the surge of satisfaction as Patty Masterson brought down the closing gavel at The Common Wealth in Education, which in the summer of 1986 helped start a nationwide, if not worldwide, reform movement in education.

The First Common Wealth Conference 1986

The First Common Wealth Conference 1986

I remember clearly the mix of exhaustion and wonder at the breadth and power of the conference.  It was only later, when I had been employed by the Academy for more than nine days (yes, that’s how long I had been here officially), that I could really appreciate what a miracle of planning and execution the conference was, and how it changed the world of education so much for the better.

These five moments are here to drive home the notion that Norfolk Academy, more than any other independent school in the nation, has always played a central role in the community that surrounds it. The Charter about which we speak is literally a Deed of Trust, a contract if you will, between the City of Norfolk and the three gentlemen charged with creating our school.  As does any real estate deed, that contract lasts in perpetuity – in our case we are beginning year 287.  It therefore behooves us—those students, faculty, parents and board members who are Norfolk Academy today—to continue to do our best to fulfill our side of the bargain.

Yes, we are all here to educate and help rear children.  That mission will always come first.  But we should not forget that we pursue our mission in the context of a grander scheme, a scheme that was set forth clearly, albeit with a misspelling, in the Charter.  It obligated the first trustees to build a schoolhouse and to operate it “for the proper use of the inhabitance of the City.”  So much has changed since that Charter was signed. 02.1787 SchoolNorfolk Academy is no longer housed in a wood frame building across the muddy road from the church now called St. Paul’s.  And what we now call Hampton Roads looks absolutely nothing like the primitive town that was Norfolk in 1728.  But through almost three centuries, the idea of our school has never changed.

Our most proper use is to benefit those around us.

* For more detailed versions of these stories, you could always try Norfolk’s Academy: The Heart of Tidewater.