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


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. . .”


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.

Never Again



A Tribute to Jett Colonna

Play this to remember Jett at his best:

Jett Colonna passed away last week, finally succumbing to the cancer he had fought for so long.  His departure somehow compels the words that follow.  There are many teachers who served this school well for many years whose death, while a terrible loss to family and community, will not be chronicled here.  Those omissions are not meant to belittle any of them.  But the truth is there will never again be someone like Jett Colonna.

Jett taught and coached here from 1969 – 2001.  For most of that time he taught Ancient Civilizations – there were some years in which he had every member of the 8th grade class. He coached football every year and sometimes basketball as well. Over the years he added many posters and pictures to the walls of his classroom.  When he ran out of space he hung things from the ceiling, including a pair of boxing gloves worn by world champion light-weight Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker in one of his title fights. To walk into room 239 was to enter a place of fantasy and history, of beauty and violence, and above all of heart and soul.

In describing Jett, one of the first words that comes to mind, particularly in his former students, is fierce.  Whether in the gym, the classroom, or on the football field, Jett was full-bore, almost combative.  He could lose himself in a tragic tale about some figure of ancient times, and his students, rapt to the core, would happily get lost with him.  He was always in complete control of his classroom, partly because he brought history so beautifully to life, but also because if you displeased him as a student you would literally feel his wrath.  The legends of his occasional tirades are all simultaneously unbelievable and true.

Likewise, Jett pursued athletics in general and physical fitness in particular with ferocity.  People like to say that they “hit” the weight room.  With Jett that was literally true.  The deadweights would find themselves tossed around like the poor weak playthings that they were.  Similarly, if you were one of his football players, particularly a lineman, you were quickly given to understand the life-or-death nature of the contest before you.  If at the end of the game there was anything left in your tank, then you had left yourself and the team down.  This thing called football was not a game; it was a test of manhood.

All of which would make Jett Colonna a memorable figure but not unlike many of his ilk.  What distinguished Jett was his capacity to match his fierceness with peace and tranquility.  This side of him allowed him to listen to life as poets might yearn to do.  Jett may have been at his best out on the ocean, waiting for the next wave but in no hurry to do anything.  He would go to Costa Rica for two weeks every winter (sometimes during the school year!) to get away to nature and to better waves than he could find here.  His substitute would show the movie “The Endless Summer” in his absence. He would return shaggy-haired, unshaved, and filled with spiritual refreshment. That calm he rediscovered on the water served him and his students well for the other 50 weeks of his year.

Above all, Jett’s ability to simplify made it easy for him to understand his students.  He could see through adolescent self-defenses and know the real child behind whatever behavior he was dealing with.  Those that let him in on their true selves found themselves sustained.  There may have been a bit of correction in the exchange, but Jett propelled many young people down the road that was meant for them.  One of my former students, now a successful career woman and mother, said it best.  When we talked about Jett’s passing, she said, “He was the first person to believe in my crazy dreams.”  Heaven knows how many others there are who became better young people because they were taught or coached by Mr. Colonna.

Every school day I walk into Jett’s room to teach my four bells of Ancient History.  All that beautiful paraphernalia has disappeared, but 13 years after he stopped teaching there, it is still Jett’s room.  From time to time I have thought about how Jett would have presented this material, or how Jett might have handled this situation.  I suspect I will think that more often in the future.  I will redouble my efforts to be more like him.  But the truth is that I never will be.

That’s because no one on earth could be.



Running on Full


Homecoming, 2014



Last weekend’s Homecoming events were a total success, as always.  From John Tucker’s arrival Friday morning in his orange trousers to the last goodbye in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning, the air was filled with good will and fond memories.  To the delight of the large crowd in attendance, the football team rallied from an inconsistent first half to drub the Saints of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy 56 -32. Somewhere around 230 alumni and alumnae, most with a guest, registered for the 5-year reunion parties.  Over 100 showed up for Saturday lunch around the Pit.  The members of the fifty-year class of 1964 were here in great numbers and seemed to be having a wonderful time.  Bulldogs everywhere you look.


What struck me most, however, was the presence of so many members of the class of 2014.  These folks have been gone only 4 months from our halls, and, as happens each year, many come to Homecoming from the previous year’s graduating class.  It is equally true that almost no one comes who graduated two or three years in the past.  I think there’s a message there that is worth exploring.

If you are too young to know Jackson Browne’s 1977 classic live album “Running on Empty,” a) you missed one of rock music’s greatest moments, and b) I’m envious of your youth. Browne was, and is, one of the prime spokesmen for the generation that in the 60’s showed so much idealism about the future and then so much disillusionment about later decades.  In the title tune he laments the seemingly endless routine of the travelling troubadour with lyrics such as “I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on” and “I don’t even know what I’m hoping to find.”   Eight years later Bono would spin the same lament, this time from the point of view of a Catholic turned agnostic with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”


As I wandered around prior to the football game and then came to my perch up in the press box, I saw reunion after reunion of young folks who might not have seen each other since June.  There was Madison Acra talking to Chris Debo talking to Austin Foster talking to Ian Frazier, etc., etc. Wade Willard even came up to the box to say hello and reminisce for a short time.  And while my observations of their meetings, their smiles, and their hugs were fleeting, I didn’t get a whiff of Jackson Browne or even Bono. There was an ease of recognition and a pleasure in conversation that led me to believe that these people are not running from anything.  Surely the overwhelming majority of recent graduates do not know with certainty where they will end up or perhaps even where they are headed, but those conditions are different from “running.” And while it may be wishful thinking, in their body language and their facial expressions I saw nothing but optimism.


To the extent that these young people are in any way running, I get the distinct impression that their roads are not aimless and that their tanks are anything but empty.  They carry a confidence drawn from many successes in their comings and goings leading up to today, and Norfolk Academy undoubtedly played a significant role in instilling that confidence.  I’d like to think that because Chris Debo was named chair of the Honor Council he felt more at ease walking in to class at William & Mary.  I would hope that Madison Acra went after the midfielder position on the Washington College women’s lacrosse team with a greater self-assurance gained by her triumphs on our lacrosse field.  And while Wade Willard has never much lacked for confidence, I would hope that his career at James Madison University will be boosted, in a strange but lovely way, by his successful “joke of the day” contest with Dave Rezelman.


We will see few, if any, of these young men and women at next year’s Homecoming.  It’s not that they become too cool for our school, it’s just that come next year they will have fewer friends from their Academy years to meet.  And, truth to tell, as college sophomores most will have other things to do on that October weekend.  Give them a few years, maybe on their fifth reunion year, when they are out of college and on to the next phase of their lives, that the tug to come home will feel a little stronger. In the meantime, we will miss you.  You know that we love hearing from you even if you don’t get here in person, so stay in touch as best you can, and not just by social media.  And to each member of the class of 2014, at the very least I’m counting on seeing all of you in 2019.  To quote another rock and roll legend, Jon Bon Jovi . . .

Who says you can’t come home?







On My Honor


The legendary J. B. Massey, Headmaster from 1950 to 1978, often referred to the Norfolk Academy Honor System as “the taproot of our school.”  It is what nourishes us and keeps us in place when things get tough, he would say.  And each year, it seems, the Honor System grows a little deeper and a little surer.  Let’s dig down around this root and try to understand what it’s really made of.

For starters, let’s lose the capital letters.  Yes, it’s a system, and yes, it deals with matters of honor and integrity.  But it is not a system like a complex biological or mechanical machine.  It does not have many moving parts.  Our honor system is more of a way of being than an arrangement for the production of some kind of desired result.  Sometimes I worry that the use of the word “system” gets in the way of furthering the goal of moral development of every student who attends here.  Defending the system and educating the child can sometimes be partially at odds with one another, and we must always remember that the child is our first priority.

13-103 Norfolk

            For example, there always come moments (primarily in the Middle School) when a youngster does the wrong thing and is discovered by his teacher or another adult member of the community.  Often at the Middle School level the child can benefit more completely by being immediately confronted and dealt with by a competent adult rather than taken to the honor council.  The disapproval from a beloved coach or a trusted teacher, what Robert Coles called “a moment of moral pause,” may well reach the affective domain of a student much better than a prolonged honor proceeding.  A little course correction, then and there, can sometimes steer the youngster more precisely than working through the system.

This is not to say that the system doesn’t work beautifully.  As permanent faculty advisor to the Royster Honor Council, I have sat in on and helped guide many honor proceedings.  The impact on the student having to face the Council is profound.  Interestingly enough, the impact on the Council members can be equally powerful.  Those moments tend to sear the memory if not the soul.  We hope that by conducting formal proceedings we change the life of each single student and reaffirm the central importance of the system to the rest of the student body.

Over the years I have heard several “knocks” on our honor system.  There are two concerns that are oft-repeated.  The first is that having open lockers is an invitation to petty theft.  At the other end of the spectrum, some worry that we mislead children about the dangers of the “real world.”  There is some merit to the first of these.

13-103 Norfolk

No one can deny that stuff goes missing from time to time, but in Royster, at least, “somebody took my calculator,’ almost inevitably changes to “I left my calculator in math class.”  That is, for every item that is stolen, there are 100 that are misplaced.  In fact, it happens once or twice every day that a student returns to the office a five-dollar bill or a calculator left out in the open. Moreover, the message sent by open lockers, both symbolic and substantive, is of immense value in and of itself.

And for both students and teachers that message is that we have agreed to trust each other.  We are willing to suffer the missing cookie every now and then in order to walk our halls feeling a part of something really big and really important. There are also obvious substantive benefits in terms of convenience and time-saving.  But those visiting our school for the first time are always startled, if not amazed, that the members of the school community have arrived at the point that they can trust each other so easily.  What a great place to be!

As to the second, I find no merit at all.  The fact that the world we have constructed here on Wesleyan Drive is more innocent than the world around it is, to my way of thinking, a very good thing.  By the time they are old enough to cogitate on such things, our students know the difference between our cherished and protected space here and the reality abroad.

13-103 Norfolk

Our students know to a person not to leave the keys in an unlocked car while parking at a Tides game.  Each of our students knows of corruption in business and in politics, and having been largely immune from it for twelve years simply makes them more resistant to the temptation when it comes.

None of us is perfect.  The most positive of role models around us has done things regretted later.  Even our kindest, gentlest citizens have uttered words they wished they could have back.  The same is true about our honor system. It is not perfect.  But, like those first citizens among us, the imperfections must not obscure the mighty good it can and does accomplish.  I feel unbelievably fortunate to be a part of a school that gives so much of itself to raise up kids to be strong enough to do the right thing.  For this alone, Norfolk Academy is a special place.

On my honor.

For the Love of the Game


A Bulldog Welcome to Matt Sigrist

Matt Sigrist formally began his tenure as Director of the Royster Middle School on July 1, 2014.  He had been with us several times before, first as candidate for the job, and then, after his hiring, for several important occasions, including Field Day.  So most Middle School teachers have had the opportunity to get to know him a little.  Now, dear reader, it’s your turn.

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 I will spare you the details of Matt’s journey to Norfolk – born here, married there, etc.  You can learn all that stuff from various school publications.  To know the man you need only hear one story.

It seems that many years ago Matt worked for the New York Yankees in their office of business development.  Matt had been a star athlete at Williams College, and he saw his future somewhere in the field of athletics.  One day he was squiring a young lad – middle school age, perhaps – through the clubhouse and dugout prior to a home game at Yankee Stadium.  The young man had won some lottery or contest to earn this privilege. In any event, Matt was enjoying letting the youngster rub shoulders with Yankee greats, in part, Matt will admit, because he enjoyed being around those famous ball-players.  As game time neared and the players, now fully in uniform, began to filter into the dugout where Matt and the young man were lingering, Matt tried to ease the boy out of the dugout and out of the way.  He knew that most big-leaguers are very possessive of their space once in the dugout.  But before the two visitors could extricate themselves, one player looked at Matt with disdain and told them both to “get the heck out of here!” (You might imagine that the gentleman in question used slightly more colorful language than I can repeat here.)

Matt says that he realized at that point that he enjoyed the kid’s company way more than the players’.  As much fun as he might have been having, Matt preferred the honesty and “authenticity,” a word he uses often, coming from the young man. His subsequent life of teaching and coaching at all educational levels has confirmed that decision.  A half-hour before game time, on one of sport’s biggest stages, Matt Sigrist had found his calling elsewhere. He has followed it with dedication and singleness of purpose ever since.  The game he truly loves takes place in the classroom and on the playing field, not in the Bronx.

Just the other day Matt compared learning about the values and mores of Norfolk Academy to prying the 3-D images out of those “Magic Eye” pictures that were so popular a decade ago.


That is an incredibly apt metaphor.  What’s on the surface in the Middle School is a jumbled blur that makes little sense.  It takes a little patience and a little concentration to see the reality behind the chaos.  Matt understands the process and is well on his way to seeing the real picture.  We are very lucky to have a new Director who knows that it takes some staring to see what matters.  My sense is that our picture is fast coming into focus for him.

On those rare occasions when I participate in interviewing candidates for teaching jobs here, I try to ascertain just one thing.  Does the candidate actually love working with kids?  There are many reasons to love what we do here, and different teachers will have different ways of demonstrating that passion for the job.  With Matt Sigrist, the answer to my unspoken question is a quick and obvious “yes.”  If you pay attention to him in action around here, you see an ease and an “authenticity” (there’s that word again) in his interactions with students that can only come from that place called “love.”  Students are already warming to him, and, truth be told, one or two may even have felt his disapproval by now.  But it’s the students who are most accurate in gauging whether Mr. Sigrist has their best interests at heart, and with each passing day he convinces them more and more completely that he cares for them and for this school.

And that, dear friends, is what really matters.

Every Picture Tells a Story


Dennis Manning concludes each year’s week of opening faculty meetings by reading Father Timothy Healy’s essay, “Magic in September.”  As veteran readers of these musings will remember, the piece ends with “It is good to begin again.”  I adore that as a final sentence, both for its content and for the passion with which the Headmaster says it . . . but that will not be the topic of the opening chronicle for the 2014 – 2015 school year.  Instead, for a title I turn to Rod Stewart, who penned those immortal words for the title track of his 1971 triple-platinum album.

It was something Dennis said that triggered this.  Immediately prior to reading the Healy essay, Dennis sought to remind each of us that every child we work with is an individual, a flesh-and-blood human being that deserves our closest attention.  A joy 1He referred to the class of 2014, and to how many individual stories were seated there on that graduation stage three months ago.  He asked us to consider what role each of us may have played in each story, and where those handsome and beautiful seniors, now alumni, might be had their lives not intersected with ours. Our responsibilities to those young people, he concluded, were important—even sacred.  Powerful stuff.

In delivering this message, Dennis used the word “story” more than a couple of times.  It occurred to me how simple and apt was his characterization of each student in those terms.  So when I printed out my class rosters with last year’s Yearbook picture next to each name, I began to ask myself, “What’s his story?” or “What’s her story?”  It further occurred to me that each of my students has been writing just the opening passages of what will, with luck and grace, be a very long and happy tale.  As Dennis pointed out, each of our students is, to use Lillian Hellman’s famous characterization, “unfinished.”  So I started looking into the eyes of the kids on those class roster pages, trying to imagine what story had led them into our eighth grade.  In their own way, other members of our faculty have been doing the same thing.

And then I began to consider what Norfolk Academy could do to help each student write the next chapter.  I remembered Charley Cumiskey’s loving but firm hand when I screwed up in his 6th-grade math class.  I remembered Bill Miller’s refusal to let me slack off as wrestling practice went from difficult to seemingly impossible.  A Joy 2I remembered Mr. Mac’s dragging me, kicking and screaming, on a descent deep into the inner recesses of a Shakespearean sonnet, and what revelations of language I discovered there.  I remembered Bill Harvie’s refusal to give credit for anything but the precisely correct answer in his calculus class because he knew that mathematics was, and is, a discipline as well as an intellectual activity.  I also remembered the joy of earning Mr. Cumiskey’s approval, my match-winning victory over Woodberry Forest’s formidable heavyweight, my fascination with Romeo and Juliet when my friends were mostly watching pro wrestling, and even my grudging acceptance that my answer to the calculus problem, while only off by one digit, was, simply enough, wrong.

These moments of confrontation were brief and part of an Academy story very much filled with happiness and friendship and respect and even love.  I do not wish to open the year by focusing on the difficult moments, but they flash in my imagination as I see those seventy children looking back at me from the class rosters.  They remind me that no story worth telling is without conflict.

It is up to each of us on this faculty, then, to help with the writing of success stories.  Even if I never quite saw things in precisely this way, I have watched my colleagues do that brilliantly for 28 years now. It is a task made easier by the considerable talents and enthusiasm brought to the table by our remarkable students.  But stories do not write themselves.  They are labors of love.  So get out your pencils or your keyboards, boys and girls.  We all have some serious writing to do.

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Welcome back to everybody.  I, for one, cannot wait to read the next chapter.

Build it three hundred cubits long…


Every great religion in the world has a flood story.  And while Norfolk Academy can in no way be compared to a religion, we now have our own flood story.  Fortunately, there was more than one Noah in our midst to save the day this time.

The forecast for Thursday, July 10, was fairly hum-drum.  “Hot, humid, chance of afternoon thunderstorms, some may be severe.”  If you have lived here for any length of time you know that this is a routine summer weather prediction.  Starting at about 2:30 that afternoon, however, Mother Nature visited upon us a series of “cells” that redefined “severe.”  I have lived in this part of the world for the better part of sixty years, and I can’t recall anything exactly like those storms.  My wife and I were shopping for produce down at Stoney’s on First Colonial Rd. As we got back in the car, the western half of the sky suddenly became terrifyingly black.  We made it as far as Hilltop before the rains started and had to pull off in a parking lot and wait until we could at least see the other side of the street through the rain and the dark. You could tell just how violent things were getting by watching the howling wind shift direction 90 degrees every two or three minutes.  A mile away, a group of buildings on the oceanfront was destroyed.  Although it has not been made official, everyone assumes there must have been a small tornado.  Even after the violence ended, driving rain and small hail continued unabated for about another two hours. My rain gauge at home indicated 2.3 inches.

Stop and think for a minute and you will realize that the deluge struck just as Summer Programs were ending.  Kids and parents made it off campus with considerable effort as the water here on Wesleyan Drive began to rise.  At one point, the storm drains became small hydraulics, shooting water back up and out rather than carrying it away. floodphoto1_1Before anyone could do anything to stop it, water began rushing into several buildings, most notably Batten Library and the May building.  At one point there were four inches of water in both of them, with varying amounts in other structures.  Anything on the floor of those buildings would be severely damaged by the inundation.

But, as you remember, Summer Programs had just ended, which meant that many of the counselors remained behind, riding the storm out. When the size of the potential disaster began to reveal itself, Stewart Howard, the members of the maintenance staff, and a group of NA students, most having graduated in June, bore down on the task of confronting the water as it poured in.  As the rain subsided around 4:30, a game plan was devised, emergency drying services were contacted, and those still here started pushing water out of the buildings with whatever implement could be devised.


They were all here until at least 10:00 pm.  At one point Stewart ordered pizza for everyone.  While welcome, it was just a break, not a celebration.  Some went back to their brooms and their mops. Others continued to get as much furniture and books and electronics off the soaked floors as possible.  Both Stewart and Tyler Emery tell me that the presence of the young alumni in their midst helped folks stay on task.  If these young alums are willing to stay here and do dirty, lousy work all this time, people thought, then it must be work worth doing.  When Stewart turned out the last light about midnight, the campus interiors were in better shape than anyone had any right to expect.

So why did D’Ante Spence, Shawn Simmons, and Austin Foster stick around and work so long and so hard? For one thing, they are each, simply enough, good guys.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I think those young people who stayed were protecting their investment.  By that I mean that each of them has spent years becoming emotionally invested in Norfolk Academy.  We like to think that the considerable tuition paid by parents is a sound investment in their children’s future, and it is.  But we should not forget that the equation runs both ways.  That is, when those students saw their school under attack and suffering real damage, they took it personally. Shawn Simmons (and the others) said to himself, “Wait a minute.  This is my school.”  He and his mates felt happily compelled to do whatever they could to help.  And they did a great deal.

This is not to demean the efforts of the employees who labored so hard into the night.  I hope we sing their praises enough during the ordinary course of days around here that no one would ever refer to them as “unsung.”  And that Thursday night was a prime example of their importance to this place.  But recently graduated seniors, working so hard and so long without ever being asked, add a new and important element to the episode.  Those folks are not employees or even just alumni.  They see themselves as part of an organic whole.  They belong to Norfolk Academy, and Norfolk Academy belongs to them.

Thanks, guys.  It may sometimes involve hard work, but it is still, and always will be, great to be a bulldog.