Running on Full

Share

Homecoming, 2014

 

_DSC6028

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.

_DSC6041

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.”

_DSC6025

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.

_DSC5991

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.

_DSC6072

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?

_DSC5992

 

 

 

 

 

On My Honor

Share

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

Share

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.

MS 5

 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.

3d

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

Share

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.

A Joy 3

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

Build it three hundred cubits long…

Share

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.

floodphoto2

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.

A Prayer For the Class of 2014

Share

A PRAYER FOR THE CLASS OF 2014

I make the following remarks, or something very much like them, to my senior Political Science students on the last day of class each year.  It seemed appropriate to include all the seniors and their families this year.

I will not see 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.

DSC_7629

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 26 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.

DSC_7753

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.

DSC_7534

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 tomorrow, you must know this.

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 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 “worms on a hot sidewalk” (first graders) to the accomplished and confident seniors we see before us.

DSC_7344

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.  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 have had the privilege of teaching you twice.  I have had the unique opportunity to work with you as awkward adolescents once and as fully-formed adults four years later. To be part of your maturing is incredibly gratifying.  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.

DSC_8203

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 in your hand.  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.

DSC_7499

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.

The Real “We”

Share

(for Gary Laws)

The long-anticipated, much regretted time to say goodbye to Gary Laws is upon us.  Let us not sugar-coat it, for while Gary is not leaving town, he is not returning to Wesleyan Drive anytime soon, either.  He has said on several occasions that he will follow the example of J. B. Massey and avoid all contact with Norfolk Academy for the foreseeable future.  He believes he owes that to himself as well as to Matt Sigrist, our new Royster Head.  Sadly, we must agree that a clean departure is best for all of us, at least in the short run.

DSC_4630

So how do we say “thank you” to this man who has been here for 44 years, 30 of them as head of the Middle School?  How do we acknowledge all the hours, all the support, all the dedication, and all the love?  I’m sure there will be parting gifts and many testimonials, but neither gold watches nor spoken words can suffice when there is so much to be grateful for.  So what do we do?

I think the answer is provided by a correct definition of  “we.”

Of all of those here who have spent our time with Coach Laws, I feel I am in a unique position to define “we.”  I have known and loved him for many years in many capacities – golfing buddy, teacher, coach, director of the Upper School, and parent of three middle-school children.  It is the last of these that is most important and needs the clearest exposition.  If there is anything that deserves this institution’s thanks, it is Gary Laws’ collective impact on our students.  He has inspired them, guided them, cajoled them, hollered at them, laughed with them, and cried with them.  It is no exaggeration to say that he has figuratively, if not literally, saved the life of many a student who hit that formidable bump in life’s road that is young adolescence.  You have to have been in the room to understand what an impact he has had on so many, many people.

DSC_0966

I have never seen, nor will I ever see, a man with such exquisite touch with young people.  I have seen him lance a student’s self-delusion like a boil, and I have watched as the student hated the pain of it but slowly appreciated the beginning of healing.  I have watched as Gary slowly, quietly, but unrelentingly made a student understand that he has been fooling himself and has perhaps not been completely truthful with those around him.  I have seen and felt the tears from those boys and girls, and watched them grope towards the realization that maybe this time a corner has been turned and life can start to be better.

I have seen him act as if he were furious with a child, grabbing him metaphorically around the shoulders and shaking him until the kid woke up to the reality of his error.  Those times in which Gary was legitimately angry, I have watched him take his time until the rush of the moment passed, so that the subsequent blast of rebuke was measured and on-target, always about the student and not about Gary’s own anger.

I have seen him use “reverse English” with a beautiful sense of irony.  There came a time when the ninth grade went to Johnson Theater to watch a performance of classical ballet. The principal male dancer appeared in incredibly tight, perfectly white tights.  To make matters worse, he was wearing what Elbert Watson told me is called a “dance belt.”  For this particular gentleman, the belt had a lot of territory to cover, if you catch my drift.  And when he came all the way downstage and struck a pose, it was just too much for several ninth-grade boys sitting in the front row to bear, and they burst into uncontrollable giggles.  You might imagine that a very annoyed Trish Hopkins asked the young men to leave and wait for Mr. Laws in his office.  Minutes later Gary arrived, and before he could begin his tirade one of the ninth grade boys said, “Mr. Laws, this is your fault. You didn’t prepare us.”  Laws joined the young men in giggling and told them to get out.

You see, he understood that they already knew exactly the right and wrong of the situation.  He could save the tirade for another day.  Moment concluded.  Point made.  And respect deepened.

Laws 1And when things cannot be so light-hearted, Mr. Laws has always been prepared to do the heavy lifting.  I don’t think anybody knows how many kids to whom he has given a ride home for days at a time just to help them with problems too personal to discuss in public, even with the office door closed.  On many occasions he has gone to students’ homes to talk truth and perhaps confront demons.  And on those rare occasions when a parent has disagreed with something he did, he has always continued to do what he thought was best for the child. Among other things, that’s because he has been right 99.4% of the time.  I once observed to him in passing that “you can’t win ‘em all” when it comes to turning a kid around.  I watched the passion flare up in his eyes and heard him say, icily, “but you can never stop trying.”

One additional story sums it up.  Many years ago an alumna confided in me that the turning point in her life came when she found herself as a ninth-grader once again in Mr. Laws’ office due to some transgression.  This student had been there many times before, occasionally for misdeeds of real magnitude.  It seems that on her previous trip she had promised Mr. Laws and herself that she would never again do anything that required another appearance in the principal’s office. But now she found herself there again, awaiting his arrival.  She told me that when he came through the door she burst into tears, out of shame and exasperation with herself, but mostly because she felt she had let down this wonderful man who so obviously cared for her.  She couldn’t bear the notion that he would think that she had lied to him the last time she was sent to him.

Well, Mr. Laws evidently sat down, rolled his chair up very close to her, and almost whispered the following: “You don’t need to cry.  There are a whole lot of people – leaders of the community, in fact – who spent a great deal more time in that chair than you have.  Trust me, you’ll be okay.”  The young woman told me that at that precise moment she believed for the first time that he might be right – that she could and would turn out okay.  If I were at liberty to disclose it, I would prove to you just how right he was and how beautifully her life has fulfilled his prediction. Gary Laws knew the precisely right thing to say at precisely the right time. If he didn’t save a life then and there, well, he came pretty close.

Norfolk Academy, Friday, September 7, 2012.

When Gary sits down in his office chair, some forty 2” x 3” yearbook pictures of seniors, tacked to the pegboard on the wall opposite, look back at him.  They represent but a tiny fraction of those who want him to know how much he meant to them.  It’s just that these forty have figured out that by giving him their portraits they can thank him with their eyes every day.  So Gary’s ultimate and most enduring legacy is seen in the lives of hundreds, nay thousands, of human beings who can attribute at least a part of their successful growth from child to adult to his care, his judgment, and his dedication.

The Luter family understands this.  In fact, Joe and Frances Luter announced last week that in Gary’s name they have created a scholarship fund.  That significant act expresses the depth of their gratitude.  I would like for each of “us” to express the depth of our appreciation by sending a note to Alumni Associate Karen Del Vecchio (kdelvecchio@norfolkacademy.org), who is collecting all of our thank-you’s and creating a keepsake book for Gary.  Let’s overwhelm him with memory after memory of the difference he has made in our lives.  Let’s submerse him in our gratitude.  Let’s create a body of tribute for him somehow equal to the good he has done for us.  He deserves no less, and nothing would move him more.  Let us say, with one heart –

We love you, Mr. Laws.

 

Promises, Promises

Share

If you were not out here last Wednesday afternoon, you should have been. First, it was a glorious spring day, still a little cool but with the sunshine and the clear skies we have all been longing for. The grass, where it has not been damaged by muddy practices, has turned that rich shade of green we all love. With the cherry trees blossoming and the great oaks budding out, you could not have asked for a better day.

More importantly, the playing fields and courts were teeming (and teaming!!!) with young people. There were contests in varsity baseball, girls’ soccer, and both boys’ and girls’ lacrosse. The lower level teams that were not away at contests of their own were crammed in together to be able to practice. So JV soccer was on the football field, JV baseball was down in the corner where JV softball meets, etc., etc. I bet there were 600 folks running around, and that’s not counting spectators.

20140425_155655

From a management point of view, the campus was perfect. As in, perfect. There were seven or eight fellows directing traffic. The right people were parking in the right places. The baseball field looked really beautiful. Bleachers had been placed in the proper positions. Scoreboards were all working with no bulbs missing. Each practice and each game had the requisite water bottles and safety equipment, with the trainers at the ready on golf carts. All this on 47 acres of potential confusion. Had it been an automobile going down the road, one would not even have heard a soft purring from under the hood.

20140425_155613

That doesn’t happen by accident. From the athletics side of the equation, Athletic Director Aubrey Shinofield has made the complicated seem simple. She has somehow brought real efficiency and precision to an extraordinarily complex operation without fanfare or dramatics. She has joined affability with organization, and it shows in the operation of things. And from the buildings and grounds side, Stewart Howard and his team have brought these fields and buildings into their best possible condition, despite the stresses of a horrid winter. Add the true beauty of a spring day and Norfolk Academy really looked great in all its finery.

1403214233

But that’s not what I came here to talk about. The 600 athletes seemed “right” in all their efforts. Of course Bernie McMahon was barking at a couple of his runners for complaining about being tired, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Of course Chris Dotolo was being his colorful and vocal self, but that’s the way baseball coaches are supposed to be. Everywhere I looked the interaction between coach and athlete was just what you would want. Take B. Gray Randolph, for instance. He has been suffering from a sore heel, and hesitated as Coach McMahon counted down for the next sprint. He did not ask out loud to be given a rest, but he was favoring one leg. I watched as Bernie sized up the kid and the situation and said, “Okay, take a break this time around.” Then I watched as the ten other runners were told to get ready, and there was not a hint of protest from any of them that young Mr. Randolph was being let off this hook. As exhausted as they were, these young men trusted their teammate, trusted their coach, took a breath and took off. There’s so much right with that exchange that it’s hard to express.

20140425_155308

At its most fundamental, the beauty of that afternoon was really the result of hundreds of physically impressive and energetic young people weaving themselves into a giant tapestry of promise. As I gazed around, I realized that I was viewing hundreds and hundreds of individual promises. This young man, after a comparatively wild ride through college, promises to be an architect and contribute immeasurably to his community, both through his work and through his philanthropy. That young woman promises to become a pediatrician, helping our next generation of students to good health, and maybe even saving a life or two in the process. That guy over there promises to become a jazz musician, living in New Orleans, creating his own label and happily finding his musical way to the considerable pleasure of his audience. And that seventh-grade girl doing soccer drills? She promises to become a crusader for public inoculation in impoverished parts of Central America. She might make a difference in thousands of lives before she’s done.

13-103 Norfolk

Sadly, not all 600 promises will be kept. But on that spring afternoon I could not help but delight in the notion that Norfolk Academy is playing a role helping each one of these precious human beings determine which promise to make. We might even dare to hope that we help each student fulfill that promise. If you can’t feel good about that, then you are in the wrong business.

The long-running Broadway musical Promises, Promises was the first musical theater success for Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Based on Neil Simon’s hilarious if sometimes dark comedy “The Apartment,” the show concluded with the rousing title song in tribute to the power of the right kind of promise. It became a hit in its own right for Dionne Warwick. The last lyric captures exactly what I was feeling that afternoon. “Promises, promises. Those kinds of promises can bring you hope and joy and love. Yes. love!!”

And I do love this place.

A Teacher Looks at Sixty

Share

(with due regards to Jimmy Buffett)

The long-awaited baby shower for my daughter and her child due this June finally took place last Saturday in Washington, D.C. The gathering was orchestrated by the twin sister (and prospective aunt), and by all accounts went swimmingly. Being male, I was not part of the actual festivities, but performed a few subsidiary tasks such as giving rides and hauling treasures.

The next morning, the five of us – me, my wife, the twins, and the youngest – sat awkwardly in the small hotel lobby preparing to say goodbye to one another. The wife and I were headed back to Norfolk, one daughter to Baltimore, one to New Orleans, and the last to Seattle. Somewhere along the way one of the daughters had observed that this might be the last time for a very long while that just the five of us would be together without aunts, grandparents, sons-in-law, and especially a baby. When that thought flashed into my mind, the tears started their journey into the corners of my eyes.

Suddenly, and without warning, I felt very old. The rush of so many memories, most but not all pleasant, was more than I could bear. Thirty-eight years of marriage and 31 years of parenthood is a lot to manage. Triumphs, losses, exhilaration, panic, sickness, health, births, and deaths can really occupy your consciousness. And at that moment the breadth of it all became absolutely real.

For more than a few hours I could not escape the feeling that my life is now essentially about the past. I hear myself talk about it incessantly. I even teach it – history, that is. Generally speaking, I have a ton of pleasant material to draw on. There’s the body on the elevator, Monet’s ghost, free-fall Frawley, Master’s drug store, the sister filling the beer can with sand, Gary Laws telling me “I love you, Dad” as his pain medication took effect, my mother’s not taking chemistry in college, the robot bear hollering at my grandmother in the night, and on and on. I know you have no idea what any of this is about, but trust me, a lot of it is spectacular. The unpleasant doesn’t get repeated as often, but it’s also very much a part of the deal. Add the image of my three little girls, now fully-grown but still with so much left ahead of them, and the impression is that all that is left to me is what is behind.

Monday morning found me with a study hall, still tired and sad. And then it was A bell, and 18 eighth-graders came in eager to present their projects on Greek notions of beauty. Some of them were better than others (which is to say, one or two weren’t very good), but the combined effect was to lift me. Six or seven hours in Wonderland, a.k.a. the Middle School, had me back on my feet and thinking about tomorrow. These kids are hardly perfect. Many have real difficulties in their lives, and not all are completely happy with the way things are. But their joining in this enterprise we call school weaves a culture based happily and entirely on the future. That was, and is, a heady tonic for me right now.

So I guess I have two points to leave you with, neither particularly original. The first is to mark each day as an opportunity. We are no longer cavemen struggling for survival or even medieval serfs toiling through a bleak and rugged life. We are the beneficiaries of creature comforts and technologies that allow us to live full if sometimes complicated lives. This is not to say that we do not work hard, but there are pleasures to be had in a child’s smile, a piano recital, a high five, and even a graduation diploma that should not be missed. To find a mental filing cabinet big enough to preserve all those experiences is absolutely crucial, and to fill it daily with experiences that will become memories is what we should all be about.

And second, there’s a baby on the way. Nothing cries the future more loudly or insistently. Having a baby takes hard work, but the work opens up so many wonderful possibilities. So get off your backside, Savage, and get another filing cabinet, because there’s very much more coming that will need the space.

Once, when Gary Laws started sporting a beard at age 61, someone asked him if he was having a mid-life crisis. He did the math in his head and said, “Oh, I hope so.”

I’m 60, and I hope so, too.

Royster Through the Looking Glass

Share

Anyone who has had contact with the Middle School knows what a bizarre place it is.  Young girls and boys, striving chrysalis-wise to become women and men, tend to go through some startling changes in the process.  After years of trying to decide what the whole Royster “thing” reminded me of, it hit me.

Wonderland.  Once Lewis Carroll’s Alice is down the rabbit hole everything previously predictable becomes nonsense.  All the certainties we have come to rely upon dissolve randomly.  Like the readers of Lewis Carroll’s classics, middle school parents cling to the vague hope that their Alice (or Alex, to be fair) will at some point return to a world in which water flows downhill and caterpillars don’t talk.  But like those readers, watching Alice make the Wonderland tour fills them with confusion, frustration, occasional concern, and also “wonder.”  It’s not called “Wonderland” for nothing!

The similarity is not coincidental.  Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, conceived of the Alice stories while watching after Alice Liddell, the daughter of a fellow don at Oxford University.  She would have been in an American 6th grade at the time.  He told her of Alice’s encounters with the bizarre as a way to ease her worries about growing up.  All truly great children’s literature, from Aesop’s Fables to Where the Wild Things Are, serves the purpose of alleviating childhood fears, in part by indulging and exploring them.  And so Carroll, in his own inimitable way, made Alice’s future seem to her not frightening; but neither did he foretell that the future would be easy or even make sense in the short run.  In other words, he was trying to put a humorous face on what we would call Middle School while not denying that the trip would grow “curiouser and curiouser.”

Consider, as proof of the connection between Royster and Wonderland, the following parallels.

Mad-Hatters-Party-[Converted]

 

Lunch and the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  In both cases, no one ever sits down for long and no one stays on one conversational topic for more than two sentences.  About the only difference is that in the refectory no one, not even the Mad Hatter himself, thinks that putting mustard in the chicken pot pie is at all silly.

 

Alice-[Converted]

 

 

Growth spurts.  Just like Alice with the cookie, Middle Schoolers, particularly boys, have been observed to grow 9 inches in a day.  Unfortunately, we have no potion to make them shrink back to original size.

 

 

 

 

Caucus Race

 

 

The Caucus Race and Royster hallways at break.  I swear I heard some eighth-grader singing “Forward, backward, inward, outward, come and join the chase!”  Nothing could be finer than a jolly Royster race.

 

 

 

Cheshire-Cat-[Converted]

 

The Cheshire Cat.  Has to be Gary Laws, with that knowing grin, sometimes visible, sometimes not, but always knowing everything and always a step ahead of the kids.

 

 

The beauty of all of this is that Alice does grow up.  She survives this topsy-turvy place and returns back to the river bank a little shaken but with much more appreciation for the predictability (and the demands) of life.  Perhaps it is stretching the metaphor, but soon our Alices and Alexes will be hitting the upper school, much less college.  In a strange way, I think, a tour of a world in which nothing makes any sense may best prepare them for worlds that may be a lot more serious, but sometimes make little sense themselves, even to adults.

Mr. Laws tells all parents of entering seventh-graders two things. First, that the Middle School will be like the opening paragraph of “A Tale of Two Cities” – you know, the best of times, the worst of times, etc.  That is probably a better way to define our middle school, except for the fact that Dickens did not allow for utter randomness. But Mr. Laws also tells them to go home and take a picture of their child, hide it for three years, and then pull it out as the young man or woman departs the ninth grade. The kid in the photo will bear scarce resemblance to the individual standing before them, now so much more grown up.

White-Rabbit-[Converted]

And that is as it should be.  For their first six years here, our guys and girls learn the basics and get themselves into some working order.  In their last three, they do the serious work of preparing for adulthood.  Middle School is there to conclude the former and begin the latter.  But it is also a time where one can indulge in pure, unabashed nonsense.

 Have to run now. I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.