The Snow Day Dilemma

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Thursday, January 30, 2014 – 3:00 p.m.

Ah, snow days.  We’ve had quite a few, haven’t we?

At the height of the school reform movement in the 1980’s, John Goodlad’s book A Place Called School was considered the definitive tome.  Goodlad described schools as having many “constituencies” such as students, parents, faculty, and alumni.  The trick, he wrote, is to identify those things each constituency wants out of school and to get everyone on the same page, as it were. He warned that different constituencies might want different and often conflicting things.  That is never more true than with the decision of whether or not to close school for weather. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that different folks start wanting different things depending on how many days have been missed.

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On snow day one, some welcome the interruption, while others do not.  I must confess to waiting with eager anticipation for the Academy’s name to appear on the list of closings crossing the bottom of my television screen.  At age 60, I become a fifth grader for a few seconds, hollering “Yes!” and making the touchdown sign with my arms.  And if I regress, you can imagine what happens to the children.  Well, most of us don’t have to imagine—we get to observe it for ourselves.  This Tuesday, as the storm approached, the seniors worked themselves into a climatological frenzy, hand-helds dueling with conflicting apps, and squeals of glee from the appearance of the snowflake on the Accuweather page (overcoming moans of disappointment  from the absence of any such sign on the Weather Channel).  Shakira might have paraded by the senior lounge and none of the boys would have noticed.

Parents, I suspect, are a mixed bag on day one.  Most will be off to work despite the weather, although this last one shut down just about every operation around, public and private.  But still, there is joy to be had in the decidedly lop-sided snowman, in the muddy pools of melted snow from the gloves and shoes tossed just inside the back door, and in the laughter of little ones playing with their friends from across the street. Of course, adolescents present a different set of parental pleasures, mainly in the increased opportunity for an actual conversation between parent and the fourteen-year-old. (“What did you do in school today?” “Stuff.” “How was practice?” “Okay.”)  The maintenance staff, on the other hand, would prefer that the snow stay away. Getting this campus dug out and ready for kids is no small undertaking.  Coaches go crazy with frustration at missed practice after missed practice with the big game looming.  And those preparing the play are beside themselves contemplating the cold, dark theater, the forgotten lines, and the lost precision of movement from the dancers. And so opinions vary wildly on the possibility of no school that day.

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Photo by Caroline Monninger 2014

By day four, however, there is little, if any, dilemma.  Although none of them might admit it, even the students want to get back.  I desperately need to get back into the rhythm of the school day.  Things have been so higgledy-piggledy that I am losing touch with my kids, and they are losing touch with my course.  This beautiful, organic thing we call school doesn’t abide many interruptions well.  It is so rooted in the relationships we form that it withers quickly without the consistent opportunity to enjoy them.  The kids will tell you that with social media they are never really apart.  I suppose there is something to that although I still cling to the belief that there is far greater value in being in the same room, on the same court, and on the same stage.  Digital connections make it easier to be with friends, but they don’t build friendships.  Woody Poole and I got to texting back and forth yesterday, and while he can always make me laugh, it’s not the same.  So I am ready and eager to get back to this vocation I love so dearly. And still . . .

Tonight I ‘ll be watching the TV and the school website and part of me – perhaps that fifth-grader part – will for some reason, despite the boredom and the cabin fever, be rooting for another “closed” notice.

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Maybe not a touchdown this time.  Maybe just count the bucket and call the foul.

Hemingway, not Faulkner

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There came a moment in my Political Science class the other day that caused me to stop and consider. It was one of those times when, in the words of my hero Ray Kinsella (from the film Field of Dreams), all of the cosmic tumblers click into place and the universe opens itself up. I’ve been ruminating about it ever since, and I think I have figured out what actually happened.

My guys were working on the annual Constitution Research Project, which is something of a bear and actually involves the use of higher-order thinking skills if you approach it correctly. As happens every year, I watched one young woman searching in Article I, which is exclusively about Congress, for an answer to a question about Presidential power. I chose the moment to address the class, trying to make the point that the U. S. Constitution is very carefully formed and organized in a quite linear fashion; therefore, if one is searching for stuff about the Chief Executive one can be absolutely certain that the answer won’t be in the part about the Legislature. A metaphor popped into my head and I heard myself say, “The Constitution is Hemingway, not Faulkner.”

To quote Stephen Crane, now this is the strange part. All nineteen students, every one of them, looked at me with no particular change of expression and collectively said, “Got it.” I detected no change in body language, no unspoken communication of either “What a Nerd!” or “Puh-lease!” Neither did any of them look perplexed or confused. I actually think they all had some idea of what I was driving at, and found my metaphoric way of expressing it unremarkable.

This is nuts. These are otherwise normal young adults who engage in all the trials and tribulations of their station in life. Daily they do great things for their school and their families, and almost daily they can make mistakes that will seem ridiculous years later. They form friendships and romances and rivalries; they console each other and make each other miserable. But at Norfolk Academy, they also react to metaphoric references to two 20th-century American novelists, in a political science class no less, with a straight face. How did they, and we, get that way?

I think there are three separate things going on here. The first is that by the time these students get to senior year they have been exposed to some pretty powerful and unique minds among our faculty. They have dealt with legitimate doctoral degree holders (eight by my count), members of NCAA Division I championship athletic teams (a similar number), men who have faced death on the battlefield, published authors, those who have coached football in Serbia and taught literature in Thessaloniki. Their Headmaster can recite at length (and even understand!) W. B. Yeats. In short, my dropping a Faulkner reference on them is nothing special.

Secondly, somewhere along the way our students get beyond thinking that “learning” is a dirty word. They love to rank each other in terms of “smart.” While I would quibble with the use of that particular word, the truth is that each of our students is surrounded by peers at least as intellectually powerful as the teachers standing in front of them. To them, “smart” matters a lot, and is something much to be sought after. There is a competitive aspect to this that sometimes troubles me, but I suppose given the college admissions frenzy it is unavoidable. I wrote a year ago about how lucky we as a faculty are to have such a talented and motivated student body. I reiterate that here.

Finally, and this is different from “smart,” our students, particularly those who have reached their senior year, might justly be called “educated.” I know—there are so many life lessons that are as yet un-learned for them, but that learning will come with time. No, I mean that most, if not all, of the kids in my class actually have a decent appreciation for the writing styles of Hemingway and Faulkner, and can apply them to an evaluation of the Constitution. And I stand there, slack-jawed (thank you, Connells) at what they know and what they can do with that knowledge.

Mr. Manning continually talks about our remaining true to the idea of a liberal arts education in a world gone mad about testing and “standards.” I’m sure there are those who find this notion a bit quaint, if not irrelevant. I’m with the Head on this one. Our graduates will almost certainly be successes in the financial sense, and will certainly occupy positions of responsibility in the communities they inhabit. Through programs like the Center for Global and Civic Leadership we are bending heaven and earth to help this happen. But I want our graduates, above all, to have the background and the tools to appreciate art and music and poetry. I want them to understand why Hemingway would write a novella about nothing more than an old man desperately fighting to catch a fish. At the same time I want them to be able to understand why Vardaman equates his mother’s death to cleaning a fish, even if the words describing that are disjointed and almost impenetrable.

In short, I hope that we follow Mr. Manning’s exhortation. It may well be that Yeats is of no immediate practical use to an architect or a doctor, but life can be so much more than practice. There is so much beauty out there, and you need to know a few things to truly appreciate it. It takes an ample mind to feed a loving heart.

In that vein, I remember a moment long ago when I attempted to console a student who was growing increasingly frustrated by the difficulty of the academics here. I told her that her head was plenty smart, smarter than she gave herself credit for. But I also told her that she should know that her heart was even smarter than her head. I had said nothing but the truth.

It’s the biggest compliment I ever paid a student.

Holiday Wishlist

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Snow at Norfolk Academy, Monday, December 13, 2010.

Last year at this time I said my “thank you’s” for the many gifts bestowed on me by the Academy community in the preceding year.  I am still grateful for the many blessings I have received.  But I thought this year I would turn it around, and instead of reviewing the past, look to the future.  The song says, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.”  My list of hopes is a little broader.

I wish Jay Rainey all the success in the world as the new Headmaster of the Randolph School in Huntsville, Alabama.  Their gain is truly our loss.  We will miss you, Jay.

I wish that each senior find the best fit as a destination for the next four years.  The phenomenal retention rate among our graduates (93% of whom graduate in four years from the college in which they matriculated) is indeed conclusive evidence as to the success of our college counseling program.  In an era in which the secondary school world has all but lost its mind over the application process, Academy seniors, while not immune from the stress, tend to land in the right place in overwhelming numbers.  For this year’s seniors I wish (and believe) that this will once again hold true.

I wish Steve Monninger continued success with the football program.  It is true that other team sports now contend with football for most popular, but I am old and grey enough to believe that there is something different and important about how the football team does, and I am not necessarily talking about wins and losses.  Perhaps because it’s the fall, or perhaps because there is an element of physical contact, but how our guys compete and tough it out says a lot about the school year and the students themselves.

I wish Jeff Martin continued growth and success in the business office.  Succeeding Sandy Kal is no mean feat, and Jeff’s taking over has been seamless.  Sometimes I wonder if many of our faculty realize how lucky we are to have such a supportive board of trustees, but all of that support matters little if the folks in May can’t deliver.  We have come to rely on their professionalism, and that reliance has always been rewarded.

I wish for Charlotte and Ari Zito, and Maria and Preston Moore, happy, healthy babies. Particularly, I wish the Moores the beginning of a long and joyful family life.  Nothing like it in the world, guys, nothing like it in the world.  I know there are other members of our extended family expecting, and I extend these wishes to them as well.  But I see Charlotte and Maria, each great with child, daily in my building and in my halls.  You two are also in my prayers.

I wish Ron Newman, Caroline Bisi, Dean Englert, and Elbert Watson (and all those others who help them) a wonderful “Bye, Bye, Birdie.”  This wish may border on unnecessary, for you have proven your mettle every year since I can’t remember when.  And you have the best actors, the best crew, and the best theater to work with.  This may not be needed, but break a leg, people.

Finally, I wish for every Bulldog reading this (and those Bulldogs who aren’t) a meaningful and restful holiday season.  With each year I grow more sentimental about family and reunion and renewal. And the prospect of a new year is an invitation to growth, fulfillment, and even joy. May you dance and sing and celebrate.  May you also take time to tell your friends and family how much you love them.  Finally, may you also take a little time to contemplate the Almighty.  It’s all part of the same package.

Talk to you next year.

Remembering to Smile

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The following was first posted two years ago in advent of that year’s D. A. Taylor tournament. This year it will begin on Thursday, December 5 and conclude that Saturday the 7th. 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.

Outside the Box

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What follows is hardly new and certainly not unique to Norfolk Academy, but a concatenation of events in the last several days brought the subject into focus.

For many decades now, education researchers and writers have debated the merits of organizing curriculum around traditional subject matter.  Those who disapprove of this approach call it the “shopping mall” method.  They see school buildings arranged exactly like malls – you get your ancient history in this “store” (Room 239), your math down the hall in Room 250, and so on.

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There are two chief criticisms of this way of teaching.  First, we worry that kids won’t make connections between language and history, between art and science, between math and literature, when all of those subjects are in fact interconnected.  Second, we fear that by chopping up a school day into stated periods of time and stated locations, things very much more important than any individual subject may get missed entirely.  In his landmark 1995 book The Basic School Ernest L. Boyer argued that a really good place of learning would organize itself around “essential questions” and plug math, science, and all the rest into answering those questions when appropriate.

All of this makes some theoretical sense but is a practical impossibility.  The amount of teacher retraining required would be enormous, and students might well be put at a competitive disadvantage in the college admissions process.  Still, there is distinct merit in blurring curricular department lines.  (As a matter of fact, this method of teaching was adopted completely by new Headmaster Robert Gatewood upon the school’s reopening after the Civil War, and the practice continued for some 30 years.)

DSC_2514Every now and then we completely eradicate curricular lines and do something as a division such as a seminar day. Better yet, last year science, Latin, and history teachers created “catapalooza” day, when the entire eighth grade spent a day learning about and then building their own devices for siege warfare. But these complete immersions are few and far between.

And so we faculty try our hardest to cut through the lines of separation whenever possible.  This takes the form mainly of what I call “guest hosting.”  For example:

–          Leslie Hennessy shows 7th grade English students how artists have depicted figures from Greek mythology over the ages

–          Claudia Troutman helps Mr. Oberdorfer’s MEH students learn to sing the Marseillaise

–          Elbert Watson shows science students how to be molecules and dance the three states of matter

–          Jay Rainey spends a day or two with Political Science students exploring the cruel arithmetic of the national debt

–          Tom Duquette visits ancient history classes and shows the advantages and disadvantages of counting in base 60 as the Babylonians did

–          Ms. Zito and Dr. Naujoks “team teach” the relationship between literature and events in the era of the First World War

–          Most remarkably of all, Shradhha Vachhani, now in her senior year, visits Mr. Laws’ history class to convey the essentials of Hindu culture in a more direct way than any textbook or power point presentation ever could

In these ways and in many others we try to persuade students that learning does not come from “boxes.”  We hope they will see what they are learning as a part of the whole.

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In the long run, however, there is a greater benefit reaped by our students.  The mere sight of happy collaboration, including even collaboration between teacher and former student, communicates a message far more fundamental and permanent than, say, the difference between solid and liquid.  To watch Sean Wetmore be comfortable with and even excited about yielding his classroom to another teacher like Jay Rainey reveals much about the respect those two gentlemen have for one another.  When Tom Duquette takes the floor in my room, students can feel the obvious delight we both have in his being there.  And for a while, to quote Michael Corleone, what’s going on “isn’t business, it’s personal.”  So when elements of regard and  friendship are injected into the process, education itself becomes personal.

I have gone on and on in these chronicles about the relationships teachers and students build here.  “Guest hosting” is just one more way in which we invite students into understanding that learning is more about human beings than names and places and math and grammar.

I have to run – the 4th graders are boarding the busses for my annual history tour of downtown Norfolk.

This stuff is real.

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The More Things Change

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For the first time in a very long while, the Upper and Middle Schools have gone to a new daily class schedule.  Gone are the days of fixed bells vs. rotators, tutor bell after lunch, and Friday early dismissal.  For the large majority of days Upper School classes are conducted in a block format, that is, for 90 minutes each.  The two divisions have switched lunch times, and on most days the morning breaks do not coincide.  Classes begin and end on :00 or :05, and life for a student is generally simpler and more predictable.  Some of these changes have been a long time coming.

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These kinds of changes are hardly easy.  Take it from someone who constructed the master bell schedule for about 10 years.  Figuring out what to put where and when takes the intelligence of Einstein and the patience of a saint.  The bell schedule is a complex series of dominos, and as each one falls, ten others may tumble in often unforeseen directions.  Put it this way – no one has successfully developed software for helping schools like ours create schedules.  Each school is too small and tries to satisfy too many disparate demands to enable one approach to serve all.  It is difficult to convey to those who have not chased the schedule dragon through the wilderness how devious and clever an enemy he can be.

And so Linda Gorsline (Director of the Upper School) and her committee on designing a new schedule, and all those who worked with them, deserve enormous praise for taking on the dragon.  Day after day, draft after draft, several steps forward and then perhaps a rueful step back, they have produced our new way of attacking each day.  It may be that a few things need tweaking here or there, but the truth is that we needed to change, if only for change’s sake, and that as a school we will be reaping many benefits as we go forward.

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The other truth is this: as we go through this transition the heart and soul of this place remains totally untouched and unaffected.  The seniors once again met their first grade buddies and enjoyed a rowdy play date.  Katherine Holmes and Tom Duquette faced off in a Jazzy™ race to the delight of students and in complete good humor.

The crafty veteran led all the way.

And every day, over and over again, students and teachers come together so that young men and women may develop as scholars, fuel their curiosities, and grow into the adults that will lead this community and others like it forward.  Twenty years from now, when one of our present seniors is sitting in a meeting of, say, the EVMS Board of Directors trying to improve health care in our region, no one will care that in 2013 Norfolk Academy did away with fixed bells.

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The other day I asked my Political Science classes about options for the United States in dealing with Syria.  The content of their responses matters not here.  What does matter is that the overwhelming majority of them cared.  We spent more than a few minutes on lessons, learned or unlearned, from American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We talked about whether America still needs to be, or even can be, the world’s policeman.  We talked about the intersection of morality and practicality in foreign policy.  I sat there, trying not to convey my delight at their participation – it’s too early in the year.  Down the hall, another group was learning their Spanish or prying apart a Wordsworth poem.  One building away, violins were being bowed and dance steps were being learned.  Out on the field that day a group of young men displayed substantial character in coming from behind to beat Trinity Episcopal in a hard-fought football game.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Once again today I will get to wander into Room 504 and try to engage a group of young people in the process of becoming better students and better citizens. Where I can, I will challenge them, argue with them, and if I’m lucky, provoke them.

And this time around I’ll have 90 minutes to do it.

Beginning Again . . . Again

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           For the last couple of weeks your humble chronicler has been suffering a major case of minor-league writer’s block.  Perhaps because the campus was uncharacteristically quiet or the fact that the annual August Savage family sojourn occurred in June, there was not a whiff of inspiration to be found.  Even after faculty meetings began on Monday, things had a certain sameness that was almost alarming.

           DSC_9031 And then 130 seniors arrived around noon for their annual “welcome back” luncheon with faculty.  For twenty minutes or so they sat down front in Johnson Theater while Dennis Manning officially said hello and then charged them with fulfilling the various obligations of seniorhood, some of them foreseen by the students and others perhaps not.  I watched from the back of the room as they were drawn in by his words.  In chronologic and rapid-fire style he recited the various rites of passage they would experience in the next nine months.  It really is quite a list when you hear it expressed that way.

            It was the last two events, Vespers and graduation, that brought them to fullest attention.  For the first time those words held deep personal meaning for them.  Many have experienced the ceremony with older siblings, and surely all of them have talked about what they will do “after I graduate.”  But prior to that moment the concept of graduation hadDSC_9050 always been theoretical and abstract.  Now to them it is absolutely real.  It’s almost like a Hitchcock movie in reverse, where the hero inevitably starts in a very real and predictable world and is whisked away into an adventure he may or may not be able to control.  But as of August 22, 2013, our seniors’ world changed into something very real and predictable.  That calendar that hangs by the fridge or sits on your smart phone is anything but abstract.  The only difference is that for many the reality is as unsettling as any tale of suspense.

            For a moment I worried that the breadth of the list would douse the enthusiasm with which they had entered the theater.  I need not have. DSC_9061

The lunch that followed was (pardon me, Ludwig) an Ode to Joy.   No, it was not in C Major or even in unison, and no, a full symphony orchestra was not behind the chorus, but a chorus it nevertheless was.  (Please refer to the Citations page for information about the version of the piece included here.)

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The delighted squeals of reunion, the full-throated laugh at the recollection of some humorous moment from past years, the more demure smiles and hello’s and what ho’s to old and new teachers, even the rattling of silverware against dish, created what could only be described as a joyful noise.

I sat with Darius Smith, Trey MooDSC_9066re, and Sean Simmons for a few minutes, and we soon were giggling uncontrollably about the silliness of Middle School.  Moments later I had a lovely discussion with Ian Frazier about the Australian exchange student the Fraziers are hosting.  When I pointed out that that brings the total of teenage boys under his home’s roof to five, he beamed and said, “Isn’t that great!?!”  And on it went, one exchange after another, all portending a great school year.

            So the inspiration is back, coming from the same place it always does – students.  Why should it ever be otherwise?

            Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen.  Let’s begin again.

Goodbye, Mr. Mac

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Arthur MacConochie passed away peacefully at his home on Friday, May 3. This writing is not to give the details of his life or of his successors and family. Others can do that far better than I. No, this is to pay tribute to and celebrate the Mr. Mac (for that is what we all called him) I first met as a student in 1967 and was years later privileged to call colleague. This is for all of those who by age or calling never knew him. I feel compelled to try and convey the wisdom, the loving dedication for his students, and the gentle grace that meant so much to so many.

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It is no exaggeration to say that for two generations he was the heart of this school. For 40 years, first on North Shore Road and then on Wesleyan Drive, Mr. Mac taught English with what could only be called abandon. His students would share loving smiles at the sight of him covered with chalk dust at the end of each class, dust acquired by drawing connections (literally) between two ideas scrawled several feet apart on the blackboard. He sometimes would place one knee in the chalk tray and go on tiptoe to try and extend his reach. He was the quintessential teacher.

 

In fact, his reach extended far beyond the classroom. Most students left his course changed for the better. Among other things, he taught us that it is never unmanly to love words, particularly words crafted into poetry. And while he was a disciplinarian on things such as grammar and syntax, there was always an element of joy in his room. These were the greats we were reading, and the greats deserved our honest and earnest appreciation. The young men and women taught by Mr. Mac went out into the world knowing how to use their own words clearly and properly and always wanting to read more of them penned by somebody else.

 

His contributions to the school itself, if possible, were even more far-reaching. Mr. Mac wrote the school’s honor code, based on the Uniform Military Code of Justice (he was an “armer” in World War II). But he simplified and tempered them with a keen understanding of the real lives of adolescents. Mr. Mac had wisdom about such things that seemed without end. Those of us open to it would simply wait for the next pearl to drop. And when coincident with John Tucker’s arrival in 1978 it was decided to rewrite the school’s Philosophy and Objectives, Mr. Mac was the official scribe. While he did not come up with each phrase, he did physically write each down, and thus the document bears his unmistakable signature and style.

 

My favorite phrase from the school’s Philosophy provides that the school will strive to instill respect for others “until unselfishness of thought and action becomes habit.” If any one set of words describes Mr. Mac, it must be these. Mr. Mac was a true gentleman and a lovely, gentle man. He could be stern, but he was never rude or even gruff. It would take new acquaintances a little while to realize that his equanimity and ease were absolutely real and at the heart of who he was. He seldom talked about himself and never indicated in any way that he thought he deserved more out of life than he had been given. His took his pleasure from small, simple things such as walks with his wife and reading to his children. He was a famous letter-writer, always finding occasion to pay a compliment or express gratitude, usually unnecessarily given. I ran drafts of several passages from my book by him, and his hand-written responses were always filled with more praise than suggestion. Above all, Mr. Mac loved to dance. I think my favorite picture of him shows him dancing at a prom sometime in the 1970’s, dapper in his tuxedo and smiling from ear to ear. A trip around the ballroom floor stood for so much – grace and intimacy and perhaps even joy. More than anything, a dance meant that both parties were giving and neither was taking. It was the perfect metaphor for his whole life.

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In the last years of their mutual time here, Mr. Mac and Bill Harvie would come to rest in the two matching leather chairs in the Masters’ Commons. Mr. Mac had seen and cut out a cartoon from The New Yorker depicting a similar scene, except the two gentlemen were drawn as very much older and the chairs were back to back. One old warhorse was saying to the other, “Still here, Bob?” Mr. Mac immediately saw the parallels and posted the cartoon in his office, and the two friends started a daily tradition of Mr. Harvie asking, “Still here, Mac?” Just now I went into the Masters’ Commons to look at Mr. Mac’s portrait and I heard Mr. Harvie asking the old question. The reply came loud and clear – “Still here, Harve.”

Of course he is still here. In ways too significant to ever fully appreciate, Arthur Alastair MacConochie, Jr. will always be here.

An Occasional Carrot

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          Middle school lunch just ended minutes ago.  I feasted on Lasagna Bolognese and a superb vegetarian lasagna with spinach and onions.  I passed on the Cobb salad but did have a go at the Caesar with crispy croutons and shaved Parmesan.  Yum!!  It never even occurred to me to try the 30-item salad bar or the sandwich station or the huge bowls of fresh chopped fruit with granola and three kinds of yogurt.  But I could have.  Lunch here is a real treat these days.

Mrs. Sydney Wigg, our first Dining Services Director

And yet, thanks to a recent conversation with Diane Wallace, I have been thinking of my days here as a student and the lunches provided by Mrs. Sydney L. Wigg, Jr. and her staff.  Mrs. Wigg came on board at the same time as Mr. Massey and lasted here almost as long as he did.  Over on North Shore Road there were two lunches, grades one through six and then the older boys.  There was a small free-standing dining hall, which Mr. Maconochie insisted on calling the Refectory.  Lunch was 14 to a table, grades together for the lower schoolers but completely mixed for the upper and middle schoolers.  As the school grew, it got tighter and tighter in there, but to this day I don’t remember it ever seeming crowded.  The picture below, while obviously staged, is a fair representation of the scene.  A moment’s study reveals some significant differences between then and now, a couple of which turn my nostalgia switch on.

See anyone you know? If so, leave a comment, visit NA on facebook or email me! (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

See anyone you know? If so, leave a comment, visit NA on facebook or email me! (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

            Before dissecting the photo, however, you must wonder at what was served in those days.  Things were incredibly basic.  A meat, a starch, and a green came every day, and that was it.  The main courses ranged from Spam, sliced right out of the can, to chicken-fried steak (we called it simply “meat” because we were never absolutely positive as to its source) to sliced processed turkey accompanied by large pitchers of gravy and entire loaves of Wonder bread, white of course.  What you did was put two or three slices of bread on your plate, pour gravy all over them and dig in.  Seven boys at one end of the table could go through a loaf of bread in no time.  We referred to this delicacy as “breadgravy.” You might have expected a more creative moniker, but a simple pleasure such as this required only a simple name.  There was pork and beans (“beanie-weenies”), and of course fish sticks every Friday, even after Vatican II relieved Roman Catholics of the absolute requirement of no meat on that day.  At the culinary pinnacle was the beef stew, perhaps the only dish that has survived intact through present day.  It was the same then as now, hot and delicious over piles of white rice. It was considered poor form to praise the menus, but truth be told the food kept all those boys happy and going for a whole school day.

            The photo, I think, is priceless.  I can recognize four teachers and perhaps twice that many students – it was taken in the spring of 1960, so that gives some clues.  Barclay Winn and Dicky Musick are unmistakable – can you spot them?  As to the teachers, Garnett, Kepchar, MacConochie and Tyler jump out at me.  Look closely at differences that matter.  With the exception of the milk cartons (and not everybody is drinking them – many opted for the ice water poured out of tin pitchers into plastic glasses) there is not a single item that will turn into trash.  The butter is a stick on a plate with a communal knife.  We did not suffer the same fears of passing illness among us, and so we reduced our carbon footprint by a lot. There is no Purell dispenser in sight. Note also the wide variations in age – in 1960, 7th graders at the beck and call of seniors was considered not a potential for bullying but rather a valuable part of growing up.  Most obviously, most boys are dutifully clad in their dress jackets – lunch was always coat and tie.

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            On the other hand, there are some things that have never changed.  Students still like to joke that chopped spinach is only served the day after playing fields are mowed.  And then there’s the one about Edgar Allan Poe’s last meal having been an NA lunch.  No wonder he was found dead in a Baltimore sewer – nudge, nudge!!  Of paramount importance, however, is the camaraderie captured by the photograph.  Every boy in the frame is “in it” together – “in” the picture, “in” the lunchroom, “in” the Norfolk Academy.  I know the picture is posed, but there are one or two clues that the atmosphere is real.  What proves this most is the young lad in the bottom left corner who has found it a good idea to place a water glass upside down on top of his head.  I swear I saw the same thing from an 8th-grade advisee last Friday.  Another proud NA tradition at work!

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            Mrs. Wallace tells me that Mrs. Wigg was a valued friend of the faculty.  To the wives of married faculty she was a willing coach and advisor about cooking.  For the bachelor faculty she was something of a matchmaker, always having at the ready a list of “acceptable” young ladies in the area. And while there was nothing like the parade of special meals we have today, on those rare instances when she was called on to cook for parents or special guests, Eunice Wigg and her staff always rose to the occasion.   For all those hot and filling lunches, however, it is a self-evident truth that neither I nor any of my fellows ever thanked her enough.

            And what about the strange title for this rambling memoir?  In Mr. Babcock’s 9th-grade English class, there came a writing assignment to describe a familiar object in the most excruciating detail possible.  You were supposed to use as many senses as you could muster.  I chose the legendary beef stew.  I remember going on and on about taste and aroma and texture, but when it came to the visual, I hesitated as to how to describe the brown, soupy stuff in my bowl.  My only recourse was to pick out the few floating orange bits that still resembled their original condition, and a title was born.

            Got a 98 on that paper.  And thank you, Mrs. Wigg.

Commonwealth Letters 007

Four Days in August

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“Turning point” is a term used by historians all too often.  Whether it be Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or even Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, those interested in the past like to explore those moments when history irrevocably changed course.  As often as not, to be truthful, a single event does not in and of itself cause significant, permanent change in the life of a nation or an institution. Most stories are more complicated than that.  But in our school’s recent history, there really is a single event that changed everything.  It began on the morning of August 11, 1986, when Patty Masterson took the podium in Conrad gymnasium, and formally opened a conference called “Discovering the Common Wealth in Education: Mind, Body, Spirit.”

 

The Commonwealth Conference, as it would quickly come to be known, was the most audacious leap into the world of education theory in the history of Norfolk Academy. Actually, audacious falls short – what we accomplished seems in retrospect outrageous, even impossible.  Having just started as an Academy employee ten days earlier, I had no idea just how ambitious the event was.  Patty Masterson and Rachel Hopkins had spent a year organizing a series of plenary presentations and smaller “break-out” sessions addressing every conceivable aspect of education.  Over the preceding months, Patty had written over 200 letters (I counted, and stopped at 200 with the file not nearly exhausted) to everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett  (who could not appear) to Luis Machado, the Minister of Human Intelligence in Venezuela (who did) to a woman from British Columbia named Moira who danced on stage waving brightly-colored chiffon scarves (don’t ask).

 

Commonwealth Letters 007

 

The reality is that in the preceding two decades, Norfolk Academy had seen dramatic structural changes through the merger with Country Day School and the move to Wesleyan Drive.  Even after that, many buildings had been expanded, a lower school gym had been added, and girls and boys had been combined in classes. But the way we taught, and the ways in which we thought we understood how children learned, had not changed much at all.  The “stuff” of the classroom looked much the same in 1986 as it had when I graduated in 1971. And then Patty and Rachel went to Tarrytown, N.Y., for a conference on teaching and learning and an entire new world opened up to them.  They returned to Norfolk ardent believers in this revolutionary idea that perhaps we should take careful and precise looks at all our basic assumptions about schooling.

 

By 1985, and for several reasons—not the least of which were mushrooming failures of our public schools—doctors, scientists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and even politicians began searching for ways to improve our system of education.  As discoveries about the minute details of the human brain were published one after the other, scholars and philosophers alike began exploring how best to apply these discoveries in the classroom. These explorations led to new theories of adolescent behavior, and new sociological theories about the size and shape of classrooms and the placing of children therein. Suddenly there were fundamental questions about instruction and assessment and curriculum, with many answers, often conflicting, being supplied from all over the academic world.

 

Rachel Hopkins and John Tucker with keynote speaker Dr. Edward de Bono.

Rachel Hopkins and John Tucker with presenter Dr. Edward de Bono.

And so Patty, with John Tucker’s support and Rachel’s help, resolved to convene on our campus every single person who had written a single word on education in the preceding few years.  She darned near succeeded.  As a total rookie I had no idea of the uniqueness of the event.  I had attended American Bar Association meetings in New York and San Francisco, so I was used to very large gatherings.  But this was Norfolk Academy, in sleepy Hampton Roads, and suddenly the entire educational world was in our midst.  The sheer magnitude of the logistics was incomprehensible.  All those planes to meet, all those rooms to reserve, all those mouths to feed.  Susan Duquette led paddling trips at sunrise, Barb Laws had us painting upside down. It was four days of greatness.

 

Patty Masterson welcomes attendees to the first Common Wealth in Education Conference, 1986

Patty Masterson welcomes attendees to the first Common Wealth in Education Conference, 1986

Initially, our faculty did not know how to react.  They had heard Mr. Tucker going on and on about this conference, but they had no way of understanding what was about to happen. Many resented being called back to school in the middle of August.  More than a few of us were saying to ourselves, “Yeah, yeah,” as Patty introduced the first presenter, Dee Dickinson, organizer of the Tarrytown conference and a leading international scholar in this new field of cognitive studies.  Soon doubt turned to interest turned to fascination turned to exhaustion.  By the time it was over, each of realized we had been part of something monumental, even if we weren’t quite sure at that moment what it all meant.  We did understand, however, that from that point on, improving every day would become standard operating procedure.  More than this technique or that (see below), the Commonwealth Conference taught us that we could never again afford not to explore, not to change, and not to get better.

 

It took the next five years to implement many of the ideas we had been exposed to for those four days.  John Tucker kept cheerleading the “paradigm shift” we were going to take, and Upper School Director Will Stacey drove the process of improvement with almost ruthless resolve.  Faculty were trained in the Great Books curriculum.  Lecture gave way to discussion.  Individual desks were replaced by tables arranged in a circle.  The performing arts exploded in scope and quality.  The seminar program was initiated.  We broke away from traditional assessment and started things like the Trilogy/Credo project for juniors. And we became one of only seven schools in the nation to go to a reaccreditation system that actually focused on the stuff of education and not how many volumes there were in the library.  The independent school world started hearing a lot about Norfolk Academy.  As a school we became very different and much, much better.

 

While even the grandest wave recedes, this one left a permanent mark.  There would be four more Commonwealth Conferences, some featuring those few people Patty had been unable to corral for the first one but who had subsequently heard about it and wanted very much to be a part of the next one.  Those conferences were successful in their own right, but it really all started on August 11, 1986. John Tucker would thereafter refer to that moment in time as a “Red Letter Day.”

 

I prefer “turning point.”1986