The Real “We”

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(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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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(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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.