The More Things Change


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.


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.


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.

US Candids 006

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


           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.)


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


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.

Mr Mac 1

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.

Mr mac 2 original_BG

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


          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.

NA - 178

            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!

NA - 182

            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


“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

The Camino


One of my esteemed colleagues and fellow Middle School teachers Nick Merklin shared the following account with me earlier this year.  He also put together a terrific multi-media Chapel presentation that we’ve included here.  Trust me. You definitely want to see this.

What a great way to jump start our Spring Break!  Thanks, Mr. Merklin!

Walking for 30 days, staying in glorified bunk houses, living out of a backpack smaller than most of my students.  That about sums up my summer trip across Spain.  Granted, I left out a few minor details…

(Make sure to view this presentation in full screen by clicking “Start Prezi,” and then clicking on the icon in the bottom right corner. Advance the presentation using the arrows at the bottom of the screen.)

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage across the northern part of Spain.  Tradition has it that St. James himself walked the same path spreading the word of the lord; eventually he was the first Apostle martyred for his outward beliefs.  Although founded in religion, the Camino triples as a path of general spiritual enlightenment and cultural interaction.  Popularized to us Americans after the 2011 release of The Way, the Camino is more well-known to the common American than in previous years.

We started the Camino in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, on the morning of June 16.  I say “we” because I was accompanied by two other Academy travelers, Steven Goldburg ’04 (Upper school Physics & Algebra II) and Jake Horsfall (Lower School Intern 2010-12).  The first couple of days took us through the Pyrenees and into Spain.  From the mountains we descended through Pamplona, a favorite spot of Ernest Hemingway and well-known for the running of the bulls.  One night’s stay was in a 1,100 year old church in the town of Cizur Menor, after which we began to come across several fellow Virginians.  In the craziest of connections, we met a lady who grew up three blocks from NA, attended VMI, and knew our very own Sills O’Keefe!

Although each day held new scenery and towns, each day felt comfortably familiar as we took a systematic approach to our trek.

After 10 days, we stopped in the city of Burgos and were treated to a live bull fight.  Our post Burgos path led us through the meseta, or desert region of Spain.  Soon enough, the meseta opened up to Leon, where we enjoyed watching Spain win the EuroCup finale adjacent to the 1,000 year old Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral (Spain beat Italy 4-0).  We dodged flares and fireworks (seriously) after the victory, but soon we made it to the mountainous Galicia region, famous for its dairy production.  There was no shortage of livestock on our path, as we interacted with cattle, cows, and sheep on a daily basis.  We kept connecting with good people, and strolled into Santiago, the main ending point of the journey for many, with a solid group of 10 pilgrims.

We attended mass in Santiago and completed a set of pilgrim rituals.   These rituals included hugging the silhouette of St. James overlooking the altar, praying near his casket and burial place (below the altar), and receiving our compostela, or credential of completion.  As our arrival day in Santiago wore on, more and more pilgrims we had met made it to Santiago.  Our dinner party that night quickly grew to 22 pilgrims, all of whom had spent at least one day walking together on the Camino, so that night was as much reunion as finish line.

In fact, for the three of us, the journey was not over.  We decided to continue an additional three days to a town called Finisterra, situated on the northwest coast of Spain, above Portugal.  From a historical standpoint, Finisterra was seen as “the end of the world” because it was the last portion of land along the Camino; the path literally drops off into the Atlantic Ocean. For us, Finisterra proved to be an even better ending point of our journey.  We were able to look out over the Atlantic and put our stamp of approval on 30 days and 880 km (550 miles) of walking.

The greatest joy of the pilgrimage was in meeting various pilgrims along the journey.  We walked, talked, and shared meals with pilgrims from Korea, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, Canada, England, Spain, France, Denmark, Holland, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Panama, and the United States.  By far, the Camino was the most cultural diverse and rewarding experience of our lives.

Our days on the Camino have ended and given way to “normal” life. Our routine, which simply consisted of walking, hand-washing our clothes, eating, and talking to fellow pilgrims, was consistent daily.  On paper, that routine does not sound terribly exciting; however, this regimen trumps the monotony of daily American life – we were liberated and provided with unstructured personal time amongst good people.  We spent 30 days not worrying about the world news or rent payments, just living our lives out of a backpack. We are glad to be back, but will never forget all those miles and all those new friends.

Hey, Dad? Want to Have a Catch?


I wrote this piece as a debate starter for my Political Science students, but friends have suggested its inclusion as a chronicle.  I hope you find it thought-provoking.

Springtime means different things to different people.  For Geoffrey Chaucer it was the miracle of rebirth of “tender shoots and buds.”  Centuries later, T. S. Eliot would turn Chaucer’s words against him, calling April “the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land.”  For Alfred Lord Tennyson, spring is when “a young man’s  fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” For Christians, April is the time of another kind of rebirth, this one very much more significant than a young man’s fancy.  For me, all of these meanings weave together.  There is, however, one ingredient that neither Chaucer nor Eliot nor Tennyson nor even the Gospellers understood.


As the “national pastime,” baseball has lost its hold on America.  It never really had a chance against the immediacy and violence of other sports, particularly when television and gaming monitors became so adept at transmitting crystal clear images of that violence­ immediately.  The evil empire that is lacrosse is on the prowl, accompanied by its mute but equally seductive ally called soccer.  Few boys worth their salt would want to play a slowly developing sport in long pants when they can play a faster game in shorts, particularly when someone gives them sticks and suggests they go hit each other with them.  Oddly, it’s the girls who are embracing the game of bat and ball, and softball continues to grow in popularity.

And yet there must be some way to explain why America so loved the game of baseball for so many decades.   I believe that when the fanatics with their never-ending lists of statistics die away, when those who played the game at a high level leave the picture, when those who wager on games no longer matter, the heart of baseball’s allure lies in three simple acts.  There is something really significant about having a baseball, throwing it to someone, and most importantly, having him throw it back to you.  Robert Frost wrote about climbing birch trees that “that would good both going and coming back.”  There is a magic in having something, giving it away, and receiving it back again, having lost nothing in the transaction.

George Carlin once did an extended stand-up routine about the differences between baseball and football.  His points were quite funny and deadly accurate.  My favorite was, “in football, to win you grind out yardage, move down the field and touch down in an ‘end zone;’ in baseball, to win you run home.”  The baseball field is the only one in which where you start is where you hope to end.  Every other major sport involves getting spatially to a spot, or else preventing your opponent from getting somewhere similar.  There are no goals, no nets, no hoops in baseball. As a game, it is the only one I can think of in which the object is to successfully run around in a circle.

My friend Nash Bilisoly and I grew up, almost literally, at either end of a game of catch. Often in competition but never in anger, we threw balls back and forth for countless hours until our arms ached and our mothers called us home. We had no cable television, no iPod, no youth soccer, no minivan to carry us there, no Costa Rica, no Steamboat, no Xbox, no smart phone, no
computer, no microwave, no Gatorade.  We did, however, have it better.  With none of these distractions we were forced to count on each other.  And if a baseball was all we had, then each of us needed to trust the other to throw the ball back.  The simple act of having a catch came to stand for everything about friendship.


Norfolk Academy JO Baseball Team

Norfolk Academy JV Baseball team, 1966. Who ARE these guys? Help?


It may be generations from now that competent anthropologists can truly and completely evaluate the changes to society caused by the revolution in electronic technology.  I believe that one of the conclusions they will make is that the internet and all the other social media broke the natural cycles of life.  For thousands of human generations, life has been not about growing up and leaving home, but instead about surviving long enough to get to stay home.  Even poor Addie Bundren wants to be buried in her family plot, and even wretched old Anse Bundren, miserable as he is, understands and wants to honor her wish.  But with the invention of convenient and rapid transportation  (and thus travel leagues), much less with the developing cyber-abilty to go anywhere in nano-seconds  by clicking a mouse, the circles we used to travel have been cut, and our lines have been laid flat and stretched in unforeseeable directions. Overwhelmingly we define success by how much richer and more influential we become over our years.  No one ever receives praise for being much the same as he was when younger.

I believe straight lines, even those that slant upward, describe in the end intensely less satisfying paths of life than gentle circles.  Baseball is a game played on a rounded field.  The safe havens lead you to home.  As such, it calls to me not only for its evocation of warm afternoons with my childhood friends, but also because it captures a happier time when distance from home did not measure accomplishment. Returning home did.

My most complete man, Tom Duquette, may not end up physically living a block off of Stevenson Lane in Towson, Maryland, where he grew up.  His life’s path has been far from straight.  But through his coaching of lacrosse and through his love of things of the mind, he has indeed settled into a circle that brings him satisfaction, improves the lives of the people he touches, and reminds him about what is special about the act of “returning.”  And as for me, I love where I am.  Make no mistake – travel is good for the mind and certainly good for the soul. But as T. S. Eliot wrote, “The end of our all our exploring is to find ourselves back where we started and know it for the first time.”  I am ecstatic to be teaching in the school I loved as a child, married to the woman I met and first loved when I was 17, and hopeful that my children find, wherever they end up on this planet, a place much like their home.

Play ball.

Not “Snooky” or even “The Situation”


           Got your attention, didn’t I?

           But no, this is not about “Jersey Shore.”  This is about the power of nicknaming.  Several months ago I wrote a tribute to Charlie Cumiskey and included in the piece how much his students adored the nicknames he gave us.  Mine was “Toe-High.” To my surprise and delight, more than a few of his former students wrote me, each recalling with fondness the name that Mr. Cumiskey had provided them.  I bet that when he dubbed Fred Fink “Friendly Fred the Undertaker Man,” for example, Mr. Cumiskey had no idea that forty years later Dr. Fink would still cherish the name.  But such is the impact of a memorable moniker.

Bobby Needham and I coached JV Baseball together from 1987 to 1994.  This was the era of ESPN’s ascendance.  That network’s most popular play-by-play man at the time was Chris Berman, who on the fly would make up ridiculous nicknames for athletes.  The practice became known as “Bermanizing,” and many broadcasters emulated it. Well, if it was good enough for Chris Berman it was good enough for us, and so each year we set upon trying to play off every guy’s name.  Some were easier than others – “Body by” Jake Denton and Jung “Central” Park were obvious, for instance.  Others were not so readily designated – we debated Andrew “Beer” Stein and decided that it was inappropriate for publication (until now, I guess).  We made do with “Franken” instead.  But there was Damon “Avocado” Pitler and John “Little” Johnson and and John “Big” McPherson and scores of others.

Others, like my own “Toe-High” (I was four-foot-nothing as a sixth grader and therefore not even “toe high to a tadpole”) were gently teasing, and we always hesitated going public with those. But sometimes, depending on the personality of the player and the aptness of the name, we couldn’t resist.  My personal favorite may have been Neil “Cool Papa” Barr, named for the legendary Negro League All-Star James “Cool Papa” Bell.  Those who saw Bell play swear he was the fastest base runner of all time.  Satchel Paige once said that Cool Papa could hit the switch on the wall and be under the covers before the room got dark.  Well, young Mr. Barr was, shall we say, horizontally challenged.  That is, you could make a sandwich in the time it took him to get from home to first, so our nickname was, if nothing else, highly ironic.  But he was, and still is, such a good sport and an overall tremendous person that we figured Neil could see the affection and respect under the name…we hope.

Sometimes it cuts the other way and the student provides the teacher or coach with the nickname.  It was Mittie Jordan (or one of her classmates – no one can be sure) who first dubbed Patty Masterson “Bat.”  Lost in history is the identity of the student who first called Byron Babcock “Babo,” but the name definitely came from a student and stuck for the rest of Mr. Babcock’s life. Perhaps the sweetest of all came from four-year-old Michael Cheng, who, upon being introduced to Tommy Hudgins, his counselor on the first day of NA summer day camp, extended a terribly mature handshake and said, “Nice to meet you, Dr. Hudgins.”  Evidently at his tender age young Michael had never met an adult who wasn’t an M.D.  And while you could make the argument that at age 22 Tommy had perhaps not yet earned the status of “adult,” on that day and every day since Tommy’s friends have referred to him as “the Doctor.”  Michael is one our more distinguished alumni and Tommy is the new Head of the Carlisle School in Martinsville.  I am confident that none of his faculty is aware of his “medical” background.  But to us he’s still the Doctor.

As I said, such is the power of the perfect nickname.  In these ramblings I prattle on and on about the strength and significance of the personal relationship between faculty and students created here.  Calling someone a name that you gave him and not the one his parents provided, and having that person enjoy your creation, adds another dimension to “personal.”  It makes our interactions unique.  It’s something we trust each other with, and it’s something that can last a lifetime.

Trust your old friend Toe-High on this one.



It’s in the Giving, We Receive


As the first semester draws to a close and we get ready to take some time away from school, I remember how much I used to love the annual Lower School Holiday Choral Concert.

I well appreciate that its time has come and gone given the massive effort that goes into Grandparents’ Day just a couple of weeks earlier.  But that doesn’t stop me from missing it.  My two favorite songs were “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” of course, and a song the 4th graders sang most years called “It’s in the Giving.”  I loved the first for its hilarity and enthusiasm (“ba-da-dum-dum!”) and the second for its unabashed sentimentality.  But it was all great – “How Many Nights,” “Santa Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and especially “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” with accompanying first-grade art work and the appearance of the annual mystery guest in the red suit and white beard.  And because the older students got to see it, the whole thing felt like a giant gift from the Lower School to the rest of us. I miss getting that gift every year.

But you know what?  This place gives me so many gifts that I shouldn’t focus on that particular one.  Let me tell you what presents have been placed under my Academy tree this year.  I won’t come close to listing them all, so my apologies, dear readers, if yours is not mentioned.

From Dennis Manning I receive the gift of unqualified support.  His job is an overwhelming one, and the demands on his time are, to use the kids’ vernacular, huge.  And yet every time I have needed his advice or counsel he has been there for me.  Even simply passing him on the sidewalk brings a happy greeting and a warm smile. It’s a gift he gives to just about everyone, but for me it feels personal.  Thank you, Dennis.

From Woody Poole I receive the gift of a new kinship.  Although our life’s paths have had zero in common for our first fifty years, we have now become fast friends.  That doesn’t happen too often pushing sixty, so I am especially grateful.  Thank you, Woody.

From Linda Gorsline I receive the gift of two Political Science classes.  It could not have been easy letting the person whom you succeeded as Director back into your building, but she did so in 2006 with complete grace.  I hope I have not betrayed that confidence.  For all you have done for me, Linda, thank you.

From Johnny Jenkins and Joann Hamlin I receive much more than a clean classroom every morning.  No, every afternoon I receive big smiles and happy hellos.  Heck, they give each of us Christmas cards every year.  Middle schoolers and tidiness tend to be mutually exclusive, but every afternoon J and J attack this building without hesitation or regret.  Thanks to both of you.

The prettiest box under the tree comes from the youngest givers.  From the time I became a camp counselor at age fifteen I knew that working with young people was my calling.  A year in a one-bedroom basement apartment in an edgy part of Baltimore (my initial salary at the Gilman School was $6,500) convinced me to go to law school and then practice for six years.  But when John Tucker took a chance on me as a fifth-grade self-contained classroom teacher in 1986, I knew I was home again.

For 26 years now the kids have steadily confirmed my choice.  Of course I have been furious with this child or that, and of course there have been plenty of students I could not reach, but every single one of them has reached me. The enthusiasm with which they come to class each day buoys me. The growth they show over the months and years fills me with satisfaction. And when those students, now men and women, bounce off the graduation stage and join in the joyful recessional out into the rest of their lives, I sit there, misty-eyed, two things going through my mind.  The first is a prayer for each graduate.  The second is an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I can spend my life being a tiny part of theirs.

And so, to the 68 guys and girls I teach this year and to the 1,300 or so I have taught in my life, thank you, thank you, thank you.


Have a wonderful, restful holiday.   See you next year.

God Bless America . . . and Grandchildren


The great American humorist Sam Levenson once wrote that “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.”

Without commenting on whether the parent group in the middle deserves such “combatant” status, the special bond between  younger and older was on full display here several weeks ago at our annual Grandparents’ Day celebration.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 “Pops” and “Grams” arrived, first to spend the morning listening to the Lower Schoolers sing in Burroughs Gym and then to return to classrooms to meet classmates and teachers.  With Thanksgiving the next day, the timing of the event is perfect – we dismiss at 12:00 noon and many grandparents are in town for the holiday already.

This year we reprised the theme of “A Salute to America.”  To see 500 – odd children jammed together on the bleachers, clad in red, white and blue, belting out “This Land is Your Land,” is to feel good about the future.

Two tiny parts of the show appeal to me particularly. First is that moment prior to the actual singing when the second-grade girl makes eye contact with the Grandma who has been waving at her furiously from the floor for the last five minutes.  At once there is an intimate communication between them.  The virtual hug exchanged is every bit as real as the physical one that will come 30 minutes later.


I also absolutely love the not-so-subtle interaction between Becky Peterson and each of those children.  Grandparents’ Day began as part of a larger Charter Day celebration, but “spun off” into a day of its own when the musical productions led by Chris Kypros and Mary Wick  were so incredibly successful.  Becky has taken up the mantle of putting the show together, and to do so she has to establish a rapport with every single student.  That takes an unbelievable amount of energy and enthusiasm.  With each flamboyant gesture and each overstated facial expression she draws the kids irresistibly into the thrill of the moment.  Of course, out of 500 kids one or two will be “out in left field,” but the unanimity with which the little ones share her excitement speaks to a lovely union between teacher and student.


The show starts out sentimental, gets silly (would you believe 100-plus kazoos in unison?), and finishes with real emotion.  At the end the kids sing each of the Armed Services’ anthems.  As “The Halls of Montezuma” begins, each Marine Corps veteran rises to his feet and comes to strict attention.  For some in their eighties and nineties this is not easy.  But the tune and the words compel each to rise and stand true.  As each song is sung, more and more men and women show their pride and their devotion to their service by standing up.  In a sense, the kids are thanking the vets for their service, and in a sense the vets are saying “you’re welcome” in a way far more personal than mere applause.  And when the final note is sung, and all those little folks raise their right hand in salute, it is easy to be overcome by the whole thing.


From there it is back to Smith Hofheimer and time spent looking at our latest art work or maybe the science project in progress.  From the grandparents’ perspective, there are moments of real pride, and perhaps an occasional gift of tender loving indulgence.  From the kids’ point of view, having Grammy and Granddad in this special place called “my classroom” is a real treat and an opportunity to solidify relationships.  Each child thinks that if my grandparents see my work and, more importantly, see my place of work they will know me better.  They will understand me better.  And it will give us another thing more in common than Sam Levenson would allow.