The Camino

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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?

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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.

Baseball.

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”

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           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

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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

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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.

Love.

 

Red

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In my last Chronicle I expressed my delight at seeing Emerson Johnson, Charlie Cumiskey, John Tucker, and Bill Harvie sitting around a lunch table at Homecoming.  They were chatting and laughing like they must have done every day 50 years ago. In those days the four of them, together with Arthur MacConochie and a few others, were the core of the Upper School Faculty.  They lived together in “the Apartment,” a four-unit building owned by the school and rented to faculty.  Each was a vital part of what we called the Norfolk Academy “family.”

 

J.B. Massey

"Each boy must accept that hard work is a condition of life." J.B. Massey, 1953.

All of which got me to thinking about the head of that family, James B. Massey, Jr.  As Headmaster from 1950 -1978, Mr. Massey brought this school from barest survival to regional powerhouse.  But he should not be remembered primarily for the growth of the institution he headed.  The legacy of Red Massey walks around Hampton Roads (and elsewhere) in the lives of his students and their families.  It would not be possible to count the number of people who were made better human beings by their lives having intersected with Mr. Massey.  You can count me squarely as one of them.

 

It takes me twenty-some pages in the Academy history to describe Mr. Massey fairly, so I will not spend any such time here.  Let me simply say that together with Patty Masterson, about whom I chronicled last year, JB Massey was the single most dynamic human being I have met on this planet.  The son of a devout Presbyterian who taught the required Freshman Bible course at Hampden-Sydney College, he had sewed a few wild oats as an adolescent but soon came to adopt the values of his father.  Above all, Mr. Massey saw work as what we were called to do.  It was not that he was a “workaholic” – he was a great poker player and a famous practical joker.  But he never tolerated laziness or even inactivity.  He did little things, like always stopping to pick up trash whenever he saw it on campus, that communicated a total commitment to his school.  He practiced a kind of fierce Christianity, abhorrent of moral compromise but dedicated to purest charity.

 

He was the kind of man who terrified you, but whose opinion of you mattered more than anything. This was true for faculty and student alike.  In the early days, faculty meetings were held at his dining room table, with lemonade and Pepperidge Farm cookies provided by “T,” his wonderful wife.  Lemonade and cookies remain a staple of Academy family get-togethers.  But at those meetings and then in the school halls faculty began to regard him, with all the accompanying positive and negative emotional baggage, as “Dad.”  Almost everyone found his example of integrity and dedication to be inspiring, and those who didn’t were not with the school for very long.  In the end, although he seldom used the word, he was full to the brim with love.  He loved God, he adored his wife, he treated his faculty like his own family, and above all he loved Norfolk Academy and every student associated with it.  Those exposed to that love felt happily compelled to return it.

 

Mr. Massey upon his arrival in Norfolk in 1950.

The school Red Massey inherited in 1950 wasn’t much. (They called him Red not only for the color for his hair but for the scarlet he would flush when he was angry.)   In 1950 Norfolk Academy had about 150 boys (remember, just boys) in grades one through twelve, a transient faculty, and little spirit.  Over the next ten years Massey, by dint of effort and personality and with the support of a dynamic Board of Trustees, tripled the student body, built three new buildings, and completely revitalized the school.  His most singular and significant accomplishment for the school was the assemblage of a faculty of great teachers. Of the sixteen upper school teachers in 1960, four would become distinguished headmasters elsewhere and another six would remain at the Academy for the rest of their teaching lives

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But as tough as Mr. Massey was – trust me, he could be tough – he also had vision.  Education of boys in the early to mid-1950’s was about right and wrong and honor and discipline and finishing your peas. Massey was perfect for that task, instituting the Honor System and other daily habits meant to teach basic core values.  But with the coming of Sputnik and the computer the demands on actual scholastic excellence began to explode.  Standardized tests grew in importance.  Science classes needed actual laboratories.  The completion of application to selective colleges no longer effectively ended at the line marked “Father’s Occupation.”  Massey didn’t just adapt to these changes, he led. In just a few short years Norfolk Academy morphed from sleepy private school sending out “gentlemen” to a place committed to excellence.  This was not easy on families whose children were not similarly committed.  Many of them, including children of Norfolk’s most prominent families, were shown the door if they would or could not toe a more demanding academic line.

 

Mr. Massey with B Lovitt, Head of Country Day School, and Bill Pressly, then Head of The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. It was Mr. Pressly who suggested that the "merged" school open as a "coordinated" school, not a co-educational one.

 

Through the merger with Country Day School for Girls in 1966 and the accompanying move to Wesleyan Drive, Mr. Massey continued to lead by example. By the time he retired in 1978, he was truly a legend, respected across the country and beloved by the Norfolk Academy family.  And if he almost never visited campus again (he wanted Mr. Tucker to have as much “space” as possible), he remained through letters and phone calls a counselor, advisor, and friend.  Whenever any Bulldog team was in shouting distance of Farmville, where he and T had retired, there would be Mr. Massey in the crowd, rooting as hard as he could without calling too much attention to himself.

 

We like to make reference to the date of our chartering – November 13, 1728 – but the truth is that the school that is now Norfolk Academy really began to take shape upon the arrival of James Buckner Massey, Jr. as Headmaster on July 1, 1950.  When you mention his name to those folks sitting around the lunch table at Homecoming, their body language and their tone of voice change. They become quieter, even a little wistful.  Many decades since he was last their Headmaster, he still calls them to attention. And 62 years since his arrival at this school, his presence is still keenly felt, even by those who could not have known or even met him.

 

Thank you, Mr. Massey.

Mr. Massey at Field Day, in 1970. Is there a bit of mischief in the works?

Coming Home

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  The dust has settled and we now look back on what has to be one of the most successful Homecoming weekends ever.  Among other things, the weather cooperated wonderfully. Cool, clear, and breezy, this was Virginia fall at its finest. From the opening bars of The Connells’ “Still Life” to the last person leaving the last class reunion, the festivities were a complete pleasure.

            First, The Connells.  For those of you who aren’t fans, The Connells are a bunch of Carolina guys who formed up into an “alternative rock” band in the mid-1980’s.  As redundant as it may sound, they are exceptionally musical, combining outstanding guitar work, interesting chord progressions, and tight vocal harmonies.  They share a number of connections with the Academy, one being married to Jane Kollmansperger (Liza Needham’s sister) and another being Allan Parrott’s fraternity brother at Chapel Hill. And with the healthy persuasion of Andy Walker, we managed to pry them out of semi-retirement to play for us at the Friday night opening general reunion gathering.

They were great.  They survived having a tent blow onto the stage – didn’t even miss a beat, as they say.  And when asked, some incredibly kind attendee lent his Academy coach’s jacket to the lead guitarist.  I even got it back the next day!  But the music was tuneful and familiar, and we all sang along, enjoying every minute of it.

Saturday morning brought two presentations, one by new Athletic Director Aubrey Shinofield, and another by some of our civic and global leadership fellows. Then it was time for cookout lunch with pumpkin-painting for the kids and warm hugs and handshakes from long-separated classmates.  Of particular pleasure to me was the arrival of four of the “old guard” gentlemen that started with Mr. Massey and touched the lives of thousands of students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To see John Tucker, Bill Harvie, Emerson Johnson, and Charlie Cumiskey (the best teacher I ever had) sitting around a lunch table talking and laughing like they did as teachers 55 years ago was high privilege indeed.  It is hardly overstatement to say that those four were charter members of the faculty that literally made the school what it is today.  In those days they lived together, worked together, ate together, and played together.  Like me, countless grown men and women owe them a great deal of gratitude.  It was nice to have the opportunity to once again share that sentiment.

And then the football game.  Before it even started, the lower schoolers, led by a drum corps of older students, paraded on the track in front of the crowd.  Bearing class banners and waving to the crowd, they were obviously enjoying themselves.

They finished by gathering on the field and welcoming the senior fall varsity athletes and their parents on to the field.  All of them – students, faculty and parents – standing at attention while Kailee Cunningham sang the National Anthem made you proud to be a Bulldog.  If that was the future out there in the sunlight, then our future is very bright indeed.

As to the game itself, one person called it “the most important win in the last decade.”  Challenged by a strong and physical Nansemond-Suffolk team, our guys got pushed around a little at the start but then regrouped and outplayed the Saints for the rest of the game.  More importantly, we out-toughed them.  For every hard lick they put on one of us, we responded with a bigger hit on one of them. 

While one may rue the violence, to watch these young men be issued a physical challenge like that and respond so doggedly was to watch something important take place.  One of the better Saints players had been particularly aggressive, looking for someone to hit right up to the whistle on every play.  When a pass intended for him was intercepted on essentially the last play of the game, he stayed on the ground for a few seconds, got up, and shook hands with our guy.  From up in the booth it looked like the honest bestowal of respect.  Then out on the field sprinted a bunch of our students, jumping, whooping, and waving their arms.  Important win, indeed.

The five-year reunion parties happened that night and old acquaintances, if ever forgot, were once again brought to mind. Although I was unable to attend any of them, the word is that they all went swimmingly.

The folks who planned and executed the weekend deserve a lot of credit and have my personal gratitude.  It takes a great deal of work to put on such a show.  But I hope they do not take offense when I say that there was so much good will running around this place that once it was underway, the weekend sort of ran itself.  This was one of those times when the total was greater than the sum of all parts.  There was a synergy created here, every bit of it positive.

Sometimes the magic works . . .

The Luckiest Faculty on the Face of the Earth

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Each August, Gary Laws has student leaders, mostly ninth graders, over to his house for an “orientation.”  This normally occurs on the Saturday before faculty meetings begin.  Gary’s house looks out over a branch of the Lafayette River in Norfolk from underneath the shading branches of majestic old pines and magnolias.  If any place in Norfolk can manufacture and then catch a breeze on a hot summer’s day, this is the place.  Returning members of the Honor Council begin at 1:00 pm, followed by the Royster Student Council, this year with the leaders of the Middle School Happy Club. They talk about their goals for the upcoming school year and break up at about 5 o’clock.

On a Saturday.  In August.  At the Principal’s house.       

I attended the first hour with our Honor Council guys and girls, and as I sat there with these five wonderful students, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was.  They were all happy, smiling, excited to be together with each other and with two old teachers.  They had interesting insights and made provocative and promising suggestions for improving the state of honor in the Middle School.  Gary told me that the ten student leaders that followed them were equally positive, equally cheerful, and equally focused on making our school better.

We have sixteen new “Fellows” this year to follow up on last year’s first class of Chesapeake Bay Fellows.  They have split into three groups, dealing with the Bay, with issues of Global Health, and with International Relations.  Ninth graders all, they are legitimately and seriously trying to make the world better, not just the school.

Their 350-odd peers that make up the Royster student body may not have been so publicly recognized for their leadership, but they by and large share the same upbeat attitude about school.  The joy of being here extends in age-appropriate ways to every grade level – except perhaps second-semester seniors.  For instance, when I was Head of the Upper school, I would ask applicants for admission in those grades whether or not they actually liked school.  If they didn’t, I would warn, they would be awfully lonely here, because such an overwhelming percentage of our students really do enjoy school.  Oh, he may grumble a little bit for show, but the young man who walks into Mr. Kidd’s English class is actually looking forward to it.  If deep down inside you prefer the mall or the waves, you won’t have an easy time here.

 

Which means that we members of the faculty are very, very fortunate.  Don’t let me get out of control here – there are plenty of students who from time to time grow legitimately unhappy.  There are always some who would rather try you than work with you. There’s always the kid who will let you down and break your heart.  My glasses are only slightly rosy.  But more than any other faculty I have ever known, we have the absolute luck of getting to work every day with the best and the brightest students this region has to offer.  Nothing could be more rewarding.

Add to that an incredibly supportive Board of Trustees and parents who want only the best for their kids, and the serendipity is complete.  So as I sat out on Gary’s back yard I made myself a promise not to take any of this for granted.  The presence of a willing and eager student body requires that each faculty member be equally so.  These boys and girls deserve nothing less than our “A” game.  That is an obligation with some definitive weight.  But the demand is every bit worth it.

There may be some reading this who don’t know of the day that Lou Gehrig, the “Pride of the Yankees,” was welcomed back to Yankee Stadium after having been diagnosed with ALS.  In those days doctors didn’t know much about the condition except that it was universally fatal.  How tragic, people thought – how cruel and unfortunate that of all people Lou Gehrig was suffering. They sat, silent in sympathy for this poor, poor man who had played in so many games over so many years in this old ballpark but now could barely walk.  Instead, Gehrig stunned the crowd and absolutely grabbed their hearts by gazing around the stadium and saying, “You may have read about me having a bad break.  But today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Well, the alternative for us on the Norfolk Academy faculty is obviously nowhere near as tough as what was facing Gehrig.  But given what is going on in our local schools, our nation – and with the state of education facing so many seemingly unanswerable challenges – we should look around our own place of work on our first week back and conclude the same thing that Gehrig did.

Today, we consider ourselves the luckiest faculty on the face of the Earth.

 

Beginning Again

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Every August, Dennis Manning concludes our week of faculty meetings by reading an essay written by Father Timothy Healy, President of Georgetown University. The reading of this piece has become ritual, the sine qua non of opening the school. I enjoy the moment not only for the substance of the essay but also for the obvious emotional significance it has for Mr. Manning. Mood swings do not become a Headmaster, and Dennis is by nature reserved. So it is simply nice to see him let down his guard a little. As much as anything, I appreciate seeing other members of the faculty notice how much he is moved by the words. Like me, many of them cannot help but be moved as well.

The best and simplest way to communicate the meaning in Father Healy’s essay would be to reprint it here, but limitations of space and copyright laws prevent that. So I will try to convey its message as best I can.

Healy discusses two aspects of schooling. The first is the formation of relationships, both between members of a faculty and between faculty and students. He calls the coming together of a great faculty the formation of a “quiet conspiracy,” a benevolent plot to educate young people and to help them mature into whole adults. I find a satisfying ring to the notion of conspiracy because it conveys the sense of each teacher’s belonging to something independently alive and bigger than the individual. In this concept, students become the beneficiaries of the scheme rather than its victims. Each year, in their exit interviews with Mr. Manning, students invariably list relationships with faculty as the most important and best thing about Norfolk Academy.

Healy’s second point has to do with the cyclical nature of the school year. He talks about the seasons, about how the ebb and flow of each school year affects us, even during the time we are apart for the summer. I like this part particularly. Very few of life’s other activities periodically stop and start like a school year does. There is something particularly reassuring about there being more than one beginning. T. S. Eliot once wrote that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” No one’s knowledge is ever perfect in this life, but with each reunion of the faculty in August I feel as if I know this place just a little better.

But it is the same place, and teachers will ply their craft with the same talent and enthusiasm as always. Diane Wallace will invest herself in the lives of her fourth-graders this year every bit as much as she did in 1968. Cecil Mays will decline nouns and conjugate verbs with the same zeal as she did thirty-five years ago. And Richard Oberdorfer will still hold each of his students mesmerized with the ideas of people whose bodies turned to dust centuries ago. Each August the energy flows back into the faculty and sweeps up our students in very meaningful ways.

Father Healy concludes by bringing the notions of community and cycle together. At the very end he hesitates in anticipation of February, with its dark days and cold skies. But then he shrugs them off, declaring that they will “take care of themselves” when their time comes. Now is the beginning of the year. Here Mr. Manning pauses, looks us collectively in the eye, and reads Healy’s final sentence.

“It is good to begin again.”

Welcome back to all of the members of the Norfolk Academy family. Let’s get started.

Summertime … and the Livin’ is Busy

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            The seniors and the sixth graders have graduated, and the rest of the student body has concluded its studies.  The thermometer rises a little higher every day.  Time for the school to lie down for a nice, summertime nap, right?  Wrong.  If anything, this place gets even crazier after the school year formally ends.  The days of self-directed play for the young, and jobs like waiting tables for the older have come and gone.  The machine that is Norfolk Academy may change gears a little, but it continues to hum.

            The official brochure for “Summer Programs at the Academy” is 36 pages long.  By my count there are 103 programs being offered.  Some of these overlap in purpose, so on the one hand this number is artificially high.  On the other hand, many have more than one session, so the number may at the same time be artificially low.  Suffice it to say that in June and July it’s a madhouse around here.  You can do anything from Abrakadoodle ® to bike camp to Dr. Seuss to lacrosse to golf to geometry to “Faberge, Tiffany, or Cartier.”  You can play rock and roll or you can play Mario. You can become a Jedi Knight or a Wizard.  You can build breakaway boxes or statues made of duct tape.

And Summer Programs is only a part of what is going on.  The entire Royster building becomes the domain of the Breakthrough at Norfolk Academy.  Now in its 20th year, this program, formerly known as Learning Bridge, brings 60 middle school children of promise from Norfolk Public Schools to an intensive academic program run by Norfolk Academy faculty and high school students from here and around the country. The students don’t spend every minute of every day sequestered in classrooms.  There are breaks for lunch and lots of play, both planned and spontaneous, from time to time.  So add three score active adolescents to the mix every day.

The other end of the campus is “jam up and jelly tight” as well.  In addition to accommodating 32 camps, each dedicated to a particular sport, the fitness center becomes overrun with students getting in better shape.  Many are there in connection with a coordinated weight training program put together by the football coaches, but many others are there at their own accord.  Summer is hardly a time where strength and conditioning coach Larry McCarthy can relax and catch up on his reading.

All this activity is not without cost.  Until recently, summer was the time when school buildings rested and recovered.  Stewart Howard will tell you that many items of maintenance, repair, and restoration are best done when buildings are empty.  He will also tell you that like human beings, buildings simply need rest.  They need time to lie empty and silent.  That’s not happening here on Wesleyan Drive.  So it becomes a more daunting task for our staff to get things done to make the succeeding August startup feel new and polished and ready.

John Tucker, quoting his predecessor and mentor J. B. Massey, used to say that the primary purpose of Summer Programs was to provide faculty with summer employment and thus supplemental income.  With some pride he used to guarantee that he could find a job for any teacher who wanted one.  He saw it as the responsibility of an independent school to its faculty.  Well, we have certainly moved on from that simple goal.  While many school folks do take advantage of the opportunity (last year 119 of 132 summer programs employees had a direct connection with NA), we are now about the business of serving the community.  For campers who are not students here, we provide the means to find out about us as a school, and for us to learn about them as people—and for us all to have fun in the process.

I sometimes lament the loss of the permitted languor of summer. It’s what Evelyn Waugh called “the repose of yet unwearied sinews.”  When I was a young boy, the old garage down the street had two sets of double doors, each hinged on the outside.  The space marked by the two pairs of old iron hinges on the inside doors formed a pretty decent strike zone.  I used to throw a tennis ball against that garage for hours at a time, trying to hit the strike zone while inventing World Series games in my head between the Yankees and the Cardinals.  Only my mother’s call could end the game.  These days, I would be on a van traveling to Raleigh with my AAU league team for a three-day tournament.  Although I didn’t have travel baseball in those days, I think I had it better.

But those days are long gone.  Our corner of the world wants and needs organized activities.  Well folks, we have 103 of them this summer.  Step right up.  Take your pick.