The Divine Ms. M

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              Every day, ninth graders sit in their designated lounge area under the watchful gaze of Edith Pratt Masterson.  Her oil-on-canvas likeness hangs on the plain white drywall without fanfare or even announcement.  And every time I look at her, and the children studying or giggling in her presence, I think to myself, “If they only knew.”  The painting does not capture Patty’s greatness, not because it is a poor painting, but because Patty was too big a force of nature to be contained inside any frame.  The words that follow here must similarly fall short because prose is by definition inadequate to the task.  But her memory deserves revelation every now and then. If you only knew.

              Living with Patty was like living with the Mistral.  She was stronger and more insistent than anything in her path.  Sometimes she would be so great as to cause minor damage, knocking to the ground some impediment not fully secured.  You just had to learn to recognize how impressive and, yes, beautiful was this phenomenon that the elements had so artfully contrived to create.  You also had to learn how to duck when the wind blew particularly fiercely in your direction.

              Patty was born in the Low Country of South Carolina, and was the first woman accepted to the University of South Carolina School of Law, as well as the first woman to argue a case (and win) at the Supreme Court of South Carolina.  She was a devoted wife and the mother of five. Her intellect was matched by her will to embrace life for all it was worth.  She smoked like a chimney and ate Vidalia onions whole and raw.  She loved the Beach in the winter and detested handguns, working tirelessly to convince citizens and legislators alike to ban them.  She lobbied to beautify the North End of the Beach while staunchly opposing commercial development.  To say that she was fully immersed in her community is a vast understatement.

Patty Masterson

Patty Masterson

But it was in the classroom that she reigned supreme.  Patty started teaching English at the Country Day School for girls in 1958.  She retired from the merged Norfolk Academy in 1991.  In those 33 years she taught thousands how to appreciate literature, and more than that, how to write.  She was a merciless critic of students’ writing and a passionate lover of literature.  She considered Moby Dick to be America’s most perfect novel.  For all of this she was not uniformly loved by her students, but each of them respected her.  She was as indefatigable at grading papers as she was tough on their contents and style.  And she was never, ever, less than full bore with her classes.  Most days, students left exhausted, sometimes even stunned.  Today, a large majority of her kids will say that she was the sine qua non of their ability to communicate effectively in writing.  She ran the speech program, she advised the honor council, she flipped burgers all day at Field Day.  Nothing was beyond her reach.

Patty's 'Bat' Masterson now hangs in the school archives

She was also relentlessly creative.  At one point she adopted the persona of “Bat” Masterson, the western sheriff of 1960’s television.  Her students adorned her room with all manner of bat paraphernalia, including one very frightening stuffed version she suspended from the ceiling.  Then for a while she converted her classroom into a “garden of words,” complete with green shag carpet and flowers everywhere.  There were no chairs in this garden, only the green grass to sit on.  And it was Patty’s idea to fill the Pit with water, converting it into a beach for senior prank in 1986.  Check out YouTube if you don’t believe me.

First Common Wealth Conference 1986

She never stopped exploring, she never stopped trying to make herself better.  She pioneered seminar-style teaching, urging (some would say forcing) it on her colleagues.  It was Patty, together with Rachel Hopkins, who produced the Commonwealth in Education conference in 1986 that forever changed Norfolk Academy and its faculty.  The story of those four days in August will be told here sometime soon.  For now, suffice it to say that this event, with over fifty presenters from all around the world (literally!) examining every aspect of education, was unprecedented.  But for Patty, every day was an opportunity to learn.  As such, she taught our faculty every bit as much as she taught her students.

And not just about the techniques of education.  Patty taught lessons of love and of dedication.  She taught us about hard work and the unlimited quality of promise.  And in the end, she taught those of us close to her life’s most important lesson.  She fought a long and difficult battle against cancer.  She bore her final days with undaunted courage and dignity.  She took time to say her goodbyes, one at a time, with honesty and love.  For her last lesson, Edith Pratt Masterson taught us how to die.

There may be those reading this now whose memory of Patty is not so complimentary.  Anyone who holds opinions as unrelenting as she did will inevitably leave bruises that never fully heal.  Betsy Guzik, who as Elizabeth Wardell had Patty for English in 1987, characterized this truth as “the curse of the strong woman.”  Betsy is absolutely right.  Let us remember, however, that the word “strong” should do nothing to obscure the word “woman.”  Patty was both.  The ninth graders who sit beneath her image every day have no idea of what they missed.

But I do.

Arch Rivals, Best Friends

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            One of the criticisms you often hear of independent schools is that they exist as a result of “the old boy network.”  That is, a great many people see schools like Norfolk Academy as out of touch, relying on traditions made easier to maintain by wealth.  At our worst, a tiny bit of this may be true. Many years ago, a student in my 4th-grade class at The Gilman School in Baltimore, upon seeing in his geography book a picture of the crowded slums of Calcutta, asked, “Where do they keep their horses?”  But I have learned since that day in 1975 that the network of associations formed by independent school teachers and administrators is anything but out of touch and has nothing to do with money.

            Take for example the lifelong bond between our Tom Duquette and Doug Tarring, former lacrosse coach and present athletic director at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville.  Their paths first crossed as opponents in a Junior Varsity basketball game between Gilman, where Tom was a ninth-grader, and St. Paul’s School, where Doug was a sophomore.  They knew each other then only as opponents and parties to a post-game handshake.  They would oppose each other on the lacrosse field for three high-school seasons and join forces as summer counselors at Camp Blackrock, a venture sponsored and run by Bob Scott, legendary lacrosse coach at Johns Hopkins College.  Scott was trying to ease mounting racial tensions in Baltimore by bussing inner-city black kids and mostly suburban white kids out to a day camp where both could share the traditional outdoor activities of swimming, capture the flag, and slip-sliding on rain-soaked hills.  To this day Tom is unsure if Blackrock actually changed any of its campers, and it is sadly undeniable that racial positions in the greater community hardened and intensified over those three summers from 1967 to 1969.  But it is also true that Tom and Doug learned a lot about life and became inseparable friends.

            So, the year after Tarring went to play lacrosse at the University of Virginia, Duquette followed.  Together at UVa the two would win two national championships. When Doug moved on to coach JV lacrosse at St. Anne’s, Tom followed a year later as the Varsity coach.  In those days, lacrosse was well on the periphery of high school sports in Virginia.  But coincident with Duquette’s move to Norfolk Academy (or probably because of it), lacrosse exploded in popularity.  With Tarring moving up to Varsity Coach at St. Anne’s, the rivalry was on.  Over the 29 years they coached against each other they won 14 state championships – seven each.  Their head-to-head matchup over the years?  Eighteen wins each.  And as close as their records have been, their friendship has grown even closer.

 

            They even created a champion’s trophy, the Massey-Bishop Cup, to be presented to each year’s victor.  Named in honor of the two independent school legendary Headmasters, STAB’s Ham Bishop and our J. B. Massey, it represents all that is good about high school sports.  Several years ago, it happened that STAB and NA faced each other in the last regular-season game one Saturday and in the state tournament the following Saturday.  Gene Arnette, quarterback of the UVa football team in the late 1960’s, happened to see both games. He took the time to write Doug and Tom and said that the games were “physical, hard-fought, and well-played. Your boys represented themselves, their team, and and their school proudly.  They were gentlemen in victory as well as defeat.”  That note is one of Tom Duquette’s most prized possessions.

 

            Tarring has recently relinquished the post of Varsity lacrosse coach, although he has stayed on as Athletic Director.  Duquette shows no sign of giving up another of his prized possessions – his coach’s whistle.  And even though the one-on-one coaching rivalry has ended, the relationship between these two old soldiers (Tom’s words, not mine) has done nothing but deepen.  And the students at both schools are its direct beneficiaries.  The spirit of the Massey-Bishop Cup, we hope, lodges somewhere in the hearts of our kids.  It’s bigger even than “sportsmanship.”  The kind of competition that Gene Arnette described should create and render permanent lifelong respect for the opponent.  Too often these days we tend to permit rivalry to deteriorate into contempt.  That’s not the point of competing, and that’s not what we are after at Norfolk Academy.

 

            We lost 16 – 9 to STAB ten days ago.  It wasn’t any fun losing.  But you know what? Neither Tom nor Doug can remember who won that JV basketball game in 1967.  They do remember the handshake.

Don’t Make Me Go, Mom

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 This chronicle is published with the permission of Adrienne Pruden Ashby.  She has reviewed its contents but has not participated in its writing.  I am deeply grateful for her assistance.

Adrienne's Senior Yearbook Photo
Adrienne’s Senior Yearbook Photo

         When in August of 1986 Adrienne Pruden arrived for her first day of school at Norfolk Academy, it wasn’t her idea.  In fact, she fought her mother tooth and nail not to have to go to a new school.  Being African-American and attending her local elementary school, she believed she would have nothing in common with the students at this high and mighty private school.  She had been doing very well in the classroom and had a nice set of friends around her.  From her perspective, changing schools at the beginning of seventh grade was the equivalent of moving to a new continent.  But Mom was unruffled by her objections, and insisted that she start going to school on Wesleyan Drive.  You see, Mom knew something about Adrienne that Adrienne had not yet learned about herself.

         Of course Adrienne had been here before, attending an open house and taking the admissions test.  In that process she had met and interviewed with Gary Laws.  Being a veteran at such things, he quickly saw what Mom saw. This was a young woman not only possessing an uncommon intellect but also, already, beginning to reveal a big heart.  He muttered to himself his characteristic “whoa!” and wrote, simply enough, “take her!!” on the cover of her admissions folder.  The offer of admission was extended and after some family discussion accepted.  Adrienne was a good girl, and somewhere inside she hoped that Mom actually knew best.

         She will readily tell you that the first few months confirmed her fears.  Her old friends were gone, and she had no immediate way to get “in” with her new classmates.  There were days in September and October when she felt very, very lonely.  But sometime in that fall, Kate Hofheimer Wilson became, in today’s lingo, her new best friend.  Now there was somebody to walk to chapel with and to sit beside in class.  Soon, athletics became another entrée. She made JV Basketball (girls then played in the fall) and JV Volleyball in the winter, the only seventh-grader on the team.  “Big Lefty,” her coaches called her, more for her drive than for her size.  As the weeks passed, “Don’t make me go” evolved into “Okay, okay, I’m coming.”  By January the morning refrain was, “Come on, Mom, I’m late!”  When the fall of 1987 came around she could not wait to get back to school.

         That fall also saw the arrival of Maryam Nowroozi.  Adrienne remembered her own struggles at the start of the previous year and extended her hand in friendship to this new girl.  It didn’t happen right away, but by senior year they were joined at the hip.  They made an impressive pair, strong, brilliant, funny, and assured.  That year your humble chronicler was the proud parent of eight-year-old twins and a two-year old, all girls.  They were a handful.  Pruden and Nowroozi joined forces to form an imposing baby-sitting team.  On those nights when my wife and I were out, the children were at home having a ball (and then going to bed on time) while Mom and Dad had absolutely no worries.

Adrienne and Maryam in 2011

          Adrienne Pruden Ashby has gone on to do many great things, far too numerous to list here.  Suffice it to say that she is the only alumna whose picture has made the cover of the Wall Street Journal, and above the fold at that. That’s because as a lawyer in Atlanta she decided to leave her well-paid position at Kilpatrick Stockton, one of Atlanta’s largest law firms, and thereafter almost single-handedly brought down a corrupt and usurious lending operation that was preying on the poor in that town.  Subsequently she turned her attentions to doing what she could to improve public schooling in the region.  Again, her resumé is far too lengthy to detail here.

          And as impressive as they are, it is not at this moment her achievements that demand our attention.  Rather, we should focus on a shy but warm-hearted young girl who had the tenacity to work through an abrupt change in her adolescent life and make the most of it.  We should focus on a young woman who did in fact come to understand what her Mom knew all along.  Once she grew in confidence, she also recognized that this school could provide her opportunities she might not find anywhere else.  More important, she realized that, beginning with the Morehead Scholarship at the University of North Carolina, taking advantage of those opportunities could put her in positions where she could do great good.  As corny as it sounds, Adrienne went to law school not to make money but to seek justice.  Twenty years later she remains a role model for our students.  She teaches them that you can do great things if you are ready when the chance comes.

          She and her family have recently moved back into our area. She misses Atlanta, the place where her children were born, but does like being closer to her extended family.  And in our school and in our community we are all surely better for her return.  Welcome back, Ms. Ashby.  Nice to see you again.

Springtime for Royster

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For some twenty-five years now Gary Laws has been quoting from Dickens in an effort to describe our Middle School.  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”  Mr. Laws’s choice from the opening of A Tale of Two Cities is particularly apt, for it captures the wild swings of the emotional pendulum that accompanies the journey through adolescence.  In trying to describe the joys of acting as a tour guide on that journey, teachers must not minimize the accompanying agonies.  But all of us working in this wacky place called Royster have concluded that the smiles greatly outnumber the tears.  As proof of that, consider that the mean tenure of Middle School faculty is between 12 and 13 years and that almost half the faculty has taught here for more than 15 years.  In this age of mobility those numbers are astonishing.  Something must be bringing us back year after year.

Woody Poole entertains a rapt Middle School science class.

          Most of the allure is obvious.  Earlier this year we witnessed a ninth grade student give her required speech to the middle school.  This young woman, who twelve months earlier considered her herself homely, academically inferior to her classmates, and worst of all, unpopular, stood up in front of 350 adolescents, 25 teachers, and her extended family, and presented a well-crafted, reasoned argument with confidence and even a little style.  Utterly self-assured and poised, she held her audience captive for seven minutes and then resumed her seat to prolonged and genuine applause.  The smile on her face as she exited the stage to meet her family was enough to sustain us for another year.  Even those who had never taught her could not help but swell with pride at her triumph.  So, to paraphrase Bill Murray from Caddyshack, we got that going for us.

Middle School boys, doing what they do.

            But there is another reason to remain as a teacher in Royster.  The kids, particularly when spring arrives, are just so completely “out there.”  The unpredictable silliness and downright goofiness of a middle school student can, if you are looking carefully, provide you with hours of entertainment and even joy.  Consider the following absolutely true episodes:

  • When asked why he broke the glass face of one of the hallway clocks with his face this particular young man responded, “I wanted to show my friends that I could kiss it.”

Note how much "air" the young man needed to get to kiss said clock.

 

  • When told by his baseball coach that this seventh grader had his shoes on the wrong feet, this young man became confused, stared down at the backward cleats, and after a few seconds looked up and said, “No I don’t.  These are my feet.”  
  • When reminded with two minutes left in class not to forget the handout that had fallen to the floor under his desk, this young man said, “Thanks, I won’t.”  As he left the class without retrieving the handout, the teacher called, “Billy, you forgot your handout!”  Billy turned and with a quizzical look said, “What handout?”

Are they really THAT lost in thought?

  • When asked to pass the mashed potatoes, this ninth grader reached into the bowl, grabbed a massive handful, leaned across the table and deposited it on the appropriate plate.  The recipient merely uttered a polite and unconcerned “Thank you.”
  • When a ninth grade girl was asked to find the grammar error in “The committee gave the award to Carlos and I,” she was initially unable to answer.  So the teacher said “Just take Carlos out of it – does ‘the committee gave the award to I’ sound right?”  The girl frowned and said, “but that’s so unfair to Carlos!”

And so it goes.

Middle School girls can act just as goofy as their male counterparts.

  Teachers have to be able to identify those moments when a student might be placing himself in physical or emotional danger (like trying to kiss a clock face seven feet in the air) and those in which the student is doing something silly and ultimately endearing.  The line between those two is not readily apparent to an eighth-grader.  I have often heard the only partially humorous suggestion that we simply pad the Royster walls.  As a faculty we try to provide protection that we hope will be better than foam rubber.  I have also heard repeatedly over the years parents ask, in earnest supplication, “When will my child stop being so goofy?”  The answer is that he will – sometime.  Each of us grows—and grows up—at a different pace.  In the meantime, it’s okay to appreciate the silliness for what it is, knowing that somewhere beneath it are serious, mature beings waiting to emerge.

Once, when I was conducting a review game in my Ancient History class while preparing for the upcoming Egypt unit test, I decided to break the monotony and ask a few trivia questions.  So I gestured toward my beloved poster of the “Fab Four” and asked a student if she could identify two of the four Beatles.  She scrunched up her face and offered, “Scarab and . . . dung?”

 I could not possibly make this stuff up.

Carpool Quadratic

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So I’m out in front of the athletic pavilion the other morning, supposedly greeting seniors as they arrive.  This is my week for traffic duty.  I look down the sidewalk to my right to see Chris Runzo manning a similar duty in front of the main entrance.  A group of children has gathered around him, and there appears to be some sort of game afoot.  So I abandon my post to walk over to see what’s going on with Mr. Runzo.

What's going on here?

                   As each Middle Schooler unloads from his car (and 90% of them who don’t ride the bus disembark at this spot), Mr. Runzo asks one of two questions.  The eighth-graders are called upon to recite the quadratic equation before they are allowed passage into school. The ninth-graders are asked to repeat the law of cosines in order to gain access.  Every single student tries his best.  In the five or six minutes that I am there, not one single kid shows any sign of impatience or intolerance.  Not one adolescent considers the question annoying or “geeky.” With great good cheer each accepts the challenge, rolls the eyes skyward and takes a fair shot at “x equals negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4ac, all over 2a.”  Some get it right, while others get halfway there. There are even two or three students—those who can recite the quadratic formula in their sleep—hanging around trying to coach their classmates and simply reveling in the whole experience.

Mr. Runzo and today's "partner in crime."

There are about twelve things right about this situation, but I’ll limit myself to two or three.

First, a sizable number of kids, in March of their eighth-grade year, can in fact recite the quadratic equation.  Others get pretty close.  We must be teaching them something.  Wait, I take that back – they must be learning something.  We faculty have the privilege of working with the brightest group of kids around.  What an incredible pleasure it is to be teaching kids who overwhelmingly want to learn and are very, very good at it.  It can also be a real challenge when a whole lot of kids in the room are smarter than you are.  I once had an Ancient History student who would not hesitate to correct me publicly if I said something false in class. I took him aside and said that I didn’t mind, but that he shouldn’t do so “in front of the children.”  We are kept on our toes, but it is absolutely worth it.

Another cheerful “victim.”

           Second, the students are uniformly polite, even cheerful.  At 7:55 in the morning, no less.  I’m still grumpy and need a few more minutes charging my battery.  What is it with these kids?  Maybe they are just playing off Mr. Runzo, who is having more fun than he should be having by challenging his students as they arrive.  And the unofficial student coaches are smiling and giggling as each classmate makes his attempt.  You cannot help but be buoyed by what is transpiring here. This is happy medicine indeed.  Of course in a few hours I might be barking at seniors for the profundity of their second-semester slump (which, in fact, I was) or at some eighth-grade boy for playing keep-away with a classmate’s pen (ditto).  But at this precise moment there is enough goodwill to chase away the less than perfect moments to come.

More important than anything else, this is ultimately not about intelligence or optimism or even math.  Take a close look at the attached video.  This is about Mr. Runzo, or more precisely, the relationship that has been forged between Mr. Runzo and his students.  Check out the kids’ body language.  Look at the ease with which they respond to the challenge.  It’s not that they are friends with him – some may well have felt the sting of his rebuke from time to time.  The relationship is deeper and more important than friendship.  For lack of a better word, they respect him.  They know in their hearts that he wants only the best for each of them.  For a few, he is also their coach who works them senseless in practice because he wants so desperately for each to succeed.  And so when he throws a little brainteaser at them as they arrive, they are delighted to respond.

Mr. Runzo’s traffic duty doubles as a math quiz. Middle Schoolers know that when he’s on duty no one gets past without reciting the quadratic equation or the Law of Cosines.

At the end of each school year Mr. Manning conducts exit interviews with each senior.  One of the questions he asks is “What is the best thing about Norfolk Academy?”  The overwhelming majority response is “relationships with teachers.”  This creates a wonderful symbiosis. Teachers here love working with kids and crave success for them.  When the students realize this from Ms. Beloved English Teacher or Mr. Respected Science Prof, they respond with their best shot at trying to fulfill the expectations.  Which makes us love them even more.  Which makes them try to live up to our expectations even more. The feelings on each side can last a lifetime.

While lunching at No Frill Grill last weekend I ran into two young women I had taught in the 1988 – 1989 school year.  One of the two I know well and see often.  The other I don’t recall having seen since graduation those many years ago.  Since it has been so long, she supplied her name even though in this instance it was not necessary.  The pleasure she took at saying hello was obvious, not because it was Mr. Savage, but because my face reminded her of all the teachers that had worked with her twenty or thirty years ago. She bore precisely the same expression as those kids greeting Mr. Runzo.

But to any alumnus or alumna reading this, allow me to let you in on a little secret.  For all those years, you have meant every bit as much to us as we may have meant to you.

 

High Fives in the Rain

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       One of the best side benefits of teaching is laughter.  That is, putting 1,200 young people together in a school with 100+ adults crazy enough to want to work there creates myriad opportunities for humor. Over my many years here I have enjoyed more than a few moments of high comedy, sometimes planned but usually impromptu.  Of those that were intentional, who could forget Dave Trickler emceeing the Mr. Beach contest at the Faculty Follies in 1986’s Field Day?  How about the time Wai Wong and company broke out the Back Street Boys at an otherwise somber Middle School Chapel?  Or Michael Willey’s senior speech, whose thesis was that the Walt Disney Company’s ultimate goal was to rule the entire world?  And I still smile every time I remember Amelia Zontini’s perfect Brooklyn accent as she purred, “Oh Nathan!” in Guys and Dolls. I am sure that every alum has a list of favorite funny moments.

       In the end, however, the truly memorable funny moments just happen.  Here’s one of my absolute favorites. It’s a little subtle and requires a keen mind’s eye, but it’s worth the imagining. I cannot recall the exact year, but 2003 is close enough for our purposes.

       It had rained hard for three straight days that fall, hard enough for lower schoolers to be forced to walk through the Middle School on their way to and from lunch.  As you might expect, the children were instructed to be stone silent for their entire time in the Royster building.  As you might also expect, not everyone followed that admonition perfectly.  On Day One there was laughing and even a little playful wrestling as the transit was made.

       So when the rains came again on Day Two, the order went out that the kids were to walk silently and an arm’s length apart on their way through Royster.  This turned out to be still insufficient guidance, because now there was much jumping and catching each other by the shoulders, and still there was giggling if not outright laughter.  When Day Three brought more incessant rain, the instructions were to walk silently, arm’s length apart, and with both hands in pants pockets.  This time the commands were generally followed, and the 11:30 lunch brought 260 children, single-file and quiet, both to and from lunch.

 

The first grade boys demonstrate model "line" behavior.

       This was too much for Gary Laws to bear. Remember, his office is the last thing the kids would see as they turned to leave Royster on their way to lunch.  So as the 11:30 exodus commenced, he resolved to conduct a little experiment. He stood in his office door smiling down the hall as the kids turned the corner by the Latin room to pass by.  Just before the first youngster came abeam, Gary extended his hand at about the level of his head and said, quite cheerfully, “Gimme five!!”  He repeated this with every kid in the parade.

       This put the young ones on the horns of an excruciating moral dilemma.  On the one hand, here was the opportunity to experience the intimacy and joy of a “high five,” made even more precious by its contrast to the drudgery of a silent walk through a school building.  And after all, Mr. Laws is head of the Royster Division, and you shouldn’t disobey his suggestions.  On the other hand, for three straight days your beloved teacher had been pressing you in increasingly severe terms to be a good boy or girl and stay quiet.  To a ten-year-old child, this was a crisis of real magnitude.

       The “Laws Maneuver” was funny enough in and of itself, but what made me really chuckle were the different reactions of the students.  They fell into three rough categories.  The “Goodie Two-Shoes” remembered their orders and either looked away or down, hands remaining firmly ensconced in pockets as they slinked by.  The “Dangerous Rebels” excitedly jumped in the air, smiling broadly and shouting, “Yeah!!” as palm slapped against palm.  Finally, the “Have Cake and Eat It, Too” crowd tried furtively to withdraw a hand from a pocket and as quickly as possible make hand-to-hand contact with Mr. Laws.  Then, with blinding speed the hand returned to its designated spot, hoping to avoid detection from teachers either in front or behind.  Although disappointed at their lack of bravery, I had to admire their creativity and athleticism.  I mean, a couple of these kids displayed some fundamental quickness.

       Now the issue was whether Mr. Laws would repeat the maneuver on the students’ return trip.  He considered the question for a moment and concluded, “Nah, you can only have so much fun.”  He was correct, if only for that particular moment.  Something equally cute and funny would be sure to come up in a day or two.

       You end up smiling a lot in this place.

The always serious Mr. Gary Laws strikes a pose with a senior.

 

The Best Teacher I Ever Had

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       As the school year passes its halfway point, I find myself thinking about a school year many decades ago.  More specifically, I find myself thinking about the best teacher I ever had, Charles J. Cumiskey, Jr.

Mr. Cumiskey’s photo as Director of the Lower School.

      At Norfolk Academy and elsewhere I have learned from many superb teachers.  In my teaching style, I pick and choose from the techniques employed by a range of men and women over my years.  Bob “Boomer” Scott, who taught Contracts at the University of Virginia Law School and subsequently became Law School Dean, was the best I ever saw at listening intently to a student answer while formulating his next question in response.  Every time I launch into a Socratic exchange in my Senior Politics class, I remember the Boomer and try to do what he did.  From Sheldon Hackney, then Provost of Princeton University while teaching a course in Southern History, I learned that lessons can be conveyed more powerfully by not using words.  Sometimes, a song or an image—or even a taste—gets to an intellectual point more perfectly.  And from Mr. MacConochie, I learned that the love of words is never unmanly.  It is in fact okay for a guy to like Emily Dickinson.

       But Mr. Cumiskey was the best.  In 1965 he was head of the Lower School, the baseball coach, and the math teacher for the sixth and seventh grades.  With only one section per grade level in those days, there was no need for designations such as “6A,” much less “4GB.”  Mr. Cumiskey had been a catcher in college, and a very good one.  He still could peg a ball from home to second base on a line and on the bag.  (I’ll return to this in a moment.) He was diminutive, and like a good catcher, solidly built.  And also like a good catcher, there was something in his voice that commanded attention from those around him.

Coach Cumiskey.

       Mr. Cumiskey loved teaching, and I believe he loved all of his students.  He would nickname each of us, not right away, but as the year progressed.  As much because I was a year young for my grade as for my five-foot-tall mother’s genes, I was noticeably shorter than my classmates.  Mr. Cumiskey set upon “Toe-High” as my moniker.  I wasn’t even “knee-high to a grasshopper,” he said, I was “toe-high to a tadpole.”  I loved the play on my unusual first name, and smiled every time he used it.  In the nicknaming and in countless other ways, he communicated his joy at working with young people with crystal clarity. He was boundlessly enthusiastic, clear, and demanding.  His math class was seldom easy, but it was never dull.

 

       He and his wife even sponsored what we called “cotillion.”  Upon the merger with Country Day School in 1966, he saw an opportunity to break the ice between eighth-grade girls and boys.  So on Saturday evenings we met in the dance room with a simple stereo.  For the first hour, he and Eileen (that’s Mrs. Cumiskey to you, young man) taught us ballroom dancing.  For the second hour it was “our” dancing to “Let’s Twist Again” or “Doo-Wah-Diddy.”  All the boys became nervous when he put on a slow song like “Willow Weep for Me” or, worse yet, “Unchained Melody.” You know it’s love when a grown man gives up Saturday nights to teach 13-year olds to two-step and then watch them fumble and lurch trying to do the Watusi.

       Mr. Cumiskey was not afraid to be physical.  Don’t get me wrong – I am dead set against any form of corporal punishment, and don’t buy the argument for a second that it builds a bond of trust between student and teacher.  But in his case, it was so clear from the start how much he cared about you and how much he wanted you to succeed, that he could do stuff we might frown on today.  For instance, just suppose you turned your head to speak to the boy in the seat behind you; within an instant an eraser would ping off the back of your skull, throwing a halo of chalk dust and leaving you marked for the rest of class.  It didn’t hurt except for the embarrassment, and with that catcher’s arm he never missed.  Of course, he only had to throw erasers once or maybe twice in early September to stop the practice of turning around in your seat until at least Christmas.

      He also knew when to quit kidding and get tough.  Faculty have all read “Nurture Shock,” the latest science on over-managing kids as they grow up.  It has as one of its premises that kids lie to parents and teachers because they so deeply value their relationships, and fear that admitting some error or omission might jeopardize that relationship.  With Mr. Cumiskey it cut the other way.  We all adored him so much that few of us wanted even to put ourselves in the position to lie.  When he asked you a direct question you gave him a direct answer, simply because it was Mr. Cumiskey.  You couldn’t lie to him.

      

      Finally, he was very, very good at getting angry.  I committed some transgression in his sixth-grade math class, and he sent me to his office to wait for him until class was over.  I’d like to say that the anticipation of his reprimand was worse than the actual thing, but no, they were both pretty bad.  So on top of not being able to fib, there was a positive element of danger in his class that helped keep us in line.  I’m not sure I ever transgressed again when he was about.

My sixth grade class - when Mr. Cumiskey was head of the Lower School. The author is in the front row second from left.

       It’s probably overkill to say that Charlie Cumiskey was the perfect teacher, but he comes as close as anyone I’ve ever seen.  He lives in Georgia now, pater familias to a very large collection of children and grandchildren.  He comes to Norfolk from time to time for important school occasions.  When last I saw him (I believe at 2010 Homecoming), he was doing great.  There is a part of me that laments not getting to know him better now that I am all grown up, but another larger part prefers to enjoy the memory of how much I learned from him as a child.

      

       Some time ago, in making remarks to a group of alumni when he was present, I called him “the best teacher I ever had.”  I watched the tears come to his eyes.  There it is.  Forty years later, praise from a former student about his qualities as a teacher can make him emotional.  That’s why we love you, Mr. Cumiskey.  You always cared. You still do.

Message in a Bottle

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“Differentiation” is the new hot word among educators and school administrators.  That is, we are encouraged to identify that which makes our course, our program, our whole school different from others in the area.  When it comes to Norfolk Academy’s program, differentiating is a comparatively easy task.  We can point to the senior and 9th-grade speech programs or to our insistence on sticking with the “teacher as coach” model.  I also don’t know of any peer independent school that feeds its 1,200 students family style.  Our honor system, if not unique, is very different in style and impact from others of its ilk. 

A Seminar Day activity.

 
 

Oliver Jeffers’ book “The Heart and the Bottle.”

But of all the things that makes us different, the Seminar Program is one of the most important.  Under the leadership of Tom Duquette, we just concluded a school-wide seminar day based on “The Heart and the Bottle,” by Oliver Jeffers.  It is the story of a little girl, greatly attached to her grandfather, who loves to play and explore with him.  When he “goes away,” the little girl no longer can see beauty or wonder in the world.  She puts her heart in a glass bottle, dangling it from around her neck.  After a while she finishes grieving and tries to get her heart back, but the bottle has become impregnable.  In the end, it takes another little girl, as curious and joyful as our heroine once was, to liberate the heart and bring back to her the capacity to love and explore.  Aimed at an audience of children, the book speaks to all generations.    

Before trying to convey the audacity and total “coolness” of an entire day spent with students of all grades mingled together in a common purpose, let us take a quick tour of the seminar program’s history.  At the height of the educational reform movement of the late 1980’s John Tucker, always the visionary, decided that Norfolk Academy faculty should become aware of, and perhaps occasional practitioners of, the Great Books curriculum founded by Mortimer Adler.  The heart of Adler’s program was the radical notion that teachers should be “facilitators” rather than “instructors.”  Adler wanted his devotees to share great texts with students, and through a process of organized discussions discover together all the works have to offer.  By definition teachers become better questioners instead of the source of answers.  Many faculty members found the loss of superior bargaining power in the classroom difficult and a little scary.  But Mr. Tucker was insistent, and so we all took formal training with Great Books instructors, and then with Tunstall Director Will Stacey at the helm, we met periodically for a year to practice conducting seminars ourselves.  To seal the deal we started a series of Great Books-styled seminars with upper school students in the fall of 1991.   

             They were successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.  We tackled very difficult texts from all disciplines at an extraordinarily high level, making students write essays for grades at the end of the day on questions developed during the discussions.  The cumulative list of readings is impressive indeed.  On most days there was some community activity, ranging from dancing by Elbert Watson to viewing Citizen Kaneto learning how to juggle to a presentation from Professor Ted Mearns, internationally recognized Constitution Law authority (and also Susan Duquette’s father).    I was tasked with planning and executing Seminar Day for the first several years, and found them to be my favorite days of each school year. 

Headmaster Dennis Manning and Mr. Tom Duquette address students and faculty on Seminar Day.

 Ten years after its commencement, Mr. Duquette and a newly-arrived Dennis Manning decided that we should expand the seminar day to include grades one through twelve.  We had experimented with including middle school classes, but going school-wide was really reaching for it.  We chose Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D. B. Johnson, a book about choosing your journeys in life, and with considerable trepidation brought in everybody.  And although it was a logistical nightmare, the act of bringing the whole school together created a force of its own.  If we had to back off the intellectual level to get first graders on board, the idea of truly being one school for a day was, well, lovely.  Dennis Manning would later call our various seminar meetings throughout the day “50 or 60 one-room schoolhouses.”

 

 

      And so the all-school seminar has prospered, grown, and become a fixture of school life.  It is unbelievably audacious, asking faculty members across divisions and disciplines to come together for an entire day.  We put first-graders with seniors as well as everybody between and go to school together.  We feed them, we move them around, we prepare activities for them.      This time out we found new constellations in stars on sheets handed to everyone, we played at getting little red felt hearts out of Pepsi bottles, and we even measured each other’s heart rates.  And all the time we were focused on Mr. Jeffers’ provocative book.

 

Students consider how to extract a heart from a bottle. Some succeed, while others just have fun trying.

 

 

Helen Watson and Elbert Watson mesmerize students and faculty.

We did one other thing.  We watched Elbert Watson, together with two of his adult pupils, Helen Watson and Lauren Sinclair, interpret the book through dance.  All of us in the gym, half of us on the floor, sat mesmerized as this multi-media performance played itself out.  It was beautiful beyond description.  When they came to the moment when the little girl discovers her grandfather’s chair empty, I felt the tears welling in my eyes.  I averted my face for a moment to try and get control, and in doing so made eye contact with Chris Nelson, who was beside me having the exact same reaction.  We were both thinking of our own children and of the 1200 precious souls, sitting all around us in the gym, we guide every day.  It happened in the book and happens here almost daily; it is the young ones who touch our hearts.

 Differentiated, indeed.  And way cool.

 

Everywhere a Bulldog

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        While walking to the Bookstore from Royster the other day I noticed –  well, I almost tripped over – a concrete statue of a bulldog where the various sidewalks join together.  It serves the function of a sort of carved welcome mat.  Weathered and a little pale, it is still unmistakably identifiable as our mascot.  Having never paid attention to it before, I wondered how many other canine representations on campus had escaped my notice. So I did a little ambulatory research to count the bulldogs.  The total?

            Forty.  Five sculptures, two major pieces of artwork, various and sundry signs, posters, stuffed animals, and even one live version (whom we shall meet in a moment).  And this is not counting the interior walls of any classroom or office, which would add scores more. Heck, Eric Acra must have ten on the shelves in his office alone.  The areas of highest concentration are predictable – the Bulldog Bookstore and the Burroughs gym complex.  I know we are a big campus, but forty is a lot of bulldogs.  Having done no similar walking tour in other schools, I would still bet that there are not forty dolphins in the halls at Cape Henry or forty cougars at Collegiate in Richmond.  It has to be a dead certain lock that there are not forty oak trees decorating the Norfolk Collegiate campus.

"Tucker" greets visitors to the Wynne Courtyard and Fountain.

 

            What should we make of this surfeit of bulldogs?  Why have we chosen to surround ourselves with such a large pack?  The initial answer is that the bulldog is a symbol of toughness, a character trait that when properly defined is to be much sought after.  The story goes that Teddy Baker ’53, who at age 14 had been given the job as spotter to a WNOR radio broadcast team at a much ballyhooed 1949 football game with Maury High School, supplied the nickname when the announcers grew tired of calling the Academy team “boys,” and demanded an alternative.  “I blurted out bulldogs,” Teddy recalls. To this day he has no idea where that choice came from.  At the time he was more worried about getting in trouble for supplying what was at the time a purely fictitious mascot identity.  But after the announcers repeated it on air, and more particularly when Abe Goldblatt used the name in his Virginian-Pilot article on the game the next day, the name was forever no longer fictitious.  And “fighting like bulldogs” had a very nice ring to it.  To this day we strive to conduct ourselves, like the bulldog, with an unwillingness to compromise or to give up until our work is done.

 

            There’s another, slightly more complex reason for all the bulldog art.  With all due respect to the dogs and particularly their owners, the bulldog is one of nature’s most ridiculous looking creatures.  Jay Rainey and his family are the proud owners of Silas, a standard English bulldog.  He makes it from their home on the circle to the campus proper quite often, always bringing sounds of delight from children and broad smiles from the adults.  You can’t help but love an animal that is so straightforward and self-assured in the light of his unusual appearance.  And if Silas is popular with the kids, the Peccie’s bulldog Churchill is, frankly, a rock star.  He is huge, packing 50 or 60 pounds into his 14 vertical inches.  He is twice as big as Silas, with twice the grunt, twice the drool, and twice the adoration.  On those occasions when he is toted across town to school, his arrival is an event.  After all, he must be pretty strong and confident to go around in public looking like that.

 

Churchill after a particularly challenging afternoon.

    

         Our students are anything but ridiculous looking.  I don’t know one who grunts or drools.  Check out graduation composite photographs if you want to see beautiful groups of young men and women.  But we all want to think that it is not how we look, but how we act that brings us respect and love.  The many images of our mascot serve to remind us of that.  You don’t have to be streamlined or lithe to be successful.  You just have to be a bulldog.

Pit Ball

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      If anything defines the Royster Middle School, particularly its 7th grade students, it is Pit Ball. Like great literature, Pit Ball exists on many levels, ranging from the metaphysical to the mundane. It tests a young person’s honesty, his stamina, his aggressiveness, and his ability to suffer public defeat. In other words, it is the perfect game for middle-schoolers.

      First, a word about nomenclature. The story goes that Pit Ball was the brainchild of Vik Raman ‘97. Who knows if he intended intended “Pitball” or “Pit Ball?” To the extent that he was twelve or thirteen years old at the time, it is doubtful that he intended anything when it comes to spelling. In any event, those of us who care about such things have concluded that as a game, Pit Ball more closely resembles Dodge Ball than Football, so we choose to leave it as a two-word phenomenon. (All of this, of course, begs the question, “Who cares?”)

Pit Ball in the Kennon Forum

  

    For those of you who don’t know, Pit Ball is a game played in the Kennon Forum, that square depression of concrete known to all as “the pit.” (How many of you knew it was technically the Kennon Forum?). The pit is an inverse step-pyramid, descending in four two-foot steps to a base about 25 feet square. At the midpoint of each of the four sides, an intermediate step approximately three feet wide and one foot high has been added to make getting up and down more convenient. In other words, the pit has four staircases, one on each side. The game is played by four students at a time, each entirely on his own. Each “defends” a staircase. An old, beat-up soccer ball is tossed into the pit, and the player whose stairs are touched first by the ball is out. The rules of soccer are observed, more or less, so this game is played entirely with the feet. Finally, if the ball is kicked so high as to actually leave the pit, the student who launched it is similarly out. Other students line up on the stairs behind the contestants, hoping that the player in front of them will soon be out and give them a chance.

Defending his staircase.

      Right away you can see the complexities. How far do you stray from your stairs to try to eliminate an opponent? The boy to your right is a good friend, but can you trust him not to get you out if you wander too far? There is no referee, so will you dispute your loss if it is unclear that the ball hit your step but the other three say it did? The base of the pit is aggregate concrete, tailor-made for skinning hands and knees, so how hard do you push an opponent? While waiting your turn, do you automatically choose to wait behind the weakest present contestant? If you trip or otherwise fail to distinguish yourself, what do you do about the pleasure your classmates may be taking at your distress? Do you get back in line or slip away? And finally (and this may be most important), if one of your opponents is a cute member of the opposite gender in whom you might have interest, how do you let that affect your strategy?

      Faculty members take turns at “pit duty,” so the game is always supervised. Those who are watching closely can learn a lot about the students, and not just those currently in action. You can see who is strong, who is shy, who is loyal, who is sly. You can distinguish between those who want to win and those who want merely to play. And above all, you can tell the difference between those who accept their fate and those who prefer to equivocate their way around it.

Waiting for a chance to play.

      Two other aspects of the game bear description. First, it can be incredibly gratifying to watch kids grow up in the pit. The whining seventh grader turns into the ninth grade team captain. The one who was physically superior in the eighth grade has to deal with the fact that a year later his classmates are catching up to him. The shy violet becomes an outspoken leader. Gary Laws tells his newly arrived seventh-grade parents every year to put a picture of their youngster on the fridge now, because three years from now they won’t recognize her. Pit Ball gives the faculty the chance to take mental fridge pictures along the way.

      But more than anything, Pit Ball is fun. Four players and one ball lead to infinite strategic possibilities. The game is fast-paced and comes in short segments. It is completely co-ed. Even if you get eliminated, you can be back in the game soon. And in a weird way, having every player be alone has the effect of bringing everyone together. We all must be on the same side if no one ever has to choose one.

 

"Just something that brings people together."

 

      Forty-seven years ago the trustees engaged Stan Leggett to act as chief consultant in the design of our present campus. He was insistent that we needed a central architectural feature to be the school’s focal point. There was some debate about what that feature should be. He advised us that it mattered not what form that focal point took. “It can be a hole in the ground,” he joked. “Just something that brings people together.”

      Wow, was he right.