My father’s school is a bit subdued today, as the former head, my father, died this morning. It’s a lovely, green campus, with some imposing brick edifices and a couple of the original converted farm buildings that still do good service. Despite its location in prime Snow Belt country south of Buffalo, New York, there’s no snow on the ground, but the air has a damp bite to it that generally means something white is on the way–but in the age of global climate change, who can tell any more?
This all may seem a little personal, but My Father’s School just lost the guy who kept it alive when times were tough and who believed in its mission enough to give it a lifetime of arduous service–this was a headmaster who taught six classes while running the place for years with an administrative team that included a bookkeeper and an associate head, period. He could never understand the proliferation of titles and jobs that seemed to seep into schools after the 1980s, and he really could never quite understand what the people at other schools–including mine–had to spend so much time meeting about. He saw what to do, and he, along with a generally pretty happy and compliant faculty, just went out and did it. The times, the scale of the school (160 students), his vision, and the straightforward mission of the school made that possible in a way that seems incomprehensible just a couple of decades later.
I suspect that, as is the case with many teachers, his students might have known him even better than his own children did. He was at ease in a classroom as he was almost nowhere else, and his belief in his students–even when sorely tried–was pretty amazing. Like all good heads, he grieved when a student had to be sent away, and no expulsion saddened him more than when the trusted, bright, congenial boy who helped him pick up and sort the mail from the local post office turned out in 1971 to be supplying pot to his schoolmates. He took from this a key lesson: that drug-using kids were not depraved or evil (this in a time when most schools hadn’t quite figured that out), just adolescents making spectacularly bad decisions. I don’t think he ever judged students through the same lens again.
It’s a theme in prep school literature that school heads are continually torn between expediency and school-building and doing the right thing, but I don’t have a sense that this was ever much of an issue for my father. If it was, it didn’t much show, and there didn’t seem to be any sign of the corrosive effects of such petty corruption or grand hypocrisy in the form of moral compromise.
I learned from my father that schools can be built and shaped and guided by people and their ideas (and not just by money and tradition, as I had sort of assumed after spending too much time reading F. Scott Fitzgerald and Louis Auchincloss), and Not My Father’s School is a celebration of the possibilities that are opening to schools in the future and certainly no repudiation of the way things were done in an era that looks simpler to us but probably didn’t feel that way to the people doing the work back then.
RIP, My Father, and thanks on behalf of all the students and young teachers (like me) who benefited from your patient guidance and from your faith that the young might some day manage the world as well as our seniors. Some months ago I proposed the idea here of schools as “heart trusts,” and your school was, is, and ever shall be. I hope that Not My Father’s School will be the same.