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To any new readers of my monthly “Thoughts”, I want to wish you welcome. I started writing these pieces about ten years ago for the senior students who are all required to take my Ethics class. Since they are also required to write essays for this class which I correct and grade, I thought it only fair that I publish an essay each month that they could grade or correct. After over 120 essays, I still have not received one back with suggestions or corrections by any senior. Parents have commented on them, but not seniors. Distant friends have commented, but not…well, you get the point. Perhaps seniors do not want to challenge their Head of School no matter how much he encourages them or, more likely, they just don’t read them.
Which leads me to an important question: what are you doing reading these “Thoughts”? A goodly number of them are insubstantial and try to be humorous, a few are serious, and most are about two pages long. Rarely are they on education; more often they are on trivial subjects such as the cost of water in airports once you have passed the security lines. Indeed the word “curmudgeon” has been used by my friends who read the essays. So if you are still reading them and you are a parent of a York Prep student, you can (if you are so inclined) go back into the archives and read all, to your heart’s content, and you might get a distinct picture of the Headmaster of your child’s school. I do not know if it will be different from the perception that you already have, but it is probably a benefit to know the peculiarities of the leadership of the school where you have entrusted your child.
Being a Head of a school sometimes requires a certain standard of conduct which appears almost like opaqueness. I have met many Heads and have no idea what they meant when they talked in their “edu-speak” made up of little more than politically correct clichés. Certain phrases are constant in any Head’s playbook. The word “faculty” must always be preceded by the word “dedicated.” The phrase “student body” must always be preceded by the word “wonderful.”
We all understand why this is, but in these “Thoughts” I veer totally away from this type of behavior and perhaps too publicly discuss my pet peeves, likes, and curiosities. In answer to the question, “Isn’t this rather narcissistic?” the answer is of course, “Yes!” This is a blog, and blogs tend toward narcissism.
However, the great thing about writing these “Thoughts” is that I get the opportunity to say what I really want to say. And not all that I want to say has to do with education. For example, I just now was interrupted by a phone call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft and telling me that my computer was being used for illegal activities. When I asked him for his phone number (because it did not show up on my caller ID) so that I could call him back, he hung up. Of course he was not from Microsoft and was trying to sell me something even though I have registered my number with the “Do Not Call” registry. Despite my efforts, this registry has turned out to be ineffective in preventing sales calls at dinner time. So how am I to complain about it? Why, I can complain to you, dear reader. I just did, and I feel better, much better!
Now I have gotten that off my chest. There is little one can really do to prevent life’s annoyances, but it certainly is nice to have you to complain to when they occur. You are my therapist, my confidant, my sounding board for this cranky old man. To you I owe thanks.
If you or your child ever want to call me, to write to me, to make suggestions about or corrections to these “Thoughts”, you are more than welcome. Inevitably, some of them will be better than others.
But in the meantime, since this is the beginning of the new school year, let me end as I began (I always try and do that.) by welcoming you to my blog, and to (not so secretly) hope that you will read it with the goal that one day (not this one I am afraid) I will make you smile.
Ronald Stewart Head York Prep
Is it learned behavior to become more conscious of prioritizing as one gets older? Certainly, I have realized that saying yes to everyone only increases a responsibility to do things that you should not be doing, that you have no right to do, and that will take away time from what you should be doing. Thus I have learned increasingly to say no. I have learned to say no to boards that want me on them for heaven knows what reason. I have learned to ask for outlines of the purpose of a meeting before salesmen of ANY type call for an appointment (and that is a large category), and I have slowly learned to regretfully decline to have dinner or spend a weekend with people we would not enjoy having dinner with or, even worse, spending a weekend.
This must be the much touted “wisdom” of getting older. I have an acute memory of my many mistakes when I was younger. I remember, to my shame, leaving with my children early from a Rolling Stones concert in order to get to some dinner function which, in hindsight, I should have declined to attend. I remember, out of some pathetic desire not to appear rude, spending a weekend in the country, which anyone in their right mind could have figured out that Jayme and I would have not enjoyed. I remember taking on responsibilities in a variety of areas because I was flattered that they asked, yet did not have the time to complete as effectively as I would have liked.
Now I have learned an honesty which tries to be kind but also is firm. Thank you but no thank you. For many people who call you, the time/cost clock is ticking. I never realized that lawyers whom you hire are charging you for apparently innocent (and non-informative) conversation. That the accountant who wants to “stop by” is going to charge you for the privilege. I suppose that yesterday’s blank time cannot be sold. As one who tries to give more advice to parents whose children we reject, that concept of charging for advice does not sit well with me. In England, when I was a barrister, you were paid only if you accepted the “brief” and then paid for every day actually spent in court. No one counted every six-minute “chunk” that passed. I have difficulty with that concept.
Teachers, by their nature, give of their time freely. At 5:00 p.m., long after school has “closed,” there are teachers still here going over their lessons with students who are looking for some further help. After my Ethics class, I always have continuing discussions with seniors who might challenge me about what was discussed (something I encourage) or have remembered something they wanted to say. Yes, even adolescents get “senior moments.” It is therefore not in the culture of what we do to think of six-minute chargeable sessions.
Age is a very variable thing for me. I consider myself an extremely fortunate man. I am (heaven knows how long) in good health, active, and (to the best of my knowledge) still in reasonable mental condition. I have known people far younger who, through no fault of their own, are in worse shape as well as older people who are in better shape. I remember some of my teachers who seemed to get better in dispensing information and ideas as they approached eighty. Writers whom I admire and then realize they wrote the book in their mid-eighties. Men ten years older I could not keep up with on a running track if my life depended on it.
Everything is relative. There are the young/old and the old/old. Luck places you in one or other cohort.
But to try and stay in the young/old cohort, I have learned to pace myself, not to rush to agree to every meeting or dash to some board or react to some social pressure. Now, a treasured time to be in the school building is late, usually after 9.00pm. That is when I can think about how I set up the next day, review what I did that day with a mind to see if I could have done things better, and generally relax in the quiet sanctuary of my office.
I hope I can keep learning to make the intelligent judgment to say no as I mature.
I have a confession to make: I am a FreeCell junkie. I am addicted to the solitaire game of FreeCell. It is the game that comes free with all Windows operating systems. It is on your computer. If you want to stop reading this and play it now, I will understand.
I rarely carry a cell phone. I use my computer all the time, but I do not in any way consider myself tech savvy (two words that had little meaning when I was growing up.) I like one object to do one operation. So although I own a cell phone, I prefer to take photographs on a camera. I want a real compass to tell me where North is. I prefer reading a newspaper to downloading one on my iPad. I like books written on paper. It is enough for me that cars have wireless radios in them. The idea of talking to the phone built into the car does not appeal to me. I liked those old bright red public phone boxes that we had on the sides of roads in England when I was growing up. I was used to seeing Superman changing in American phone booths. If someone invented a combination refrigerator, microwave oven, television, and telephone, I would not buy it. I still have to get used to toilets that flush by themselves because some photoelectric cell has been triggered by my movement (and I get the pun!)
Paradoxically, I am intrigued by educational gadgets. We had computers at York Prep from their earliest days. We no longer have blackboards but have interactive whiteboards instead. We are getting a three dimensional printer and are teaching coding next year. But that is all for the students. They are born into a world of technology. If something goes wrong with my email, I know that most sixth graders will know how to fix it. This is their destiny. They do not play FreeCell; they play incredibly complicated alternative universe games. If I represent the “transitional technological” generation, they are the “arrived technological” generation.
In our home, we used to have an old pinball machine. It was called “Gorgar.” When the pinball hit a certain button, the machine said “Gorgar” in a deep and threatening voice. I loved that machine, perhaps because a similar machine existed in the transport café (a working man’s tea shop) in London when I was a boy. The machine then was far simpler than Gorgar, but the principle was the same: you flipped the flippers and tried to keep the ball in play as it hit bumpers and fell in holes from which it was magically ejected. I can buy a similar game for my iPad. It has all the special effects and the principle is the same, but I have no interest in a virtual ball; I miss the real thing.
I do not envy the technological knowledge of our youth. I envy their youth (like all old people) but not the tech-savvy part. I prefer live performances to television, and I regret the increasing average age of the crowd at the Metropolitan Opera (which is why every year I take the entire senior class to a working rehearsal at the Met.) I love playing cards with my own children; we play Hearts. Real cards, real children! I have said somewhere previously in one of these thoughts that I am absolutely no good at “Skyping.” I loom all over the screen and feel frustrated at not being able to tousle the hair of a grandchild or pass them a book.
I am not a total dinosaur. If I were, then I would be playing Solitaire with real cards on a table. FreeCell is only a very small step for technology, but for me it is a giant leap. Anyway, enough with the self-driving cars, the combination refrigerator-microwave-telephones, the virtual pinball, and these headmaster’s thoughts; I am going to play another game of FreeCell.
Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
Amazingly, she can push a needle into the top of my nose between my eyes and I do not feel it. She can stick needles into my cheeks, my ears, my back, between my toes, and I feel no pain. And afterwards, I feel no pain. This is some smart lady, and her name is Dr. Ming Jin.
We are strange creatures, we human beings. And I am not a masochist!
During my headship, I admit that I have made mistakes. (The same cannot be said of my wife, who is the best college guidance counselor in America, bar none.) But the very factors that gave the two us the nerve to start a school at a young age and dedicate our lives to it are the same factors that have made us resist having others control us or it. Ms. Chapin and her fellow pioneers, I believe, would have agreed.
I suppose there are people who do not like lists, but I am not one of them. The internet is flooded with them nowadays, and I read them all. The ten best ways to cook a squirrel, the ten things one should never do on a crowded train, the ten best movies of 1965, the… you get the picture. Of course, list likers like me (ah, the art of alluring alliteration) are naturally pushed into hypochondria by all the websites available. You have a cough and wonder how long it will last. Most sites will tell you 17 days (which is longer than I have ever had a cough) and then will give you other symptoms to help you find out whether you have a more serious condition. Are you tired? Yes! Check that! Do you want to avoid doing any work? Yes, certainly sometimes! So check that! Do you feel tense? Yes! Do you feel that you are unappreciated? Yes, sometimes! Check that! When you add all the checks, they give you a diagnosis according to how many yesses you have. I always have ten out of ten and therefore am likely to die from total lung collapse at any moment. Indeed it seems surprising that I survived to the end of the list. And this is merely looking up about a cough.
All of this has little to do with the subject of this piece, except to say that I really like lists. And if I have a “to do” list, I truly enjoy the pure pleasure of filling in a box as “done!” I think that is why I look back at my high school years with fondness as a time of real growth in my learning. We did not get that much homework at my school. I don’t know why, but we did not. There were never multi choice answer tests (few believed in them then, and I have never been totally convinced of their value since) but we were required to write essays. Since I actually like to write essays (you may have noticed over the last ten years of these “thoughts”) I did the requisite two or three hours a night on them and did (if I do say it myself) well at them. Now I grew up an age where there were no computers, cell phones, text messages, and, at least not in my home, no television set. This left a great deal of time on my hands, particularly as I was not allowed to go out to see my friends on a school night. In practical terms I was alone a great deal of the time. But I was very fortunate because we had a great library system in our part of London. Willesden Green library system was quite remarkable. It had several branches, and you could take out four books at a time. What, looking back, is even more extraordinary is that they gave me my own room at a local branch to study. Why they did this for a schoolboy like me I have never quite found out. They had these archive rooms upstairs to the main collection, and I was offered the opportunity to study in the one that archived the local newspaper (The Willesden Chronicle) every day until the library closed at eight at night. I suppose they must have offered this to other people who just did not take them up on the offer, and maybe three or four times in my several years of use of this room, someone would come and look at one of the volumes of this complete collection of the “Chronicle” dating back to its origin in the time of Queen Victoria. In reality, I was just left alone in a room with a large communal desk and several chairs.
So, and you might be wondering where this is going, after I finished my homework I would read. And I would take books home with me to read after I ate dinner and until I went to sleep. I want to stress again that there was nothing else to do. The list part is important because when I was about fourteen I read a book called “The Idea of History” by R. G. Collingwood, and at the back of the book was the greatest bibliography of important books I had ever (and indeed have ever since) seen. R.G. Collingwood was a Professor of History at Oxford in the nineteen twenties and thirties who had some physical issues probably caused by strokes from which he died at a young age. He was, apparently, a brilliant historian. At fourteen, I did not fully understand his “The Idea of History” but I knew, even then, a good list when I saw one. Collingwood not only had this great list of the most important books (in his opinion, and who was I to argue?), but he also had brief descriptions of what was in each book with comments about their relevance, value and validity. In other words, the man had actually read them all.
So there was my list of lists. Alphabetical by author, over a hundred books, with publication dates and the publisher’s name so that I could ask the librarian to get the book if it was not available in the collection in the grand lending section beneath me. And to their great credit, the librarians tried on every occasion (with virtual total success) to get the books I asked for.
I kept R.G. Collingwood’s “Idea of History” all the way through high school as one of the four books I was allowed to borrow. Unfortunately I gave it back when I got my university scholarship and left school to live in Paris before I went up to Oxford. I say unfortunately with real emphasis because I have never again been able to find that edition of the book with its wonderful bibliography. It was re-published as a paperback (easy to find) but that came without the bibliography, the list, the very best part of the book. Because of writing this piece I think I have tracked down a hardback first edition through AbeBooks.co.uk . I have not received it but they say they have found a copy and I should get it in 60 days.
I did not manage to read close to all of the books on the list (only R.G. could have accomplished that) but when I did finish a book (or at least that part that I could understand) I would put a very small pencil check mark against the name of the book in the Bibliography. What a wonderful feeling that was! Early on I could check off Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” (not very interesting because they basically are lecture notes) and later Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” and so alphabetically through the world’s great books. Darwin’s book had such an influence on me that as a family we have been to the Galapagos Islands nine times and are going again (if I survive a cough with all those deathly symptoms) next year. Some books I tried and skipped because they were above me (Kant is not light reading), and some because they bored me (actually quite a few fell in this category.) But I can say that I tried to read as many as I could because I wanted to check them off the list. That is what it was all about. I wrote in one of these thoughts about the summer of 2009 when I finally read (and became mildly obsessed by) Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” That was a book that I had never before made it through the first 80 pages (and the first 80 pages are boring….War is so much more interesting than Peace,) but, joy of joys, I completed that item in the list in my sixties. Now if I still had that old Collingwood book I could make another checkmark.
In the twenty-first century it would be naïve to even hope that a young person would spend his or her time doing what I did. But, as I said, there was little else to do and I did not have a particularly happy home. My parents were divorced, and the “List” filled my time and gave me a love of reading I have never lost. I still read several books a week and often two or three different ones during the same time period (particularly if I want to break the heaviness of one book with the lightness of another, I will switch around).
So, as I said at the beginning, there are people who do not like lists but I am not one of them.