Let’s Talk About Toilets

You might have anticipated that my first published “Thoughts” of the New Year would be serious and educational. You would have been wrong.

You probably know that I come from England, where we have a long history of having a fascination with scatology. Put bluntly, that means that we are quite interested in toilets.

My wife and I rate movies, restaurants, gardens, and, yes, even toilets. We may be at a restaurant, or the airport, or virtually anywhere where there are public toilets, and we will come out saying, “Their toilets were amazing/interesting/awful/unusual.”

Of course, travel expands one’s horizons. Toilets in Japan earn a ten out of ten on the “Stewart Golden Flush Scale,” while toilets in China are sometimes not even a one. I cannot tell you of our worst experiences there because words fail to capture what we have seen.

To prove the people’s fascination with this subject in England, I mention that the “Good Loo Guide” was the first publication I know of that rated bathrooms in a city (London). The Savoy Hotel did quite well. I think there is now a similar book rating toilets in virtually every major city, but it is no accident that the English got there first.

The bathrooms on English trains are uniquely interesting. The toilet paper seems to be made of a greased paper similar to that used to wrap smoked salmon at Zabar’s. Stamped on every sheet are the words “Property of H.M. Government.” Yes, “H.M” stands for “Her Majesty’s” and yes, we should all wonder what the Queen would do with the roll?

Above the toilet, and we are still talking about trains here, is a sign that says, “Gentlemen, lift the seat.” I take this as a sign of the class of people using the toilet. Gentlemen should lift the seat but the rest of us peasants likely will not. The other interpretation (using the concept that “lift” in English slang means “steal) is that the nobility are being encouraged to pilfer the seat. You can see how a small sign can produce interesting philosophical discussions.

In America, one of my favorite songs was written by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and sung to the tune of Dvorjak’s “Humoresque.” Douglas wrote it on a train (I cannot seem to get away from this train motif) while on the way from New York to Yale, where he was at law school. I will only give you the first stanza because I have heard literally hundreds of different subsequent stanzas from Australia, Canada, and many other parts of the former British Empire:

“Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets while the train
Is in the station. Darling, I love you.
We encourage constipation
While the train is in the station.
Moonlight always makes me think of you!”

This is best sung with a ukulele accompaniment (but then again, isn’t everything?). While on the subject of music, I should also refer to Mozart’s—yes, Wolfgang Amadeus—interest in scatological humor. We have songs he wrote which I will not repeat because, though fascinated by toilets, I have far less interest in obscene words.

One of my sisters actually has at her home in England a genuine, original toilet by Thomas Crapper, the firm that first made the modern toilet. I distinctly remember Jayme being more impressed by the toilet than anything else in my sister’s beautiful home. If Jayme could, she would have bought it then and there.

We were once on a very small cruise ship where the lecturer, a professor at the University of Manchester, prepared us for our visit to Ephesus by lecturing on the toilet habits of elite Romans. Until then, I never knew that a slave pre-warmed the chilly marble seats. There were other interesting details, and the majority of passengers were engrossed, perhaps because most of them were English.

This tour of the world brings me back to Japanese toilets, which not only warm the seats but do many other interesting things too. If you find yourself in Japan, I hope you have the opportunity of seeing modern technology in scatological action.

I want a sign over our toilet at home. It would read: “Ladies, return the seat to the raised position when you are finished.” No chance! Ah, a man can but dream.

It really is a fascinating subject, particularly if you are English! And yes, as I hope you have noticed by now, this is not a “serious” piece on education.

Ronald Stewart
York Prep

Thoughts With A Cup of Hot Chocolate

There is a cup of hot chocolate on my desk as I sit down to write this month’s thoughts.

This is the time of the year when we enjoy the holiday season and start thinking of the New Year.  It also seems to be a time to contemplate the fact that we are getting older.

I want to acknowledge that occasionally I reveal that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, young.  Age and ageing are things that we all have to deal with.  But one thing that does not have to age is the deterioration of ideals and ethical passions.  When you lose your sense of what is right and wrong – when you lose your passion to maintain your integrity – then you have aged, and that applies no matter how many chronological years have passed since you were born.

We have a cute 6th grader who is temporarily in a wheelchair.  As she is pushed down the hallway (sometimes by the Dean of the Lower School, Ms Perley) it is noticeable how considerate the other students are as they smile at her or ask her how she is doing.  Those moments, when you see students display empathetic warmth, continue to give me pleasure and energy, and also pride in our student body

If the above thoughts and feelings seem heavily reliant on ethics, then I merely ask that you remember that Ethics is the subject I teach to the 12th Grade.  Our present senior class is an outstanding group of ethical and kind, young people.  I have actually told them this.  Ask them!  They are a delight to teach, they are a community among themselves. They are never unkind, and they are always supportive of each other.

I write these “thoughts” for them, although probably very few if any of them, delightful as the class is, will read these musings.  That is their privilege, and I do not require them to read what I write.  I just hope that if they read this, (“hope springs…”  and all that.) they will realize that they have already given me enormous pleasure and pride in the way they act. They have never lacked respect for each other or for me, and they couple that courtesy with humor.  I feel younger after a class with them.  Who could ask more of one’s students?

So, since this is the time of the year when we start thinking of resolutions and wishes, I wish for all of our students that they stay forever young in their ideals, forever young in their humor, and forever young in their joy of community.  Certainly somewhat different from the ending of Dr. Ruth’s speech at one of our graduation exercises when she closed her speech to the graduating class with the words; “I wish for you great sex!”  At that point I realized how youthful her heart was and how irrelevant chronological years are.

Now that I have written this, I think I will have that cup of hot chocolate and take a nap.

Ronald P. Stewart.
York Prep

I do not carry a cell phone

I do not carry a cell phone. Sometimes I think I am the only person in the School not to do so.

What is it about those gadgets that are so critical?  We allow students to use them only in the main lobby, and they do. They use them too much; they sometimes text their friends across the hall. I prefer to look at people when I talk to them.  I must be old fashioned.

I know that studies have shown that students working on a math problem they can solve sitting together in 10 minutes, take 30 minutes to solve via “Skype” over the computer with the same group of students. I believe that, but then you and I know you can find a “study” that shows anything. When I was young, they told us that “studies” showed that drinking coffee stunted your growth. Now “studies” say that a cup of coffee a day is good for you. I am terrible at “Skyping.” It sounded like a good way of keeping in touch with my grandchildren. Unfortunately, I loom across the screen because I cannot get used to trying to focus on the children’s faces while simultaneously seeing an image of myself idiotically grinning in a small window of the screen. Frankly, I think my grandchildren think their grandfather is reasonably normal in real life and a bizarre character when he “Skypes.”

What I certainly do know is that this generation of students is accustomed to using the Internet for gossiping, shopping and playing. When I told the sixth grade they could go out for lunch and one angelic little girl asked me if she could also go shopping at that time, the surprise from the others was not that she had the discretionary income to actually think that way (I suspect I was the only one in the room who had that thought), but that she did not shop online. If you arrive to school early in the morning, you will find some students discussing their life and homework with their friends, and other students glued to the screens of their phones. I have no idea what they are doing. I mean their friends are there, next to them, why go on the phone?

We gave every teacher a laptop this year (a good computer—a Dell, advertised to have a battery charge life of 18 hours) except one teacher: me – I did not take one. I like to carry my notes for my classes (typed or hand written) in a small briefcase and I never use power point presentations. I want my Ethics students to talk to me and interact, rather than focus on bullet points on a screen. I like to teach because I like to find out the opinions of students and debate with them, not send them mass e-mails.

Of course, technology is terrific for a school. After all, you are getting this on our website (if anyone is still there?). Edline is not only a communications tool, but students can send in their homework on it. We use technology all the time. But I do not look forward to the day when learning becomes a matter of sitting at a screen and debating with a computer. Where would the joy and compassion and humor of education be in that?

I hope you have noticed that when you telephone York Prep, one of our nice reception people will politely answer the phone and give their name. We may be one of very few schools not to give you a menu from which to select the party you are trying to reach. Heaven knows how much I hate those menus with their “your call is important to us” messages while they keep you on hold. If you deem the call so important, why not have a person answer first before you go into a series of computerized questions to eventually get you to an operator who calls himself Bill and is somewhere on the continent of Asia? (That, by the way, was a run-on sentence, and I don’t care!)

I have to confess that I do own a cell phone. I can give you the number because I never carry it. I have used it rarely, just to e-mail when I am on vacation and cannot access a computer, and then it corrects my spelling incorrectly. The simple question “How do you feel?” becomes transformed through the idiosyncrasy of spelling software, into “how do you peel?” Actually, sometimes it even drops off the last letter of the question making me look as though I have an interest in urinary tracts.

We older folks who grew up with a technology that has now produced antiques such as gramophone records, dial telephones and black and white televisions, have rediscovered our youth through the show “Mad Men.”  I know the characters smoke and drink all the time, that both sexes wear hats that make me smile and that the men are universally chauvinistic; but where else can one see furniture that your parents had, or a life without e-mails? The women have strangely pointed figures and the men wear shoes that they have polished every day. Ah, nostalgia!  Richard Nixon may have been president, but there is always a silver lining … no cell phones. Like me!

Which, I think, is where I came in.

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep

Why cannot wait until the next “Reacher” thriller comes out.

I cannot wait until the next “Reacher” thriller comes out.  “Personal” by Lee Childs has reached the #1 position on the New York Times Best Seller Fiction list in September.  I actually met Lee Childs, the author of the series, at a book signing at the sorely missed Barnes and Noble store near Lincoln Center, and he seemed a very personable man who signed my book with graciousness and a smile.  I have read every one of his books. They are great!  One problem is that I cannot remember which is which.  Give me the title, and I cannot recall the story.  In fact, I really cannot remember any of the stories except that, in the end, Reacher wins and his adversaries lose.  Fun to read, predictable endings!

On the other hand, I can quote “Alice in Wonderland” with ease.  Well, that may be unfair because it is my favorite book, but I can also remember the story line of many of the books I read as a child – the really good books, that is. That list includes books like “Winnie the Pooh,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Wind in the Willows,” “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” “The Little Prince,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and quite a few more.  I remember them vividly because they created treasured memories.

I am still a compulsive reader.  I cannot count all the titles that I have downloaded onto my iPad from the Amazon Kindle App.  Some are serious non-fiction works, but most are best sellers like those of Mr. Childs.  Enormously enjoyable to read but, within a week, virtually forgotten as to actual story line!

So what happened?   Why this loss of memory of the crime thriller plots while recall of books I read so long ago?  I think I have to admit that many great children’s books have been made into movies and referred to by other authors, so repetition must cement one’s memories.   Classic children’s books become part of our cultural landscape so seamlessly that we hardly notice their existence when they resurface again and again in different ways.  Certainly, when I read “Robinson Crusoe,” I had not read as many books as I have now.  But I think that what made such books great was that I could not anticipate how they ended.  When Charlotte the spider died, I was genuinely upset.  I had not seen that coming when I was age eight. (Sorry if I should have given you a “spoiler alert”!)  There is no formula to the “Alice” Books; Lewis Carroll (or, if you prefer real names, Charles Dodgson) thought “outside of the box” before the phrase was invented.

I remember that in an interview with “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, he said that he regularly tried to surprise his audience.  If Tom Cruise appears at the beginning of a movie, he said, you can bet that Tom Cruise is not going to be killed off.  He is too big a star and there are such things as “sequels”.  Charlotte did not have a sequel; she wove her web and died.  To George R.R. Martin’s credit, (why the R.R. business?) he does have a tendency to kill off his characters just when you really feel emotionally invested in them.

Movies used to be considered the enemy of books.  “Read, don’t watch!” we were told.  I am not sure that advice still stands.  Many children read the” Harry Potter” books (truly wonderful as they are) after seeing the movies. The “Hunger Games” books similarly were more widely read after the movie came out.  Also, to be fair to Mr. Childs and all his fellow authors, maybe they are not writing their books to be recorded in history as classics. They are making a lot of money doing something they enjoy, and good for them, the libertarian within me says.

Still, in “The Wind in the Willows”, Ratty says, and I quote this from memory – “There is absolutely nothing, half as much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”  As a person who has had the good fortune of being able to “mess about” in boats over the years, I remember that sentiment as if I read it yesterday.  I do not think I have read the book in over 50 years.

Who can explain all this? Not I!  In the meantime, I cannot wait until the next Reacher book comes out.

Are blogs narcissistic?

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