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

What We Learn As We Get Older

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.


Ronald Stewart

I have a confession to make: I am a FreeCell junkie.

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


Why we get “acupunctured”?

I want to begin by saying that I am not a masochist; neither, to my knowledge, is Jayme. And yet every week for many, many years we have allowed ourselves to be stuck all over our bodies by pins. And we also allow a small lady with extremely strong hands and particularly vicious knuckles to pummel the heck out of us.
Yes, we get “acupunctured” and “acupressured” every week.
We are a strange species, we human beings. Naturally suspicious, we allow ourselves to have interesting things done to us which go against our intuition. It is certainly against my normal instincts to have someone insert needles into my face, and yet for nearly twenty years that has happened on a weekly basis.
It all began for me with a favorite horse, Counterpoint. He came with the name and I never called him anything else. He was a great horse: affectionate, brave, and proud. He could jump anything. Every so often, and always at night when no one was watching, he would jump over the five-foot fence around his paddock, and in the morning he would be on the outside of the fence eating the best grass which the other horses could not get to. He never ran away, never went to the local mall or the movies; he just jumped out and ate the uneaten and longest grass.
One day, Counterpoint started to limp on his front left leg. Anxiously, I called the vet (an excellent one in my opinion) who came and examined him and could find nothing wrong but recommended a horse acupuncturist. To say that I was skeptical would be an understatement. I thought acupuncture was somewhat of a placebo and that its healing power was all in the mind. Intelligent as Counterpoint was, I should stress that he was still a horse, and I doubt that horses think too much about the placebo effect. Anyway, the acupuncturist arrived, put needles into Counterpoint’s left leg, and his limp immediately went away. A lame horse walked into the stall with the acupuncturist and a sound horse walked out.
At the time, my left knee was sore. In my rugby-playing days, doctors had completely removed my left outer knee cartilage. Bone on bone can hurt. So I figured that if acupuncture worked for Counterpoint, what the hay, I might as well give it a try. Twenty years later it is still working for me and, notwithstanding an orthopedist’s gloomy prediction at that time that I would need a knee replacement, my knee gives me no trouble. I just get needles stuck into it.
I have no idea why it works. I have read up about it and I still have no idea. I have learned that historically, Chinese soldiers would get an arrow prick in their arm and their hip would feel better, or maybe it was an arrow prick in their hip and their arm felt better. Who knows? I have never understood what Chi or Qi is, and I could not explain a meridian if I were looking at the Wikipedia article on it. But for me, at any rate, acupuncture works.
The lady who sticks the needles in my body is famous. She works in the pain management clinic of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, established her own natural healthcare center, and teaches acupuncture as an honored guest all over the world. We talk a great deal while she inserts needles in my head, in my face, in my hands, in my legs and, sometimes, between my toes. We talk because I am extremely nervous that she is going to hurt me. We talk about her family, what happened when she was sent to a farm during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, and about her daughter. When I am scared, clearly, I talk. But, and this is a very big BUT, it does not hurt.

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.

The acupressure lady is a totally different deal. We don’t talk because she does not speak English. She comes from the Chinese School of Acupressure and Torture. She starts by digging her ferocious knuckles into my head and finishes by doing the same to my feet. I lie there—stoically, I might add—while thinking: “Ow!” “Oh, no!” “Ow!” “Ow!” “Please God, get me out of here!” “Ow!” I think these thoughts for the entire time. I remain silent because once, when I actually screamed in pain, she started to laugh. And there is nothing worse than having someone beat you up and find it funny. “Tee hee!” she giggled. I have been silent ever since.
The peculiar thing is that the pain is fleeting because it keeps getting replaced by other pain. When she attacks my neck, I forget the pain she just inflicted on my head. When she squeezes the muscles in my back (total agony), I forget the pain I just felt in my neck. By the time she is pulling my toes, I have forgotten all the other pain, since I am now focused on the fact that my feet are killing me. And when she stops, and this is where it gets bizarre, I say: “Thank you, Dr. Judy!”  She smiles and all the pain is gone and I feel great!
So, am I gullible or sensible? I have no idea. But I think back to Counterpoint, and I know that after both treatments (and “treatment” is a generous word for the torture doctor), I feel better. Much better!

We are strange creatures, we human beings. And I am not a masochist!

Ronald Stewart, Headmaster

Proprietary Education: My View

What would today’s private school educators make of Ms. Spence, Mr. Brearley, Mr. Browning, Messrs. Allen and Stevenson, Ms. Chapin (a notable suffragette), or Ms. Hewitt? Would they consider them educational entrepreneurs who created private schools that provided choice to New Yorkers, or would they regard them as dangerous dreamers? The fact is that all those august heads started proprietary schools. They owned them. And yet today, those schools (and, by extension, their founders) would not be allowed full membership in the New York State Association of Independent Schools because they were not governed, as these schools now are, by a Board of Trustees. It has been a peculiar evolution.
I come from England, where proprietary schools are often the norm for private education. My college at Oxford was located very near a wonderful all-boys boarding prep school called the Dragon School, founded and owned by the Lynham family. (The Head when I was an undergraduate was Joc Lynham.) Back then we used to call their students “little dragons” as they cut through the college to get to the center of Oxford. Since that time, they have gone co-ed and have formed a close relationship with St. Bernard’s School here in New York (also founded as a proprietary school by an Englishman, Mr. Jenkins, a graduate of Cambridge). In 1969, after my wife and I left England where I had been a barrister and began to think about starting York Prep, I really had no idea how schools were run except that many great schools were founded and run by families. It certainly made logical sense that, if one were to start a school and invest one’s total energy into that creation, simultaneously establishing a board that could fire you would likely dampen one’s enthusiasm for the enterprise. I would like to think that Mr. Brearley (also a graduate of Oxford) and his cohorts felt the same way.
Now in our 44th year, our school, like all schools, has survived and succeeded only because parents send their children to us. Over the years, I have sometimes encountered both opprobrium and envy from my fellow heads of schools who come from non-profit schools. The fact that they can be fired and I cannot (at least by a Board of Trustees) is perhaps the most salient difference. I hope here that I can explore some of the more meaningful distinctions, as well as the many similarities, between the two models of private school education.
Clearly, both models of private school education–proprietary and those run by boards–must respond to market forces. The hyphenated word “non-profit” when referring to schools controlled by a board of trustees is misleading. If any school runs out of money, it will close. This is called bankruptcy, and I could name eight New York non-profit schools that have closed, or merged with another school which is tantamount to closure, since we began York Prep in 1969. For a variety of reasons, they had no other option except to either close their doors or add their name to that of another institution. All schools must have a positive bottom line if they are to remain viable. And schools are schools. They have to pay competitive salaries to keep their teachers, charge competitive tuitions to keep their students, and maintain attractive facilities. Thus the “bottom line” for both proprietary and so called “non-profit” schools is very similar.
The difference lies in the locus of control. In a proprietary school, the head/owner truly has the freedom (and the burden of ultimate responsibility) to make the crucial decisions, while in a school run by a board of trustees, the head makes educational decisions subject to the board’s overview. This may explain why in some non-profit schools, there is a rapid turnover of headships. Indeed, the average life for a head of a non-profit school in New York City is somewhere around seven years. I recognize the “fresh ideas” argument for change, but I would counter that with the fact that a lack of continuity carries its own problems. The changing composition of the board coupled with a head who lacks authority because he or she can be second guessed by that board, results in an absence of a permanent voice of the institution.
If it were not for the Mr. Brownings of this world, the choice of schools offered to parents in New York would be less. There would be far, far fewer independent schools. I happen to believe that choice in education is a good thing. For parents, the way a school is controlled is generally unimportant. The question is solely whether the school is an appropriate fit for their child and provides excellence in education. It is also important that the school be accredited, particularly for graduates when they send their transcript to colleges. (For example, we are accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and School and registered with the New York State Board of Regents.)  It is important that the school have the resources to be able to stay the course for the child’s entire education. It is important that the school be diverse and provide scholarships for students that represent the great city where we live. But why and how the school is run is not that important so long as it is, in fact, well run.
When Jayme and I started York Prep, many New York private schools were elitist. There was a running and perhaps inappropriate joke about certain schools that their diversity ran the gamut from children with light blue eyes to those with dark blue eyes. Let me be frank at the risk of ruffling a few feathers: exclusivity was a factor in the admissions decisions made by some private, non-profit schools in 1969. If you look back at the photographs of the graduating classes in 1969, I think you will see what I mean. Jewish students had fewer opportunities than non-Jewish students; students of color and Hispanic students had even less. We decided to offer scholarships to a diverse student body so that, from our first year onward, there were a substantial number of students of color. I suppose that it was fairly groundbreaking at the time, though I am delighted to say it is not so anymore. We did this because we believed in the idea and had the freedom to act on our beliefs, without having to consult with any group.
Some may wonder: What happens to the “profit” in proprietary schools? In our case, we use it to reinvest in our school for the future, to pay ourselves, and to match whatever is raised for our scholarships. We do not actively fundraise; we have neither auctions nor galas. We do not fell trees to produce the paper to list the different levels of which parents gave what. You know the sort of thing: “Headmaster’s Friends” (over $25,000), “Headmaster’s Associates” (over $10,000), “Headmaster’s Acquaintances” (over $1000 dollars), and, by absence of listing, “Parents who are neither Friends nor Associates nor Acquaintances” and who have not given anything. I find these lists in poor taste. They imply a susceptibility to inappropriate levels of influence. As far as equal treatment is concerned, is there anyone in private education who truly believes that trustees’ children are treated the same as non-trustees’ children?
I will be the first to admit that I have greater latitude than most heads. Jayme and I have had a consistent vision for our school, and we have the freedom to effectuate it. I have other freedoms: I teach all the seniors, write a monthly blog on our website, and even take risks on some students who could have fallen through the cracks and instead fill my heart with joy at their success. We have a program that challenges our most gifted students, but we also have a program that supports students with incredible potential and have learning differences. This past May, we graduated students from that LD support program to many fine schools, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, and Oberlin. Of course, the fact that my wife has conducted college guidance continuously at the school for 44 years enables us to have a very strong college counseling program.
So we come down to what some consider the greatest downside of proprietary education: the head is essentially “unfireable.” If parents choose to leave their children at such a school, they are stuck with that head for the foreseeable future for better or worse. On the positive side, that head is someone a family can get to know, understand, and trust–and expect that he or she will be there guiding the helm of the ship for some time to come. If the head is consistent, then the parents will soon get to know the “voice” of the school; by contrast, a school governed by a board not only has many voices, but they are often changing. In a proprietary school, parents can meet the head and decide whether this is a person they can trust. Then they know precisely what they are signing up for and can be assured of constancy. The informed decision is in their hands. In my case, they can look at a track record of 44 years. Parents know they are stuck with me. Sorry! That is the downside.
Finally, I can honestly say that I passionately enjoy what I do and treasure having the freedom to run the school. I have a valued group of fellow administrators, and they will tell you that at weekly meetings, we decide most (but not all) issues by democratic vote. I am sometimes outvoted, and the vote stands. Apart from my wife (who has obviously been at York for 44 years), I am also fortunate to have two valued colleagues who have each been with us for 43 years. Great teachers stay at York Prep, and the average tenure of a York teacher is over 11 years.

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.