"Time and Distance for Reflection" by Head of School Bob Henderson
While talking recently with a graduate from the early 2000’s at a reception in New York City, the following statement struck me: she said,“The further I get from my Nobles experience, the more I understand that it was the most important part of my education.”
The third quarter of the school year, between January and March, is my busy travel time of year. Admittedly, the weather sometimes does not cooperate with my plans (last year was a disaster), but it is the best time for me to be away from campus, given the density of school events I need and want to attend in the fall and spring. This winter I have been to New York, London, North Carolina, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
While my primary purpose has been to connect with our widespread alumni, I also have attended national meetings of the Headmasters’ Association and the National Association of Independent Schools. The latter two are important for me to stay connected with ideas and trends in education in general and independent schools in particular. Most significantly, however, the weeks I am on the road help me to develop perspective on the school and its challenges, a task hard to accomplish while intensely immersed in the daily experience of our community. There are invariably salient moments while on these visits, and this woman’s observation reinforced my most fundamental conviction about excellent secondary education.
Adolescence is a dynamic process and not, in most ways, a static or singular life experience. At Nobles we deal with middle schoolers, some of whom are as young as 11 when they first enter the school. We also will graduate students who are 19 and soon approaching their 20th birthdays. This is a huge spread of age and sophistication, especially so in the context of the incredibly rapid rate of physical, intellectual, emotional and psychological transformation that these young people are experiencing. Simply imagine for an instant the challenge of developing appropriate school assembly agendas for that whole spread. Yet a culture and set of understandings has developed about that task, much of it unspoken, that leads many, if not most, graduates to assert that assembly was among the most significant and memorable elements of their time at Nobles, helping them to formulate core values and views in regard especially to the importance of community.
College and the many experiences we have in life after high school are certainly critical and formative. They do not, however, occur in the context of such rapid personal transformation as adolescence. Because teenagers generally have not accumulated much perspective, their day-to-day lives are generally and simply mundane reality, and often are reduced in their estimations to good and bad, boring and interesting, amusing and inane. There is a truncated sense of the collective whole and only a limited understanding of one’s personal journey. I look forward to the month of May every year when the seniors start to emote about how much Nobles has meant to them, and yet even then I know the sentiments are at least in part informed by concerns about change and the loss of familiar patterns and relationships.
It takes time and reflection to know what it all meant, and to place Nobles in the larger context of life experience. I have loved hearing the perspectives of my three boys as they have gone through Nobles; while I have been the head here for nearly sixteen years, I have been a parent in this community for over half that time. I have taken my sons’ views seriously, and yet always with a grain of salt. What I really look forward to is the same conversations when they are twenty-eight. Then I want to know what teachers and experiences, positive and negative, made a difference for them, and whether the opportunities and the mission of the school inspired at all the trajectory of their lives. I encourage parents to take the same view, to remain connected and involved and yet nevertheless to avoid over-immersion in the details of their children’s lives and experiences at the school, especially as they strive to develop their own independent adult identities. Listen instead for the development of the big picture, for the emergence of adults who will enter the world with the values, skills and determination to inspire leadership for the public good.