"The Times Change, Yet in Critical Ways, They Remain the Same" by Head of School Bob Henderson
Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The anti-establishment folk musician who had a hit in 1964 with the song “The Times, They Are A-Changin’” is now, over a half century later, receiving one of the ultimate recognitions of establishment honor (although, in his anti-establishment way, it seems Dylan may not show up to receive it). I am not sharing this observation based upon the merits of the award, but rather as an entry point to consideration of the nature of change. Trends and ideas synthesize over time, the illegitimate becomes legitimate and, as former Nobles board president Fred Clifford ’54 was fond of saying, “good begets good.” The only thing one can promise is that change is inevitable.
The other day I was standing with some students in the front lobby of the school looking at the renderings of the new Academic Inquiry Center soon to be built in the center of the campus. We were all admiring the plans and possibilities. Then one of the students, a senior who will be leaving the community this June, erupted that she “rather resented” the fact that her class was “not going to get that space.” There was humor in her voice, but the comment also betrayed a bit of genuine envy. I responded that when I was first a student at Nobles in 1973, the existing Putnam Library had not yet been built, and indeed there was no Arts Center, Castle addition, Baker Science Building, Pratt Middle School, Morrison Athletic Center, Lawrence Auditorium, Bliss Omni, nor even the building we were standing in at that moment. There was also nothing like the program and opportunities that students enjoy now at the school. All these things happened in incremental bursts, but the cumulative effect has been dramatic. Change is inherent to the nature of successful institutions, looking to improve and adapt in response to the times, pursuing visions of how to be the best at what they do, and seizing opportunities as they arise.
The other evening I was talking with some seniors and the subject of change in personnel came up. They actually asked me if I would be at their reunions in the future. I said yes, barring some unexpected intervention that prevents my attendance. Their query, however, said far more about the connections and positive experiences students have here with adult mentors than about the pending shift in headship. Personnel changes happen relatively infrequently at Nobles; this is a faculty with long, loyal and wonderful tenure. When people do leave, it can undermine students’ sense of connection to this place more than shifts in architecture and curriculum.
The simple fact of the matter is, however, that the student population turns over quickly at Nobles. Over 20% of the students are new every year, replacing a graduating senior class. Within three years, the great majority has no memory or experience of the school before their arrival. I recall vividly my own feelings about Headmaster Elliot Putnam when I was a student here in the early 1970’s; Mr. Putnam had retired in 1971, and yet I felt like his “era” at the school was ancient history. Teenagers adapt quickly to the reality of the moment in which they are living. Tradition to most students, and I’m not saying this facetiously, often simply means that it happened last year. So students, in that respect, are one of the most critical engines of change, putting their own creative imprint and generational stamp on the school, building new bonds with new members of the staff.
When I ask the senior prefects, as I do every year, “what should never change about Nobles?” I get a fascinating response. Invariably, year after year, whether a shift in headship is imminent or not, they say three elements need to remain immutable. The first thing they offer is “tradition,” but they are using that term with a long view of what really matters to them. By tradition they mean things such as lunch in the Castle, the blue blazers, white pants and white dresses at graduation, the rituals of morning assembly, and the intensity of athletic competition against Milton. Such elements of the culture and experience here are immensely powerful and important, and in fact merge with identity over a student’s years in the community.
The second unchangeable they offer is morning assembly itself. While recognizing that specific elements of it may change and have changed considerably over the years (as is true with graduation), they believe that the commitment to start the day as one community, to share stories and reinforce values, to be merged into something aspirational, fundamentally decent and purposeful, often amusing and entertaining, and driven by a mission in the world, should never be abandoned. They know it has shaped and transformed them into better people, and they hope the same for those who follow.
And, finally, they make reference to the fundamental joy of this place. By that they do not mean that every minute of every day is joyful. Students well respect the rigor and high expectations here, and adolescence is a complicated and sometimes discouraging process. Yet they know that the demands here are accompanied by support, kindness and love. Indeed, part of the school mission even asserts that humor is a critical foundation for a vibrant intellectual life. I believe the central joy of the Nobles experience is readily visible every time you walk the hallways, attend an arts presentation or event, stand on a sideline, or visit morning assembly. It matters to our graduating seniors that preservation of that culture will remain a priority, as a critical prelude to the construction of a joyful life.
In this community, good has begotten good, and over the decades changes have had a manifestly beneficial accumulated impact. I loved my Nobles experience forty years ago, but I believe this is a profoundly better school today. I have no doubt that future heads and boards of trustees, working with a brilliant and dedicated faculty, will continue to place at the center of their deliberations about next steps and new directions the delicate balance between preservation of the soul of this place with enhancement of the quality of the experience. In that sense, Nobles will not change at all.