It Takes Brains to Know Something by Bob Henderson, Head of School
In the fall of 1973 I arrived as a brand new member of Class III at Noble and Greenough School. I was not entirely sure I wanted to be at the school, as I was leaving behind a very close group of friends in my hometown, as well as a carefully established identity as a soccer player. I was coming to a school that, at the time, was all male and quite small. I had to put on a tie and jacket every morning, abandoning my jeans and sneakers, which made me very grumpy. I found myself shifting from large classes, where my relationships with my teachers were rather distant and I could hide in the back of the room, to small classes, where I was accountable and expected to participate knowledgeably every day. As a new 10th grader, I joined a school where it seemed the other students had been friends for many years, and I was on the fringe of every social group. I criticized vehemently, in that cynical manner of adolescence, the oddities of Nobles’ organization and structure (like calling sophomores “Class III” and the idiosyncratic Nobles grade point scale). Soccer did not seem to matter much at Nobles; football ruled in this community in those days, and that made me feel devalued.
I thought often about leaving during those first several months. Because I did not ever like admitting my mistakes to my parents, I kept this largely to myself. But I silently plotted fantasies about how I could blame them for the error and return to a more comfortable haven in my town. I hedged with my old friends, telling them that Nobles was okay, but that I thought I might be back with them as a junior. Yet there were some experiences at Nobles that started to make a huge impression on me, and I did not even truly sense how my expectations and identity were shifting. I did not yet recognize it, but leaving was becoming impossible. I had Mr. Baker for English, and I had never before experienced anything remotely like that; I was motivated and engaged, and I relished going to class every day. Indeed, I liked all my teachers, and I remember them all well; Mr. Warner for math, Mr. Keyes for history, Mrs. Wells for biology, and Ms. Twiss for German. I did not like them all equally, and some were certainly more inspiring than others, but I developed a positive individual relationship with each of them. Honestly, I can only remember one of my teachers from ninth grade at my previous school. Morning Assembly was a powerful part of this shift as well; every day at Nobles I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself, an experience that bonded me with all the others who shared it, even when the subject was little more than mundane announcements. So often, however, it was far more than that, with Headmaster Gleason talking about the mission of the school, or seniors making me laugh at some marginally appropriate lunacy, or a faculty member commenting profoundly on an event in the world.
There was one moment, however, when I became genuinely and inescapably a part of this place. I understood its meaning only in retrospect because it was not a positive experience in many ways at the time. I was in Mr. Warner’s math class during the highly pressured period before the December Break. Desperate to be accepted, and feeling terribly anxious about upcoming exams, I allowed myself to be distracted by an obnoxious and literally sophomoric conversation with two other boys sitting next to me. We were supposed to be working on some review problems, and Mr. Warner more or less exploded on me, singling me out and telling me to keep quiet and get to work. Upset at taking the entire rap, I said so, barking back something to the effect that he had no right to pick on me. Mr. Warner then threw me out of class, and I remember what he said and eventually put the words on my senior page in the yearbook, “Henderson, get out of here, and don’t come back until you understand that it takes brains to know something.” Mr. Warner was a quirky, traditional guy, but he was also a kind and often funny man, someone I felt cared about me, and I was really hurt by this, although I had no clue exactly what his parting words meant (and I’m still not entirely sure, but I like the sentiment on many levels!).
Quite angry and sad, I went directly to see my advisor and biology teacher, Mrs. Wells. Remarkably savvy and intuitive, she read me perfectly. After allowing me to vent, Mrs. Wells simply said to me, as I essentially recall, “You need to realize that Mr. Warner has very high expectations for you, and you disappointed him more than those other boys in this situation. You made it seem as if the most important thing for you in that class was to be liked by those other boys, more important than learning. But you can’t really start liking anything in this world until you like yourself.” That final clause also ended up on my yearbook senior page. She sent me back to Mr. Warner to apologize, which I did sheepishly, and which he accepted with a harrumph and an admonition to do better in the future. I went on to earn an A in Mr. Warner’s class, the best math grade I had ever received or ever would receive again. Mrs. Wells and I began an intermittent dialogue that lasted through the rest of that year about how one balances fitting in and respecting oneself. I have never forgotten, and I will always be grateful to both Mr. Warner and Mrs. Wells (both of whom have since passed away) for seeing me with greater clarity than I could see myself, and for raising the bar for me appropriately, both in terms of my intellect and character. This little vignette probably says as much as anything else I could share about why I became a teacher, and what I think great teaching ultimately is all about.
Very few of the adults I know would go back and relive their early teenage years again. It is often hard work, full of doubt and pressure, arguably far more stressful today even than when I went through it. Sometimes, however, its most important moments, and its most essential interactions, are only clear in hindsight, when you look back a year later, or maybe only in reminiscing as an adult. When kids are in the middle of growing up, striving to win independence and autonomy in the world, they can’t always sort out what matters most. Parents are critically important in this life passage, and not to be devalued – they love their children and have watched them grow with pride and passion. Often, however, it is teachers who see young people with the greatest clarity. Sometimes the way teachers see students is with a more stark and bright light than they are used to, but also sometimes they can offer the most help in finding the path kids need to follow to go where thet want to go. As your children set goals for the second half of this school year, remind them to listen carefully to teachers and advisors as they try to help. And who knows, maybe something they say will end up on your son or daughter's yearbook senior page. Best wishes for a great second semester, and Happy 2011!