Questions at Open House by Bob Henderson, Head of School
On the third Saturday morning of every October we host an Open House for the purpose of admissions. No doubt many of the parents reading this once attended one of those events. This year we had a very successful day, welcoming a record number of visitors to this community. A large number of faculty, students and parents are mobilized for the purpose of covering various panels, tours, and information sessions and posts, giving up a precious part of a weekend for the school, all on top of their many other obligations and duties. Yet it is these folks who most effectively present this place, answering honestly and passionately every question, sharing their perspectives and the depth of their commitments and experiences here. As guests end their visits, I hear over and over how impressed they were with the people in this community, and how these volunteers made the Nobles experience tangible and hugely enticing.
My most important role at Open Houses is to sit on the stage in Vinik Theatre and answer questions about the school for about an hour and a half. Visitors drop in during that window, fire a few questions at me, size me up, and leave when they have had enough. I respond as best I can to whatever is on their minds. Queries range from curiosity about independent school education in general to very specific and provocative attempts to find out if I know very much about this school in particular. Some people try to stump me, but after 11 years of doing this for Open Houses and other admission forums, I can pretty much anticipate what I will face. I thought parents might be interested, however, in three of my favorite questions this year (and my responses), in part because a current parent who happened to be in the room told me that everyone might like to hear what I said. So below are the questions and a rough approximation of how I addressed them.
Why is humor in the school mission statement?
I love our school mission statement, and I think it is distinct among independent schools to assert that Nobles is dedicated to inspiring leadership for the public good. Yet I understand that when you visit and study a lot of schools, much of the mission language from one campus to the next can sound similar. Humor as a value is unique to Nobles. And we truly believe it is critical. Expectations for both behavior and achievement are very high in this school. This is by design, because we believe confidence and self-esteem are most securely built through sustained effort and genuine accomplishment. While a great deal of support and nurturance from adults in this community accompanies the hard work that kids invest, there is simply no substitute for humor to bring joy and meaning to the journey. Humor provides perspective, release of anxiety, and bonding experiences. It allows everyone to view their circumstances and challenges with greater meaning and insight, and to discover our shared humanity and fallibility. Humor, therefore, is essential to a happy and balanced intellectual community.
Like all elements of our mission, the emphasis we place on humor is at once a description of reality and an inspiration. We do it well, but we must always aspire to do it better. The place we do it best is in morning Assembly. Not every day, but most days we laugh together at some presentation or announcement. Sometimes Bill Bussey leaves us laughing so hard that tears are streaming down our faces. Sometimes we have loony Long Assemblies like “The Regurgitator.” Sometimes entire school days, like Halloween, are about fun and chuckles. Sometimes the humor is spontaneous, in Assembly or in the hallways or in class or on the playing fields, and therefore is particularly rewarding. And sometimes there are days, or weeks, that are long and difficult when we all wish that a little more humor could be injected. But we will always have that inspirational objective before us.
Do you actually know any students or do you spend all your time raising money?
This question actually was posited to me this bluntly this year. I was indeed tempted to respond with humor, but I restrained myself and simply addressed the gentleman with a straightforward account of my responsibilities at school. I teach an academic class, AP European History. I have seven advisees. I advise a club. I mentor a student leadership group, the Class I Prefects. I run Assembly nearly every Monday morning. I spend part of every day in the hallway talking with students, and I greet students for a while on most mornings as they enter the school before Assembly. My office door opens onto on a main school hallway, without a secretary or assistant buffering me from the world, and for much of every day my door is open for drop-ins. I attend games and plays and concerts. I figure I can keep the names of close to 400 students straight in my head, with greater knowledge of older students in the school than younger. Students are why I entered the school business, and they still are the most interesting part of my day, every day (with all due respect to teachers, administrators, staff members, graduates, parents, trustees, etc.).
To be completely fair to the man who asked this question, he was right to infer that school leadership has changed over the last couple of decades and that many heads are increasingly removed from the daily life of their communities. Schools are ever more complex places, medium-sized businesses really, in a very demanding business environment. The job requires many of the skills and interests of a CEO. Inescapably, something like 20-25 percent of my time in any given month of the school year is directly dedicated to development-related tasks. Yet there is still a fundamentally pastoral element to school leadership. This school is also a village, and I am, for lack of a better anthropological term, the village chief. For me at least, if I could not have meaningful relationships with kids, I would stop serving as a school head.
What do you want all graduates of the school to leave understanding?
There are really two things. The first is something that I heard historian David McCullough say several years ago in a commencement address. To paraphrase, he asserted that no one is self-made, and there is no greater myth in our culture than that of the self-made man. We are all of us complete and successful human beings because of the care and support of other people. We were all pushed, cajoled, inspired, encouraged and motivated by others at critical times or in critical ways that made us who we are. Parents certainly fill that role, but I would venture that teachers did so as well for nearly all of us. A graduate usually does not look back with equal gratitude and affection at all teachers, but almost to a person they leave here with an intense awareness of some adult, or much more commonly several adults, in this community who made a profound difference. Sometimes that influence is not even entirely clear at the time of graduation; older graduates often tell me how only later in life, after considerable reflection, did they recognize the positive power of their experience with a specific teacher. But I want all graduates to grasp that it is through mentoring relationships that we reach our real potential in regard to character and intellect.
I also want all graduates to come to grips with the fact that the real measure of our character is not success; rather, it is how we handle failure and disappointment. We all know that the moments of our greatest learning in life have been when we came up short, or when we had to reconsider our path and goals, or when have navigated a task or challenge unsuccessfully. No one would wish failure on anyone, yet, as the adage admonishes, “to err is human.” Learning how to adjust, adapt, and bounce back successfully from setbacks and, sometimes, abject failure, is an important part of traversing adolescence and preparing for the inevitable challenges of adult life. As Tim Carey pronounced more than a decade ago in a Nobles graduation speech, we need to learn to “fail proudly.” In those moments we all need the support and friendship of others, but we also need to discover and tap our own reserves of resilience, courage, flexibility, intelligence and optimism. I want all our graduates to leave here understanding that those personal resources are always available and how to access them.