The Headmaster's Papers

[The Headmaster's Papers]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
The Headmaster's Papers
by Richard A. Hawley

From Part One

Wells, Connecticut 27 August

Mr. Hugh Greeve
Pembroke House
St. Edward's School
Framingham, Massachusetts

Dear Hugh,

I arrived home from the Cape in the dead of night, and it wasn't until this morning that I found your wonderful letter.

Of course you flatter your old--well, seasoned--uncle by deferring so graciously to his years and his experience, as if, in school life, that added up to something reliable. I am not always sure that this is so. Every day of school, at least once, I am aware that what I am doing is completely new, baffling, and that I am empowered with no special skill or insight or strength to deal with it. Remember this admission some time when your own headmaster seems hopelessly pompous or officious. All of us are really, at the nub, timid and desperate--new boys at school, compensating.

But quite frankly, I am flattered that you wrote me. Mainly, however, I am excited about the prospect of your appointment at St. Edward's. For what my opinion is worth, I think the school is just right--small, humane, and standing for something. From what I've been able to see of him, Ted Phillips looks like a promising headmaster to work for. He's so young and earnest he terrifies me. You could do worse than to begin with a young and growing school. But I hope as you become grand and important there you see to it the school doesn't get too big. The limit should be the size at which easy personal acquaintance of everybody in the school is still possible. When a school grows beyond this point, it no longer has a coherent personality, but instead becomes a complex of factions. One experiences big schools as "institutions" and behaves toward them with less than his best intimacy. I think old Endicott Peabody who founded Groton had it right when he said a school should maintain itself as a family (he kept Groton under two hundred boys). But now Groton has gotten bigger than that, and so, I'm afraid, has my shop, although I curse that economically sensible development. A digression--pardon.

Your load is of course overwhelming, but that's as it should be your first year. All of it--the dormitory, the soccer, and the classroom preparation--is essential for getting school life into your bones. This way you will know by the end of a year or two whether School is for you. You will see as the year wears on-- often to your horror--that it is futile to try to divide your "inner" personal time from school time. It won't work. The harder you try, the more you will see your (limitless) school duties as an infringement on your "real life." Now everybody feels this strain sometime, to some extent, but my advice is to give in to school life--plunge in and ride the currents, then climb out for refreshment during vacations. (No one has vacations like school people's; we may be broke, but we are granted heavenly stretches of idleness.) The most empty I have ever felt in my schoolmastering days is when I felt I was holding back, saving myself for something. Some day I will tell you about my closetpoet period.

I wish I had some useful insider's tips on starting out, but I'm not sure I do. Something inside is urging me to say "keep out of faculty intrigues," but I know that is impossible. Schools very shortly become close, at times suffocatingly so, but that's part of their value. I think human communities were made to be as intense as school communities actually are. I don't think the culture at large is suffering from too much community but rather from far too little. In schools we do have to live and work with each other intensely. If we are liars, we live through the consequences of our lies. If we are loafers, we experience the reaction of whoever picks up the slack. Everything petty and everything marvelous about each member-soul comes through in a small residential community. The result is often terrifying, and for this reason, especially in the affluent and empty now, the "outside world" often seems a beckoning escape for school people. But you can hardly be interested in escaping, having just volunteered.

Those St. Edward's boys are lucky to be squaring off opposite you. Young faculty are always, in the adolescent mind, bridges to adulthood. Even dreadful young teachers, in whose number I would never include you, serve as plausible models of attainable adulthood, while more settled and middle-aged types, no matter how fine or effective, are too remote. Physical youthfulness, apprehension, doubt, impulsiveness--qualities young teachers try so hard to suppress--are wonderfully sympathetic to adolescents. They relate easily to disorder, desperate effort, and posing--these things are, you might say, their life.

How I ramble. What I really have to say is that the prospect of your first year at St. Edward's and your letter to me make me very happy. Although continually humbling, teaching is a wonderful calling. No matter how badly any aspect of it goes, you will never doubt the worthiness of the task. It will always be noble to pass on the best that we know. Perhaps we two might even combine to convince your skeptical father of this before too long. I wonder, really, if my brother didn't throw up those barriers to your taking the St. Ed.'s job just to test your commitment--I wouldn't put it past him. Fathers and sons do seem to have a way of confounding each other, don't they? My own most painful doubts and second guesses revolve around the way I modeled work and adulthood for Brian--apparently quite unattractively. The last we heard he was still living the beach life in Portugal and Spain. Meg and I both pray that he either finds or doesn't find himself soon. We miss him.

Meg of course joins me in sending her love and best wishes. She would add a few lines herself, but she is staying on the Cape to get over some coldy aches and pains and to check out the latest of her wonder doctors in Falmouth. So in the rather dusty solitude of my study, I will now get on to cranking out the thousands of memoranda and agendae which will set our own school year into motion.

I'll have to admit I am looking forward to taking it all on again--all that life!

Love from both of us,
Uncle John


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