We just had the spring parent-teacher conferences today (March 4th), and a really nice parent who has lots of contact with other parents told me one of the prime school-related questions the parents asked each other was what will happen when I die. Really! I am not making this up! I thought I was pretty healthy! Do I look that bad?
So I have to be dispassionate and recognize that I am not getting any younger. It is either a compliment or totally the reverse: either parents like having me as head of the school and are worried that the school will not be the same without me, or they feel that I have lost my edge, and that it is time for younger head to take the reins. That is, they cannot wait to see the back of me.
If I take the first interpretation of the question – and I hope to heaven it is – then maybe it is a relief for you to know that I have been asked that question several times (in more subtle ways) over the last 20 years. Jayme too! Her reputation for college guidance is such that she remembers well a rather aged mother asking her if she (Jayme) would be around when her 7th grader needed college guidance. Since the lady was older than Jayme at the time, I think one reasonably could have asked the question in reverse.
Sadly for me, I am no longer younger than any father at York (at least I do not think so) and Jayme is probably not younger than any mother. Nonetheless, the simple answer is that we still seem to have our energy and health and you are stuck with us. Just as importantly, while it is rather touching that some parents see our contributions as invaluable, let us be honest, they are not. The school will soon be 50 years old, and if we have not created an institution that will survive us, then we will have failed. In the meantime, we are here for the long run, and so, I guess you, the school, Jayme and I are all tied together for the future as we see it.
This leads me to the second possible interpretation of the question: the feeling for some that “the long run” may be too long. Those Stewarts need to give way to younger leaders! There is no way to respond to this fully since this school is our “first child,” and we are not planning to leave. So when I appear senile and decrepit, when I cannot run up the stairs, when I cannot control all the seniors in one giant Ethics class, I want some brave parents to stick me in a wheelchair and surreptitiously wheel me to the back of the dog track, the casino, or wherever you wheel people in such situations. I have seen it happen before. I know of several heads of schools who were getting totally erratic and “peculiar” and had to be led out of the school, gently but firmly, so that younger heads could take over. It will happen eventually; physics is physics – just not for as long as we can stretch it out while continuing to allow the school to retain its essential spirit.
I am actually grateful to the parent who had the guts to ask me the question, not an easy one to ask anyone. My mother, who is 97 this month, still plays bridge but could not run a school. The word “run” and my mother are, at this stage of her life, mutually incompatible terms except when she is talking about cards or noses. Old age is no fun and not pretty. The “golden” years are not.
So to those who have asked the question even with the best of intentions, namely the first interpretation, let us hope that the couple who started the school when in their early 20s, as presumptuous as that was, will still be in fighting form for your child’s entire career at York. And to those who want younger leaders to take over now, I apologize. We have no plans to visit the dog track any time soon.
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School