Headmaster’s Thoughts – February 2006

I get very few comments on my “Headmaster’s Thoughts,” but the most e-mails I have had were reactions to the piece about the Sikh taxi driver. So I will begin these “thoughts” with a very brief comment about New York taxis, perhaps naively hoping that this is the way to produce a reader response.

I recently got into a New York taxi with Jayme. A television, playing bits of news and lots of advertisements, faced us in the compressed back seat. You just can’t get away from this stuff! And it creates a sort of social isolation where communication with our companion (in this case, my wife) is discouraged in favor of watching the selling piece on the screen in front of us.

This intrusion of technology into society is so insidious that people sometimes seem to forget that they are in public while they communicate through whatever device (Blackberry, camera phone, laptop) they are using. It is not uncommon to be seated on a plane while a lawyer in the next seat goes through obviously confidential documents on the screen of his computer. I know we shouldn’t look, but surely they shouldn’t be parading the stuff either. And we have all heard the most indiscrete phone calls in public. Once, on a train to North Salem, I had to listen to a lady tell her phone friend more about her “infection” than I ever wanted to know. It was as though no one else existed in her communication bubble.

The full impact of how socially isolated we have become was never more dramatically brought to my attention than with a dialogue, which Jayme and I had no choice but to overhear, during a recent trip we took to Paris. We were seated in a restaurant in the Pompidou Center which I think was called Chez something or other. We were packed like sardines, as only the French can do in expensive restaurants, so that we were crowded on either side by other diners. A man came and sat next to me and a woman sat next to Jayme on the banquette. We had given our order and so were silent when they began to speak in English. And before we could even pick up a conversation to show them that we, too, could speak English, the man, a Texan, was well into a selling job on the beautiful woman across from him. And the gist of the sales talk was that she should be his mistress for six months a year in Paris—that he would pay for her and the apartment, and that she, in return, would be there for him. For the rest of the six months of the year, he explained, he would be with his wife in Texas.

Now there were various sad factors in this conversation, not the least of which was the total lack of charm of the sales job, and I can report that at the end of it all, the lady (on very pragmatic grounds) declined the offer. But my point is not the issue of his success or failure, but rather the fact that he was so immunized to issues of privacy that what should have been a private conversation was so publicly (even, dare I say, loudly) given. Yes, Jayme and I probably could have interrupted him as soon as he was “under way” in his speech, and I have had pangs of conscience that somehow we should have made it clear that we understood every word. But it was in Paris, for heavens’ sake! Most Parisians who dine at expensive restaurants surely have enough knowledge of English to comprehend the rather tawdry nature of the conversation. The truth is that the man did not care who heard him. He was in his social bubble and, like the lady on the train with her infection, was routinized into airing in public what should only be discussed in private.

While social isolation is the point of this piece, I may have been more upset with the Texan’s lack of charm. Charm is a rare commodity. However, do not give up hope that charm is dead. I have another story (with a happier ending!)

Recently, Ice T, an icon of gangster rap music who has now become a lecturer, author of a book on the second amendment, and actor of some note (a regular on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”), came to York Prep for the day to teach members of our lower school how to rap. He was so patient, so compassionate, and so charming, that by the end of the day (he arrived at 8.00am and left at 8.00pm) I was referring to him as “Nice T.” When we realized how late he was staying with a few of our seventh and eighth grade students, I asked the office to call their parents to alert them that they would be getting home much later than usual. One of the parents they called happens to be a judge, and she was sitting on the bench when she got the call that her son would be late coming from York because he was having iced tea. “How English!” she thought. She is a lovely and cultured lady who probably also wondered if we were going to serve cucumber sandwiches. So intriguing was this concept of us serving iced tea (and whatever else) that she came to school to pick up her son and see this social manners program in action. When she arrived, as it happened, her son was doing his version of his rap song with Ice T helping him along. It was just very funny and I hope it made her day. She certainly seemed highly amused. My point is that Ice T, to his great credit, has enormous personal charm. He genuinely interacted with every student with whom he worked, and he charmed them. They will remember him with real affection. Charm is not a lost cause; it just needs to be encouraged. It develops through social interaction and not isolation. Televisions in taxis, and all the other gizmos of modern life, are its enemies.

So I hope I can put interactive technology in its place. Of course, it is useful, sometimes. Occasionally I carry a cell phone (not as often as Jayme would like), and I certainly use the computer I am writing this piece on, although it is not portable. But the best thing about working in a school is working directly with people. No interruptions, no advertisements, no external intrusions, just direct speech.

New York taxis: such a great source for social commentary!

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org