Headmaster’s Thoughts – January 2010

Happy New Year!


I thought of writing my usual silly stuff.  I was going to write about the song from the musical Cats called “Memory,” and then, after the first word I would write that I realized I had forgotten the rest of the song. You can sort of guess where that was going.


But, recently, one of my senior students, whose homework it is to criticize these monthly pieces, told me that he had to go back over twelve months to find a piece he really disagreed with. Since the primary reason for these “thoughts” is to write short essays that could be criticized by my students, I realize that his complaint is probably right. I have, in these essays, focused overly on humor, and “underly” (I know, the word does not exist but it fits nicely) on substance. Lately they seem to lack heft.  It is cute to write about Joy of Cooking (November thoughts), but it does not leave much for my students to attack. One of my previous summertime “thoughts” was actually about the right way to make s’mores. Though one can choose to char the marshmallow thoroughly or merely toast it, it is not exactly the kind of thing that is conducive to robust debate. So, out of respect for the correct criticism of my senior student, I will, at least in this piece, attempt to take a stand that is… well, a stand.


I am not a fan of former senator John Edwards. Hypocrite, philanderer, and potential destroyer of his political party (what would have happened if he had become the Democratic Presidential candidate and his affair was made public a week or so before the Presidential election?); it is difficult to be a fan of such a man. But his stump speech about the two Americas was not without merit. It is the old problem that the message is better than the messenger. I was reminded of this on Veterans Day when a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor called me to ask why we did not close our school on this national holiday. I answered that we had a moment of silence while standing, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (the time all sides agreed fighting would end in the First World War) to honor those who had died for our country, that I hoped our faculty would discuss the meaning of sacrifice in that context, but that taking a day off school would not instill greater feelings of patriotic duty.


As I talked to the reporter, I realized that the present war in Afghanistan and Iraq means comparatively little to our students. Most of them do not know anyone fighting there and have no real connection with the tragedy of the conflict. We, by that I mean our community, are not fighting this war. In fact, it is almost as though we have returned to the Civil War days when you could buy your way out of the draft. The war is being fought, in the main, by our poorest citizens. Our country is indeed being divided into different Americas.


York Prep is a private school.  By definition, that means that attendance is fee-based. Without the sacrifice of some of our less wealthy parents and the opportunities provided by our scholarship program, we would be truly insular. Our students, if they only came from the homes of the wealthy, would have no idea of what it means to go to a public clinic for their health problems, to attend community centers for play opportunities, to buy food in small bodegas, to walk in the shadow of poverty, and to lead the daily life that the majority of our urban poor lead. The fact that we have bridges between these diverse worlds is due to the commitment York Prep made when it was founded in 1969. From day one it was intended to be a school of students from diverse economic backgrounds. Furthermore, we required that our students complete community service to graduate. Jayme used to call it “mandatory voluntary service.” The bridges have always been there, but I know that they are not nearly strong enough. If I found a lamp with a genie, I would ask that our school be free without tuition and still stay the same unique school that we are, offering the same program to students regardless of the means to pay. We have done our best to address this divide with our scholarship program, and we have successfully given underprivileged students the opportunity for future success. And one can dream of what one could do with greater funds. But no one can ignore reality. It is a shame about reality; it never goes away.


So I do not have a solution to the “two Americas” problem. The gap between rich and poor seems to be so wide that I cannot see a way to cultivate a sense of common concerns and values that traditionally describe one cohesive country. Realistically, our urban public schools are (and exceptions, of course, exist) disastrous at the junior high and high school level because of their inability to escape the bureaucratic paralysis that seems endemic to the system. Compounding this tragedy is the level of violence that seems to be tolerated by a frightened cohort of administrators. Therefore, private schools need to be inclusive and welcoming. But anyone who reads The New York Times knows that there are too few private schools for too many applicants, and so, places in them are very limited for the poorer segment of our society.


In our contemporary United States, what used to be the uniting bond of shared military service, at least during the first two World Wars, no longer exists, and even our houses of worship seem to be divided along economic and racial grounds. Where, one can ask, do we all come together? Maybe that togetherness was only there briefly in World War II, and even then the armed forces were segregated. But now that we are in a more genuine democracy, there must be social interaction among citizens. I have no solution. We cannot ban private clubs so that all swim in public pools. We should not ban the choice of parents to choose private schools. And I am not proposing a draft. But at some level, this disconnect, this “gating” of one community from another, damages our country and may lead to potential disaster. I look at the news that is reported and am appalled by the focus on celebrity scandal and trivia, while noting the absence of genuine reporting about the separation of those who lead one life from those who lead a totally different one with no contact between them.


Sooner or later, we will have to resolve all this. In 1969, our idea of a school community that was diverse was a novel one. Now it is the norm and that is for the good. But private schools are not the solution to the problem. There has to be a better way.


So, my seniors, I hope this is meaty enough for you to critique and to suggest solutions that I cannot think of. Platitudes are platitudes because there is too often truth in them. So to say that you are our hope for the future is both platitudinous and true. I hope you attack me with vigor and wisdom. I hope that you reach out and share mutual experiences with that society that you don’t yet know. I pray that we all come together somehow.


Maybe I should have stuck to the piece on memory!

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

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section More News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.