Headmaster’s Thoughts – July 2009

After our commencement exercises, we had a party for the graduating class and their guests. Every parent I met at that party thanked me for York’s contribution to their child’s success.  Without exception, I was thanked for how far their child had come while at York Prep.  Nice listening, but part of me wondered if the thanks were not premature.

There really is no test now to know how well we have done. Just getting graduating seniors into their first-choice colleges, as my wife and Janet Rooney did so successfully with this class, is not the test.  Jayme does wonderful work, everyone knows that, and Janet has proved an invaluable associate.  But getting into a great college does not, in itself, translate into a successful life.  Getting good scores on SATs, or a good high school grade, or learning calculus, or even getting the diploma, is not proof of a school’s successful impact on the student. No, the true test of how we have helped our students will only occur with the passage of time.  It will be the way our students successfully deal with the challenges ahead, and by ahead I really mean over many years.

Even then, it may be difficult to know whether the school was the critical part of a student’s success.  I believe that my history teacher was the mentor who helped me become curious.  His parting words to me as I thanked him when I was awarded my scholarship to Oxford were, “Ronnie, always be curious!”  Words I have tried (and probably frequently failed) to live by.  But who knows if I am ascribing to him qualities that I should be ascribing to others?  Who knows if I am a success?  If I am, and I am not being disingenuous, there just doesn’t seem to be a way of judging my school’s impact.  So how do we test York’s impact?

Sometimes former students come up to me at reunions and tell me how life-changing my comments to them were.  They then repeat these life-changing comments which invariably, I am embarrassed to admit, I cannot remember saying.  I wonder if I actually ever said those remarks or if, in the glow of reunion nostalgia, I was assigned them.  As an undergraduate, I heard stories about the Warden of my college saying something witty, in a very typically English type of toast, at a wedding of a young couple in the College Chapel. He was in his late seventies and he toasted them by saying, “Splendid couple, know them well, slept with them both!”  I have since heard the same remark ascribed to other “grand old men” in similar situations at different times. Clever remarks get stolen and re-ascribed.

Obviously, graduation is one of those moments when gratitude is on everyone’s minds. Gratitude to parents first, and then teachers and school.  It is a virtual ceremony of gratitude, and a celebration of thanks.  But the school has passed no test because of the ceremony, and no test will ever be devised.  In the end, our work is for the student’s whole life, not the next few years.  Perhaps that is why I teach ethics to all the seniors, at least to get them to think about ethical issues and approaches to life’s problems. Schools should try and teach you to be good as well as smart.  But frankly, no student has ever come back to me to tell me that their ethics class helped them in a real life situation, nor would I expect them to.  Education is a long-term affair that drips character and knowledge slowly into the mind of the student. There are no “eureka!” moments; it is a process, not a happening.

I have always believed that educators must be optimists and that we must intrinsically believe in the value of what we are doing; that we are assisting in the process of producing members of society who will lead extremely satisfying and rewarding lives.  But we need to understand that there can never be any expectation of proof of our success, if indeed we are successful.  All a school can do is hope that in the richness of their students’ lives, their secondary school will have played as substantial a role as it was possible to do at the time.  And maybe the teachers at the school can also allow themselves the indulgence of wishing that their students will, in hindsight, recognize that they were helped by their efforts.  But we will never really know.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

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