Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2006

Sometimes in these monthly pieces I try to be amusing, and sometimes not. This month, not.

I have a disease. It sounds arrogant to say, but the disease is one of honesty. It gives me pain, as any disease does, and I have not found a cure. Sometimes this disease causes pain to members of our parent community. I suspect this is a consequence of the fact that I do not fundraise. Since I don’t try to actively push parents to donate, I have no other agenda except that of the student’s well being, and so I am honest.

A girl applied some months ago. She was very bright, but she obviously was not a good fit in the over-pressured school where she currently went. Somehow, in the admissions interview, the question of drugs at her current school came up. There was a lot of drug use at the school, said the girl. Her friend—her best friend—used cocaine.

I asked if this was one of the reasons she was applying out of that school. Maybe, said the girl. The school looked at her with suspicion because of her friendship. Her friend used cocaine. But, the girl insisted, she never used it. She never tried cocaine.

I suggested that drug testing would have been a quick way to put the lie to such an accusation. The girl said she offered to be drug tested. The mother strongly supported her daughter. She has never used drugs. The mother was very negative about the current school. Too negative.

As part of the application procedure, all applicants visit and spend at least half a day at York Prep. The girl spent a morning at York in the routine process, a few weeks later. By mid morning break, her first two teachers had seen me. They thought that she was high on something.

I took the visiting girl out of her next class. Sitting alone with her in my office, I assured her that my attitude was that of the Italian race car driver (why he was Italian for the purposes of the story I never found out, but that was the way I heard the story) who did not have any mirrors on his car. When they asked him why not, he said (and I suppose an Italian accent might be appropriate in telling this story), “I am only interested in what goes on ahead in the race and not behind.”

I told the girl that it was obvious that something was wrong. We discussed her family dynamics which, as it turned out, were very sad. Eventually, I asked her when the last time was she had used cocaine.

“Two weeks ago.”

She went into some detail, and before I knew it we had talked for an hour. She ended the discussion by saying that she had never spoken with an adult in such an honest manner.

I wrote a letter to the parents saying that we could only even consider accepting the girl if she was drug tested every week and went into counseling. I told them that I thought their daughter had real issues that could be successfully resolved, and that I was optimistic about her future if she had the right amount of help. I did not tell them that their daughter had told me that she used drugs, but indirectly it was clear that the subject had come up. I tried to write an upbeat but honest letter.

When the mother received the letter, she called me up that morning. She must have called within minutes of getting it. She told me that she could not agree to my conditions. She would not agree to drug testing or therapy.

I was stunned. I really thought the girl had a good chance of being a huge success story for York. With the right help, this child was going to make a great young woman. Now, the mother was sabotaging her daughter’s future.

I started this piece by saying that the disease of honesty is a painful disease. I was in pain for at least a week after the mother’s phone call. Had I done something wrong? Why had they turned away so quickly from a path that might lead to success?

One can never fully understand or judge other people’s reasons for what they do. Clearly, I did not know all the details of what had happened in the past in the family or at the school the girl was at. But even now, some considerable time later, the girl’s application and the way it turned out upsets me. I had tried to be honest and was truly looking forward like the mythical race car driver. If my own daughter had the same problem, I would have suggested the same solution.

So this month’s “thoughts” are really not amusing. Things do not always turn out well. Perhaps it would have been easier to flat out reject the girl. No honest help or counsel would be needed in that scenario.

There have been many stories similar to this one in my 37 years as Headmaster of York Prep. Often you get one shot to help. Sometimes, for whatever reason, your help is sent back into your face like a rubber ball hitting a wall.

Self-serving as this obviously appears, I sincerely believe that we try to give parents honest and non-agenda-driven suggestions. I never know all the facts—no one ever can—and, therefore, make mistakes. But hopefully they are never mistakes due to lack of kindness or, worse, dishonesty.

I hope next month I can be more amusing.

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