The expressions “lacking in further ambition,” “smug,” and “happy with what you do” range in the degree of negative emotions they connote. Yet they all describe a similar condition, and one in which I think I have found myself for forty-three years. I enjoy what I do and, therefore (to use an alluringly alliterative phrase), am a happy headmaster.
Through a totally unforeseen chain of events, which began when I represented Charles Kray who stood accused of being part of a murderous gang (tomes of references to him and his twin brothers appear on the Internet), and ended with Jayme and me founding York Prep School at East 85th Street in 1969, I became this happy head of school. I had the feeling at the conclusion of the process that this is what I truly enjoyed doing and that it was as far as I wanted to go in the race of life. York Prep was the vehicle that enabled me to work with a wonderful community of students, parents, and teachers. People have sometimes asked why an English barrister would start a school in New York, and my answer has always been the same: “It seemed a good idea at the time.”
Since then, on fewer occasions, we have been asked why we do not start a lower school; after all, a “Little York” would neatly feed York Prep. The answer (usually unstated) has been: “It does not feel like a good idea.” Inherent in that reply would have to be the acknowledgement that we have been, and still are, very happy at doing exactly what we are doing. To expand downwards would potentially threaten the enjoyable position that fortune has favored us with. We are, therefore, without further ambitions. You can see why this could be closely aligned to the pejorative adjective, “smug.”
I am sure this would not be everyone’s cup of tea. I am reminded of being at a very elegant party in the South of France, some years ago, at the beautiful home of the chairman of an important European bank. The weather was perfect, and a table for about sixteen guests had been set up on the promontory into the Mediterranean on which the house sat. Jayme and I were there as houseguests of close friends. It was a gorgeous setting with fairly gorgeous guests (your correspondent, obviously, not one of them). The elegantly bejeweled, tastefully face-lifted, blonde lady seated beside me turned and inquired as to my profession. I replied that I was a schoolmaster. As an expression of visible surprise crossed her face, she turned the other way and did not speak to me again. I understood and felt extremely good about the exchange. Although it is difficult to explain, sometimes it is good to be snubbed.
Was that arrogance on my part? That sense that I knew who I was and was comfortable with what I still do, and said it as a point of pride (as though to challenge her status hierarchy in which schoolmasters are very low)? Probably! We may need to add a touch of arrogance to that opening list after “happy with what you do,” because if you are really happy with your station in life, you are, in fact, proud of it. And I get the check mark there, too.
This past summer we slightly expanded the school building to add bleachers, a fitness room, and a very interestingly-shaped faculty relaxation center. No one pressured us to do the construction, and the supervision of it (working with contractors) took a great deal of our energy. Yet, at the end, I think I can say: “It seemed a good idea at the time and it still does.”
When I hear positive remarks about York Prep and how it has changed the lives of our students for the better (and yes, I do actually hear this quite often, vain as it is to say), I think back to that moment in the South of France. Perhaps that is why I repeat the story and have never forgotten the occasion. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I do own a conductor’s baton and sometimes fantasize about conducting the Philharmonic (but don’t we all?). Anyway, to return to my “happy headmaster” theme, I have found that highly ambitious people are never satisfied with where they are, never comfortable with what they do, and feel as though they should be doing better with the talents they have.
Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
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