Headmaster’s Thoughts – November 2016

I hope, by the time this piece is printed (I always think the word “essay” is too fancy for these works.) that the election will be OVER!  Heavens, make it end!  You can have my private collection of pre-war toothbrushes if you stop it!  I beg you!  Stop!

We have had the debates where the candidates would not shake each other’s hands, and we have endured the yelling and the accusations.  These are the kinds of confrontations that no York Prep student or teacher would permit in our classrooms.  We have been interrupted by those intensely annoying phone calls asking us a polling question or telling us what a liar the other candidate is just as we are sitting down for dinner.  And we have listened to biased news reporting and attack ads.  In short, it has been an awful campaign season.  We have not had such a bad time of it in my lifetime.  I feel as though I am from a kinder, more civil time.  I am a 20th century man in a 21st century world.

I fear we are becoming a less civil society, though I cannot blame all of this on the election cycle. You have to also indict our burgeoning technology industry.  The other day, I went to Brooks Brothers to buy socks.  I found the socks that I wanted and brought them to the cash register where a young lady was busy texting on her cell phone.  Her job was to ring up sales, and yet she was texting and ignoring a customer (me) trying to buy something.  I was going to time how long it would take her to notice that I was standing there but, first, I do not have a sweep second hand on my watch (that is typical of how technically challenged I am.) and second, after two minutes passed, I thought I might have better things to do.  So I said, “Excuse me, could I purchase these socks?”  I wonder why we apologize so often to people who are rude?  When people bump me in the streets because they are texting, invariably I say “Sorry!”  probably because I think somehow I am responsible.  Nuts!

Anyway, back to the socks.  The sales associate looked up in surprise as though no one ever came to buy things at the only cash register on the second floor in Brooks Brothers and said “Oh, I didn’t see you!”  “True,” I thought, “because you were not looking!”  Clearly she thought that Brooks Brothers would rather sell things online, so her main job was to text her friend.

Texting is one of the banes of modern life.  We have students who sit next to each other on the steps just off the lobby before the school day starts and text each other.  Let me repeat, they are sitting next to each other.  Interfering as I am, I gently say to them, “Look, your friend is sitting next to you.  Why not talk face to face?”  They look at me as though I am a 20th century character in a 21st century world, which, as you know by now, I am.  There are many other “banes” too.  I still cannot get used to waiting endlessly on a phone trying to get through to a service representative of any company and hearing the incredibly hypocritical prerecorded words, “Please stay on the line, your call is valuable to us!”  Really?  Valuable?

I cannot understand when a parent is in a meeting with me and we are talking about serious issues, that their cell phone rings and they look at me and say “I have to take this!”  I don’t carry a cell phone and, to be honest, your child is more important than whatever is on the phone anyway.  To those of you who think your child needs a cell phone for safety or to let you know where they are, why not buy them an old-fashioned clamshell one that does not send or receive messages?  That way it will, indeed, only be used for the reasons you gave it to them.

I like stores where you can try things on.  I like books, real books, and was very upset when the wonderful Barnes and Noble bookstore on 66th Street and Broadway closed.  I know that our local pharmacist (Thomas Pharmacy) is an endangered species, and I invite Mischa, the man who sells books and old-fashioned long-playing records from a stand on Columbus Avenue between 67th and 68th street, to speak to my senior Ethics class every year.  I recognize that computers are very valuable.  I would rather my doctors use all the help they can get from computers when they perform on me whatever operations they will in the future.  But I do not want the computer to do the operation without the doctor there.  I like intelligent whiteboards.  We have one in every class, but I do not want to leave it to that machine to teach the class and take away the teacher.  I like human interaction.

I feel a bit like people must have felt in the beginning of the 17th century, when Galileo told them that the earth goes around the sun and not vice versa.  I look up, and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and then reappears in the east the next morning.  It certainly seems to circle us.  So things may not be what they appear to be.  I have been told enough times that the earth goes around the sun that I am now at peace with that.  But I have totally lost faith in the truth-revealing capacity of my senses.  Maybe nothing I think exists, exist.  Yet my computer is taking down my typing as I type.  It almost proves to me that something, me, must be causing the print to appear on the screen.  This computer is validating my existence.

So clearly I am exaggerating (nothing new in these pieces).  And maybe the machines are not so bad.  Except when they broadcast the debates.  And, time being what it is, when you read this, the election will be over, and hopefully, civility will return, but I will still be a 20th century man in the 21st century.

Ronald. P. Stewart


York Prep School