Headmaster’s Thoughts – September 2009

For new parents, I should explain that every month I write something called “Headmaster’s Thoughts”. These are primarily for my Senior students to critique in our Ethics class, but, in actuality, they also have a small audience in the York Prep community. I hope they make my readers smile.  My “thoughts” usually refer to educational issues, are often foolish, and are occasionally humorous. In a sense, this is my monthly homework, and there are times when I really have to dig down to find something to say in time for the deadline. This is a story about just that:




The sign on the doctor’s office at the hospital said “Department of Cognitive Degeneration in the Elderly.”  Nervously, I entered into a long corridor painted in warm earth tones. It led to a small waiting room with a nurse at the desk.


“Mr. Stewart?” she inquired, in a soft voice.




“Take a seat and fill out this form.  I will help if there are any difficult questions. The doctor will see you shortly. Do you know what an insurance card is?”


“Yes,” I replied. “I brought it.”  I handed it to her and sat down to fill in the shortest form I have ever seen in a doctor’s office.  Basically, it asked my name and when the symptoms began.


I returned the form to the nurse. She looked at it questioningly. “The symptoms started only these past two months?”


“Yes. I am a bit nervous. Is the doctor…?” I couldn’t find the right word.


“Gentle? Oh yes. Very gentle!  I have been with the doctor for eleven years. I am Miss Hutchins. If you need another appointment, call me.  Here is my card and see, there is my phone number. Right here!”  She pointed to it helpfully.


I sat and looked around the office. There were inspirational posters with flowers entangled around the words. One said: “Passion is the longest word in Compassion.”

True, I thought, but one could make an argument for “compass” as being of equal length, or the military word “caisson.” I tried to think of other words that could be formed and wondered if “nimcomp” as in “incompetent” would be accepted at Scrabble.  Since I had just made it up, I decided in the negative.


Miss Hutchins called, “The doctor will see you now!”


A tall, handsome, bearded man with a full head of grey hair came to greet me. His face, at least the non-hirsute part, seemed covered in kindness lines, particularly around the eyes. I would guess he was in his middle fifties.  He spoke in a reassuring way as he took my arm and led me to a large office filled with his academic awards and a number of well-bound leather books.


He literally helped me sit down before taking his place on the far side of a grand desk.


“Well, Mr. Stewart, I am going to give you a short test to evaluate your condition, and then we will discuss what options we have.  Do you understand what I am going to do?”


“Yes, Doctor!”


“Good.” He took out a large yellow pad. “Your full name?”


“Ronald Philip Stewart.”


“Very good!” he said, in much the same voice with which one would reward a dog that had just fetched a ball.


“What do you do for a living?”


“I am a headmaster of a private school here in New York.”


“Very stressful, I am sure,” he said kindly. “Stress often brings on these conditions. How long have you done this?”


“This is my forty-first year.”


“Oh my goodness!” he exclaimed. “Very stressful!  Quite understandable! How old are you?”




“Now I want you to be very specific. Can you remember the year you were born?”


“Nineteen forty-four.”


“Very good!” Again, that dog-rewarding voice. “Which year are we in now?”


“Two thousand and nine.”


“Good. And who is the President of the United States?”


“Barack Obama.”

“Good. And the Vice-President?”


“Joe Biden,” I answered, wondering whether I should use the full name Joseph instead of Joe.


“Very good.  And the Vice-President before him?”


“Dick Cheney.” Why am I using these diminutives? Should I not be using the formal Richard?


“Good!” And the Vice-President before him?


“Al Gore.”  Or should I have said “Albert”?


The doctor seemed puzzled by my answers because he suddenly said, “Who was Herbert Hoover’s Vice-President?”


“Charles Curtis,” I replied. At least Charles was not known as Charlie or Kit or some other familiar name like that.


My answer did not seem to make the doctor happy.  His nice lines around his eyes seemed to harden slightly.


“Well, obviously you have made a study of vice presidential politics. What are your other interests?”


“I teach philosophy and ethics to the seniors.”


“Philosophy, good!” He took down one of his leather bound books. “Ancient philosophy?”


“Yes,” I said. “That is one of my real interests.”


“When did Socrates live?” he suddenly leaned over to ask in a somewhat aggressive voice.


“469 BC to 399 BC.”  I was beginning to enjoy this test, but the doctor did not seem to be getting the same pleasure.


“Hmm,” he grunted. “And Parmenides?”


“Do you mean Parmenides of Elea?” I asked.


“Yes!” he snapped.


“515 BC to 450 BC.”


“And Heraclitus?”


“Of Ephesus?” I asked politely.


“Is there another one?” he barked back. By now a thin bead of sweat appeared on his forehead. His voice had clearly changed and he had put down his notepad.


“540 to 480 BC.”


He took down another book. “How are you with modern philosophers?” he asked.


“Post Cartesian?”  I asked.


“More modern,” he said, looking at the new book.


“I know some of them,” I said.


“When did Edmund Husserl live?” He was looking at his new book.


“1859 to 1938.”


“And Henri Bergson?”  There was definitely sweat on his forehead and some of it had dripped on his beard. His whole face seemed to have transformed into one of prosecutorial anger.


“1859 to 1941?”


“In what year did Martin Buber publish I and Thou?”


“In 1923.”


Suddenly, he stood up. “Why are you here?” he asked in an angry voice.  “I am the expert on stress-induced Alzheimer’s and your memory seems to be functioning fine.”


“I am sorry,” I replied, trying to be conciliatory. “I thought you were the expert on degenerative cognitive function.”

“I am, particularly when it is stress related.”


“Well, I write a monthly blog known as “Headmaster’s Thoughts.” I have written it for years, and lately I have had difficulty thinking of new topics to write about, so I thought…” My voice trailed off as I saw him getting red in the face.


“You mean,” he spat the words at me, “you have come to me because you have writer’s block?”


“Well, yes,” I said timidly, feeling ashamed that somehow I had made a terrible faux pas.


“Get out!” he yelled at me. “Get out!”


I walked out of his office. Actually, I slunk out of it, if slinking can describe my slow hunched crawl down the long corridor with the happy earth-tone walls and the optimistic sayings.


Behind me, I heard the doctor come out and say to his secretary, “I am going out now, Miss… what is your name again?”


“Miss Hutchins.”


“Well, Miss Hutchling, I am going out. I am going to take the rest of the day off.“




So I have overcome my writer’s block for this month, and my seniors may happily rip this story apart.  I hope they have fun with it!


vRonald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org



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