Remembering 9/11

Head of School Bob Henderson shared these remarks in assembly Sept. 11, 2014: Many in this audience have no memory of September of 2001, although I think images in the media are familiar to us all. Those of us who are a little older remember that day all too clearly, glued to the television, talking with friends and family, trying to retain a sense of stability, order, and security amid fear, sadness, terror and wild speculation. All of us of the right age remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, at roughly 9 a.m., as the school day was getting underway here on campus. The details of the next several hours forever remain vivid. In the early afternoon we gathered as a school community in this room, where we together began slowly to process what had happened.

The following day, Sept. 12, we confirmed here at Nobles what the direct loss had been to this community. Three current and former Nobles parents lost their lives on the doomed planes that left Boston bound for Los Angeles on that beautiful and terrible morning:

Richard Ross, father of Franklin, Class of ’02
Cora Hidalgo Holland, mother of Nate ’01 and Jessica ’97
Sonia Puopolo, mother of Mark ’90

Later we learned, after she joined this faculty, that faculty member Meg Jacobs had lost her brother, John Randall, in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on that day.

Richard, Cora, Sonia and John were victims of the deepest sort of intolerance, of fanaticism, of hatred driven by irrational ideology.They were all loving people whose lives were dedicated to their families.All four were aware of and thankful for the blessings that this life had bestowed upon them, grateful for the love with which they were surrounded, and for the opportunity to love others.They were also generous and giving, with deep commitments to service.These four were from very different backgrounds, and they did not know each other, yet they all shared a connection, through the tragedy of that day, with this community and with each other.They represent a microcosm of all that is best in this country, and in this extended school community.Their loss was a stunning waste.

We are left to derive meaning and purpose, not from death, but from the richness of their lives. It is our obligation to continue that dialogue and quest, to affirm life and direction from an act still so incomprehensible, for if we do not seek to understand, it will control and direct us against our will. With steady determination, we must affirm our values and principles as Americans and as human beings in the face of that most stark and egregiously violent challenge.

Please join me in observing a moment of silence in remembrance of and honor for all the victims of Sept. 11, 2001.

We will now indeed affirm life with a special recognition here in assembly.For the last several years in the opening meeting of faculty and staff we have honored a member of the staff with the Cora Holland Hidalgo Holland Award, and we make this recognition in this annual assembly as well.

Some of us in this room remember Cora Holland well. She was a dedicated supporter of the Nobles community. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she boarded an airplane in Boston bound for Los Angeles to visit relatives. She was never able to rejoin her family after that tragic trip. Cora’s particular concern and attention were reserved for the school staff. A person with special warmth and openness, Cora went to great lengths to welcome and befriend all the employees of the school with whom she came in contact. Her family felt that this award would be an appropriate means whereby Cora could be memorialized in this community.

The Cora Hidalgo Holland Award expresses the deep gratitude of this community to a member of the school staff whose work has been excellent, whose dedication has been exceptional, and whose character has made this a better place in which to live and work for all of us.

I am very pleased to present the 2013 Cora Holland Award to Thanae Cooper. Many of you know her from the admission office. Thanae genuinely cares about people and it shows through her daily interactions with everyone who passes through the admissions office.Whether it is making a visiting family feel as if they are known and treasured, to taking the time to interact with other members of the faculty and staff as they come by, Thanae does what it takes to make others feel comfortable.She ensures that everything happens seamlessly in the admission office. Efficient, organized and clear, Thanae gives the best of herself every day to make sure the school is presented to our internal and external communities in both the most professional and welcoming light. She is smart, creative, thoughtful, highly motivated and a great colleague.

Today we express our community gratitude to Thanae Cooper with the Cora Hidalgo Holland Award.

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Thoughts to Open a New School Year

The following remarks were shared with faculty on Aug. 29, 2014:
When I gave my speech at commencement last May, my focus was on the skill sets that our graduates will need to actually fulfill the mission of the school when they enter the world after their formal educations. Recognizing that I have to compete with the likes of Abbey Anderson, Mo Afdahl and Tim Carey at graduation, I know that what I say at the beginning of that event is generally forgettable. It’s okay – I’m used to it. So I want to seize the opportunity now to return to my graduation theme while I have you captive and I am the featured speaker.

Last May I used a widely circulated set of hiring criteria from Google as the basis for my thinking about the relevance of a Nobles diploma. Since then, I have come across very similar points about the necessary future focus of American education in a number of different forums. The themes are quite consistent – the zeitgeist seems clear! The most succinct and notable, in my view, better than the Google document, appeared in a summer publication of SSATB entitled “Think Tank on the Future of Assessment.” Not a riveting headline, I know, so I admit I opened the magazine up with more sense of obligation than genuine interest. SSATB is the largest secondary school admission testing organization in the country and I think I need to know what they are putting out there.

Therein, however, I found an interview with Amy Wilkinson, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is the author of The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs. She was asked the following question: “How will the workplace change in the coming decades?”

She responded: “Given the rapid pace of change, if you are a student or professional today, it is hard to anticipate what work will look like in five years, or even in one year. Accordingly, it matters less what you know and much more what you can do with what you know – how you can integrate new learning and apply insight to new situations. The future workplace will reward those who are open to change, are intellectually curious, and are ready to build on each other’s ideas through collaborative give and take.”

She was asked one more question, and gave one more response, that I want to share with you: “What do you think are the most important attributes and aptitudes required for success in tomorrow’s economy?”

Her answer to this really grabbed me: “First is continuous learning – never thinking you are finished… (It) is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Second is curiosity – always asking questions, figuring out how things fit together, challenging the status quo, and not accepting ‘no’ as an answer. Third is relentless optimism (or grit). Today’s challenges can be hard to define, and they require perseverance. You can’t be dissuaded by obstacles or failures, but (must be) willing to get out there and get dirty doing the difficult things. Fourth is the ability to work with people who have very different backgrounds and perspectives from your own. When you are pioneering new frontiers, do it with a diverse array of allies who work well together.”

So there it is, an oversimplified yet useful and clear summary of the qualities that are likely be in demand in the future our students will enter. Again, they are continuous learning, curiosity, relentless optimism and grit, and the ability to thrive and collaborate amongst diversity of intellect and experience. And I ask myself, as I think all teachers should ask themselves, is my school, and is my classroom, preparing kids to enter this world, fostering these skills, and doing so in a way that emphasizes ethical behavior and responsibility to local and broader communities?

We are all aware of the cultural and societal pressures that mitigate against our success in this endeavor. Specialization and the way in which kids focus all their time and energy on one endeavor, and one group of kids, is arguably the most pernicious of these. The general narcissism and entitlement of contemporary adolescence is another. We worry a lot these days about the tendency of kids to seek the path of least resistance and, protected by parents snowplowing a clear path for them, to lack resilience and perseverance. Perhaps the most powerful opposing factor, however, is the American myth of individual accomplishment. We have in our heads a powerful paradigm of people like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, or more recently in our history Bill Gates and Steven Jobs, individual entrepreneurs who transformed American life with their genius and initiative.

One of the books I read this summer was focused entirely on this theme. Simon Winchester’s latest narrative, The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible discusses a long list of characters, entirely male and white, some well known and others more obscure, whose visions and endeavors created the country. And yet, the subtle subtheme of this book was that they really did not do all this alone. Lewis and Clark, for instance, forged a highly effective team, including people from a wide variety of backgrounds and one notable woman, Sacagawea. The trans-continental railroad emerged from the energies of people like Leland Stanford, and yet the enterprise was highly dependent upon intensely collaborative problem-solving by a wide cast of characters, with an incredible array of skills and experiences, who came from divergent corners of the earth.

I would argue that today, and indeed throughout our history, the people who have made the most profound difference were not solitary geniuses, like Isaac Newton, laboring alone in a laboratory with unwavering focus. Rather, they were those who could build the most creative and effective collaborative enterprises, undertakings where they could both express their vision and hear from others, where everyone’s individual contribution was understood to be intrinsic to the success of the whole. I strongly recommend that you read the brilliant article in the July/August edition of The Atlantic by Joshua Wolf Shenk entitled “The Power of Two.” In it he articulates that while we fetishize solitary achievers, the example of Paul McCartney and John Lennon of the Beatles is highly instructive. Shenk argues that those two men’s talents, while individually prodigious, achieved the level of genius only through the synergy of their amazing collaboration.

While there are indeed forces and trends that pull us apart and away from each other that are arguably more powerful today than in earlier periods, I also think there are unique opportunities that pull us together. For as much as we can sometimes dwell upon the shortcomings of today’s youth, I think that we are also working with a generation of kids motivated by powerful and sincere commitment to service. I tell graduates that I love working with kids today because of their compassion, energy and optimism, which I find in as great supply as at any time in working with teenagers over the last 34 years. I think technology, for all the pressure it sometimes applies to pull us apart and away from each other, also affords humanity unprecedented opportunities to share and connect, and kids intuitively take advantage of that capacity. I believe our EXCEL program and initiative already is engendering, and will continue to foster, critical and essential counterweights to the impacts of specialization, narcissism, alienation, parental insulation and lack of grit.

Most fundamentally, I believe that the mission and program of this school, both in an academic sense and in terms of the ethical development it provides, is uniquely attuned to the moment in history in which we live. I really believe this. This is an enterprise that seeks to do two things that are both powerful streams in the American psyche. On the one hand, we have our school motto, “spes sibi quisque,” which speaks to need for the individual to have fortitude, strength of character, and intrinsic commitment to achievement. And on the other hand we have our school mission, which impels us to “inspire leadership for public good.” This requires us to be sure we are helping our kids to contribute, indeed to lead, in a world that will belong to those who can think clearly and act decisively, but more significantly a world that will place a premium on collaboration, empathy, curiosity, optimism, resilience, relentless commitment to learning, and adaptability to rapid change. And while there is a timeless, unchanging quality to schools, we must, as an institution, continually ask ourselves to do this more adeptly and with greater clarity.

So it is with these thoughts that I am charging out of the gate for a new school year. We ask people to give generously of their time and resources to Nobles because we believe passionately in who we are and what we do, and because of our determination to innovate and do it better. People respond enthusiastically to those requests because they are impressed, share the commitment, and are inspired by our dedication and success. This community, and the people it produces, are essential to a better future for our communities, for our commonwealth, and for our country in myriad ways, as citizens, community servants, leaders, parents, intellects, creators, entrepreneurs and innovators. I know you share in these ideals, and I hope you will carry them into your work here every day.

Best wishes for a great year ahead.

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Reflections on Columbus Day

A week from today you have a holiday, a long weekend, by any measure a good thing.  If you are like me, you probably do not reflect sufficiently on the meaning of the holiday, content instead simply to be grateful for a little extra sleep, the chance to decompress, perhaps another opening to hang out with good friends or family, and maybe the opportunity to catch up on a task or two.  I look forward for all those reasons to Columbus Day, arriving just in time as the pressure builds in the first academic quarter of the school year.

Yet I am an historian.  Over the years I have taught both United States and European History.  Christopher Columbus holds an exceedingly important place in both of those historical narratives.  And that place is increasingly regarded as highly controversial and a conundrum.  Any informed, reflective person has to struggle with Columbus, what he represents, and the meaning of his actions.

For some, Columbus is best understood as a heroic explorer.  He was a man with a bold vision, and the qualities of character and the talent to see that vision to fruition.  He set out into the unknown, and through his courage and skill a path was set, and a spirit was established, that led to the creation of modern America.

For others, Columbus was a buffoon.  He was lost and didn’t know it, a man who set out on a fool’s errand with bad information.  He succeeded only through blind luck.  He replicated his mission three more time, in each instance seeking Asia, yet still managing never to reach even the continents of America, of which he remained blissfully unaware, instead sailing aimlessly around the Caribbean.

And for others Columbus is a great historical villain, a purveyor of genocide.  He came to the New World armed with diseases and guns that led to the imperialist annihilation of cultures and the death of millions of native people.

There is truth within each of these perspectives.  Columbus did indeed possess many admirable qualities.  He sought to take incredible risks.  He was an inspirational leader, and he was tenacious and determined in pursuit of lofty goals.  He was a visionary.  And, indeed, his ambitions did transform the world, leading ultimately to remarkable opportunities and advances for all of humanity.

At the same time, when you read Columbus’ own letters it is clear that he had four specific ambitions.  He sought gold, hoping to extract wealth by any means from the people and lands he discovered.  He sought converts to Christianity with an utterly inflexible view of the wrongness of any faith other than his own.  He sought, through violence if necessary, to seize territory and monopolize trade routes for his sovereign, Queen Isabella of Spain.  And he sought personal glory.  Columbus justified many moral atrocities, including theft, murder and slavery, in pursuit of these objectives.

I turned to one of Nobles’ Distinguished Graduates, the great Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison of the Nobles Class of 1904, for some balanced insight into Columbus.  Morison saw Columbus as simply a man, complicated in his passions and motives, a product of the moral, political and economic imperatives of his times, and not easily evaluated in a modern context.  Morison said, “America was discovered by a great mariner who was looking for something else; when discovered, it was not wanted, and most of the exploration of the next fifty years was done with the hope of getting around or through it.  America was ultimately named, not for Columbus, but for a man who discovered no part of the New World.  History is like that, very chancy.”

I do not think we should stop observing Columbus Day, and this is not just because I like having the day off.  Rather, I hope it is preserved so that we can continue to reflect on the complex meaning of this immensely significant man and his legacy, which are at once great, yet profoundly flawed and troubling.  History is often like that, both ambiguous and, as Morison said, “chancy,” and it is left to the living to extract meaning and direction from the actions and intentions of those who came before us, with the hope that we can do better, and live with greater wisdom.  Indeed, I believe that examination of the life and legacy of Columbus can be of immense aid to all of us as we make the choices and decisions that will shape our own lives and the future of our society.

Have a great week, and enjoy the well-deserved long weekend ahead of us.

—Bob Henderson

These remarks were first delivered during assembly on Monday, October 7, 2013


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Skiing and Scuba

Ross Henderson loves to scuba dive; her husband loves to ski.

Faculty member Ross Henderson loves to scuba dive; her husband loves to ski.

As the summer winds down, I find myself ruminating on vacations. Very soon the pace of the school year will resume and, as much as I love the sense of purpose and engagement of the academic calendar, I admit to thinking often about my next chance to get away. For the nearly the last quarter century, most of those plans have involved either skiing or scuba diving.

My wife, Ross, is an avid and accomplished scuba diver.  One of her objectives every summer is to find a chance to go diving. I do not share that mission. If I have a choice, I am entirely content to put on a mask, snorkel and fins and thrash around on the surface. In contrast, in the winter, I love to ski. She endures skiing, and in fact would usually prefer to be in front of a fireplace with a good book. We have reached an accommodation in our marriage that is a model of successful compromise.  Back in the mists of time, however, when we were first married, we had a different arrangement.

Head of School Bob Henderson only likes to dive when the conditions are perfect.

Head of School Bob Henderson only likes to dive when the conditions are perfect.

Ross is from North Carolina. She learned to ski when she was growing up, but the opportunities for skiing in North Carolina were few and far between. When they did arise, the conditions were poor. She went to college in the South, majored in biology, developed a passion for the ocean and marine life, and learned how to scuba dive.  Everywhere we have lived (California, Maui, Maine and Massachusetts), Ross has gone diving when she has the opportunity, although on vacation she chooses now to go to warm water to dive rather than experience the frigid waters of New England.  Over time she developed a marine biology class that she has offered at four schools, including Nobles, and, with biology teacher Jeremy Kovacs, she has delighted in taking Nobles students to dive over March break in Honduras.

I grew up in New England and learned to ski. My family was oriented north to the mountains (as opposed to the New England seashore), and I spent the winters of my youth at places like Waterville Valley and Attitash.  In college I worked on the ski patrol, and on vacations after I started teaching I looked for opportunities to try new ski resorts around the country. In those days, I did not get injured while skiing and thought of myself as invulnerable on the slopes.

When we met and started dating, and even through the first few years of our marriage, we sincerely sought to balance our varied interests so we could share them with each other. Ross went skiing like a trooper. I learned to scuba dive. She would express to people how much she liked skiing, and I would announce my enthusiasm for diving. We were not entirely insincere, but over time we were able to come to grips with the fact that we liked spending time on vacation with each other way more than we enjoyed each other’s athletic interests while there. Ross ultimately conceded that she really only liked to ski on perfect, sunny days with ideal snow and temperatures right at or just above freezing. And she only liked to ski at a leisurely pace for half of the day. These conditions are rare indeed in New England, and once our three sons started to ski, racing non-stop down the mountain all day long, she found little joy in the experience.  Similarly, I only like to dive in perfect conditions, in warm, clear water.  And I use my air up too fast, anxiously hyper-ventilating, checking my gear constantly; this forces us to surface long before Ross is out of air. Ross would just as soon dive without me. So I concede the point and just snorkel, or better yet, stay behind with a book on the beach.

After three broken legs skiing over the last 15 years, however, and a long ongoing recovery from my last break in December, I am contemplating when, or even whether, I will get back on the slopes. Our vacation balance is at risk!  And so, as I work in my office this August at all the tasks necessary to initiate a new school year, I find myself wondering far more than in the past what I will do in December, March and July when I have time away. I have a feeling I will need to bring along my snorkel and lots of good books!

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Thanks and Goodbye, Erika Guy

 This morning I have the honor of expressing the profound gratitude of everyone in this room toward a woman who has been the critical force in envisioning, building and sustaining this community.  She has had various titles assigned by different school heads over the last quarter century, but the essence of her responsibility has always been a simple one in broad design: improve the quality of the Nobles experience for every student.  This she has done with magnificent care, energy and, truly, love.  This week marks her graduation from Nobles as she and her husband Doug move on to the next challenges in their lives.



The specific list of Erika’s contributions to Nobles is amazing, and as I started to write it out, I realized the list did not capture the full magnitude of her responsibilities and contributions.  That is, until I got to the last item.  Erika is a gardener.  She has created the organic garden at Nobles.  And, indeed, it struck me that this is the apt metaphor for what Erika has done here year after year.  She has prepared the soil, planted the seeds, and with loving care and firm discipline made the garden grow.  And thanks to her, Nobles is a flourishing garden indeed.  And so, the organic garden she has created, and which is now a part of this community, will be named for her.



I know I speak for everyone in this room, and especially for the graduating Class of 2013, when I say, from the bottom of my heart, as a friend, co-worker, and grateful citizen of this community, thank you Erika Guy for a job exceedingly well done!  We love you and we will miss you!


Head of School Robert P. Henderson, Jr. delivered these remarks on May 30 at the final Assemby of the year.




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Dance Takes the Next Steps

Dance teacher Jillian Grunnah has an even bigger smile than usual these days. She will be able to teach in a brand new facility by this time next year, accommodating a growing program and rooting dance in a fully dedicated space for the first time. Fostering the dance program has long been an objective of the school. Nearly 20 years ago, well before my arrival as head, planning for a new athletic center was underway.  With great foresight, the trustees and leadership of the school at that time imagined that the athletic program at Nobles eventually would place greater emphasis on fitness and wellness activities (in addition to interscholastic athletics), and the design of the Morrison Athletic Center (the MAC) reflected that philosophy.  There was a very small, struggling dance program at Nobles in those days, existing as a limited one-season option in the Afternoon Program.  The leadership of the school envisioned that dance might someday flourish and burgeon, and so they included a space for dance in the MAC; it was assigned the “other half” of the wrestling room.  And dance did grow, albeit fitfully and slowly over the last two decades.

Roughly a decade ago, as planning began for the Arts Center, many people pointed out the limitations of the dance space in the MAC. Most notably, the surface of the floor there is inadequate.  The Performing Arts Department advocated for inclusion of dance in the new Arts Center as a natural adjunct to the overall arts program.  The early drawings of the Arts Center did, in fact, show a dance studio. Then, however, we were forced to prioritize and scale back that immense project in order to meet our funding capacity.  Dance was the smallest of the performing arts programs at that time, with the shortest history at Nobles as compared to music and drama, and some argued that dance already had space in the MAC.  So the dance studio disappeared in the “value engineering” process and the Arts Center opened without it.

Yet, as predicted by trustees in the 1990s, interest in dance continued slowly to grow.  Emphasis on excellence in choreography for the spring musical productions in particular fueled interest and need, and the MAC was too far away to serve as an adequate or useful space to prepare for a major theatrical production.  Indeed, dance classes and rehearsals were being held on the carpeted concrete floors of the Arts Center lobby. With the arrival of Jillian Grunnah at Nobles in the fall of 2009, interest in dance soared, a tribute to her charismatic presence and her emphasis on both inclusion and excellence. Over the last year we have seen roughly 40 students, between Afternoon Program and school day options, involved in dance in single seasons.  Dance shows have repeatedly drawn enthusiastic full houses, and performances in morning Assembly have been regular occurrences.  The time seemed right to take the next step and provide a proper home.

In December of this school year, the trustees approved a concept for a new dance studio.  The site they selected is where the dance studio appeared in those original drawings of the Arts Center – on the north side of the building, behind the recital hall on Campus Drive, attached to the building adjacent to the current “green room.”  The dance floor will be 3,000 square feet in size, determined after careful study of dance studios at other schools and with the current and future needs of our program in mind.  The floor, to Jillian’s relief, will not be concrete. Instead it will be a multilayered surface of springs, hardwood and marley flooring, which will allow for a full range of locomotive training. We also will include other amenities, such as viewing space, that will enhance the quality of the dance program.  Seizing the opportunity presented by this project, the trustees also authorized the creation of two new classrooms and several new offices on the second floor of this addition, addressing additional needs of the school.  Construction will begin late this spring, and the most disruptive elements of the project will occur over the summer.  Assuming all the planning, permitting and construction elements fall into line, this addition is scheduled for completion by January 2014; we plan to use all these facilities in the second semester of the next school year.  Funding has been secured, and we have had the enthusiastic support of some generous donors who have long hoped to see dance emerge as a full partner in the performing arts program at Nobles.  In the next edition of the Nobles magazine you will be able to see the full designs for this exciting addition to the Arts Center.  I hope you will view this project, as I do, as both the fulfillment of a long-held vision for dance at Nobles, as well as an exciting opportunity for the future of the school.

This article originally appeared in the Parents’ E-newsletter in March 2013.

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Hope and Anxiety

“The popular media reflect a cultural and psychological landscape,” argues Pat Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in a March online newsletter article. Bassett says that the movies and TV shows that are made and consumed by the American public reveal a national “state of mind.”  Citing popular TV shows of the 1950’s (i.e., Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, Bonanza, The Honeymooners), he suggests that these programs were “projections and reflections of a country that was characterized by strong, intact families, effective and positive authority figures, and a promise of prosperity that cut across all classes.”  In contrast, he points out that many of the films that have been most popular and successful over the last year are indications of the uncertainty, anxiety, class tension, and disrupted psyche of our times—in contrast, they present “impotent and conflicted authorities on the one hand or stories embracing nostalgia for heroic but doomed leaders on the other” (i.e., Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Les Miserables and The Twilight Saga).  I could certainly offer other mass media examples that support Bassett’s perspective.

Our children consume this media in vast quantities, now with online access that adults find exceedingly difficult to control, especially as students enter their middle and later teenage years.  And, indeed, it is my observation that my students today are generally more anxious about the times they are living in and their futures than my students were when my career in education was beginning over three decades ago.  While I can point out that every generation has had to confront significant anxieties of the times as it came of age (i.e., the Cold War in the 50’s, Vietnam in the 60’s, etc.), I think it may be true that the current generation is the first since the end of the Second World War in which there is a deep undercurrent of concern that they will not be able to attain the opportunities, success and affluence of the generations that came before them.

The role and significance of Noble and Greenough School is greater than ever before in this context.  I should point out, first of all, that never before in my career have I encountered students with deeper and more genuine commitments to service than I have in the last several years.  This generation of students, in my experience, and despite its anxieties, is frankly as hopeful as any I have known; remarkable numbers of them are dedicated to individual and collective action to make the world a better place.  Perhaps this is a balm to anxiety, but I think at a deeper level it is because they are inspired and motivated by the remarkable parallel possibilities of our time for connection, communication, productivity, empowerment and action.  Nobles provides exceptional opportunities, encouragement, support and inspiration for these activities.  Moreover, there is a clear and immutable structure of values at Nobles, evident in the daily life and function of the community, that frames the need and purpose for service to others and society.  While intellectual growth and achievement are the primary framework for the daily responsibilities of students, it is the concomitant emphasis on inspiring leadership for the public good, regardless of what professional fields our students will eventually choose in life, that offers adolescents the reason and context for their endeavors, today and in their futures.

Despite the anxieties of our times, the students I work with every day give me ample reason for optimism and hope for the future, and more than ever it is our job as a school community to foster and develop that sense of possibility and its moral focus.

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Why Teach?

Every head of school at Nobles has been a classroom teacher. Every one. Teaching has been an important part of the personal and professional identities of each leader. Former headmaster Dick Baker, in fact, continues to teach at Nobles, working his magic every day. When I was hired 13 years ago, my desire to teach likely gave me an advantage during the selection process, given the weight of this tradition. I continue to teach—and continue to love it—meeting with my AP European History class four days a week.

A strong case may be made, however, that the head of school should not teach. The
majority of my colleagues at schools around the country do not. Increasingly, school
heads do not attain their position by rising from the teaching ranks. Instead, they
enter through various administrative roles, learning from the business end. Many
started in teaching but then turned to administrative positions. Others have given
up one small classroom for a much larger forum, and in this respect, will suggest that
they still teach every day.

The best reasons for heads not to teach are time and professionalism. One class of
students can, and should, consume many hours a week, between grading, preparing,
extra help and classroom activities. This can be a distraction on the head’s calendar.
Moreover, being a good teacher at the secondary-school level requires reading and
research in an academic field, staying abreast of pedagogical theory and technological
innovations, and being able to implement new developments in classroom practice.
Heads argue correctly that they should be fully dedicated to acquiring and managing
school resources and setting the institutional imperatives. Many heads must also
travel extensively, and they have to be available for minor and major crises breaking
over the bow of the school.

I teach because I enjoy it. However, I have built a rationalization that is more
compelling than that. Teaching forces me to practice what I preach every day. I have
to forge the relationships with my students that are at the heart of our institutional
purpose and methodology. I have to write comments and college recommendations
like my teaching colleagues. As long as I can retain credibility that I am reasonably
competent at classroom teaching, it bolsters my profile with the teachers at the school.
In the broadest sense, I think it has helped me to talk more powerfully about the
impact and purpose of this community, and thereby to envision and articulate the
future of the school. I recognize that these imperatives are true for me and do not
apply to all school heads. Furthermore, I understand that it may not be possible or
appropriate for every future head at Nobles to teach an academic class. For me, however,
the two roles are fundamentally inextricable and lead me to a more profound
understanding of our school mission.

This post originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Nobles magazine.

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Break a Leg?

A great deal of snow dumped on the mountains of Maine in late December of this year, and the ski conditions were ideal.  There have not been a lot of great ski days over the holidays over the last few years, so I was very excited to get an early start on the mountain at Sunday River on Saturday, December 29.  I pushed my boys, as well as my brother and nephew, out of bed early so we could be among the first on the lifts at 8:00 a.m.  We took a few fast runs, making our way across the resort to an area where we knew the crowds would be lightest and the snow optimal at that time in the morning.  My boys don’t rest when skiing, jumping off the lift and skiing all the way down, directly to the bottom, to get on the chair and do it again.  I pride myself that I am an expert skier, and that I can more than keep up with my kids, often setting the pace and choosing the trails.  The day was glorious, the snow plentiful and soft, and I was happy and a million miles in my mind from the worries of school.

Greek mythology is rife with warnings of the price of human hubris.  The Irish offer endless version of Murphy’s Law, cautioning that if something can go wrong, it will.  I believe these things, so I should have seen it coming.  At the start of the sixth run of the day, at 9:30 a.m., I went first, shooting down a steep section near the top of my favorite trail on the mountain.  At that moment, a cloud passed over the sun and the light went flat.  I misjudged a ridge in the snow, lost my balance, and kicked my right ski loose.  I fell hard, but my left binding never released.  As I twisted through the air, I knew I had broken my left leg before I even hit the ground.  It also is a fact that I have broken my left leg skiing twice before, so the sensation was not a mystery to me.  As I lay there in the snow, and my family skied up to me, it hurt a lot, but mostly I was just really angry that I had done it again. My son, Patrick, told me later that he learned some new words from me that day as the ski patrol loaded me in the toboggan for the ride down the mountain.

So I missed the first six days of the second semester, after reparative surgery, with my leg in the air.  I am delighted to be headed back to work this week, albeit on crutches for a long time.  So what have I learned?  There are six quick lessons I have taken away that I will share in Assembly soon:

1)     Even when things are bad, they could be much worse.  I am inconvenienced, but I’ll recover, and I am very fortunate in that regard.

2)     You have to let people help you.  They want to, and nothing is to be gained by being heroic and stoic.  And you don’t get better faster by doing it all yourself.

3)     Life goes on, and things are fine, even when you’re not there.  There are lots of competent people around who can temporarily pick up the slack.

4)     Being immobilized is a good experience, not one that I would have chosen, but which nevertheless reminds me of small blessings in this life, of good health, good friends and loving family.

5)     While I am inconvenienced and others are willing to help, my injury is nevertheless a burden on others, especially my wife, and I am reminded to say thank you often and express gratitude to everyone for helping me out.

6)     I need to seriously reconsider, if not my commitment to skiing, at the very least the way I ski.  Maybe I am not such an expert any more!

I expect to be fully mobile again by the time of graduation in the spring, so I can issue diplomas and say goodbye to the class of 2013 while comfortably standing.  Although hobbled, I should be back to full speed in my office by the end of this month. I look forward to being again fully immersed in life at 10 Campus Drive!

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Mid-Year Reflections

Every school year is shaped by a unique combination of salient external and internal influences. As I reflect at the end of the first semester, I am struck that these six months have been successful in most ways, and I always feel challenged to examine why and how—and to consider whether the formula might be reproduced. This year, many of the influences and factors were grand in scope and unlikely to be repeated. Throughout the many recent changes and challenges of last semester—on campus and around the world—the Nobles community responded by creating opportunities for positive action, intellectual engagement and personal growth.

Physical transformation
We will probably never again open a school year with the sort of physical transformation represented by the renovation of and addition to the Castle. It was exciting to get into that space after many months of inconvenience and curiosity about the construction outcome. Yet, for most of us at least, the new Castle significantly exceeded expectations. In my view, the most important impact was the effect of the Castle on the culture and morale of the school. The new facility, conceived and constructed to enhance dining, also served to bring a bright new collective experience to us, conveying openness, a welcoming spirit, and a sense of being part of something special every day. The Castle will serve permanently as a boost to the tone and morale of the school.

Learning with mentors, step-by-step
The routine functions of the school are easy to take for granted. Yet it is in classrooms and studios, and on playing fields and stages, that there are critical small triumphs every day. The school mission asserts that, “through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential and to lead lives characterized by service to others.” This is not generally accomplished in sweeping, dramatic gestures. Rather, it occurs step-by-step, through persistence and steady modeling of behavior, by upholding unrelenting high expectations and standards, and with the investment of caring and support. One measure of our success is when there are immense challenges from the outside world to that routine. Almost invariably at Nobles under such circumstances, there is a call to service, channeling emotion, concern, and sometimes even despair or horror, into deliberate, empathetic and inspirational action.

Political process and intellectual engagement
Despite the sometimes-apocalyptic rhetoric of divisive election campaigns this fall, the tone of debate in the school remained civil and productive. National issues were articulated in assemblies, various classrooms, hallway discussions, and the Nobleman with admirable directness, intellectual engagement, passionate concern for the future, and pragmatic, creative inventiveness in regard to solutions. This process served as a counterweight to the more toxic general political climate, and provided a model for how our students might enter the world with a commitment to finding paths to progress, while motivating others to join them in that endeavor.

Challenges, and the Nobles response
When Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of New Jersey and New York, our Community Service Board immediately conceived ways that student energy and concern could be channeled to help. Milton weekend this year, for instance, as always a wonderful celebration of athletic skill and competition, also provided the chance for over 70 volunteers from our extended community (including students, parents, faculty, graduates and even a few grandparents) to take a break from the sidelines to help package over 10,000 meals to send to the relief of folks facing hunger in the storm areas, as well as for people in need here in Greater Boston. Indeed, several varsity teams made service a priority this fall, undertaking projects to provide aid for a remarkable variety of local, national and global causes. And when unthinkable savagery was unleashed in Newtown, Connecticut, students and teachers from this school immediately sought ways to reach out, creating welcoming and comforting snowflake decorations for the new school the children will attend.

What’s ahead
The stretch in the school year from January to March is long one, yet I am heartened by the spirit and momentum generated to date. There are many challenges ahead, both for everyone as individuals trying to reach goals, and for the community as a whole. There will be tests and games to complete, paintings and essays to compose, and many performances in various forums. There will be seniors making college decisions and Sixies engaged in their “Round the World” project. The outside world will surely intrude on us often, making us evaluate and reconsider, yet always inspiring the remarkable students here to think of answers and ways to help. And I know, in the end, there is no formula for the success of a school year; rather, the key is the sustenance of this school culture, the continual brewing of what one parent described to me as our “special sauce,” as well as our determination to uphold our mission to inspire leadership for the public good. Indeed, it is that mission that enables adolescents here to develop their identities and ambitions in the context of causes and possibilities that are bigger than themselves.

This piece was originally published in the January 2013 edition of Nobles’ parent newsletter.

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