At our opening day faculty meetings, our Head of School handed me a watch to commemorate the start of my 20th year at Montclair Kimberley Academy. It was the first time that I actually thought about this milestone. I’m sure that some of you see 20 years as a really long, maybe too long, time. I see it differently, joyfully even.
My school is large, as far as independent day schools go, but it still feels knowable. I understand its boundaries and limits, and I embrace its constraints. At first, twenty years ago, these were instincts I picked up from writers I loved. Joyce was at his best when he was working the angles of Dublin, William Kennedy had Albany, and Springsteen had the Jersey Shore. Closer to home, my own father used to tell me that, for much of his youth, he didn’t think anything existed beyond the few block radius in Jersey City where he ran and played and sang and sometimes fought with his cousins and his friends and his rivals. He’s not a writer, but the stories he tells of those days are ebullient and memorable because they are bound to local details and people. I’m not comparing myself to these writers (or my father), but they all taught me to cherish the particulars of a place and to sense the enoughness all around me.
Over time, too, my love of the constraints of a single school simply became self-reinforcing, a positive feedback loop. It was good to walk the same halls and notice both the chips in the paint and the new coats of paint, to learn to leverage the patterns that mattered in human development, to earn a sense of nostalgia, and to see records set and then broken. It was good that the daily, improvised soundtrack of my working life was built upon a familiar tune. Good, too, to be sitting on the coastline when graduates washed back from the oceans of their life, ready to share their stories. And it was good to see new teachers and crafty veterans, all working their own angles of Montclair Kimberley Academy.
Was good and is good.
Wendell Berry once wrote, “[O]ur human and earthly limits, properly understood are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.”
Formal elaboration, in my case, has meant the 19 times I have taught Lord of the Flies, the thousands of lessons plans I have constructed, the hundred thousand words I have written on student papers, and the many (many!) hours I have spent in meetings with colleagues trying to build a better school and then an even better school. It’s all the same river, but the river itself is never the same.
Formal elegance is what I have often simply witnessed in or around or through others. I’ve seen it on our stages, in our classrooms, at our lunch tables, on our fields, in our library, and down our hallways. It has snuck up on me in the middle of student paragraphs or colleague emails, during class discussions and once even in a drawing of Tom Jones that a student handed in as the single, uber-answer to a six question quiz. It’s not unusual, I guess, to be loved by anyone.
As for fullness of relationship and meaning? That’s what I’ve worked at, sipped from, poured, made, remade. That’s the wood I’ve chopped and the water I’ve carried. And what I’ve enjoyed most, I think.
Year 20, Day 1.