Reflections at the Door

By Bill Wharton

The story of a career, its structure and arc, belies the reality. When Charlie Chatfield, the Headmaster who hired me as a teacher at Commonwealth, told me in 1989 that he would be stepping down, he asked me if I had ever thought of running a school. “It’s fascinating. You never know what’s going to come through the door on any given day.” He was right. In addition to the surprises, on most days there are at least a half dozen balls one has to juggle. (One or two generally fall to the ground.) The day-to-day challenges, keeping track of things and keeping things on track, can, especially in a small school, overwhelm. 

But the story of a career obscures the shared nature of the enterprise of a school. One person cannot manage, let alone track, all that goes on in our building. With some regularity I look away from my computer screen to the landing outside my office and wonder, “What’s going on out there?” The answer has always been, thank goodness, that teachers are teaching, and others are working hard to see that students are cared for, parents’ concerns are answered, the needed applications and resources are secured, and countless other tasks essential to our operation carry on. Without the devoted work of so many—including, over the years, Kate Bluestein, Rebecca Jackman, and Mara Dale; nine Directors of Admissions, Development, and Finance; Jeff Racioppi and his care of our building and information systems; and Susan Bush, Estrella Alves, and Stephanie Poynter, who have held down the front office and so much more—there would be no story to tell. 

In the end it is more useful, perhaps, to spell out a series of reflections on Commonwealth and what it stands for, perhaps as a way to ensure the smooth passing of the baton, and perhaps to make explicit some of the lessons and principles that have made it a distinctive, rewarding place for so many students and teachers, this one included, to study and teach.

Tending the Institution

As I wrote last January, when I accepted the offer to teach at Commonwealth in 1985, I knew that I would learn here whether a career in teaching would prove as rewarding as I had hoped. My hopes were more than realized: being part of a community in which enthusiasm for ideas, language, arts, and sciences is unabashed and open—and where hard work is taken on out of interest more than obligation—proved deeply rewarding.

I was lucky to wind up at a small school, in which everyone played multiple roles. In the 1980s, admissions, college advising, and fundraising were overseen by teachers, or teams of teachers, who also taught full loads. Within a decade of my arrival, I had served as college advisor and Faculty Trustee, been a member of the Search Committee that led to the naming of Judith Keenan as Charlie’s successor, helped oversee facilities management, and become Director of Admissions. 

I remember a trustee back in the ’90s referring, with some skepticism, to the school’s belief in the “amateur model” rooted in the days of the British Empire: that most any job could be handled by anyone with demonstrated intelligence and industry (almost certainly, during the Empire, an Englishman with an Oxford degree and fluency in reading Latin). But I was part of a push, during Judith Keenan’s tenure, to create the kinds of structures—more professional admissions and development operations, and more systematic and professional student support—that would ensure Commonwealth’s sustainability without sacrificing its creative spirit.

My tenure has seen the continuation of that trend, with the creation of an Assistant Headship, a full-time Dean of Students, and a part-time school counselor, and the hiring of full-time Directors of Admissions and College Counseling. And Commonwealth today is moving toward the creation of a full-time Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. These developments represent the rising expectations that schools attend to the social and emotional lives of their students, the need for a deep culture of equity and inclusion, the increased expectations parents have of access and communication from the date of inquiry through college matriculation (generally, but not always, a healthy trend), and the need for more formal attention to questions of health, safety, and security.

I outline these developments because they give context to Commonwealth’s current strengths and challenges. Ultimately, the central job of a school leader is to establish and support the structures and activities that will enable the work of the teachers inside and outside the classroom to flourish. Those activities include the admission of students who will thrive and create a vibrant community, and the hiring of teachers with deep knowledge of their subjects and a genuine interest and delight in working with young people. The Head ensures that the mission and strategic direction set by the trustees guide all efforts; makes sure the students, from entry through college placement, are appropriately challenged and supported; attends to the market to make sure that the messaging is one that will resonate with prospective families; cultivates the good will and interest of parents and alumni/ae to ensure their support on any number of fronts; and assembles an administrative staff to support and manage operations—and secure resources—efficiently and effectively. 

This increasing professionalization would not be possible without the broad and deep support of Commonwealth's community of parents, alumni/ae, trustees, and friends. We still run a lean budget by most any standards, but the growth over the decades in our endowment and annual giving has enabled us to strengthen our service to students and families without accelerating tuition beyond the pace of our market. Needless to say, sustaining this course has been and will remain a challenge, but we have shown that, even without the economies of scale our larger competitors enjoy, we have been able to remain a school of genuine distinction in a crowded field.

Tending Spirit

The Head is also the storyteller-in-chief, setting a tone and ethos for the school. When I became Head, this was the role whose power took me by surprise. I learned (but never learned as well as I should) that there is no such thing as a casual remark by the Head: early in my tenure I made a quip to a student about his unorthodox outfit; within a few hours a rumor reached me that I had threatened to suspend him. I learned the importance of humor in keeping people, and the school, from taking themselves too seriously. I’ve also learned from my shortcomings: I have never quite overcome my Midwestern reticence about giving and receiving praise—a corollary, perhaps, of not taking oneself too seriously, of not growing too big for one’s britches. 

But there remain a few principles that have shaped the story and that will, I hope, continue to exert a pull on the school’s narrative.

I’ve come to recognize the importance of taking students seriously, treating them—at least provisionally—as reasonable young adults capable of understanding and partnering in the shared enterprise of teaching, learning, and shaping a community. This means that we ask and assume the best of them, and, in any interventions, rather than responding formulaically, we accord them the respect, time, and conversation that will balance their growth and understanding with the needs of the community. 

I’ve trusted our teachers and staff as professionals, assuming their deep commitment to their students, their work, and the school. This means trusting their judgment, granting them the autonomy to shape their teaching and their work, and encouraging the kind of collegial collaboration that builds coherence and makes everyone feel heard and respected. Our professional development program, the Hughes Grants, reflects this trust in giving teachers, as they determine proposals for funding, the freedom to shape their own growth, confident that the enthusiasm generated by the creation of a course, the study of a topic, or even the pursuit of a serious avocation will keep teaching fresh. 

At times these assumptions—about students and colleagues—have not proven warranted, and I have erred, at serious cost. At those times it was tempting to retreat from this commitment to a much more regimented, regulatory approach, especially as missteps stand out far more prominently in memory than the many quiet successes. Commonwealth is better for the lessons learned and the protections it has put in place, but preserving the trust in each other, through and in spite of the lapses, remains essential.

We’ve trusted that students, when inspired to give their all fully to a challenge that stretches them, will discover the delight that comes with full immersion in a problem, a painting, a paper, or a performance. In those moments self-consciousness, impatience, and boredom dissolve, and the work fills body and mind, becoming its own reward. Each spring I’ve polled seniors, and most everyone recognizes the description from their own experience. Commonwealth has been accused of fetishizing intellectual pursuit, but the charge misses the mark. That kind of deep engagement is the secret of real achievement, of work that makes a difference. 

We trust in argument and discussion. I learned that listening, and changing a decision when presented with a strong case, was good for the health of a community. A core conviction of liberal education is that thoughtful dialogue and argument can, to some degree, counteract the biases of our own limited experience and perspective. I have seen enough in the last twenty years to recognize the limits against which that aspiration bumps, the stubborn individual and cultural habits and overconfidence that success gives rise to. (Again, I include myself here.) But the growing polarization of the national political discourse is fueled by a sense, on all sides, of the rightness and righteousness of “my” cause, and a conviction that if you don’t agree with me you just don’t get it. There is—there has always been–a natural inclination in that direction among the young, as they look with dismay on the various messes we grownups are leaving them (it’s easier to miss what we have done right). We adults need to model the kind of openness and modesty that will help them develop democratic habits of mind and heart. In December 2001 the celebrated New York Times columnist (and parent of a Commonwealth alumna) Anthony Lewis, in his final column, spelled out a lesson he’d learned through his storied career: “... that certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and [then–Attorney General] John Ashcroft.” Charles Merrill spoke of the Head’s role as Keynesian, pulling levers and pushing knobs to counteract the excesses and shortcoming of the time: I have emulated Judith Keenan in bringing a variety of views and voices to the school assemblies to present views that would challenge our politics and pieties. We must, to expand on a trustee’s recent exhortation, teach students how to think, while making sure that they are exposed to a range of options about what to think.

That goal is the reason I’ve enjoyed scheduling assembly speakers over the past two decades. It’s a chance to bring diverse voices into the school to address a broad array of topics. Over the last twenty years we’ve heard from leaders, thinkers, artists, and scientists, some whose work reached around the world—Desmond Tutu, Samantha Power, and Rory Stewart—and some whose work was local—City Councillors, State Senators, and mayors. Hearing the life stories and experiences of Police Commissioner William Gross or Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui helps students imagine their own possibilities while giving them a sense of the larger realities and contexts in which lives and careers unfold.

On occasion, a talk can crystallize our thinking around a topic, while displaying the very best of the kind of inquiry and clarity we aspire to as a community. In November, we hosted Miranda Fricker, the Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She spoke about the concept of blame as a response to wrongdoing, its various manifestations, and its purpose. She brilliantly made a compelling case for an approach to blame, in arenas ranging from friendship (“How could you say that about me!”) to our polarized political discussions, that elicits recognition of the mistake and hurt caused, while encouraging remorse and learning on the part of the wrongdoer. She spoke of restorative blame as a way to encourage people to be their best selves, and in her talk she showed an intellectual modesty that we all would do well to emulate. The students showed keen interest (asking questions that left her deeply impressed), and a few of the staff, struck at how apt this talk was coming just a week after a difficult disciplinary discussion, asked how I’d arranged so timely a speaker. It was dumb luck. 

To expand on Charlie Chatfield’s suggestion, the most rewarding moments of this work stem from those unexpected arrivals through the door. I will not forget the shared excitement that followed Professor Fricker’s and other such presentations. I will not forget the small epiphanies students awaken to when a class clicks (much more easily achieved in person). And I won’t forget the magical moment of hearing a gorgeously expressive Schubert sonata wafting up from the lunchroom as I descended the stairs to exit the alley door at the dark end of a long November day. A senior had rolled the piano out of its closet and was practicing alone in the near-empty building. As I walked through, she saw me and stopped. I complimented her, apologized for the interruption, and left, hoping that she could quickly give herself back fully to the playing. 

This article appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.