By Grace Talusan
The world outside Bill Wharton’s office beckons this autumn morning, the sunshine, blue sky, and turning leaves a reminder to look away from ubiquitous screens. Inside, the usual sounds of the school day can be heard just beyond his open office door, muted though they may be in the midst of a pandemic, where half of the students stay home and the other half are always masked.
In this quiet, Wharton reflects on more than three decades of service at Commonwealth School, twenty years as headmaster, and poses three central questions that he has been in deep engagement with throughout his lifetime: “Who am I? What am I going to do with my life? What is really important?”
These questions were central to the philosophers, historians, and writers of ancient classics that Wharton studied at Brown University, and later, taught. As his students grow into their intellectual powers, he says, it is a joy to witness when “the abstract faculties of their minds light up as they engage in the struggle to figure out who they are.”
For the course he regularly teaches seniors at Commonwealth, Readings in Ethics, Wharton chose texts as eclectic as the Bible, Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man, and J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy to inspire conversations with his students about justice, freedom, and identity. It is not only fun but also profoundly rewarding, Wharton says, “to help kids reflect deeply and thoughtfully on themselves in their lives and the lives they will lead.”
Vital questions about who one is and what one does are not only theoretical, but meant to be put into practice. In other words, lived. When Wharton tells students, “your voice matters here” and “my door is open,” he means this literally. He wants students to come to his office and share their perspectives, voice their complaints, and make their case. Quoting a predecessor, Wharton continues, “I promise I will listen. I don't promise I will agree.” He wants students to consider “the ethical dimensions of the way we engage with each other.”
Those critical thinking, close reading, and effective communication skills are integral to a Commonwealth education. As Wharton says, “It's important to equip kids with the tools to think clearly. Not telling them what to think but how to think. It’s important for them to know the difference between an argument and an opinion.”
As a lifelong educator and learner, Wharton has not only asked these questions of his students, but of himself. By looking back, turning points emerge, such as the power of a single conversation to change the shape of one’s life.
Who am I?
As an undergraduate at Brown, the first time Wharton crossed the threshold of his history professor’s office, he was surprised that his professor recognized him from the other eighty students in the course. Wharton recalls, “The professor commented on my assiduous note taking. It was really the first time that a professor paid attention to me.” Coming from a large public high school in the Midwest, he felt outside of his comfort zone at Brown, a university few from home were familiar with.
The professor noticed how Wharton lit up when they spoke about ancient Greek history and suggested he connect with a colleague who taught ancient Greek language. Wharton took his advice and the very next day, when he knocked on that professor’s door to introduce himself, he was greeted enthusiastically. In fact, the professor expected him. And even though his first question to Wharton was rhetorical, he voiced it anyways. “So, you're interested in Greek?” the professor asked. There was genuine warmth and connection over a shared interest. In this new and foreign place, Wharton felt welcome and, for the first time, seen.
The next semester, Wharton signed up for the ancient Greek language class. “I was hooked. We read Greek tragedy. It was really cool. I was deeply interested in the questions being asked,” he remembers. After that serendipitous conversation, Wharton found himself on the path towards a major in classics, even though he had started college with an interest in environmental studies and biology. But as graduation loomed, Wharton asked himself another question.
What am I going to do with my life?
What does one do with a liberal arts degree in classics and a finely honed ability to read closely, think critically, and make arguments? At the time, the most fiscally responsible answer seemed to be law school.
Because Wharton knew exploring some of the important questions of life needed to happen with experts, he asked an attorney, a family friend, for an informational interview. “The result of that lunch was that I was utterly turned off from the idea of going to law school,” he says. That conversation closed one door, even if another door wasn’t yet in view. While he didn’t know the answers to the biggest questions of his life, he had some ideas.
As a young man about to graduate college, Wharton knew he wanted to do good work—but, like many young people on the precipice of entering the “real world” was not sure what form such work might take. He spent another year at Brown completing a master’s degree in classics when he found himself at another crossroads. He told his professors and advisors, “I love this, but I don't want to go on for a Ph.D.” Yet, through their conversations, a previously unknown path appeared: they encouraged Wharton to teach in independent schools as a way to stay active in his field while also doing deeply rewarding, good work.
Unfamiliar with this area of education, Wharton again dug into researching independent schools and began to interview for jobs, landing his first teaching position at a private girls’ school in Rhode Island where, he says, “It was like landing on Mars. I didn't know that places like this existed. College settings for high school students.”
By asking questions of himself and others, and being open to the responses, a life Wharton initially had not imagined took shape.
What is really important?
Over those five years teaching Latin at the girls’ school, he discovered new aspects of himself. His motivation and interest in education wasn’t just about the love of his subject, but about his attention and care for his students. “Teaching is deeply rewarding—and mysterious,” Wharton says. “You put forth questions, you offer comments, you hope the kids engage. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don't. Sometimes you find what resonates right away; sometimes, a number of years later.”
Looking towards Boston, Wharton’s next job search took him to Commonwealth, a school small enough where he could know every student by name, but dynamic enough that he had the opportunity to grow. In the fifteen years before becoming Headmaster, Wharton taught classical history, languages, and philosophy while contributing whatever was needed to support the educational enterprise; over time the balance of his work at Commonwealth shifted more towards administration. “I'd done almost every administrative job in the school except for fundraising and including plumbing. I did college advising. I was the admissions director. I oversaw facilities. I was a faculty rep to the board,” he recalls fondly. And as his advisor predicted, teaching was a way for Wharton to stay connected to his field. Several years ago, he contributed an English translation to the book, The Way of Hermes, a collection of short philosophical treatises written in Greek between the first and third centuries C.E.
Working in education offers “a different sort of reward,” Wharton explains. He describes moments of unexpected joy in the classroom and “those moments of connection that almost happen of their own accord and make a difference for the kids.”
“There's a lot that we're up against,” he says. “But it remains a deeply rewarding profession.”
Wharton pauses to take a call, the kind that only comes one day a year, because today is his birthday.
Author and educator Grace Talusan is the recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines and an Artist Fellowship Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is currently the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University. Her first book, The Body Papers, is a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.