TOADTalk: 50 Years and Counting

Aaron Snyder honors Peter Robinson, P-Rob, for his 50 years at Thacher.
Each week, an All-School Assembly launches with the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) sharing something of interest—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Recently, our TOAD was Aaron Snyder. Mr. Snyder teaches Latin and English, advises ninth-grade boys, coaches football and baseball, and is an advisor to the Judicial Council and WSAAR. His TOADTalk is below.

In my last year teaching at my old school, before I came to Thacher, the big news around the school was the fact that the Assistant Head was in his thirtieth year working there. This is exceptional, for a teacher to spend thirty years working in one place. It’s really rare and impressive because it means pretty much an entire career, generations of students passing through.

A couple of months ago, we heard from a couple of guest speakers at a Zoom Assembly who showed us old pictures of Mr. Robinson, as he was “celebrating” his 75th birthday (and I use that term loosely). What you may not know is that this year not only marks Mr. Robinson’s 75th birthday, but also his 50th year at Thacher. Not thirty years, but fifty. What you almost definitely do not know is just how important he has been to Thacher over that time. So that is what I want to talk about today, to help you see at least a little glimpse of this man’s impact on our community.

Now, unlike Julia and Catherine Robinson, I am not one of Mr. Robinson’s two favorite people on the planet, so I do not enjoy that protection. And thus, I might be playing with fire by saying nice things about Mr. Robinson in public. I fully expect, at the very least, a long, stern stare over lunch today. But, Mr. Robinson, I have to say: I don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about here, and I’m bound to say a number of things that simply aren’t true because you have—I’ll use this word—outdistanced everybody who was here for the first half of your career. For that reason, I’m inevitably going to say some things that are factually incorrect (it’s hard to find fact-checkers for some of this material these days). I trust that you won’t hesitate to chime in and correct me where needed.

Mr. Robinson now teaches seniors, so most of you don’t have the chance to get to know him until late in your Thacher career. Most of you identify him with the Film Society, of course, and that’s an area of passion that has always been important to him. There are a number of great films that I have viewed on his recommendation, and I’ve been grateful for that. By the way—if you don’t already do this: read the Film Society recaps. They’re incredible. Personally, even if I have no interest in ever seeing the movie of the week, I always read the emails from top to bottom, just to enjoy some truly exquisite writing, and I recommend you do the same.

Until just a few years ago, Mr. Robinson’s work at Thacher was much different than what it is now, as a teacher of seniors. The first thing you should know about his work for the great majority of his time here is the vast, nearly limitless scope of the power that he held. In effect, Mr. Robinson simultaneously filled the roles of director of studies, assistant head of school, and dean of faculty. Again, he performed all those duties at the same time, all the while continuing to teach and coach—for decades. He even served as interim head of school for half a year. Essentially, Mr. Robinson ran the school. And he did it remarkably well.

Sometimes people would joke about the large quantity of influence concentrated in his generous and capable hands. A former English teacher here named Phyllis Johnston, one of my very favorite people in the world, once famously said, “I teach the classes that I teach because Peter assigned them to me. After the class day, I go to coach the sport that Peter signed me up to coach. And at the end of my practice, I go back to my family’s house—which was assigned to me—by Peter!” Another colleague once jokingly described Mr. Robinson as a patron, or a Don from a Mafia movie, bestowing favors upon those who please him. A couple of years ago, when the news dawned to the faculty that the youngest brother of Chris and Matthew Robinson happened to be named Peter, somebody asked Mr. Robinson over lunch what he thought of the idea of potentially having a student at Thacher that shared his name. He responded, “There was a teaching candidate who applied here back in the late ‘80s, when I was Director of Studies, who was named Peter Robinson. Let’s just say he didn’t make the cut,” and he got up from the table and brought his dishes in. I think we have to take it as a testament to the quality of young Peter’s application to Thacher that they are both here at the same time.

These are all good-natured jokes, of course. P-Rob—or “Robbie,” as he was known for much of the first half of his career—has always been the champion of all sorts of different students, even those that others in our community sometimes struggled to understand or empathize with. He sees the strengths in every student and helps the rest of us to see them, too.

Perhaps his special appreciation for students with a bit of an edge arises partly because he himself is the undisputed king of dry wit. One of his favorite theories of success goes like this: “Brains, looks, money. Two out of three is all you need.” My personal favorite is Mr. Robinson’s standard greeting. Ask him, “How are you?” and often his response will be, “Every day’s a holiday when you’re doing what you love.” And of course, he delivers that line in his particular way, with that glare that makes it clear that he both is and is not speaking ironically. Even better is when he sometimes shortens the answer down and merely says, “Every day,” which adds an extra layer of irony because of the tedium that it implies.

Dry humor aside, Mr. Robinson’s dedication to the school, his duties, and especially the students is the stuff of legend. The story of how he became an AP Art History teacher shows this. He didn’t originally teach the subject, but one year he decided, “You know what, I’ll just teach it myself.” And so, he learned to become an art history teacher—just like that. We also see enormous dedication on the part of Mr. Robinson when we look at stories about his coaching. Mr. Robinson was a celebrated and beloved lacrosse coach for a very long time. In more recent years, he struggled with some knee trouble that limited his mobility. During that period of time, he couldn’t get around much, but he wasn’t going to let that get in the way. So he carried a folding chair with him to lacrosse practice. He would set it up right in front of the goal and warm up the goalie as he sat there, firing shots on goal from a seated position. Then we might consider the dining hall. Mr. Robinson not only fulfills all his duties for dining hall supervision, but he regularly eats there, which is saying something considering that he has the palate of a Michelin-starred chef. (I suppose we can take this as a vote of confidence for our wonderful Bon Appetit crew, as well.) And speaking of food: Mr. Robinson always liked to lead horse-camping trips during EDTs, partly because that gave him the opportunity to load down pack horses with enormous quantities of carefully chosen food items and thus cook epic meals. Nobody has any business being served asparagus risotto in the backcountry, but Mr. Robinson’s campers always enjoyed luxuries the likes of which the rest of us could only dream of. There’s also a famous story of a road trip to a lacrosse tournament, before which the girls complained about the prospect of several days of fast food on the road. The legend goes that Mr. Robinson rented a U-Haul trailer and filled it with ingredients to cook for them on the trip. That right there is serious dedication to your students.

But nowhere is this dedication clearer than in the way he treats individuals when the chips are down. More than once in my career, when I’ve been struggling or in a bit of a low period, he has actually managed to stun me, cut me down at the knees, through his kindness. His is a sort of kindness that can disarm your self-doubt because it is so direct, so unflinchingly honest, that the fundamental truth of it is manifest, tangible. It’s a kindness so profound and wise that no person could deny its authenticity. That is the sort of kindness that has the power to restore a person’s self-confidence. And it is his model that I attempt to emulate in my own interactions with others.

As I myself now come to the end of my sixteenth year at Thacher, I realize that I’ve now been teaching here since before half of you were born, and yet that period of time represents not even one-third of Mr. Robinson’s amazing career here. Mostly, I think about the many thousands upon thousands of souls that he has helped, and inspired, and guided, and cared for, and whose self-confidence he has restored. In the past 50 years, this school rose from a little-known ranch school in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere to a top-tier international boarding school attracting attention from all over the world as a role model for what school culture can look like at its best. Mr. Robinson was one of the most vital stewards of the growth of that culture.

With the exceptions of the mountains and the orange blossoms, if there is anything about Thacher that you love and care about, you probably have Mr. Robinson to thank. I don’t say this lightly: he is a great man. And in our last month together in this crazy pandemic-driven school year, I hope you will join me in honoring his 50 years of service to all of us. Thank you, Peter.

Photo: Peter Robinson from our Front Porch photo series.

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