Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about life. Much of the time, I think about the exciting opportunities that lie ahead for me, where my life might take me in the future. Increasingly, however, I find myself thinking about the past. I suspect that the fact that I’m turning sixty this spring has something to do with this shift in my perspective.
It’s not that I’m preoccupied with the past. In fact, I’ve never been particularly interested my past. I’m not naturally sentimental or nostalgic. I don’t look forward to large extended family reunions or pour over family photo albums. But, lately I’ve been looking back over my life and wondering just how I managed to get here. To be almost sixty years old. To have been married for almost forty years. To have adult children with spouses and children of their own.
I’d like to think that I had something to do with my life’s work. I mean, don’t we all want to take at least some credit for our successes? On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to dismiss the myriad of influences that have played their part in shaping my life. Of course, the facts of my birth and upbringing, the influences of my family, society’s expectations, biases, and traditions have impacted how my life has turned out.
This morning, however, I want to focus on just one defining moment, a moment when my future unexpectedly shifted course, when the universe suddenly offered up a new heading for my life, one that I certainly wasn’t looking for and probably never would have found on my own.
My life—this specific life that I’ve led here at The Thacher School for the past twenty-nine years—is the result of one random event over which I had absolutely no control. Luck or happenstance, good fortune or providence, call it what you will, but at one specific time, in one specific place, the universe presented me with a totally unexpected and unearned opportunity that profoundly altered my future. When this moment of serendipity occurred, I just had to be present enough to notice it and recognize what it offered, and then, simply to reach out and take hold of it to see where it would lead me.
It was the winter of 1988. I was thirty years old. Mrs. Manson and I had been married for nine years. During the first six years of our marriage, we had moved five times, from the East Coast to the West Coast, to Australia and back to the States. But, for the past three-and-a-half years, we had been living in Marion, Mass., where I had taken a job teaching at Tabor Academy, a boarding school on southeastern shore of the state. In addition to teaching English, I was coaching sailing and lacrosse. Our two sons (aged 7 and 5) were happily enrolled at the Marion Elementary School, a three block walk from our home on campus, past Marion’s Volunteer Fire Station, the WWI Memorial cannon on which the boys loved to play, and the ice cream parlor. Two years earlier, our daughter had been born in Marion. Her birth had increased our sense of setting down roots in the community. During that winter we were happily engaged in our lives and feeling more settled and connected to a community than we ever had. Life was good, and we certainly weren’t thinking about changing it.
I was sitting at my desk in the English Office one morning. I had fifteen minutes or so before my first class of the day. Our academic office was a long narrow room with desks for ten teachers arranged five to a side, like window seats on a commercial airplane with an open aisle down the middle of the room. Assigned to the desk across the aisle from me was Sarah Smith, a 26 year-old single woman in her third year of teaching. Sarah was a talented teacher and a well-liked member of our department, but she’d become dissatisfied with the residential duties of a boarding school and with the small, isolated town of Marion. That winter she had decided to start looking for a new teaching position, and as part of her search she had engaged the services of a placement agency called Carney Sandoe.
Carney Sandoe is a sort of clearinghouse that matches teachers looking for specific job opportunities with schools looking for teachers with specific qualifications. As part of their service, they interview the teachers to find out exactly what sort of positing they’re looking for. Sarah, in her interview with Carney Sandoe, had listed three requirements for her new school: it had to be a day school, needed to be located in an urban setting, and must be in a state east of the Mississippi River. Any school, she told the Carney Sandoe representative, that met those three requirements she’d happily consider.
So that morning twenty-nine years ago, I’m sitting at my desk and Sarah’s sitting at hers opening her mail. I’m focused on my own work when I hear Sarah shift back in her seat and exhale an exasperated breath. I glance over at her as she sets the letter she’s been reading down onto her desk. She looks up at me and says, “What are these people thinking? I told them that I’m only interested in day schools in urban areas east of the Mississippi!. Why then do I get a letter from a boarding school in some unheard of little town in California?” She shakes her head, chuckles to herself, folds the letter, leans over the side of her desk, and drops it into the trash can between our two desks. She then turns back to her remaining letters, picks one up and starts to open it.
I remember looking back at the textbook in front of me and not being able to make out the words on the page. My mind had gone blank. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to refocus my thinking. What had just happened and what were its implications? Yes, my wife was from Southern California. And yes, we had met there and enjoyed the year we spent right after college on the coast north of San Diego. Her parents still lived in California and we occasionally wondered about the possibility of moving back to the West Coast someday, but not now. We were happy now. We were settled for the first time in our adult lives. We didn’t want to move. But, as I sat there at my desk, with that letter resting in the trash can just a couple of feet away, I kept thinking, “What if?...What if?” After what felt like several minutes, but was more likely several seconds, I turned to Sarah and said, “Would you mind if I took that letter out of the trash?” She raised her eyebrows, smiled and said, “Go for it.”
The letter was from someone named Peter Robinson, the assistant head at a school I was not familiar with in a town that, according to the return address, was in California. In it he stated that he would be attending the NAIS conference in Boston in three weeks and that he had reserved an interview slot for Sarah at 11:00 am on the opening day of the conference.
As I sat there holding this letter addressed to my colleague, I thought to myself, how did it find its way to me? Why did it find its way to me? What were the odds? Why had Sarah received an invitation to interview at a school that, by design and location, met none of her requirements? Why had I been present when she opened the letter? Why had she expressed her bewilderment out loud instead of quietly refolded the letter and discarded it without comment.
When I wrote to Mr. Robinson several days later, I had to admit that I was, in fact, not Sarah Smith, but that I was an English teacher at Tabor Academy and that I knew from his letter he was looking for an English teacher and that he had an open interview slot in Boston at 11:00 am on the opening day of the upcoming conference. I was free and happy to take Sarah’s interview if he’d agree.
The rest, as they say, is my history, my life for the past twenty-nine years and the reason why my fourth child was born in Ojai, California, why my four children are all Thacher graduates, why one of them is married to his Thacher classmate and sweetheart, and why I’ve been surrounded, for the past three decades, by such remarkable colleagues and remarkable students. Why, in short, I’ve lived a blessed life.