Change and the Life Cycle of a Toad

Joy Sawyer Mulligan
At Sunday morning's chapel service, Jorie Sligh, mother of Jim CdeP 2004, Leslie CdeP2007, Laura, and Jack ‘11, culled from more than a decade's worth of observations on Thacher.
At Sunday morning's chapel service, Jorie Sligh, mother of Jim CdeP 2004, Leslie CdeP2007, Laura, and Jack ‘11, culled from more than a decade's worth of observations on Thacher.

Good morning. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic since this is the eleventh and last Family Weekend my husband Rob and I are attending as parents. Three of our four kids have gone to Thacher: our son Jim graduated in 2004, Leslie in 2007 and Jack is a senior this year.

 

The title of my talk comes unabashedly from a book Jim wrote about Thacher when he was a senior, The Life Cycle of a Toad: Stories from a California Boarding School. In it Jim established a context relevant to my talk about change at Thacher; I’d like to read you an excerpt:

 

“I expect you’ve noticed by now that Thacher’s a pretty slippery concept. I mean, the place changes itself out every couple years. As we speak Development is girding itself to demolish the center of campus, redo the track, remodel the dining hall -- and if rumor is anything to go by, the pepper trees are almost dead. We’ll have to plant more.

 

“We’re blowing in the winds of change, my friends. Casa de Piedra isn’t a house of stone, it’s a soap bubble. You, me, we’re transients, a passing vapor. The school’s distressingly fleeting, taken as the sum of its component pieces. We come, we play our parts, and we exit, stage left, interchangeable units. What did it all mean?

 

”The student body gets rearranged every year. The buildings crumble and are replaced by buildings that crumble in turn. Traditions fade. Even the teachers leave.

 

”And yet, the place still feels timeless. Look at the yearbooks. From the slew of familiar last names in ’98 -- Carney, Craver, Munzig -- to the sight of Perry in a Superman T-shirt in ’81, there’s something holding all of this together, you know?”

 

“There’s something holding all of this together.”

 

Well, there definitely is. We’ve seen Thacher in three different ages, since our kids overlapped only when Jim was a senior and Leslie a freshman. There have been changes, but paradoxically this is still the same Thacher that we all recognize and love. There is still something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a kid.

 

What are some of the changes that we’ve seen?

 

We’re from Michigan, so our association with Thacher and what goes on here has always been from a long-distance vantage point. For us, occasions like Family Weekend, Big Gymkhana and Graduation are like Brigadoon … a brief magical moment when Thacher comes alive for us.

 

When we left Jim in the fall of 2000 and returned to Michigan, we experienced just how far away we were. Rob and I flew with him to Ojai, helped him set up his room, and then stalled for as long as possible before saying goodbye -- it was hard leaving him.

 

We knew Jim was away on the trip to Golden Trout and we couldn’t wait to hear from him in a week or so when he returned.

 

There was no Wi-Fi back then and the ethernet connection hadn’t been set up before he left for Golden Trout. I think it took Jim a couple of weeks before he even checked out whether he had Internet. A decade ago kids didn’t carry cell phones the way they do now. Instead, there was a phone in the dorm that the kids could use and parents could call. Typical scenarios: parents call, the phone rings 20 times and no one answers. Or the phone rings, one of the boys picks up, says he’ll look for Sligh, and doesn’t return. Or you’d call the dorm phone and get a busy signal (it’s off the hook from the previous boy who’d answered and left… ).

 

We finally contacted Mr. Perry, who was the Lower School dorm head. His conversation with Jim went something like this: “Sligh! Your parents are wondering if you’re dead. Call them.”

 

Nowadays we have Skype, cell phones, and wi-fi. Staying in touch is easy, right?

 

Well… throughout Jack’s four years here, we still go weeks at a time without hearing from him. He is “busy,” has a “dead cell phone” and is “never in his room.” Communication options changed. Boys, at least our boys, hadn’t.

 

And I guess this isn’t a bad thing; we know it means that he’s busy and involved in school, which is what we hope for.

 

And there have been quite a few significant structural changes at Thacher. The new Lower School, with its heated floors and Dutch doors is a far cry from the old Lower School that Jim moved into fall 2000. You have to admit, it was kind of perfect for freshmen boys, with holes in the walls from their brawling blending in with the abuse of previous Thacher boys.

 

The floors were cold and concrete, the better to shed the dirt and manure from the cowboy boots that were kicked off in the general direction of the boot rack. It was rough-and-tumble looking and had an erratic heating system; school tours did not normally include Lower School.

 

But Lower School built character -- teamwork, even. One of the first things the freshmen boys learned was that plumbing in Lower School was antiquated and flushing the toilet diverted the cold water -- anyone showering would have suddenly scalding hot water. Proper bathroom etiquette dictated one must yell “FLUSH!!!” to give anyone showering time to jump out from under the flow of water before it got super hot.

 

The new Lower School doesn’t suffer from these plumbing shortfalls… no longer do the shouts of “FLUSH!” echo through Lower School.

 

Do the boys miss out by living in a dorm that the kids joked was too nice for Freshmen boys and should have been a girls’ dorm? Probably not… after all, there’s still the dash through the outdoors on cold winter mornings and nights to get to the shower and bathrooms. We can look back with fondness at the old Lower School and still appreciate what the new Lower School has to offer.

 

Leslie said much the same about The Hill; going back to find that Topa Topa and Matilija that she knew so well are gone tugs at her heart. Many good stories developed out of the rodents, bats, and tarantula that visited the girls’ rooms, not to mention the Sespe girls having to shower in the last communal showers on campus.

 

She said to me, “It is sad to lose all of the inscriptions on the walls, in the closets, and under the desks from Thacher students of long ago. But the legacy of Thacher is everywhere on campus, and the new dorms are incredible. They will soon form a legacy of their own.

 

“I'd love to be able to go back years from now and see my old rooms in Sespe, or go over to Topa Topa and crawl into the pit under Charlotte's old room. But if Thacher resisted change and evolution in the name of preserving the status quo, Sherman D's teachings would have ended in tutoring, not in the founding of the school. Girls might not be a part of CdeP. Independent studies might not be possible. Change makes the school run.”

 

So even the people at Thacher change. As Jim says, they play their roles and exit stage left. Our kids make lifelong friends here and we make warm and lasting connections as well with our children’s friends, their parents and the faculty. And it’s really the students and faculty who make Thacher so special. It would take a speech twice as long as this one to say what I’d like to about the people at Thacher.

 

The changes that bring a lump to our throats, though, are the changes we see in our kids as they grow at Thacher.

 

Jack’s dream was to play football, a sport that was added to Thacher just 8 years ago. This despite the fact that he weighed about 98 pounds; as he said to the football coach who’d just told him get in the game and play defense, “OK, but Coach, you should know I couldn’t tackle one of those guys to save my life.” Jack has gone on to become serious about weightlifting and physical strength, and being a member of the football team was a big step in practicing self-discipline, following through with a plan he developed himself and seeing positive results.

 

For this painfully shy kid, though, it was the outside of a horse -- in Jack’s case, horses -- that made a huge difference in helping him to develop self-confidence.

 

The horse faculty remembered the great job Jack did freshman year with his mare, Moped, turning her around from being a troublesome mare into a beloved and willing partner. They gave Jack a challenge his sophomore year: Mufasa was a green horse who didn’t know how to turn and was difficult to ride. Jack worked through setbacks with patience and calm, forming a bond with Mufasa that ended up exceeding expectations and creating an experienced and good horse.

 

This helped Jack to step out of his comfort zone and became a mentor for the freshmen at the horse barn. And when Cam Shriver presented him with an unexpected award at the Big Gymkhana ceremony for the work he’d done with Mufasa, Jack said to Leslie later, “I felt full enough to burst with emotion.”

 

So despite the peripheral changes that take place here, that “something,” that core spirit of Thacher stays the same. Thacher endures. Thacher challenges our kids while also creating a supportive sense of community, inspiring them to be compassionate, creative, take risks and be responsible. To uphold the mantra of Honor, Kindness, Fairness, and Truth.

 

Here’s another excerpt from The Life Cycle of a Toad that sums up our feelings:

“There’s a certain point you can hike to above the Observatory, just off the L.Moore trail, that shows you the whole of the Ojai Valley spread out under you like a rug, covered in the tops of orange trees, the bright Irish green of the pastureland, blue mountains in the distance. And just below you, like a fishbowl, is Thacher. You can look over to the Gymkhana Field and watch the freshmen riding, see lacrosse on the Lower Field, cars making their way around Perimeter, the entire campus covered in pepper trees and palms and oaks. Campus proper is a bubble, Spanish tile peeking out of the leaves, and you can’t see the slope of it from just above, so that The Hill looks a stone’s throw from the pool. Slowly you realize you’ve spent four years of your life in a thimble-sized portion of the world, a little glassed-off paradise, the great move from Lower School to Upper School a space no bigger than your thumb.

 

“And it pales you into insignificance a little, doesn’t it? I mean, being able to contemplate your place in the world via thumb strokes. Here you are, living an experience approximated -- only approximated -- by one-half of one percent of the nation’s high schoolers, going to a school that gives so much custom to a local Mexican restaurant that they have a burrito named after us, that sees lovelorn couples hooking up in French classrooms, that talks to itself in movie quotes, and plays horseback air guitar.

 

“It’s a world unto itself, you know. Always has been.”

 

Always has been. That was the magic of Thacher from its founding day. We’re so grateful to all of you who make this happen, and to be able to be a part of it.

 

I’d like to end with the Benediction of St. Francis of Assissi, which Leslie gave at her graduation:

 

“Our Father, each day is a little life, each night a tiny death; help us to live with faith and hope and love. Lift our duty above drudgery; let not our strength fail, or the vision fade, in the heat and burden of the day.

 

O God, make us patient and generous one with another in the fret and jar of life, remembering that each fights a hard fight and walks a lonely way.

 

Forgive us, O Lord, if we hurt our fellow souls; teach us a gentler tone, a sweeter charity of words, and a more healing touch. Sustain us, O God, when we must face sorrow; give us courage for the day and hope for the morrow.

 

Day unto day may we lay hold of thy hand and look up into thy face, whatever befall, until our work is finished and the day is done.

 

In His name, Amen.”

 

 

 

 

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