View From Olympus: Embracing Adversity

The complete text of Head of School Michael K. Mulligan's addresss from Fall Family Weekend 2011
Head of School's Fall Family Weekend Address
 

Family Weekend, October 28, 2011

Michael K. Mulligan
Head of School
 
Welcome Dear Parents and Friends,

We are happy to have you back at Casa de Piedra, here on the historic Upper
School Lawn, uniting with sons and daughters.
 
It was not that long ago, before the creation of the Lake Casitas Reservoir, that
this slope and nearly every other patch of earth about this campus reflected the
true dusty glory of the Ojai. The horses and boys wore down whatever vegetation
managed to sprout each winter. The campus dirt patches were punctuated by
scrub oak; chaparral; black, purple, and white sage; greasewood; and manzanita.
Mr. Thacher irrigated his orchards by hand. He relied on a stingy spring during the
hot months to collect his water. Showers were limited and short. Dishwater was
poured onto flowerbeds. Rigorous grooming replaced horse baths. For all our talk
about sustainability, can you help but think at how spoiled we are today? We turn
on the tap and the water flows. Mr. Thacher could teach us a lot about economy
and conservation.
 
Upon this slope, Mr. Thacher and his boys played recess baseball at mid-morning
break. In true headmaster fashion, Mr. Thacher insisted upon pitching. The boys
would always swing for the Library in hopes of breaking a window—a harder feat
than you might imagine. Mr. Thacher did not need formal research to document
the wisdom that teens benefit from alternating intellectual endeavor with exercise.
With similar sentiments, we have recently lifted the ban on ping-pong during the
academic day. We are hopeful that this will not result in the academic demolition
of the otherwise twitchy freshmen.
 
Moving from the lawn, I draw your attention to the venerable Upper School.
 
The original Upper School, built in the early 1890’s, was destroyed in a 1910 fire
that consumed it and several other buildings. The culprit was one of the many
early stove fires that the Chinese workers would light each morning. Sparks
became flames and the conflagration raced across the campus. Mr. Thacher had
not learned his lesson from the fire of 1895 for, once again, he was without any
insurance. He relied on family, friends, and some generous parents to rebuild the
campus—incurring debt that weighed heavily upon him but that he eventually did
pay off—no danger of that good Yankee, Sherman Day Thacher, defaulting on
anything. And never once did he waiver in his intent to rebuild his School, and
make it a lasting one.
 
The dormitory you see above you, despite its refurbishment in 1996, is essentially
the same dorm he designed and had constructed in 1911. Perhaps the best part of
the original Upper School is lost: the third floor used to be the wrestling and
boxing room. Mr. Thacher hired a charismatic Irishman named Eddy O’Connell to
teach the boys the fine arts of grappling and pugilism. Mr. Thacher’s biographer,
LeRoy Makepeace CdeP 1932) tells us that Mr. O’Connell gained the confidence
of the boys faster than any other teacher. These skills, along with riding, shooting,
horses, trapping, camping, baseball, and tennis were the hallmarks of a Thacher
education.
 
As remains true today, the School was so distinctive that even Bull Moose
Candidate Teddy Roosevelt, in 1912, tipped his hat in a stump speech in San
Buena Ventura—as he looked admiringly at the Thacher boys all decked out in
western hats, white shirts, green ties, and wooly chaps. The boys, amazingly
enough, rode as escorts to the presidential party. Mr. Makepeace writes: “Their
reward came when the President addressed part of his short speech to them
saying, ‘I want to say a word to my friends over there, of the School, who are on
horseback. You know the old idea of education was to teach a boy to ride, shoot,
and tell the truth…”
 
We have a School today that I hope Mr. Thacher would be proud of, although I
cannot help but think he would be astonished at how his simple ranch school,
nestled into the foothills, would be so radically different in some profound ways.
The guns are now locked safely away rather than hanging on the walls of Upper
School.
 
The School’s Trapping Club disappeared in 1956 after an unnamed Casa de
Piedran captured Headmaster Newt Chase’s dog in a steel trap in the barranca.
The dog was quietly released to limp away, and the youthful trapper never
admitted this event to another soul until his 50th reunion, at which he pulled me
aside with the warning, “I am going to tell you something that I have never told
anyone else.”
 
We are a much bigger School, having grown from some 60 under his care to 250
at present. I doubt Mr. Thacher would approve of this.
 
He would, of course, recognize the Upper School, the Study Hall, the old Library,
and Dining Room, and a few of the historic cottages at campus. He would be
astounded at the Performing Arts Buildings, the quality of the dormitories, the
track, fitness area, the size and number of trees, and most especially the green
playing fields and lawns—the amount of water used for irrigation would shock
him.
 
He knew the value of sleep balanced with intellectual rigor and a rugged outdoor
life. He would be outraged that students are not all in bed by 9:00 pm. He would
decry that most students do not head into the Sespe backcountry on horses trips
most weekends. He would lament that the School does not gather for poetry at
each Assembly, and stories (Dickens, in particular) each night before bed. He
would be distressed that college songs and other popular ditties are not sung with
gusto each night following formal dinner. He would also have to adjust to the fact
that Lee Quong was not the renowned Thacher chef, and that Lee Quong’s clan
was no longer responsible for campus cooking and upkeep. For all the talk of
roughing it in the early days, take note that Chinese workers cleaned student
rooms and did their laundry!
 
He also would not recognize the diversity of the faculty or student body, the
presence of women and girls, or the abundance of non Anglo-Saxon names and the
cultures, races, and socio-economic mix they represent. I imagine it would take
him some time as well to get a grip on the School’s appropriately open
acknowledgement and understanding of the issues of gender orientation. I do not
doubt, however, that upon some serious reflection, he would soon embrace this
diversity and what it represents. The man was a part of his era—a Victorian one
that was in many ways diametrically opposite to today’s gestalt—but he was open
minded, good hearted, and kind. He would recognize and appreciate the School’s
emphasis on honor, kindness, fairness, and truth.
 
He would most certainly disapprove that some of the student might refer to me as
“Mully” in informal settings—for he was always “Mr. Thacher” and always insisted
on strict formality. He fired, on the spot, a man who worked along side him in the
orchard for calling him “Sherman.”
 
He was also not one for pranks directed at himself. When one of his students made
the very big mistake of squirting Mr. Thacher in the face with water, Mr. Thacher,
piqued, slapped him sharply across the face. He later admitted that he was the
only boy he had ever hit. He never apologized, nor did he express regret over his
swift response.
 
One thing I am quite sure he would be horrified about is the ubiquity of
technology and its invasive presence in the lives of faculty and students. The
presence of cell phones would strike him as both marvelous and preposterous; the
endless access to media, movies, and television would be inconceivable—and,
insofar as they take students away from the outdoors, not a good idea.
 
The access of parents to students and faculty would appall him. He would also
severely miss the ability to write to the colleges, Yale especially, to tell them
which students to take. And he would blanch at the diplomacy that is required of
teachers and heads today.
 
Not one to mince his words, in what is now an unthinkable expression of candor,
he wrote this to Nathan Weston Blanchard of Santa Paula, about his son Nathan
Weston Blanchard, the second.
________________________________________________________________________
 
FROM:
 
March 23, 1891
Casa de Piedra Ranch
Nordhoff, California
 
Dear Mr. Blanchard:
 
It is my desire that this communication concerning your son Nathan and his
iniquities will neither offend your sensibilities nor cause a diminution of the
mutual esteem that we hold for one another.
 
I am expelling as of this date your son Nathan. His very presence here bodes ill for
my school.
 
I will not tolerate a liar and a cheat.
 
Your obedient servant,
 
Sherman Day Thacher
________________________________________________________________________
 
How times have changed.
 
What has not changed, however, is that all teens make mistakes. Some mistakes
require a parting of the ways, as was the case with Mr. Blanchard. And this latest
point is to say that in case you had not noticed, there is no such thing as a perfect
person, a perfect School, or needless to say, a perfect teenager. Mr. Thacher knew
this and we know it today. This is my short way of saying that while I hope your
children can avoid Mr. Blanchard’s perfidy, I can guarantee at some point your son
or daughter will likely bring you to your knees, or at least close to it. Thacher is
not all orange blossoms, pink sunsets, and fruit smoothies.
 
Horses buck. Los Padres trails are precipitous. Football and lacrosse players lay
each other out. Soccer balls and heads (often with other heads) collide. Rockwalls
are hard and landings tough. Ankles are twisted; legs are broken. Gravity is always
pulling.
 
A’s are earned the hard way. Work is plentiful and sometimes unrelenting.
Disappointments happen. Kids get cut from some teams and some productions.
Some seniors are prefects; others are not.
 
And unlike Mr. Thacher’s days, not everyone can go to Yale. (Current acceptance
rates of 6-7 percent!)
 
And, of course, you will learn that even your son or daughter can do dumb
things—and these things will get addressed while they are here at Thacher.
Embrace the experience and know that, as educators and as a community, we’ve
had some practice in this area. It’s far better for your children to learn the
important lessons now—rather than in college, the workplace, or in marriage.
I talk about the importance of failure. Parents always nod their heads and say, yes,
of course. But we all know that we mean, yes—for someone else’s kid. “Dear Lord,
please, just not my son or daughter.”
 
We understand.
 
But life has a way of delivering up to our children and to us exactly what they and
we need, and Thacher is particularly good at this kind of delivery.
 
Pain accompanies growth. The pain is the expression of shedding one self for a
new and expanded one—like the little nautilus moving into the next, more
capacious, chamber. (The reference here for the uninitiated is to Mr. Thacher’s
favorite poem, “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which he
read, and we continue to read, at the beginning of every school year.)
 
Failure, pain, and suffering, while never to be sought, are part of the program for
all of us, your children included.
 
My advice to all of you tonight: enjoy the Thacher ride, all of it, even the tough
parts.
 
We want your children to learn to persist in the face of adversity. To work hard.
To develop resilience, grit. To stay curious. These are qualities for the long haul—
as are honor, fairness, kindness, and truth, the constant constellation by which we
set our moral compass.
 
Speaking of resilience and grit, I return to Nathan Blanchard CdeP 1891.
 
Nathan Blanchard is expelled from Thacher. His father takes him back at the
Santa Paula Ranch and sets him to shoveling manure for fertilizer in the orchards.
(As Dave Barry would say, “I am not making this up.”) The year is 1891. Fed up
with farm work, Nathan runs away and joins the US Army. The Arizona Territory
is terrorized by Apaches breaking out of the incarceration of their reservations.
 
From his time at Thacher, Blanchard knows how to ride and is assigned to the 7th
Cavalry—yes, of Custer fame and Wounded Knee infamy. They are Indian haters.
He witnesses and opposes three troopers who attempt to rape an Indian girl. He
takes them on and in the ensuing brawl, he fells all three troopers with the butt of
his Springfield rifle. He slings them into a wagon, drives hard and fast, and delivers
them to the Commandant who, in turn, shuns Blanchard and looks the other way.
Blanchard is harassed by troopers. The Commandant assigns Blanchard to the
outback telegraph corps: a death sentence—a 100 percent casualty rate at the hands of
renegade Apaches.
 
Out in the mountains, alone, he was approached by an Apache band on
horseback. They smash his heliograph, and Blanchard figures he is done for. They
speak Mexican Spanish and so can Blanchard. They know of him: here is the one
white man they know of as a hero—who is legendary because he saved the life on
an Apache girl. They honor him—and let him go unharmed.
 
He is transferred to the Presidio. He is called an “Indian lover” and is ganged up
on. He is assaulted in barroom fight. Cornered, he fights back and is assisted by
another hated minority in San Francisco in 1892—The Irish.
 
From the Blanchard Family Papers:
 
“Ten soldiers rushed him. Father was very adept at breaking off the neck of a
whiskey bottle. The Irish in the bar joined up with father. The fight ended with
eight soldiers going to the hospital and two others escaping via a back window. I
might say that father was never bothered again. If Sherman Day Thacher had
known this story, he would have been mighty proud of Pa.”
 
The boy who is expelled from Thacher for being a liar and a cheat grows up to
stand up to an age of hate and racism. He stands up for the underdog, save a girl’s
life, and is roundly castigated for the duration of his term in the Army. He later
tells his son that his last three years in the Army were made “living hell” by the
bigoted troopers who expressed the wicked ignorance that Indians were subhuman.
Nathan Blanchard would have no part of this.
 
Mr. Thacher eventually did become proud of Nathan Blanchard, this man who
became a profile in courage. SDT accepted Nathan’s son into his School. And that
son sent his son to Thacher. And that son sent his son to Thacher. And that son
sent his son to Thacher. And that man’s son is now a freshman at Thacher. Five
generations.
 
Failure is all about perspective. Who knows how important it was for Nathan
Blanchard to have to leave Thacher and make his way in the world?
 
Who knows how this trail we are on resolves itself?
 
We are wise, therefore, to embrace adversity. It is part of life and it is here for us
to learn.
 
Never give up. No matter how bad the trail ahead looks.
 
Do the right thing, especially when no one is looking, or you are standing alone
confronting evil. That is true courage.
 
Life has a way of coming around to those who can stick with it and stay true.
 
Here is the thing: The liar and cheat became a fine man, a successful rancher, and
a community leader. He also had the wisdom of enrolling his son at Thacher.
And—as much as with all of you parents who have made this same commitment,
for one child, or two, or even three--that speaks for itself.
 
Welcome to Family Weekend.

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