Saturday, May 10, 2014
It really comes as no surprise that Foxcroft is on my mind. Given the fact that the school celebrated its 100th anniversary a few weeks ago and the daily posts from former students, my Foxcroft memories are alive and well. I have no doubt whatsoever that Foxcroft was a very important stop on my lifelong journey and, ironically, it was an experience that almost never happened.
In the spring of 1972 I was an instructor at Buffalo State teaching both Italian and Spanish. I was working on my Doctorate, but was a long ways away from finishing it given my involvement with students during what was the Vietnam era. I received a letter telling me that I was not to be granted tenure and that the main reason was my lack of a PhD and the abundance of candidates with one on the market. The academic year 1972-73 was to be my last one and in the course of that year I needed to find a new job.
Susan was teaching at Buffalo Seminary, a private all girls school that, in spite of its name, had no religious affiliation. Back then the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) published a list of vacancies. There were a number of opportunities at boarding schools, which was an unknown world to me. The process was at times puzzling because I would get a letter saying there was no vacancy and Susan would get a letter from the same school saying there was a vacancy. We finally figured out that the successful candidate would also serve as a dorm mother and that certainly left me out of the picture.
I had applied to Foxcroft in February and had heard nothing in return. The position was still open in April and I had heard nothing. Then came a phone call in May from Bob Leipheimer who was the Assistant Head back then. He invited us to come to Virginia and visit Foxcroft. We made our plane reservations and the following week we landed at Dulles.
I believe we stayed with my brother and sister-in-law who were living in Silver Spring. I still remember the drive to the school. We made use of the Dulles Access Road and did the turnaround when we got to the airport and took the first exit. We traveled along Route 50 where there was the occasional house and a Dart Drug Plaza. We found Route 626 and began the torturous drive up the hill until we arrived at the gates of Foxcroft.
We parked outside of Brick House and gave our name to the receptionist and were invited to wait in the sitting room until Bob Leipheimer would come and meet us. So there we sat in this very colonial and very formal sitting room. Susan and I looked at each other and exchanged glances that said that this was not the place for us. It was way too formal for who we were back then. Susan said, “I feel like I should be wearing white gloves.” We were quite uncomfortable, to say the least.
Our spirits brightened when we met Bob Leipheimer and he accompanies us to his office that was decorated with Danish Modern furniture. In the course of our discussion he explained that the reticence to get in touch with us had to do with the housing situation and not my qualifications for the job. The only available housing for the 1973-74 school year was Dillon Apartment, which was still in the process of construction. The school did not know if we would be willing to accept a two -bedroom apartment as our residence. It turned out to be a non-issue.
We later met with Alex Uhle, who was the Headmaster at that time. After a tour of the campus we met with Diana Dearth, who was the Chair of the Language Department and the last item on our agenda was a meeting with a student committee. I remember Carla Somoza asking me searching questions about my teaching methodology. At the end of the day we had a very good impression of Foxcroft and the feeling was mutual because shortly thereafter a contract came in the mail.
We arrived on campus in late August and moved into our new apartment. We actually lived in four different spaces on campus. After a year in Dillon Apartment we moved to Applegate Cottage. Our next move was to one of the two brick houses on the road to the dump, which we affectionately called the dump house. Our last move was to Lodge where we spent the last three of our ten Foxcroft years.
There was a number of new faculty that year, as you can see from the attached photo. Larry Achilles was still teaching English, Adelaide Winstead was teaching art, Frosty was teaching history and the Hems were teaching math and art history respectively. I was to teach four Spanish classes and Susan was contracted to teach one. That one class magically expanded to three once the school year began. In 1973 enrollment in French far outnumbered enrollment in Spanish, but that would change gradually until Spanish students outnumbered French students.
I enjoyed all my classes, but my favorite was the class in AP Spanish Literature. It gave me the chance to work with our native Spanish speakers and I think they enjoyed our frequent philosophical discussions as much as I did. In addition to the new experience of teaching at the high school level, I, like all other faculty members, became an advisor. I recall many lengthy discussions that were both serious and fun. Popcorn was the snack of choice for those visitors who frequented our home after study hall. Many of my students, advisees and acquaintances are Facebook friends today and, needless to say, I enjoy keeping up with the events in their lives.
Mini-Term was already in existence our first year and Mini-Term in France was one of the offerings. I remember offering a class in beginning guitar and I am sure I taught something else on the afternoons. At one point in time we were called into Bob Leipheimer’s office and he told us that Foxcroft wanted us to set up a Mini-Term in Spain program and that the school was going to send us to Spain, all expenses paid, to investigate possible locations for the program. That turned out to be one of many life-changing experiences for us courtesy of Foxcroft.
Susan and I had never been to Spain and if the school had not sent us I really have no idea when we would have made our first visit. I think that it is safe to say that if we had not made that first visit on the school’s dime and subsequent visits as chaperones for the a number of Foxcroft young women, we probably would not be living in Spain today. During that summer we paid a visit to Madrid, Zaragoza, Barcelona and Granada and decided that Madrid was the most logical site for the program and that there would be a travel component. That summer I met Alberto Sampere, the founder and director of the Estudio Internacional Sampere and for the past forty years the Estudio has always hosted student groups that I have led and the Sampere children and grandchildren have remained fast friends for all those years.
The first year at any new position is a year of adjustment. It takes a full year to begin to understand the rhythm of a workplace. I remember Mary Lou Leipheimer counseling me to take it a bit easy and not to volunteer so much because I would be totally exhausted before Thanksgiving. That certainly was not the last good piece of advice she gave me. With Mini-Term over and having had a refreshing Spring Break life was just humming along. All that was to change when Alex Uhle stood up at Morning Meeting, which was held in the Fox-Hound Auditorium then, and announced that the following year would be his last at Foxcroft. It was obvious that more changes were to come.
My sharpest memory of Alex Uhle’s last year was being called into his office because he needed to discuss something with me. I did a mental check trying to see if I could figure out what I had done wrong, but nothing came to mind. When the time came for our meeting, I must confess that I nervously walked into his office. After asking how I was doing, he asked, “Am I correct that you play a little tennis?” In truth I did, although I was not very good. I had been playing only a few years and had never had a lesson. When I answered in the affirmative he replied, “That’s good because I would like you to coach tennis this year.” I was not really in any position to say no and so in the spring of that year Lee Lockhart and I became good friends as he drove us hither and yon for a series of away matches.
According to Alex Uhle the tennis team had not had a winning season in a long time. I was sure that, with my lack of experience, I would see to it that the tradition continued. However, that was not to be. We had some very strong players that year all of whom had been playing for a number of years. In terms of stroke production, form and style there was really nothing that I could teach them. Where I thought I could help was making their mental game a bit more solid so that they could be very focused in hopes of causing their opponent to become less focused and less confident. I just did a drawer search for a photo of the team to help me remember names, but the photo has gotten lost in the shuffle.
I remember that a redhead named Stewart Chapman was our best singles player and some of her teammates were Pammy Washburn, Story Jones, Eleanor Rhangos and Jan Zaccanini. We played a total of 13 teams that year and we ended the season at home. Going into that match the team had a record of 5 and 6 with 1 tie. We had to wait until the last match was done and the good news was we won the match and the tennis team had one of its best seasons ever. And that was the first and last time I ever coached an athletic team.
Alex Uhle’s successor was Coit Johnson. It was Coit who moved Morning Meeting to the library Audrey Bruce Currier Library and that was a move that helped increase school spirit because now everyone could see everyone else and the feeling was different than sitting in a theater setting. A new year, a new boss meant that we were all in for a year of change. When Coit Johnson suffered a stroke the winds of change were to blow stronger than anyone had ever anticipated.
Bob Leipheimer was to take over as Acting Head and we were all asked to step up our game and do more than was expected of us so that things could run as smoothly as possible. It was about this time that I became the school’s liaison for the A Better Chance Program and the students they sent to Foxcroft. That afforded me the chance to get to know Jimmy Williams, as well as the chance to get to know some very exceptional women of color. Every single one of them earned my admiration for not only surviving, but also thriving in a setting that was nothing like all their previous experiences.
It was also a time when my relationship with our international students became formalized. At the time we had students from South America, Central America, Mexico, Japan and Thailand. We also had a goodly number of Aramco students who were getting their first taste of schooling in the United States. As I mentioned before, a number of these students were in my AP Lit class, but there were also many who were not. I remember Hiruko Ishii who came to Foxcroft speaking almost no English and I remember Susan teaching her English. It was the first time I heard anyone voice the frustration of a second language learner living abroad. Haruko said that here greatest frustration was that she did not have the vocabulary to talk about her feelings.
I remember a trip we all took to Charlottesville at the invitation of Anne McGuire who was a trustee at that time. We all piled onto a bus and had an outstanding day. My other memory is when we performed at Covert on what must have been a Parents Weekend. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” and I still get chills when I think of those beautiful voices raised in song.
That summer the school sent me to the Northfield Mount Hermon Counseling Institute run by Stanley King and a number of others from the Harvard School of Mental Health. It was a weeklong intensive experience where we learned how to listen since good listening is the essential part of a relationship that one has with an advisee. The goal was not to make us mini-psychologists. Truth be told, good listening is a crucial part of any relationship. All people have stories to tell and all of us want to and need to know that we are being heard. I returned to Foxcroft that September as a much better advisor and my good listening skills have been part and parcel of my set of behaviors ever since. I am a good listener and people trust in me to the point that they will tell me their stories.
Foxcroft underwrote another summer experience that was a turning point in both Susan’s life and my life. While attending a language convention we struck up a conversation with representatives from The School of International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. SIT was the degree-granting arm of The Experience in International Living and in addition to a Masters program offered summer workshops. As I recall, we took classes there for two summers. It was there we were introduced to methodologies such as The Silent Way and Counsel Learning. The term “student centered education” had not been invented yet, but that is what was at the heart of those two methodologies. When we returned after the first summer we asked permission from the administration to radically change the way we taught Spanish. They said yes and desks were pushed aside and the floor became our workspace. Cuisenaire Rods, newsprint and a tape recorder replaced textbooks to a certain degree.
The last experience that Foxcroft financed for us was a weeklong seminar put on by the Society for International Education and Research (SIETAR). It was held at Georgetown University and its focus was helping us to work with foreign students or those who were about to leave the US for an in-country experience. As a result of that conference, the direction of Susan’s life changed. Soon thereafter she was to leave teaching to become a trainer for Americans who were getting ready to spend significant time in Saudi Arabia working on a joint project of the Saudi Government and the department of the Navy.
I have fond memories of the Dining Hall experience. I remember Mr. Frank who ran the place and I can still see Johnny’s face as clear as can be. I remember Sara Thompson and Miss Sally. Most of all I remember the opportunity to sit with students and share the events of their day. There were those times we sat with other faculty and that allowed us to catch up on what was going on in their lives. One of the selling points for a boarding school is the fact that you have instant community and that meant that Rachel had a group of friends who played in the room off of the dining hall. I know that was an important part of her growth as a person. My favorite Dining Hall story has to do with an encounter at Sunday brunch between Kirsten McBride and Rachel. Rachel was all enthused about being a Fox and included in Fox activities. When Kirsten and her parents showed up for brunch, Rachel rushed to her and breathlessly asked, “Are you a Fox or a Hound?” Kirsten thought it over for a minute and then replied, “Neither. I’m a Christian!
I added to my acting experiences while at Foxcroft. Hilary Deely snagged me early on to appear in a production of To Blush Unseen. The good news is that it allowed me to tell people that I had appeared on stage with Stephanie Zimbalist. I also recall being in a production of The Boyfriend and my last appearance on the Foxcroft stage was in Guys and Dolls in which Wendy Mingst starred as Adelaide. One Mini-Term I worked with Eric VanderVoort in a production of Godspelland Angus Thuermer convinced me to appear in the Middleburg Players production of The Good Doctor.
Mr Mac did a term or two as Interim Head until Coit Johnson returned. Dick Wheeler came to campus as an Interim Head and was eventually named Headmaster. Dick asked me to take on more administrative responsibilities and I accepted. When my ninth year at Foxcroft came to an end, I knew in my heart it was time to move on. Susan and Rachel were ready to move on, too. As a family we decided that our next stop would be California and that is where I lived out the rest of my teaching life.
There is one more thing that I did take away from my Foxcroft experience and that was my friendship with Biff Smith. It was Biff who introduced me to the world of magic and he played the role of my teacher during the years he taught at Foxcroft. Little did I suspect that magic would play such an important role in my future.
When people ask what I took away from my Foxcroft experience I tell them that in addition to good friends, I got to experience Spain a number of times. I became a better teacher, I became a better listener, I was introduced to magic and I developed a taste for the finer things in life. I would not be who I am today without my Foxcroft experience and I like to think that Foxcroft would not be what it is today had I not shared ten years of my life with it.