by Chad Lawrence
This past February my wife Wendy and I had the awesome opportunity to take a pilgrimage to Israel. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to walk the land of the Scriptures and was deeply challenging and deeply refreshing. Though not quite on that same scale, I have come to look forward to what has become an annual pilgrimage of sorts to the Highlands Latin School and the Memoria Press Conference. I don’t know how it is in the educational milieu of your town or area of the country, but I can say as a classical Christian educator in the Lowcountry of South Carolina I often feel like a fish out of water, if not a pilgrim in a foreign land. So the occasions to gather with fellow pilgrims on a common trail nourished in rich fare is refreshing and encouraging, so thank you to all those who work so diligently to make this a possibility.
I can still remember my first pilgrimage there in 2010. Only a few months before I had been hired as the founding headmaster of what had been named Holy Trinity Classical Christian School.
Starting a classical Christian school from scratch was not something I could have even imagined I would do when I first entered the ministry. In fact, though I had a background in teaching (seven years as a teacher in public schools in California) I had never even heard of classical education. So I went to seminary, and upon graduation was hired as an associate priest at a large Anglican church in Beaufort, SC.
There were those in the church who had become interested in the possibility of starting a classical Christian school and I was asked to serve on a committee. I was skeptical, to say the least. What was this classical education? Well, I began to read. Somehow I obtained a copy of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin by Tracy Lee Simmons, and it challenged me deeply. Our committee visited a few schools and the skepticism began to abate.
I had three thoughts or wishes, and I’ll put them in order of descending selfishness. My first thought was, “Oh, I wish I had received this education.” My second was, “I would love for my daughters to receive this.” The third thought was, “Wow, does our society need such schools.” All three of these would find their culmination when the newly formed board of Holy Trinity asked me to serve as its founding headmaster.
So after much prayer and wrestling—and with considerable trepidation—I took up the mantle. That was August of 2010, and the board wanted to open the school in August of 2011, meaning I had a year to pick curriculum, hire teachers, find a location, spread the word among families, develop a policy manual, and so on. Someone in our church had some connection to Highlands Latin School, so I reached out to Tanya Charlton on a whim and she said, “Come on out.”
I visited HLS‘ Crescent Hill campus and I was given free rein to visit classrooms. At one point I made my way to the upper school wing a few minutes after a class change. I walked into a classroom, a geometry class, and all the students looked at me expectantly, which caught me off guard until I realized that there was no teacher in the room. They thought I was the substitute. I told them I wasn’t and sat down and critically thought, “What kind of school is this? The teacher isn’t even here on time.” Then it dawned on me: Here were 15-20 teenagers, no teacher in sight, yet they were sitting and conversing respectfully, notebooks ready to begin class. Then the teacher rushed in with an armful of books. He apologized for being late and explained that he had become engrossed in a conversation about a section of the Aeneid, which he discussed with the class for a few minutes before transitioning into geometry, about which he taught a fine lesson. It didn’t take long for this pilgrim to feel like he was home.
Two significant parts of that formative visit resonated with me: curriculum and pedagogy―what was taught as well as how it was taught. But the third aspect of the life of the school was the culture, the ethos of the school. Every school has one. I have recently read it described as the soil in which the pedagogy and curriculum take root and grow. The culture and ethos of our schools, classrooms, and homes should so nurture the soul and the humanity of the students that there emerges a harmony.
So a question to ask is, “What kind of soil is present in our school, in my classroom?”
I contend that this issue of school culture is crucial to a classical Christian school. It is a distinctive that I noticed at Highlands on that first visit, and that undoubtedly flowed out of Cheryl Lowe’s own vision for the school culture. She was herself a person of gravitas, and it is reflected in the culture of the school she founded.
Gravitas. It is a heavy topic. I’m not sure what comes to mind when you hear this Latin word. Webster’s defines it as “high seriousness (as in a person’s bearing or in a treatment of a subject).” We might think of such synonyms as “dignity” or “solemnity.” Perhaps your mind goes right to the derivative “gravity.” Of all the meanings and associations that are connected with the word I gravitate towards “presence.” And to go further, a certain type of presence, the presence that carries a weight, a solidity. Perhaps a closely related Hebrew word that we find in the Old Testament is the word “glory”―the glory of the Lord. That word for “glory” is kavod, which means “heaviness, weighty.” When people encounter the glory of the living God they are brought down, they are crushed by the weight of the presence of God. God’s presence carries a glory, a gravitas, if you will.
Now my conviction is that if our school culture is to have gravitas we as educators should carry a certain gravitas into the life of the classroom. This gravitas is properly exuded in both attitude and in demeanor.
This gravitas can be seen in the great classical headmasters of the last century or two. One book that made a profound impact upon me in my first years of being a headmaster was John McPhee’s The Headmaster, which tells of the headmastership of Frank Boyden, who built Deerfield Academy during the first half of the twentiethth century. McPhee writes of Boyden:
He is at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who—no matter whether they had actually founded the places or not—created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with their own personalities.
Frank Boyden was for years the youngest in a group that included Endicott Peabody, of Groton, Father Sill, of Kent, Horace Taft, of Taft, Samuel Drury, of St. Paul’s, George C. St. John, of Choate, Alfred Stearns, of Andover, and Lewis Perry, of Exeter. The rest are gone now, and in some cases their successors are, too. Meanwhile, younger headmasters in remarkable numbers have developed under Boyden at Deerfield. At the moment, the heads of twenty-nine American prep schools are former Deerfield masters or students. Some headmasters similarly trained by Boyden have served their schools and have retired. But, in his valley in western Massachusetts, Frank Boyden, who is eighty-six, continues his work with no apparent letup, sharing his authority by the thimbleful with his faculty, traveling with his athletic teams, interviewing boys and parents who are interested in the school, conducting Sunday night vesper services, writing as many as seventy letters a day, planning the details of new buildings, meeting with boys who are going home for the weekend and reminding them of their responsibilities to “the older traveling public,” careering around his campus in an electric golf cart, and working from 7 A.M. to midnight every day. If he sees a bit of paper on the ground, he jumps out of his cart and picks it up. He is uncompromising about the appearance of his school.
The point I want us to see is that Headmaster Boyden carried an undeniable gravitas in the life of his school. His presence carried great weight for the boys and faculty at Deerfield. He was present. In fact, he desired to be so present that he had his desk placed in the main hallway of the school. Not in an office on the main hallway, but in the main hallway itself.
Unfortunately, our understanding of the role of a headmaster or principal has shifted in modern education. In some cases a headmaster carries no gravitas because his or her presence in the life of the school or classroom is for all intents and purposes nonexistent. The expectation is that the role of the head of school is much like a CEO with an upper-floor office who sits behind a desk and administrates and delegates. His presence is hidden behind flow charts and memos and reports. In many private schools, a great deal of his time is spent in fundraising. I believe that this conception is quite prevalent, and I have had to warn my own board against it over the years, because I cannot see how the position carries much gravitas or presence or weight in the life of the school if the headmaster is not on some deep level connected to the lifeblood of the school.
Another problem is the tendency to curry favor or popularity from students and faculty by becoming too much like them. I’m sure we can all think of teachers on our faculties who do this. They want to be liked by their students so they stoop to their level in speech or in actions, and it often leads to problems because the students don’t need friends, they need teachers. When a teacher falls into this temptation the gravitas is lost; the teacher carries no weight to the group because he is simply part of the group.
The third problem occurs when gravitas becomes blurred, when it degenerates into meanness and the mere quest for power. More than a few leaders down through the ages have become corrupted and intoxicated with authority, and the gravitas they may once have had becomes replaced by the love of power. Historian Henry Adams once described power as a sort of tumor that ends by “killing the victim’s sympathies.” The ancients understood all of this as hubris, about which Homer and others had a great deal to say.
One of the most powerful checks to this is to be reminded that we are not as weighty and as important as we might think we are. For Winston Churchill, the person who did this for him was his wife, Clementine, who had the courage to write: “My Darling Winston. I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.” Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming”—with the attendant danger that “you won’t get the best results.”
Enough about the problems. What might the gravitas we are after look like? Gravitas manifests itself in three core facets of a school: in intellectual pursuit―the pursuit of knowledge; in moral pursuit―the pursuit of wisdom; in spiritual pursuit―the pursuit of God Himself and of leading others in that pursuit. And in all of these areas there is an inward attitude and outward demeanor. The inner attitude flows from the knowledge that we as leaders of classical Christian schools are given a weighty calling: We are called to help carry on a great tradition that is far bigger than any of us, and are given the opportunity to help form and fashion a generation who will carry on what we hand them long after we are gone.
This is a task that, properly understood, demands a seriousness and a steadfastness. I think of a few lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”:
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
All of that demands an inner commitment and steadfastness. We might say an inner commitment to pursuit of knowledge, a quest for wisdom, and a thirst that God might be preeminent in our schools. If it is in us it will permeate our school culture, for it will be demonstrated in outward demeanor and action.
An educator should also be at the forefront of the pursuit of knowledge. And the students and teachers need to see this on a regular basis, whether that is demonstrated in asking questions, or reading a book, or teaching a class. I came to learn of George Wythe through a visit to colonial Williamsburg a number of years ago. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Virginia, the first American law professor, classics scholar, and early advocate for abolishing slavery. He taught and mentored Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Henry Clay, and many other early American leaders. You can visit his house in colonial Williamsburg, and it is fascinating. His quest for knowledge is unmistakable; he taught himself Hebrew, had a fascination with botany, and (of course) dined on a steady diet of the classics in Latin and Greek. Now without question this is challenging in a classical school. I have faculty far better read than I am, a number of whom were classically educated. Meanwhile the students learn at a pace I can’t keep up with. But the intellectual curiosity and acumen must be maintained.
So, too, the quest for wisdom. We must ask questions with the aim that wisdom might be formed in our students and faculty. But, I say that this only happens when you are present in the life of your school—when you are there for recess moments and lunch room discussions.
Finally, there must be a longing that God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, might be preeminent in the education of our students and faculty. In our school we have a daily chapel, every morning from 8:35-9:00 A.M. And, in my case, I lead chapel and teach from the Scriptures daily. I lead the faculty in prayer. I pray for students, families, and faculty. As our inner commitment to our great vocation is expressed in intellectual, moral, and spiritual pursuit we begin to carry a proper sense of gravitas or weight in the life of the school.
But as I close I want to issue a reminder—gravitas should always include a measure of levitas. Now these might seem contradictory, but bear with me for a moment.
I refer not to levity towards our calling but rather a levity towards ourselves. Chesterton writes:
Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of “levitation.” They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly. This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies. Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was the one thing that the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate in the real Pre-raphaelites. Burne-Jones could never recover the deep levity of the Middle Ages. In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness…. It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
In C. S. Lewis’ book The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan addresses a convocation of animals, those chosen to receive the gift of speech. He warns them not to go back to their old ways. It is a serious speech. Aslan has gravitas. In what is otherwise a serious discussion, a jackdaw makes an awkward comment, and all the animals try to suppress their laughter. But Aslan corrects them:
“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”
Sometimes the heaviest, most solid, most present act of gravitas we can provide to our students and fellow faculty is to laugh with them.
Chad Lawrence is the Headmaster of Holy Trinity Classical Christian School in Beaufort, SC.