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Selected Essays of Robert Doggett:

Elvis Slept Here

Among The Hang Gliders

Mean Kids

The Headmaster

Writ In Water

Letters and Commentary:

Barron's Letter 7/26/2004

Fiction by Robert Doggett:



The Headmaster

This essay appeared in slightly different form in The Seattle Weekly in March of 1990:

The Headmaster

Dan Ayrault, the headmaster of Lakeside School who died suddenly of cardiac arrest on February 24 at the age of fifty-five, was well-known in the educational community as a person who stood for certain principles: the liberating notion of having teachers return papers to students with comments, but without grades; the value of giving seniors the privilege to leave campus during the day or to arrive just before their first morning classes because, after all, many would be away from home the following year and need to learn to use their abundant free time well; a firm belief that having fewer rules would make people more responsive to their simplicity and power. People at our school even joked about the evaluations of his administration teachers were asked to fill out every year or so: "No, Dan, you can't do a better job of running the school by turning it over to someone else, or by becoming invisible, or by going on
permanent leave," we might say.

When I started my first teaching job at Lakeside in 1975, my only experience with these matters had been as a student at a large public high school in Texas where the administration had tried to enforce twenty-three regulations which barely fit onto a legal-size sheet. It did not take long for me, or, I suspect any of us who were new to Lakeside,
to see the good sense of encouraging students to do the right thing by giving them three rules to remember instead of twenty-three.

A recent review article by Alfred Kazin cited a contemporary student's astonishment to discover that Abraham Lincoln wrote his own speeches. Those powerful nineteenth-century abstractions to be found in Lincoln's addresses, with their sonorous metaphors ready to take flight, are not to be found in Dan's writing. What one does find, I suppose, is an attentiveness to the power of a well-chosen comparison and a highly organized yet humanistic sense of its implications and appropriateness for personal growth and development. For example, in his last commencement address, Dan wrote, "Clearly it is resilience --the resilience, for example, of a bamboo leaf suddenly bending to shed an overburden of snow and then springing back -- that stands out as the kind of strength which sustains institutions." Later, he spoke of its more general importance by saying, "It can be useful, as well as realistic, to consider life from one perspective as a continuing series of problems, disappointments, rejections, or crises move through and past as healthfully as we can. Assuredly we are surrounded here today by friends or family who are now struggling, or who have recently undergone great loss or pain or illness, or disappointment, or failure. Surely each of us has experienced already such aspects of life to some degree, and even more surely the quality of our future lives will be signifcantly affected by, will be substantially a product of how we adapt -- what sort of resilience we build into the core of our human spirit. Interestingly, we often perceive an uncommon beauty of spirit in people whose resilience has helped them survive unusually difficult circumstances, shaping them in the process, just
as the resilience of an alpine fir, coping with harsh climate, soil and wind, creates a special beauty we admire."

For many people who knew Dan, the distinctiveness of his legacy will be as much a result of our knowing how he thought and how he lived as of remembering the things he accomplished, the changes he effected. Dan and I did not go fishing more than a couple of times, but the last morning we did so, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Megan, stands out in my mind. It was a lovely, calm morning on Lake Washington a couple of summers ago. We had been out well before dawn, and as the sun came up, Dan commented on the beauty of a particular pattern of light on a cluster of clouds, or the dazzling presence of Mount Rainier as it rose up out of the haze in the lower air. Time passed, and we had an exciting moment when Megan caught a sockeye salmon. Soon it was eight o'clock, then nine; the fish stopped biting, but still we floated on. Finally Dan said, "Rob, you know I really am having a great time, but I do have one question." He paused. "Is there any way we can read while we're doing this?"

Dan's particular way of thinking, informed as it was by his powerful curiosity and his belief in self-improvement, was an inspiration for many who knew him, and was even occasionally a source of frustration for those who lacked his patience and faith in the individual's ability to overcome adversity. I count myself among those who were frequently
skeptical. A few years ago a coach came into the faculty lounge and, in exasperation, threw up his hands. He had just endured a frustrating series of defeats, and had gone to speak to the headmaster to try to find some way to make the situation better next year. After outlining his plans for getting more of those precious W's to bolster his dispirited team, Dan's initial reply had been, "How many games do we need to win?" In fact, Dan felt that it was usually better for athletes to lose more games than they win. When our school labored over the decision of whether
to dismiss classes for postseason athletic competition so that everyone could attend, Dan was quick to point out that a team does not need the support of people in the stands. Dan loved winning, and he had two Olympic gold medals to prove it, but who was better able to help us keep our perspective on the value of trying hard yet falling short of a goal than this man who knew more than most of us will ever know about winning? A question Dan asked a number of times about students who were having difficulty was, "How do we achieve the maximum increment of
growth?" and this faith in the average person's ability to do more for him or herself inspired those around him.

It was no secret that in the last years of his life, once he had had serious bouts with tachycardia, taken various state-of-the-art heart drugs, and worn a pacemaker in his chest, he became an assiduous student of that most vital muscle and its various afflictions. He read journal articles and once remarked with enthusiasm to a teacher who, knowing of his interest had xeroxed an article which described a dozen or so of the latest heart medications, "I've tried nine of those." Dan's belief in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and the power of resilience was with him to
the end. It was as though if he had been able to understand his worst enemy, his weakening heart, just as he had come to understand so many other things, then he would be able to overcome it.

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