Mnemosyne: Headmasters

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We Americans don’t have a good mechanism for memorializing and remembering big moments. The Israelites had their Ebenezers — the “stones of help,” a literal pile of rocks that would serve as a string-around-the-finger of one’s mind, a trigger for the memory of what God has done that’s good.

I have a lot of those that I could build from my decade at NCS, and hopefully I’ll find the words for them here from time to time.

Tonight, I’m pensive. Bittersweet.  Joey’s imminent departure and Jack’s leave of absence remind me that I’m winding down my own career at a school I’ve loved and labored at for so long.

I think it’s impossible to envision NCS apart from the men who have led it. Not that a headmaster can pull the cart by himself; the faculty do the day to day lifting for sure. But the headmaster sets the pace and tone of the staff, and his enthusiasm (or lack of it) plays a huge role.

NCS opened its doors about 13 years ago under the direction of Mr Maurice Lopez.  If I had to rank human beings in order from least to greatest, Maurice falls only a couple spots below the top. He’s gracious, humble, wise, experienced, patient, even-keeled, calm.  Everything you want in a headmaster.  Later, he slid seamlessly out of the headmaster job and right into the math classroom, where he was able to teach ANYBODY math.  It was amazing.  And he had one of the most effective differentiated classrooms I’ve ever seen. Whiz kids sat in the corner and worked on a totally different advanced book while the class learned a different idea and struggling kids got all the extra help they needed. Incredible.

After about 18 months, Maurice handed off the lead job to Dennis Bills, who came to NCS with both pastoral and Christian school experience. His previous Christian school, The School Which Shall Not Be Named, had baptized him into administration through fire and hell. I’m not really sure why he was even willing to do the job again, but I’m so thankful he did.

Dennis was the headmaster who recruited us to be teachers, recognizing that a classical school needed teachers with strong humanities backgrounds and broad educational experience. He was the first person to introduce me to a school without demerits. I imagine my jaw hung open when he tried to explain that he didn’t need to hand kids little pieces of paper with quantified levels of sin…. try talking to them. Correct them. Find the underlying issue and address the cause rather than the system.  My first-year inexperience tempted me to lust after the easy road of demerit slips, but I can’t imagine going back. Once you’ve tasted the power of Grace in your classroom, you can’t go back.

Dennis had such a presence in parent meetings. I would come into a meeting sheepish that I’d bungled a situation, making it worse due to inexperience or just bad decisions on my part. That never showed on his face.  He had our backs, and we knew it.  But he was also the consummate diplomat, finding a via media in thorny situations so that both parties left the room satisfied.

Dennis stuck with us even when he wasn’t sure we were right. Huge changes began to take root in 2005 and 2006; those were the infant steps in the direction of relational teaching, teaching redemptively, or Grace-based discipline. On paper, Grace-based education looks like a naive fool’s errand.  “What? Make friends with your students? That’s stupid. Unwise. Dangerous. Teachers don’t do that.”  Well, that’s where the Holy Spirit was dragging us…. and it was uncomfortable for everyone.  Now I can look back and marvel that Dennis had the patience and forbearance to walk with his faculty down a road he wasn’t even sure of, because he trusted that God was at work through his co-laborers. (And it was cool, on our end, to see God take Dennis on his own journey into Grace-based education once Dennis left for WV….but that’s his story and he should tell it.)

It was hard to see Dennis go in 2006.  I mean, we’d been living next door to them our entire time in Anderson to that point! We’d shared suppers, Halo games, cheesy horror movies, and anti-cat rampages. (I refused to participate in the cat hunts.) To lose a man with so much stability and experience…. well, it was frightening.

The headmaster search committee of 2006 returned with the name Joey Thames and a photo from the CPC church directory of a half-Koren, all-redneck youngster toting a shotgun. I kid you not.

It’s hard to meet Joey and not like him instantly.  His laugh infects a room with joy and optimism. He tackles work with both hands, digging in and forcing everyone around him to join him in believing, “This is good!”

I admire Joey for taking his entire first year at NCS just to listen. How many organizational problems could be solved through simply hearing what people are saying?! He listened, he learned, he watched, he supported.

And Joey “gets” Grace.  He instinctively understood that teaching must be relational, or it will be ineffective.

I must admit, I nearly cried with joy in those early weeks when he didn’t attack me for opening our home to students or building relationships that extended beyond the classroom. (I was battered and bruised and bloody by 2006, after a veritable mob of angry people with pitchforks had attacked my motives, reputation, methods, and “wisdom.”) To hear him say, “Well, duh. Of course you will build relationships with students and families outsidethe classroom! That’s exactly where those relationships belong” meant that NCS would be able to fully embrace a direction God had set before us. I think it’s THE central distinctive of NCS, the aspect that students mention at every exit interview and every feedback session. “We want a school where we know our teachers, where we know they care about us, where we get to hang out with them.” How crazy — and cool — is that?

And wow. To hear students talk about Joey’s influence on their lives is to see Grace in action. Troubled kid? Joey really does love them.  Frustrating child? Joey won’t stop setting boundaries, calling out rebellion, correcting in love.  He and his friends (James Bendowsky, George Elder) brought with them a joyful masculinity that relished hard work, good poetry, cold beer, beautiful craftsmanship, and humble courage.

NCS was badly in need of a school “culture” by the time Joey arrived in 2006, so that became one of his passions — to provoke the students to love one another and to strive for all things good.  We saw the Holy Spirit answer prayer and slowly mend a broken and fractured student body into a cohesive upper school. The students now love their school with a fierce and joyful pride. They aren’t perfect, but the unloved kids of this world, the castoffs of the public system, the weirdos who don’t fit, the artists and musicians and nerds and jocks and hippies — they’re all able to come together in a building where God is glorified and people are loved.

Today, in 2012, I see Joey’s marks everywhere. And Maurice’s and Dennis’s as well, but Joey’s is the most recent coat of paint. (Maurice is definitely the foundation. Dennis framed in the building so the sides would be true.)

I freely glorify God for the good HE has done at school through His servants. And I am so thankful that God placed me at a school where I got to see Him grow the headmasters along with the school.

On this last day of Joey’s career at NCS, as he heads off to Clemson University where his ministry will be possibly more covert but no less important or effective, I am proud to call him my co-laborer in the Gospel and my friend.

God bless.

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