In the River of Ordinary Courage

Fall 2011

By Rick Melvoin

It is a Sunday morning in February. I am in my office. There are salaries to determine for next year, contracts to write. Correspondence is piling up; I need to catch up on emails; of course, I always need to catch up on emails. Then there is the bigger stuff. I need to tell a young teacher that he is not getting rehired for next year. I like him, and even though he has had plenty of support and plenty of warning, I know he is going to be stunned. And can I even think about the fact that his wife is pregnant? More difficult and even more painful, there is an older teacher — though not old — who is dying. Everyone knows it; his colleagues are a mess. How do we hold things together?

I love my job. I feel privileged to hold it. After 18 years, I still feel energized, still fully engaged. Some of the stuff I am facing is just stuff. Some of it requires good management. Some requires leadership, acknowledging that the title of head of school carries with it the responsibility to lead. The late Yale president and beloved philosopher king Bart Giamatti understood this. “Management,” he observed, “is the capacity to handle multiple problems, neutralize various constituencies, motivate personnel…. Leadership, on the other hand, is an essentially moral act, not — as in most management — an essentially protective act. It is the assertion of a vision, not simply the exercise of a style.” I have carried this quote in my wallet for 20 years.

But some of this goes beyond both management and leadership. I believe that serving as a head of school is a moral act. Not all of the job, not every day. But to embrace this role fully challenges one to dig deep, to take not only ethical positions but also ethical actions. And to do that requires courage — what I’ve come to call “ordinary courage.”

Why ordinary? In our society, courage gets associated with soldiers, police, firefighters — those men and women who risk their lives in ways that are public and visible and immediate. For school heads also, as a different dictionary definition puts it, courage is demonstrated through “strength in the face of pain or grief” and the ability to do something that frightens them. Indeed, the very word “courage” comes from the Latin cor, cordis, which means heart. And heart is at the center of what heads do — maybe not every day, but enough days to think afresh about the nature of those labors.

When I asked different heads about the notion of courage, some were reluctant to take on the word; perhaps “courage” sounded too strong, too immodest. Others just did not think of their efforts that way. Rather, they said that taking strong steps, sometimes in the face of strong opposition, was simply their job. Some made it sound very simple: they were doing what was right. But that reinforces for me the courage of these leaders, for it means that they not only have clear beliefs about right and wrong, but are also willing to act on them. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Ordinary courage sometimes takes extraordinary resolve.

One favorite story comes from a female head of school whose father held a similar position in a public school. He was assistant superintendent of a suburban New York school system when a fire broke out in the building. Back in 1967, no one had computer files backed up somewhere off site; of course, there were no computers, which meant that all the student records were in jeopardy. This man charged back into the burning building, threw all the student files out the window, dashed back out of the building — and watched it collapse just behind him. This act of courage landed him on the front page of the New York Times.

Yet the story gets better, or at least deeper. A year later, this same man, facing a school district that included students and families of many faiths, declared that, at holiday time in December in this public school system, there would be no Christian symbols. Agree or not about the principle, there is no doubt about the courage.

Several colleagues drew the distinction between the courage that emerges in an instant and the courage that emanates from carefully considered decisions. More than one head talked about how people reacted to the events of 9/11, especially those working in schools in and around New York. Who stayed calm, and who panicked? Who reckoned with their fear and helped the students, and who got lost in the fear and emotion of the moment?

Much of this job challenges one to do the right thing even when it is hard or scary. Sometimes the issue may be curricular, though the reaction is anything but dry. Knowing the firestorm that is sure to come from students and parents alike, who is willing, for instance, to make the decision to abolish Advanced Placement courses because the faculty believes they are not serving the students well? Some of the toughest issues may be more social than academic. One colleague — the head of an all-boys Episcopal school in the South — in his first year, faced a case where a boy wanted to take another boy to the prom. Knowing what was at stake, the head said yes — and he is now in his 10th year, and thriving. Another head faced a situation where many of the girls at school had taken to wearing some very fashionable dresses to school, from a particularly expensive line. Seeing it as a situation that threatened to divide the school by socioeconomic class, the head banned those dresses.

Do these acts require courage? Clearly. Yet, part of what proved so fascinating to me as I spoke to heads is that they regarded these as no big deal — again, what I would call “ordinary courage.” Said one head, “There’s always a win when you stand on principle.” Offered another, “It’s never wrong to do the right thing.” 

Easy to say; not always easy to do.

Discipline cases often require courage. Making and explaining a difficult decision to crushed students or furious parents or rebellious faculty can test a head’s stamina and will. But one has to confront cases when they arise. As one head explained it, you know you have to make a decision, and you know that some people are going to disagree no matter what you decide, “so you might as well do the right thing.” 

But sometimes heads face cases that they don’t absolutely have to address… or at least not today… or this week… or maybe it will go away. What do you do when you have a colleague whom you think may be cheating on his or her spouse? To confront this risks the destruction of a good working relationship with an employee, risks the incapacity of the teacher, risks real intrusion into someone’s private life. I will never forget the story of a head who had tried to confront and combat a teacher’s alcoholism, over a considerable period of time, without success. Ultimately, the head fired the teacher — who went home that day and killed himself.

All too often, school heads live with issues of life and death. How does a head help a school community deal with the loss of a faculty member, or a parent, or a child? If serving as a school head is indeed an ethical act, then there is work — sometimes brutally hard work — to do. I remember taking heart from a revered senior school head who said, “If you spend long enough in these jobs, sooner or later you have to take your turn.” He then added, “It’s your turn now.” I had asked him for counsel because a boy at our school had just died. The boy was a senior, an All-New England football player, an honors student, a classical pianist, already admitted to Harvard, and on a Friday night after a hockey game, he had driven too fast, without his seat belt on, hit a patch of ice, and flipped his car, getting thrown out of the car and dying instantly. The call came in to me at just after 7 am that Saturday morning; my first call was to a head who had guided me since I started in this job. “What do I do?” I asked. “Do I go over to the house?” I knew the answer, of course, but I needed to hear it — and also to hear, to affirm, that the school was going to be looking to me to lead it over the next several days and weeks and months. 

The next days were a blur of emotion and action: contacting students and families and faculty, helping the family put together the funeral, which had to take place at school because the crowd would far exceed the church’s capacity, dealing with the 20-inch snowstorm that came the day before the service. 

I shudder as I remember this, knowing that many heads have faced these horrors. The details are all different, but the stories are the same. Yes, we may tell our school, death is a part of life, but we know that we have to do more than that. We have to help others, lead others, stay strong, provide what one head has called a “non-anxious presence” at a time when such calm and strength are sorely needed.

There is a steady refrain that has come from my talks with fellow heads. Few talk about “acting courageously”; instead, they just do it. They do it because it is at their core; they do it because they have not just accepted but embraced the role they have as the leaders of their schools. Early in my headship, a veteran administrator came to see me, bearing words from John Esty, a former school head and former president of NAIS. John wrote, simply, that as head “you are the most important person in the school.” Most heads I know are not egomaniacs, but all heads need to remember this, accept it, even embrace it. If one can embrace it, then the battles seem worth fighting. Tough discipline cases? Painful but necessary decisions about hiring and firing, or interventions, or projects or priorities? Ronald Reagan is not my paragon as political leader, but he had a way of making things clear. Facing one tough situation, he once remarked, “It’s hard, but it’s not difficult.” So, too, for heads. Once one knows the right thing to do, it may be hard, but it’s often not difficult.

And yet, sometimes it is. While most of us will never run into a burning building to save student files, we will continue to face metaphoric fires all the time. And part of this “ordinary courage” involves that very action. Joseph Conrad once wrote, “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” Yet another colleague warmed my heart when she cited the central metaphor of perhaps my favorite book in the world. Courage, she said, needs to be in all that we do, “kind of like the river that runs through it.” 

May such courage continue to flow for all who do this noble work. We often do it alone, and yet we all do it together.

Rick Melvoin

Rick Melvoin is the head of Belmont Hill School (Massachusetts).