The Independent School Admissions Director as Tim Wakefield’s Catcher

Summer 2012

By Mike Vachow

Bob Uecker, the Milwaukee Brewers’ quipping radio broadcaster, makes his brief and lackluster career as a major league catcher the subject of much of his humor. About catching the knuckleball, Uecker famously said, “I always thought the knuckleball was the easiest pitch to catch. Wait’ll it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up.”

Of course, there is an even better way to catch a knuckleball, and my purpose here is to suggest that the qualities that define the best catchers of knuckleballers — mental and physical flexibility, a kind of clever patience, and perseverance — are the same qualities that define the ideal contemporary independent school admission director. I’ll use the experiences of the admission director at the school I head, but I would argue that the metaphor, in varying degrees, is applicable in all contemporary independent school markets.

But first, the metaphor. The knuckleball is a pitch gripped in such a way that the ball does not spin when it leaves the pitcher’s hand. Subject to the slightest effects of wind and barometric pressure, the knuckleball flutters toward the batter in random dips and dodges not unlike the path of a butterfly, albeit the kind that might appear in a Tim Burton film. Even veteran hitters will tell you that watching a knuckleball careen toward the plate is a little creepy. Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox great who retired earlier this year, was a knuckleballer. In contrast to most of his counterparts who manipulate the spin and velocity of the ball to baffle hitters, Wakefield threw knuckleballs almost exclusively, all of them around the speed of a junior varsity high school pitcher’s fastball, their ultimate destination as much a mystery to Wakefield as to the batter.

The best catchers of knuckleballers speak in paradoxes when they describe their technique. They prepare to move rapidly, but try to remain relaxed. They talk about using “soft hands” to catch the ball, but are quick to abandon catching the ball for simply stopping it with any part of their bodies or equipment. Most important, good knuckleball catchers talk about “catching it late.” That is, they try to react only once the ball is about six feet away from the glove. From the stands, this technique looks almost as if the catcher is snatching at the ball. And even then, catchers of knuckleballers allow many more passed balls than is average. It is not uncommon to see a major league catcher move his glove to where he thinks the ball will be only to take the ball off the center of his facemask. 

Since 2008, the yearly trends in the independent school admission environment have been knuckleballs, and necessarily, the most successful admission directors have much the same skill set as a knuckleball catcher. He or she is consummately well-prepared but wary of over-anticipating, imaginative enough to form a shifting definition of the new market realities but ready to abandon definitions that no longer have validity, flexible enough to arrange time and energy to follow the trends as they develop, and humble enough to accept bad guesses or to work harder to retrieve an inquiry that looked like it was getting away. 

I’ll use the last two years at the school I serve and the experiences of the admission director here as a case in point. Forsyth School is a pre-K–grade six school of about 400 students in St. Louis. One side of the campus looks across a sycamore-lined boulevard at Forest Park, home to many of the city’s outstanding cultural institutions. Washington University lies on another border. Although we draw from over 40 Zip codes, a significant number of our families are associated with Washington University and St. Louis University and the hospital complexes that lie at the eastern end of Forest Park. Families who live in three of the cardinal directions from the school have tacitly made the decision to pay tuition for their children’s education because the public schools in areas are weak. 

At the end of 2009, we saw our overall attrition rise to 11 percent, tying our historical high. Of that group, the families leaving for financial reasons skyrocketed to 50 percent from a historical average of 20 percent. This attrition took no imagination to analyze as it was straight out of the national headlines. Families whose net income was predicated on commercial real estate knew they were in for prolonged tough times. Professionals, especially lawyers, who had maintained part-time gigs found themselves the first squeezed out. Wachovia families, barely unpacked after uprooting from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, the year before when that bank bought up A.G. Edwards, found themselves in limbo as Wachovia was acquired by Wells Fargo. And, tragically, even the city’s great stalwart of manufacturing, The Brewery, was taken over by a Belgian conglomerate that promptly cut off the local taps of nepotism, perks, and old-boy connectivity that had kept every corner of St. Louis in a light buzz of loyalty for over a century. In the admission office, this was the year of the slog, the year that saw our admission director spending as much time helping current parents as prospective parents, the year of intense collaboration with the business director and the head as we found more financial aid, learned to read complex financial aid applications, counseled parents on the ethical underpinnings of our financial aid program, built more vibrant networks in the corporate community, reorganized the timing of our marketing, recast our communication to parents about re-enrollment, and worked intently all the way through August. 

The knuckleballs in 2009–2010 were all of a kind, namely in the dirt, and our admission director had the bruises to prove it. By the opening of school, however, we were fully enrolled because of her flexibility and perseverance (Goodbye, weekends! So long, family vacation!).

Unfortunately, nothing from that school year prepared us for 2010–2011. In retrospect, the theme is clear: the economic cloud that settled over our community was a paradoxical blend of intense circumspection and exhilarating freedom. In the moment, however, it was baffling. Our current parents had already taken a deep breath and were happily diving into the school year. August inquiries, however, were nonexistent, and September inquiries barely a trickle. 

Then, abruptly, a stream of families from a nearby, solid suburban public school system poured into the admission office. They’d been wary about district-wide cuts but given it a month or two to shake out. By October, it clearly wasn’t working, and they were ready to move, like now. At the same time, the “traditional” applicants came into the process, a solid six weeks late by the old normal. By contrast, these were people with spreadsheet rubrics and tensely phrased questions on legal pads. They had spent the previous year conducting a kind of existential economic audit, determined that they would make sacrifices in every quarter of their lives to ensure that their children were well-educated, and now they were enacting The Plan. In mid-fall, our admission director would, inside of a morning, switch from pulling the reins on the unhappy public school parents who wanted to file an application before coming in for a visit, to taking a fourth call from the spreadsheet parent who’d been on campus for two hours the day before. 

The issuance of the re-enrollment contract in December brought yet another category of challenge: not the previous year’s family income anxiety, but, in fact, just the opposite. Parents in the medical and academic communities were being offered career advancement opportunities out of town, and they were taking them, even multi-generation St. Louisans. To understand the shock value of this last matter, it is important to know that St. Louis is one of those cities to which people return, where Sunday dinner with Mere and Pere is no cliché, and where citizens feel they’ve let the team down if they miss a Cardinals game. The downturn in the economy had dissolved some of the cultural/geographical boundaries that had defined their lives, and although our attrition overall was smaller, over half of it was attributable to people moving out of town, normally a category in the single-digit percentages. 

Thankfully, their counterparts from around the country and the world were in the same mode. We lost Boeing families to Australia, but gained Barnes-Jewish Hospital folks from London, and Washington University families from New Jersey. The admission year again stretched into June, and because our admission director had confronted the early fall with optimism rather than panic (or at least played the part of the cheerful optimist), stayed light on her feet as she sprinted up the learning curve of each new trend, and became conversant with the schizophrenic personalities that appeared in her office on any given day, we were again fully enrolled.

I offer this essay as a job description of sorts, based on my general belief that everything one might learn about life is achievable through the game of baseball. Ten, perhaps even seven, years ago, an independent school would have been wise to seek a Jason Varitek of admission directors, a technician of each at-bat and architect of entire games using theories based on long study of trends and vulnerabilities. Today, such an admission director could be a liability if he or she weren’t able to adapt to a much subtler and unpredictable game. In fact, when Wakefield pitched, Varitek, the former Red Sox captain and All Star, typically gave over his duties to the second-string catcher, whose skills in catching the knuckleball were the central qualities of his recruitment to the team.

In an independent school today, the knuckleball catcher should be the starter.
Mike Vachow

Mike Vachow is head of Forsyth School (Missouri).