Touching Eternity

Winter 2016

By Adam Rohdie

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.                  - Henry Adams

As I examined the top three letters on the stack, I was struck by the return addresses: Palo Alto, California; Ontario, Canada; and South Australia. The remaining letters were no less diverse, ranging all across the United States and Europe. I was on the 16th floor of the Goodman Hospice Residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, writing return cards to the more than 100 people who had reached out to my mentor and dear friend John Hanly.

John had served as headmaster of the Pingry School (New Jersey), teacher and administrator at the Trinity School (New York), board member at the Dalton School (New York), and founding board member of New Jersey SEEDS, a nonprofit that places inner-city students in independent schools. The list goes on. John was the man who offered me my first job out of college. Through the years we stayed close, and, when John was in the final stages of Parkinson’s disease, I became a caretaker for him. The only thing that Parkinson’s had not yet taken from this vibrant, intellectual man of letters was his smile.

The more I pored over the correspondence stacked upon the hospital table in his room, the more I was moved by the content of these notes and letters. All shared emotional memories of experiences with John. These former students, former colleagues, and friends detailed his impact on them. As I fought back the tears, John was vacillating between deep sleep and the violent tremors often associated with Parkinson’s. After reading more than 50 tributes, a few clear themes emerged. I knew I had to share these powerful reminders, for they are signposts for all of us in education.

Never underestimate the power
of a small gesture. 

So many letters detailed a hallway conversation with John or a note, a gift, a gesture — innumerable small acts that had lasting and meaningful legacies for their recipients.

A former student currently living in Illinois wrote:

My journey was rocky at times — the depths and heights of adolescence. Through it all you were a constant — in the halls, at concerts, during assemblies. I knew — I always knew you were there advocating, encouraging, and inspiring. I still cherish the note you sent me after the school play; the very fact you took the time to write was almost more special than the words you wrote.

A former parent wrote:

I clearly remember that day in May of 2003 when Pingry’s varsity baseball team was playing in the county semi-finals. My son, then a freshman, struck out in his first at bat and he motioned to me to come down to the dugout. He then told me, “Dad, I can’t hit if I don’t fist bump with Hanly!” So I ran up in the stands to where you were sitting. You got up, walked down to the dugout, fist-bumped with Peter, and his next at-bat he rifled a line drive two-run single up the middle. In our family we still give that credit to you!

Another former student wrote:

Right before you left Pingry, you gave me the sign that hung in your office that reads, “Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply.” That same sign now hangs in my office. I work for a high-performing charter school network in Dallas, Texas. We serve over 12,000 students, the majority of whom are students of color living in poverty…. My success, my passion, and the change I make in the world can be attributed to you.

In his poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth describes the best part of a good man’s life as those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. While it would have been impossible for John to remember all of the individual acts of kindness that constituted his life, these acts shaped lives; they were remembered as cherished connections and pivotal moments.

When we train our successors, we ensure the future.

During John’s 12-year tenure at ­Pingry, he mentored half a dozen faculty members who went on to become heads of schools around the country. Many letters from former colleagues detailed the effect of his mentorship. Through John, they discovered education and administration as a vocation, a career — and an avocation, a calling.

One faculty member wrote:

I am writing this from my desk at Pingry. I came here and then stayed here because of you…. You taught me what leadership is; you taught me that as an administrator it is critical to have an open door; and you also — in a way that you may not even know — taught me about forgiveness and acceptance.

Another wrote:

There is not a day that goes by when I am teaching my drama classes or working in the theater that I don’t think of how all of this was your doing, that my professional life, as an English teacher and administrator and drama teacher — all of these I owe to your faith in me.

A third wrote:

As I near the end of my Ph.D. [program] and I look forward to what I hope will be a career in education, I’ve been thinking about all the gifts you have given me. The intellectual curiosity I was encouraged to develop, the love of learning, the rigorous approach to the work — I see those as the foundation of everything I’ve done since and what I hope to do in the future. If I can offer my students even a fraction of what you gave to all of us, I’ll consider myself a great success.

As heads of schools, we have the incredible responsibility to help create the next generation of independent school leaders. These letters reminded me once again that, as educators, we not only prepare students to meet their futures, but we also prepare our successors for the schools of tomorrow. I know that school leaders around the country take on this noble task day after day and are incredibly successful in the work they do.

I am finishing my 11th year as the headmaster of The Greenwich Country Day School (Connecticut). I know that I am not alone during those early mornings or late nights when school questions prove vexing or stressful. Yet I feel blessed for the 12 years I was able to work for and with a true “school man” who instilled his values in me. At his core, John knew that while learning the quadratic equation or how to diagram a sentence were important outcomes of the work we do, he also knew there was something much more important. He knew that great schools had the moral responsibility to produce young adults with a clear sense of right and wrong. He wanted his graduates to develop the skills to make wise and informed decisions — and to have the strength of character to stand by those decisions. These were the skills, John knew, that students needed in order to direct their own lives and to lead the good life that Plato so aptly described. John will be forever remembered for his personal honor and integrity and for the emphasis he gave to these pursuits in the schools where he worked. Today, Pingry offers an annual lecture series bearing his name; the lectures examine moral dilemmas.

I have never stopped learning from John. Just before he went into hospice care, I asked him to give me a list of the top 10 most important qualities he would look for in a head of school. He, of course, gave me 14!

John Hanly’s list:

  1. The eye to spot potential — to find the diamond-in-the-rough.
  2. The ability to stay cool under pressure.
  3. The confidence to say, “I don’t know the answer to the problem that you raise; I’ll have to think about it.”
  4. The willingness to share the credit but to shoulder the blame.
  5. A genuine delight in the success of the people who work for you.
  6. The ability to motivate and build a team.
  7. The discernment to know when to let someone go and when to give that person a second chance.
  8. The willingness to be thin-skinned at times in order to sense the pulse of the school; the strength to be thick-skinned at times in order not to overreact to criticism.
  9. Solid judgment based on experience, thoughtfulness, personal integrity, courage, and compassion.
  10. A passion for education, a respect for and love of teachers, and a delight in students.
  11. Engagement in life and all of its complexities, frustrations, and joys.
  12. The ability to inspire trust.
  13. The ability to take the long-term view, to distinguish what is important from what is merely urgent.
  14. Discretion, balance, and perspective.

I imagine a classroom in heaven where John is leading a discussion of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (his favorite). By envisioning that class, I am reminded once again that as educators we have an amazing job that comes with an awesome responsibility. I remember this passage from a letter that John wrote: “Every day teacher and student create a magic that is both fragile and permanent because both the teacher and the student will forever be a part of one another. This very dichotomy makes teaching such a mysterious act: the dichotomy that is almost invisible and yet can endure forever.”

As a final tribute to John, his former students created a Facebook page called Read to Mr. Hanly. Every year around the holidays, John would read Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (Wales is John’s birthplace), and so last December, 143 former students, colleagues, and friends each videotaped themselves reading a section of the story. When taken together as a collage of gratitude and appreciation, John would once again see and hear what we all must never forget: A teacher affects eternity.

Adam Rohdie

Adam Rohdie is headmaster at The Greenwich ­Country Day School (Connecticut).