Ways up and Ways Down

Spring 2016

Shortly before sunrise, on a Friday in early June 2015, I met up with a handful of Berkshire School seniors at a crossroads in the middle of campus. South Pinnacle is a fairly challenging hike that offers amazing views of the campus, the southern Taconic range and flatlands to the east, and the graduation-day sunrise, weather allowing. The ascent is lovely and as straightforward as could be, given the meandering trail and elevation changes. The path goes past white pine and eastern hemlock at the trail head, transitions through forest of mixed hardwood — mainly birch and maple — and reaches the peak among pitch pine and mountain ash. This hike had become part of the unofficial graduation curriculum to the extent that it appeared annually on a dean-distributed spreadsheet of “things we need coverage for.”

But the students gathered at the crossroads had a different intention: to ascend Black Rock, a less strenuous climb that nevertheless offers lovely morning views of the campus and the hills beyond. Black Rock, although it abuts our campus, also happens to be off limits for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is a nesting area for the feared but protected Eastern Timber Rattlesnake. The students’ goals and mine, in other words, overlapped in spirit but diverged in the details.

Given that we had convened at the very cusp of graduation season, one sensed at that moment a veritable rucksack full of Frostian connections. Two paths diverged at the base of a mountain, right? I could convince them to join me in summiting South Pinnacle, or I could join the seniors on their jaunt to Black Rock. Although there actually seemed to be three options, for me at least, as I could bid them well and strike out alone.

The first “path” — get them to change their destination — had merits, but the seniors’ foggy mental state and casual physical array, plus the fact that they had already made a plan compelling enough to get them out of bed early after a very late night, led me to conclude that my persuading them was both unlikely and unfeeling. This was their graduation day, after all, not mine. The second option — go with them to their intended destination — was appealing given the fact that I was close to a number of the pre-dawn hikers. But it seemed to me that rather than safeguarding an older, institutionally sanctioned route, I would then be interloping on their organic (albeit unsanctioned) rite of passage. Strike two.

I reminded this hardy handful that the hike they were planning was “out of bounds.” An awkward silence followed in which they waited for further instructions, explanations, or prohibitions. None was forthcoming. “You’re seniors,” I smiled. “Be careful.” The next steps they took, after their conversation with me on that misty morning, would truly be their own. Given that Berkshire’s Latin motto translates roughly as “Not for school but for life,” our pre-dawn encounter could be slotted in pretty neatly with that larger objective. So we parted, to reunite six hours later, in the echoing chill of a hockey rink-cum-events-facility, they clad in their green graduation robes and caps and I donning my dementor-like doctor’s garment.

The afternoon before, on the last class day of the year, I had witnessed a huge outpouring of applause earned by a colleague who, after 36 years, had left his classroom in Berkshire Hall for the last time. That figure puts him just a shade more than twice my length of service in independent schools. Eight hours later, at Prize Night, a colleague of about half my tenure had earned the Seaver Buck Faculty Award, the greatest honor bestowed upon a member of the faculty, for his many contributions to school life.

Like this amateur alpinist and the summiting seniors on graduation morning, each of these educators had faced opportunities and obligations over the course of their years at Berkshire School and tried to hew to the path that both suited the contingencies of the moment and reflected the core aspects of their personalities: to do the right thing, in other words, in a manner that was also true to themselves. Taken together, the pedagogical style of these individuals could hardly be more different.

The retiree was the proverbial sage on the stage, a teacherly type more familiar in independent schools a generation ago. He taught legions of Berkshire students U.S. History and Constitutional Law, and his anecdotally dense lectures were the stuff of legend. He had also served as an inspired and inspiring coach, winning New England championships in multiple sports across several decades, largely by force of personality and the devotion of his teams. In addition, he put in multiple decades as head writer, executive producer, and emcee for Trivia Night, a massive on-air event that helped us all survive the late winter in the Berkshires.

As our head of school had noted in remarks celebrating this colleague’s impact at the school, he was the sort of teacher whom students lined up to learn from (“You have to take Gulotta,” ran the refrain) and alums called in to inquire about (“Will Mr. Gulotta be at the event?” they often asked). Bill Gulotta’s legacy runs deep, and it was difficult on that June morning to imagine this school without him.

My younger colleague, who also happens to be my department head and a good friend, provides a study in contrasts. His institutional achievements have been more often situated behind the scenes than on the stage. As one of the architects of the All-School Read program, he has had a broad but subtle impact through a signature program. As the deft overseer of a dynamic but difficult cadre of educators, he continues to push the English Department to enhance our curriculum and to deliver it in better ways. As a teacher, coach, advisor, and dorm parent, Stuart Miller continues to win kids over with great listening and a well-placed word (occasionally sarcastic) or note of encouragement.

How, I wondered, would these colleagues have responded to my early morning challenge? I suspect that Bill Gulotta would have challenged the near-graduates to rise to the opportunity and join him in summiting South Pinnacle; regaled them with tales of alpine misadventure and merriment; and thanked them profusely at the journey’s end. By force of will, he would have battled to preserve a legacy and, along the way, imprinted themselves, and himself, with yet another iconic moment. Stuart Miller, on the other hand, would have turned the question back on the students. What were their goals for the morning? What did they hope to take away from their very last student experience on the mountain? In the face of his inquisition, they likely would have stuck with the lower, “off limits” destination and scrambled to the top of Black Rock but done so with a clearer sense of their own accomplishment and initiative.

In a way, the pedagogical styles of these professionals complement each other beautifully, and the hypothesis that came into view as I gazed toward and beyond Berkshire that morning is that any great school will celebrate, and cultivate, each style in equal measure. Too much of the former and the institution becomes a kind of museum — a shrine to multiple cults of personality whereby the purveyors of same can easily lose track of the shared sense of purpose that binds their efforts together. Too much of the latter, and the institution can lose energy and, ultimately, a sense of itself. (Parents may choose schools based on programming, but students remember and celebrate schools based on personalities.)

The view from South Pinnacle was clear as the sun rose, and I suspected that the seniors (for that final day) were also rewarded with a fine perspective. With graduation looming in the late morning, and numerous post-graduation obligations for each of us, the way ahead lay below. Some of that morning’s mountaineers were lucky enough to have learned at the hand of both of these modern masters. Even if they hadn’t taken their classes, played on their teams, lived in their dormitories, or dined at their advisory tables, all had benefited from Mr. Gulotta’s and Mr. Miller’s myriad contributions to the cultural fabric of the school. Whether my colleagues were awake at this hour, I couldn’t say, but their lessons, and their examples, informed our footsteps as teacher and students as we trudged or trotted into the day.