Ships in the Night

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879c8e91 f84d 4800 a58f 22b0ea24155dWinter is over, and in the Northeast it is well and truly coming on to Mud Time. Gray is the color of the day and will remain so until there are once again flowers. There will be flowers, hard as it may be to imagine them today.

If we can’t have flowers yet, what we can do is hold in mind those fading images of our campuses in the snow, little winter wonderlands that one day nestle snugly in the lambent light of a thin winter overcast and the next gleam in exhilarating contrast to snow-covered fields and trees on a crisp, clear sunny morning.

But, cold and inconvenience notwithstanding, there is almost nothing more transcendentally beautiful than a snow-covered boarding school campus at night. Twinkling streetlights along walkways, the enticing glow of spotlights at building entrances, and rows of warm yellow room lights create a spectacle that is almost magic. If ice dams and canceled games don’t spoil the spell, the leaders and faculty and even the students can’t help but think, in the loveliness of it all, that all is well with the world.

Even from a distance, the effect can be stunning. With so many schools indeed built on hilltops, or in idyllic vales, or even just apart from small-town “greens,” there is a specialness to campus vistas that schools work hard to enhance and to emphasize in their visual materials. Never is the specialness more apparent than when the campus appears, from afar, like a great well-lighted cruise ship, sliding serenely through the night toward its destination.

If you’ve had enough of my metaphors, you’re onto something. We have other images of “ships passing in the night,” and we avert our minds from pondering, even for a quick moment, the visual image of the sinking Titanic. I’ll not dwell on the latter, but as for passing in the night—noticing but scarcely acknowledging—there is a truth that is worth considering.

Schools pride themselves, for some good reasons, on being places apart. On their campuses values reign, or are intended to reign, supreme, overpowering the selfishness and amorality of the world beyond. With their monastic heritage, boarding schools try to live their missions, their values, and their mottoes, unsullied as much as they can be by the World.

We are learning, of course, that too much separation is a bad thing for our schools and for our students. Civic and community engagement are watchwords these days, and good schools mean them as something more than superficial “community service.” More and more schools are seeking partnerships with public schools and community-based organizations, consciously trying to undercut that “School on the Hill” and “world apart” identity. We know that our students will and must know how to live and work in the real world, however much we may value the good things that come from being intentional residential communities.

But two months after the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference in Boston I find myself thinking that schools separate themselves, at their peril, in other ways. Too often we allow rivalries to keep us from talking to one another as educators, and in particular as educators with unique experiences that we need to capture, document, and share not just with our colleagues after faculty meetings on Monday nights but with larger communities—at conferences, yes, but in other ways, as we can find them: in Twitter chats, as bloggers, as authors for educational journals, as spokespersons for our schools, for our students—and even for ourselves.

We also sometimes separate ourselves from ideas. Perhaps tired of fads that have come and gone, we can cocoon ourselves in conscious rejection of the latest in educational research and learning—even rejecting the idea that “data,” a term we can say we hear way to often lately, might even help us do our jobs better if we learn to notice and learn from what we already have. We can call our work a calling, an art, a craft, something transcendentally beyond quantification or even definition, but we can always learn new ways to improve our craft and make our calling that much more satisfying. Autonomous our schools may be as institutions, but we cannot let notions of “classroom autonomy” continue to isolate us from the greater educational world, its ideas, and even sometimes its turmoil.

I’m not saying that that image of the lonely ocean liner on a dark sea, with its echo of ships passing in the night and even catastrophe, means that we’re all going to strike icebergs and founder like the Titanic. But I will suggest, conscious of a metaphor now stretched to the breaking point, that there are unseen forces—perhaps more like the submarine that sank the Lusitania—that require our attention if we are each to complete our figurative voyages.

Lovely as an illuminated campus may be on a winter’s night, we have to acknowledge that the visual image is just one rather superficial aspect of a school’s being and purpose, one pretty picture that is only a backdrop for the real work we do. The metaphors the image evokes must remind us that, even if our buildings and grounds are not quite in the world, that our vision, like our students and ourselves, must necessarily be of the world, and more critically, to exist and to be expressed and enacted for the world. Together, we must be a convoy, an armada, on a mission to protect and enhance that world.


Peter Gow, Communications and Publications Coordinator, will be guiding AISAP in an enhanced communications plan and in the creation of new publications that will showcase best practices, new ideas, and current issues. A long-time independent school teacher, administrator, and consultant with deep roots in academic program development as well as branding and marketing, Peter will be familiar to many members as a regular contributor to Independent School magazine and an indefatigable blogger for Education Week and EdSocialMedia as well as his own main blog, Not Your Father’s School. Contact Peter at [email protected]

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