It often begins well before sunrise, that dark time when I’m tempted to grab my headlamp but, in waning moonlight, end up trusting my feet to know the way to our meeting place: up walkway, over speed bump and curb, across the old recess baseball field (now the Upper School lawn), onto the sandy walk between the library and that dorm, behind it and down to the parking lot tucked under eucalyptus still ghosted by not-quite-light. I’m usually walking the final steps as Karleanne’s headlights swing around the corner of Perimeter Road, spotlighting Theana, who’s snuck out of her house before the kids wake up. (Blossom’s off on sabbatical this year, or she’d be here, too.) Dennis Shives—artist, naturalist, friend of the School—is apparently ahead of us, his old white VW tucked into the space just at the edge of the barranca. We say our good mornings in soft, froggy voices and begin our hour of together time—a hike that takes us through the creek bed then the gauntlet of avocado orchard, around the bend by Katherine’s house (Boon, Atticus, and Ruby still asleep), over the bridge spanning what I think of as Bear Gully, out past arenas and gymkhana fields and cow pen, and up into the hills on the Hoyt-Isaacson trail. We talk of children (our own, those we teach), of the news out there, of extended family far away (for most of us), of personal and professional challenges we want another’s perspective on. We warn each other about snakes on the trail, exhilarate to spot a bear lumbering up a hill nearby. Sometimes we drift into silence, a space in which we hear the barn owls’ gentle hoot or the movement of horses down in Diamond Hitch, well below the trail.
Hiking in the hills at dawn replaced early a.m. Zumba for me a few years ago, when my right knee began complaining audibly. In some ways, I miss it: Zumba was great for pre-workday laughs—roll-on-the-dance-studio-floor kind of laughing when one of us looked completely ridiculous bouncing up and down to Lady Gaga or when we simply crashed into each other—all of our moves doubled by virtue of an entire mirrored wall. Of that crew, Maria, Kara, Megan, and I remain; Liz—three decades younger than I, a firecracker of a young teacher—headed off to another teaching job (day school in a city—completely understandable). Gallia (dance studio=her territory) was, I recall, an excellent sport about our occasional absent mindedness in not turning off all of the stereo components. And we never once wondered why she chose not to join us: surely it was too, too painful to watch our flailing.
But exercise is a red-herring blog topic. This entry is not about early morning dedication to fitness. It’s the beginning of a stab at what collegiality means in a boarding school. Nearly all Thacher faculty members live on campus, as a condition of our employment: we’re expected to be available to students for anything from comma splice and paragraph coherence intervention to polynomial deconstruction to disappointment processing (didn’t make varsity or get the lead in the play) or—more significantly, loss-coping (the family cat, a grandparent). And living on a small campus in what are, effectively little neighborhoods, we do know each other’s habits: Peter leaves for formal dinner at 6:07pm most evenings (just about simultaneously with Marvin, when he was alive); Alice goes out for her morning walk-the-block at 7 (sometimes with me; we think of it as more time to talk teaching craft). Cooper climbs in the back seat of the Sullivans’ Honda Pilot at around 8:45am or so, depending on last-minute costume changes astronaut to knight, or a “just one more minute” to climb in the bushes near the WLT building. Between 11:15 and 11:27am, Michael dashes into his house in academic day attire and emerges 3.5 minutes later in running gear ready to devote half his lunch break to running the trails. (Oh, wait. He’s not my neighbor.)
You might presume that this means we in-the-trenches faculty are all de facto besties, that we know each other very well. It’s not necessarily true. I’ll go out on a limb and say that we all certainly respect each other, but, in fact, one of the evolving balancing acts we all spend energy on is on that narrow beam between public and private. In this sense, then, our collegiality really is grounded in the concept in Roman law of “college”—a body of persons, not fewer than three, associated together by the possession of common function. The word was first known to be used in 1887, which was just about the time Sherman Day Thacher was packing for California and poised without knowing it to chance into the school business. It was initially applied to bishops, but trace the word back through collegial to college, Middle English to Anglo-French to Middle French to (tah dah, big surprise) Latin, and you’ll find the root: col- col- + lēg-, variant stem of legere to gather+ -ium -ium.
There it is, in all its elegant simplicity: to gather.
But why? For what purpose? The answer to that is simple, too: The School exists for the benefit of its students. From this principle flows all else: trustees, administration, faculty, alumni, support staff, physical facilities, endowment, annual giving, and the budget. (Neither Olympus goddess Mary Loney nor I can remember the source, but she has it posted at her desk.) And “all else” flows predictably and bountifully in the direction of our helping students fulfill Thacher’s mission, to practice “the art of living for their own greatest good and for the greatest good of their fellow citizens in a diverse and changing world.” There is our “common function,” what Oskar Schell (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) calls an “ultimate raison d’être—the raison that was the master over all the other raisons”—and why we get up every morning of the school year.
Of course, not everyone exactly bounds out of that warm bed, but my observation is that once we’re all awake, we do really bring it—to our classrooms and labs and to court and field and stables, to one-on-ones with our students and advisees, to dorm staff meetings, faculty meetings, department meetings, cohort meetings, proofreading meetings, to formal dinner, dorm events, Open House, dances, coffeehouses. I am so often so proud to witness my fellow teachers in action. And in more action. And action in the 14th working hour of the day.
In the midst of our whirlwindy lives, then, collegiality is played out in small, often behind-the-scenes gestures, not random acts of kindness and generosity:
“You’re in a bind (sick child, TOAD ER-run, emergency root canal)? I’ll cover your class/community service/dorm duty/room inspection/formal dinner table.”
“Need any extra help at Open House?”
“No worries. I’ll host that Anacapa Visiting Artist for breakfast.”
“Sure, happy get you another copy [of what I just gave you last week, which you somehow lost].”
“Need milk? We overbought this week.”
“Do you need anything at Costco?”
Yes, when you live where you work, collegiality looks a lot like neighborliness: we help each other find missing dogs and kids, we do block parties and host post-lecture receptions, we even occasionally borrow cups of sugar or gluten-free flour. We hire each other’s children for odd-jobs, sign up for good causes–$.50/lap or a pack of holiday wrapping paper (more tube than paper, but whatever)–greet them at the door when they arrive on October 31 in a facbratpack as Princess Leias, Power Rangers, peapods, little lions-in-arms.
Sometimes, serendipity provides the link. One Sunday last year, as one of the ‘Burb drivers for the 12th graders’ Senior Exhibition research trek to the Cal State Channel Islands library, I spent more time in conversation with Donald Okpalugo than I had in the two years prior. At supper on the way home, over a fully loaded Five Guys Little Cheeseburger (my order; you guess his, if you know Donald) at The Collection, we talked about all kinds of things not-School. I left the place with a broader sense of who this history teacher is, what life experiences he brings to his students and teams. Knowing him even this tiny bit better made me the sadder to see him leave Thacher at the end of the year. (Like Liz, to a bigger city day school.)
Collegiality deepens exponentially when we join in professional development to-gather. A recent on-site workshop—the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking—brought to the table 19 teachers representing all academic departments. We all wanted the same thing: to understand better how writing practices can support our teaching and energize our students’ learning—and we were willing to be students ourselves to do it, to go through the exercises, vulnerable and often unsure. In writing our minds and hearts out and then reading our own responses aloud, we held hands and jumped off the cliff together, a moment when our essential presumption of good will in each other as professionals became vibrant and real, revitalizing to all of us, teachers and people. When it comes to What it Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use (a poem we worked with the second day of the workshop), we don’t always agree, but we always, always agree to be at the table.
On a recent trip to visit a colleague in the hospital, I was joking around with him, easily familiar despite my actually being far closer friends with his wife, another colleague. The nurse working in the room was puzzled and stopped in her tracks to ask, “What. . . what is your relationship, exactly, to Mr. Berigan?” I froze, thinking I perhaps wasn’t supposed to be in the middle of the action as she was getting him ready for physical therapy, that I hadn’t been cleared properly by hospital personnel to be fist-bumping with the patient. I backed away. She laughed, “No, no, you’re fine. I’m just trying to figure it out. I mean, you seem more like. . . family than friends.”
Colls. It’s a term that Jake Jacobsen, in one of his many roles (chair of the English Department, dean of faculty) came up with a long while back as a form of address in his emails. Dear colls: he’d write.
I get it now, much more than I did then. Dear colls. An adjective and a nick-noun, and a term of endearment.