Land Ho

Some years ago, according to one of my colleagues, the then-headmaster of Woodberry Forest School leaned back in his chair at a faculty meeting and said, "We're pregnant. Twenty-four hours a day... for nine months."

That was his metaphor for the role of a WFS faculty member, and I don't think it's a bad one. Certainly by the end of May, the typical teacher is feeling bloated, exhausted, and ready to drop his class load no matter much discomfort may be involved. The problem is this: does it adequately describe a life when you've been pregnant twenty times?

That Duggar-like situation is the one in which I find myself now, entering the last month of my last year at Woodberry. I arrived in August of 1995 and promptly killed the rabbit. From Labor Day to Memorial Day, plus or minus a few days, I was in effect on call for something. Classes at WFS begin at 8:00 every morning but Sunday, when your first required appearance is at advisee dinner at 6:15 p.m. Classes end at 3:15 on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, at 12:30 on Tuesday and Friday, and at 11:00 on Saturday, but if you're coaching or directing, you'll be working after school as well. You have to supervise a dinner table every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evening, and once every eight days (or less, in some administrations) you're on dorm duty, which requires you to spend your evening supervising a dorm until 11:30 p.m. In effect, if you don't have a Saturday or Sunday duty, you may--MAY--have a weekly break from 11:00 Saturday morning until 6:00 Sunday evening. But that 31 hours doesn't leave you a lot of freedom, and you're always aware that you have to get back to work before the shadows get too long on Sunday.

And that's been my school-year schedule for the last two decades. The summers were often glorious, and I was sometimes able to get in a vacation during spring break as well, but the working week was relentless, and as I near the end of Year 20, I can't help trying to explain what it feels like to someone who hasn't done it.

Pregnancy may be a good metaphor, but I myself see a different metaphor at work. WFS is a small community of several hundred souls, one that is largely self-contained, having relatively little contact with the world at large, though we do have limited interactions with other such communities. We operate by strict rules that do not always apply outside its confines, and we have a clearly defined hierarchy of command. Each college-educated faculty member serves under higher-ranking (and typically more experienced) members and has the task of supervising newly-recruited young men without that education. Those young men sometimes resent our authority, as well as the strict discipline which we demand, but over time, we're usually able to show them how our system benefits them and the rest of the community. And eventually, after a tenure of several years, those young men embark for new horizons.

Basically, I'm in the navy.

The deck of the SS Woodberry is a mighty large one--1200 acres--but its officers are for the most part required to stay on it, except for occasional visits to port, where the ship's company is free to take shore leave. After a brief respite, however, we climb back up the gangplank and set sail once more. An awful lot of the life involves tying complicated knots, fretting about navigation, and barking orders at uncooperative young sailors, or even getting out the lash from time to time. You're provided with a berth and a trunk of your own, and the mess makes sure you won't go hungry, but you have to eat what the cook has prepared, and privacy is damn near impossible to come by, For every rich port you visit, there's a squall to get through, and occasionally you lose a man overboard. You have good shipmates who will look after you, but you leave behind all the friends you've known, and there's precious little time to visit them before you have to weigh anchor again.

It's been a good voyage, for the most part. I've seen whales spouting and heard the accents of many a foreign port since I signed on. But now I'd have to say it's time to disembark. I've spent too many years sleeping in this hammock, and I'm sick of hardtack and rum. After a twenty-year hitch, I need to be on dry land once more, to live among people who aren't in uniform, and to eat the fruits of my own labor.

I've still got a few days of sailing ahead, but I can already see hills rising ahead, and I look forward eagerly to walking them. And when I disembark for the last time, I'm going to listen to the humming of the bees, dig my hands down in the dirt beneath the grass, and feel the earth turning steadily beneath me.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 25, 2015 12:20 PM.

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