On the windowsill in my office, a large Ficus tree defies the odds, stretching its glossy leaves towards the window. It is a vestige of my New York City life, when I was the head of College Guidance, not the Head of School. Most days, I ignore it, shading piles of books, towering behind a laundry basket full of hand puppets, nestled in the corner. From time to time, though, I smile at its history – my history. We wheeled it on a dolly into a moving van fourteen years ago and heaved it into its current location. My husband rooted it from a cutting. Now, I feel rooted to this school, the people in it, even – especially? – to my messy desk. My desk, an earlier headmistress’ vanity, is large enough only for my laptop and piles of folders and papers. The counter behind me is piled with stacks of books and photographs of my three children, none of them recent.
I rarely speak to people from behind my desk, but come out to the sitting area: a celery colored couch, two bright pink chairs, and my grandmother’s slipper chair, also brought from NYC, upholstered to look like a peppermint candy. A butler’s table holds a few school publications, a box of tissues tucked underneath because sometimes people cry when they are with the Head of School. Behind the sitting area is a round table – I don’t sit at it much but do sometimes use it for lunch dates. It is home to the cookie jar that I keep filled with candy for the Upper School girls who are allowed to take a piece of candy if they stop by to say hello to me. A tiny papier mache woman flying a kite is suspended from a wire above the table to remind me that school is meant to be joyful.
Looking at the woman and her kite, I remember working at my desk late one afternoon in the first year of my headship when I looked up to see a retiring faculty member at the door. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” she murmured. I don’t often feel the crown’s weight. Sometimes, being in charge is heavy and lonely, but much more often, I forget I am wearing a crown at all. In my fourteen years of leading this school, I’ve learned that any decision, even a poor one, may be better for an institution than no decision. When we – for I rarely make a decision alone – get it wrong, we say so and we make another decision, fixing the plane as we fly it. We’re not doing brain surgery; we’re running a school.
Headship is never boring. It is often fun and occasionally quite stressful. But it’s also the best job I’ve ever had in its infinite variety. In a single day, I will teach 9th grade English, talk with my Associate Head about new initiatives, meet with the Division Directors about how we characterize academic excellence, think with the Parents Association Board about their plans for the year, attend a Board Committee meeting on Equity and Inclusion, confer with the Upper School deans about vaping, write notes to three alumnae because we are gearing up for a campaign and I want them to feel connected to the school, proof seven college recommendations, and host a party for new parents – and that’s only what’s actually on the calendar! There are always unexpected situations that pop up, derailing or shifting my day without warning.
As a young teacher, I used to watch our Head pass through the cafeteria, hoping she might join us at lunch. I was always curious to see her expressions at an assembly. Now, occasionally, I’ll look up from a meeting to see someone watching me. It’s a curious phenomenon, headship – I am still myself, but as the leader, I am also a symbol. People place on me their feelings about authority and leadership. My job is to shine light on others, to give credit for great ideas, to smile and be interested in those who surround me. If I walk down the hall scowling, there’s the possibility a teacher might think I am angry with her, so I try to school my features, to prevent stress or worry from following me out of my office.
Mine is a wonderful, complicated, fascinating job. To shape the culture of a school whose mission resonates; to work with brilliant, brave colleagues; to witness the lives and learning of remarkable girls and boys; and to serve a Board that is tireless in their desire to improve and support our school – these are the threads that make up the fabric of my everyday life.