When our former Board Chair, Gerrit Vreeland ’61, made me promise before he retired from his post that I would take a sabbatical soon, I did not have a clear plan for how to accomplish his request even though I was exceedingly grateful for the offer. The idea of stepping away for three months, the typical amount of time granted to administrators and teachers in boarding schools, seemed incomprehensible considering how much I love the work I do, the ambitious goals we have for The Gunnery, and the rhythms of my family. Instead of coming up with a plan, I logged it in the back of my head last spring.
Then we entered the summer and I had a little more time than usual to think. I reviewed what I hope we will accomplish as a school over the next five to seven years, and what we’ve accomplished since 2012. I reviewed where our family is — this year we have an eighth grader, a sixth grader, and a third grader — and thought about the advice of many older, wiser parents, who have told me, “they just grow up so fast … don’t take these years for granted.”
I reflected, too, on the surprising wisdom of the premise of a book that was recommended to me by a series of people, Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek.” While almost entirely irrelevant to the normal work of boarding schools, the author’s essential point — that laboring intensely in the present for a distant payoff that is not guaranteed in any way — got my attention (and was reinforced by the acknowledgement that my mother passed away at 55, my uncle just died at 62, and a friend and fellow educator my age has advanced ALS). I reflected on the wisdom of the apostle Paul when he wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world …” And I reflected on a pattern our family already works hard to cultivate — that no matter how packed Monday through Saturday are, we keep Sundays as quiet and screen-free as we possibly can, so that we can focus on each other and recharge. We have seen over and over again how ultimately productive that “unproductive” time is.
Our family, like most others, is pulled in a lot of different directions, all of them very good. But we are less often in the same place at the same time without needing to accomplish a task. Typically, when we are, we really enjoy the time together, something I do not take for granted. And when we’ve traveled together, just the five of us, we’ve loved it — it’s been transformative for our family. Even though we get plenty of downtime in the summer, because of good things like camps, less and less of the time we have is just the five of us.
Combining that emerging reality with the wonderful but relentless pace of leading a 170-year old institution through growth and change, and a commitment to continue to do that for years to come, assuming the Board wants me to, plus consideration that once our oldest is in high school the ability to take her out of school for more than a few days becomes even harder, I decided that this year might be the last best opportunity to take advantage of our Board’s offer of a sabbatical. Rather than the full three months, I proposed that our family be away from campus from the Sunday before Thanksgiving through December 31, 2019, a window that would give us nearly 40 consecutive days together, but would only require me to miss two and a half weeks of school.
First, I had to get my wife on board. This was just a weird idea. Who takes their kids out of school and just leaves town? (Thankfully, some good friends at another school had given us something of a precedent for this.) What would it mean for her career and work as a writer and speaker? Thankfully, she said yes.
So our family will hop on a plane to my mother’s hometown of New Orleans early on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, getting us there just in time for kickoff as our beloved Saints take on the Panthers in the Dome. I want my kids to see Drew Brees and Sean Payton in action, especially in a season when they will defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, which they would have done last year had the ref not blown the call in the NFC Championship. After Thanksgiving with our family in New Orleans, we will travel through parts of the southeast, visiting major sites in American civil rights history. Then we will travel west and spend the balance of the time visiting cities and friends along the west coast, and hopping in an RV to visit national parks.
Obviously, it’s a tremendous privilege to be able to do this. It wouldn’t be possible without support from the Board and from the school’s leadership team. One of my big regrets is that, as a school, we don’t have a proper sabbatical program, something many schools do have — supported by endowed funds that allow the school to hire substitutes so that a faculty member or administrator can take three months to do something similar to this. It is something I hope to raise money for in the next few years, because it can be a great gift to folks who work so intensely to serve students.
Our hopes for this time include just enjoying each other as a family with minimal screen time by all of us. We love that our kids are growing up in a beautiful town of 3,500 people, but we really want to equip them with an understanding of the size, diversity and beauty of our incredible country. We want them to see and experience places in person and have time to process those experiences with them. We want them to know my family. And we want our kids to see that we do not always have to simply receive the patterns that culture deals us — to see that that has costs and tremendous benefits. For example, they are very sad to be missing Christmas at their grandparents’ house and the holiday concerts at school, and our oldest two will have schoolwork to complete while we travel. At the same time, we are mindful that, unless you interrupt the patterns and cultural assumptions that are handed to you, you can, unthinkingly, just fall into the ruts created by the people ahead of you.
I watched “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” too many times as a kid. Any fellow fan of that movie will remember the surprising wisdom of that Ferris: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” My family and I are grateful for the opportunity to do just that, grateful for the school that has allowed us to be part of it for more than seven years, and excited to return in 2020 to open the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center and set the course toward the demisemiseptcentennial (and beyond!) of Mr. Gunn’s school.