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In His Own Words: Advice from the headmaster

  • StPauls


  • StPauls

William A. Oates ran St. Paul’s School in Concord during a tumultuous time in the 1970s. He oversaw the introduction of coeducation and brought the arts into the curriculum. He eased the dress code and, in other ways too, worked to bring the tradition-bound school into the 20th century.

Oates has recently published a collection of his writing in a volume called Views from the Rector’s Porch, Lessons of a Headmaster. Amid weighty philosophical and educational topics, Oates also includes a handful of speeches given to students that provide a terrific window into life at St. Paul’s 40 years ago. Reprinted with permission from the author, here are a few samples:

Mandatory handshakes

It is a school custom, as we all know, that returning students at the start of a term shake hands with the rector. Many of you accomplished this yesterday between 5:30 and 6:30 in the Schoolhouse, but some of you did not come there.

When chapel is over, will those of you who did not come to the Schoolhouse last evening pursue me to the altar end of the chapel, where I shall be to complete this pleasant ritual.

– April 1, 1976

A date, at 6:50 a.m.

The word “visitation” connotes for St. Paul’s School a situation in which students may enter and be in dormitories of the opposite sex. Boys in girls’ dormitories; girls in boys’ dormitories. In the hallways, in the common rooms, and in the dormitory rooms. The Winter Term of 1971, when girls first arrived, had begun without visitation.

I must tell you of my good fortune in watching coeducation unfold. When I had moved into the rectory, I had constructed a small study on the second floor of the rectory, on top of the library. This area previously had been an unheated sun porch. From my desk I looked out on the Corner House, the flagpole, the center of the school – a wonderful perch from which to watch the busy crossroads of school life.

You may remember that the first 19 girls were housed in Corner. Immediately I noticed that the traffic in this area picked up, and at the same time slowed down. All day, but especially just before breakfast. At a quarter of 7, along would come a boy, kicking a stone, which always seemed to get lost in the snow or grass, necessitating a time-consuming search. Other boys would give close inspection to the bricks in the path or the work of the snowplow. The boys were hoping that, just by chance, a girl would emerge from Corner and they could walk with her to the Upper for breakfast.

One morning, at 11 minutes before 7, a boy arrived and waited nervously outside the Corner door. One minute early for his 10 of 7 date. At 9 minutes before 7 (suitably late one minute), a girl came out and the two headed for the Upper, happily talking. Imagine it! A date for breakfast at the Upper at 10 minutes before 7. What would the students and faculty of the 1890s have said?

– 1996

No blue jeans, jump suits

Neat, clean, in good repair: These continue as the important guiding words for our clothes.

I am going to ask you not to wear blue jeans or bib overalls or jump suits. I want boys to have a shirt of some kind that has a collar of some kind. Turtlenecks are satisfactory in this regard for informal wear, but not at seated meals. For the Winter Term, because of the cold weather, girls may wear nice slacks. You may wonder what “nice” slacks are. I am about to make a profound statement, in answer. The difference between nice slacks and other slacks is that nice slacks are nice. End of profound statement.

For seated meals, we shall continue with tie and jacket; for girls, skirts, dresses, pants suits or nice slacks. . . .

We still are left with something short of complete clarity. We continue to have to live with an ambiguous situation. This is not a source of regret. Many significant human situations cannot be defined with precision. In fact, most of life’s treasures are ambiguous. Learning to live with ambiguity is one of the important learnings for all students, and refining the capacity to deal with ambiguity is a never-ending task for adults . . . .

Have a good vacation. You will return from your mothers neat, clean, and in good repair. I hope we can all struggle hard to stay that way.

– December 13, 1971

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