I have been spending time with a gaggle of headmistresses in Savannah. We come, bedraggled, like birds whose wings are weighted with the gunk of February. Despite our pastel shades, we are falsely cheery, greeting each other with shrill chirps, though we are besieged by personnel dramas and enrollment predictions and facilities that demand continuous care. We fall upon one another, hungry birds around the feeder, craving camaraderie, war stories, some confirmation of reality. These are our people, our flock—these other wise heads whose good ideas are manna when we share, with quiet urgency, the dilemmas we face in our own schools. We could talk and talk and do until we retire by 8:45, drawn by our unread email, our own families left untended for a few days, drawn by the idea of a made bed in a sterile room where we do not have to be in charge of anything.
Today, on a large screen, photos bloomed of heads I loved, now gone: Stephanie, of course, and Joanne; Bob Klarsch, an old Eagles Mere friend; Clayton, who I knew first as Linda’s friend, always so kind, and then Dick Unsworth, my first head at NMH, social justice warrior, elder statesman. Dick’s face stayed on the screen as Bessie and her eloquent preacher husband, Tom, murmured blessings. Lives well-lived. People who led schools with grace and courage and dignity. And I knew all but one of them. When Stephanie’s face lit the screen, I was unprepared for the shock of seeing her, so full of life and love, so beautiful in her Harpeth Hall headshot that looked as if it could have been taken yesterday. Except it wasn’t. It was probably taken a few months ago, maybe even more than a year ago, but it is less than a month ago that she died.
Then several of us hug and dab our eyes and shake away the gloom and go out to explore Savannah. Except after our tour of SCAD, Kathryn and I never find the ferry stop, so our explorations end with quesadillas in a bar followed by a long talk with Penny and a nap. Then dinner. The second night we drop our guards even further. I share some things I’m worrying about, and Wendy and Joan and Nanci advise me, and I feel better. We weave through conversations, pulling threads, buoying one another’s spirits. Nesting—in a way. We know how to care-take, we school heads. We take care of one another, of the children in our schools, of their families, of our faculty and staff, of buildings that require deferred maintenances, of our boards and cranky neighbors and our own families and pets. We find worms and feed demanding gaping mouths one day after the next after the nest; we teach the young to fly. We fix nests destroyed by storms. We are in constant motion, we bird-like busy heads. In this space designed for restoration, we, briefly, rest on a branch, allow others to perceive the weight of all we carry in our tired beaks: worms, floss, twigs, mud.
“Set down, set down,” commands Lady Anne in her famous monologue in Richard III, but heads of school too rarely feel we have permission to set burdens down for long. Except when we’re with our flock, with that V of geese that know, intuitively, how to form, re-form, rest, and fly again. One drops from our formation; we take a new shape. We stutter, rest, rise, fly up, head North towards home, towards spring.