For math teacher Vanessa Cohen Gibbons, creating a supportive, inclusive environment for all Milton students is both challenging and gratifying.
Nearly every stranger who engages me in small talk expresses alarm when I tell them my profession. “You teach high school math AND live in a dorm?” is a typical reaction — often accompanied by a horrified facial expression. I answer in the affirmative, without describing the dozen or so other roles I have on campus. I then follow up with a question about why they are so shocked.
By and large, the people I meet cannot see themselves returning to a high school environment, because they remember feeling alienated as students, both from the subject matter they were asked to learn and from their peers and teachers. It is hard for these acquaintances to understand that the toughest challenge I face — fostering connection — is also the best part of my job. For me, every day at Milton presents an opportunity to help students feel loved by their school.
I know how it feels to go to a school that is not a loving environment. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a biracial black girl in an otherwise all-white neighborhood. St. Louis is a typical American city in that it affords vastly different opportunities to people depending on their race and socioeconomic status. In middle school, I was no longer one of just a few black kids because my district participated in a busing program. Black students were bundled up and transported in the wee hours of the morning to “better” schools in St. Louis County.
Our “better” school certainly did not love these students. In fact, I remember one white teacher who told me as much. She confided that my relatively light skin and suburban upbringing made me “one of the good ones.” With a long sigh, she complained that none of the teachers knew how to deal with “those black kids from the city.” As horrific as this was, I knew, even as a child, that this teacher meant to pay me a compliment. That interaction served as one of my first lessons about the insidious nature of racism.
In high school, the lack of a loving school environment began to affect my work. I was the only out gay kid in a school of 2,000 and the only black kid in my honors classes. After my middle-school experience, I wondered about the gatekeepers who put me in honors classes. Did they give me these opportunities because I was “one of the good ones”? A few months into freshman year, my locker was graffitied with a homophobic slur, and I was hauled into the principal’s office to explain what I had done to provoke the other students. The principal seemed genuinely concerned as he offered me this advice: “You should try to be normal; then no one would bother you.” I felt hopelessly lost. I could ignore people who obviously meant me harm, but I had no framework for understanding the behavior of adults who made hateful statements without even knowing it. My grades plummeted. By the end of the year I had decided that I would do my learning elsewhere, and ultimately lobbied to fulfill my high school requirements at a community college.
I still think about what would have happened to me had I been more vulnerable to the racist and homophobic messages I received from my schools. What if I had internalized those messages rather than decided that the people delivering them were wrong? What if I hadn’t had the privilege of taking my learning into my own hands? I would probably not have been able to endure my undergraduate physics program, where I was the only black student and one of a handful of women. I would not have earned a Ph.D., nor would I teach at a school like Milton Academy. How many people are denied these opportunities? And what can I do with this access now that I have it?
These questions helped shape my professional motivation. My primary goal is to help Milton become a school that gives all its students access and opportunity by, first and foremost, knowing and loving each child.
Loving our students is a prerequisite for expanding opportunity, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how a school would demonstrate that if it truly loves its students. A loving school affirms marginalized identities, roots out bias, and helps community members learn to mitigate the effects of their bias — regardless of their intentions. A school that loves its students ensures that advanced classes have students from all backgrounds, and that no demographics are underrepresented. A loving school has an adult population that reflects the students’ identities, from faculty and staff to the highest levels of the administration and the board. A school that loves its students holds them to high expectations while also treating them with the tender care that all children crave. In a loving school, students are listened to, cheered for, disciplined, and respected. These ideals drive my personal work as an educator, and I see them as imperative to our continued success as an institution. At Milton, with our resources, credentials, and reputation, our priority must always be to love our students.
Suzanne DeBuhr, a faculty member in Milton Academy’s history department and director of spiritual and community development, shares her story of loss, discovery, and solace.
In the religion of Buddhism, the first noble truth is the truth of suffering.
In late February 2018, Chris, the husband of my friend Kate, sent me a text informing me that Kate was in the hospital with pneumonia. Oh no, I thought. Just a month before, Kate had finished chemotherapy and radiation, undertaken as a “precaution” to make sure that all the cancer the doctors had removed in surgery was gone. The scan she had after the treatment indicated that her body was clear.
A week after Chris’s text, my friend Jenny called in a panic and asked if I had seen the news on Facebook. No, I don’t do Facebook. Apparently, the doctors had misdiagnosed Kate’s pneumonia. The cancer was back, and it was aggressively attacking Kate’s lungs. Kate, my friend of 33 years, whom I met in the summer between fourth and fifth grade when we took flute lessons together, was dying. I made plans to get to Chicago as soon as possible.
The second noble truth is the truth that suffering is caused by desire.
My parents, who still live in the suburbs of Chicago in the same house in which I was raised, picked me up at the airport when I arrived on a Friday afternoon. When we pulled into the driveway, I didn’t even enter the house. I just took my mom’s car and drove to the hospital.
Kate was in her room, slumped over, sleeping in a chair. She woke up after a few minutes, recognized that I was there, but wasn’t able to hold a conversation. She was constantly moving—standing up and sitting down, pacing, or rocking back and forth in her chair. She was attached to an IV—as I understood it, a morphine drip with regular doses of anti-anxiety medicine.
We can never fully know the internal thoughts and feelings of another, so in that moment with Kate, I couldn’t know if she was feeling pain, if she was scared, or if she even knew what was happening to her body. In that moment, all I knew was that I wanted to have my old friend Kate back: the Kate with whom I could commiserate with on the state of U.S. politics; the Kate who was raising her girls to be strong, independent women; the Kate whose own openness allowed me to embrace vulnerability and accept her compassion.
The third noble truth is the truth that suffering can cease.
I returned to the hospital before dusk the following day with another high school friend, Lisa. We found Kate lying in bed, her eyes closed, her breathing labored but steady. She looked peaceful. We sat with her, holding her hands, one of us on either side of her. We reminisced about our collective friendship and caught up with one another. When Chris returned, we started to plan out the day and how we would handle visitors.
And then Kate’s breathing changed. It became more abrupt, less frequent, and shallow. The nurse walked in and told us it would be soon. We needed to say good-bye. I told Kate I loved her, that it was OK to let go, and that I would always be part of her family. Within minutes, Kate stopped breathing.
The fourth noble truth is the eightfold path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Ever since Kate’s death, rarely does a day go by when I don’t think of her in some way. Strangely, I almost feel her presence more palpably now than I did when she was alive. It’s as if the physical space she occupied kept her presence limited, and once she was no longer confined by a body, she could be present across space and time.
In early March of this past academic year, almost exactly a year since Kate’s death, when my students and I had just finished reading the Dhammapada, a foundational Buddhist text enumerating the Buddha’s teachings, I posed the following question: Is Buddhism compatible with love? After some thought, a couple of students chimed in and reasoned that Buddhism was not compatible with love, because love is defined by desire and attachment, and Buddhism teaches us to overcome desire and cultivate detachment. According to the reasoning they provided, they were right. Buddhism would be incompatible with this kind of love. At the same time, I would argue that they were also wrong. In my view, Buddhism is compatible with love—the kind of love that is expressed through compassion and kindness.
This conversation with my students got me thinking about my friend Kate and my dog, Zoey, who also died in the spring of last year. Because when I think about what helped me to endure these losses, my answer is love. In my own movement through grief and sadness, I have come to realize that love is both a feeling and a practice. Love is the practice not of holding on tight but of letting go. Love is the practice of respecting others for who they are in their fullest selves, not for whom we want them to be. Love is the practice of kindness, of holding doors and saying “thank you” and “please,” a recognition of the humanity we share with all others who live on this planet. In the practice of love, we cultivate an awareness of the interdependence of our existence with the natural world and the rest of humanity, we acknowledge the certainty and inevitability of change, and we surrender our ability to control people, nature, and circumstance.
In a way, the eightfold path could be interpreted as a path of love and compassion, in which love and compassion serve as a mindset that encompasses all the other aspects of the path and asks us to approach each experience with an attitude of love. I wonder, how would our relationships and our ideas about the world change if we approached everything—people, nature, discourse—with a loving and compassionate mindset? Would we be able to see that in loving another we actually develop love for ourselves? Would we have within our reach a world that is more forgiving, more open, and more kind? I don’t know, and I don’t know that we will ever have the opportunity to test out this hypothesis. What I do know is that the practice of love and compassion, although it did not diminish the pain of losing my friend Kate and my dog, Zoey, enabled me to be present to the reality of their suffering, to abide with them as they took their final breaths, and to carry them with me through my grief and in gratitude for the love we practiced together.
“Seeing practitioners’ work in their craft is great for students, and the pieces on exhibit draw them into conversation with us about their own work,” says visual arts department chair Ian Torney ’82. “Practice What You Teach” was the second iteration of an exhibit by faculty members since 2012, Ian’s first year at Milton. This fall’s show was dedicated to former faculty member Kay Herzog of the English department, who died on February 18, 2018. “Kay was a key progenitor of the arts program at Milton as it exists today,” Ian explains. “She wrapped creative writing into the program, and Milton was one of the first institutions with such a requirement for graduation. Phillips Andover was another.”
The 2012 exhibit included works by people who were Ian’s teachers at Milton and have since retired, such as Anne Neely, Gordon Chase, Bryan Cheney and Paul Menneg. New members of the department bring concentrations in a range of fields, from printmaking and digital art through photography, sculpture, graphic design, and filmmaking. Ian felt that this exhibit would demonstrate that the faculty are multigenerational, practicing artists. He believes in the incentive power of an upcoming show for individual artists and maintains a personal goal of exhibiting his work at least annually.
“Practice What You Teach” closed with a working visit to campus by the well-known art critic Jed Perl. Mr. Perl is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. He was the art critic for the New Republic for 20 years and a contributing editor to Vogue for a decade. His books include Magicians and Charlatans, Antoine’s Alphabet, and New Art City.
Mr. Perl spoke to students, faculty, parents and alumni at Milton’s “Evening with the Arts,” an event dedicated to Kay Herzog. He was the 2018 Melissa Dilworth Gold visiting artist. The Melissa Dilworth Gold ’61 Visiting Artist Fund brings nationally recognized artists to campus so that students may benefit from dynamic interaction with inspirational and accomplished professionals.
“Practice What You Teach” Exhibitors
Nicole Darling ’97
Ian Torney ’82
David Smith, chair of Milton’s English department for 11 years and faculty member from 1981 through 2015, describes his recently published book, Be a Teacher, as “a memoir in 10 ideas.” David crafts the irresistible essays in his book with artfully rendered scenes, lively and idiosyncratic characters, unfailing wit and unfettered honesty. From his exploration of ideas about teaching and learning as they evolved over decades of experience, Milton Magazine excerpts:
Shakespeare was my own first literary love affair (not counting Hornblower and the space operas of Heinlein and Bradbury), and whenever I start teaching a play it is like renewing an old, old relationship, one that can be set aside and picked up again without a missed beat. Like most relationships, though, it is more complicated than it at first seems — or, at least, it has a history. The pure linguistic intoxication that I felt when I imbibed Richard II in the spring of 1958 is still with me, but many of the plays seem to have shifted shape over time. Today I can scarcely believe how much slack I once cut King Lear, how ready I was to accept his self-serving claim to be a man “more sinned against than sinning,” and how I idealized the priggish daughter who is so hung up on telling the truth that she provokes a deadly familial war. When I watch Paul Schofield, in the Peter Brook movie, heave over a table in Goneril’s refectory and send the plates and cutlery flying, I think that Schofield and Brook (and the Fool) have got it right: it’s too bad this tantruming toddler became old before he became wise. Why ever did I choose to overlook such egregious bad behavior?
The play that has changed the most for me, however, is that ultimate canonical work, Hamlet, with which I became obsessed as a junior in college. I identified with the Prince, who seemed to me like a more romantic and more eloquent version of Holden Caulfield. I relished both his scathing tirades and his flippant repartee. Unlucky in love myself (or so I imagined despite having experienced nothing but the most rarefied crushes), I felt the full anguish of his rejection by Ophelia. His melancholy was an intoxicant, his anger a rush of righteousness. I scorned the distance that my teachers insisted was the proper stance toward a character in a literary work. When Olivier, sword in hand, leapt from a stone staircase to dispatch his uncle, I leapt with him. The existential laugh that Burton gave at the end, as he sank down on the vacant throne to let the poison do its work, seemed to come from my own mouth. That my goggle-eyed hero-worship of a character in a 350-year-old play might seem odd to the girl I took to the Burton film did not occur to me — or, if it did, demoted her in my mind to just one more pretty but uncomprehending Ophelia, who might better head straight for a nunnery than go on another date with me.
I first taught the play the year I was a Fellow at Andover. By way of mentoring, the chairman asked me to teach it not to my own students but to those of one of the senior department members, who would watch and offer suggestions. The teacher had little rapport with his class and was happy to sit back and let me do what I could, which was, by comparison with the enormous weight of meaning that Hamlet had for me, not much. By this time I had most of the text memorized, and I had spent an entire Christmas vacation gleaning nuggets of commentary from the variorum edition and inscribing them in the margins of my book. I was prepared to be both guru and drudge, but neither role seemed to have much effect. I talked and talked. When they talked — and they did so rarely — none of the students expressed anything like my affinity for the Prince. Their papers were dutiful but uninspired. After the last meeting, my would-be mentor complimented me on my knowledge of the play but had nothing to say about the non-event of my teaching it. His mentoring, like most I received in those figure-it-out-for-yourself days, was a non-event piled on a non-event. Mostly, he seemed dispirited at the prospect of having to take the class back on his own narrow shoulders.
My students today are often fascinated by Hamlet the play, though they have their doubts about Hamlet the character. I show them the 38 pages of notes that one website coughs up on possible meanings of the phrase “smote the sledded pollax on the ice” and we share a laugh at the expense of X-treme literary scholarship. Then we get down to gauging the extent of our sympathy with the Prince. I am smart enough by this time to get out of the way and let the room fill up with the questions that Shakespeare’s words naturally evoke. If a consensus emerges, it is rarely in favor of Hamlet. True, he’s surrounded by insensitive adults and unsympathetic (and even treacherous) peers. True, he has some reason to believe that his uncle poured poison in his father’s ear — and he knows that the drunken old goat has married his mother. But Hamlet talks too much and thinks too much. He’s a habitual procrastinator — probably never turned his papers in on time back there in Wittenberg. If he wants revenge, he should get on with it and not let things fester. Worst of all, like Holden, he’s too cynical, too ready to write off the world and all its juicy opportunities.
I’d like my students to like Hamlet a little more than they usually do. His philosophical questioning is appropriate to the age group, and so is his weltschmerz. But I can’t help admiring their refusal to be swept along by the conventional assumption that he is a hero, and I have to love their reflexive faith that life must be more than a pestilent congregation of vapors. As for me, my identification with the Prince has weakened considerably over the years, and I even begin to feel a certain fellow feeling for Claudius. He is no better than he should be — indeed, a good deal worse — but he has been around the block often enough to understand that we must try to make our peace with living in a fallen state. This perspective, too, is a useful one for young and old to consider.