There’s no real easy way to do this, to make this announcement. I have wrestled it, spent time journaling, talked with a few folks in a very tight circle, but it simply comes down to this: the 2020-21 school year will be my last as Head of School at Proctor Academy. It is a decision that I have come to in consultation with the Board of Trustees, and it is a decision that I have moved towards over the last six months. It is not an easy decision, but I have made it with a full measure of pride in the accomplishments of this community and complete confidence that the school has the leadership and the wisdom to continue on with its current success.
This school has been my home. This community has been a place where Betsy and I have raised our two children, Will ‘11 and Olivia ‘15. The gumption and grit they display on their respective life journeys is due to the extraordinary adults our children have encountered, the wise ones that continue to be in their lives today. It is the George Emenys and the Patty Ponds and the Terry Stoeckers and the Buz Morisons and their ilk. It is because of the experiential opportunities they had while they were here - Mountain Classroom, European Art Classroom, and Ocean Classroom. They broke their bones at Proctor. They healed at Proctor. From Proctor they launched with a better sense of themselves and better equipped to navigate the complex world of today. There is NO school, none that I know of, that touches the model that is Proctor.
This school has also been a community for Betsy and me, and when we walk into the Brown DIning Commons for dinner it feels like we are sitting down with family. When I walk into the kitchen to talk with Barb or Caleb, it feels like I am walking into a family kitchen. When I walk into the Math department, the Science department, the English department, I see colleagues who enjoy working with one another, who laugh together, love their students, and want to get better at what they are doing. It’s inspiring. When I travel with Keith on the road and we talk about the school to prospective supporters, it feels like I am traveling with a brother. When I get up at 5:30 in the morning and have coffee on the sofa and look across the backyard and see Pete Southworth’s light, I am reminded that I have good neighbors. A lot of them. I take none of this for granted, and to be a part of a family like this and contemplate leaving is hard. Very hard.
Proctor has changed me. It has made me more environmentally aware, more artistically aware, more community aware. I think of all the lessons I learned from Pilla and Alan, from Patty, Lori, Raz, Karl, Dougo, Arthur, Edna, Gregor, Patti, George, Scott, Karin, Seth, Garry, John, Kurt, Mark, Sally, Bill and Betsy, Tom and the board… the list is so long. It’s pretty much everybody - faculty, staff, trustees. Here’s one specific change. In 2005 when I arrived at Proctor, there was a summer retreat of trustees, faculty, and staff up in northern Vermont at the home of Bill and Betsy Peabody, board co-chairs at the time. Camping out, bonfires, saunas, pond swimming, community service work, and creative workshops took place over three days. I remember Bill Peabody took a small group of us out into a field to paint, and what I painted on my canvas was part of a barn, and my painting was, well, ... awful. But, Bill planted a seed - which is what happens at Proctor - and in 2017 when I dropped in on the European Art program and spent time with Dave and Jen Fleming that seed finally took hold. (I know. 12 years. Slow processor.) Today painting and drawing are incredibly important to me, forcing me to slow down and work to see my truth, reminding me that a first impression is never the final reality. That’s so Proctor, getting me to see possibilities that I had not imagined. And it’s what we do for students every day.
So why retire? I will only be 63. Well, it has something to do with stewardship and white spaces on the map.
One of my favorite images from this winter comes from earlier in December when, crossing campus, I saw Jim Hanson in the Proctor orchard, ladder propped against a tree, pruning saws and shears out. He was looking high up into the branches of a Cortland, taking its measure and thinking about the next cut. Pruning apple trees is something of an art. You are trying to cut away the small growth sapping the tree’s energy and make the larger cuts to ensure that the light and the air circulate and allow the fruit to stay healthy, maturing to its potential. Each cut is a choice, each decision is made with the tree’s health and the overall orchard’s well being in mind. It’s a great image from December: Jim, Proctor’s arborist, gently caring for and stewarding the orchard.
Stewardship. It’s about caring, compassion, respect, and a sense of responsibility. It’s about those values that we hold to be core at Proctor, and when I look around at this community of adults and the attention to details and responsibilities they take up, I am reassured. I know that the time is right for me to step away. There are so many who are tending the orchard, helping to ensure the light will continue to penetrate this community for a long time. I am awed by the talent, the academic acumen and community awareness, the selfless commitments that stewardship requires. You give and give and give to let the light in. It’s intentional, careful, and strategic in nature, but when it is done well the harvest takes the shape of students finding community awareness, intellectual curiosity, life direction, and a strong sense of self. The proof comes when you get a letter from the accrediting body of independent schools, NEASC, that reads like the one we received last spring: “It (Proctor) is the only school we know of where this combination of statistics - increased gender equity, increasing boarding numbers, increasing overall numbers, increasing day numbers, and decreasing dependence on international students - exists. In the world of “numbers can tell a tale,” the story told by Proctor’s five year enrollment couldn’t be more positive. To be statistically candid, these enrollment figures are simply the strongest of any school we know of in New England.” To me, that speaks to powerful stewardship. We are all a part of that.
I am proud of what Proctor is today. I have seen physical changes of stewardship over my years at Proctor: buildings like Morton House and Thoreau disappeared to be replaced by Peabody, Sally B, and the West End dorms. I have seen renovations and restorations to the Farrell Field House, new turf fields, new trails and systems at the Proctor Ski Area, solar installations, the biomass plant, the construction of the Brown Dining Commons, a renovated hockey rink . And this week? Well, the Outdoor Center, a facility that will support programs like kayaking and mountain biking, USSA/FIS skiing, Mountain Classroom, and Wilderness Orientation is coming on line. But, these are like planting new trees in an established orchard. Honestly, I am most proud of our faculty and staff and the day to day work they are doing with our students to let the light in. That’s the critical stewardship.
And then there is that bit about the white space, the map that I hold up at the start of every year before Wilderness Orientation. My responsibility as an individual is to grow, to push into the unknown, to discover just how far I can evolve into what I might become. We ask this of our students and we need to ask it of ourselves. It’s not so much about the known as the unknown. The unfamiliar. The possibilities. I need to live that message at this time in my life. Recently, Matt Nathanson gave me a book that many know, but I didn't: The Artist’s Way. It’s filled with all sorts of good advice for all sorts of artists, and one of the exercises that you are asked to do is reflect on what your eight year old self might say to you today, and what your eighty year old self would say. When I went through that exercise, I realized my eight year old self would be telling me to “lighten up and remember the wonders of the world”; my eighty year old self would be telling me to “get it in gear.” I need to follow that advice: write more, paint and draw more, get myself into the mountains more, and find more ways to give to that larger community of humanity.
It’s not an easy decision to make, but the time is right. I am all in for the next 18 months, and we will do this work of stewardship and letting the light in “together,” but then I need to head a little more into the unknown, the margins at the edge of the map. I need to take my own advice.
Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School