Becoming Better

Patrick T. Gallagher, Head of School  
When I was in college, I came to dread the question of where I attended. When I had answered so many times, “Princeton,” responses would generally fall into a few categories – with a few corresponding feelings on my part, too.

“You must be really rich.” Nope.

“You must be really smart.” Maybe.

“You must be really lucky.” Absolutely. 

I found myself taking deep breaths before answering. “I go to school in New Jersey” became an easier response than “I go to Princeton.”  

hat I was realizing, of course, was the extent to which others’ associations and conclusions to my answer – to a mere statement of fact – were beyond my control. Intrigued as I was by what people did say, I was also intrigued by what people did not say. No one ever said, “You must have worked really hard.” (I had.) No one ever said, “You must have had a support system of caring and trusted adults from an early age.” (I did.) At the time, I knew only my uneasiness; I had little idea what to do with it. 

While college had not necessarily been a foregone destination for all in my middle-class family, it was, nevertheless, the expectation for my siblings’ and my generation. In her book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, Dolly Chugh describes the impact of parents in shaping their children’s experience: 

Especially when children are young, we write the scripts they hear at home, we choreograph their growth, and we orchestrate their interactions with the world (or at least we try). So one place to begin is to consider what we are and are not discussing with them.

Chugh calls this all-important influence “steering the conversation.” When I was growing up, conversation was often steered toward academic accomplishment. My family had helped to challenge, nurture, and spur me to achievement. School mattered.

I was fortunate to attend fine elementary and secondary schools, where I had teachers for whom their subjects – and their students – mattered deeply. Indeed, most of us educators became teachers because of how important our own were in our lives. We choose to make schools our professional home as adults because we felt so at home there ourselves.  

For me, one of the most important adults in my life was my senior year English teacher, Mr. Serraglio. While slight of build and soft of voice, he was as dynamic a teacher as I would ever have. Our course was memorable, the reading list rife with the classics: Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare. The syllabus also included one major American novel. But it was no staple of high-school literature survey courses, then or now. It was not Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. 

It would not be the last time I read the novel. Italian author Italo Calvino suggests that true classics are books we are always rereading, and from the start I knew that Invisible Man was a book to which I wanted – needed – to return. At turns riveting, confusing, and horrifying, it proved not just challenging but rewarding. I encountered Invisible Man again in college, as part of a course aptly entitled American Classics. There we explored many of the novel’s influences and unpacked many of its connections across academic disciplines. I felt I understood and appreciated it all the more, albeit not so much I would not look forward to rereading it again.

Of course, these educators, like my parents before them, were steering the conversation. Without Mr. Serraglio’s broadening of our perspectives at that moment I would likely not have discovered Ellison, let alone come to mention him in the same breath as Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare. Far more important, I would not have grappled with the novel’s reflections of race in American society.

The late Pearl Rock Kane, inaugural Director of Teachers College Center for Independent School Education at Columbia University, said that education was about “creating experiences.” The experiences our students do – and do not – have depend upon the ways we steer the many conversations we share with them.

This issue of the Journal was prepared as the nation is beset by two pandemics. COVID-19, the Novel Coronavirus, has prompted statewide stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, closed schools (including the entirety of the spring term at US), and taken the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. Simultaneously, through civil unrest following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Americans have fought for and sought a reckoning for injustice against generations of Black Americans.

At US we are posing and struggling with the very same questions reemerging and intensifying around the country. We have had occasion to think carefully about who we are, what we do, how we fulfill our mission.

US has done this before. The passion and commitment of many US legends helped to integrate the school in the 1960s. The story of Rowland McKinley bursting into a meeting of the board of trustees to exclaim, “No Black students, no McKinley” is the stuff of US lore. Jack Ingersoll, Geoff Morton, Kevin Kay, Bert Holt, Betty English, David Stewart ’91, and others worked tirelessly to realize that vision for hundreds of Black students and families – from the integration of the school, through the creation of the REACH summer program for talented middle school-age students in 1992, and beyond. 

By some metrics US is more diverse than it has ever been. Nearly 30% of boys enrolled at US are students of color, up 10% in the last 10 years. Students hail from some 62 Northeast Ohio zip codes. We remain committed to broadening and enriching our student body – including geographically and socioeconomically.

Yet these numbers alone do not and cannot tell the whole story. Nor do they advance our mission in any meaningful or enduring way. 

As it has been nationwide, the experience of minority students, teachers, and families at US has often been arduous. A year after the 1978 Mabian was dedicated in his honor, English teacher Ralph Chabert decided to leave US. Interviewed by the US News for a piece ultimately entitled “Chabert Leaving; Cites Disillusionment”, he shared, “the method of teaching [at US]… is a process geared toward the majority… If you fit the process, then it works. However, if you do not fit, or you do not necessarily want to be here, then it is terrible.” He also noted pointedly that “a lot of our future leaders are coming out of here” – hoping US, and those leaders-to-be, might be more sensitive, responsive, and inclusive. 

Michael Thompson, longtime supervising psychologist at the Belmont Hill School, recognizes this tension of “fit” in his work with students of color. Echoing Ellison, as it happens, Thompson identifies students’ feelings of “racial invisibility” and “social invisibility”: 

… while the kids become important to the community as symbols – ‘We’re diverse!’ – they often feel personally neglected and devalued. Schools continuously demand that students of color respect the values of the school, but the schools don’t have much interest in respecting the values of the culture from which the student comes.

All the more heartening, then, are the many testimonials of students of color who have felt not only visible but valued. George Holt ’93, for example, points to the “connections, friendships, and personalities that he still connects with today.” Moreover, he and others found at US a “healthy mix of ideas and perspectives” and people who “genuinely cared about one another.” If education is about creating experiences, those like George’s are precisely those we must strive to provide for every student at US. 

At our best, US is among the best – yet we must endeavor always to be better. By design, our ambitious mission to “know and love” each boy does not differentiate. In practice, our motto – Responsibility, Loyalty, Consideration – demands we redouble our efforts toward a truly equitable environment where each boy can thrive.

And as our community examines its past and anticipates its future, I am optimistic. 

I was recently able to reconnect with Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology and Vice-Dean of the School of International & Public Affairs at Princeton. We discussed the two pandemics facing the nation. Regarding racial unrest, I wondered aloud whether we would see meaningful change at this juncture, or if, like the movie Groundhog Day, we were just seeing the same scenes play out, over and over again, as they did for Bill Murray’s character stuck in the same day. Maybe, Centeno said; but “maybe this will be the day that he finally gets it right!” – the day we finally get it right and earn the privilege of a new, better day. 

Upon receiving one my high school alma mater’s highest honors, my old teacher Mr. Serraglio said, “I’ve had the privilege of associating with students who had a sterling moral sensibility, students that inspired me to be a better person.” 

At US I feel just the same. The seriousness and earnestness with which so many of our students are embracing the urgent necessity of this historical moment are inspiring. It is my and my colleagues’ privilege, for certain, to support them.

or US, I am as hopeful for the future as I have ever been.

Back when I was a college student and people heard where I went to school, no one ever said, “You are privileged.” As I continue to think back on what that experience means to me, however – and what experiences students today might one day mean – that reality is inarguable. Centeno also helped to reconcile a tension then and now: “Just because you’re lucky,” he said, “doesn’t mean you’re not worthy.”

Likewise, the boys with whom the faculty of US have the pleasure to work every day are lucky and worthy. Our friend and former colleague Kerry P. Brennan, Headmaster of The Roxbury Latin School, has urged students “to seek justice, to improve our society for all its members, and to ensure that the privileges we have known are utilized on behalf of revelatory, transformative, generous causes.” Like Centeno, he also puts privilege into perspective: “Don’t squander what you’ve been given. But don’t be ashamed of it either.” 

I sometimes ask students what people’s responses are when they say they go to US. Thinking for a moment, they usually rattle off much the same list I did when I was not much older than they are. By the time they reach Commencement, I trust they will have thought more seriously and reflected more constructively than I did then on what their experience means now. As we seek to educate boys to be men at their best and the best of men, I am ever more confident that they will make the most of the opportunities available to them today to make a difference in the world tomorrow. 

Shaker Heights Campus

20701 Brantley Road
Shaker Heights, Ohio 44122
Phone: 216-321-8260

Hunting Valley Campus

2785 SOM Center Road
Hunting Valley, Ohio 44022
GRADES 9 – 12
Phone: 216-831-2200
University School serves over 850 boys in Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12 on two campuses in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. The School’s mission is to inspire boys of promise to become young men of character who lead and serve. Dedicated faculty, rigorous curriculum, and experiential programs foster intellectual, physical, creative, and moral excellence. University School is a diverse and inclusive community where each boy is known and loved.