Lifelong Leaders

I had a surreal experience in February at the National Association of Independent Schools conference in Washington, D.C. I’d been invited to present a workshop called Cracking Kids’ Secret Code, one of my all-time favorite topics.

Chris and his mentors

The session focused on interpreting the subtext of what young people say and responding empathically to their coded speech. It’s my contention that this deep and genuine empathy nurtures the strongest connections that teachers, camp staff and parents make with youth.

As I walked toward the speaker registration kiosk, I literally bumped into Jeff Bradley, in whose cabin I served as a Leader-in-Training (LIT) in 1984. I had known that Jeff worked for a firm that places school headmasters, so it made sense that he was at this conference.

As we made lunch plans, another of my LIT mentors, Ted Lutkus, walked by and spotted us. A second round of handshakes and hugs ensued, our lunch plan was revised, and we headed off in different directions to attend morning workshops.

When Jeff arrived at lunch, he brought Tim Yeager, who was–you guessed it–another division head in whose cabin I had served two weeks as a LIT. Soon after texting Ted our location, I was sitting down with three fine gentlemen, each of whom had mentored me as a LIT for two weeks.

It was completely unplanned, utterly fantastic and, yes, tremendously entertaining.

One Career With Many Paths

Naturally, we reminisced about 1984 and my many blunders as a LIT. We also marveled that we had all become professional educators. Sure, we had taken different career paths, earned different degrees, and lived in different parts of the world, but our shared commitment to the development of young people was stronger than ever.

Jeff, Ted and Tim teased me about having a Ph.D., which they said predictably fit my studious (geeky?) nature and work ethic. We razzed each other about the origins of our camp nicknames. (That’s a different article.)

And we speculated about the future of camps and independent schools. As the two industries progress and overlap, their missions are becoming more refined and complementary. It’s ironic that camp professionals are working hard to be relevant to schools, given that camps were created by professional educators to be a pedagogical counterpoint to the classroom.

More Company

Our gales of laughter were identical to those we shared in 1984, and I struggled just as hard as I had on nights off not to blow soda through my nostrils. I realized that this intensity of laughter is only shared among the best of friends whose trust in one another invites incisive commentary and exposes vulnerabilities in a protected space.

Of course, we were beginning to attract the attention of conference participants at surrounding tables who clearly were not having as much fun as we were. Too bad, I thought. When is the next time I’ll get to sit down with three of my four LIT mentors? If our table is getting a little rowdy, what is the big deal? It was at this moment when Kate Windsor, Headmistress of Miss Porter’s School, walked over.

Kate is a friend whose son, Jack, was a junior leader at camp last summer. We greeted each other warmly, and I introduced her to my friends. I explained that I was sitting with three phenomenal guys who had been my LIT mentors, and were now professional educators.

I asked if Jack had been asked to return as a LIT this summer. Kate smiled, said he had, and described a recent conversation with her son.

“Jack was struggling with whether to get a job and make some money, go to lacrosse camp so he had a chance at varsity, or return to camp.”

I held my breath, wanting to convey respect for whatever choice she had encouraged Jack to make. Camp is not for everyone, and family circumstances vary widely. I’m biased toward camp, of course, but for my own children, not anyone else’s.

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