Many people come in and out of our lives daily, hourly, and most have an impact on our lives. The busyness of our lives sometimes handicaps our ability to say thanks until its too late. I am grateful that a high school teacher in my life gave me opportunities to thank him before he passed. These words, from an essay I published in the Albany Times Union, are my final thank you to him. The shorter version can be accessed via the link:
A Modern Day Mr. Chips by Michael C. Obel-Omia 16 February 2011
Remarkably, when we see independent schools, often the first impression is the magnificent and regal nature of the architecture. Many independent schools are monuments to physical excess, as they have the most luxurious laboratories, the most astounding athletic facilities, the most awe-inspiring art centers. And, for the most part, Albany Academy when I arrived in 1979 was not much different. The imposing main building, which stood on a hill that seemed created just for the purpose of making the school seem imposing, was the most impressive school I had ever seen. The floors were made of marble and the high, vaunting ceilings loomed above me, sternly admonishing me that serious business occurred in this space. The place seemed cold, lifeless, like a mausoleum. In a word, I was whelmed by my first impression of the Albany Academy.
Those feelings passed, as I came to know the teachers, particularly, Baxter Ball, the Upper School Head. Baxter didn’t teach me until eleventh grade, but by the time we matched wits, we knew a great deal about one another: one thing he didn’t know, however, was my determination. Baxter told me midway through his rigorous AP European History Course that it would behoove me not to attempt the AP. His words, which suggested that I wasn’t academically prepared for the test, insulted me, raised my ire, and strengthened my resolve. I did take that test. He laid down the gauntlet, and I picked it up.
In my senior year, Baxter served as my guidance counselor, and I still remember sitting in front of him as he read my School letter of recommendation (a practice that I also loved from my years teaching at Roxbury Latin, but a practice that is rarely done today). Baxter used the heretofore unknown to me phrase, “Joie de vivre” to describe me, and I was stunned by how beautiful his words were: he was describing me, a silly, little boy who could barely conjugate “Amour,” as a cheerful, dynamic important member of our community. He said I was vital to Albany Academy, and it was from that moment forward I worked to be vital, to be important there. He also worked closely with me to find the absolute perfect college, Middlebury. Somehow (well, with great help from my mother), he knew that I would thrive in the backwoods of Vermont: me, an urban Black male attending college in the whitest state in the union at a college better known for its skiing and a Club Midd reputation than for welcoming minority students. But, he was right. He had an innate ability to see and understand his students, and he cared about us, even if he expressed it in his gruff, offhanded way.
Baxter played a crucial role in shaping me today, and I am a better person today than I was then: a loud, petulant, unfocused, undisciplined, and insecure boy—or a normal boy trying to find his place and sound his voice in a big, new imposing place.
All students in a new place need guidance and support, and Baxter cared about me and challenged me. There is nothing more important in the education process than knowing and loving your students, and I can say that Baxter, in his irascible way, loved me. He taught me the important lesson that we need to treat all students with respect, by challenging every student daily, and by accepting no excuses from them.
Years later, when I saw Baxter at independent school conferences, I took the time to thank him for pushing me and expecting more of me. When I spoke at Manlius Pebble Hill six years ago, I told his faculty what he meant to me. It would have been easy for him in the late 70’s and early 80’s to believe that my learning was limited. Instead, he believed that I could be better, and I came to believe that too. I will always remember his laying down the gauntlet and the awakening it caused in me. I excelled on that AP test because he made me do the necessary work to be my best. I will never forget that. But still, I feel I never thanked him enough.
Independent Schools, at their best, are an amalgamation of physically impressive structures, timeless truths, burnished ideals, novel inquiries, rough-hewed, awkward adolescents unsure of themselves, and patient, passionate, persistent, perspicacious men and women who love children and want them to be their best. It is filled with men and women who will sacrifice all to ensure that the charges in their care will mature into young adults ready to serve the world that they will inhabit and inherit. In the end, the buildings and the lessons fade from memory, and it is the people, the classmates and the teachers who become the schools for us as we mature and make our lives.
Baxter Ball, rumpled, grumpy, unorganized, incisive, astute, and most of all, caring, exemplifies what I treasure about my five years at Albany Academy. Like my time there, Baxter wasn’t perfect; rather, he was made from more clay than most, as he smoked cigarettes and pipes, told occasional off-color jokes, and sometimes cajoled in an acerbic manner. But, he made the place human to me; he gave the place a face, he breathed life into it. He, as Hamlet says about his father, “was a man, take him for all in all,” which means warts and all. I was blessed to have Baxter in my life for more than thirty years–almost half his too short life–and like many people who pass through my life too quickly, I feel as if I didn’t take the time often enough thank him for all he did for my career and me. I hope that these words, some of them spoken too late, will let his children, not only his biological ones, but the thousands who benefited from time with him, know there are many of us who grew into who we are today, because of his influence and care.