A secret aspiration of mine is to one day serve as head master, preferably of Lawrenceville, my alma mater. This desire stems from my own inquiry into Lawrenceville’s history and the epic deeds of the great men and women who built that academy, as well as numerous others across the country. Thanks to the wide and relaxed gaze of John McPhee, this archetype even has a literary canon – The Headmaster, his 1966 monograph on Deerfield’s Frank Boyden, a book that grew out of a New Yorker article on the same topic. McPhee’s Boyden resides in a mythical plane that seemed to be frozen in the era just before secondary school leaped into the modern era, complete with legalistic student handbooks, culture clashes, and nonstop fundraising. Boyden exercises that magnificent sleight of hand only available to the truly powerful – his humility is not quite a cloak, but it’s also not quite genuine. His tireless vigil at Deerfield caused it to survive and thrive, in a way that could have surprised even Boyden and his mentor, Lewis Perry, headmaster of Phillips Exeter. I first read the profile in the spring of 2007 as I was preparing to leave for King’s Academy – the school had hired away Deerfield’s headmaster, Eric Widmer, himself also a disciple of Boyden and very much an academic made in his image. Great book.
By the way, you may have noticed I used both “headmaster” and “head master” in this post. The spaced style, head master, is AFAIK unique and indigenous to Lawrenceville, where the principal was supposedly “first among equals” and therefore simply the “head” master.