Head of School’s Notebook — Thanksgiving


Around the time that this Notebook entry is published, we’ll all be sitting quietly in the Katharine Thayer Cate Memorial Chapel. Since faculty member Peter Arango began the tradition over a decade ago, we honor Thanksgiving with a Quaker meeting. 297 students and nearly 80 faculty join in complete silence until someone is compelled to speak. When he or she does, heads turn and people reposition themselves in their pews or chairs to watch and listen.

In the last decade those inclined to do so have given thanks for friends, for teachers, for seniors or siblings, for a timely gesture or a thoughtful note. Sometimes students rise just to offer general thanks, though often there is something seemingly behind that appreciation that the student apparently couldn’t articulate. We know when we are thankful. We can feel the rush and the calm. But sometimes we can’t divine the source. Maybe it’s many things that make us feel the way we do.

In the Williams family, Thanksgiving, more than any other day, is profound. It is a day that almost always finds us all together, coming even now from far and wide. When my mother was alive, she would spend until the mid-afternoon meal cooking, always with lots of help even from her clumsy sons, though her daughters-in-law were a most welcome and much-needed addition. Clean-up always fell to us boys, but that was fine. It took so long to wash everything that we were gnawing our way through the leftovers before the kitchen was spic and span.

Dad helped too, but mostly he was responsible for the toast. We would all hold hands while Dad shared something. It was never long but always genuine, heartfelt, humble. The older he has gotten the more likely he will shed a tear. And now that Mom is gone it’s virtually a lock he’ll be misty even before he begins. So are we.

And then there’s the basketball game. The younger generation includes a host of collegiate players, but even they can’t keep the contest respectable. It isn’t pretty, but it’s fun. Not every part of every ritual needs to be serious.

That’s true at the Cate meeting too. Many of the offerings are immensely entertaining, some intentionally and some not. Just like us clumsy Williamses, we find a way to say our piece, knowing that the sentiment is genuine even if the execution is not entirely polished. Smiles and tears have equal power.

And, of course, when it’s over we leave the punctuated silence of the Chapel to gather for a meal, to finish the trimester, and to go elsewhere to celebrate with another family. Every moment in life has meaning. We know this intellectually. But there are some whose meaning we feel, whose significance we guess at, whose value we trust.

Thanksgiving at Cate is one of those. And for that, too, we are thankful.