Head of School’s Notebook: Humor and Hijinks

February 19, 2021


I have a picture on the wall of my office of the Cate School student body and faculty (then called Santa Barbara School) taken sometime in the late 1940s. Mr. Cate sits looking regal and in charge in the middle of the frame, flanked by his wife, Kate Cate, and the faculty. The underclassmen sit cross-legged on the grass in the front row and the upperclassmen stand behind their seated teachers in a long line. In the middle of that third row, just behind Mr. Cate, three boys stand proudly in their SBS sweaters laughing uproariously. Few others in the photo are even smiling, as if they had been given instructions beforehand to become the picture of sober scholarship. The adults look downright dour.

All of this is set in tones of black and white on a seemingly sunny senior lawn, with a much younger High House and Lido in the background. I looked closer, trying to determine both what made the boys so entertained and simultaneously put the faculty in such a funk. My search was fruitful.

At the far-left side of the row of upperclassmen are two boys with grins on their faces. Not the laughter of those in the middle but rather the sly, slightly slanted smirks of those in the know. Something was up here.

I slowly traversed that back row from left to right looking for clues and I found the answer on the far-right side of the frame. The two grinning boys on the left appeared again, this time trying to contain their laughter at the far end of the standing column on the right.

Twins, I wondered? Two pair? Dressed identically? How likely is that? Not very. The photograph itself is nearly three feet across and a foot tall and captures somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 people. Two of them twice, it seemed. How?

The answer came, in a rush, understanding dawning as I recalled my own misadventures with school photographs and panoramic cameras. They pan slowly across the field of vision, and the ones from the 1940s must have panned slowly, very slowly. Those two boys waited until they were out of the initial frame, ducked low, and then ran behind their peers to find themselves again on the other end of the column, grinning knowingly. Those seniors in the middle knew exactly what was happening and they loved it. Mr. Cate apparently did not.

I wonder often what happened after the shot. Were those mischievous boys reprimanded for their antics? Did those seniors behind Mr. Cate get a look of rebuke from their Head of School for implicitly condoning such misadventure? Was it all worth it? The photo can’t provide answers to those questions.

But I can. It’s just fiction, of course, but I think those boys were delighted by their feat of ingenuity. I bet they did get scolded, but I don’t think it mattered. Their accomplishment is part of the historical record. The other stuff isn’t.

Over every meeting I have in my office, that photograph hangs as a reminder of sorts. It tells me not to be consumed by the seriousness of this great enterprise of education but rather to revel in the energy of teenage humor, and to laugh loud and heartily, just like those boys in the middle of the back row.

We are reminded in the moments of our lives of the importance of certain things, mostly because we feel their power and live their truth. But occasionally a glimpse into the past reveals such moments in other lives not lived by us but still understood by us. Humor and hijinks—they reach farther than we know, reminding us especially in times of trouble that there is little more powerful than a good laugh.