Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

The Call to Teach

When one is honored, many are honored.

Using one of Paul’s favorite citations from Canon Martin, this evening in celebrating one teacher, we remind ourselves of, and give thanks for, all teachers here, past and present, whether in body or in spirit.

They find the tools of this teaching trade simple enough. Start with a good pair of shoes, add some frumpy clothes, and then a problem, a question, or a text. That’s it, really. But at our place we’re blessed also to be given sunlight on the Cathedral roof and our chef Bill Shiftlett’s food. In case you think teaching easy, to rookie teachers I always suggest an equivalent of a scream closet. Find a private door, I explain, you can open but from which you cannot be heard. Each day let loose one primal bellow of frustration that for twenty-four prevents you from strangling the incorrigible, silencing the sassy, or exiling what Ferdinand Ruge might have called the dense, the dull, and the dim-witted. Of course Paul Piazza, who took over Ferdinand Ruge’s writing classes, doesn’t need a scream closet—too ungentlemanly.

And what does a great teacher do with those problems, questions, or texts? Demonstrate the ability to take the life’s work of Nobel laureates and geniuses of all ilk and present their work to maturing but ad-riddled, short-attending brains in simple but not simplistic ways. Then these teachers listen keenly and visualize the variety of thought maps that picture how adolescents interpret the material—their confusion certainly not what was said nor intended—and follow with the ability—no, the gift—of asking the right follow up questions to guide those adolescents toward understanding. And finally, great teachers like Paul Piazza live the trifecta of emotion that brings the kind of success this evening celebrates: first patience, and second patience, and lastly, patience.

Paul Piazza owns these tools of the trade, from bowties to passion about words and a patient love of students. He is a singular teacher—a master, to use a traditional word. A day in the life of Paul Piazza begins at 4:30 a.m. with his quiet time. I don’t ask. After he parks his car in the garage, he walks the Close, eats breakfast, and takes his place at his piano desk beneath the portrait of Canon Martin. He teaches his classes and throughout the hours of the day welcomes all sorts and conditions of humankind into his office. He offers peppermint patties. On the table rests at least one new book to talk about per week. Try the couch if you’d like to lounge, or sit in the chair next to him with your paper. All day his hand-written notes, his e-mails, and his editing of my work exhibit the Chicago Manual of Style’s exactness. His conversations delight in every spoken word, his smile warms every friend, and, most of all, his mastery of the profession touches every student with compassion and empathy. If all those students were here, they would fill up this Cathedral and spill out into the surrounding chapels and the nearby gardens. Paul Piazza lives in the heart of this School, and as this school’s seventh headmaster, I cannot replace him. I cannot. Thank God.

But if Paul Piazza is a singular master, he is also one of us, and he joins me this evening in honoring his colleagues sitting here with us. At a time like this we can slip too easily into sentimental generalities. So I have a small but quite specific charge for all of us gathered in this glorious place. As you know, Paul writes cards to people more often than the Pope blesses the faithful. Live this lesson from him. Put aside your e-mail. Find an elegant, comfortable fountain pen. If you need a consultation, alert Paul himself or his loyal friend Greg Parker. They know brands, stores, catalogues, even what Paul Barrett calls “entry-level” pens. They will encourage you to indulge yourself, and as to your penmanship, keep in mind the wide-winged and hovering bird of Paul’s capital “P.” Purchase good stock—thick linen that instantly absorbs ink. Write a note to one of Paul’s colleagues, either someone who taught you here in the past, or someone who sits here now and teaches your child. If all you have time to do is one, so be it, but write it now.

However hard Dan Jamieson, his talented crew, and I raise money, the pay and benefits for teachers will always be modest. The social status of teaching will be slow to change. The challenges each year grow immense. Let’s finish on the upbeat, though, with one of Paul’s first loves, Latin. For all the challenges, teachers do God’s work—educating a child. The Latin Educo means “to lead out,” or as Wally Ragan wrote to me, “leading the child from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance into knowledge.” And I would add, pray God, to lead a boy out of himself and toward some greater passion than massaging his own ego. And the Latin exemplum: an example. This is the example Paul Piazza has been setting all his life: he leads us out of ourselves toward the Light. Simple as that.

Thanks be to God for this man. Amen.

Headmaster Vance Wilson delivered this reflection in the Washington National Cathedral, May 26, 2011, on the occasion of the Service in Thanksgiving for Dr. Paul V. Piazza.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435