MacGregor Robinson Tribute

So Long to a Boarding School Guy
by James Harris, Former Faculty

For years a force in the classroom and admission office at Berkshire School and once editor of this very magazine, MacGregor Robinson is dead. (Even now, more than eight weeks after the fact, I write those words in disbelief.)

Yet still he speaks.

Here is how my close friend, cribbage foe and former colleague under the Mountain once summed up his life’s work:

I am a boarding school guy. I have embraced and been sustained by the unique culture and dynamic created when adults give themselves over to living and working with teenagers on a communal basis. Boarding school teachers are given a platform from which we can present a picture of the possible to successive generations of youngsters. Our job is to cheer and coax, cudgel and counsel them forward. Having been a boarding school student myself, I know all-too-well the enormous influence for good or ill that boarding school teachers wield in the lives of their kids. The weight of this charge—to help young people do and be better—both humbles and inspires me every day.

Now join the students and faculty at Trinity-Pawling for the following chapel talk in April of 2013. MacGregor reflects here on his own insecurities as a boy—it takes one to know one—and the lessons he learned at boarding school. Small wonder that he devoted his adult life to mentoring. And how fitting that Trinity-Pawling has established a chair in that discipline in MacGregor’s name.

Good Morning,

I don’t know whether any of you can identify with this, but, when I look back on myself as a child and remember the transparently manipulative stunts I used to pull, I cringe with embarrassment. I was that kid, the one shrewd enough to understand that life is strewn with emotional minefields but not smart enough to understand their significance. I reveled in punching buttons and then watching the explosions that followed.

In my own defense, however, I didn’t mean to be nasty. The youngest of four children in a family filled with huge egos, most of the time I felt like the pinball in an arcade machine: Flipped, slung, drilled, smashed, I was simply a tool in someone else’s game. When presented with even the slightest opportunity to man the controls myself, mangling buttons seemed just about the only way possible to testify to my own existence.

Like one of the Whos down in Whoville, I was shouting at the top of my lungs, “I AM HERE!! I AM HERE!! I AM HERE!! I AM HERE!!” Needless to say, however, I didn’t feel very loveable. I had a lot to learn. I started to figure things out when I went to boarding school.

The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in 1785, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Kant’s language is dense, but what he is telling us is to pay attention to the people around us. Take them seriously. Understand and respect their hopes and dreams. Or, to put it at its simplest, don’t be a manipulator. Don’t use people.

When I arrived at Brooks in the fall of 1978, manipulation was the only tool in my bag. I was certain that both students and teachers would quickly discover this fact and come to hate me for it. It didn’t work that way, though. Not at all.

It started first with the faculty. In my old schools, teachers had simply given me grades and then had looked pained whenever I actually tried to talk to them. At Brooks, it seemed like they WANTED to talk to me. They were interested in my questions and what I thought. As for my classmates, my interactions with them were totally new and different as well. Awkward, anxious, worried how we would fit in, particularly in the early going, we were all pretty careful of one another’s feelings. The bottom line was that, for the first time in my life, both students and teachers seemed to want to know what I had to offer. And with that, the sense of powerlessness that had driven my manipulative button-pushing behavior in the first place began to lift.

In retrospect, I realize that I was growing up. Time has given me the ability to see the past more clearly. I was just a kid: young, naïve, capable of amazingly stupid behavior, but also fundamentally decent, and yearning for mentors who would show me how to navigate more effectively in the world.

When I went away to boarding school and met people who recognized the good in me—who, to use Kant’s language, respected me enough to treat me as an end in myself—I began to grow. Those people, my teachers and my classmates, helped me drop the counter-productive tools I had been using and find new ones with which I could build a far better life. I wanted to be the person my teachers and friends thought I could be. I wanted to turn the page. I wanted to grow up.

That’s my message to you this morning. Look around you. Take advantage of the opportunity that life in this community offers to find mentors and make friends. THAT’s where you will find your power. Manipulation—getting what you what out of others through trickery, deceit, or outright force—is all-too-much the way of the world. And, truth be told, none of us puts it down completely when we leave childhood behind. But in the end, manipulation never truly gets you what you want. Regardless of whether it brings you your immediate object, to the degree that you use those around you, to that degree, you end up isolated, bitter, and powerless in the face of a hostile world.

This is one of the most important lessons childhood has to offer. Internalizing it and integrating it into your daily life is one of the central aspects of the process we have come to call, “growing up.”

I’d like to believe that, in the thirty years since leaving Brooks, I have made a good-faith start on this process. I’m still capable of stupid manipulative behavior, but I don’t succumb to its temptation nearly as often anymore. And while I wince when I remember childish stunts I pulled, I’m pretty much OK with the way I have turned out. Gentlemen, I must tell you here this morning that that’s a miracle. A miracle that first took root among the friends and mentors I made and found when I was a student in boarding school. A miracle that continues to grow among the friends and mentors that I have made and found here at Trinity-Pawling.