On an unusually balmy late October Saturday afternoon Sally and I drove up to Bedford, Massachusetts, for a memorial service celebrating the life of Nancy Howland, known to generations of Country School colleagues, children, and parents as “Nanny.” Sharp as a tack to the end, though betrayed by her eyesight, Nanny had passed away a few months earlier at the age of 100.
We didn’t know what to expect as we entered the gracious lobby of Carleton-Willard Village, the retirement community where we had visited Nanny on a number of previous occasions and where it became increasingly clear that she unofficially presided as the mayor of her small residential town. Common sense suggests that when you live to be a centenarian—unless you reside in one of those “Blue Zones” Dan Buettner has recently been describing, in Sardinia, Okinawa, or Loma Linda, California—none of your friends will show up at your funeral. In fact, the auditorium was packed. “We’ve had to open up all the adjacent wings,” the usher murmured as he moved us to our seats.
We settled ourselves among a group of NCCS oldtimers who had journeyed to pay our respects to a woman who must have been the nicest colleague anyone could have. Sally and I sat between Abigail Manny, who had succeeded Nanny as Director of Admissions, and Ellen White, a former Country School parent and ex-neighbor of the Howlands. Sue Speers had driven herself down from Squam Lake and sat right behind us. Everything felt—well—companionable. Nanny made everyone feel that way—the hundreds of youngsters she delighted in her years as children’s librarian in the creaky old Grace House rooms that housed the books, the thousands of anxious parents she guided around the campus on admissions tours, the countless professional colleagues she charmed and delighted (and occasionally took to task for failure to adhere to the flinty New England standards she expected at all times from the grown-ups).
On our way up to Bedford Sally suddenly asked me if I had ever known anyone who had an unkind word to say about Nanny. I searched my increasingly unreliable store of memories. This was the person who had been in the unenviable position of disappointing a generation of families by explaining that there was no place at the school for their children—legions of them. Yet somehow, gently, honestly, graciously, delicately, she had been able to convey what amounted to rejection in a palatable way. No-one ever complained—at least to me.
As we waited for the service to commence—a subdued scramble was taking place to find additional chairs to accommodate the unexpectedly large attendance—I reread the first of the quotations which Nanny had selected for the service—both, not surprisingly, from her favorite among many favorite writers, Jane Austen: “A fondness for reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself.” Mansfield Park.
Married to a bookseller, Nanny spent her long life constantly encouraging her students to explore new realms of literature, forever giving books as presents to her many friends, colleagues, and family members. When her own vision had faded and she had exhausted every conceivable book on tape, Nanny’s spirits continued to be buoyed by her daughter Faith’s daily visits, which always included reading aloud.
The service began: moving but not maudlin. Of course. This is New England, after all; and Nanny, who had had plenty of time, had designed the service herself—though probably not the lighted pumpkin into which her cousin had carved “NANNY” that flickered on the center of the stage. (Perceptive as she was, she couldn’t have foreseen that her service would coincide with Hallowe’en. Her daughter Faith seized the opportunity to remind us that “My mother was all treat and no tricks.”) The music and the hymns Nanny selected were pure Yankee Congregational, as anyone who knew her would expect: “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart,” “Lord of All Hopefulness,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”—“hymns of joy and hope inviting joyful participation by us all,” Faith had written in the Order of Service. We happily recited the 23rd Psalm in what I think of as “the old language.”
There was a flute solo, the familiar strains of Dvorak’s “Going Home,” and as its crystal notes suffused the crowded space I thought of my first encounter with Nanny. June, 1979. I was sitting in the old Country School cafeteria as the newly-minted, not-yet-officially-arrived Headmaster while my predecessor, George Stevens, and his wife Jill suffered through a well-intentioned farewell luncheon organized by the school’s food service. Four days of year-end faculty meetings were over; everyone, especially the Stevenses, clearly couldn’t wait to hop into their cars and collapse into summer. But the eager food service served course after course in a tone deaf effort to prove their dedication and to honor George and Jill.
At last a dessert no-one needed or wanted was cleared away, and the traditional roasting and toasting began. Much of it, of course, was focused on George, but it had been left to Nanny to handle the farewell to Ben Benson, a much-loved Upper School teacher and coach whose longevity exceeded even George’s. I inferred that there must have been a lot of discussion in advance, focusing on the tricky challenge of not “overlooking” the Bensons’ departure when the community was focused on celebrating the Stevens Years.
So it fell, naturally, to Nanny Howland, who stood up, ramrod straight, in the hot cafeteria and read a simple poem she had composed in Ben’s honor. It was a perfect parody of James Henry Leigh Hunt’s classic, “Abou Ben Adhem,” playing wittily on Ben’s falling asleep while monitoring an afternoon study hall and then awakening, as Hunt’s protagonist does, to discover: “And lo! Ben Benson’s name led all the rest.”
So this, I thought, is the community over which I have been chosen to preside and this is its Director of Admissions—literate, clever, affectionate, thoughtful, gracious. Grace House in the Fields. I think I’m going to enjoy the Country School. And I knew I was going to enjoy working with Nancy Howland, whose tidy New England appearance and sobriquet—“Nanny,” for heaven’s sake—seemed like Hollywood Central Castings’ vision of an elementary school admissions director.
The flautist’s final note lingered in the air, followed by entertaining, heartfelt, affectionate reminiscences from Nanny’s two children, Faith and C.P. Then the priest wrapped us all together with the commendation and the blessing and launched us out towards the simple reception awaiting us in the next room. As we exited, we all raised our reedy voices to sing—at Nanny’s final request—“Auld Lang Syne.”
We stood around the oatmeal cookies and urns of water laced with lemon slices and shared our memories of this extraordinary, tough, good woman. As the second quotation for the bulletin of her service, she had chosen an observation from Sense and Sensibility:
“Know your own happiness. Want for nothing but patience – or give it a more fascinating name: call it hope.”
Nanny in a nutshell. Back in the auditorium, no doubt scripted by the centenarian whose long life we were celebrating, the pianist slipped over from “Auld Lang Syne” and began to play some Cole Porter.
31 October 2015
It was just fun!! The supportive teachers, friendships made and strong community. The opportunities were endless. Great teachers like: Ms. Crawford, Jamel Jones, Sue Friborg, Mr. Wappler (teaching us about the MAC when it first came out), Ms. Pickens (dance teacher) and Mrs. McCrum (with her decorative pins). My most favorite memory is of Sue Friborg teaching us how to play basketball. She would wheel in this rickety old chalkboard to what was called the “old gym” and actually diagram out plays and strategy. She instilled the love of the game, the passion for doing things well and teamwork. This was way before the WNBA. It was not that she expected us to take our b-ball career to college, but instead taught us that if you are going to play, why not ensure we have all the tools we would need to at least try to play well.
It helped create wonderful childhood memories for me, which I think is so important. Children have plenty of time to be adults, so why rush it. Childhood and having time to explore and play is important. NCCS helped make me a well-rounded person and confident. I also had amazing classmates who were just really great people, then and now. I feel very lucky to have attended NCCS.
Over 15 years ago, I toured the Country School. At that time, my son Michael was graduating from Long Ridge School and was about to enter 6th grade. Unfortunately, that year there were only 3 openings in 6th grade. My husband and I loved the Country School atmosphere. We felt this would be a wonderful next step for our son. Much to our chagrin, three siblings were accepted that year. My son enrolled in St. Luke's that year. For the next 4 years until he got his driver's license, I would drive by Country School everyday with a smile on my face. In the back of my mind, I always had this affinity for Country School. Fast forward to 2014 - In December, 2014, I was offered a position in the Advancement Office as an Assistant. I was so happy to be part of this wonderful community.
Wednesday afternoon detention . . . NOT. Miss Vermilion (2nd grade) Mrs. McDougal (3rd grade) Mrs. Thompson (beginners) Peggy Hall (1st grade) Rhythms Skating on thin ice on Frogtown pond before the rink was built. Forty five minutes each way on the Valley Road bus every day.
I attended NCCS from pre-K thru 7th grade. I received a superb grounding in academic fundamentals that has served me well over the past six decades. Besides academics NCCS contributed to the evolution of my self reliance, independence, and creative thinking.
Members of the Class of 1990 attended their 25th reunion in May and reminisced about their time at Country School. L to R: Michael Dibiasio, Brian Kahn, Dirk Hobman, Geordie DuPont and Tucker Golden. (Jaety Edwards arrives midway through the video.)
Mr. McNaught, former Country School teacher and Head of Upper School, attended the Frogtown Fair and Alumni Reunion dinners in May. In this video, he talks about what makes Country School unique.
I remember arriving at Country School in the fall 2002 with our twin boys, who were starting in the newly expanded kindergarten class in the brand new Thacher Building. Our younger girls loved coming to drop-off and hanging out in the piazza reading books and peeking into their brothers’ classrooms. My favorite memories are the many small, special moments along the way. Singing as a goose in “Jack & the Beanstalk”, watching chicks hatch, first performing on stage at the arts assembly, sledding down the Welles hill, delivering a speech at the 4th grade moving up day, competing at the Upland hockey tournament – all were precious milestones as they grew.
Our boys have just graduated from high school and our youngest, Christina, will be a ninth grader next year (NCCS ‘16). In our 13 years at NCCS, there have been ups and downs that are typical in childhood, but we have been thankful to be a part of this community which supported us along the way. NCCS nurtured our children’s curiosity and love of learning in an environment that encourages jumping in and taking risks. They continue to be curious, engaged learners and community members to this day.
Lower School memories: Halloween parade and circle “Now all the witches and wizards come out! Now all the animals come out!” Family style lunch. Chicken a la King and Boston cream pie. Mrs. Perrrine playing the “Shoes and socks” song on the piano for rhythms. Mrs. Jones reading aloud Corduroy, Make Way for Ducklings, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Multi-age. The ice storm. Sledding behind the Lower School building on round, silver toboggans and wooden sleds with metal runners. Mittens with strings that went through the arms of our coats. The catwalk in the woods. Outdoor science with Mrs. Ballentine. Digging in the dirt. Getting all of my clothes for the upcoming year at the clothesline sale. The sandbox which was so big it could fit the entire grade. Metal bar playground equipment.
Middle School memories: WHIMP math sheets. Four square. Dodge ball. The mimeograph machine, the purple color and the smell of new mimeos. Watching the Head of School get dunked at the Frogtown Fair. Walking down the hill to the Winter Club. Wearing goggles and using the band saws in wood shop. Mr. Bridgeman. Mr. Davenport: Memorizing “King William the first was the first of our Kings, not counting Aethelred, Egbert and things…” and “John John bad King John, shame the throne that he sat on…” Hook rug coat of arms, Rule 52, NO walking across the grass. Wednesday D. Mez: Making us “take a lap” around the building to get the wiggles out. Mr. Huweiller: Singing Vivaldi at Christmas, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the time Dave Brubeck’s band played at our Friday assembly. Playing on the recorder: Scotland’s burning, Scotland’s burning, Look Out, Look Out, Fire Fire Fire Fire, Pour on Water, Pour on Water. The trombone leading the Halloween parade. The ragtime jazz band with Will Abbey on piano. The striped, “onesies” athletic uniforms we had to wear. Going to the third floor of the Main Building for piano lessons with Mrs. O’Connor. The reading bathtub in the library. Nanny Howland. Watching black and white reel to reel movies on the second floor of the main building in the AV room on topics like Eskimos. Making announcements at lunch. Painting a whale on the Middle School tennis court and backboard. Nantucket trip – a marathon 3 hour lecture on whaling and scrimshaw.
Upper School memories: Non-stop, torrential downpours at the 9th grade hiking and camping trip in Princeton, NJ. Having classes in the Watson Gym while waiting for the new Upper School building to be completed. Our classmate, Paul Johansen, dying in the 8th grade and as a class, working our way through that. Service jobs. Pink and yellow rotating weeks. Latin. Singing Freebird behind the Gym with Klams and Erdy on guitar. Unofficially playing girls’ ice hockey in the mornings before school. Seeing Cyrano de Bergerac at the Stratford playhouse. LL Bean tote bags, blucher moccasins, duck boots. Plaid scarves (worn indoors), fair aisle sweaters. Puffy down coats. Being undefeated in both varsity field hockey and lacrosse 9th grade year.
Teachers are the center of my Country School memories. The passions and creativity they showed in their teaching left such a positive effect on me and set the example of what I valued in my own teaching. Starting in 1st grade with Miss Hall, Miss Vermillion in 2nd, Tot Wright in both 3rd and 4th (he brought me out of my shyness), Mary Perrine making us walk like a jabberwocky, Mary Lucas and her love of all things medieval, Will Abbey hurling chalk across the room in 6th grade, Ray and Betty Burnes and Mme. Liotard in the Upper School, they all have left their mark.
As a teacher, the memories come from both colleagues, students and parents: having a 9th grade girl suggest we let the air out of the school van’s tires when we got stuck under the bank building in New Canaan, 8th graders writing to author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and having her respond, seeing 9th graders filled with good cheer and empathy serve dinner at the Waveny Care Center, parents pitching in to help us cook waffles to raise money for an expanded studies trip and blowing every fuse in the Stevens Building, watching our students taking care of their environment through work program, the genuine respect and admiration that teachers and students have for all.
Writing a country report in 8th grade with Betty Burnes led to a life-long love to travel and an understanding that there is dignity in all people. I translated this to doing literacy training with UNICEF in Pakistan, giving voice to people who live on the margins through my photography and exposing my students to the disparity in our own society by co-leading the Civil Rights trip for many years. My love of music and choral singing was developed under John Huwiler. He was a tough taskmaster, but I learned so much from him and now singing is an important part of my life.
When I began to teach at Country School in 1992, I was in awe of my colleagues. They had such high standards and had developed such wonderful rapports with their students and with each other. Thus began years of admiration.
Taylor attended her 10-year reunion in May 2015 and shared her memories about Country School in this video.