Soon after I made the decision to come to Cathedral, I contacted a few friends who serve as heads of other leading boys’ schools. I was interested in learning about what they believed made boys’ schools special. One Head invited me to visit his school, and I quickly accepted the invitation. This particular school is a well-known sixth- through twelfth-grade school in the southeast, and — as is typical with such an invitation — we took a tour of the campus.
Our sojourn happened to pass the front doors of the dining hall — perhaps the most important building on any boys’ school campus — just as a herd of students departed for afternoon classes. These boys were big! They had to be juniors or seniors, and many could have been linemen for the school’s successful varsity football team. Amid this group, though, were two boys walking with their arms draped around one another’s shoulders and with their fingers interlocked.
Drawing upon my own experience as a student, I was prepared for one of them to use his position to place the other in a headlock. I was also prepared for their classmates to ridicule the two boys because of their intimacy. I quickly realized, however, that their posture was a demonstration of sincere affection, and that the other boys perceived this display of intimacy as both normal and acceptable.
For me, this experience captures beautifully what boys’ schools are all about.
There is a certain cultural and emotional freedom that boys’ schools, when operating at their best, are able to generate. Boys’ schools have the ability to liberate their students from the social pressures that often arise in other types of institutions. Boys are capable of sharing their regard for one another without fear of derision. Interests and expressions are not limited by “masculine” or “feminine” labels that society is prone to attach to certain activities. At Cathedral, boys paint, sing, and act, and these activities are vital and popular components of a boy’s experience.
Perhaps our Statement of Philosophy puts it best: “Personalities have the freedom to develop without gender stereotyping, and boys can inhabit all roles in social, academic, and aesthetic areas. Thus, they develop a strong sense of self without the need for posturing and pretending.” In other words, success is not limited to a certain type of boy, and each boy is free to become his very best self.
This emotional freedom may seem antithetical, at times, to the emphasis on physical activity that is common at boys’ schools. Importantly, this commitment derives not from a desire for competition, but from experience and research, which demonstrate the benefits that boys gain from physical activity. There is compelling research to suggest that physical activity supports academic focus and growth. (I recommend John Ratey’s Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, if you are interested in learning more.)
For this reason, Cathedral boys attend PE and recess every day. Virtually 100% of our Upper School students participate in interscholastic sports. Importantly, though, rosters are not limited to the top athletes. Our no-cut policy exists to provide every student — regardless of ability — with the opportunity to participate at an appropriate level. We understand that the benefits derived from learning how to win and lose with dignity, how to play with sportsmanship, how to appreciate your role as a team member, and how to respond to adversity are vital to the overall education that we provide.
Our single-gender approach also allows us to organize the academic day and the classroom experience with the particular needs of boys in mind. The length of the class periods is designed to accommodate the developmental stage of the boys in that grade. Similarly, the teachers understand the educational needs of boys and account for their natural energy and movement in a way that supports the learning experience. (Although not necessarily by design, Cathedral’s countless stairs support this need too!)
Sean Breen, our recently retired Upper School performing arts teacher, was a master of this approach. On a visit to Sean’s classroom once, I observed boys seated at desks, sitting on the floor, and standing at the back of the room. Importantly, each boy, regardless of his posture, was actively engaged in the lesson. All of this was by design. Rather than demanding that the boys “sit still,” Sean was able to harness their need for movement to keep the boys interested and learning.
What emerges, then, is an effort on the part of the school to maintain an equilibrium among academics, athletics, and the arts, each of which plays an integral part in a boy’s development and in his educational experience at Cathedral. On any given day, a Cathedral School boy will play an instrument, act in a class production, play basketball at recess, climb the jungle gym, present a report in history, read to kindergarteners at a local public school, and play in a soccer match against a cross-town rival.
Our education is multi-faceted and dynamic. It is informed by our understanding of the best practices in boys’ education, and the result, we hope, is that we will continue to develop the competent, capable, and courageous young men that Cathedral is known for and that the world desperately needs.
Head of School