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“Welcome to Metrozoid Field”

August 30, 2011

In 2004, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik wrote a brilliant essay celebrating the life, intellect and spirit of his good friend Kirk Varnedoe, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, for

Kirk Varnedoe '63

13 years the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The essay is a study of and reflection on the art of teaching, coaching and living, and this morning I want to center our year around the insights Gopnik draws from his experiences with this remarkable man, an alumnus of St. Andrew’s.

Gopnik is a great writer, and he brings all his gifts to the portrait of Varnedoe—he frames his profile around Varnedoe’s work as a football coach to a group of eight-year old boys who formed a team to practice in Central Park.  This was not a version of 21st century organized youth football or youth sports—the kids were playing not to prepare for travel teams, all-star status or strategic ascent to high school and college programs.  The team emerged spontaneously and naturally as the boys began to follow NFL football on television.  Gopnik captures the boys’ spirit perfectly:

They wanted a team—a real team that practices and has t-shirts and knows plays and everything—that could play flag football against an as yet unknown opponent.

Gopnik turns to Varnedoe, his son’s godfather, who played football at St. Andrew’s and Williams.  It was a brilliant choice, but as Gopnik writes:  “Varnedoe was also dying, with a metastasis in his lung of a colon cancer that had been discovered in 1996.”

The team became one of Varnedoe’s last creations of his life, and Gopnik comes to understand the elements that made this man such a gifted teacher and wonderful human being.  Gopnik describes the first practice:

How would he teach these eight year olds to play football?  Orate at them?  Motivate them?  Dazzle them with plays and schemes?

OK, he said very gently, as the boys gathered around him in an attentive, slightly wavy circle:  Let’s break it down.  First thing is how you stand.  Everybody get down in a 3-point stance.

The boys dropped to their haunches confidently.

Kirk frowned.  He walked up and down the line, shoving each one lightly on a shoulder or a knee, and sharing how a 3-point stance could be a weak or strong tripod, a launching pad or a stopping place, one that let you push off strongly or one that held you back.  At last he got everybody’s stance correct.

For Gopnik and the reader, the moment suggests Varnedoe’s understanding that teaching involves breaking complex subjects and concepts into coherent and meaningful sections—the teacher does not perform, lecture and inspire through egotistical expression of his/her dominance or brilliance—he/she “demystifies”—through coaching, through trial and error, through incessant feedback, evaluation and practice.

Of course, we also appreciate Varnedoe’s style:  he is gentle, persistent, attentive to the needs and stance and performance of each individual player.  The stance becomes a metaphor for education and for life.  He teaches to enable his students to push forward.

As the practice continued, a park worker informs Varnedoe and Gopnik that the field they are using in Central Park is not one that can be used for games—As Gopnik begins to protest, Varnedoe responds differently:

“We-ell,” Kirk said, and the southern accent he brought with him from his youth in Savannah was suddenly more intense, an airplane captain’s accent:

“Well-uh we got ten young men here eager to play football—where can we take them to play?”

To Gopnik’s surprise, the park worker responds to Varnedoe’s question by searching for and finding an appropriate field for the team.  Gopnik writes:

“Much obliged,” Kirk said, and he gestured to the boys, a big arm sweeping gesture, and he led them off in search of the promised field.  They followed him like Israelites.  We walked across the road, took the left, and went down a hill, and there it was—a little glade that I had never seen before, flat and fringed by tall trees offering shade to the waiting moms and dads.  It had a slightly derelict look—I could imagine that in a livelier era this field might have been a Francis Bacon mural—men struggling in the grass—but today it was perfect.

“Gentlemen,” Kirk said clearly to the boys as they struggled on, looking around a little dubiously at the tufts of grass . . . “Welcome to Metrozoid Field.  This is the place we have been looking for.”

We witness Varnedoe’s graciousness—he works with the Central Park employee without aggression, impatience or assertion, and in a very short amount of time, the new field emerges.  A moment that could have been disruptive and disconcerting for the boys instead becomes a moment in which Varnedoe expresses his sense of ceremony and creativity.  The tattered field becomes “Metrozoid Field”; the new location becomes “the place we have been looking for”; the boys become “gentlemen.”

The practice continued now, in this new setting and soon the coach organized a scrimmage—Varnedoe keeps the play simple, denying Gopnik’s suggestion that it might be time for a play to be inserted into the competition:

“No – They’re off to a good start.  Running and standing is a good start.”

The day holds one last coaching moment and opportunity.  As the winning team celebrates a victory with cheers and high fives, Varnedoe responds:

“Hey,” he said stepping forward, and for the first time I heard his classroom voice, his full out voice, a combination of southern drawl and acquired New England sharpness:

“No celebrations,” he said, arriving at the middle of the field.  “This is a scrimmage.  It’s just the first step.  We’re all one team.  We are the Giant Metrozoids.”  He said the ridiculous name as though it were the Fighting Irish or Rambling Wrecks, an old and hallowed name in the American pigskin tradition.  The kids stopped, subdued and puzzled.  “Hands together,” he said and stretched his hand out and solemnly the boys laid their hands on his, one after another.  One, two, three together, and all hands sprung up.  He had replaced the ritual of celebration with one of solidarity, and the boys sensed that solidarity was something at once more solemn and more fun than any passing victory could be.

This is an eloquent and powerful model of adult assertion:  we see Varnedoe interrupt the celebration, step forward physically and bring his classroom voice to bear as he teaches the boys an essential lesson about a culture of collaboration and collegiality.  Our rituals, he suggests, define our values, and he makes the ritual of bringing a team’s hands together into a statement about the nature of sport and the nature of the team.

Away from Metrozoid Field, Varnedoe was delivering a series of six brilliant Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and he was continuing his intense chemotherapy treatments for cancer.  By the end of this series of lectures, overflowing crowds filled the National Gallery as Varnedoe spoke without notes on abstract art.  Gopnik writes:

He had come to believe that in art history, description was all the theory you needed.  If you could describe what was there and what it meant (to the painter, to his time, to you), you didn’t need a deeper supportive theory.  Art wasn’t meaningful because after you looked at it, someone explained it; art explained itself by being there to look at.

He refused to allow art to be quantified, categorized or simplified:  “all the nettled and querulous critics who tried to homogenize the pictures into a single story undervalued them, because in a sense, they undervalued life, which was never going to be harmonized either.

The portrait Gopnik draws of his friend speaks to Varnedoe’s passion for his work, belief in his work, and his invitation to colleagues to join him in a restless quest for discovery, research and writing.  His career was fueled by appreciation, discovery and fascination by moments when artists broke through convention and somehow met not opposition and rejection but rather celebration and acceptance.  He reminded his audience at the Mellon lectures to look carefully:  “The less there is to look at . . . the more important it is that we look at it closely and carefully.  Small differences made all the difference.”

Soon the eight-year old Metrozoids learned a play, and their coach carefully broke football down into its essential elements:  snap; lateral; three-pass patterns; short, medium, long; the corresponding reactions and decisions of the defense.  When his defense struggled to contain the play, he taught them principles of zone and man-to-man coverage, designed to disrupt the structure and confidence of the offense.

Suddenly, the Mellon lectures and practices on the field bring Gopnik to an epiphany about the teacher’s life:

It is said sometimes that the great teachers and mentors, the rabbis and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, made of their charisma, a kind of gift.  The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers and, for that matter, the truly long-term winning coaches . . . do something else.  They don’t mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of rabbinical authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunicators.  The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model—they probably have to—but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance.  The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify.  They made particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see.  A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject and then ourselves.

These are wise words inspired by a great leader and human being, Kirk Varnedoe, and of course, they connect beautifully to what St. Andrew’s has tried to express in word and deed through the work of this faculty.  The cult of personality, the teacher as the egotistical, narcissistic bearer of knowledge does not work in a school dedicated to the cultivation of intellectual curiosity, originality, creativity and engagement.  We do not work to create dependence and adulation—we give voice, confidence and skill to the leaders, creators and thinkers of tomorrow.  This does not mean charisma is unimportant—it is—we need to teach with passion, vigor, creativity and abandon.  But Gopnik celebrates Varnedoe’s complete commitment to opening up the vision and possibilities of his students, to teaching them that the rewards for hard work and resilience and courage are immense.

But there was more—there was death to be confronted in Varnedoe’s life, and he addressed that subject in the last of his lectures.  He shared reflections about faith, for Varnedoe a faith rooted not in certainty and authority and doctrine but a faith in the power of humility, uncertainty and ignorance before life’s greatest questions, in his words, “a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, as something fertile with possible meaning and growth.  Because it can be done, it will be done.  And now I am done.”

“The applause,” Gopnik writes, “when it came, it was stadium applause, and it went on for a long time . . . ” His last words in the Mellon lectures were ones celebrating the privilege and power of thinking, studying, educating himself before gigantic questions.

It is remarkable to me that Kirk Varnedoe studied, learned and played on this campus, and that the awakening of this spirit, intellect and humanity to some degree began here.

His presence, story, life and legacy should remind us of the privilege and opportunity inherent in the teaching life.  It should remind us that we as teachers have so much to learn and so much to gain by the embrace of a work ethic and scholarly persona that is restless, collaborative and vital.  His life should remind us of the magnificent privilege and honor to work with young people, to teach them, coach them, help them understand the value of solidarity, teamwork and thoughtfulness.  His life calls us to look more carefully, more critically, more independently—to break from convention, passivity and cowardice.

(This essay was originally delivered during the first St. Andrew’s Faculty meeting of the 2011-2012 School year on Friday, August 26, 2011)

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 9:51 am

    Earlier this year, when we were going through the boarding school search/application/selection process with our older daughter, I happened across the New Yorker Issue in which the “Metrozoids” piece appeared — in stack of old magazines in our living room. Kirk Varnedoe’s alma mater was duly noted. It’s a great read, and not just for educators

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