The First Day of Classes: Zoom, Drums, Hope, and Optimism

Aug. 31, 2020 — The first day of school began with a request, via email, from Tim McKinney, NMH’s director of Environmental Health and Safety and Campus Security: Please do not bother the cows next door. 

Someone, perhaps a faculty member enjoying the view of the hills, had stowed a lawn chair in the fields near campus, close to where a small herd of Hereford cows likes to graze. A meditative spot? Certainly. But “they are not our animals,” McKinney advised students and employees, “and they can get a little cranky at times.”

The fact that cows live next door to NMH is an indicator: This is a peaceful, pastoral place. Which serves as a calming salve at the beginning of a school year full of things no one could have predicted a year ago: plexiglass dividers in the dorm bathrooms, desks six feet apart in the classrooms, hand-sanitizer dispensers everywhere you look. 

But Head of School Brian Hargrove is “filled with hope and optimism,” as he said to employees a few days before classes began. At the same time — after a summer of planning relentlessly with fellow administrators as well as faculty members and following advice from experts in healthcare, education, and state government — he is “grounded in the reality of the moment,” he said. “I understand the nature of the challenge we are taking on and the complexity of the environment we are navigating.”

So it felt almost triumphant when, on Aug. 31, a total of 670 NMH students began classes, with 532 boarding and day students enrolled in the school’s on-campus academic program, and 138 attending the new NMH Lab Program that was created over the summer for students unable to travel to campus. The first week of classes is taking place online for everyone, with in-person classes on campus scheduled to start the following week. 

Students stayed in their dorm rooms, doing their first calculus problems of the year and navigating Zoom breakout rooms. Teachers were at their kitchen tables or alone in their classrooms, talking about crime literature or how the brain works. Some people dressed up, putting on a tie and jewelry. At least a few wore fuzzy slippers. English teacher John Corrigan paired his slippers (not fuzzy) with a navy blazer. “Setting the tone,” he said.

Convocation, the ceremonial opening of the academic year, took place on Zoom and capped the first day with an invitation to students from speaker Hadyn Phillips ’21. “We will have to adapt and adjust what we have ingrained in our minds as a normal lifestyle,” she said. “It is crucial that we all put in the effort.”

For the first week on campus, with boarding students still officially quarantining — interacting only with their dorm “pods” — free time has been filled with faculty-run activities such as drumming, scavenger hunts, lawn games, and tai chi. Dean of Faculty Bea Garcia reported that the drumming workshop took place outside her office window. “Can’t beat that!” she said. “Pun intended!”