What Kind of Story Have We Fallen Into?
In Which the Headmaster Remembers What He Said Twenty Years Ago
Tonight is Trinity’s 20th Anniversary Auction. Many thanks to Kate Barron and her dedicated crew of auction volunteers, who have worked tirelessly so that every dollar raised tonight goes to support the Blake Hubbard Commons furnishings.
I go back to the first auction, in November 1995, at the Fearrington Barn. My mind is a sieve, and there is so much I don’t remember: what I wore that night, what items we had for sale, or what our auction total was (I’m guessing $12,000). But I do remember what I said when I introduced our speaker, Bruce Lockerbie. I evoked Frodo and his band of hobbits as they rested and convalesced at Elrond’s House, Rivendell, what they called “the last homely house” before the wilderness of daunting adventures. Like those hobbits, we had a few adventures under our belts, but I had a sense then that there were some rough spots ahead. And on that November night in 1995, I was glad for the warmth of the Fearrington Barn, for the hospitality of those who had planned the event (thank you, Jim Lamont and Desiree Denton!), and for the fellowship of people who thought this was something worth doing. Rivendell.
Twenty years later, I am looking forward to another respite of an evening with the Trinity community, and my mind goes again to Tolkien’s tale. I’ve been warned not to go there—I know that Middle Earth is not for everyone. But being part of a great story is for everyone, and Frodo’s story reminds me so much of our own. I’m thinking of an episode at the end of the second book, when Frodo and Sam are at the gates of Mordor, resolute but nearly hopeless. In a rare moment of calm reflection, before the storm that is looming, Sam waxes eloquent:
We shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.
Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same—like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into? (The Two Towers, pp. 320–21)
There are four things that Master Samwise can teach us, and one we can teach him.
- We shouldn’t be here at all if we had known what it would mean. Too true, Sam. If we had started Trinity by saying, “We’ll need twenty acres of land, several million dollars, extraordinary teachers, a board that meets twice a month for five hours, and a mission that will take us years to craft”-—would we have ventured to start Trinity School?
We didn’t choose this so much as we fell into it. I don’t think any of our founders set out to start a school, but we found ourselves in a place where the world’s need was for a school such as this. “I will lead the school, though I do not know the way.”
We may have made a lot of mistakes, but we just went on. Decisions about admissions, about expansion, about not expanding, about discipline, about hiring and not hiring, about policies, about uniforms, about carpool—there is no end to school conundrums, and God knows that we have gotten it wrong more than we’d like to admit. And when we do admit it, we might want to turn back and give it up. But we haven’t, and with God’s good help we have continued to show up. For twenty years. That’s something to tell about.
We don’t know what kind of tale we’re in. Indeed we don’t. How many times have I been surprised. I thought we were going to buy additional land with the proceeds from the Blake Hubbard Memorial, but God closed that door three times. And then we did master planning and the board set out to build this new student and learning commons. Who’d a thunk it?
These are things that Sam teaches us. But there is one more he cannot see, but we do, the readers of Tolkien’s tale. Not because we are wiser than Sam or better, but because we stand in a different place. As we read the trilogy and see the stories of the broken Fellowship--of Sam and Frodo, of Pippin and Gandalf, of Aragorn, of the warriors of Rohan, of Gollum even--weave together and arc toward a fitting telos, we understand that Sam’s story fits into a larger story. Tolkien’s richly layered metanarrative, thick with mythology and history and tangled with many agendas, emerges as a single story (spoiler alert!) of the triumph of the humble good over arrogant evil. Sam cannot see this from his dark path into Mordor, but we see it emerge slowly. We can almost see it coming together.
Two years ago, at our auction at Bay 7, I walked upstairs for a moment of quiet in the middle of the chaos and loud chatter. I stood above the crowd and looked down on all that was happening. I will never forget that perspective, that sense that I could see things unfolding that those below could not.
So it is with Trinity. Those of us in the chaos and loud chatter of daily life at school are caught up in the conflicts and triumphs of the day, and we find ourselves confused and challenged by the crisis du jour. And when something really big happens—like the death of a ninth grade boy—we wonder if there is really any Story at all, or if this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Without vision, the people perish, and God has given us a bird’s eye perspective of our story and how it fits into his: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). He knows the plans he has for us, plans to prosper us. These things we cannot see from where we are, but we believe them, and that belief makes our journey a great joy.