– Slow down, you move too fast…

It is customary for Tom Cavanagh, the principal of the K-8 school in Brookline that Grace and Lydia attend and Eli graduated from, to begin his frequent e-letters to the school community with a quotation and a short thoughtful essay. This one hit my Inbox on a day in which I, and everyone who works with me in the writing center, had spent careening from tutorial to tutorial, task to task. The principal’s words spoke both to my conviction that everything we do in education is necessary and therefore hard to say “no” to, and to a hunch that we must allow ourselves a moment now and then to pause and take a breath. Please keep reading, courtesy of the man his students call, respectfully, “Mister Cavanagh.”

Chestnuts, a handful


Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.

–John Keats, “To Autumn”

Several years ago, during a particularly hectic autumn, I was running from project to project and classroom to classroom. One afternoon I was racing up the stairs and as I came into the office, I told Mrs. Helen Hunt, my former secretary, that I wanted to quickly dictate a letter to her. As I waited impatiently in my office for her to come in, I made a quick phone call and shuffled some paper on my desk. When Mrs. Hunt came into my office and sat down, I immediately started dictating the letter. However, when I looked over at her, I realized that she was not taking the dictation. Instead she was staring serenely out the window seemingly in another world. Following her gaze, I looked out the window and saw that she was staring at the magisterial oak trees that canopy over my office.

“Aren’t the trees beautiful at this time of year?” she sighed.

“Yeah,” I said grudgingly and carried on with my dictation.

However, Mrs. Hunt was not quite ready to let go of the moment. She stood up and walked across to the window and said, “Come here, Tom.” Knowing it was useless to proceed with my agenda, I got up and stood next to her at the window. She pointed toward a small outgrowing maple tree on the knoll and pointed to the flame bushes that are outside Ms. Cherkerzian’s and Ms. Roses’s rooms, and she explained to me what each of them were. And then she walked over to the side window that points towards the Hoar Sanctuary and made me look at all the elms and oaks and maples blending in a colorful autumnal weave.

It was a lovely sight and I momentarily gave up my urge to get back to dictation. Finally sensing that she had my total attention, Mrs. Hunt said softly, “You know, Tom, it’s important to stop to see the beauty that’s around us and to really enjoy nature.” This incident was to me what is called a ‘teachable’ moment. And from that moment on I have tried — sometimes in vain — to remember to enjoy the extraordinary beauty that New England offers.

I share these thoughts with you because we are in the waning days of the most beautiful autumn of recent years. And, perhaps, many of you are like me: forced marching from one obligation to another and missing what is directly in front of our eyes. Below [in the principal’s letter] you will see a rapid-fire listing of various school events and programs. Many of them may make it on your calendar and you will find yourselves with more to do than time allows. Might I respectfully play the role of Mrs. Hunt and remind you not to let the seemingly interminable burdens of each day cause you to miss what’s in front of your very eyes. — Tom Cavanagh


Today Eli and Lydia, at Arnold Arboretum, took turns with the camera, snapping shots to illustrate their principal’s essay, and occasionally posing for each other. The handful of horse chestnuts image, above, and the tree trunk & leaves picture, below, are by Eli.

Leaves, tree, shadows

7 thoughts on “– Slow down, you move too fast…

  1. I take frequent walks at the Arboretum, and I often get so lost in my thoughts that I forget to look around me. The other day, I looked up briefly. The light and the shadows and the leaves–what a moment. It really was magical. I should look up and around more often. Thank you, Mister Cavanagh.

  2. Eli is a really great photographer; that picture of the chestnuts in particular is amazing. Is he planning to make a career of it? Or do you think it’ll be a relaxing hobby for him?

  3. Jan, I thought of you when I was at the Arboretum, because I know you bring Gizmo there all the time. I was imagining you communing with nature, weekly! This reminds me of being in college, on a beautiful campus, and often failing to do more than rush from building to building. I rarely strolled around our lake or walked through the college arboretum. And, I didn’t realize how much free time I had, when I had it.

    K., Eli is flattered by your compliment. When I recently suggested to him that he might take some photography classes in college, he replied that he didn’t see the point of it; he already knows how to use his camera. Then I explained studio art and peer feedback, and he started getting interested. I don’t think he’s planning it as a career, but he is really serious about it right now. It’s one of the two things he does regularly, in addition to writing music, without being “assigned” to do it.

  4. Pingback: - An audience’s task « Leaf - Stitch - Word

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