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David Smith began teaching 50 years ago and has worked in five different schools, ranging from the shoestring variety to the ponderously well established. He has spent the past 34 years at Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, 11 of them as chair of the English department. He is married to the writer Janna Malamud Smith and has two children, Peter and Sadie, who successfully weathered the challenges of attending the school their father taught in.
The book combines story and reflection, recounting the author’s experience over six decades as student and teacher in independent schools and exploring the ideas about education that have shaped that experience—ideas such as knowledge, rigor, humanity, authority, and love. Though filled with scenes, anecdotes, and characters that root it firmly in school life, it is less a chronological narrative than a meditation on how teaching and learning take place, both how hard they are and how joyous they can be. The author shares the understandings that he has developed over time but does not lay claim to the guru’s position, insisting instead that education, even at its best, is a fragile and tentative business, one in which false starts, missed opportunities, and unintended consequences inevitably frame the passages of delightful success. In painting a picture of schools as schools are, he believes that humor and irony rank among the most important colors on the palette.