Early in the morning, just as the first birds begin to sing, I ease out of bed to pull on running shorts, a compression bra and socks. Between school sessions, I add my oldest tee shirt; Thompson requested that I wear it exclusively when there will be no students to read its faded letters, “Smith Women like to be on top.” I exit our 150-year old house as silently as possible by avoiding the 13th and 7th steps and always staying on the outside of each stair-tred. Once outside, I snag my sneakers from a basket of sneakers we keep on the porch. I do the requisite stretches in an abbreviated fashion. A part of me feels like I am racing dawn. The light is rising and I hope to reach the river before sun up.
I am not an especially good runner, but I am dedicated. I run at least five days out of the week, squeezing it in by cutting short my sleep and relying on Thompson to cover the various and sundry demands the children may have between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m.. I have been running the same circuit or a variation on it for more than half of my life. I run around the outskirts of campus, past the library and the dining hall. I cross Rts. 5 & 10 and head into the woods. There is a trail that has been carved out over time; first by Indians, then by local farmers, then by the boys and girls from Whately Preparatory Academy. Every year, they believe they are the ones to have discovered the path. Stay with it for less than two and a half miles, and it ends up down by the Connecticut River. The splendor of the morning light filtered through the towering oaks, white pines and chestnuts fills me with inexplicable joy. Even the summer rain buoys my spirits; it is warm and falls gently by the time it penetrates the umbrage of leaves overhead. When I get to the Connecticut, I am often enveloped in fog so thick, that my clothes are instantaneously soaked. As much as I would love to swim, the sewage treatment plant is just upriver, and I have a hard time quieting the voices in my head that object to the idea. Theoretically, it is perfectly safe, but I know someone who works there, and I wouldn’t let them drive me, never mind entrust my health to them. I resist. Thompson takes a kayak out, often capsizing, with no apparent ill-effects. Call me silly.
The Connecticut River is one of the defining boundaries of my world. As are Rts. 5 & 10, the train tracks and Whately Prep. My great-grandfather’s grandfather, Marshall Dickinson founded the school. Deerfield Academy, a prestigious boarding school less than ten miles away, had already established its reputation for excellence in education when Grandpa Marshall put his mind to educating locals. He carved a niche for himself by becoming the school of last resort in Massachusetts. His principal was sound; someone had to educate the wealthy students who hoped to board but were not accepted elsewhere. He had a model for education that he felt insured success, even for the most troubled students. The model is still in place today.
My life tenancy at Whately Prep was not one of my own choosing initially. My father was the one determined to respect the family legacy; he bred me to my role. Whately Prep is the only school in the U.S. that can claim a family tradition of leadership since the school’s inception. In this case, it was 1857. I am the fifth head of school, the first Head Mistress. My morning runs grant me the only part of the day that is not shared with others. I claim it for myself.