MPH Apply Now

A human face behind a demanding school

When we see independent schools, we’re often first impressed by their regal architecture. Many of these schools are monuments to physical excess, with the most luxurious laboratories, astounding athletic facilities and awe-inspiring art centers.

Albany Academy was not much different when I arrived in 1979. The main building stands on a hill that seems to have been created to make the school seem imposing. Inside, the floors were marble and the ceilings loomed above me, admonishing me that serious business occurred in this space. The place seemed cold, lifeless, like a mausoleum. In a word, I was whelmed.

Those feelings passed, as I came to know the teachers, particularly Baxter Ball, the Upper School head, who later served for 21 years as head of school at Manlius Pebble Hill School near Syracuse. He died unexpectedly on Feb. 14.

Baxter didn’t teach me until the 11th grade, but by the time we matched wits, we knew a great deal about one another. One thing he didn’t know about, however, was my determination. Baxter told me midway through his rigorous Advanced Placement European history course that it would behoove me not to attempt the final test. His suggestion that I wasn’t prepared for it raised my ire and strengthened my resolve. I took the test and did well.

Baxter was my guidance counselor in my senior year. I remember sitting in front of him as he read my school letter of recommendation. He used a phrase I didn’t know, joie de vivre. I was stunned by how beautiful his words were as he described me, a silly boy who could barely conjugate amour, as a cheerful, dynamic, important member of our community. He said I was vital to Albany Academy, and from that moment, I worked to be vital, to be important there.

He worked closely with me to find the perfect college, Middlebury. Somehow (well, with help from my mother), he knew that I would thrive in the backwoods of Vermont — an urban black going to the whitest state in the union to attend a college better known for its skiing and Club Midd reputation than for welcoming minority students.

But, he was right. He could see and understand his students, and he cared about us, even if he expressed it in his gruff, offhanded way.

Baxter taught me that we need to treat all students with respect, challenging each one daily and accept no excuses from them.

Years later, when I saw Baxter at independent school conferences, I thanked him for expecting more of me. It would have been easy for him to believe that my learning was limited. Instead, he believed that I could be better, and I came to believe that, too.

Baxter Ball — rumpled, grumpy, unorganized, incisive, astute and, most of all, caring — exemplifies what I treasure about my five years at Albany Academy.

Like my time there, Baxter wasn’t perfect. He smoked cigarettes and pipes, told occasional off-color jokes and sometimes cajoled in an acerbic manner. But, he made the place human to me. He gave the place a face and breathed life into it.

Michael C. Obel-Omia is head of school at the Paul Cuffee School, a public charter school in Providence, R.I.