Why We Need Our Traditions

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From the Winter 2010-11 Caller

By Tom Tucker '66

Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof,” said Tevye in the musical of the same name. The strength inherent in tradition lies in its power to bring us together to a common purpose. At Catlin Gabel we often laugh about the “instant” traditions we create, but a look at the ones that have survived over time are a testament to the values we hold close.
 
Community service in the Middle School formally arrived under Sara Normington’s leadership and Roy Parker’s support in 1988. The first efforts from the old Middle School were fledgling but enthusiastic. Kids chose whom they wanted to serve—young children, old folks, animals, work on campus—and adults signed up to fill the spots. For seven years George Thompson ’64 and I led groups of kids to the Regency Park care facility to sing songs and tell stories.
 
As time progressed, the service learning program, as it came to be called, switched to a C&C activity. With Carol Ponganis as my C&C partner, we took kids to several Headstart programs, Store-to-Door shopping for the elderly, the Children’s Book Bank, and our second round at the Blanchet House. A week ago Wednesday, a 7th grader and I chopped our way through nearly a bushel of potatoes, as our C&C-mates produced a tub of green salad and an equally large tub of fruit salad. Our efforts that morning helped feed 200 people in need of a meal. Working together with the men who live at the Blanchet House in a common and immediately discernible goal was satisfying for us all. The kids, I believe, now see people down on their luck or in recovery in a personal and newly informed light. Through giving we receive.
 
The mural-making aspect of woodshop arrived about the same time. In 1986 the woodshop was given a large number of redwood squares. The Upper School shop class used the squares to carve a mural depicting many aspects of our Oregon landscape, and it hung on the outside of the old Middle School until the building came down to make room for the new US library. It currently resides in the shop, its surfaces textured by years of wind, sun, and rain. Others have been installed on the outside of the Cabell Center, the Lower School, the US art room, and various nooks and crannies about the campus. Seventh graders have been capturing their own take on topics such as current culture, music, movies, and catastrophes in mural form since we have been in the “new” Middle School building. What they have made is art for all to see. Students can see, in a visual way, the steps traveled before and can imagine the steps yet to be taken. We learn from and contribute to our own history and place in the world.
 
I have had the privilege of participating in one idiosyncratic tradition at Catlin Gabel, the productions of St. George and the Dragon and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, first as an observer of my older siblings and more actively as a student. For the past 25 years I have been involved as an arts team member, building sets, making props, writing lines, and generally trying to corral the creative process. I haven’t tired yet of watching, re-living, and enjoying the stories as re-interpreted by the current crop of 8th graders. I think their appreciation of contemporary life and culture as imprinted on the time-honored tale of good and evil in St. George is complemented by the more thorough exposure to humor, language, and lyric as captured by the astute eyes and ears of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Some of the mores have changed, but the human foibles captured in song and story are as contemporary now as they were then.
 
St. George has been presented to our Catlin Gabel community for more than 60 years. It is a gift that has been told and re-told many times, always the same, yet always different for each student. The Gilbert and Sullivan musicals date back even further, and for the past twenty-some years they have gone on the road to the San Juan Islands, where students have performed for local communities, schools, and a retirement center. Our students’ hard work is shared with people who have come to appreciate it and who look forward to their visit. The production represents a complex process of trust, of rising to the occasion, and of growing maturity and responsibility. When I see former students I always ask them what roles they had and what they remember. They don’t always remember the specifics, but they are always able to reflect on the bonds created. And connections are what traditions are all about.
 
Tom Tucker ’66 teaches Middle and Upper School woodshop.