Associate Head of School Kevin Barr’s 44-year tenure at GDS is coming to a close this spring, just as school life has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Barr has spent two-thirds of his life working for GDS and has been a constant, beloved presence at the school for a majority of its existence.
Augur Bit reporter Ethan Wolin spoke with Barr over video call to discuss his time at GDS, his legacy at the school and his future. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
First of all, could you tell me how it feels to be leaving GDS after being at the school for so long?
Well, how it’s feeling at the moment is probably different than how it might have felt if we had had a normal semester. Were we in school and I was getting to see everybody and say goodbye to everybody, I think it would probably feel a little heavier than it does now. It does not feel as weighty a decision or as weighty a moment as many of my colleagues seem to think it should feel, and that tells me that it’s probably time. It’s not like Louis XIV: après moi, le déluge. I think the school’s in terrific shape.
Could you tell me about some of the most important or meaningful moments in your time at GDS?
Sure. The most meaningful role that any teacher plays is trying to be of support to kids. I just had an exchange with one of them who I had 40 years ago. Being able to maintain connection has been really powerful.
My work with colleagues, and particularly colleagues in those early days when we were designing the English curriculum. That’s certainly going to be memorable.
And I think what I take away is the fact that over the past 20 years, I have hired probably two-thirds of the people in the school. And having been a part of that process will stay with me.
What are you proudest of over the course of your time at the school?
One is doing right by thousands of kids over the years. By and large, I think that I did really good work in supporting kids and honoring who they were. I take pride in that.
I certainly take pride in the hiring. When I took over hiring, we had really lost sight of how incredibly important it is to have a faculty that reflects the student body and reflects America. And I think my ability to move the faculty from 8 percent faculty of color to 25 percent faculty of color in about six years is a big deal.
When you arrived at GDS in 1976, did you expect to stay at the school for so long?
No. I came to GDS because there was only one position available in the entire city at any of the independent schools and I didn’t have a teaching certificate, which was required for public schools. I didn’t know what I was getting into.
But very quickly, I not only fell in love with the place, but I was deeply, deeply moved to discover a place that seemed to really honor kids. And to the extent that I could, over the years, ensure that that DNA remained, that seemed really powerful and meaningful.
Partly I stayed because every time I got restless, there was something else for me to do. I was absolutely blessed that almost every seven years, I got to have a different job. [That] and being able to be in a community which really tried to live up to its ideals sustained me enough that I never really thought about leaving.
Could you tell me a little bit about some of the roles you’ve had at GDS?
Sure. There have been very few years when I didn’t get to teach. That role has certainly been the most consistent and, truthfully, the most enjoyable of all my roles. Why folks choose to go into administration, I have no idea.
In some ways, my least favorite role would have been the director of college counseling. It is a very challenging role.
I loved being principal of the high school. There are times when I wish I had stayed in that role.
Being assistant and then associate head of school has allowed me to continue to shape the policies and practices of the school, but more than anything to serve as a support to Russell [Shaw]. Getting to do that has been really important.
Other than the teaching, probably the most fun I had was in the summers with [John] Burghardt and other faculty members painting the buildings in the old days.
You said that you don’t understand why people want to go into administration. Why did you want to go into administration?
I didn’t particularly. There was a moment when I thought, Well, I’d like to do something other than teach. And that was when I became the director of college counseling. The problem with administration [is] it takes you further and further away from kids. I’ve always been an advisor every year. I’ve tried the best that I could to stay in contact with kids.
How have you changed over the course of your time at GDS, and what have you learned?
Wow, that’s a hard one. I think I am gentler and kinder. I have learned a lot about kids. I don’t think I was terribly reflective as a young teacher, and I think I have learned to be more conscious of myself.
I grew up in a household which was singularly free of prejudice of any sort. But that was all sort of emotional; it was just how you were raised. Being at GDS has required me to become much more aware of the history, the systems that are in place in this country.
In some ways, I’m not particularly sure I’ve changed a whole lot. You know, I don’t particularly see myself as a big player; I just see myself as the same guy who came to the place at 25 with a beard and a ponytail and kind of stayed. I suppose I should be more mature. But I’ve not ever been one for all the rules and regs.
What are you looking forward to in retirement?
Well, what I am looking forward to is different than what I was looking forward to. What I was looking forward to was having the freedom to spend two months—oh, I don’t know—driving around the country, which is what the plan was come September. Obviously, in the midst of a pandemic, I don’t think I’ll be driving around the country. But there are a lot of books still to be read. There are a lot of places still to visit. Few books I might want to write. Mostly, I think I just want to take it easy for a little bit. And I also think, given that it’s GDS, I’m likely to be back in some capacity, but I sure am not going to be back full-time.
I remember in my reporting about you and Burghardt, I heard a lot about your connection to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. And I was wondering if you could lay it out for me and tell me what that book has meant to you.
Well, golly. I think in some ways, my appreciation for Moby-Dick has grown with my appreciation for GDS. Moby-Dick, in some ways—in addition to just being a wonderfully good read and funny as hell—is a guidebook to how one lives a life.
When I was young and a lot angrier than I am now, I used to think it was Ahab’s book. Ahab is furious with the world and convinced that the world is a crushing and pernicious place. As I’ve gotten older, I realized it’s actually Ishmael’s book. What Ishmael insists on—and I have come to really believe deeply—is for all of its darkness and pain and sorrow, life is so filled with joy and possibility and beauty and humor.
There’s a line in the book, when he’s falling in love with Queequeg, his cannibal friend, and he says, “It’s better to sleep with a sober pagan than a drunk Christian.” And I think the capacity to see goodness in folks who are totally unlike ourselves is what redeems Ishmael and makes that book special to me. It’s also funny as shit.
What have been some of the most challenging moments in your work at GDS?
The hard times are those moments when your love for a kid is in tension with your concerns for the larger community. For example, my very first year as principal, my daughter and some of her pals got caught up in a discipline situation where I had to suspend my own daughter for a week. That was really painful.
My son said to me once, “Dad, I hope you know that everyone loves you as Kevin and they hate you as the principal.” And I thought, Well, I guess it would be worse if it was the reverse. But I am fairly blessed with having a thick skin.
Do you regret anything from the past 44 years at GDS?
Oh, sure. Absolutely. I regret the times when I was a young teacher and I was not as patient as I should have been. I regret when I’ve gotten crosswise with some of my colleagues over the years.
But mostly, I don’t walk around with a whole lot of regrets. I’m not afraid to meet my maker. I think I’m a basically good guy. At the end of the day—at the end of every day—I like to reflect on, Have I done more good than harm in the world? And I walk away from GDS feeling very strongly that I did more good in that place than I did harm. And I don’t think we get to accomplish much more than that. Mostly, it’s been a lovely, glorious run.
Ethan Wolin ’23