Kevin Barr, Gone Again, Wants GDS to Take ‘a Hard Look Back’


Kevin Barr tends to ask candidates for jobs at GDS to tell him about their eight-year-old selves. Alice Wang, an English teacher new to GDS this year, was taken aback when she heard the question during a Zoom interview with Barr last spring.

“I started to go into my spiel about who I am, what I do, teaching-wise,” Wang told me, but Barr interrupted her: He actually wanted to hear about her childhood. So she talked about when her parents, both Chinese immigrants and English majors, would drop her and her sister off at Barnes & Noble on Saturday mornings, with $10 for lunch at a nearby mall, rather than hiring a babysitter.

Wang had taught at three different schools in the previous three years and was seeking a job in D.C. as she wrapped up a graduate degree in education at Harvard. She had found GDS online and, on April 11, emailed then–high school principal Katie Gibson out of the blue to ask about any openings. Wang heard back two days later, from Kevin Barr. 

Barr’s question was unlike ones she had come across in job interviews before, Wang said. Here was “someone who’s interested in getting to know not just who I am now, but what is my history?”

Kevin Barr is also interested in GDS’ roots. Barr arrived at GDS as an English teacher in 1976 and served in numerous roles—including college counselor, director of studies and high school principal—on the way to his final pre-retirement post as the school’s No. 2 administrator.

In a December 2019 email announcing Barr’s plan to retire after 43 years at GDS, Russell Shaw, the head of school, wrote that Barr had informally become the institution’s in-house historian as well. In an interview in the fall of 2019, Shaw told me that Barr “will always be an important voice in the life of the school” and that he “has Georgetown Day School’s DNA.”

Now, Barr wants the community to reexamine that DNA for guidance at what he sees as a consequential time in the history of a school larger and more institutionalized than ever. As its 75th anniversary, in 2020, neared, Barr began putting together a book with his account of the school’s origins and 26 essays by former students or faculty members about memories from GDS.

But few members of the school community are aware that the book exists. After the pandemic derailed plans for it to accompany large-scale celebrations of the milestone, about 200 hardcover copies of the 160-page volume, 75 Years at Georgetown Day School, arrived at school last spring. Since then, no one has publicized the book to students, parents or teachers. Most copies were set aside to be used as gifts for major donors; the ones of those that remain undistributed sit in storage.

[UPDATE: Since this article’s publication, and following calls from alumni, GDS administrators made the 75th anniversary commemorative history book available to order online and advertised it in newsletters to alumni and current community members.]

Barr, meanwhile, is home from a solo road trip he took over three weeks this fall to and from Oklahoma—via Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri.

Before the coronavirus arrived, Barr had envisioned taking a long journey through America in retirement. Stuck at home, he instead read extensively about Native American history—which then became the focus of the two-year-delayed, truncated trip. With a Bob Dylan soundtrack on the road, he visited the Osage, Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations.

I asked him whether anything on the trip had to do with GDS. Nothing, he replied. The same could not be said of the whole period since his full-time employment at the school ended: He faced public rebuke on Instagram for having once uttered the n-word in front of the high school; finished the 75th anniversary book; came back on a contract to help hire a wave of new teachers; and, in a full-circle return to his first GDS job, spent a few months teaching English 9.

The two-and-a-half-year stretch was also eventful for GDS: The 75th anniversary passed with school life and customs upended by the pandemic. Outcry about racism prompted a renewed focus on identity and inclusivity. GDS left behind MacArthur Boulevard for the first time since 1956 as the lower and middle schools began functioning on Davenport Street. Two top administrators, both in jobs Barr once held—High School Principal Yom Fox and Associate Head of School Meg Goldner Rabinowitz—are in their first year at GDS.

“I think it’s a really big, important moment,” Barr said in one of three Bit interviews this fall and winter. “All these changes, I think, make the book more important than ever. I think it is easy to lose sight of why you’re there.”

I got my hands on the 75th anniversary book after a lunch with Barr at Pete’s Apizza in mid-August, when he said I could stop by GDS and pick up a copy with his blessing. I claimed it in the advancement and communications suite on the fourth floor of the lower/middle school building, whose light-toned wood, large windows and bright, clean carpeting evince an unmistakable newness.

The exterior of the horizontally oriented, coffee table–style volume strikes a similarly modern and minimalistic tone: on the cover, nothing but the title and a photo of young students eagerly raising their hands; on the back, blank white space.

At the top, Kevin Barr pictured in his yard this fall. Here, the cover of the 75th anniversary book. Photos by Shaila Joshi.

Inside, one reads about memorable teachers and holiday traditions, about GDS’ shift to openly embracing LGBTQ people, about late-1990s debates over whether to permit affinity groups. Congressman Jamie Raskin ’79 writes about the “pretty badass 20th century liberals” who founded GDS and the “lifelong teacher and spirit guide” he found in Kevin Barr. (English teacher Julia Fisher ’09, the Bit’s faculty advisor, wrote an essay for the book and edited its full text.)

The sentimental stories, interesting tidbits and full-page photos abound. But in talking about the book, Barr turns time and again to the educational philosophy of GDS’ founding leader, Agnes (or Aggie, or Ag) Inglis O’Neil—and to the possibility that not all current teachers and administrators are attuned to those foundations.

Barr venerates O’Neil, whom a New York Times obituary called a “pioneer in early childhood care and education.” Barr at one point joked to me that GDS could be called “the Aggie O’Neil School.” But her name is little known and rarely, if ever, heard on campus. Rabinowitz, the first associate head since Barr, told me she read the book but has not discussed GDS’ founder with Shaw.

The 14-page chapter about O’Neil, replete with old school documents, newspaper clippings and anecdotes, says near its beginning that she “deserves a full book all of her own.” Yet to the vast majority of the community, the book that already exists is out of sight.

O’Neil’s ideas about how to treat and educate children were no less than radical and brave when she applied them in her time at GDS, Barr told me—and they remain so now. “We are still just catching up—and maybe not even—to Aggie’s wisdom,” he said. “She was so far in advance of so many teachers, in terms of respecting kids, respecting kids’ intelligence, trusting kids, making sure that it was a learning process that was mutual.”

Barr worries that, by coddling students and overemphasizing identity, today’s faculty is susceptible to drifting from the school’s true purpose.

“Aggie knew something that we sometimes forget: Yes, Aggie absolutely wanted an inclusive school. Aggie believed deeply that diversity was the better way to go, that human dignity lies in all of us. That was not her endpoint,” Barr said. “Her end goal was to make you the best student she possibly could.

“GDS always runs the risk of forgetting why we take care of children,” Barr continued. “We don’t take care of children and love them and lift them up and embrace whoever it is that they are becoming because that’s the business of school. No, the business of school is to teach you how to read, write and think. It’s just that you can’t do those things if you’re scared and you don’t love yourself.”

Overplaying identity is far better than neglecting social and emotional learning altogether, as some schools do, Barr said. To a certain extent, he acknowledged, teachers absorb O’Neil’s approach unconsciously by working at GDS, even if they are unfamiliar with her and her writing. But, Barr said, “it is worth, every couple of years, taking a hard look back.”

Outside Shaw and Rabinowitz’s offices are portraits of past GDS leaders, including Aggie O’Neil, top left, and Edith Nash, top right. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

Teachers—many, if not most, of whom he helped recruit and hire—should look at and collectively discuss GDS’ pedagogical underpinnings, Barr said.

Take O’Neil’s notes from staff meetings held on Sept. 18 and 19, 1954, which list pointers for teachers. “No kid should ever have the feeling: ‘I’ve got to know this.’ He should rather be personally involved in the material taught,” one reads. “Kids should get to the point of feeling that whatever they say or feel or think is not stupid and is worthwhile because they think it,” says another.

Barr said that administrators should order cheaper paperback copies of the book to allow for broader distribution, including to all teachers and to any students or parents who are interested. Books about GDS that Barr helped produce for previous milestones were made widely available to the community, but not the new one. “Why the hell aren’t they distributing it?” Barr said. “I have no idea.”

The book was conceived in 2019 as a component of big plans to celebrate the 75th anniversary the next year on the newly unified campus. Barr at first envisioned that the volume would follow its forerunners’ format, with chronological narration. Shaw proposed including essays by former community members as well, Barr said. In the end, the book would have both elements.

Barr, then the associate head of school, was uniquely able to solicit essays from alumni and past colleagues, Alison Grasheim, GDS’ director of communications and interim director of external affairs, told me. “He has all that social capital,” she said. “People love to support Kevin and the work that he is excited about.” In his foreword to the book, Shaw writes that Barr was “single handedly responsible for its existence.”

That fall, Barr referred to the project in two posts on GDS’ Hopper Effect blog. In his January 2020 State of the School speech to parents in the high school library, Shaw read parts of several already-submitted essays. (Administrators later cut from the book one of the pieces Shaw excerpted—an essay by Jason Campbell ’07 about the impact that track and field coaches Anthony Belber and William Miezan made on him—after Campbell was accused of sexual harassment by former medical co-workers in a lawsuit settled in 2021.)

The book remained unfinished as Barr entered retirement in 2020. It was assembled, designed and sent to a printing company last school year, when a shortage of paper forced the project to be printed overseas, Grasheim said. She had hoped the book could be unveiled at a brunch on April 24 honoring Gladys Stern, the late former director (the equivalent of head of school), but the books did not arrive in time.

A brunch in the lower/middle school gym on April 24 honored the longtime director Gladys Stern, who died in November 2021. Photo by Max Kaminski.

They finally did later in the spring. The school sent each contributor a book in the mail, and members of the Board of Trustees got copies, too, according to Barr. Otherwise, he said, the book “almost became an afterthought” for an administration overwhelmed by other matters.

Barr said he told administrators when the books arrived that he wished for the book to be widely promoted and accessible but heard in response that the school had not budgeted for more than the 200 hardback copies. Grasheim and Shaw each said they did not recall such a request from Barr.

But already, Grasheim said, a group of administrators had decided that the book’s best primary use would be as a donor stewardship item—a gift given to significant benefactors, including, in this case, to those who set out so-called legacy contributions in their wills—rather than as a “community-wide marketing piece.”

Grasheim declined to provide the names of other administrators who were involved in arriving at that decision; Barr was not, Grasheim said, because he was not then working at GDS. Shaw said in an interview that the school has given the book to special visitors, such as Senator Bernie Sanders.

Rhona Campbell, the high school librarian, did not know before an interview with me in late November that the 75th anniversary book she had heard was in the works had been printed. Afterwards, she emailed Grasheim, who in early January brought two copies of 75 Years at Georgetown Day School to add to the library’s collection.

Meg Goldner Rabinowitz said in an interview that she thinks teachers and current seniors should each be given a copy, and she floated the notion of putting the book on sale for parents.

Grasheim said in a December interview that she had heard no directions to change the approach to the book but would follow any budgeted plan she was given, although she added that the school is seeking to limit expenses amid inflation. “I’m not trying to hide a book from anyone,” Grasheim said. “That’s not the goal.” 

Earlier in the same conversation, Grasheim said she would not allow an Augur Bit photographer to take photos of where the books sit in storage because she would not like that image to appear in the newspaper. She said she did not know how many of the 200 copies of the book remained in the school’s possession.

All three alumni contributors whom I interviewed said that they chose to write essays in part because of personal ties to Barr, without any expectation about where the product would go.

Elena Lobo ’04, a lawyer in the Georgetown University general counsel’s office, whose essay centered on a former band teacher, said in a phone interview that she saw the book as Barr’s “personal project.” Lobo added, “I knew that whatever I wrote could be either kept in a closet somewhere or it could go everywhere.”

Julia Blount ’08—a former GDS middle school history teacher who is now an administrator focused on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion at the Echo Horizon School in California—contributed an essay titled “No Brick Ever Educated a Child.” Blount told me she’s happy the book exists for people who are ever interested in exploring school history.

“It’s also not something to get so anchored to that we can’t progress forward as an institution,” she said about GDS’ past. “If the founders were doing something progressive and groundbreaking, rather than staying stuck in what was progressive and groundbreaking then, how do we take that spirit of innovation in education and move that forward?”

Barr assured me the reason he wants the book disseminated is not that he made it or that it’s an “elegantly constructed tome”—or that he thinks GDS must hew, without adaptation, to the approach of its founding figures. As he sees it, though, disregarding them is akin to saying, “I don’t need to read American history.” (Barr, it turns out, has considered writing a book about U.S. history through the lens of his family’s story, dating back to an ancestor’s arrival in 1640.)

“If people aren’t interested in why the school exists, and what the founding principles were, and who founded it,” Barr said, “then that’s a shame. That’s sad. It could be very true that no one’s interested. If that is the case, I would say, huh, isn’t it funny that we want to be in a place that we know nothing about? And then we’ll just make up stuff about what this place is and should be. That’s a troubling idea.”

In May 2020, Barr was cleaning out his two GDS offices—one in the Palisades, the other in the hallway behind the high school faculty lounge—even as school ran virtually. In a conversation that month on Zoom, later published in part as an exit interview, he sounded unambiguously bullish about the school’s future. “I think the school’s in terrific shape,” he said.

At the same time, Barr was feeling burnt out, he said in an interview outside Coffee Nature in October—from shouldering responsibility for the community, handling myriad operational minutiae, managing employees with sometimes fragile egos. “I was shedding many layers of skin,” Barr said, adding that his longtime friend John Burghardt, an English teacher who started at GDS the year before Barr did, theorized that he was “suffering post-traumatic stress” from two decades as an administrator.

In late June 2020, Barr came under fire on the public Instagram page @blackatgds, where current and former Black community members criticized mistreatment of Black students in numerous anonymous posts. A June 29 post that identified its author as a member of the class of 2016 said that, during a week that year when a race-related controversy engulfed the high school, “a faculty member got up in front of the whole school and yelled the n-word with a hard r while condemning it’s [sic] use.”

An Instagram account bearing the name of Robinson Cook ’16 commented in response to the post, “is this that time Kevin Barr said [n-word] to an audience of 500 people and kept his job?” Another user replied, “isn’t he ALSO on the hiring team?”

In response to multiple other anecdotes involving the alleged utterance of the n-word, GDS’ official Instagram account commented that “speaking or even reading the word aloud in its entirety deeply wounds listeners” given its “excruciatingly painful and disturbing history.” Administrators responded to @blackatgds as a whole by expressing gratitude for the account, praising its contributors’ courage and soon introducing extensive anti-racism plans.

Barr acknowledged to me, in what are his first public statements about the @blackatgds call-out, that, while expressing outrage at the n-word’s having been written somewhere on campus in 2016, he did pronounce it fully to the school. At the time, he said, he heard no pushback. In light of the online criticism, Barr said, “I always regret if something I have done hurt some kid.”

In the post’s immediate aftermath, Barr would have liked the school to put out some statement to qualify its support for the account, he said—perhaps one recognizing his contributions to diversifying the curriculum and the faculty. “You move through life trying to do the right thing,” Barr told me, but “not everybody is necessarily seeing your actions in the same way that you want them to be seen. And that can be very painful.”

But Barr said administrators were right to welcome students’ concerns unequivocally. “In the end, the institution is far more important than anybody who’s ever worked there,” Barr said, quickly adding, “except for maybe Aggie and Philleo”—Aggie O’Neil, the first director, and Philleo Nash, the first board chair.

“I think the world of Kevin,” Shaw told me. “I think Kevin is a phenomenal educator, a tremendous human being. He has been a really, really important partner to me. His integrity, his care for this place, his belief in what we stand for has never been in question. My wish is that he feels valued and honored.”

To mark Barr’s retirement, an online edition of the school’s magazine, Georgetown Days, in August 2020 featured a lengthy article by Julia Fisher, a onetime student of Barr’s, in tribute to his tenure.

With lockdown, there was no retirement party for Barr in 2020, and nor has there been one since GDS’ return to normal operations. “Retirement parties are awful, awful things,” Barr said, with people heaping praise no matter their true feelings. 

But in the October interview, he nonetheless seemed somewhat salty about not having had a party: “Where the hell was the party? They give parties to people who were here for like three years.” Does he want a party? “I don’t know. I did at the time.” He later told me that, this fall, he has demurred when administrators have proposed throwing a party in the spring; to him it feels too late.

Barr entered retirement with the dream of becoming “an absolute man of leisure.” He’d travel the U.S. by car and travel abroad, too. Instead, he took lockdown seriously, confined at home with his wife, according to Lauren Dickert, the school’s chief of staff. And, he said, the dissatisfying departure soured Barr’s sense of the school where he’d spent over four decades.

“Like some wounded bear, I went off and licked my paws for a little bit,” Barr said.

Bookshelves in Barr’s house. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

For a year and a half, Barr enjoyed a relaxed lifestyle away from GDS. He gardened; he unwound with family; he read—a ton about indigenous America. Dickert said she’d sometimes check in with Barr, who, in over a decade of close collaboration, had become a mentor and friend. Barr, whom colleagues regarded as “Uncle Kevin,” would in turn make sure they were taking care of themselves while tackling the pandemic at GDS, Dickert said.

Then, last winter, Barr received the call from Shaw to return to GDS in a part-time role, which he had left open the possibility of doing. The person who had managed the previous year’s hiring cycle had just left, and GDS needed help, Barr said. He had overseen the process for years—with what Shaw deemed, in his announcement of Barr’s retirement, “a jeweler’s eye for talent”—and now returned to do the same.

His part-time contract lasted until June. About 30 positions had to be filled in that time, Barr recalled. The pandemic added to the task’s difficulty, with a more competitive market for scarcer teachers and less certainty that candidates offered positions would accept them.

If the environment to navigate was increasingly complex, Barr’s mission, he said, was simple: “Just hire people. Keep diversifying the faculty and hire people who will show up in the fall and, you know, basically know what they’re talking about and be nice to the kids.” For his part, Barr showed up to a small, sparsely decorated office in the business suite on the lower/middle school’s fourth floor.

Being back on campus “healed the wounds” from his initial departure, Barr said.

Alice Wang, the first-year English teacher, said she was struck in her interview with Barr last April by his pride in GDS’ history and his long tenure. Teachers at her previous schools were, by and large, younger and less experienced than GDS’. As she considers where she might “put down roots,” Wang said, “going to a place where I see so many teachers who have been here for so long is a really big green flag.”

It was 1976 when Barr, fresh out of graduate school in Missouri, joined the English department of a high school entering only its seventh year.

Chris Thompson became friends with Barr in college at Georgetown University. Barr encouraged Thompson to try teaching at GDS in the mid-1990s, after Thompson had grown overwhelmed by work while raising his son Kevin Thompson ’08, who was named partly after his godfather, Kevin Barr. Chris Thompson taught for a time at GDS, lived in California for over a decade and returned this fall to start a second stint in the English department, where he sits back to back with Wang.

Alice Wang, whom Barr interviewed last spring, and Chris Thompson, whom Barr twice encouraged to apply for a job at GDS, work at their desks. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

Three days after my interview with Thompson, I received a long email from him. Subject line: “Thinking more about KB…” He wanted to take another stab at answering what he’d taken to be my central question: What explained Barr’s devotion to GDS?

Near the end of Barr’s freshman year at Georgetown, anti–Vietnam War demonstrations were met with a harsh police response on campus, according to Thompson, who arrived as a freshman the following fall. Liberals’ ideals of peace and kindness gave way to cynicism and anger, he wrote. “But,” Thompson continued, “some six years later, when Kevin arrived at GDS, the school stood as sort of an island of persistent idealism centered on education.”

In the time since Barr’s arrival, much about GDS has changed: A high school that he estimated had about 180 students and 40 teachers then has over 500 pupils and a faculty of over 80 now. The administration has ballooned. The high school moved to Tenleytown, from a building with a leaky roof, and expanded to the Forum wing. GDS offers fuller science and math curricula, and fields better sports teams, than it once did. And so on.

Barr pictured early in his GDS career. Photo courtesy of Kevin Barr.

“GDS in many ways has been brilliant in its growth,” Barr said.

The school’s one major misstep, to his mind, was to rely on substantial tuition increases to fund the original construction of the current high school building in the late 1980s, since the community considered fundraising “unseemly”—hikes that sunk GDS’ socioeconomic and racial diversity to lows from which it long strove to recover, Barr said. The school has lost its onetime aversion to fundraising, the endeavor to which administrators channeled 75 Years at Georgetown Day School.

As far as the school’s growth, Barr thinks GDS should “stop right here and settle in,” he said. “How do you retain the emotional community when you’re this large? Because the emotional community is the vehicle to getting the best education possible. And I think it’s a lot harder.”

In the February of Barr’s first spring semester at GDS, a pair of parents interviewed Philleo Nash, who had been the founding board chair, for a GDS oral history project organized by his wife, Edith Nash, the former director. A partial transcript of the conversation was printed in 1987, after Philleo Nash died, as a pamphlet, a copy of which Grasheim lent me.

Philleo Nash described the school’s inception as an effort by a group of parents to forge for their children an alternative to D.C.’s underfunded, segregated public schools and the elitist, and also homogenous, established private schools. He called the third way “a do-it-yourself learning, teaching community.”

Barr believes that members of that community today should turn to the school’s original principles, rather than pressing narrow conceptions of “the GDS way” that can constrain newcomers. “Often the people saying ‘That’s not the GDS way’—not to sound like a jerk here—are people who have been here for three years, four years, five years,” Barr said.

O’Neil’s September 1954 faculty meeting notes include one about written assignments that Barr suggested some GDS teachers nowadays too often neglect: “Never undergrade a paper because of form or because it was late.”

The 75th anniversary book includes a full page of notes from 1954 GDS faculty meetings. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

And Barr brought up to me, unprompted, the athletic department’s list of pre-approved psych outfits, which he had read about in the Bit. “The fact that you come up with 20 should immediately tell you that this is absurd. Why not 21? Why not 18?” he said. He would rather students and staff talk through potentially unwise options.

He referred generally to psychs in which male teams don traditionally female attire and vice versa. “I understand that somebody might get offended. But holy shit. People are dying,” he said. Barr noted that many of the parents who established GDS had recently returned from fighting in World War II—“not people who were namby-pamby, ‘oh, don’t hurt my feelings’ people.”

In 1977, Philleo Nash was proud to observe that, 32 years on, the school found itself among “the front rank of Washington independent schools.” But he warned that the community needed to stay vigilant—and remain aware of its history—to preserve GDS’ distinctive character. 

Over time, with age, expansion and affluence, Nash told the interviewers, a school like GDS “can lose its punch and disappear, or maybe continue without any real purpose, other than just to survive.” Barr included that quote in his preface to the largely unseen 75th anniversary book and told me he thinks it “should be posted on everybody’s bulletin board” at school today.

Concerns about GDS’ fidelity to its founding were a fixture of GDS before Barr was.

Edith Nash heard from friends in D.C. around 1960 about “the school’s slippage into a more conventional commercial enterprise,” as she put it in an afterword to the pamphlet commemorating her husband, signed from Wisconsin Rapids. At the time she heard those reports, GDS still occupied a small building near Battery Kemble Park; one can only imagine what the widow writing from Wisconsin in 1987 would make of the school’s present premises near Wisconsin Avenue.

A pamphlet published in 1987 featured excerpts from a 1977 oral-history interview with Philleo Nash, along with an afterword by his wife, Edith. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

When the Nashes returned to D.C. from Wisconsin in 1961 for Philleo to work in the John F. Kennedy administration, “the school was facing a crisis of leadership,” Edith wrote in the afterword, and she took on the role of director, succeeding O’Neil, to promote “the preservation of the school’s original values.”

That was among Barr’s main responsibilities as associate head of school until 2020, and he has visited campus a few times this school year, too, to provide historical context when administrators have invited him, Barr said. (Barr declined to share what the meetings were about.) Shaw delayed hiring a new deputy because no one could replace Barr’s deep GDS experience, Shaw wrote in the retirement announcement.

Last January, after three semesters without an associate head, Shaw announced his pick for the post: Meg Goldner Rabinowitz, at the time a private school administrator in Seattle. Rabinowitz explained to me that her role differs from what Barr’s was, in that she is charged with overseeing each division’s day-to-day operations with the three principals reporting to her. (They did not report to Barr.)

Her take on the school’s emphasis on identity differs from his, too. When I asked Rabinowitz about Barr’s concern that its current form might overstep the founders’ vision, she said that setting academic rigor against attention to equity and emotional support amounted to a false choice. “I don’t think we’re in danger of over-indexing the desire for our students to thrive over academics,” she said.

In Barr’s view, GDS’ difficult task is indeed to achieve both—to challenge students intellectually and attend to their wellbeing. But the latter can eclipse the former, he added, if the limited time in faculty meetings and special programming is overly concentrated on identity.

“Identity matters deeply,” Barr said, “because that’s what we feel like and how we’re perceived as we move through the world. But I think ultimately, the cultivation of character and mind and spirit probably is your goal, because that may be all you have left at the end.”

So too, Barr thinks, for schools. “All schools are at risk of becoming somewhat hollowed out,” he said. What differentiates GDS, in his mind, is the clarity of its founders’ educational philosophy. “The soul of an institution is very different from the building in which it’s housed,” he said.

The unified campus in Tenleytown. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

Among his conclusions from delving into the school’s history: “GDS was founded to be a soul-making institution, not an identity-affirming institution.”

If it was meant to be an institution at all, that is. “We never intended to found an institution,” Philleo Nash told his interviewers in 1977, a decade before the high school moved to Davenport Street. “Whenever I see how big and successful and permanent looking it seems, I have a feeling of surprise: ‘What hath God wrought?’”

Kevin Barr did not want to be interviewed when I asked him in August, so we simply had lunch instead. On a wet November school day, we met back at Pete’s for what would be our second interview. When I arrived, he was sitting at a table near the back, reading William Wordsworth. His first comment: that his granddaughter and I might be the only two people still interested in what he has to say.

Barr, who turned 70 on New Year’s Day, seems utterly at ease nowadays, relishing his distance from the day-to-day school schedule that for years dictated his hours and minutes. He prefers not to keep his cell phone handy, bringing it to our interviews only in case he ran late. At this one, he ate a small Hawaiian pizza. As the interview wrapped up, before we parted ways in the rain, Barr had a final message: “Don’t make me sound like I don’t love the place.”

At one point in the conversation, I asked him to tell me about eight-year-old Kevin.

He had just been blinded in his right eye, he said, by a swinging golf club standing in for a bat. The accident took him out of school for several weeks and left him feeling “really shaky” after returning. One teacher from among the nuns at his strict parochial school, where corporal punishment was common practice, stands out in Barr’s memory for her supportiveness as he struggled. That, he said, is probably why the age he asks about is eight.

“I always start with that question,” Barr said, “because if you can’t remember who you were when you were a kid, you have no business teaching children.” He wants to ensure that candidates understand that all students struggle, no matter how they appear to be doing. “If you remember being terrified, if you remember trying your best and having your best discarded,” Barr added, “I think you are not likely to treat a child like that.”

Rabinowitz heard Barr’s signature question last spring while sitting in virtually, from Seattle, on an interview he was conducting with a candidate for an administrative job. Rabinowitz privately disapproved of the query: Asking someone to recall their life as an eight-year-old is predicated on an “assumption of privilege,” she said, and might trigger distressing memories for “survivors of childhood trauma.”

Barr said he understands the critique but that’s part of the point: “If you still have so much trauma that a question like ‘Tell me about your childhood’ is going to cause you to have a breakdown in my interview, I don’t want you anywhere near children. A school is where we help children grow and heal and flower and flourish,” he said—not a place intended to heal teachers. 

But that doesn’t mean it can’t heal them.

Partway through last spring semester, former English teacher Nicole Gainyard, who then went by the name Gee, left the school for unexplained personal reasons. Barr learned about the departure because he would have to hire a replacement and offered to take over one of her English 9 periods for the rest of the school year, teaching the required texts she had yet to cover, such as The Odyssey and Genesis.

Room 115, where Barr taught freshman English last spring. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

Sophomore Elena LaGuardia said Barr graded an essay that Gainyard had assigned but never returned and handed out a sheet with exemplary paragraphs from students’ work. “He clearly seemed like he loved being our teacher,” LaGuardia said. “I’ve never had a teacher who cared so much.”

For Barr, the class was a gratifying coda to a GDS career bookended, for now at least, by time in an English classroom. “It was very sweet that I got to close out whatever that was—my 44th year, 45th year or something—with the same ninth graders that I kind of fell in love with 45 years ago,” he said. “The kids are just as bright and clever and sweet-natured and open as they’ve ever been.”

One day near the end of the school year, some students in the class noticed a window in the classroom was open and decided to escape through it and then re-enter the building through the door by the English tutoring rooms. One classmate began by distracting Barr, saying the word gullible was written on the ceiling, LaGuardia said.

Barr continued class as students began to leave. By the end, over half of the class had made the roundtrip excursion, sophomore Ashwin Colby recalled. “We’d go out through the window and then come back in through the door, or leave through the door and come back in through the window,” Colby said. “Somehow he never noticed the entire time.” 

In Barr’s telling, the students took advantage of the vulnerability that originated at age eight—the blindness in one eye—which requires him to sweep the room to see everyone. He realized what was going on when one tall student hit his head on the window.

His reaction to the episode? As he often does, Barr found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick instructive: “A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing,” the sailor Ishmael writes. So, if someone can make for the subject of someone else’s joke, Ishmael says, “Let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way.”

In an assembly the day before Thanksgiving break, students were encouraged to write cards of gratitude to someone. LaGuardia and some classmates picked Barr. She recalls thanking him—for sticking with them even when people sometimes did not pay attention.