Goodbye, Kevin Barr
Published online August 6, 2020
After 43 years at GDS—as a high school English teacher, department chair, director of college counseling, director of studies, high school principal, and associate head of school—Kevin is saying goodbye.
He’s heading into retirement—a retirement whose beginning, at least, will be shaped, as everything is these days, by the coronavirus. Kevin had planned to hop in his car and spend a few months driving around the country, no real destination in mind. Instead, he says, he might build some bookcases.
Either way, his offices on both campuses are emptied out. For the first time since he was 23, he will no longer be a GDS employee.
Except it’s not really goodbye. Perhaps that, too, is because of the coronavirus, which turned plans for in-person celebrations into Zoom calls.
Perhaps it’s because, of all the alumni and faculty I talked to for this story, no one really believed Kevin would fully go away. Maybe he’d be back to teach a class. Maybe Head of School Russell Shaw would just pick up the phone to consult with Kevin, instead of walking two doors down the hall. For sure, Kevin would continue his weekly breakfasts with high school English teacher John Burghardt and his weekly dinners with French and history teacher Nooman Kacem.
Perhaps it’s not quite goodbye because Kevin hired over two-thirds of the school’s current employees, and as long as they’re there, he will be, in some way, too.
Or perhaps it doesn’t feel quite like a goodbye because Kevin has been at GDS for so long, shaping the school’s spirit, its students, its faculty, and its alumni, that it’s hard, by now, to tell the difference between how GDS shaped Kevin and how Kevin shaped GDS.
Paradise on MacArthur
Kevin arrived at GDS in 1976. He’d graduated from Georgetown University, where he started as a theology major and wound up studying English. He went to graduate school at the University of Missouri, in his home state. Then, with little or no money in his purse, and nothing particular to interest him in Missouri—or, more to the point, with a girlfriend and a brother back in DC—he thought he would apply for teaching jobs back in town. He sent letters to every independent school. The only one with an opening was a little place he knew nothing about: Georgetown Day School.
GDS in the ’70s was the stuff of lore to anyone who’s passed through the school since. The high school was at 4880 MacArthur Boulevard, the building now owned by the River School. There was a smoking pit where students and teachers socialized. Until 1977, the high school did not have its own principal.
The faculty was close-knit. At least once a week, many of them spent hours hanging out at a chili house on MacArthur Boulevard. “We would do grade reports at each other’s houses,” Kevin says. “We’d settle in for the weekend. You’d have a little bit of a party.”
When Kevin’s father died during his first year at GDS, he had no money to go home to Missouri for the funeral. But his colleagues, without consulting Kevin, pooled together money for flights.
They’d known Kevin for six months.
Kevin came to develop a family of sorts in the GDS English department. There was department chair Barbara Lockwood, revered as a scholar of Shakespeare. She acted as a mother figure for Kevin and fellow English teacher Mike Kirchberg. And Kevin developed close friends in Mike and John Burghardt.
Kevin arrived with no expectations. His own education had come mostly in Catholic schools. He’d taught college freshmen for a year, but other than that and one class on teaching, he had no training. In his first year at GDS, he taught seniors.
“I had a guy,” Kevin recalls, “who I don’t believe sat in a chair the entire year. He participated in every class. And I thought, Wow, this is interesting; this guy’s just going to lie on the floor all year. I suppose I could have told him to sit up, but it just seemed to me, at this school, I mean, no one’s wearing shoes. You’re allowed to lie on the floor. I just thought, isn’t that good?
“And as it turns out, Norris Dodson [’60] told me about a kid who brought his own chaise lounge to class all through the ’50s. And to me, in some ways, that was paradise.”
Kevin in the ’70s: There was that long hair and the beard. There was a fiery spirit, a little bit of a temper. There was a great passion for literature.
“We saw him as a 22- or 24-year-old big kid,” says Kamal Ali ’80, who was in Kevin’s first 9th grade English class in 1976. “Kevin was such a young-spirited guy that he didn’t pull any punches. He would give it to you straight.” When a student offered an unsatisfactory answer to a question about The Last of the Mohicans, Kamal says, “Kevin would go, ‘Bullshit!’ and then turn to the next person.”
The kids loved him.
“Kevin has a heart of gold,” says Congressman Jamie Raskin ’79, a student during Kevin’s first year. “But he can also be very tough on kids if he thinks they’re really being mean to other kids or if they are abusing their liberties and their privileges. I definitely saw him act the disciplinarian a number of times. He would confront kids with their misdeeds in quasi-public ways. That generally scared them straight.”
Especially without much of an organizing structure to the school, Kevin sometimes wanted a little more order. He brought it, mostly, simply by “the force of his spiritual and moral example,” Jamie Raskin says. Jamie recalls reading The Odyssey in Kevin’s 10th grade English class. Kevin asked his students what was special about Odysseus. “What’s an odyssey?” Kevin asked. “What kind of journey is it?”
Jamie remembers Kevin’s explanation: “He said it’s a spiritual journey. And each of you is on your own spiritual journey. And I never forgot that.”
“He was definitely the crush, the teacher that most of the girls had crushes on, because he was so young,” says Cordenia Paige ’83. “Most of our teachers were old. He was easy to talk to.”
Even now, Kevin connects to students intuitively. One day recently, two of his advisees were arguing about something that had happened over the weekend. They’d gone to McDonald’s to find the drive-through closed. They were yelling at each other about it—so Kevin sorted out the situation by mapping on the board exactly what had happened and who had been where, turning the affair into a crime scene.
Upon learning that Kevin was retiring, the same senior advisees asked him if they could create an informal class on Moby-Dick. Kevin had to scramble to find enough copies of the book for the five students. He was one short, so he handed off an old copy of his, with his notes in it. “The two boys [in the group] were like, ‘I want the one with notes! I need the one with notes!’” says Charli Vogel ’20. “I wasn’t asking for anything. So he handed it to me. And secretly in my head I was like, ‘Yes, thank God.’”
Kevin’s mind, in his first years at GDS as now, was stuffed with lines from favorite books. He knew a lot—and sometimes presented himself as if he knew more. “He would say this happened in 1531 and that happened in 420 BC,” Mike Kirchberg says. “I said, ‘How do you know all that stuff?’ And he said, ‘I don’t. I just speak with authority, and if you speak with authority they’ll believe anything you say.’”
Decades later, former Head of School Peter Branch liked to tease Kevin: “You’re often in error but never in doubt.”
After a few years, Kevin established himself not just as a charismatic teacher but also as someone who might shape the English department. In the late 1970s, Barbara Lockwood tasked Kevin and Mike with redesigning the English 9 curriculum. Kevin was committed to some sort of regularity; he wanted to be sure that all the 10th grade teachers could refer to Romeo and Juliet or Great Expectations and students would know what they were talking about.
They designed a class that moved chronologically, from ancient Greece to James Baldwin. The idea, Mike says, was “to show the unfolding awareness of a young person coming into the full flower of life, and the commonalities from way back then to within 15 or 20 years of when we were reading.”
Traces of that curriculum remain today, and the notion of a core set of books every GDS student reads in each grade is still a hallmark of the GDS English department.
“Spiritual realities beyond these”
Motivating that revamp of the curriculum—and his every move—was Kevin’s deep sense of why literature matters. Designing the GDS English curriculum, Kevin’s thinking was shaped in part by the mid-century scholar Northrop Frye. He wanted to expose students to the myths that shape and reflect cultures and personalities. “Myths are the collective dreams of a culture, and dreams are the expression of the deepest self of an individual,” Kevin says. Literature, then, is “the unconscious productions of the individual or the culture.”
As a boy, Kevin read a lot, but he wanted to be a priest. “I was very, very religious,” he says. “I grew up with a sense of the transcendent, a sense of worlds beyond this one. Maybe literature is a logical extension. I grew up totally believing in the impossible. I think literature provides you with that similar sense of transcendence, whether that is connection and communion with others or a vision of things that could be.”
Young Kevin loved poetry, particularly Dylan Thomas. “I just thought there was something almost mystical about the way language works,” he says.
Kevin filled his head and his soul with literature from a young age. “He knows these texts at a level,” John Burghardt says, “where every fourth thing he says about anything is a quotation from Moby-Dick or The Confidence Man or from Emily Dickinson or from Shakespeare. He is the embodiment of those Fahrenheit 451 talking books, except he’s not just one book. The books move in him in the way the Bible moves in some people.”
High school history teacher Richard Avidon sat in on a short course Kevin taught on Moby-Dick in the late 1990s. “It was just a life-changing experience,” Richard says. “I don’t think I ever saw someone who was so excited about the pages, about the ink, about the stuff that somebody said. The characters are alive for him. They’re real people. They have real wisdom to give. Kevin held tightly to the belief that there are writers [across] hundreds of years who can inform us because they were sensitive to the fact that people can be different and still be human.”
Walk into Kevin’s office and you can see a living exhibit of his devotion to letters, music, art, and the expression of the soul—and to GDS. You’re struck first by the books—so many of them. Then the portraits: Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Ellison, Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie. On any given day, you might see a board book telling the story of Moby-Dick to two-year-olds or a nun figurine perched on Kevin’s desk. Prime real estate goes to the photograph of U.S. Marines Elliot Ackerman ’98 and Rajai Hakki ’99, who ran into each other in Iraq in 2004, with a makeshift cardboard sign: “FALLUJAH 2004. USMC. GO HOPPERS!”
It’s an office that’s welcomed thousands of students and faculty over the years, that has convinced applicants that they wanted to work at GDS, that shows visitors, immediately, the personality of its owner.
Kevin’s house, Mike Kirchberg says, is just like his office. As young teachers, Kevin and Mike would retire after school to Kevin’s apartment four blocks away, near the reservoir. “I saw this place filled with books and toys on the shelves, and stuffed animals,” Mike says. “It was just a kind of glorious, warm, and fuzzy point. I told him at the time, ‘Wow, oh wow, I feel free.’ And from then on, I lived my life that way. I have my stuffed animals on my shelves, and my toys on the shelves, and all these things that I learned from him.”
An all-school role
Having established himself as an excellent English teacher, Kevin spent his last three decades at the school bouncing between administrative posts. When Peter Branch arrived as head of school in 1996—the first head to come from outside the institution—he created a new position, director of studies, so Kevin could centralize hiring, professional development, and curriculum. Peter knew that Kevin understood the heart of the school, and that everything he did was marked by “his real empathy towards and commitment to the kids.”
He kept Kevin close, as a connection to institutional history. “It’s hard for somebody like Russell or me or somebody who’s just come in to have those kinds of roots in the school,” Peter says. By that point, Kevin had been around for long enough that he had strong ties to the alumni. Gradually, he became more interested in the school’s history. When the school’s 50th anniversary rolled around in 1995, Kevin created a book telling the story of GDS.
That project cemented Kevin’s role as in-house historian. He was hooked: He saw GDS as an institution with a history as full of promise, and as imperfect in fulfilling that promise, as that of the United States.
Kevin spent many hours digging through the school’s archives. He developed close relationships with alumni who predated him, like Arthur Goldschmidt, who was in GDS’s first class of students in 1945. As one of his final official acts, Kevin is writing a book to mark the school’s 75th anniversary this year.
As director of studies, Kevin attacked the problem of slipping faculty diversity. When he took the job, only eight percent of faculty were of color. By the time Peter Branch left the school in 2010, that number was 35, with administrators of color at 40 percent.
Kevin went to lots of hiring fairs. He knew it wouldn’t suffice to shrug and say, “We just aren’t getting any applications” from teachers of color. As Russell told me, that’s “a non-answer.”
Instead, Kevin left his assigned table at the hiring fairs. “He would wander around and make nice conversation with people that hadn’t been pre-selected by [hiring firm] Carney Sandoe for us,” Peter says.
Director of Studies was Kevin’s first all-school role, and it provided him a more thorough introduction to the Lower/Middle School, where he found what he calls “the sheer delight of getting to be with the little kids.”
“There’s a particular culture that gets established in those early years,” Kevin says. “It seeds the rest of the kids. From the time kids are five, they’ve got something to say, and they want to say it. And I love that they’re encouraged to. But the fact that they have these really exciting opinions, it made me see in a way that I hadn’t before why the kids turn out the way they do at the High School. The greatest joy was simply seeing the through-line.”
From generation to generation
That ability to see through-lines—from division to division, from one decade to another, from a five-year-old to an alumna—is what makes so many people trust Kevin as custodian of the school’s soul.
“He’s able to see all parts of the person,” says former Board of Trustees Chair Jenny Abramson ’95. “In the Board Chair role, he can see me as a former student, can see me as an alumna.”
For many alumni, Kevin’s broad view gives him a kind of sagacity. He ends up doling out advice, because he knows people, inside and out, over the course of their lives. Jenny recalls the day she had to decide where to go to college: “I was wandering the second-floor hallways in a daze, trying to figure out what to do,” she says. “Kevin found me, and, unlike adults who just said ‘Listen to your gut,’ he actually gave me advice. I remember him saying, ‘Listen, kid, go to the West Coast. It’ll be good for you.’ For whatever reason, all of a sudden it felt obvious when he said it.”
When Julia Blount ’08, a middle school history teacher at GDS from 2016 until this spring, learned that her husband had gotten a job in Los Angeles, Kevin—whom she’d known since childhood as her high school principal and a longtime friend of her father—was one of the first people she told. She was considering staying behind in DC and visiting Los Angeles on weekends, because she loved GDS and didn’t want to leave. Kevin told her, “Julia, if I was your dad, I would tell you that your job is your job and your marriage is forever, and you should probably go to California,” Julia recalls. She moved to California.
When Kevin first offered me a job at GDS, as a long-term sub, in 2014, he wrote: “I am happy to chat and can function as Assistant Head, mentor, second dad, or friend in that conversation, whatever you need.”
Contemplating a GDS without Kevin, many of the alumni I talked to wondered who would take his place. Sure, there’s the question of how the administration will be restructured after the departures of Kevin and Crissy Cáceres, the two highest-ranking administrators behind Russell Shaw, in consecutive years. But alumni were more concerned about who would carry the spirit and history of the school, which new teachers would always be the first named when alumni from different eras meet.
“How do you hold on to the core culture?” Kamal Ali asks. As the population of the school’s families has changed, Kevin has been among a cadre of people preserving the core values.
The smoking pit, the hardware store, the teachers with long hair: These are legends to thousands of GDS alumni. Who will create those stories to be told in 20 years?
“Most people just don’t work for the same place their whole lives [anymore],” Julia Blount says. “In some ways, no, I don’t know that there’s going to be people who grew up together in the way that Kevin and John and those people did.”
To John Burghardt, the loss from Kevin’s retirement is more palpable: “What we’re losing in [Kevin] is the last guy whose articulation from an administrative position of what this job entails, of what we owe the students of all stripes, of what rigor looks like, of what compassion and individuation look like—he’s the last guy whose line on that range of topics does not come from some [Association of Independent Maryland & DC Schools] boilerplate. He is the last unpackaged, absolutely experiential base in education, about what education is about.”
Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!
Since I returned to GDS two years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time in Kevin’s office, learning to live, to read, and to teach by his example. It’s just down the hall from my desk in the English department, and I know, whenever I walk in with a problem, a story, or a wandering thought, Kevin will kick his legs up on the desk, proclaim, “Well, girl, gol-lee,” and get right to work telling me a story, quoting Melville, holding forth about the political folly du jour, or griping, as the moment requires.
“Nobody bitches like Kevin does,” John Burghardt says. “He is one of the really delightful but weightless complainers. He doesn’t ask you to do anything but just witness his virtuosity at bitching.”
That virtuosity made Kevin friends long before he even met John. One hot August day in the early 1970s, hundreds of Georgetown undergraduates reported to a gymnasium to register for the semester. The line was more than an hour long. A student was in line, suffering, bored. Then he saw a skinny bearded guy, also suffering, lift his face to the rafters and cry out: “Mother of God! Deliver me from this hell!” The man fell in love and became friends with the louder sufferer, Kevin.
As a friend, John says, Kevin is like “a big planet that kept collecting moons. What is it about Kevin that makes him so absolutely magnetic, company that you prefer to almost anybody else’s? Mike [Kirchberg] said it’s because he’s weightless. Kevin will pay close attention to you, seem to carry the weight of whatever you’re saying, including burdensome things you’re saying, and will not ask you to carry any burden of his.”
It’s that quality—that ability to listen, to really understand what another person has to say—that so many people say makes him a good teacher and administrator, too.
In 2006, when the new high school building opened, with Kevin as principal, students returned in September to notice something missing. For years, a foot-wide maroon stripe had festooned the walls of the first-floor hallway, just below the ceiling. No one ever knew why—but after the construction, the stripe was gone.
In typical GDS fashion, students were outraged. “Free the Stripe” signs soon emerged throughout the school. Some students built a new makeshift stripe out of red paper and taped it to the wall.
After weeks of protest, students returned from a break to find a new stripe, similarly purposeless—but this time in Hopper green.
“That’s emblematic of Kevin,” Julia Blount says. “He was like, ‘The children are angry because we’re getting rid of this maroon stripe. I hear them, and I validate their anger at change. But also, why is there a maroon stripe in the lobby of a school whose colors are green and white? It makes no sense; it’s ugly. So we will leave the random stripe that goes nowhere, but we will make it at least work somewhat with where we are trying to go.’ I think Kevin has a curious ability—or an enviable ability—to see and believe in and live all of the traditions, and also be able to see and believe in all the places you can go.”
Kevin’s commitment to listening to other people extends beyond decorative decisions. Middle school history teacher Toussaint Lacoste met Kevin in March of 2018 to interview for a job. He quickly realized the interview was a little unusual. Kevin and Crissy Cáceres—then assistant head of school for equity and social impact—played as a tag team. They asked Toussaint to tell them about a time in his youth when he made a big mistake that he still hasn’t learned from.
“It wasn’t about a gotcha moment,” Toussaint says. “This is about understanding the population that you’re about to work with. Because if you can realize what you did at 12, 13, 14 that still is with you, imagine the stuff that these kids are going to do. And how do we guide them through that?”
Kevin didn’t just ask Toussaint to be vulnerable. He told Toussaint about his own life, his own experiences in school. He talked about his white privilege, about his commitment to faculty diversity, about how, even after more than four decades at GDS, he still didn’t know the answers to everything.
Toussaint, like so many applicants before him, opened up. “I don’t know you people,” Toussaint thought. “There was a certain level of candor I wasn’t prepared for that they got out of me. I’m giving you information I haven’t touched in 25 years.”
When I asked administrators and faculty how, as director of studies, Kevin managed to help raise faculty diversity from 8 percent to 35, they consistently referred to that skill as an interviewer, that ability to listen. He cares about the person in front of him—whoever is in front of him—in just the way he cares about every student.
“The Crissy and Kevin Show could have gone on Broadway,” says Russell. “I don’t think any person in the country in independent schools has had as many people cry in interviews as Kevin Barr. Not because he berated them, but because he had them thinking about their inner nine-year-old.”
My heart leaps up when I behold
Kevin’s own inner nine-year-old has done well at GDS. Though it’s been decades since he shifted from full-time teaching to administration, he most relishes his time with kids.
When I was in high school, Kevin and I met weekly for an independent study on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Kevin was the principal, but he always carved out time to sit with me in a conference room, poring over Joyce’s text. Every so often, Kevin would leap up to his bookcase and return with Aristotle or Aquinas, to show me the intellectual history of one of Joyce’s jokes. Just as often, he would tell me to imagine Joyce sitting at his table, laughing to himself and telling his wife, Nora Barnacle, that he would be to bed soon but was writing.
I was often stumped, but, sometimes, so was Kevin. He liked to tell me a story about a former student of his, another kid with whom he’d done an independent study. The boy asked a question about a text. Kevin said he didn’t know. “But you are my teacher,” the boy said. “You must know.”
Kevin might have proclaimed dates with authority in his younger years, but by the time I was in high school in the late 2000s, that brashness had largely subsided. He wasn’t often in error—nor in doubt, really: He was in something like what Melville calls “manhood’s pondering repose of If.” His honesty about his uncertainty left me in awe.
One day, we got to a passage in Ulysses that stopped Kevin cold. Stephen Dedalus, a young teacher, is watching a boy named Sargent doing sums. Sargent is struggling. He is not very good at maths. Stephen is daydreaming, thinking about Hamlet, algebra, and Averroes. He is a learned young man. But Sargent asks Stephen for help. And then Stephen has an epiphany: “Ugly and futile: lean neck and tangled hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life?”
In remembering that the boy has a mother who loves him and protects him, Stephen’s own sympathy opens up. In a moment, he comes to love the boy. Then he thinks of his own mother, and he suddenly recognizes himself in the boy: “Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness.”
The passage struck Kevin. He read it to the faculty in a meeting. He talked about it for quite some time, Richard Avidon recalls. And he quoted it in his speech at my class’ graduation in 2009, too: “For much of the novel, Stephen is estranged from himself and others and yet like all of us he possesses a capacity for empathy, an ability to not only see ourselves in others but to recognize that in some deep way we are the other. The best teachers and the best parents carry their own childhoods with them and remember what it was like for the world to be new and for them to be graceless in it.”
Here’s what it was like to be Kevin Barr when he was new in the world: In first grade, he learned how to make the number 8. The nun, his teacher, told him to make an S with a line through it, rather than a snowman. “I said, ‘Why not?’” Kevin recalls. “I promptly made a snowman.”
He was punished. The nun threw insults at him. Then the nun told him he didn’t belong in first grade, so he was sent to kindergarten. Scared and ashamed, Kevin lied for the first time. He said he was going to go the long way around to the kindergarten, when in fact he planned to run away from school. When the nun caught him and finally sent him to the kindergarten class, he was made to stand in front of the other children and tell them he was not ready for first grade.
Even now, Kevin is appalled by “the notion that they could do that—they could yank you around, they could embarrass you.”
Now, when a child doesn’t turn in his homework, or says something mean, Kevin remembers himself, lying and suffering for having wanted only to make his 8 look like a snowman.
When a kid is acting out or not doing his work, Kevin says, “There’s always some reason. If I were to be sorry for anything, it would be for those times when I forgot how easy it is for kids to get scared. We forget the power that we have.”
Kevin uses that power to comfort and listen to even the littlest children. This year, Kevin saw Jack Boland ’33 standing in the hallway near his Pre-K class. Kevin approached the boy and asked him what was going on.
What Kevin knew, but what Jack was certainly not thinking about, was that thirty years earlier, Jack’s mother, Nina Ritch ’95, had been in Kevin’s 9th grade English class. Kevin had escorted Nina into a love of literature.
Jack looked up at the kind old man asking him what was wrong.
“I’m scared,” the boy said. “I don’t want to walk by myself.”
Kevin took Jack by the hand. Kevin walked with Jack.