“I’ve never heard of The Thacher School.”
When Joy and Michael Mulligan held the first Open House in the fall of 1992, the hosts saw the event as the alternative—students looking for something outside the weekend’s standard catalog of dances, film-screenings, or games could spend time at the head of school and his partner’s home. Both held measured expectations, looking forward to a small group of kids with which they would spend their evening. Joy baked no more than ten cookies in preparation.
That Saturday night, the whole school arrived in an energetic spectacle of students and faculty. And despite Michael and Joy’s belief of that showing being a one-off, the entire school returned the following Saturday and have done so nearly every week for 25 years.
Since its initial conception, Open House, and its reflection of The Thacher School’s central values and mission, has not only come to embody tradition. It has cemented itself into the long-established Thacher ethos. That is to say, it has become an institutionalized event.
The entrance to the Mulligans’ home resembles something out of a fairy tale. A small pathway breaks off from one of the School’s main roads, slipping between flowers and shrubs. It leads to a wooden porch whose panels glow by stringed lights that hem the home’s anterior face. The front door is red and has a small, brass knocker in the shape of a toad.
On weekends, students from each grade flock to this door, piling their footwear out front in a cluttered heap of shoes. When they move through the home, they brush past one another, many turning sideways and raising their arms in cautious motions as they edge between the throngs that fill the narrow passageways. They nod and greet one another. Some smirk at their friends as others try to grab someone’s attention with a resounding “Hey!” and a wave of the hand. In the home’s central space, students and faculty encircle a table piled with colored posters and markers. The mismatched contents of board games—dice, Scrabble tiles, and checker pieces— litter the table. At the edges, a ring of fierce competitors strains amidst a heated, seemingly high-stakes game of Bananagrams. The surrounding crowd incites the players with cheers, applause, and fist-waving.
From the living room pours a blend of music and laughter. One night, the source is a group of impassioned friends grasping a single microphone. They sway from side to side, heads tossed up as they watch Karaoke lyrics flash across an adjacent television screen. They belt a shrill cacophony. This year in particular, students have an unexplainable fixation for popular songs played to the backdrop of Filipino-inspired instrumentals. Another night, the sounds echo from an impromptu dance staged by the students. Classic after classic blares on the home’s speakers as a tangle of underclassmen and upperclassmen gyrate to Neil Diamond and the Temptations.
The living room gives into a space where students lounge on top of one another. Bundled together with popcorn and chips, some with the remnants of chocolate-chip cookies smeared across their shirts, they watch a movie or T.V. show, occasionally exploding into laughter.
An invisible current carries the energy in Open House. It surges through the Mulligans’ home. It is felt the moment you walk in. It takes you to each unseen alcove and room, launching you directly into the roaring dances, the amusement, and the community. Propelling you as you exchange words with friends and faculty, this current inevitably arrives at the nerve center of Open House: the kitchen.
There, Joy oversees a massive operation. The kitchen fills a modest space. At its center is a small island with a marble top. Flanking the room’s sides are overhead cabinets and pull out-drawers. On one cabinet, a sheet of paper tallies the number of cookies baked during the year. The marks are scrawled in haphazard regiments and, as it stands now, the number exceeds three thousand.
In one corner, a student, faculty member, or Joy grills quesadillas. They place the finished product on the island only for a herd of students to inhale it. On another side, countertops are freighted with chips, popcorn, carrots, celery, cereal, milk, cups, spoons, forks, and a bowl of hot dipping sauce taped with a small sign that reads, “Stir me!” Normally, groups of students rotate through the area, reaching over each other’s arms for handfuls of food. When new students bolt into the kitchen, they greet and thank their hosts and jump into the fray. At any given moment, the kitchen brims with over twenty members of the Thacher community.
Joy anchors herself in the corner of the kitchen. A pair of black glasses sits atop her head of golden hair and her green eyes give off a blend of focus and calm. There is yellow caution tape that perimeters her corner and between cooking quesadillas or watching the oven, she angles herself near her station’s edges to chat with different kids and faculty. Joy has a frictionlessness about her. She effortlessly commands conversations and her expression shifts from amazement to delight to surprise within the span of several moments. Her demeanor, lighthearted and calm, conveys the unique self-possession and looseness of a longtime teacher. When she talks, her hands gesture alongside her speech. When she grins, those around her follow suit. When she laughs, her voice often echoes the loudest. It is unclear how, but she betrays no worry as she directs the comings and goings of the kitchen. And when she hollers from the oven, shoveling the newest batch of chocolate-chip cookies onto the island, students swarm to the scene. You can guarantee the cookies, like most food during Open House, will be gone before the night is out.
While she keeps an eye on the oven, Michael weaves his own path throughout the house. He wears his patent button-down shirt and jean combination. He sports a Thacher baseball cap—one in an extensive inventory that has become a special moniker. His place of choice is the deck that overlooks the Mulligans’ front yard. There, he casts a long shadow from the sunny light that leaks from the kitchen. He keeps an eye on students not so much by observing them, but by slicing through small groups and sneaking into conversations. Seemingly reticent when he shuffles between different circles, he can burst in with a wild blend of arm motions and chuckles. In these moments, he possesses the type of spirit seen only in teenagers. His presence is one of brief quips and elaborate stories. Leaning in close with a group of kids, he asks them about their weekend, studies, and sports, only to launch into a multi-part narrative inspired by the students’ words.
“Have I told you the story about…” is his introduction of choice, normally delivered with wide eyes and a grin. “So, you know, that’s how things go,” is his all-purpose conclusion. Amongst students and faculty, his gift for storytelling is legendary.
As in Open House, Michael and Joy inhabit different spheres on campus. While Joy has made her home within the English department, Michael has had to find his teaching role outside the classroom as the head of school. More often than not, however, their orbits cross. Each year, as they interact with new constellations of students, they join in a force that draws on the energy of teenagers as much as it lends its own. They are, at their core, teachers and mentors and have fulfilled this role amidst the backdrop of over two thousand Thacher students.
There is an infamous story of their first meeting. Michael loves to tell it. Joy questions its truth. “I don’t remember it,” she says.
It was the summer of 1977 and both attended a master’s teaching program at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. It was the first day of school during lunchtime. Michael, who entered the cafeteria, saw Joy sitting alone. He greeted her, seating himself across the table, and the conversation went something like this.
“Where do you work?” Michael asked.
“The Thacher School,” Joy responded.
“I’ve never heard of The Thacher School.”
“That’s ok, they’ve never heard of you.”
Facts aside, Michael says, “I did know that she and I shared a love of school and a love of teaching.” He admired her care and intellect. Joy felt he understood and shared her passion for her work. She remarks, “I do remember sitting across from him at the lunch table and at the end of it going, ‘We are equally excited about this thing called boarding school.’”
“The parts better be good.”
Joy Sawyer-Mulligan’s first introduction into the world of boarding schools began in 1971. That summer, she attended the Advanced Studies Program held at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, one of the region’s premier college-preparatory academies. The program, offered to local public high school students completing their junior year, is meant to find and challenge young talent through an academic, athletic, and social curriculum built around a boarding school setting. It has run since 1957.
At the time Joy applied, New Hampshire was ranked forty-ninth nationally in state aid public education. At her own school, she remarks, expectations dwindled. The administration had trouble fostering motivation amongst its student body and maintaining high teaching standards. Programs that had potential were met with little faculty attention and commitment. Classes lacked vitality and with both students and faculty falling behind expectations, the school struggled to offer tangible opportunities. Likewise, students inclined towards academics often found themselves social pariahs.
Joy remembers her peers passing time by hurling spitballs at a portrait of George Washington. Together, they would declare a potential target. “I call nose,” one would say, before wadding spit and paper together and letting the projectile fly. “That was the big event of the day,” Joy says. “The education just wasn’t there.”
Joy didn’t necessarily feel out of place in her public school. A New Hampshire native, she grew up in a rural setting in a household that, above all, valued family. Her parents ran a farm where the expectation was not the pursuit of higher education, but a willingness to contribute to the family’s work. Her family, and its collective history, maintain deep in-state roots and a profound commitment to the domestic. Joy was only vaguely aware of the broader opportunities elemental to institutions like boarding schools.
In this sense, her time at St. Paul’s was life changing.
The distinction of moving from Joy’s high school onto the campus of one of the oldest and most elite schools in the nation is difficult to grasp. In many ways, St. Paul’s was an absolute digression from Joy’s initial expectations and assumptions of education. Led by faculty who stayed on campus during the summer, she attended accelerated classes—one English seminar and another of her choosing—that condensed the material of a semester-long college course into six weeks. By themselves, these classes were of a whole different breed from New Hampshire’s public schooling. They incorporated breadth and depth in ways Joy had never seen. Teachers expected students to not simply know the material, but to understand it as well.
This distinction was only made possible by the high-achieving climate in which Joy found herself. Her peers, many coming from a similar background, were high-testing and dedicated students. Not only were they excited about education, they also possessed a level of creative endeavor that, until then, lacked the space and stimulus for growth. In the classroom, there was was never any fear on the part of the teacher that the students would be disrespectful or unresponsive. Likewise, the students could remain confident that whoever taught would recognize their passions and ignite them.
This, in a way, encapsulates Joy’s understanding of boarding schools. Unlike the local institutions she grew up in, St. Paul’s constructed a world oriented around purpose. Her classes, the other students, and her teachers were all parts of a deliberate, well-oiled machine. The final product was not the surface level mastery of arbitrary facts and figures. It was young, mindful men and women.
Placing these kids in the same room, Joy says, changed lives. For her, St. Paul’s was more than a stepping stone towards higher education. It was a portal to another world. It was the place she cemented an unquestioned importance for education. Simply put, Joy says it was about the power of “just being with other kids that really loved to learn and loved books and writing and music and all the things I loved too.”
She adds, “For me, it was the eye-opener of my whole life.”
At St. Paul’s, Joy unearthed the passion that lies at the heart of purposeful education. She also came to understand the possibilities of boarding school—a scholarly and devoted institution, a setting that encourages ambition, and a family pledged to deepening the bonds between hearts and minds. For all the gravity of this revelation, Joy was no stranger to community. Tracing her past, one gets the sense that she and the boarding school life form a perfect marriage.
While growing up on her parents’ farm, Joy lived in the vicinity of thirty-one first cousins. They played, explored, and worked together on the same acreage. Joy, alongside many of her cousins, was her parents’ employee. And at some point in every Sawyer kid’s life, they were part of the ‘barn rats.’ This meant grooming and feeding horses, cleaning tack, shaking out the hay, and raking the family paddock. On the land, the horses pulled sleighs and hay wagons.
Joy’s father was an entrepreneur and whichever business he ventured into, his family followed close behind. The year Joy was born, he opened a restaurant. As a child, Joy remembers her siblings building small forts out of Number 10 cans. They grew up amidst substantial Hobart mixers and industrial work sinks. To keep the business afloat, the entire family filled in a range of discrete jobs. While the younger kids handled simple tasks like cleaning and washing dishes, the older ones helped manage the property. Together, they produced enormous food batches day after day. Joy’s job meant refilling various food containers.
Beyond the importance of family, Joy understood what it meant to feel depended on. Her parents not only assigned her a job that needed doing but one that was necessary for the benefit of others. The alternative, at least to Joy, meant sacrificing that peculiar spirit and reverence that defined her childhood work—you contributed to the family or you were outside the family.
“I grew up with a really strong work ethic,” she reflects, “and a really strong sense that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But, the parts better be good.”
Most students believe Open House preparations begin an hour or so before the door opens on Saturday night. Joy normally sends an email to the whole school asking for helpers, and a group of loyal students will come to lend a hand. One will set up a movie while a few others scurry to clear out the living room for a dance and the backyard porch for ping pong and giant games of Connect Four and Jenga. The rest maneuver in the kitchen, carrying black plastic tubs from one corner to the next as they turn what are normally empty countertops into food havens stocked for over two hundred students. Joy sets the oven’s temperature to 360 degrees and begins baking a few preliminary batches of cookies for the first waves of students.
In actuality, Open House preparations begin early Friday morning, when Joy prepares the cookie dough. She makes it from scratch and her recipe is known only to her and one alumna. The former student, Joy says, wanted to make cookies for the other college kids in her dorm hallway. She had to beg. Joy, who felt it was a worthy cause, relented.
“Swear on your life you will never tell anybody,” she told the alumna.
Using numerous four-liter tubs, Joy stores the cookie dough in the home’s freezer. The dough, she says, must be cool enough before the front door opens. If she does not prepare for the following week, she repeats the same process at the same time on Friday.
“Why do you do this yourself?” Michael asks her from time to time. He notes that the School’s dining hall is perfectly capable of doing the same job in less time and with less fuss. “It’s one thing you could offload, you know?”
“I like the change of pace,” she says.
“I was rough right along with it.”
As a boarder at Massachusetts’ Governor’s Academy, then known as the Governor Dummer Academy, Michael Mulligan wanted to play guitar. He didn’t have any experience but approached a teacher he respected by the name of Marshal Clunie. To put it lightly, Clunie was a renaissance man.
He was a lover and master of classical music and played a self-built harpsichord. Often times, he would invite Michael and his friends to his house where they would listen to records and discuss the music that played on the turntable. Clunie was also a skilled woodworker and craftsman. Outside his home, hardwood logs spilled across his porch. Clunie’s skill transcended the campus boundaries. He led whitewater trips at the Keewaydin Canoe Camp. Excursions out to the Hudson Bay were standard fare. Clunie also had a jones for ice fishing and snowshoeing.
The outdoors and arts were not an appendage to his teaching. They were central. In the classroom, Clunie was a dynamic teacher, possessing a fiery passion for literature. His expertise was American classics, and his enthusiasm was of another world. When his class began to read The Sound and the Fury, he was honest with his students, warning them the text would be challenging. This, he said with a smile, should not deter them.
“This is going to be one of the greatest books you’ll ever read,” he told his class. The students believed him, and for what it’s worth, Clunie’s promise was true.
Michael credits Clunie for not only teaching him how to write compellingly but also for overhauling his perspective of poetry and literature. Until then, he felt an unexplainable distance from the subject. Clunie, Michael says, bridged this gap with the unique energy he wielded in the classroom.
Michael specifically remembers the period his class tackled Thoreau’s Walden. Amidst the backdrop of the 1960s, the work took on a life of its own as class discussions dashed from one question to the next. Debates and open dialogues were the life of the class. Though Clunie’s presence was powerful, he tried to offer high schoolers the stepping stones to their own voice. He forced his students onto a path of critical inquiry. He not only encouraged the analysis of the text itself but also a deep self-reflection of the student’s own lives. Clunie engaged the class with questions that burrowed as much into the intellectual as they did the spiritual: “What does simplicity mean? What do we need to live good lives now? How are we failed when we rely on material comforts?”
If questions formed the framework of the class, then awareness was its foundation. Clunie, Michael says, would not settle for surface level answers. He did not cull greatness from his students; he demanded it, instructing with a force that seems almost mythic today. His teaching, traditional in every sense, was extraordinary.
Clunie wanted his students to experience discomfort, to make it their own, and ultimately, to surpass and thrive within it. He wanted students to love what they did.
When Michael approached Clunie looking to learn guitar, his teacher dropped his plans for the day and the two took the hour drive from Byfield to Cambridge. They did not play any guitars. They simply studied them. They did this for the entire day. Over forty years later, the experience still lives in Michael’s memory.
The crux of Michael’s experience in boarding school was the mentors who laid the groundwork for his character. Today, his early years inhabit an almost fabled vision of 1960’s American youth.
He grew up in the Massachusetts woodlands near Newburyport. If he wanted to meet with friends, he had to hop on a bike and ride for a few miles. Alongside other kids, he played tackle football without pads. Baseball, basketball, and impromptu wrestling were common diversions. On the playground, the kids played what Michael calls, “Kill the Man with the Ball.”
The town in which he grew up was not the wealthy suburban community one finds today. Michael’s neighborhood held a deep-seated working-class identity. There, different groups—the Irish, Polish, Italians, Catholics, and Protestants—lived along cultural lines. A rugged quality defined Michael’s upbringing. Social conflict was typical in the town and a certain amount of this friction spilled over into his local schooling.
At the Beville Elementary School and Currier Junior High School, where Michael spent his years before attending Governor’s, fights erupted nearly every day. Upperclassmen packed sixth graders into garbage cans, rolling them down nearby hills. Bullying, though not the governing law, was the school’s currency. For any boy, proving himself in a fight meant finding a footing in the strange social order of school. For Michael, his environment meant survival of the fittest.
He and his friends kept away from the older kids, but found themselves easy targets as smaller students. Michael remembers running to his father one day to tell him about a specific kid who constantly harassed him. His name was Lloyd. The next night, in quintessential small-town American fashion, Michael’s father returned home with a pair of boxing gloves. He gave his son lessons.
“Look,” his father said. “You don’t stick up for yourself, no one else will.”
The two practiced together, and Michael was sure he was a dead man.
When he returned to school, Lloyd approached him on the bus. Michael, ninety pounds with a pencil-like frame, squared off and told himself, “If I’m going to die, I’m going to go down fighting.”
Michael stood his ground, and Lloyd kept his distance.
Though he reflects on these early encounters with amusement, Michael doesn’t overlook their implications. His school lacked cohesion. Teachers struggled to kindle excitement or interest amongst the students. The curriculum, Michael says, fell flat. His peers were not lazy so much as they lacked the structure that yields ambition. For his part, Michael was uninterested in education. His instincts veered towards the social and in his class of 35 students, he found himself melded to his surroundings.
“I had never truly enjoyed a complete day of school grades one through eight,” Michael says. “My public junior high school was a rough one, and I was rough right along with it.”
High school options were little better. The local school suffered from the same problems, if not magnified by the larger and older student body. In 1966, as Michael’s junior high years concluded, his father encouraged him to look at college preparatory schools. Governor’s Academy ranked at the top of their list. Michael applied, neither fully committed nor certain a boarding school was the right fit. The Academy accepted him. He chose to attend.
Looking back on his time in boarding school, Michael doesn’t discuss his own experience. He speaks of the teachers who left a resounding mark. His greatest mentors, he says, were those who anchored their authority with skill. While Marshal Clunie instilled in Michael the purpose of reason and articulation, another teacher, George Heberton “Heb” Evans III, revealed the value of total mastery.
Heb was a math teacher, wrestling and lacrosse coach, and dorm-master. He was the author of eight books ranging from an exposé on the Quebec Hydroelectric Project to a series of whitewater and canoeing guides. He wrote children’s and cookbooks. In math class, he used a computer text he authored.
As a wrestling coach, Heb guided Michael to the New England State Championships. Michael triumphed over his competition and became the best wrestler in his weight-class.
“I was not a superior athlete,” Michael says of his opponents and Heb. “He was a better coach.”
On the lacrosse field, Heb was a pioneer. His 1966 book, Lacrosse Fundamentals, displays an adept knowledge of the sport and was once considered “the bible of lacrosse.” Michael, who went on to play lacrosse at Middlebury, captain the college’s team, and win several awards, credits this success to Heb. Before boarding school, he had never played on a sports team.
Heb’s philosophy in the classroom and on the field was one and the same. His teaching thrived by logic. He approached each student or athlete in a systematic way, identifying their unique skill set. In class, he was an exacting instructor, teaching with clear, methodical lessons. In sports, he stressed the basics, coaching athletes in the essential techniques before developing these skills through constant repetition.
Heb owned a metal tie clip with a small engraving. “Winning isn’t everything,” it read. “It’s the only thing.” He was not blindly competitive. Rather, he confronted sports and teaching with a military-like vigor that bordered on obsessive. He had his athletes study the opposition, examining their methods before approaching any match. Diligent execution was of paramount importance to him and a clear mind was his weapon of choice. His athletes may not have had any lofty sporting aspirations, but if they could prevail, they would take any steps to do so. In this way, Heb wielded ordered discipline and instruction to channel his students’ skills. Heb shored up his students’ strong points and threw carefully measured challenges at their weaknesses.
For Michael, Heb Evans and Marshal Clunie, adroit as they were across many fields, were above all, masters of balance. In their minds, one could not excel on intellect alone. Nor could one thrive through sheer force of spirit. True achievement, they believed, came by marrying the two. Only in this process, Michael says, could one own their own landscape and begin to broaden its boundaries. And with persistent effort and practice, success was inevitable.
He befriended these teachers, observed their work ethic, and made it his own. His intellectual interests multiplied and he pursued a range of topics from foreign language to mathematics, the same subjects which would have bored him in junior high. To Michael, the boarding school setting meant access to the most dedicated figures in his life. They had meals together before games, they met to work through challenging problems, they argued and pushed back against one another’s beliefs, and they grew. These were teachers who Michael trusted. He believed in them and they believed in him. In this sense, he could tear down the barriers of his past school, pursuing his education with directed purpose.
Over Michael’s spring break his junior year, he and a friend went with Heb and Clunie to fish on the frozen Lake Temagami in Northern Ontario. They stayed in Heb’s summer cabin and while the wind battered the wood home, the group built blazing fires to keep warm. Over that expedition, Michael came to fully understand his teachers and the weight of their friendship.
“These teachers changed my life,” he says. “They looked into me and held me accountable. They taught me how to study and work hard, how to write and calculate. They showed me how teachers can be the greatest gifts in the lives of the young as they begin to move from family to the larger world.”
When Michael returned to teach, he could only have returned to his alma mater. In retrospect, his decision was a no-brainer. His greatest mentors and friends had been the teachers. They had shared values grounded by learning. This was their vocation. Yet, despite the tremendous impact his teachers had made on his life, Michael realized that his own experience was not unique. Each year, a new freshman class arrives in the fall while the senior class departs. Each year, the teachers meet new students, kindle new relationships, and continue building on a multi-generational scaffolding of education. Each year, they changed students’ lives in ways that would not be fully understood for years.
Michael was of the mind that he wanted to teach too.
“I was inspired by individuals who were in their own disciplined way selflessly loving,” he says. “They had high standards, they were energetic and funny and they had multiple interests that kind of sucked me along. They were living a life I thought was interesting.”
“There’s Nothing But Horses Here!”
Though most students never notice, Joy and Michael are on the constant look-out during Open House. They are not expressive in their vigilance. They do it through subtle gestures: the intermittent scanning over the bustling crowd, the glances towards students as they sluice about the home, and the passing questions they ask the kids. Most often, these questions are targeted—tailored inquiries for a specific student. Joy and Michael will ask about a parent or sibling. Maybe they will ask about a recent trip off campus, a student’s sports team, or a class they seem to gravitate towards. Without fail, they just want to know how a kid is doing.
Students, sometimes sideswiped by the questions, are usually open to discussion. It is here where Joy and Michael quietly enter students’ lives, picking up on the smallest details, seeing if they are in a good place, and gracefully moving from conversation to conversation as if on autopilot.
Another batch goes into the oven. The students continue vibrating to bass-heavy music, crossing from room to room. Teachers laugh with the kids. Voices churn in the air. And all of this action converges seamlessly in the Mulligan household like an ingrained habit—some self-regulating mechanism that acts unconsciously.
Amidst this routine, Joy and Michael’s internal gauge is an inconspicuous yet potent tool. They use it every Open House, receiving feedback from the students as they tune into the state of the School. It is, however hard it may seem to see, the essence of Thacher.
When students set foot on the campus, they are brought into the folds of a special network of caring teachers and peers whose presence is so constant as to seem ordinary. This structure is both compulsory and necessary. Students know that when things take a turn for the worse, as they sometimes can at the rigorous institution, someone is always there to gauge how they are doing.
It is no surprise then, that some alumni return, oddly beleaguered, with ambivalent stories of the world beyond Thacher’s borders. That world, they say, is different from Thacher’s. There is more apathy, greater passivity, and if one’s not careful, a broad indifference. Thacher graduates, as ready as they may be for the next step, are not as ready to leave that special place they grew up at for nearly a fourth of their lives.
In this way, Thacher under Michael and Joy sets a lofty expectation in the hearts and minds of students. Kids leave Thacher wholeheartedly believing in the relationships they’ve formed. They move onto the next step confident that the love and attention they’ve shared for four years must materialize elsewhere. Ultimately, students leave knowing, however vaguely, that their School truly cared.
At Governor’s Academy during the eighties, when both worked as teachers on campus, Michael and Joy lived in an idyllic New England farmhouse. It stood on the edge of campus alongside a stretch of woods and fields. Nearby, a small salt river ran into the Atlantic Ocean. A country road passed by and seemed to extend onwards forever.
The farmhouse had three floors. On the first floor, Michael and Joy occupied a spacious residence alongside their dog. On the third floor, a younger faculty member lived in an upper apartment. Filling the second floor were around fourteen students, mostly girls, that lived in doubles.
Students would come into the Mulligans’ apartment every day. They had a fireplace that would radiate warmth and while their door was open, kids shuffled in and out freely. Joy and Michael say the ratio of kids to faculty was perfect. Unlike the larger dormitories of neighboring academies, the couple was welded to the dorm with an immediate presence. Both were on duty two nights out of three and looked over the students each weekend. On the outdoor tennis courts, Joy, Michael, and all the kids would cluster together for a game of “farmhouse tennis.” The only rule was that the ball could never be out of bounds. Leading the dorm, Joy and Michael could both teach and play. They made the farmhouse a collective home and through knowing students and spending hours alongside them, they could love them, too.
“We treated it like a family,” Joy reflects. “Like an unusual family. It was magic.”
By then, Joy had already worked at The Thacher School for three years. Michael, a five-year faculty member at Governor’s, convinced her to return to the East Coast where the two worked for the next five years.
Throughout that entire period, Bill Wyman, the standing head at Thacher, badgered Joy to come back west. He had been her advisor and professor at Colby College and stepped into the head of school position as Joy began her senior year as an undergraduate. He kept tabs on her and told her that if she were to have a teaching position, it had to be at Thacher.
Wyman called each year with a job opening. He also offered Michael a job, but, as Michael readily admits, this job was all for the sake of reeling in Joy. And after five years, Wyman succeeded.
When he called, he said forcefully, “You either accept this job, or I’m never calling again.”
Joy and Michael relented and chose to move westward. They were young and vaguely skeptical. Their careers in teaching were still crystallizing, but the move west solidified their place as educators.
To understand the gravity of their move, it is worth considering what The Thacher School really is. Today, it is regarded as the chief ‘elite’ boarding school on the West Coast. Nationally, it stands alongside the eastern college preparatory giants: the Phillips Exeter Academy, the Phillips Andover Academy, and the Deerfield Academy.
The Thacher School, however, is Western in both geography and makeup. Its campus is halfway between a storybook setting and actual fantasy. Throughout the year, a green overgrowth blankets the grounds punctuated by vibrant alder and pepper trees. Mountain ranges back the School in a small corner that overlooks seemingly endless fields of orange and avocado trees. During sunsets, the mountains flare yellow and red. The sky and clouds assume the color of coral. When this happens in the afternoons, the entire school glows orange and you can find students and faculty alike gazing into the distance, mesmerized by the dipping sun. The community calls this the pink moment.
For those who take the time to research Thacher, one of the first things they will discover is its horse program. All incoming freshman students are required to ride their first year. They clean their horse’s stall, train their horse in Western techniques, study the various parts of a saddle, and in the spring, race together in a trimester-long event named Gymkhana. For most outsiders, the riding program is Thacher’s distinguishing element.
Yet, the School also has two week-long camping trips in the fall and spring. Students and faculty, carrying heavy packs loaded with food, stoves, and sleeping bags, rush off throughout the state of California—some to the High Sierra, others to the Anacapa Islands, and even some to Thacher’s own backyard in the Sespe and Los Padres wildernesses.
The School, tucked in the East End of the Ojai Valley, has a spirit that is at once unconventional and highly traditional. Guitars are a common sight on campus. The School has an honor code that dates back to the 19th century and whose violation means formal disciplinary action. Flip flops are frequently the footwear of choice. Teachers have a penchant for lofty standards, and the various school curricula encompass a robust blend of humanities and sciences. There is a surfing club, a kombucha club, and a mildly ambiguous club by the title of “free thinkers.” Students have mandatory formal dinner four nights a week with assigned seating—the School requires students to dress up as well (sports coat and tie for boys and dresses for girls). In any given month, the campus smells of either orange blossoms or sagebrush. The running joke is that Ojai only has two seasons: summer and ‘diet’ summer.
In other words, The Thacher School is unique. It draws a specific type, one part austere and one part counterculture, and in 1986, Joy and Michael found themselves a part of the crowd.
In their first year, they threw themselves into their work.
Joy became the director of the Admission Office and held responsibility for the School’s financial aid program. She spent her early years looking for potential students, parsing admission portfolios, teacher recommendations, and essays. She was drawn to the bold kids. In her eyes, attending Thacher meant taking a risk.
“I was looking for the kids,” she says, “who knew this was not like picking vanilla.”
One of her first roles on campus meant sketching the foundation of the student body year after year. In the process, she hoped to build and affirm the School’s values.
Michael worked as the dean of administration, helping out with disciplinary cases and college admissions. He taught English and coached soccer. That opening fall, he also rode alongside freshman, going the extra mile to muck his own stall.
Joy claims he always wanted to be a cowboy and Thacher gave him the perfect place to do it. Only after a few months on campus, Michael bought his own horse. Telling Joy immediately was out of the question and he instead waited to reveal his purchase until he came home, horse in hand.
“Are you crazy?” Joy asked him. “There’s nothing but horses here! Why did you buy a horse?”
“We don’t ‘borrow’ our dog,” he casually responded.
From the start, Michael and Joy were curious, playful, engaged, hard-working, and more than anything, passionate. Their roles didn’t begin when Michael became the headmaster or when Joy stepped in as head of the English department. They devoted themselves since day one—Joy thoughtfully chipping away in the Admission Office and Michael following a chance path towards the head of school.
What few students understand, however, is the relationship between the Mulligans’ past and their place in the School’s present. The environment at St. Paul’s and Governor’s paved the way towards their unyielding love of boarding school. They were inspired and challenged, and whether or not they knew it, when they set foot on their separate academies, their arcs took a fierce bend toward education. It is their drive and vocation. And when one considers their past, their achievements and impact on The Thacher School are not so surprising.
“They leave themselves here.”
Open House, to Joy, is a space where the community fuses itself together.
“It’s by its very nature interactive—inclusive,” she says of the event. “There’s no separating out its intention of inclusion from the thing itself. It operates that way.”
Joy is central to this connection, both encouraging it through her words and leading it through her actions. When she buckles down for the night, she practically directs the entirety of Open House.
She moves with a high velocity. When she engages with kids, her eyes ignite with the eagerness common only to the students themselves. She is relatable and humorous. She loves to ask questions of her kids. It seems that she admires them as much as they do her. Her entire persona radiates curiosity.
In the rear of the home, Joy’s desk is flanked by collages of photos from Open House stretching back to 1992. They are large canvases framed with black edges. From a distance, they appear like cluttered miscellany. Up close, the faces of former and current students coalesce in a muster of grins, hand waving, and laughter. Some students wear costumes for Halloween. Others decorate Valentine’s cards beside faculty members. A bunch of kids sport cowboy hats, and a few are open-mouthed, revealing the remains of half-eaten cookies. Most students are enmeshed in groups, arms around shoulders as they pose for a photo.
Above Joy’s desk hang wooden panels carved with student names. They are a scrawl of signatures, flared with kids’ own idiosyncrasies—bubble letters, stars, hearts, or graceful cursive. The students complete these outside Joy and Michaels’ home at the end of each year. Each panel contains the names of a graduating class and the earliest visible one is from 2003.
Below Joy’s desk is a collection of literature that exceeds fifty books. The philosophy of Hegel, Marx, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Plato, and Locke sits alongside the works of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Boswell, Tolstoy, Homer, and Melville.
On the wall behind her desk, another bookshelf stands loaded with contemporary fiction and nonfiction. On the various rows and the adjoining wall sits student artwork—framed photos, prints, and carvings. The surface of her actual desk is half covered with more books. The other half is filled with photos of her family and alumni.
Joy cuts no corners when it comes to students and invests her time in them with genuine goodwill. She is open-minded and frank. She is gregarious but quiet. She excels in reaching out to students because at the end of the day, she believes, “We get more than we give.”
She is very much of the mind that a boarding school is contingent on friendships. Whether between faculty and students or amongst the students themselves, in the classroom or on the sporting field, in school-wide events or Open House, education is first and foremost the connections one makes—with one’s peers, with one’s self, and with one’s work.
“There’s the family you have and the family you choose,” Joy says of Thacher. “For me, this became very quickly such a home.”
Joy has held several unseen positions on campus. On top of her admissions responsibilities, she also worked in the communications office. She was the School’s official publicist, writing and publishing all of the campus news stories for a number of years. During this stretch, she carried a camera with her wherever she went, posting her photography on the Thacher website. She currently advises sophomore girls and chairs the English Department.
For all these roles, however, Joy’s most public has been that of a teacher.
Alongside other faculty, Joy built the freshman English curriculum. She visits other teachers’ classes, shares lesson plans, meets with faculty to improve teaching standards, and collaborates on courses all for the sake of perfecting Thacher’s teaching and her own. She put together several collections of poetry, short stories, and an instructional binder on the ins and outs of the analytical essay. Throughout each year, the department issues these materials to every new student. They have become the hallmark of freshman English.
Joy taught in room C, a small classroom nestled in one of Thacher’s oldest buildings. Its beige walls hold windows with green frames, and the overhead ceiling slants upwards in white paneling. Students on campus universally associate this room with Romeo and Juliet, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Odyssey—a line-up emblematic of freshman year.
Collaboration and ideas, Joy says, are the governing force of her classroom. In her senior electives on the art of the personal narrative, she could wield her literary passion with full force.
She taught by the Harkness method, holding class around a large wooden table that extends the length of the room. Students face inwards from the table’s perimeter. Joy wafted between her own seat and the whiteboards that encircle the space, simultaneously writing analysis in her symmetrical, one-of-a-kind handwriting while kindling the room’s conversation. Joy does not simply teach. She fires on all cylinders. She expected students to seize the class dialogue, contribute to it, and drive it forward. She pitched fusillades of questions and writing prompts at her kids, hoping to draw out the stories they held. Then, after releasing those narratives, she would dissect them with another barrage of questions: “What was your intention, or your hope for this essay? What did you want to focus on in content and expression? What were the challenges? What were the easy parts?”
Her students had their own journals that she left ungraded, making comments that extended her list of questions alongside the occasional chide for students she felt were not meeting their full potentials. Sometimes, the class would take field trips, anchoring themselves in different parts of the campus—the Gymkhana Field, the Pergola, or the nearby trails—before observing their surroundings and writing. Joy brought different experts in, including writers and filmmakers to guide the class. Her syllabi were in constant flux, and she assembled a class anthology with the works of William Faulkner, Natalie Goldberg, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Wilbur, and Mark Spragg. It was not uncommon for a student’s passing comment to cause a seismic shift in the direction of the class.
Joy has taught English at Thacher with the vigor and excitement of a perfectionist. Though the atmosphere she conjures in class is impressive, she does not put on airs. She is ardent, obsessive, tireless, and precise.
She loves the process of exploration. She loves to play.
Joy loves to give students the reins and see where they can go.
On her senior electives, she says, “It became all about helping those stories gain release. Helping students find ways to explore this world and their inner worlds.”
As a teacher, she does not settle for the traditional nor does she entirely dismiss it. Rather, she fuses the traditional with the unusual, creating a class where students can thrive. She believes that imparting facts misses the point of teaching. In her classroom, she tries to invite students into the realm of novels, memoirs, and poems in a way that is authentically curious.
“What else can we bring to this class,” she asks herself in her teaching approach, “other than just reading and discussing and writing? Those are important things to be able to do. But I don’t think that’s all there is.”
If anything, Joy tried to give her students the gift of awareness and purpose. Through writing and rewriting with deliberate meaning in mind, she could draw her students into consciousness. It is here, in this pursuit of awareness, where she thrives.
She says she believes wholeheartedly in “the wondrous spell of a school and a community that brings teenagers somehow out of themselves on a regular basis, out of a kind of solipsism most of us take as more typically adolescent.”
For all the authority and clout she wields in the classroom, Joy shies away from the spotlight. Her presence on campus is more private. Make no mistake, however: her influence is tremendous, not because it’s on display, but because it somehow reaches the hearts of each of her students.
In her mind, teaching is a tool that builds and fosters relationships. It breaks down the boundaries outlining student’s characters. It hammers new links between intellect and emotion. Teaching alone cannot do this, however. It requires thoughtful, sincere maneuvering on the part of the teacher. She must rise above and beyond the call of duty and build trust.
Joy is a master at this. Her capacity for empathy is astounding. She has a superhuman ability to seek out the best in others and make the most of passing interactions with the community. At her formal dinner table, she always turns to students at her side and hears out their views on their own family, how they are handling finals, or the next sporting event. When working with faculty, she takes the time to know them. Conversations with Joy veer in wide directions, sometimes beginning at the nuts and bolts of the classroom and ending on the world beyond. Other teachers have described her as “graceful,” “optimistic,” “remarkable,” “creative,” “kind,” “generous,” and “insightful.”
“When I teach,” she says, “I think if a student can walk away from this School knowing not that she has a friend for life, but that she has made a connection with somebody who puts that relationship in a place of great reverence and respect, that she will take that away and not put it away. That it will maintain its presence and activity in her life. That it will inform her life well beyond Thacher.”
The relational essence of her teaching permeates Joy’s life.
She is present at every self-directed student presentation at the end of each trimester. She attends the final senior research exhibitions whose audience could use an extra member. Throughout the year, she watches Thacher sports games with seemingly die-hard fandom. She routinely opens her door to alumni coming to visit. In the winter, she prepares around ten dozen half-pint jars of hot fudge, each sent to a faculty or staff member. Her on-stage appearances in talent shows, though rare, have included wild dancing and singing. More often than not, she notes when a student’s energy wanes in class and seeks them outside to check up on them.
This is not always easy.
Sometimes, Joy explains, this level of connections requires faculty members and herself to exceed their own expectations. A Thacher education, the Mulligans believe, exists to push students to take risks. The school’s demands are engineered to test kids and occasionally, make them uncomfortable. This philosophy, however, does not end at the student level. It saturates every part of the campus, including the faculty. Joy remarks there have been times where her work has challenged her. She has been reluctant or drained on weekend nights before Open House. It is never clear how she does it, though, because at the end of the day, she always recognizes the value of going out and pouring her heart into what she does.
“It’s a place where I’m willing to go,” she says, “because I know that there’s some magic that will happen if I go there.”
The coherence and impact of Joy’s work have manifested themselves in the smallest moments that leave the largest marks. Her alertness and sensibility are her greatest assets, but she does not grandstand or dwell on this. Notably, she gives off the appearance of being totally unselfconscious about her own breathtaking consciousness. In other words, she is uncommonly humble: Joy feels the significance of her impact is not unique. In her eyes, the profound connections she makes are less definitive of her own character and more representative of the tremendous influence of a boarding school itself.
“You know, if you live your days here with your eyes open at all, you’re seeing that [influence] all the time,” she says. “You’re seeing it in your colleagues and their interactions with students. You’re seeing it in a range of moments all the time. There’s a possible life changing moment going on right there.”
To say teaching has been the work of Joy’s life is to understate reality.
Joy’s least favorite part of the year is graduation. She watches the seniors at the ceremony and takes pride as each receives their diploma from Michael. And as soon as commencement ends, she disappears.
“It’s very difficult to say goodbye to some of these kids,” she admits. “You’ve seen them in the Admission Office—the pictures of these kids as eighth graders. The physical changes are enough to make your eyes pop. And then, if you’re part of the emotional changes and the intellectual maturation, it’s a very powerful experience to have had with one kid, much less lots.”
“The depth of this experience is of the sort that is indelible,” she adds. “You get involved in their lives in a way that impresses you for the rest of your life.”
As the students direct their sights towards college, Joy makes her way towards home. “I can’t even think about graduation,” she says. “They leave themselves here.”
“I don’t want to be the traveling salesman.”
Watching Michael at Open House, one gets the sense that his most comfortable place is amongst the students. He loves to talk with them. He calmly discusses school with a few level-headed kids in the kitchen. He jumps into debates on current issues with a group of hotheads—he does this with focused attention, his eyes locked onto whoever’s talking before offering his own take. And with yet another group, he swoops in with a one-liner and dashes away not unlike a high schooler himself.
Without fail, Michael laces his comments with wisecracks, a smirk stamping his face that widens into an open-mouthed smile when he laughs. Over the years, he has invited students to play their music at Open House. He listens, considers the tune with unmasked skepticism and asks,
“So that’s what we’re listening to nowadays, huh?”
Students nod eagerly. Michael looks confused but cheerful.
Other times, Michael can be seen playing ping pong or spikeball with the kids. He adores harmless competition, lightly taunting his opponents, and does not hold back on the occasions he comes out on top. The times he loses, he makes offers to play students the following weekend. Entwined with the community, he gives off a childlike spirit. He is a human to the students, but he is also much more. He sits at the head of the School and when he engages his students, light-hearted and seemingly carefree, his easygoing attitude belies his scrupulous passion for education.
In the home’s living room, Michael’s study stands before a wall of books.
There is a healthy regiment of classics—Oliver Twist, Dubliners, A Tale of Two Cities, Sense and Sensibility, To the Lighthouse, Heart of Darkness, and the like. These are scattered between anthologies of poetry and the art of fiction. Pictures of Michael, Joy, and their daughter, Annie, pepper the shelves alongside small metallic trinkets of toads and portraits of past camping trips. Yet, an even greater mass of works is dedicated to the labyrinthine complexities of schooling.
On one end on the shelves, there are catalogs of pedagogical methods. Beginnings of Learning. Teach like a Champion 2.o. Second Home: Life in a Boarding School. Another host of paperbacks and hardcovers stretch into the psychological and emotional inner workings of education.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Neurosis and Human Growth. Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry. The Gift of Failure. The Sweet Spot. Keewaydin Way. Schoolchildren. The Ego and the ID. A Latham’s Quarterly periodical entitled Youth. Frames of Mind. Grit.
Michael often exchanges emails with faculty members with excited messages concerning a new article he found on student psychology, new brain research, or changing educational currents. It is not uncommon for him to send a new find to the entire student body.
When it comes to teaching, he is feverish and zealous. “If you’re not actually working to make an impact,” he maintains, “you need to get out of the job.” He is assiduous and grinding, ambitious yet practical. His enthusiasm is cardinal to his being. There’s intensity to his teaching and work that forms the bedrock of his character. In ways both explicit and implicit, he has shaped his job around a sincere and phenomenal love of students.
It doesn’t take long to see any of this.
In school as he is in Open House, Michael is, in a word, involved. He doesn’t want to simply lead Thacher. He wants to be a part of it. And there are moments when his animated spirit blends with the School in a way that suggests he is right at home. It is the times he banters with the kids, the dialogues he stages in his living room, and the smiles he flashes between classes.
It is those seemingly rare occasions in Open House when he gathers a group of students and starts an impromptu guitar circle. Whenever Michael does this, he guarantees a howling crowd as he begins singing whatever classic comes to mind. He bobs his head with the students and they follow along, all smiles and laughter as he strums into the night.
In 1993, after serving as the dean of administration and students, the interim head of school, and the assistant headmaster, Michael Mulligan became the head of school. Since then, The Thacher School has become an institution inextricably connected with words like “familial,” “close-knit,” “kind,” “welcoming,” “open,” “good-natured” and “warm.” Ask students how they view their peers, and most will respond with some variation of “Everybody here is so nice.”
“Community” is a rallying cry on campus. It is a force so dominant, that its indoctrination is practically unconscious. When prospective students visit the School, they are told of the community, which at first comes off as a promised image so idyllic as to seem almost superficial. When new freshmen enter their dorm, however, that image immediately transmutes from a promise to a concrete fact of the School. For some, this can be credited to the makeup of a boarding school in general. Students live together, eat together, and sleep together; of course, they’ll build some form of community. Likewise, at every independent school, the administration lauds this sense of community, placing it on a high and “unique” pedestal.
The Thacher School does the same but still manages to be different. It is by its very nature communal. But, the institution knows better than any other that “community” is no accident. The School itself is a painstaking testament to interactions. The barns, the trails, the Extra Day-Trips, the student commons, the dining hall, the gun range, the sporting fields, and the turnout pens are all calculated efforts to elicit a certain level of partnership. At Thacher, the community extends far beyond the classroom.
Its presence is hard to place. It could be in the dormitory’s wide spaces; maybe the open intersections between structures where students always gravitate; or even the School’s lack of negative peer pressure and the existence of, as Michael likes to call it, “the right peer pressure.” One can find it at the assigned, mismatched tables during Formal Dinner and the raucous scene at Big Gymkhana when the entire school body masses at the riding field to watch the freshman race their horses. Perhaps it is more simple, though. It lives in that constant parade of hand waving and greetings that transpires daily. It lives in the School’s perpetually unlocked doors. It lives in that knowledge that if students leave anything anywhere, it will be there when they return. It lives in the fact that somehow, everybody seemingly knows everybody.
In any case, the community is there, both thorough and purposeful. And for what it’s worth, Thacher kids believe in it.
Though current students might say differently, this environment has not always been norm. 25 years ago, the School’s culture was noticeably different.
For most American educational institutions, the sixties and seventies were turbulent periods. The counterculture revolution had taken root and with it, a rejection of long-established patterns. Thacher was no exception.
Through the sixties and seventies, the School cycled through five headmasters. The leadership turnover took its toll and students and faculty adopted a subtle cynicism that wore away at the School’s seams. The community placed Thacher’s traditions in doubt and lacked an unconditional commitment to its values. Substance abuse was not uncommon on campus. Bill G. Wyman, who had served as the associate dean of student affairs at Stanford, became Thacher’s head in 1975. He worked to revitalize the Horse Program, protect the camping program, and move the School back to firm ground. Over his 18 year tenure, he largely succeeded.
When Michael took his place, however, the fallout of the counterculture still lingered.
“When I first got here,” Michael says, “There was major discipline routinely. Kids were breaking rules on a much more widespread basis.”
Drugs and alcohol maintained a tangible presence within school life, and cases of students hopping into each other’s vehicles to drive off campus without permission were not rare. Thacher’s Honor Code did not hold the same place of reverence as it does today.
In this sense, Michael’s role as head of school began with overhauling Thacher’s value system. His vision was deeply moral and built on high expectations.
“The most important part of being head of school and the most rewarding,” he says, “is looking at the strengths and weaknesses of a school and saying, ‘This is how we make this School stronger.’”
During his tenure, Michael has been intensely methodical. Alongside the board of trustees, parents, faculty, and thirteen different professional consultants, he adopted significant strategic planning initiatives. Together, they put together a long-term strategy, updating it every year since. They began a survey program in partnership with researchers in Palo Alto.
This process, Michael explains, is surgical in its approach.
Using leverage analysis provided by a survey issued every two years to the entire school, the administration can hone in on the School’s strengths and weaknesses. Michael and his team examine percentages and draw conclusions about which policies have or will be effective. Since the program began, Michael has tried to systematically overturn the School’s underlying problems. In his office, there is a massive blue binder that brims with student, alumni, faculty, and parent responses that reach back over sixteen years.
When Michael became the head, he began holding regular discussions with students, elaborating on the School’s Honor Code and its four pillars—honor, fairness, kindness, and truth. Scrutinizing the School in the early nineties, he and the administration created a framework of preventative action. They have educated students on substance abuse and reinforced this knowledge time and time again. Michael says he wants kids to internalize what it means to live by the Honor Code. A high-functioning school, he believes, should never be reactionary.
On the surface, Michael’s methods seem clinical. They are, however, anything but dispassionate. His meticulousness is the thin veneer for his abiding commitment to The Thacher School.
As an outsider, he observed the relationship between students and the administration. He felt that it was polarized. Faculty had their scripts to follow and students theirs. In his first years on campus, both groups often inhabited separate worlds. Michael didn’t believe in this divide. He felt that the past culture existed not for any failure of the students but for a failure of imagination amongst the administration. Neither it nor most of the faculty at the time, he says, recognized that the School could be different. This was not necessarily their fault, Michael adds, but a blunt reality.
“Whether you can effect change or not is dependent on your vision of what is possible,” Michael says. “I had seen at Governor’s with the dormitories we ran a whole different approach. We created our own unique culture and atmosphere where the kids in our dormitory were some of the most high achieving, really best community members. In coming to Thacher, I knew that we could take that microcosmic experience and make it macrocosmic.”
As head of school, he has built a faculty of the highest caliber. He has poured resources into on-campus housing to attract potential teachers. He has boosted faculty compensation. He has revamped professional development opportunities.
When looking for faculty, Michael has cornered past alumni at School events, compelling them to return as teachers. “You’re making a mistake by not teaching here,” he will say. He keeps a cautious eye on part-time faculty members. For those he sees as invaluable to the community, he jokes—with an underlying earnesty—that he will fire them unless they join his team. Most of them do.
Michael’s own experience at Governor’s has shaped his expectations of Thacher’s faculty. The baseline for teachers, he believes, means loving what they do and having a mastery of their subject. Michael, however, demands his faculty to go the extra length and foster trust with students. They must bring a remarkable energy to dorm events, to faculty meetings, to early morning lab periods, to the Gymkhana Field, to one-on-one advisee get-togethers, to department meetings, to school dances, to the sports fields, and, of course, to the classroom.
In a word, Michael believes faculty members must be devoted. This devotion—to their work and discipline—is ultimately directed towards the students. And Michael wholeheartedly believes this role to be indispensable. In other independent schools, committed faculty can often earn their way out of dorm duties—watching over students during study hall periods, on weekends, and after check-in. At Thacher, all teachers must fill in these roles.
To maintain the quality of his faculty, Michael, the board, and his administration have taken exhaustive measures. He has increased faculty compensation and broadened professional development opportunities. When hiring, his team has navigated the careful balance of age, skill set, and background to the best of its ability, hiring a group of teachers across a wide spectrum of personalities. Michael has integrated faculty housing into student dormitories. He has reduced the size of advisee groups, hoping kids can be in greater contact with adults. Likewise, students shift through advisors throughout their four years, the idea being a broader exposure to more educators. During study hours, teachers are nearly always available. Students not only seek out teachers in their offices, but in their own homes. If schedules are tight, it is not uncommon for teachers to meet with students during breakfast. In meetings throughout the year, faculty members say Michael emphasizes again and again the importance of connection between teachers and students.
In the head of school’s eyes, this relationship is the foundation for students’ own sense of self. Growth, Michael believes, begins when students let faculty members into their lives. Only then can teachers become true friends and mentors. To do this, he empowers his team of faculty to do their job with nearly full reins, with the caveat of a simple yet exacting expectation: they must truly care.
“This is what we’re lacking in education,” Michael says. “Great teachers look into young men and women and see all sorts of promises the kids don’t even know about. You set really high standards, supported by selfless love.”
To say Thacher faculty’s role is that of a teacher is to shortchange the colossal gravity they have over the student experience. In every way, they give shape to and cultivate students’ lives. The only way Thacher teachers have achieved this lofty aim, however, is by essentially giving their own life to the students. They stretch themselves in unimaginable ways, committing nearly their entire energies to the end of education.
Michael knows this. In fact, he sets one of the highest bars himself: It is plain in the presence he has on campus.
Traditionally, a head of school’s role is largely external. At most secondary educational institutions, the headmaster’s values lie overwhelmingly with fundraising, exterior communications, and hiring. Generally, Michael’s predecessors were little different. This, however, comes at the cost of a seemingly anonymous head of school and a detachment between students and their administration.
Michael has been anything but anonymous. When he has had to leave campus, Michael talks about feeling like he’s on “life support.”
Throughout the year, students will find him in the cafeteria nearly every morning. In the fall, he specifically greets each freshman who walks in, trying to memorize their names within the first week. During this period, sixty small photos cover his study—a battalion encompassing the entire freshman class—which he uses to commit their names to memory.
Each Friday, Michael leads the School’s Assembly. He carries his orations with dynamic force, and his penchant for storytelling is unrivaled. Because of this talent, he can drive the entire student body to laughter and silence within seconds. During Assemblies, sometimes he will give a short talk, blending story and lecture as he addresses the School’s values. Other times, he uses Assembly to play trivia, giving away books from his private library. He has sung and danced with other faculty members in a small acapella group that makes regular appearances on stage. He also plays his guitar for the entire School.
“I can’t imagine being someone who is up in a cloistered office only sticking his head out every now and then to see what’s going on,” Michael says. “I don’t want to be the traveling salesman. I want to be the head.”
Come Gymkhana, Michael is a rabid participant in the horse packing race and takes great pride in having defeated students in all years save one. He regularly attends sports games, finding time not only to cheer on varsity athletes but also to extend his support to junior varsity and thirds teams. As head, he has coached boys soccer and lacrosse. During the spring, Michael and his lacrosse team would camp out at a rival team’s gym in Monterey at least twice during the season.
At the beginning and end of each year, Joy and Michael lead Extra-Day Trips. Michael also brings freshmen on horse camping trips into the Sespe wilderness each Winter. During his time at Thacher, he has completed over 60 full week camping trips and around 90 weekend trips. On one horse packing trip, several of his group’s horses reared and tumbled off a cliff. Fortunately, the animals survived. Michael and the students then took shovels and pickaxes, made their way down the side of the mountain, and carved makeshift switchbacks to the original trails for their horses. It was dark by the time the group had retrieved the animals.
Michael possesses an unbridled loyalty to his institution.
He has handled lawsuits against the School involving alleged property disputes. More recently, when a forest fire threatened to burn down the School, he and Joy stayed on campus, sending updates to the community as flames swallowed the surrounding trails. There are photos of Michael and Joy beaming beside firefighters festooned with axes, walkie-talkies, and soot. Over his 25 years as head, Michael has received offers to leave Thacher and start other schools or join larger, more ‘elite’ institutions. He has, of course, refused these offers, claiming, “Thacher is just too cool to leave.”
In the Spring, Michael holds a public speaking seminar. He has taught English and economics. During his early years as head, he taught a well-known world religions class.
“Let me just say,” he comments, “my philosophy was to give reading that I expected everyone to do. I figured out how much an average Thacher student can read in 45 minutes and I said ‘Here’s your 45 minutes and you read every goddamn word of it.’”
He says he was clear and tough as a teacher, but not an authoritarian.
He only stopped offering his religions class when the board initiated a strenuous capital campaign and demanded his help in meeting financial goals. He could not invest himself fully into the class and to continue the course, he says, would mean cheating the students.
“You want to know what’s going on at your school?” he asks. “Make it a part of your life. You can’t just talk the game.”
Michael has bridged a significant gap between the administration and its students. He values the student voice and holds meetings throughout the year to hear out kids’ concerns. Come school violations that warrant suspensions, general warnings, or expulsions, he brings the entire community together to discuss the decisions reached by student-led and faculty disciplinary coalitions. He does this not so much to review a case, but to reinforce the School’s ethics. After issuing his own advice, he often raises his hands to the community and asks, “Do you think we can make good on this?” There is never a hint of irony when he does this. Disciplinary cases tend to loom on his mind and he genuinely questions not where the School went wrong, but where he has failed on behalf of the students.
During his tenure, Michael has overseen the construction of a 450-seat performing arts center; two new fields; a weight room; a new track; four new dormitories; and the refurbishment of two dormitories, the Admission Office, and the Thacher Commons building—a space dedicated to student socializing. As Thacher moved into the 21st century, he helped to integrate a new underground infrastructure system and pushed to adapt the institution to the wireless world.
Outside of Thacher, he was the chair of The Association of Boarding Schools, a network of college-preparatory boarding schools. There, he led the first effort to research and quantify the benefits of a boarding school education, hoping to promote secondary school to an international audience. He has held positions on the California Association of Independent Schools, forming relationships with headmasters with the West’s other leading schools: the Cate School, the Webb Schools, and the Midland School.
It is easy to credit Michael for elevating Thacher to a rarified national podium. This does not capture the full range of his work. Bringing Thacher international renown has not been his true purpose. Simply put, the funds he has raised, the faculty he has hired and trained, the new construction he has overseen, the hours spent on campus interacting with kids, are all mechanisms for one, ultimate end: the students.
Michael never gloats over this. At every turn, he applauds the careful harmony between his administration, faculty, and faithful board of trustees. This group, he says, combined with the force of alumni and parent dedication, has always been “kind,” “loyal,” and “smart.”
In 1993, Michael and his team did not set out to build an acclaimed school. They set out to make an outstanding experience and student body. Michael wanted to build a community that values quality of work and quality of connection. It just so happens that when these ingredients are present, a boarding school becomes truly exceptional.
“It runs itself.”
Open House, like life on the Thacher campus, moves at the breakneck pace of a well-oiled machine. Students, though, know what to expect.
On Saturday night, there will always be a movie. There will always be dancing. There will always be ping pong. There will always be quesadillas. There will always be massive lemonade and water drums. There will always be board games. There will always be arts and crafts. There will always be cookies. There will always be the students, the faculty, and Joy and Michael.
To see Joy dart around the kitchen or Michael slip through the crowds, it is tempting to say that everything around them is automatic. Both, however, are anything but passive. As teachers, they orient themselves around an outlook of hyper-awareness. They constantly check their own attention to detail.
A boarding school, they say, cannot afford anything less.
“Unless you’re crawling on your hands and knees in exhaustion and it’s 10:30 at night, you don’t walk by stuff,” Joy says. “If you start to walk by a student and you don’t know her name and even if it’s January, you make yourself stop and ask. You don’t walk by trash. You don’t walk by a kid who you think might be upset and is alone.”
“It’s being purposefully vigilant,” she adds. “And that’s really hard. But if you let it go, if you don’t tend every day to the details, the devil gets them.”
A great school, Michael and Joy say, is not a final product unveiled after several decades of hard work. It is the product at the end of each day. An institution that values community as much as Thacher is never set in stone. It must be carefully tended day in and day out.
“You never say, ‘Well, we arrived,” Michael suggests. “You never arrive. You’re always in the process of becoming. Excellence is something that’s created every moment. It is not something that you achieve and just maintain. It’s built upon every interaction. It’s built on an intense attention to detail. And as soon as you don’t actually focus on each moment, you lose your school.”
The Thacher School is an ongoing act of maintenance and planning. It is an institution that hinges itself on its own customs and beliefs. These values do not lend themselves to easy preservation. They are the sort of rock-hard ethics that force Thacher students beyond inclinations towards cynicism and distrust and bitterness. They are the judgments that drive the School towards greatness. Joy and Michael know, however, that excellence is perishable. And for them, Thacher means working tirelessly to safeguard that excellence.
Never once do they credit themselves with doing the job alone.
For their momentous role and abundant achievements, in conversation, both consistently veer towards others. They discuss, bright-eyed and with a ferocious admiration, the mentors, trustees, colleagues, and kids that have inspired them. They talk about the community that contributes to the School they’ve managed to build.
When Joy heard about this piece, she immediately said, “I hope this can be framed knowing that we all make the Thacher we have each year. If I’ve been in a more powerful position to influence that vessel, that’s great. But my hands are only one set on the wheel. ”
Michael held similar reservations.
“I’m not that interesting,” he said.
“We’ve all gone to work on this School. This will run the risk of cliché, but every student has power which he or she cannot even imagine. The easiest way to come into touch with that power is to recognize the influence you have to improve other people’s day—a kind word to a friend, a help to one of the kitchen crewmembers, a word to your teacher of appreciation. They are all small but symbolic of the power that we have to make a difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, we’re all working.”
The calculus of a boarding school’s operation is near impossible to comprehend. It seems less a school and more a high-powered engine.
At its most elementary level, most individuals will consider the school’s academic offerings. A diverse range of classes is one achievement. To run at the level of an ‘elite’ boarding school, however, these programs must be taught by a dedicated faculty who have mastered their subject. They must know how to transmit this mastery onto their students, taking pains to understand which pedagogies work with whom. Beyond academic credentials, how does a school decide who to hire? At any boarding school, the average faculty member might fill the quadruple-role of teacher, sports coach, dormitory resident, and student advisor. Likewise, most faculty live on campus, meaning their position is really a 24-hour affair where students can seek help at a moment’s notice. Qualifications in these respects is a minimum. At Thacher, a love for the outdoors, horsemanship experience, and willingness to attend an organized, formal dinner four times a week wouldn’t hurt.
Academics and the people who lead them are really the glossy surface of a boarding school. Beneath lies a labyrinthine tangle of disparate offices and committees that keep a school running on high gear year after year. This could include business offices, communications departments, alumni offices, admissions teams, skills development offices, technology commissions, endowment coalitions, maintenance branches, and the various cohorts that run a school’s library, athletics, and extracurriculars.
At a boarding school, something as basic as food can become a managerial nightmare. A school’s cafeteria must have provisions each day for two hundred to two thousand students, including differing specialties and options for diet-sensitive students. In other words, a school’s kitchen services perpetually prepare massive, four to five wedding-sized batches of food for a single meal.
Even one’s daily schedule is a monumental feat. Every boarding school student, faculty, and staff member has a daily agenda. Someone’s job at the beginning of each year is ensuring that, barring school events and unexpected disturbances, there are little to no conflicts between each of these agendas. If a single day seems complex, consider the herculean logistical task of outlining an entire year with shifting academic courses, faculty meetings, fundraisers, holiday breaks, off-campus trips, visiting scholars, student performances, family events, sports games, guest speakers, and reunions.
These disparate tasks often collide in sometimes cumbersome, bureaucratic exchanges between separate committees, student coalitions, the academic departments, the administration, and the school’s board. And ultimately, all of this careful planning and coordination must foster an environment where residents can thrive in their own small, self-sufficient world.
This is all to say, a boarding school is complex and involved.
Thacher, in particular, demands the constant attention and care not only of the staff, faculty, and administrators, but of everyone who calls the School their home. In many ways, however, this outstanding effort goes unnoticed, not because it doesn’t exist, but because of its fixed place within Thacher’s culture. The effort is never separate from the School itself. It is part and parcel of the institution.
This fact has not been lost on Joy and Michael. And as daunting as their roles on campus may seem, their success comes from a deep familiarity and appreciation of education and the results when the work is done right.
Open House, like most parts unique to Thacher, lives as an indelible pattern in the School’s fabric. Joy and Michael have willed it so. And every Saturday night, rather than enjoying a quiet evening like any right-thinking adult in their 60s, they choose to invite over 260 students into their home.
If this ever occurs to them, they don’t let on.
“Honestly, after a while, it’s kind of like second nature,” says Joy.
“I just turn the kitchen over to the students and they are more militant than you can believe,” Michael offers.
Make no mistake: Michael and Joy are well aware of Open House’s impact. They just seem to brush aside the work required to make it all happen. There is never any doubt in students’ minds that when they step through the Mulligans’ door, they won’t do the same the next Saturday. Open House for most current students is like Joy and Michael themselves; it has always existed at Thacher and it always will. In this way, Open House has become a fixture so essential to the School and the people within so as to seem almost ordinary. This normalcy, however, belies Open House’s central quality: intentionality.
“It runs itself,” Joy and Michael tell students.
And from inside the house, when Joy scoops cookie dough onto the seventh baking sheet that night or when Michael begins to sing karaoke with the students, their words seem true.
“Life before Thacher? There was?”
Thacher students and alumni have a common experience when trying to explain Open House to friends.
They try to illustrate the appeal of coloring, board games, and cookies on a weekend night. They try to conjure its energy in a few sentences and capture that special feeling students have after leaving the house, knowing that the door will always be open. They try to explain that somewhere, nestled in the back of a valley in Southern California, there is a collection of teenagers excited to spend their night not just with their friends, but with their teachers, too. It’s been like this, Thacher students say, for years.
For outsiders, the immediate response is disbelief.
“You hang at your headmaster’s house?” they ask.
This leads to a simple question: “Why?”
In many ways, it is hard to understand why the average teenager would find Open House appealing. It is hard to understand how those involved—generations of students, teachers, administrators—keep returning each week to the same spot for the same activities.
Even for some members of the community, when they pause to consider Open House and the dancing and the games and the food, they struggle to understand how any of it came to be. For most Thacher students, it has always simply been there.
When one asks about their past, Joy and Michael stumble for a moment. “Life before Thacher?” they ask. “There was?”
When the Mulligans were about to move west, they invested serious time in their decision. Joy was more cautious than Michael. She considered the family ties they had and the lives they’d already built in the East. To move would not mean change. It would mean a total transformation.
In contrast, Michael wanted to dive in head first. Governor’s had convinced him of boarding schools’ importance. He knew the stakes and wanted to embrace them.
“You know,” he said, “I really want to do this. Let’s go. I can have a horse.”
In Joy’s mind, The Thacher School and teaching in general were what she calls “the grand experiment.” There was no knowing what would happen if she and Michael chose to continue down the path of education. There was no foreseeing the place they find themselves in today.
Coming to Thacher she says, was more of a chance than anything.
“It was almost kind of a dare,” Joy says. “I saw this as a colossal experiment—a big adventure.”
Open House, too, was a bet. Twenty-five years ago, Joy and Michael never foresaw its impact. They did not quite understand the consequence of baking some cookies and inviting kids over for the night.
The power of Open House, however, is in the smallest of details. Year after year, as legions of students have come and gone, swirling throughout the home on a Saturday night, it is seeing the rotating faces with the same beaming expressions. It is in knowing which kids will be where throughout the course of the night. It is feeling the warmth of the household and that orange glow that blankets the crowds as they shift on the home’s currents.
These small details, modest and simple, are rare.
They are good and unique in a way that seems as familiar as it does strange. When Open House all adds up and when one considers its constituent parts, it is almost inconceivable. The details accumulate. And there’s a moment many students have when they realize the work that goes behind them.
Joy and Michael have sacrificed a great deal for their school. They have given themselves away to their work in ways that cannot be captured on paper and to extents that many students will never know or understand. Their devotion is near religious, and their affection is that of somebody who has fully realized their vocation.
Because if you look closely, you will see a certain consciousness to Open House—a perception of being part of something a little bit bigger than a classroom or a sports team or a group of friends. It is an unexplainable feeling amidst the choreography of faculty and students. In some sense, it has to do with openness. It could even be the act of being together and truly caring. Perhaps, though, it is that special relief we all have: knowing that Joy and Michael are at the helm, navigating within the community as they build a world everyone is comfortable enough to call home.
A Thank You to All who Contributed to this Piece:
First and foremost, thank you to Dr. Boyd, my project advisor, whose curiosity, thoughtfulness, and unshakeable passion for writing will always amaze me. He is an extraordinary mentor and inspiration. Thank you to the faculty who took time out of their schedules for interviews and lengthy email exchanges. The only people who work harder than Thacher students is Thacher faculty—their dedication to the school and their students is superhuman. Thank you to Sydney Bowie CdeP 2010 and Tim Linden for providing incredible archival and interview material. They took on hours of work for me and contributed most of the piece’s beautiful photos. Chris Land, Thacher’s Director of Communications, was an incredible editor and distributor (I finally did capitalize all of those “Schools”). Thank you to Mary Yan ’18, who has unflinchingly edited everything I throw her way and unflinchingly told me when my work needs improvement. Pa Houa Xiong ’18, you are simply an outstanding person, friend, and artist. Thank you for this piece’s fantastic visual artwork (and all the jokes and nostalgia while editing). Finally, thank you to Joy Sawyer-Mulligan and Michael K. Mulligan, who have given every ounce of their beings to the cause of education. I feel blessed to have been a Thacher student under their guidance and to have had the privilege of understanding what true leadership means. Their poise, generosity, and kindness are remarkable in ways words fail to capture. I could never fully express my gratitude for their work and care, but I hope this piece comes close.