Head of School Day 2019: Palfrey Carries on 28-Year Tradition

On Sunday, Head of School John Palfrey raised the racket for the seventh time during his tenure as Head of School.

In February 1991, an overflow of students in the former Isham Health Center prompted Headmaster Donald McNemar to cancel classes for a day of rest and recovery. Thus began the annual tradition of Head of School Day (HOSD), in which members of the Andover community are granted the “gift of time” for one day of Winter Term.

This year, HOSD fell on Monday, February 11, the first time Head of School John Palfrey has ever announced it on Sunday night.

“One thing I know about Head of School Day is it’s inevitable that it will disrupt something in terms of what people have planned, which I regret of course, so I try to move it around some…This was the first time doing it on a Sunday night, but if you do it on a Tuesday or a Thursday, that disrupts the ensemble rehearsals that are usually in the evening. If it were a Wednesday, obviously there would be sports,” said Palfrey.

In 1994, when Barbara Chase succeeded McNemar as Head of School, she added a personal touch to the tradition by raising a field hockey stick to signify the announcement. Head of School John Palfrey then changed the implement to a squash racquet for his first Head of School Day in 2013 and has been raising it ever since.

“I think, certainly, I adopted the sport that is the one I love, and so using a squash racquet is my own symbol of it. There ware wonderful things about Andover tradition that ought to stay the same. I think in many respects when I came here, I just felt the school was in great shape, and I wanted to keep it going. And so I think it’s basically the same as it’s been,” said Palfrey.

While Palfrey has kept much of the tradition intact, he has become especially known for using social media to hype up the announcement. Palfrey views this buildup as a way to brighten up the more gloomy days of Winter Term.

“I do think with social media, it’s an opportunity just to communicate with kids at a time where there is, in the middle of the winter, when we are at our coldest and sometimes our dreariest, and so I figure it’s a way to spread good cheer,” said Palfrey.

Palfrey continued, “I try to balance on one hand building up anticipation because the anticipation is often what is more fun than the actual thing in life, with not trying to be too much teasing… There’s a balance there obviously that needs to be struck, and I enjoy the banter back and forth.”

Rafael Kelman, Instructor in Art, values the HOSD tradition not only for the chance to rest but also for its fun sense of community, as seen in the obsession among students and faculty alike with making predictions.

“I think, across the board, a day off is a day off, and I think teachers enjoy that as much as students even if it means a little bit more work during that day off. I think it’s fun. I think there’s something kind of goofy about [it]. I think it is fun how people try to game it and figure it out and the remarkable degree of accuracy that people manage to achieve in their predictions,” said Kelman.

Ellen Greenberg, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, & Computer Science, described how members of her department try to predict HOSD on their calendars, including herself. Greenberg’s prediction came within one day of HOSD this year.

“I think we all like to make a prediction maybe on our syllabi or on our calendar about when [HOSD] might happen, and as we get closer to when we think it might happen, definitely people are putting their ideas out there, so there’s discussion in the [Math] Department… I was a day off this year. I picked the Tuesday this week and missed it by a day, so it’s a fine science predicting what day it might be,” said Greenberg.

Beyond the anticipation and predictions, Palfrey noted that he also enjoys the announcement itself. For Palfrey, each phase of HOSD plays an important role in the annual tradition.

“I love the whole thing, for sure, for sure. I mean obviously the moment when you go into Paresky Commons and the students are there and they’re excited and I get to raise the racquet, of course, that’s the best part in an immediate moment, but I do think the anticipation actually is an important part of it because I think people enjoy just thinking of it,” said Palfrey.

Myra Bhathena ’22 chose to spend her HOSD by being with family and getting some extra sleep. Bhathena also considered the tradition and its history more broadly.   

“It was really fun. I really appreciate the gift of time because I got to spend time with my sister and catch up on a lot of sleep… I think it’s really fascinating. The whole Sunday with the dinner and Mr. Palfrey walking through, it was really exciting, and I think it’s just really great to have that history of Head of School Day,” said Bhathena.

Jake Jordan ’20 sees the tradition as a force of unity for the Andover community, something that everyone can both anticipate and cherish together.

“I think it’s a really cool tradition, the reason being it’s kind of just a surprise that everyone looks forward to. It’s something that brings the school together, and everyone kind of hopes it’s on one day given how much work they have, so that anticipation is really special in my opinion. It can be deceiving sometimes and not satisfying when it doesn’t happen, but when it does happen, there’s nothing better,” said Jordan.