What’s Next?

Director Vince Durnan shares his plans for life after 22 years on Edgehill Avenue.
Let’s ponder the possibilities — new Director at USN, new phase in the pandemic to endemic progression, new uncertainty on the world stage geopolitically, and all kinds of new in our city. With that backdrop, it seems more than a little self-indulgent to mention my own emerging next chapter. But the circumstances of that story might actually reveal something of relevance in understanding how things have a way of playing out, so I’ll try to make a couple connections while beginning the end of this valedictory phase.
First, to the small stuff. Several weeks ago an unexpected phone call from a faraway area code left my office partner and spectacular assistant Susan Pearlman (who has quietly made her own exit plans for this summer) puzzled. A sales call, thought she. Turned out that the caller was a former student from my time on Hawaii’s Big Island no fewer than three decades ago. After some pleasantries, not atypical of local conversations here btw, the reason for the call eventually followed. This former student, now more than a half-century old, was on the hunt for an interim head to serve the school where he’s currently a trustee.
Let me confirm now that with regard to the three things that long-serving independent school heads generally do, i.e. join a search (headhunter) firm, become an interim head, or hang out a consulting shingle, maybe as an “executive coach,” I’ve been sure I was interested in precisely none of those options. Chalk it up to being too outspoken, too cynical, too sure this is the only such job I’d ever want, too worn out, or some blend of all four. My not-so-secret dream was and still is a quiet position as a cheese shop clerk. Still, nostalgia and curiosity drew me into a deeper conversation with those old friends and an unwisely quick round trip to a beautiful campus in a singular location.
Island School, in Puhi, on Kaua’i, is a K-12 community less than half USN’s size, about 40 years old, made possible by a dedicated group of families who cherish the culture of that rural Hawai’ian setting and the promise of educational opportunity for a deeply diverse group of students. The school’s current head announced early this year that she’d be unable to return, creating a challenge in terms of transition, That’s where I fit in, as a one-year helper toward a bright future for someone else in the role permanently. Fair to say it’s the only such position that would have been appealing — it just fell out of the sky in that category of one.
So off we’ll go, thereby creating a clean and probably necessary (for me, anyway) break with all the USN routines that have come to define my very existence, to be followed in eleven months by I’m not sure what, and that is just fine. The chance for a restorative stretch on the health front is also a draw—this has been a taxing run for me after last summer’s big speed bump, much as I love every hectic day. And the distance, geographically as well as metaphorically, should prompt some good thinking about what’s next.
My hope, my wish, and my expectation is that something fresh and renewed, rooted in the relationships that have built our beloved USN community, is about to dawn, with its own accompanying serendipity. Consider Amani Reed’s finding us after graciously visiting back during our centennial year. Maybe things do happen for a reason. Last October I tried to suggest some possible examples of the Next Big Thing — not in a prescriptive way but as a reminder of our potential collective capacity.
The last couple years brought an imperative to focus on the very basics, taking nothing for granted but tabling all the non-essentials — including dreams for life after COVID. I’d submit that the time for imagining USN at its very best, as its own little educational paradise, is surely nigh. You’ve earned that restorative opportunity as a community, and our revealed ability to see more benefit in cooperating than in standing apart promises great things. A big effort next year will surely yield big results — and you have my pledge to remain the most committed kind of cheerleader, from a healthy distance.
One recurring refrain for me since last spring is that my curiosity about what would happen at USN if I left eventually overshadowed my curiosity about what would happen if I stayed. There will be a brand-new school year after a big exhale this summer, and with it the most substantial opportunity, as Tennyson said, “to ring out the old, ring in the new,” to embrace our best and question the rest. Such chances come only so often.
Here’s to what’s ahead,

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University School of Nashville models the best educational practices. In an environment that represents the cultural and ethnic composition of Metropolitan Nashville, USN fosters each student’s intellectual, artistic, and athletic potential, valuing and inspiring integrity, creative expression, a love of learning, and the pursuit of excellence.