How the Episcopal School of Dallas helped make us who we are
Written by: Jennifer (Class of ’91), Laura (Class of ’94), & Chris (Class of ’97) Ayres
We are writing this together as a tribute not only to the comprehensive, well-rounded education we received, but also as a way of saying “thank you” to our parents, who made that possible.
LAA: What is something you learned during your time at ESD that seemed like “no big deal,” but sticks with you today? Brother, you start.
CSA: ESD taught me, from the start, I was going to have to work hard – harder than anyone else – if I wanted to keep up. There were lots of demands placed on us academically and if you wanted to do well, you had to put in the time. Once I started doing that, I saw a direct correlation between the time/energy you invest and results you get. If you’re lazy, then you’ll suffer the consequence. If you work hard, you’ll generally see the reward. When you struggle, if you not only persist but also crank up your focus and effort, you’ll get there. Eventually, this led to a very steady, strong work ethic that translated to virtually every aspect of my life, and something I fall back on today. Learning at ESD a desire to achieve the most you can with what you have and to compete hard, everyday, has served me well.
LAA: Good points. I echo the feeling of struggling at the beginning, and it was also one of my takeaways. The teachers (including the coaches) simply would not allow me to fail and something about their confidence in me made me want to work harder, to be more competitive, and present in all aspects of my learning. If I was sitting in the Commons goofing off during Study Hall, Rebecca Royall’s sliding door would open, she would barely look at me sideways, and I’d get back to work. Jen, what do you think?
JLA: The tenets of the school (ethical decision making, community, service to others, daily worship) stick with me today. You two have referenced it and it’s true – we live in a society that fosters competition and social comparisons and these tenets anchor us to what is truly important when we become distracted. What is interesting to me today is that the tenets do not reference academic learning or athletic skills or artistic talent, the things that were so important to us when we attended the school. It references living a life based on honor and giving to others.
LAA: I’m gonna interrupt because you’ve just hit on another thing that was unique about ESD – mandatory community service. Sorry to interrupt, but interrupting does run in the family. It was exceptional, right?
JLA: Yes, I’d forgotten about the community service requirements, but every student cleaned the school and there were multiple students cleaning the school everyday.
CSA: I think the true genius of ESD’s community service is impressing on kids, at a very early age, the important concept of service to others in a very “me”-driven society. That means serving others inside the school’s walls, as well as utilizing your gifts to serve the larger community outside of the school.
LAA: I certainly think most of us owe our cleaning skills (and obsession with quality carpentry) to Sandy “Mr. D” Donaldson.
JLA: True. Now that I think about it, I have typically been one of the people in my work environments who cleans up messes that others left behind. Even if I did not make the mess, I have a responsibility in ensuring that our shared space is clean and ready. How many times did we hear Mr. Donaldson say a variant of that sentence? Every student went off-site during senior year to dedicate time to a community agency that needed help. Volunteerism was modeled for us by Mom and Dad, but ESD taught us that it was not simply a family value. Every student went on the class retreats. Every student went to chapel everyday and Eucharist on Wednesday. Again, Mom and Dad taught us early the importance of weekly attendance at worship, but, again, ESD took that to another level by generalizing what we were learning at home.
CSA: Speaking of chapel, I loved sitting as an advisory in chapel and at lunch.
LAA: What else? Anything particularly special you remember?
CSA: Sure, but it’s really the simple, daily things. I loved bus-rides with my teammates. How the varsity always watched the junior varsity play. Learning lessons and traditions from older role models and passing those things down to those in classes below me. Admiring two people’s ability to learn the names of everyone in middle school or upper school so we could have a grub day. I know everyone falls back on the main traditions – Pass it On, Senior Ring, Senior Shirt Exchange, Lesson and Carols, etc. Those were and are all great. But, for me, it was the cool things we did, day in and day out, that I remember most.
LAA: Jen, did you have any favorite traditions?
JLA: I liked the movie day (I think it was the Kevin Michael Hughey day, but the title might have been something else). I remember seeing Cry Freedom and Milagro Beanfield War. There was another one that I likely will remember later. I transferred to ESD from the public schools my sophomore year and I remember being so impressed with that tradition. The idea that the school would rent a movie theater and then return to the school to discuss the movie in small groups is so impressive to me today. I replicated this tradition in my current work environment for our all clinic retreat. One year we watched Shawshank Redemption and another year we watched a documentary entitled I Am. After the movie, the large group dispersed into small groups and answered questions I wrote to encourage personal reflection and application of the movie themes to our daily life.
LAA: I think I slept through one of the movies, unfortunately. I have only a vague recollection of Keanu Reeves in Much Ado about Nothing. Such a let-down after having read it with Dr. Hamlin. Anyway, what about a memory that was, perhaps, not easily formed, but was formative? Yiff, you go first.
JLA: I was a senior when Reed Flashnick (Class of ’92) killed himself. The school was so small at that point — 45 people in my class, perhaps 50 or so in his junior class — that, even though he was not a personal friend of mine, the effects of his suicide on people I cared about were overwhelming. I remember Tommy Whitlock’s trying to teach us math during first period with tears in his eyes and how dazed we all felt at that point. I remember Father Swann’s having the high school classes meet in the chapel after the Wednesday chapel service and telling us that it had been a suicide and that Reed left a note to his “ESD family.” I remember hearing that note read aloud. I remember the school’s saying that we could go home at anytime and signing myself out late morning. The sign-out list was so long and everyone had written “sick” for the reason. And we were all sick that day. I think for most of us it was the first time that we realized how discrepant what we see is from the lives people are actually living and not sharing. I came home that afternoon and my early acceptance letter from Emory was waiting in the mailbox.
LAA: It all comes together because now you help so many people in your profession, Jenny. Chris, what about you?
CSA: I was a freshman in Scott Kimball’s history class. I also played baseball for him. He came to me and asked me if I could help a girl in our class who was struggling. I told him that I was swamped – too many commitments to classes, athletics, etc. – I just didn’t have the time. I’ll never forget the look he gave me and can almost quote him verbatim: “I’m not asking you to help. I’m telling you that you have an obligation. When you are given gifts and you see others struggling, it is your responsibility to help. You don’t get the choice to sit on the sideline or turn and walk away from people who need help. I don’t care that you’re busy. And I don’t care than you don’t have the time. Make the time and get it done. Understood?” Enough said about a life-changing moment.
LAA: Mr. Kimball likes me more than he likes you.
CSA: That’s probably because you and Mr. Kimball share a common love of music. You sing with your voice and he can play songs with his teeth.
LAA: My moment is actually about your classmate, Chris. I think everyone that met Zach Bell (Class of ’97) adored him (and Betty Jo and David Bell). Zach was really sick during 1992-1993 and complications due to CF kept him out of school quite a bit. Betty Jo told me he was a bit nervous to return and I couldn’t have that. So, I got Mark Lanyon (Sr. Class President, ‘93), Brian Wharton (Student Body President, ‘93), and Krissy McAtee (Class of ’93) to go to his house with me and we told him we’d be really excited if he returned. It was a great afternoon and one I will never forget. Because we took the time to tell him and show him, Zach knew he important to the fabric of our school. For me? That was the heart of ESD in that moment. I thought of it as I sang “On Eagle’s Wings” at his funeral.
Actually, since graduation, I have sung at the weddings of ESD classmates and I have sung at the funerals of ESD classmates. During the ESD years, it’s difficult to truly grasp how lucky you all are to be a tight-knit community. That’s another unique thing about ESD’s view on “community.”
CSA: Agreed. Even now, it’s fun to hear people talk about their ESD experiences. There is this unique sense of commonality that comes from going to ESD, whether you graduated in the 1980’s or 2000’s. You can see people two decades later and there is no strangeness or awkwardness – you just pick up where you left off.
LAA: I’m interested to know if anything you all learned at ESD is going into the parenting of my precious, angelic nephews, known collectively as the “Ayres Little Men”?
JLA: When I think about what life lessons I want Angel and Giovanni to learn, it comes down to the ESD tenets I spoke about at the beginning. I want them to be honest and compassionate in their decision making. I want them to give back to others and their community so that they recognize that the world is larger than their daily experiences. I want them to recognize that religion and worshiping in community are important because it provides an anchor when they feel adrift.
LAA: Chris, what about Wyatt Walter and Cooper, who are already little Eagles?
CSA: Obviously, Kelley (Loper, now Ayres, Class of ‘97) and I are blessed to have the opportunity to send our kids where we went. I’ve said to many people, there are three things that shaped me as a person: my family, my church and ESD. I am who I am because of ESD and I’m forever grateful for the way it shaped my mind, body, and my spirit. I hope and pray that my two boys walk away from their experience feeling the same way. Much of that was because of this amazing experience given to me by my teachers, the staff, and my schoolmates.
LAA: I would like all four boys to have a very strong sense of independent thought and expression. All of our remarkable classroom teachers, coaches, and administrators at ESD encouraged, no, demanded that we think for ourselves. I think you’ve both said it well. Something all three of us learned at ESD was “figure it out” thinking and “stick it out” perseverance.
CSA: When I hear people gripe about the school and whine about some aspect of their time there, I laugh because there is no way this school didn’t play some part in our successes after we left. It’s impossible. I am honored to still have a great set of relationships with some key teachers during my time. I love my role and time on the Alumni Executive Committee. I believed now what I experienced then: ESD is the greatest preparatory school in Dallas, in Texas, and in the United States. I wouldn’t trade my time there for all the money in the world.
JLA: I was talking to a high school junior a few months ago in his therapy session. He is failing his classes and was talking about how insignificant high school is. I pointed to my diplomas and said that I would not have acquired one of them if I hadn’t worked hard in high school and had good teachers. ESD set the foundation for college and graduate school.
LAA: And, in my case, more college and more graduate school, and then even more. Glad we did this because ESD can always use a pat on the back and Mom and Dad deserve that, too. Nothing would have been possible without them. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
CSA: No doubt. Their gift of an ESD education transformed our lives.
Dr. Jennifer Ayres, of Austin, Texas
Laura Anne Ayres, of Zürich, Switzerland
Christopher Scott Ayres, of Dallas, Texas