Living as Dorm Parents in Tippetts Hall
The boy stepped out of his room into the hallway, pulling a small black suitcase on wheels. A ninth-grader in pajamas towing an evidently heavy suitcase down the hall on a Sunday morning in the first week of school.
My wife Laura and I were puzzled at first. But in a moment, Laura caught on. “Who’s in there?” she said, in a tone of voice reserved for just this kind of situation.
William stopped in his tracks. He looked at the suitcase. Then he looked at Laura.
You know the moment. You want to laugh, but it can be dangerous giving the wrong impression to a 14-year-old boy.
“Well, let him out,” Laura said. William unzipped the entire length of the suitcase and peeled back the vinyl flap, and Eric, one of the smaller ninth-graders, grinned as he slowly unfolded himself, emerging monarch-style from his carry-on cocoon.
“William, why is Eric in the suitcase?”
“I was the one who wanted to,” said Eric. “We just felt like trying it.” Of course. Doesn’t everyone?
Laura asked a few more questions and was satisfied that the situation was nothing nefarious. Then she sent the boys on their way with the firm understanding that this isn’t something they ought to be doing. Later, I commented to Laura, “Now that’s trust—letting somebody zip you inside a small suitcase!”
Laura is the dorm dean of Tippetts Hall, the largest male dorm on campus, with 82 boys spread over three floors. There is a faculty residence on each of the six wings.
In this environment, there’s a surprise every day, and in the words of Dave Barry, I am not exaggerating. When the doorbell rings, day or night, you just never know.
For example, it was a warm fall evening when I noticed Laura looking out the window at a few boys standing in the grass behind the dorm. Our apartment connects to the rear of the building next to the back doors. Boys are always passing by carrying cleats and backpacks on their way to and from soccer practice, the turf field, or to toss a ball or hang out on Tippetts Beach.
On this particular day, the boys took turns throwing something up high against the building.
“Check this out,” Laura said, nodding toward the grassy area behind the dorm.
I could see an open window in one of the third-floor rooms, and there was movement inside. “They’re trying to throw a shoe into the window,” I said.
A moment later, before Laura got the door open to say something to them, a sneaker arched upward toward the open window, bounced off the brick, and landed on the roof of the common room.
“Now the shoe is stuck on the roof,” Laura said.
“I guess that’s the fun of it.”
Recently, I asked her about some of the unique aspects of being a dorm dean. “When the boys put macaroni and cheese in the microwave but forget to add water,” she said, “it becomes a teaching moment because the small fire in the microwave sets off the smoke detector, and we evacuate the dorm on a cold, sleeting night.”
I’ve observed that they’re pretty good at evacuating, though. Maybe it’s the monthly fire drills.
It’s no surprise that these things happen: prefrontal cortex development and all. Occasionally, there’s a roommate dispute or an unkind word, but I’m impressed by the continual exhibitions of character, trust, and respect that pervade the dorm. The boys volunteer to shovel snow, unload cartons of Kit Kats and Skittles for the snack closet, or clean up the common room after a pizza party. They say “Hi,” even when they’ve had a lousy day. It sounds almost trite to say they’re nice to each other and to the adults who live here and/or have duty in their dorm.
Recently, as I cut through the lobby on my way to class, I heard beautiful piano music emanating from the common room. I poked my head in to see a student from Hong Kong, whom I coached in soccer, at the keyboard. He was playing a classical tune with no sheet music. I asked how he learned to play. “I just set up my iPad [on the piano] with videos and imitated them,” he said.
I’ve encountered dozens of boys playing that piano so capably. In fact, I wonder about a connection between playing the piano and academic achievement. Does it raise your SAT scores?
Even with the residents’ photos and nametags on every door, it’s a challenge getting to know everyone. Our apartment opens into the first floor, east wing. The wing houses 18 ninth-graders and a prefect.
All ninth-grade (junior) boys begin their Mercersburg careers in Tippetts, including ninth-grade day students, who are associated with the dorm their first year. After that, they can choose which dorm to be associated with and keep a locker.
Aside from making sure everyone in the dorm is accounted for and safe, the newer, younger boys are probably the most serious part of Laura’s job. When they arrive, these kids, barely out of eighth grade, can be nervous, scared, homesick, bewildered, or any combination thereof. They might be 80 or 8,000 miles from home. They don’t know the rules. Everything’s new to them: “Where’s Rutledge Hall?”
Most of all, perhaps, they don’t yet know the culture of the dorm and the school. They need careful guidance and someone they trust and feel safe with, a leader who establishes clear expectations. At the end of the fall term a few years ago, Laura had given some advice to a ninth-grader, after which he told her, “You’re my wing mom.” As in Top Gun or the dorm wing? I never got clarification.
Every Tippetts day starts when the housekeepers arrive, hours before classes begin. Laura posts pertinent information for the coming day in the lobby: times of athletic contests, rehearsals, birthdays (Happy Birthday, Clay!), special events such as guest speakers, which faculty and prefects are on duty, and often an inspirational quote for the day.
“The boys depend on it so much that if a mistake is made, it throws them off,” Laura says. Meanwhile, she’s making sure the dorm faculty members know their duty schedule, reviewing dorm reports from the night before, or corresponding with parents.
Dorm meetings, wing meetings, and prefect meetings happen on Monday nights with everyone gathered in the common room. That’s why I’ve been known to wander down there on Hot Dog Night, Nachos Night, Taquito Night, Chili Night, Pancake Night, Grilled Cheese Sandwich Night, Cereal Night, Root Beer Float Night, Meatball Mondays, Taco Bell Night, or Walking Taco Night.
Laura’s office connects our apartment to the wing and serves as a communications center (with three phone lines), a storage area for cans of cheese sauce and bags of plastic forks, a secure place for private conversations, a place for confiscated skateboards, a depository for hoodies found in the common room, and yes, a temporary holding cell if somebody gets into big trouble. This is also where our doorbell is located.
Half the time, the doorbell rings because somebody has locked his key inside his dorm room and can’t get in. But the reasons are as varied as the boys: Do you have any duct tape? I lost money in the drink machine. Can I borrow an AAA battery? Do you have any vinegar for my sunburn?
One time I answered the door to find three boys standing there. Two of them were holding up the middle one by his arms. There was a gash on the front of his thigh, the blood trailing down his shin. For whatever reason, they had hobbled past the faculty member on duty at the front desk and came to our door.
It’s unpredictable, but certainly, it keeps things interesting.
The appeal of living in Tippetts, for me, and I’m sure for Laura, is the opportunity to be part of the boys’ lives. It’s fun to get to know them and to do whatever you can to enrich their experience and help them find their way. When they walk across the graduation platform, whether they’ve been here for one year or four, I wonder where they’ll go, what they’ll do in life, what they’ll be. And when we take that final photo on the front steps, I wonder what they’ll remember about their dorm.
Editor's note: Chip Patterson has been a faculty member at Mercersburg since 2005. In addition to his role as English department head, he serves as dean of the dining hall and coaches junior varsity boys’ squash. He and Laura have three children: Mia ’15, Dean ’16, and Kat ’18. A version of his story first appeared in magazine. Read that issue now.