Taking Flight 

Plane carrying banner mars MBA’s awards night

Plane carrying banner mars MBA’s awards night

At Montgomery Bell Academy, Honors and Awards Night is typically a pristine affair. But this year, after a controversial feature story on the school in The Tennessean, a prop plane noisily flew over the event in an apparent effort to antagonize the school’s headmaster. No one is saying who flew the plane, but some suggest that it could have been commissioned by parents disgruntled over the news story.

On May 22, The Tennessean ran an article about MBA’s efforts to diversify its largely white student body by forming alliances with minority groups and community leaders. In the piece, Headmaster Brad Gioia talked frankly about the challenges the school confronts in doing just that, saying, ”Our history is both our greatest strength and greatest weakness.“

To some of the school’s more traditional alumni, a few of whom have seethed at what they see as Gioia’s efforts to move the school from its well-heeled Southern roots, that comment was too much. (Gioia is in South Africa and could not be reached for comment.)

On May 31, the school held its annual Honors and Awards Night for its upper school. At around 6:15, just before the event was set to start, a plane flew above the school’s quadrangle. Attached to the plane was a banner that, according to five witnesses read, ”Our History is Our Strength—Call Mike Drake.“ The plane hovered over the quadrangle for more than 30 minutes.

Johnny Sisk, MBA’s outgoing senior class president, says the incident galvanized MBA’s often fractious community. ”While there are many people who are not happy with the direction the administration is taking right now, the plane was an over-the-top stunt and completely inappropriate for a program such as honors night.“

The banner was an obvious rebuttal to Gioia’s comments in The Tennessean. But its reference to Mike Drake, a former assistant headmaster at the school, was a little more perplexing.

Few people think of the well-liked Drake as a staunch opponent of diversity or even as a member of the school’s old guard. In fact, it was Drake who as an interim headmaster at the school in the late ’70s presided over the admission of MBA’s first African American student. But the person responsible for the plane might have been trying to rattle Gioia further by bringing up the name of someone who some would have liked to have seen chosen as headmaster back in 1994.

Drake himself says that he never applied for the position, which became vacant after the death of Douglas Paschall. Now a headmaster at The Westfield School in Perry, Ga., Drake wants to make it clear that he had nothing to do with the plane.

”I would be disappointed if my friends at MBA thought this was something I had anything to do with,“ he says.

In fact, in what might come as a bitter revelation to the plane perpetrator, Drake empathizes with Gioia’s comments to The Tennessean.

”I guess I would agree with the headmaster,“ Drake says when read the now-famous quote. ”I think at any school our past is our greatest strength and presents our greatest challenges.“

So who was responsible for the plane? Ben Gambill Jr., the school’s board of trustees chair and president of Braid Electric, says cryptically, ”We probably know who did it, but it’s not a significant issue.“ He wouldn’t elaborate.

And yet among the MBA community, the plane incident has remained a hot topic of conversation in the weeks following graduation. A few students have speculated to the Scene that parents from Ensworth, a private elementary school, were responsible. This winter, a number of these Ensworth parents, some of whom might have been MBA alumni as well, were apparently upset that the school didn’t grant their children admission.

”I heard that Mr. Gioia was swamped with calls from parents saying ‘What are you doing? Why wasn’t my son admitted? I have given money to the school,’ “ says Taylor Sutherland, a recently graduated senior. ”Then when those parents read that article, it was a slap in the face.“

Unlike his predecessor, who broadened the school’s student body with less controversy, Gioia hasn’t had the lightest touch. Recently, he burnished some people’s image of him as an enemy of tradition when he decided to move the school’s cannons outside the view of the well-travelled West End Avenue.

With regards to Gioia’s efforts to diversify, some say that it’s not so much an issue of tolerance but a question over whether Gioia’s efforts to boost minority enrollment will change the essence of the school’s small, tightly-knit student body.

”The reason people are concerned about diversity is not because we’ll lose our Southern heritage but because we may lower our standards to become more diverse,“ says Sisk, the outgoing class president. ”The school wants to become more diverse and pull in more people from different backgrounds around the Nashville community, but at the same time, it wants to keep its tradition and keep on bringing in sons of alumni. That’s almost an impossible task if you’re trying to maintain the size of your student body.“

At the same time Gioia has garnered considerable support throughout the Nashville community. He has overseen a much-lauded construction program at the school and boosted the institution’s endowment significantly. As well, many believe that Gioia’s effort to increase minority enrollment is exactly what MBA needs.

No doubt the challenges MBA faces are no different than those of most elite institutions, especially those in the South. But the sight of a plane hovering over a school’s awards night doesn’t exactly elevate the terms of the debate.

”At first, I did think it was funny, but Mr. Gioia took it very personally,“ says Sutherland. ”I disagree with a lot of things Mr. Gioia does, but his heart is in the right place, and he’s a good man.“

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