As the Tutorial/Studio year begins anew, The Riversider thought it would be fun to turn the tables and find out more about Founder/Director Peter Searby. This is the first in a two-part interview.
How would you describe your upbringing? How did it influence where you are today and what you are trying to do with Riverside?
I grew up in a family of six boys and one girl. We lived in Northern Virginia, but my parents are natives of Queens in New York City. I am sure that accounts for the humor, boisterous conversations, and sincerity that was ever present in my family. My father has always been an avid reader and an intellectual. His library is full of books on history, political philosophy, and classic works of literature and poetry. He worked for President Ronald Reagan during the 80’s and traveled all over the world. My mother is half Greek and loves Motown music and dancing. She made a home, alongside my father, that was always warm, affectionate, and full of the kind of big family traditions and fun that I have always loved. She’s also a no-nonsense New Yorker who is both tough and hard-working, but always cheerful and motherly in everything she does.
My parents believe wholeheartedly in personal freedom, and so I always felt encouraged in all the things I loved and talents I wanted to develop. They instilled in us, through their example, a life of prayer, hard work/service, a sense of humor, and the importance of deep and meaningful conversations.
I remember loving my bike, and going on long adventures on paths that took one as far as Washington DC, or finding cool trails and jumps in the woods nearby. I was very hyper and active as a boy. My parents didn’t quite know what to do with me. I just had a lot of energy and couldn’t sit still for too long. I was involved with multiple sports, especially basketball, and was extremely competitive. They always encouraged me even when I expressed delusions of grandeur of wanting to play in the NBA.
It’s difficult to describe what I experienced at times during my childhood, but I know people on the artistic and creative side of life tend to have what I call a sixth sense. Wherever I would go I found myself coming up with role-playing scenarios, stories, or adventures that could take place in the setting I found myself in. I guess I was never quite satisfied with normal life and wanted to make something more epic. So I often daydreamed at school or imagined stories in my backyard that made suburban life more fantastic.
When I was young, my grandparents on my father’s side moved to Cooperstown NY, which is the Last of the Mohicans’ territory. It was there in those country summers that I developed a love for the outdoors, for walking in the woods with the dog Falstaff, fishing for trout early in the morning, riding ATVs with reckless abandon, and shooting random groundhogs with a wild country kid who would hang out with my family. It was a solitary life my grandparents lived, but there was a charm to their quaint little home with amber windows that made everything sunset in the house during the day, and with oil lamps for light in the evenings. I remember them swing dancing in the kitchen, and making up a song for random phrases or words that we would say. It was like visiting Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, but in the hill country of upstate New York.
What were your siblings like?
As for my siblings, my brother Michael and I always battled on the basketball court, and he soon developed an incredibly quick shot release since I often tried to jump high and stuff him. He was always a listener, a gentle soul, and a good friend of many. Perhaps that’s why he is now a licensed counselor.
I’d describe Brian as a bit quirky, crazy, and fun. He had the most entrepreneurial spirit in my family but also has creative gifts that have helped me in the story creation of several Riverside musicals. As boys, he and I came up with many role-playing scenarios for the neighborhood kids: spies trying to get the secret disk from the Soviets; Indiana Jones, or a Jedi on a high adventure. I think the scene from E.T. when the kids go flying into the air on bikes was an inspiration to us, and so riding bikes always took on imaginative flights and adventurous treks.
James is the oldest. He ran away from the circus to join the priesthood years ago. That says a lot about him, but he’s a huge personality with many gifts. He always makes my parents laugh, and his free spirit and explorer personality have launched him into many adventures, travels, and meetings with all sorts of people. He is four years older than I am, so in some ways when we were kids, he was in a different realm than the rest of us.
My sister Elizabeth brought beauty and gentleness into a motley crew of lost boys. She sang opera growing up, and could blow the roof off the house with her mezzo-soprano voice. I often tried to compete with her loudness by turning up my electric guitar in the basement. This did not go over well with Liz, or my parents especially when I started playing Clapton, Vaughn, and Hendrix in my teenage years.
My brothers Tom and John were the young rascals who were fun to play with. They laughed a lot, and to this day love to have a good time, to bring people together. They enjoy hosting parties that have meaning to them, with all sorts of fanfare, food, and good fellowship.
I am not sure if I will get in trouble with any of them for trying to describe them to an audience, but hopefully, they will laugh. I love them all and miss them. I am the only one who lives a distance away.
How did your family cultivate a strong faith?
What I remember most vividly in my life is witnessing my mother and father going off on their own to pray in silence, reading spiritual books in a quiet room, and making space in the day for deep conversation with God. They attended daily mass, but would never force us to go. They wanted us to choose this on our own. We prayed the family rosary growing up, but as we grew older they respected our freedom and would ask us to join them. I also remember when they would take time at night to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament together at a local church; at times I would join them, and this gave me great love for the Eucharist. They always respected our freedom to choose whether to go. We lived the great feast days by attending beautiful churches like Saint Mary of the Angels in Chicago, and then celebrating with big dinners, or Easter Brunches. (Though I also remember going to White Castle after some Sunday Masses.)
Incidentally, my mother has managed a retreat center in Culpepper, VA, since the early 2000s.
You were in traditional education before starting Riverside. How did you end up in education if you felt so dissatisfied with it as a youth?
I jumped around from school to school as a boy mainly because I was very restless and did not fit into the system that well. I could not sit still in school, and to this day I still have a letter from my sixth-grade teacher that was sent to my parents claiming that I was causing intense disturbances in class. I did not ever seem to click in most of the schools I attended and was either asked to leave, or my parents just tried to find a better fit. They were always patient with me although I am sure I caused them lots of anxiety. There were of course moments I remember fondly, like being part of a 1950s musical as a sixth grader, playing competitive basketball and baseball on a variety of school teams, or naturalist programs at a school in Potomac, Maryland. But in general I just never enjoyed most of my school experience, and wish I had some intense arts training or outdoor adventure experiences as part of my educational experience.
I thought that something was wrong with me because that seemed to be the message sent loud and clear while I attended most of the institutions. After high school, I worked odd jobs here and there and practiced guitar with reckless abandon. It was only when I visited my brother James at the University of Dallas and witnessed a brotherhood rooted in deep learning and creative experiences that I decided to re-enter academia and attend my now Alma Mater, UD.
It took me a couple of years to finally take it seriously because I still really wanted to be a musician, but soon I learned to love the liberal arts and the deep friendships that one could form studying the classics. However, it still was not the creative and imaginative culture I yearned for. And so after college, I wandered a bit trying to find my way, playing music, trying my hand at writing, and working as a teacher. I realized I found a connection with teaching boys, and finding ways to engage their restlessness, their desire for adventure, brotherhood, and imagination. However, I still felt restless as a teacher in standard schools and kept wondering what I was supposed to do. It was only after years of teaching that I began to see that the most meaningful experiences for these boys and myself were connected to the creative and imaginative side of learning, adventure in the outdoors, and developing creative fellowships rooted in meaningful experiences. So I began to question the educational approaches of places I have taught, or where I was a student. Then it happened. I started to brainstorm what the ultimate school for boys would look like and came up with Riverside.