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Life in Data Points

Life in Data Points
Christopher Blackman, Admission & Financial Aid Database Manager

As a published poet with a degree in writing, Admission and Financial Aid Database Manager might not seem like the most obvious line of work for me. What am I, a committed “words guy,” doing thinking about the school in numbers? To me it makes perfect sense. Ernest Hemingway famously compared his ideal writing to an iceberg: a writer makes a small fraction of a story visible to readers while simultaneously implying a much vaster story hidden beneath the surface. I think of data the same way. Each data point in a database represents a single, discrete aspect of a person that gestures towards their whole life. 

Visit nearly any independent school website and you’ll find an “At a Glance” page, the place in which a school attempts to distill itself into succinct numbers and somehow quantify the experience of being a student. Figures like student/faculty ratio, class size, and number of AP courses offered are descriptions that families can use as they begin to imagine their daughters attending a school.   

When I joined Dana Hall School in July 2022, the campus was empty (or empty of Dana Hall students, I should say). I spent the summer looking at enrollment numbers describing students I didn’t yet know. I would ask my colleagues in the Admission Office a million questions about the students whose names appeared in the database, and each time the team would rattle off stories about getting to know that student—where they were coming from, what sports they played, how many siblings they had, always finishing with how excited they were for that student to join our community. When school started, I was happy to finally put faces to the names I’d been reading all summer. They soon became students I chatted with about the New York City subway, poetry, or basketball. I applauded their dramatic entrances during Revels, and celebrated their college acceptances.

In a few short days, the seniors will graduate and I’ll update their statuses in our database. They’ll no longer be enrolled, but finally graduated. Years of schooling summarized in a single word—a glance. How can we possibly rely on that word to describe their entire academic careers? But at the same time, how could many words describe the full range of experiences a community shares? When things are too vast for words to truly encapsulate, the closest we can come is the tip of an iceberg. Or, in other words, data.