A Dream Project Come True: Keystone Looks Back on the Celebrated Moments of Founding Head Malcolm McKenzie
For many years, Malcolm McKenzie repeated his big dream as if it were a mantra: “I would like to start a school”. He said it out loud again and again: on an evening in April 1999, at his farewell gathering at Maru-a-Pula School; throughout his years at Atlantic College, a historic educational institution built as part of a peace movement; and during interactions with residential students and employees at the Hotchkiss School. The dream came true in China, when he helped to found Keystone Academy.
Within eight years, Keystone has become a formidable academic institution, a vibrant community of learners, and a leading proponent of the world school model of education. It is more than just an establishment; it is home for many, most especially for Mr. McKenzie, who revealed that sentiment and numerous others to me with refreshing candor during a recent wide-ranging interview.
But he is about to leave the home he has helped build for some years. Although the big move is upon him, it is clear to my colleagues and our student community that Mr. McKenzie’s ideas are poised not only to remain, but to grow even bigger.
A trope within China’s expatriate circles is hearing the question, “Why are you here?” China, for all the growth it has attained in the past 30 years or so, is seen by many foreigners as a land of opportunity. But for those who choose to look beyond its bounties, it is a place that draws them in, closer and closer, to an unexplainable allure, until they find themselves becoming a tiny part of a grand, dynamic, and ever-growing fabric. This shared sentiment was clear when I asked Malcolm McKenzie what brought him to China. He began by recalling November 1968, when he was a fifteen-year-old traveling with classmates by train to downtown Cape Town to celebrate their academic achievement with a book prize from their school: they could go to a bookshop and choose whatever book they wanted. Rummaging through the shelves, he found a slim brown booklet—a selection of sayings and wisdom attributed to Laozi. These aphorisms fascinated the young man, leading him to discover later, in his university years, a much larger selection of Chinese sayings and writings, in the I Ching. That booklet was a great find and a prized possession that he would bring to China more than 40 years later.
Within those decades, Malcolm entered the realm of education after obtaining a double bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar), and a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at the University of Lancaster. In the 1980s, he taught English at universities in Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg, and then continued his profession—or his “career passion”—in the secondary school Maru-a-Pula, a trail-blazing independent school in Botswana. In 1991, he became the school’s third Principal. It was also in these years when the young leader began dreaming of starting a world school as he observed how Maru-a-Pula adeptly brought together youth from different social contexts and realities, allowing both Batswana students to learn significantly from global exposure and their non-local counterparts to immerse in and gain a part of their host country. All this occurred in a learning environment defined by high and rigorous scholastic standards and a pervasive community service ethic, two qualities dear to Mr. McKenzie’s head and heart.
In 2000, he moved to the United Kingdom to become the fifth Principal of Atlantic College. His professional ideals were further informed with the infusion of education for peace, experiential learning, and community service based upon the philosophical lead of the school’s founding inspiration, the German educator Kurt Hahn. Mr. McKenzie later wrote about how experiential education “is becoming a needed emergency service in this world”, as many academic institutions worldwide follow models driven by syllabi, tests, or entitlement because of “sad necessity”.
By mid-decade, Mr. McKenzie moved to The Hotchkiss School in the United States. Staying there for six years as its twelfth Head of School, Mr. McKenzie brought the deeper, more connective, and more aspirational value of the education he had experienced from his two previous schools, driving what he called two “qualitative shifts” that enhanced character building throughout the school’s boarding community. Hotchkiss, he said, “[welcomed] the idea of change”, while students “derive[d] pleasure from each other’s achievements and talents”. In addition, many in the Hotchkiss community considered his establishment of the Global Initiatives and Environmental Initiatives departments as the hallmarks of his headship. Hotchkiss became a major player in the Global Connections Foundation, built a biomass heating plant, and purchased a farm to allow students to work on the land. It was also at Hotchkiss where Mr. McKenzie received his Chinese name Mǐn Màokāng (闵茂康). Jean Yu, the school’s now-retired Mandarin Chinese instructor, told me that she had taken days to come up with a list of names, and Mr. McKenzie selected the epithet that literally meant “sympathetic”, “luxuriant”, and “healthy”. Ms. Yu loved the choice, because the characters or their homophones can form other words that also describe the man: 敏 (mǐn, or the homophone of the surname 闵) can mean “perceptive” (敏锐 mǐnruì), mào “flourishing” (茂盛màoshèng), and kāng “peaceful” (安康ānkāng) or “happy” (康乐kānglè).
As the decade went on, Mr. McKenzie, Mǐn Màokāng, continued visiting China on business. In 2011, he was in touch with people planning to establish educational institutions in countries as diverse as Japan, China, Mozambique, Tanzania, Armenia, and Germany. China was “the obvious place”, he said. Mr. McKenzie had already had a “fascinating experience” of the country, owing much to his business trips where he sought to develop connections first between Atlantic College and the Guangdong Ministry of Education, prompted by the influx of Chinese students coming to study in Wales. Later, Mr. McKenzie gave speeches at conferences in Shanghai, and then while at Hotchkiss at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, at the invitation of the Office of Chinese Language Council International (or commonly referred to by its Chinese abbreviated title, Hanban).
At one point, he was invited by the originators of Keystone to become the founding head of a yet-to-be-built school. During a site visit on a bleak December day in 2011, when the sun “was a pale ball like an old copper coin”, Mr. McKenzie saw 11 Anfu Street in Houshayu, a completely overgrown plot of land within a much broader, more desolate suburban district. Then, he told himself, “Do I really want to work here?” Ten years on, the field is now home to Keystone Academy, a flourishing school with nearly 1,700 students and almost 500 employees. The institution blends distinctive traditions in eastern, western, and global education and frames its endeavors through the shared Confucian values of compassion, justice, respect, wisdom, and honesty. Many of Keystone’s educational philosophy tenets are an amalgamation of academic wisdom, cultural contexts, and leadership expertise mainly brought in by Mr. McKenzie from his years of experience on three different continents, as well as his colleagues who are part of the Keystone Board of Trustees. All that was expanded by top teachers and leaders who came to Keystone because of its unique blend of traditions and ambitions, along with those who have a deep interest in Chinese culture, history, and civilization. Helping to build Keystone from the ground up, Mr. McKenzie said, was “one of the best decisions in my career”. It was an opportunity that came “in the right place and right time”. Helping to build Keystone from the ground up, Mr. McKenzie said, was “one of the best decisions in my career”. It was an opportunity that came “in the right place and right time”. And many would add, for the right person.
Formulating the idea of a “world school” is much like making a project that transcends three generations. And it can be said that Keystone is a testing ground for the viability of Mr. McKenzie’s dream of a world school. He has expressed before that even a rural facility can become a great school, because the success of an educational institution lies in the quality and vision of the students it produces. But as far as the numerous groundbreaking actions and purposeful service initiatives done by Keystone students and community members in the past eight years are concerned, Mr. McKenzie’s vision of a world school has already succeeded. Aside from that, he has impressively expanded his links with China, with the help of Keystone’s Chinese Thread curriculum, which he describes as the school’s “kernel” and “most essential form”, as it puts a prime focus on Chinese history, culture, and identity. He has seen the marvels of Chinese civilization come alive before his eyes, thanks to the willingness of Keystone students and colleagues to share with him their cultural experiences. All this while, in addition, the school opened its doors to some of the most brilliant minds and changemakers from around the world. Mr. McKenzie has written numerous times about his awe and pleasure in welcoming people such as Simon Winchester and Jane Goodall, to name a few, who have inspired Keystone students to take action.
The chance to know a little of China from his early reading, and then experience it later in life, has somehow led Mr. McKenzie to be drawn closer to Daoism, among the many schools of thought that originated in the country. He is enthused by the idea of a natural order that “seems to be very sympathetic to all living species and creatures”. Some Chinese teachers I spoke to believe that Mr. McKenzie enjoys “decod[ing] Chinese philosophy” and linking it to other concepts. Chinese Civilization teacher Huang Yuanching told me that she sees Mr. McKenzie as “much closer to Mencius” in philosophy especially in the way he lives by values and morality. Director of Libraries Kacy Song, meanwhile, believes that Mr. McKenzie adheres to the teachings of Confucius as, for her, the headmaster is “a great teacher” who has taught the Keystone community through his leading and way of enjoying life.
For all the success Keystone has attained in the past eight years, its idea of a world school, Mr. McKenzie said, is its main contribution to the field of education. Such a school is deeply rooted in its local culture and identity, but global in outlook and outcomes. He is proud of how the idea has been received warmly by many Chinese families. But as the school becomes larger by the day, the risk of it straying from its core educational tenets also grows as the pressure of school rankings, quantifiable achievements, and entitlement sets in. Mr. McKenzie has continuously reminded the Keystone community to keep their sights on what it is to be a leading school, which, for him
exists to do work that is exactly right for itself, with deep thought and humility. If it is indeed done right, its aim fulfilled, other schools will notice such innovation and integrity, and they will emulate and copy this work. If they in turn get it right, they will think that they did it themselves.
Keystone, “the most exciting” among the five schools he has been part of, has made him feel at home. “I am in my element here”, he said before. As his time to leave Keystone draws near, Mr. McKenzie is still processing the many ways that China has affected him. This much he knows: “it has been a remarkable journey”, he said, as it has allowed him to feel deeply about Chinese culture and traditions.
“I like very much how [my time in China and Keystone] influenced me greatly and how Chinese people share experiences with each other in different ways from other communities where I have lived.”
“They all mean so much to me,” he said.
Throughout Keystone’s halls and public areas, and even during campus events and residential community functions, there are many sides of Mr. McKenzie that my colleagues, students, and parents see: present, participative, or pensive. Parents often tell me about his welcome presence in activities. For many of them, he is a leader who shows up even on the most common of occasions—on weekday mornings to greet incoming students, or in seasonal campus book fairs, or during the Back-to-School parent evenings. This clearly demonstrates his support and interest to those parents. For Lily Liu, one of Keystone’s founding parents and now the Assistant Head of School (Business), “his presence carries weight” and his consistent attendance amazes everyone. Her observation is shared by many other Keystone members who describe the Head as “being everywhere”. I love to refer to him as “He who shall not be named” because sometimes—perhaps most of the time—a simple mention of him in an office conversation can become a chant that summons his figure! A colleague jokes that Mr. McKenzie is like a “ninja” sneaking into offices to wish employees a good day, while another student gleefully claims he has a “master’s degree in silent appearance” because of his hushed arrivals in student-led events or residential community activities. He has “the ability to magically appear at any event,” as Allen Babcock, who worked with Mr. McKenzie at Hotchkiss (as its Technical Director of Theater) and Keystone (as the Director of the Performing Arts Center), has observed in his colleague throughout the years, because “he tries to authentically sample what is going on without letting others feel he is supervising.”
Mr. McKenzie believes that being present is a “way of teaching”. He is passionate about observing and connecting with almost anyone, because doing so gives him the chance to keep in touch with “people who sometimes feel neglected” and lets them feel they have a sense of belonging. The people who have been there for him—his own immediate family, his parents, siblings, and extended family members—gave him that support as he grew up, and later. Despite that, he recognized his family’s difference from the less fortunate people outside their circle, consistently questioning the circumstances that had led him to that privilege.
As he grew older, he sought to understand an event that he would never get an answer to: How did his father manage to escape from captivity and avoid the tragedy that befell many of his friends during the Second World War? That soldier, immortalized in a photo portrait of his 18-year-old self in uniform, remains present in his son’s life. The image, pinned on a board on the left side of Mr. McKenzie’s office table, is juxtaposed with a recent photograph of a Syrian refugee holding his daughter. Mr. McKenzie wrote about the poignant connection of these two images following his Keystone United Nations speech in late March 2021:
I look at them many times each day. As you can imagine, they stimulate a myriad thoughts and feelings. Amongst these are my deep appreciation for what I was given by my parents; my joy that I was able to give something similar to my own children; my pleasure that you, and us, are giving something similar to your children; a grief for all those parents who cannot provide for their children, purely because they are born into circumstances that do not allow this; the horror of the possibility of a child, your own, dying in your arms; the randomness of opportunity; the fate or destiny that can determine why some live and thrive, and some do not even survive; the depressing fact that war seems part of the human condition; the redeeming fact that there are and will always be those who are determined to fix global problems and promote peace.
With his father’s bravery never far from his mind, and the positivity of cultural contexts, academic wisdom, and other educational tenets becoming ever clearer as he passed those concepts on to students, Mr. McKenzie strives to make even minor interactions meaningful. In fact, Mr. McKenzie recalls with delight having “some of the best conversations” just by getting around or chatting with people, and even keeping his office open to students after school (leading to his so-called “Open Office” hours). Paul Lorem, one of the exchange students at the Hotchkiss School, cannot forget how Mr. McKenzie guided him during his coldest times—quite literally—in the United States. The South Sudanese student barged into the Head of School’s office after nearly freezing from his first-ever snowfall experience in the United States. The Head, Mr. Lorem recalls, looked shocked “because he might have thought that I would complain”, but then sympathized with the student, telling him that he had faced a similar situation after spending a long time in Botswana. Mr. Lorem came to Hotchkiss for just one year to prepare for his undergraduate study at Yale University, but he says he learned so much from that period, thanks to Mr. McKenzie who told him at the very start: “do not be afraid of not knowing everything”. On one particular occasion, during a gathering of African students at Hotchkiss, Mr. McKenzie shared his experiences growing up in the apartheid-era South Africa and his choice to leave a place of privilege to understand the world beyond it.
Several years later, in December 2018, the two reconnected following Mr. Lorem’s award of a Schwarzman Scholarship to Tsinghua University. Mr. McKenzie invited Mr. Lorem to speak at Keystone about his extraordinary journey as a refugee in South Sudan who eventually found his way to China. In his impassioned yet quiet speech, Mr. Lorem reminded his Keystone audience how being born in different realities would give people unequal opportunities, but one could always try to do things very differently, take control of one’s own life, and progress. The students were riveted.
Mr. McKenzie has spoken or written on numerous occasions about privilege, as it is a reality lived not only by many Keystone students and families but also by him. In one address in April 2022, he shared the story of Mr. Lorem and two other students from his former schools who have launched initiatives to help less privileged people in different parts of the world. Mr. McKenzie told his audience that he “question[s] that [privilege] every day when I wake up” and that he has continually asked himself whether he would be better practicing philanthropy instead of leading elite institutions. But “the answer and the reason that makes sense” for him to go on leading schools “is you—the students” as he holds on to that hope that they will always use their influence as adults to serve people less fortunate than themselves.
That call has been well-received by many Keystone students who have been trying to change their worlds in their own ways. As many Keystone students banded together to lead philanthropic initiatives for people affected by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, some, like Aidan Chong, looked within the Keystone community. Aidan, who was among the ninth graders allowed to return first on campus in 2020, wrote to Mr. McKenzie to express his gratitude to the cleaning staff who had kept the school safe and clean during the crisis. As he looks back on that letter, Aidan, now the Student Council President, attributes the development of his tact and consideration of others to the Head of School—“the anchor of the Keystone ship”—who, for him, leads by example.
By the time Mr. McKenzie retires, Keystone will see its first cohort of graduates, now college graduates, moving to the professional world. Keystone founding student Jacky Liang ’18, who has studied hospitality management in Switzerland, is an avid follower of Mr. McKenzie’s weekly letters, trying to find gems of wisdom from the man whom he considers a “proud grandfather”. When he was at Keystone, Mr. Liang was awakened by Mr. McKenzie’s implicit message “to not be the privileged people despite being part of a privileged community”, fully embracing that reminder as he moved forward to university.
Many Keystone parents, meanwhile, relate to many of Mr. McKenzie’s ideas. “He made us re-evaluate the essence of education,” Grace Zhou, the co-chair of the Keystone Parent-Teacher Association, told me. His lead, writings, and influence have sparked discussions and changed the views of many parents and graduating students, Ms. Zhou shared. For Ms. Liu, the Keystone Assistant Head of School, becoming part of the school’s leadership team has allowed her to understand Mr. McKenzie better. “He has never lost sight of the school’s ambition to be a world school,” she said. For Jia Lili, the Associate Head of School and Dean of Curriculum, the school’s Number 1 leads Keystone as if he is writing a poem. “He operates it with rhythm and rhyme,” she told me, “because the real world is not always ideal, but he has made Keystone beautiful and full of life.” Furthermore, she appreciates that the school has a leader who “reflects with everyone”. Mr. McKenzie “has never been lonely” in what Mr. Babcock described as “the lonely place—when you are a leader” because he considers the quality of relationships and “he inherently cultivates them.” But for Mr. Liang, it all comes down to what he feels is Mr. McKenzie’s “greatest gift”—his “incredible ability to listen and touch the hearts and souls of people.”
It was supposed to be a regular Friday afternoon assembly at the Performing Arts Center when Mr. McKenzie would bid students a good winter weekend. It seemed no different from the weekly Head of School assemblies that Mr. McKenzie organized so students could have a voice and present their projects. On that occasion, a vacation mood almost kicked in, but there were still nine-and-a-half more school days left before the Spring Festival holiday of 2018. As such, the assembly agenda teemed with fun fare: a spectacular magic show, a presentation about a rare lunar eclipse, and a short message from no less than the headmaster himself. When his time came, Mr. McKenzie went on stage alone, illuminated by theater lights, and made a bombshell announcement: he had cancer. The magic that previously captivated the entire hall faded away. The sudden news eclipsed the awe students had earlier. There was complete silence, until Mr. McKenzie broke it and told everyone: “I will be fine.”
He had told the faculty and non-teaching staff in a meeting the day before. A few of them had already learned about the news prior to the gathering, but hearing it straight from the headmaster himself stunned them, with some completely breaking down from the moment that felt like a “movie scene” where the main character, despite the suffering, tried lightheartedly to allay others’ worries and fears. “But the more he said he was fine, the more it broke me down,” one staff member told me.
Following the back-to-back announcement, Mr. McKenzie flew to the United States to receive treatment for prostate cancer. He might be away, but it was business as usual when it came to his weekly newsletter column. During the six weeks of writing remotely, the only time the headmaster spoke about his condition was in his Friday message before the Spring Festival holiday, where he shared a quote from the British studio potter, Michael Cardew:
“If you are lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it.”
Mr. McKenzie was quite happy to talk to me about his previous medical condition and illness, or a “powerful, constructive experience” as he put it. His companion of nearly a year, the ostomy bag on the right side of his stomach, made him wear Chinese-styled shirts on the surface, but also symbolized his recovery. As long as it was there, he said, he needed to eat healthily and look after himself more closely. When it was removed, “I came back to my old habits,” Mr. McKenzie told me in jest.
Slightly more than eight months after his full recovery, the coronavirus pandemic struck China. His decision to return immediately to Beijing and cut his scheduled important business meetings in the United States was propelled by a “gut feeling”. His daughter asked him if it was a wise decision. He did not know, but what he did know was that he had to return quickly. “Time will tell”, he told her. Just a few days after his arrival, China shut its borders. Life, as everyone knew it, almost came to a standstill. But even the pandemic could not stop Mr. McKenzie from writing letters; they kept on coming like flashes of hope and normalcy as the despair and uncertainty crept in. Many weeks later, when Keystone students and employees were allowed to return to campus, I and another teacher-colleague visited Mr. McKenzie to give him a poster version of “Desiderata”, as our token of gratitude to his leadership. “I know that poem,” he cheekily remarked, “and that’s beautiful.” Before we left his office, I asked him out of the blue: “Malcolm, you don’t look stressed out. How do you manage that?” His response was a humble “Really?” and a lighthearted smile. It wasn’t until nearly two years later—during my conversation with him in mid-May 2022—when the answer came.
Mr. McKenzie revealed to me that he had pondered so much over the past five to six years, with consecutive personal losses, first, of his parents before the pandemic, and then later, his older brother and some close friends amid the global lockdowns. He remained still and carried on his principalship throughout these trying times without stumbling, referring to his “stable personality” and “strong power of focus” that he has possessed and cultivated since childhood. At moments when he felt his emotions would fluctuate, he looked up to two role models whom he admires and “feel[s] inspired by”: his great compatriots Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “There are days when I wake up and think I don’t really want to go to school,” he said, catching me off guard since hearing a respected figure having the same feeling as every other student and employee felt quite puzzling. “But when I think about someone like Nelson Mandela, you know that puts me straight right away.” And facing a near-death experience himself, Mr. McKenzie gradually understood why some people enter a state of grace or spiritual rebirth, which, for him, can become a “very powerful gift” for others. He also sought solace in Chinese wisdom during his recovery. A colleague’s message of sympathies, for instance, reminded him of the expression méihuā xiāng zì kǔhán lái (梅花香自苦寒来, “the fragrance of plum blossoms comes from the bitter cold”). His illness was a transformative experience, preparing him, he said, to deal with the pandemic, and simply to “keep the light on, [if that] means ‘being here’”—all the time.
Mr. McKenzie said these circumstances were among the most significant personal events in his Keystone principalship. But as for the school, he said, it is the growth of the student population and the boarding program that is a most crucial milestone. He saw Keystone from the beginning: the drawing board and its ideas, the blueprint of its architecture, the bristling and withering weeds on the empty lot of Anfu Street, the building of the Archway, and now, the bustling campus life. For his eight years of principalship at Keystone, Mr. McKenzie has grown together with students in countless ways. Many Keystone graduates share a special bond with him—or for them, the headmaster. Some members of the cohort that will “graduate” together with him, the Keystone Class of 2022, told me they are honored by this distinction. One of them, Hebe Guo ‘22, always recalls the moment she played the German piece “Song of Flowers” for Mr. McKenzie, after which he tapped her shoulder as a sign of commendation. From then on, she said, she aspired to play piano in the most beautiful way possible, as if the headmaster was always there to listen. Kevin Zhang ’22, who will go to the University of Oxford, Mr. McKenzie’s alma mater, is excited about meeting him again in the United Kingdom where he can properly show off his British way of saying “tomato”. This fruit, for him, may well be the most affectionate link he has with Mr. McKenzie, because of a chance breakfast encounter in the Keystone dining hall where the headmaster quizzed him about its pronunciation, and explained the difference between the American and British enunciations. That episode even became the subject of Mr. McKenzie’s letter about why working at Keystone is so enjoyable and gives him fulfillment.
On the day before my second conversation with Mr. McKenzie, he and several parents and students from the Keystone Class of 2022 planted a 50-year-old specimen of Chinese flowering chestnut, the symbolic Wen Guan tree. It was a grand gift, he said, because “trees are absolutely amazing organisms.” As someone who grew up in a marvelous place of natural beauty, Cape Town, Mr. McKenzie has remained rooted in the environmental cause. Throughout his years of leading Keystone, Mr. McKenzie has ardently advocated environmentalism, hoping that it would become entwined with the culture of the school. He has supported whole-school drives such as Ecological Eating Day (or “Meatless Mondays”) and Keystone’s “We Grow as We Learn” theme for its eighth year. He has also taken students on trips to wildlife sanctuaries and has consistently written about nature and wildlife conservation. And in perhaps his strongest approach related to the environment, he has cautioned against the conceited claims of conquering nature. “Isn’t it rather the other way around sometimes, that nature conquers us?” he asked the community in 2015.
“That’s one reason why we need to understand and respect nature, in order to be safe in it. And that’s why we gain a more humble sense of our place in the natural world when we are away from our cities, camping in the wilderness, sometimes at risk.”
With Mr. McKenzie’s leadership, the school has put forward a five-year strategic action plan (until 2024) that places great consideration on infusing environmentalism and sustainability into the curriculum, campus life, and community programs. He has also proposed the foundation of what he calls “Earth Academies” where young scientists around the world can study the science and impact of climate change within a liberal arts and experiential education framework.
He believes the multifaceted approach to growing is also a metaphor for a green drive and a call to develop young people, and even adults and people in power and positions, to take action. The magic of gardening, he said, is that it is truly mystical when children do the planting, growing, and tending of seeds. “That’s what life actually is,” he continued, “and marveling at how something, which was a tiny little thing, can grow into such an extraordinary creation.”
Back in 1976, the 23-year-old Malcolm went to Paris following his graduation from the University of Cape Town. The young Malcolm found his way to a restaurant, as a dishwasher for three months. Several years later, he would frequently return to the kitchen as Principal of Maru-a-Pula, to talk to its house cooks. The school’s longest-serving member and one its founding chefs, Edna Moselekatse, has said that the “memorable period” in her career was when Mr. McKenzie came regularly to their workplace to ask what would be on the menu and dine along with them. It was the same belief that Elsa Liu, unit manager of the school caterer Chartwells, and Chen Xiaofang, a founding service personnel of Chartwells, told me. Ms. Chen recalls the Thanksgiving banquet organized by the Keystone Parent-Teacher Association in November 2021, when she received the very first spoken commendation from a leader throughout her career. Mr. McKenzie told attendees that Ms. Chen was a “founding colleague” who had been “do[ing] a marvelous job”. “I am just a regular staff,” she emphasized to me, “but hearing that directly from him made me feel very honored.” She also remembers a gathering Mr. McKenzie hosted for security guards as a sign of gratitude for the team’s work during the school’s partial closure at the height of the pandemic. Ms. Chen funnily recalls the guards being so nervous because “the top leader is with us”, but they all appreciated the headmaster’s gesture. Meanwhile, Chartwells founding staff and head chef Fan Cheng felt so proud when he read Mr. McKenzie’s letter, where he wrote that “Chartwells provides a really creative and delicious service” to the school, and that one of his favorite dishes is “eggplant in all its varieties”. For Mr. Fan, seeing a leader appreciate their work relieves him of the pressures of catering for the campus community. Because of the language barrier, Mr. Fan, Ms. Chen, and many of their Chartwells colleagues cannot communicate directly with Mr. McKenzie, but Ms. Liu summarizes their feelings: “It doesn’t matter if he cannot speak Chinese because his presence is enough for us to feel that we are valued—that we are part of the community.”
There is no doubt that Mr. McKenzie has done admirable work in schools. I asked him what work he might have done more of if he had had more time. Had he not been a teacher and principal, he said, he would have wanted to do more manual labor. After all, he worked on a family farm during his boyhood, volunteered to set up healthcare clinics in mountainous villages in Lesotho during a university vacation, and washed the dishes in a Paris restaurant—all “quite powerful and educative” experiences, he said. He wishes more leaders, not just in schools, but also in corporations, would bring themselves closer to manual laborers to get a deeper understanding of the equally demanding and difficult nature of their work. This has made me wonder: how do people from the schools Mr. McKenzie led see him other than being the headmaster? Some former and current students liken him to Barack Obama because of his eloquence, or a “trumpet player” who announces the arrival of great things. And if his words can light up many people, Mr. McKenzie, as a figure, indeed is like an ember “who illuminates and brings warmth”, at least for one colleague who loves camping. For a wine specialist who has known Mr. McKenzie for years, the Head of School can become a “wine connoisseur [with] towering intellect”. For a Chinese teacher, Mǐn Màokāng embodies the character 智 (zhì) because of his “compelling power to convince people” and ability to use language beautifully. A student leader is sure that he would lose if the student version of Mr. McKenzie were to run for the student council because of his “charming way of speaking”. And if that student Malcolm were to be part of a group, he would be its “social center”, according to one high schooler, because “he pulls in people together”. For another student, Mr. McKenzie has the makings of a famous “social media influencer” whose content will always be about wildlife and the animal-print neckties he loves to wear.
There truly are a number of names and epithets for him, but for the guy himself, he is a “co-creator of a culture of a place”. There are so many school things he cannot do, he readily admits, but the one he knows well is “get[ting] different parts working together”. And one best example of that culture, he said, is his messages for the weekly newsletter In the Loop, which he believes will “influence the school for many years to come”. He has published more than 270 pieces for the “Message from the Head of School” column since the start of Keystone, in addition to regular correspondences to various community members. Being present, which Mr. McKenzie extolled the virtues of during our interview, is another “school culture” many Keystone staff and students associate with their headmaster. For many parents, “Mr. McKenzie waving ‘Good morning’ at the South Gate” is a most welcome culture and a form of “non-spoken education”, which they believe is evidence of the school’s strong focus on character and community. Mr. McKenzie himself, and also other school leaders, love to participate in the “culture of welcome” that “create[s] a climate conducive to the students’ learning.” Naturally, this led me to ask him about his legacy at Keystone. “I’m not actually interested in legacy,” he replied thoughtfully, “because I’ve lived long enough to know that legacy is not necessarily the equivalent of something that lasts.” Those things that he expects to remain even after he leaves Keystone, he said, are readily summarized in the volume of his writing: the idea of a world school, the five shared values, and the three keystones. But what he hopes to exist are fundamental human values—courtesy, care, and kindness. For him, Keystone will last as long as it is a courteous and caring community, with members treating everyone with respect, dignity, and kindness.
The coming months and years certainly look busy for the soon-to-be Malcolm the retiree. His first act? To move on! He was initially supposed to stay for only five years, but he agreed to extend that to three more years, and then another one. “I’m ready to go,” he said, “It’s good to have change.” He will head back home, first to South Africa, and then to Botswana to celebrate the 50th jubilee year of the establishment of Maru-a-Pula School. From there, he will go to Berlin to see his daughter and her husband, and then on to Connecticut. He has seen no family members for two and a half years. Mr. McKenzie also told me that he intends to spend the next couple of years in the United States and the United Kingdom, and also in Beijing, but there isn’t anything set in stone yet, aside from his plan to write a book about education. And it seems like there is more, aside from that, as he can finally get fully into writing a quartet of novels that has been buzzing in his head for many years. A number of people have also already reached out to him to take on educational consultant roles, but he is still considering some of these projects. Even retirement isn’t enough to stop him from staying involved in education because “once a teacher, always a teacher.” And he once wrote to his children that “education is good labor, in so many senses of the word ‘good’.”
Mr. McKenzie will have so many stories and topics to draw upon for his future lectures, with Keystone, his lifetime priority project, certainly being a great source of inspiration. It was first a dream, an aspiration that has ever since been molding a generation of culturally grounded, outward-looking, service-minded young people. Mr. McKenzie made it happen.
Founding a school has been a dream that I have held in my heart for many years, but I have never thought it would happen in such an extraordinary way in China, and in Keystone.
Special thanks to Polly Akhurst, Allen Babcock, Echo Cai, Chris Cartwright, Aidan Chong, Cassidy Dart, Derek Davies, Hebe Guo, Huang Yuanching, Jia Lili, Thabiso Kefalotse, Jacky Liang, Lily Liu, Sonic Liu, Paul Lorem, Trisha Power, Kacy Song, Amelie Wan, Yutong Wen, Emily Xu, Yiner Ya, Jean Yu, Kevin Zhang, Mico Zhang, Zheng Wei, Grace Zhou