Head-of-School Recalls His Pursuit of Passion


Tyler Barlow, Staff Writer

As David Mahler stared at the Wesleyan University transcript that he held in his hands, a realization hit him that changed the course of his life.

For the first time, he had stopped and thought about his course of study. As he read the list of his Pre-Med classes, this young college student recalled the seemingly endless long and stressful nights in the library. Yet as he read the list of electives, he remembered the excitement and joy he felt in every history class.

David Mahler, Head-of-School, bravely offered up his time in early September to be interviewed by the journalism class. The students were expecting a lecture on the culture of ODA. Instead, Mahler gave them the opportunity to explore and question what drives him and where his passions lie.

Traveling abroad gives people an opportunity to experience new things and learn more about themselves. After realizing his love of history, Mahler decided to take a semester abroad in Madrid, Spain. While there, the young Mahler toured many museums, seeing countless paintings and sculptures. But it was one painting that connected the future ODA Head-of-School with history in context. He remembers with great clarity staring up in the face of the painting La Pieta and seeing the culture and people of Spain reflected in the faces.

Upon return to college, Mahler changed his major to history and changed his life – a life where he would have many new experiences that taught him about himself and others.

One of his next life changing experience took place at his first teaching job, in a small private boy’s boarding school called The Christ School in Arden, North Carolina. Mahler found himself living further south than he had been before. The boys school was deeply enriched with traditional southern manners, so much so that the boys wore dress pants and shirts and were taught to always stand if a woman stands at the dining table.

He remembers his first parent-teacher conference. He remembers how nervous he was. What if they didn’t like it? Was he missing something?

Then his greatest fear seemingly came true. An elderly man of about 90 years old stood up. He told told Mahler that he was missing something in his syllabus, and that he didn’t know the whole story.

“Suh,” the man said to Mahler, “You have one thing wrong on your syllabus. The Civil War was an act of Northern aggression.”

This elderly man showed Mahler, that while people may study the same historical event, they might look at that event with different perspectives.

The Civil War was literally a divide between the North and the South. The North and South were fighting over slavery, but in a way they were fighting over ways of life, over beliefs. To the North it was obvious that slavery was bad and they had to end it, they looked at it as if they were saving the slaves. To the South, slavery was a way of life, and the North was trying to come in and take that away. While in schools children are taught about this battle and that fort, they are taught from that perspective.

From his very first parent-teacher conference, Mahler discovered not only a new perspective on a historical event, but he also had an insight into Southern culture and history. Being the man Mahler was, he was interested in discovering more about the South’s perspective on the Civil War and other major historical events, and how they might differ from how he was taught.

Mahler’s quest for knowledge and understanding brought him to a new teaching job in Virginia – even deeper in the South than before.

While teaching Mahler started to gain more and more responsibility. Due to his excellent leadership skills, Mahler caught the attention of a private preparatory school in Florida,  and he was about to face one of his greatest challenges yet.

The Out-of-Door Academy.

An old elementary school with a new high school. ODA needed a leader who could help guide and grow the new high school as well as care for the Lower School.

All it takes is a look around the Lakewood Ranch Upper School campus now to see how his passion for excellence has helped the school grow.

When you walk through the campus today you can see the Arts Building, the state-of-the-art Dart STEM Center, the bustling Vitale Student Center,  the aromatic Petrik Commons. Thunder Stadium and the Taylor Emmons athletic fields, the Malisoff tennis courts. All these buildings and fields did not exist before Mahler.

“Free to dream up what you can do,” he said. Every change that has occurred at ODA started as someone’s dream, and every dream is possible to follow through on if you work for it.

One of the pieces of insight Mahler gained in those years was “Don’t get lost in short-sighted decisions.”

Ask yourself, “What’s in your heart? What drives you? What is your passion?”

“The heart drives you to the goal,” he said. “Just because you have a passion for something, doesn’t mean you don’t have to work for it. Passion may make it easier. But you can’t be afraid of doing the work.”