Letter from Steve Piltch, December 2015

December 2015
Dear Shipley Families:
It’s hard to imagine we are already at winter break, as it seems like only yesterday that we were opening the school year and dedicating the new Commons. So many wonderful things have happened in such a short time, both inside and outside of the community; it is important to pause and appreciate them.

Our students have worked hard and done ever so well – in the classroom, on the stage and fields, and everywhere else. As they have achieved their own individual successes, they have found ways to reach out and make a difference in the lives of others. Their support of the Thanksgiving food drive, the fourth grade holiday drive, and the school-wide coat and food drive have been complemented by the time our students have spent with the Bryn Mawr and Will Trippley tutoring programs, SHARE, the Andrew Jackson School, and other endeavors.

Although the impact of their service is not always felt immediately, there are times when the difference they make is so unusual and impressive that it is noticed in a special way in the moment. For example, recently Michael Joy, one of the advisors to our Middle School service activity at Andrew Jackson, made the following observation after watching one of our new students, Stephen Chen, work with a few students from Jackson who speak Mandarin (and virtually no English), which is Stephen’s native language.

“He sat down with the three young boys and did a great job with them. He was so ‘at home’ interacting with these boys. You could see their faces light up because there was someone there who could communicate with them… I was especially impressed with how he interacted with the newest boy. Eventually, this boy relaxed and started talking with Stephen. By the end of our time with them, this boy was laughing and having fun. His teachers were in awe of what our student was able to accomplish today. So was I.”

Mr. Joy went on to observe:

“Watching Stephen was a very powerful moment for me. It was a reminder that Middle School students can make an extraordinary difference in the lives of others. It made me proud of what we do on a monthly basis. It made me happy to be a part of the Andrew Jackson School service group. This was one of the finest moments in all my years of doing service learning… What our students are doing does make a difference!”

No matter what difference we make, it is clear that these experiences help our students tremendously as they develop the confidence and creativity necessary for deeply rooted learning and true success. As one student said to me, “Each time I come back from service, I think about the person I am and the person I want to be. Somehow, when I tutor I get more out of it than the student I work with.” Of course, that’s what a meaningful service experience is all about, and it is the reason that we look to create an integrated model where our students can strive for excellence and to be good people at the same time.

We do not have to look far for examples of excellence this fall: our boys' soccer team won their third consecutive league title; our Upper School students put on terrific one act plays; and of course, the most recent concerts in all three divisions left parents and others in the audience in awe of the musical talents and hard work of the student musicians and their teachers. I was particularly pleased not just with the level of the music performed in the concerts, but with the joy that our students exhibited.

At the same time, I am struck by some of the tragedies that have taken place in different parts of the world. The situations in Paris, San Bernardino, and other places have generated concern, not just about the prospect of future terroristic acts, but also about our predisposition to stereotype people, especially when they are not of our descent or of a descent with which we are comfortable. If we think back to 9/11, a significant number of Americans developed serious angst about those appearing to be Middle Eastern and the possibility that they could be terrorists.
Clearly, we must work to eliminate terrorism while fighting our own inclinations to draw conclusions about people just because they come from a certain ethnic, religious, or racial background.

That imperative speaks to the importance of having our students (and us) have a strong sense of personal identity, integrity, and a true commitment to open mindedness and doing the right thing. We see, especially with adolescents and also adults, that it’s often easier to listen to the crowd rather than to stand by our convictions – not only in the context of identity politics, but in everything that they do.

I am reminded of my father’s words from when I was growing up; he said both of these things more times than I can remember:
  • “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said.”
  • “When we go, and we all do go, the only thing we leave behind is the way we lived our lives.”
As much as I tried in the moment to ignore or avoid much of the advice that my father (and mother) gave me when I was an adolescent, I realize that I heard every word and that I have spent my entire life as an educator and parent trying to live and share the same messages.

Fittingly, the vital messages to move forward may have been found in the concerts that I referenced earlier in this letter. The concerts reinforced the importance of students collaborating, cooperating, finding common goals, and working together, whether in an ensemble, in the School, or in the world. As we work together and strive to do what is right and what is good, we all seek peace in the world.

With that in mind, I share with you the final song sung at our Lower School concert, which captures the essence of where we are and gives us clear direction on how to move forward. As Lindsay Jackson, our extraordinarily talented Lower School music teacher said when passing on the lyrics to me: “The poem is from a collection called This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort, which was compiled to comfort children of NYC after the events of September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, this sentiment is still present in our world today. Working on this song was a powerful opportunity to engage the fifth graders and talk about the power of music to bring people together in community and comfort each other in times of sorrow.” The poem (and song) isTrouble, Fly” which was written by Susan Marie Swanson and composed by Patricia McKernon Runkle:

Trouble, fly
out of our house.
We left the window
open for you.
Fly like smoke from a chimney
Fly like the whistle from a train.
Fly far, far
away from my family,
mumbling in their sleep.
Trouble, fly.
Let our night
be a night of peace.

I hope you have many nights of peace, a happy holiday season, and a healthy and happy New Year. See you in 2016!

Warm Regards,
Steve Piltch
Head of School
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.