Letter from Steve Piltch, January 2016

January 2016

Dear Shipley Families,

With the frigid weather of the last few weeks and the snowstorm of this past weekend, I’ve almost forgotten how warm it was through winter break and into the first few weeks of 2016! Somehow I was not surprised to learn that 2015 surpassed 2014 as the warmest year ever. I am hoping that the trend does not continue.

Over the winter break, I had the privilege to visit Costa Rica for the first time. I am incredibly grateful that all five members of our family – my wife, Sunny, our three kids, Matt, Ali, and Jamie, and I – were able to go together. With our older two children, Matt and Ali, in the working world and our youngest, Jamie, in college, it takes a special effort on their parts to make such a trip possible. The time together was incredibly fun and worthwhile. Appropriately, our trip reinforced how much our children have matured, how independent they are, and what good friends they are to each other and to us. More than anything, we recognized that they are their own people. We are lucky, and, as one former Shipley seventh grader (now the mother of two children) suggested many years ago, “we are no longer their bosses.” I do not think I could have asked for more!

In addition to spending time with family, the trip to Costa Rica provided me the opportunity to experience a different physical environment and people and traditions from a new culture, and to take some risks that I likely would not have taken here. Regardless of where we went, the friendliness and warmth of the people we met impressed us. People from the Osa Peninsula, in Monteverde, and San Jose did a remarkable job making us and other tourists feel welcome and a part of their community.

Awestruck at times by the wildlife and fauna of the rain forest and other areas and impressed by the warmth of the people, I was particularly captivated by the guides who took us through the different reserves and forests. They made it exciting to learn about the intricacies of the ecosystem. Their knowledge was complemented by their incredible passion and enthusiasm and their ability to connect with us (and other tourists). While many of the guides had some formal education associated with their work, virtually all of them pointed to the time they had spent doing the work and the experience they had developed over time as the key elements to their knowledge, understanding, and effectiveness.

While it was easy for them to tell you what they could see, it was the use of their other senses, especially hearing and smelling, that enhanced their appreciation for what was happening around them and enabled them to anticipate what we might encounter. For example, seeing the quetzal that is pictured was made possible by the patience and anticipation of our guide, who had heard it might be around and knew from experience where he might find it. He then led us along the trails to places where we found this view – the sighting made his day and ours.


Our family sought out a slightly different perspective than we could find walking on the trails in the forest reserves by taking a zip-lining and suspension bridge tour of Monteverde (where we saw the quetzal). However, there was one problem for me: I am incredibly afraid of heights. As a result, the prospect of crossing the bridges and zip-lining over the reserve petrified me.

We started with the suspension bridges. With the support of my family and the affirmation of those preparing us for the experience, I found my anxiety, which was intense and kept me up for much of the night before, to be somewhat unnecessary and very manageable. As we crossed each bridge, I felt less concern and more comfortable and confident. The shift in my emotions allowed me to better absorb what the guide said and to better appreciate what I learned.

However, the suspension bridges did not prepare me for the trip up the mountain to zip-line. I felt almost breathless as the tram took us to the top point hundreds of feet above the canopy; I had to fight the urge to escape down on the next tram. Once I got the nerve to try the first zip-line, the ones to follow actually brought a smile to my face. Ultimately, the experience was terrific.

As adults, I think it is not often that we force ourselves (or are forced) to confront our fears and anxieties in this way. As a result, for me, reconciling the anxiety I felt on the bridges and zip lines connected me with how our students and children often feel as they navigate the complexities of growing up. This reflection illuminated the importance of supporting them as they take on new challenges, which is one of the reasons we strive to balance the rigorous academic program at Shipley with a nurturing and supportive environment. Our SEED Program emphasizes the development of emotional literacy and mindfulness, which helps our students have a better sense of who they are and provides them with more coping skills and greater confidence to deal with their stress and anxiety. Just as my family did for me, our hope is that our colleagues and the SEED curriculum will provide the support necessary to empower students to thrive (or when necessary, seek the appropriate support) in any situation.

Anxious moments aside, our family had sprawling conversations of all sorts during our time in Costa Rica. One question from our youngest, Jamie, in particular stood out to me: If you could spend time with one historic figure, who would it be, what would you ask him/her, and what would you want to know? And, if you could pick someone who is alive, what would you ask him/her?

The question stayed with me because it served as a way to think about the individuals who have had the most impact on my life (and, in some instances, on all of our lives). One of the people I would have loved to be able to spend time with is Martin Luther King, Jr., who put his life on the line to create a more equitable and better world. Although he is a historic figure to most of the community, I have vivid memories of him and his leadership when I was growing up. His efforts on behalf of the civil rights movement are legendary, and he became an effective agent for the change that was needed in this country. It is with great pain that I remember his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, when he stood on the balcony of a second floor room of the Lorraine Motel. When I visited Memphis and the Motel (which is now a significant part of the National Civil Rights Museum) about 10 years ago, I got chills up and down my spine. (If you want a little more insight into King’s efforts, you might see the movie Selma.)

It has been more than 50 years since King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and almost 50 years since he was assassinated. If I could, I would ask him if we have made the progress he had hoped we would make and what he would do now to help move things forward. Since I cannot ask him, I will ask all of us: Are we where we need to be? If not, what can we do move his efforts forward?

As you contemplate the questions, I am grateful to all people, students, parents, and colleagues, who did work on Martin Luther King Day in his memory. Every little bit matters!

Warmest Regards,

Steve Piltch,
Head of School

P.S. Please join us this Friday night, January 29, for our first-ever Swamp Night with a pasta dinner from 5:30-7:00 pm (in the Shipley Commons), Girls’ Varsity Basketball at 5:00 pm and Boys’ Varsity Basketball at 7:00 pm (in Yarnall Gym), and a movie for our younger students at 6:15 pm (in the Grey Box), and music and arts and crafts. There will be something for everyone and I look forward to seeing you there!
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.