Letter from Steve Piltch, October 2016

Dear Shipley Families:

I love the change of seasons! I could not help but smile as the air became a bit crisper and the leaves began to change and fall earlier this month. It was a sign to me that fall was here and that people were settling into their work and into the year. Of course, I must admit that the warm temperatures we had a few weeks ago were a little confusing, not just for me but for the plants and flowers that were blooming - though also appreciated, as I know the cold weather will be here far too soon.

When fall arrives, one of the things I like to do most is to go to the shore in Lewes, DE, where (as many of you know) my family is lucky enough to have a home. With few people around, I have a special appreciation for the beach, the dunes, the water - the beauty and serenity. Of course, I know from past experience that the calm of a peaceful walk on the beach can change quite quickly; almost in an instant, the weather will change, the wind will blow faster, and the sky will open up. In fact, when my wife and I went earlier this month, we were enjoying a nice walk with a gentle warm drizzle when all of a sudden it became colder and began to rain hard. By the time we got the house, we were absolutely drenched. But, rather than making us frustrated, we found ourselves reminiscing about our years there with our kids, and smiling all the way.

One of my all-time favorite memories at the beach occurred ten years ago when my daughter and I took our last walk of the season in October of 2006. Although it was cold and windy, we had decided it was essential to have that final feeling of our feet in the sand. As we began, it started to rain, but the wind was at our back and never bothered us; in fact, the conditions made that part of the walk unusually fast and easy. On the way back, however, the wind howled and the sand and rain blew into our faces. As we looked out to the sea and saw the waves thrashing, we talked about the paradoxical impact of the ocean; when it’s calm, it’s a friend, and you can appreciate its beauty without fear of peril. Unfortunately, when the weather changes, it can become an enemy very quickly.

Of course, there are countless stories about the impact of the weather and the sea. And while there have been many books written about people’s interactions with the sea, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one I have read regularly for years. I believe it is a wonderful metaphor for life, one that makes me think about who we are, how people perceive us, and the skills we and our students need beyond the academic realm to thrive in today’s world. Each time I read the book I see things just a little differently and learn a little more.

In the book, Santiago, an old, once-successful fisherman, has had ongoing bad luck and is unable to catch any fish. As his bad luck stretches from days to weeks to months, people in the community begin to perceive him not as simply unlucky, but rather as old and perhaps a bit unstable. Importantly, as a result of his very bad luck, the parents of his apprentice, Manolin, prevent their son from working with Santiago. In spite of what others think and Manolin’s departure, Santiago continues to believe in himself and is determined to continue to fish. On the 85th day of his ordeal, he goes out to sea by himself. Remarkably, he hooks a huge marlin, something few fishermen would have been able to accomplish. Unfortunately, sharks in the area smell the blood of the marlin, and despite Santiago’s best efforts, as he attempts to return to shore, the marlin (and Santiago) is attacked by the sharks. Incredibly, though the marlin gets eaten, Santiago makes it back to shore with the skeleton of the fish intact and without any major physical injuries of his own. Feeling somewhat delirious due to the lack of food and exhaustion, he goes to his shack to sleep.

As Santiago sleeps, his young apprentice, Manolin, comes to visit him to make sure he is okay. The existence of the marlin’s skeleton reinforces Manolin’s faith in Santiago and helps others to see him more positively (at least in the moment). For Santiago, the process was long and hard, but he knew he was no better or worse a person regardless of whether he caught fish, while others judged his entire being around his relative success with fishing.

Santiago was a person of process. His passion for fishing and for doing it right gave him the confidence to take on whatever challenges there would be. His belief in his own hard-earned skills and his conviction that he would ultimately find success allowed him to develop the creativity to battle the marlin and the accompanying sharks, and to find his way back to shore safely, even though his goal had not truly been met. The experience of struggle, both before and after catching the Marlin, didn’t define or limit who he was – he would go out and fish again.

Each time I’ve read the book, I have appreciated the importance of Santiago’s resilience, determination, perseverance, and confidence. Of course, we work to have our own children/students develop these same skills and attributes to deal with their own lives in a constructive and effective manner. At the same time, when I read the novel most recently, I felt a special appreciation of his ability to deal with the widest range of emotions in an even and effective manner. I can only imagine the ecstasy he must have felt when he caught the marlin that was quickly offset by the fear that had to exist when the sharks attacked. Santiago’s emotional agility plays an important role in his safe return to shore.

Although it is doubtful that any of our students will find themselves in Santiago’s situation, we know that at some point, they are likely to face an unexpected storm or challenge, and that teaching them emotional agility from an early age is important in their development as a result. As New York Times columnist KJ Dell’Antonia wrote in an October 4 article entitled “Teaching Your Child Emotional Agility”: “Research shows that when teachers help preschoolers learn to manage their feelings in the classroom, those children become better problem solvers when faced with an emotional situation, and are better able to engage in learning tasks. In teenagers, ‘emotional intelligence,’ or the ability to recognize and manage emotions, is associated with an increased ability to cope with stressful situations and greater self-esteem. Some research suggests that a lack of emotional intelligence can be used to predict symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

Of course, in addition to his emotional agility, Santiago also had the practical skills – the ability to protect himself, function independently, and evaluate and deal with his situation, to name just a few - needed in order to survive. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Sarah Hamaker shared key life skills that parents should be teaching their children. At the elementary level, students need to develop skills for Personal safety, Care of self, Care of others, and Talking to others. By the end of middle school they should develop Being home alone, Kitchen safety, Label reading, and Managing social situations. And by the time they go to college, they should have skills related to: Money management, Responsible driving, Time management, and Getting and keeping a job. These skills are, without question, far away from a fisherman lost at sea – but they are the skills that children need to navigate the world.

Ultimately, although many of our efforts on any given day are about getting through the day in the most productive way possible, we must understand that everything we say and do with our children affects them in terms of their development and their ability to thrive not just now but into the future. By paying attention to their emotional development and their practical skills, we enhance the possibility that they will thrive as adults and deal with their challenges as successfully as Santiago. Though I do not anticipate that many, if any, of our children/students, will become lone fishermen, I am hopeful that they will develop the confidence in themselves to explore and the creativity to problem solve that will allow them to find true passion and to thrive.

Warmest 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.