Letter from Steve Piltch - November 2016

November 29, 2016

Dear Shipley Families:

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It is a time when we give thanks for what has been and express our hope for what will be. It is a time of reflection, connection, and understanding and a time to be together. It is a time when we should think about making ourselves the best we can be.

At our Thanksgiving All School Assembly, I especially appreciated the sense of community and warmth that pervaded the room. People were genuinely pleased to be there and were remarkably supportive of each other. It was especially nice to welcome back some recent alumni who were home for the holiday.

One of the more enjoyable and thought-provoking pieces of the assembly for me was the pairing of Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of The World” with a slide show capturing the people who make up the community. The message of the song is positive and upbeat and speaks to our philosophy. In particular, it emphasizes the need to take a risk and the importance of resilience, perseverance, and spirit in order to develop the confidence to explore and the creativity we seek:

And I know it’s hard when you’re falling down
And it’s a long way up when you hit the ground
Get up now, get up now, get up now.

It also speaks to how we feel when we do succeed. As the song says:

‘Cause I’m on top of the world, ‘ey
I’m on top of the world, ‘ey

The election process this fall had many people, including me, looking for something better. One of our students said to me, “Dr. Piltch, are candidates always this mean to each other?” The vitriolic and vituperative nature of the debates, the ads, the media coverage, and everything else left many people wondering how to prevent such things in the future and how to make the process more about issues and less about the candidates’ dislike and/or lack of respect for each other. Seeing the contempt and scorn of candidates and citizens alike during the campaign reinforced for me the need for our students to have a good understanding of the election process and civics in general.

Then, the election took place and raised the fervor of many. The actual results of the election were very surprising to many people in the community, as they were to many of the pundits and others in the world at large. Many people who thought Secretary Clinton would win failed to realize that in addition to those who were natural supporters of President-elect Trump and others who had decided to vote against Secretary Clinton that President-elect Trump had found a way to connect with people who felt that the current political structure had failed them. They may have felt that way for one or more of many reasons, including lived or prospective economic displacement, a disagreement with the trajectory of our foreign policy, difference about immigration, and most controversially, our shifting societal norms associated with race, religion, and gender. Whatever the cause, those voters felt a need for significant change – and those who voted for President-elect Trump believe that it is he who can create that change and “make America great again.”

As we think about the election, we must recognize and respect that people voted for candidates for different reasons. The voters did not necessarily agree with all of the points of view of the candidate for whom they cast their ballot. As one Shipley parent suggested to me: “Although the casting of the ballot is binary in nature, the decision was much more complex than it might have appeared. I did not and do not agree with either candidate’s views in total and I recognize that any vote I cast could be compromising in some area(s). I am hoping that will not be the case.”

Many people in the community have raised concern about the rhetoric that was used by President-elect Trump, Secretary Clinton, and others during the election process and are concerned about the ways racism, sexism, bigotry, and disrespect could become reflected in government policy. I am hoping that these concerns will be quelled by the messaging and actions of President-elect Trump (and others), including his Cabinet appointments. In my ideal world, President-elect Trump would appoint a Cabinet that goes across parties and beliefs similar to the way Abraham Lincoln appointed his cabinet as described in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, I have hoped for this in every election I remember. And, it has not happened yet.

Currently, there is increasing fear about the actions of people who believe that racist and bigoted behavior is acceptable. In addition to our own graffiti incident just before Thanksgiving that has been construed in this way by at least some people, there are countless examples from all over the country. Here’s one I learned about as told by someone associated with the School:

This wonderful woman I know, who is a beautiful, smart, and caring person (and an American citizen) happens to be Muslim. She and a friend, who was wearing a hijab, were at the grocery store last night in my neighborhood, Havertown, when a man came up to them and started yelling at them and asked them what they were still doing here, didn’t they know Trump won the Presidency and that they should leave. He then told them to pack their things and go home. While this behavior is frightening, what is more disappointing is that no one in the grocery store stood up for them. My friend was hysterical when she told me the story, and she is still afraid.

Although I am confident that neither President-elect Trump nor Secretary Clinton intended to incite this type of behavior with their speechifying during the election, I am hopeful that President-elect Trump, his Cabinet, and all elected officials will be careful about the language they choose and the manner with which they speak to and about others. I also hope they will make it clear to all Americans that such behavior is not acceptable.

Moreover and perhaps most importantly, we, as our School community, need to be conscientious about our commitment to people’s individual rights regardless of their class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual identity. We must commit to speaking up if and when inappropriate treatment of others surfaces.

Looking ahead, I am hopeful that the gratitude we feel for the things we have and the hope of seeing things get better will inspire all of us to work together, to talk with each other, not at each other, and to commit to coming to a common ground. To accomplish this needed work, we must remember that perhaps even more important than our commitment to our own goals and beliefs (which we must maintain), we must find a way to listen to and understand others’ views and deal with each other with respect, understanding, and appreciation. K.N. Pineda, a freshman at NYU, said this particularly well in an Opinion Piece that appeared in the New York Times, “Divisions in My Dorm Room”. She wrote: “The answer is not to further the divide by labeling and dehumanizing one another. We should fight the ‘us versus them’ mind-set. We have spent too much time in our own bubbles, and we need to begin a dialogue that will allow us to understand one another.” We at Shipley are dedicated to helping our students engage in the most challenging of conversations – and to do so in a way that engenders mutual respect even amidst disagreement.

On a more global level, we will be forever committed to reinforcing for ourselves the respect and appreciation of each member of this community and for it to be to be a safe, supportive, and understanding environment for everyone regardless of background. In addition, we must be conscientious about our commitment to people’s individual rights regardless of their class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual identity. And we must commit to speaking up if and when inappropriate treatment of others surfaces.

To accomplish this goal, we must make sure that we and our students ask the questions and do what is necessary to make sure that the well-being of people is not jeopardized by either the further polarization of the country or policies of the administration. As one parent said at our November Head’s Forum where this was discussed: “This why we have our kids at Shipley. We want them to understand the issues, ask the questions, and do the things necessary to improve the quality of life for everyone in our country.”

Coincidentally, our Thanksgiving assembly took place on November 22, the 53rd anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s passing. As my childhood memories of him went through my head, two of his quotations seemed particularly relevant to the day and to where we are as a country: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” and, “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” I believe his words are just as applicable today as they were more than fifty years ago.

As we ponder our world and give thanks for what is, let us do the things necessary to make our families, the country, and the world stronger, more peaceful, and better than ever. If we do, Imagine Dragons’ song will ring true for all of us, and we will be “On Top of The World.”

I hope you enjoyed Thanksgiving as much as I did and that the holiday season brings all good things to you and your family.

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.