Letter from Steve Piltch - August 2017

August 30, 2017

Dear Shipley Families,

It’s hard for me to imagine that the summer is coming to a close. Although we don’t formally start classes until after Labor Day, I can’t tell you how pleased I have been to see many of our Upper School students return for pre-season practice. As much as I love the slower pace of summer, schools are meant to have students in them. Their energy, enthusiasm, and excitement are inspiring and reinforcing. I’m looking forward to welcoming all of our students next week.

More often than not in this opening letter, I spend the majority of my time reflecting on family experiences from the summer. This year, I especially enjoyed a trip with my wife and youngest son to British Columbia, a place that is every bit as beautiful and welcoming as I could imagine. I also had an unusually good time when all three of our kids and their significant others and friends were together with us. Now that all three kids are out of college, getting them together at the same time isn’t easy, making it even more special when we are able to do it. It was especially good to be together just after we lost one of our dogs, Brady; we reminisced, told stories, laughed, and cried together when we celebrated his life.

While the summer on the whole has been restorative, I have been preoccupied during the last few weeks by the events in Charlottesville. I am intensely concerned that in 2017 – more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Bill became law and 80 years after the Holocaust – we continue to experience hatred, racism, and bigotry in this country that could well undo us unless we make some changes. Shouldn’t we able to engage with each other in a supportive, respectful, understanding, and non-violent manner regardless of ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds?

When I thought further about the situation that occurred in Charlottesville, I became concerned that our response to it was inconsistent, contradictory, and anxiety producing for many. When I was at my lowest point, I read a wonderful blog, The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward by someone who is a long-time friend named Caitie Whelan*. When Caitie commented on the situation in Charlottesville, she noted a thought-provoking and powerful quotation from James Baldwin. It is a quotation worth remembering:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The quotation captures the essence of the challenge at hand: If we’re not willing to acknowledge the hatred, racism, bigotry, and negativism that exist and hold people responsible and accountable for them, we’ll never reconcile the differences. It should not surprise you that we discussed this issue during our colleague meetings earlier this week or that we will address it with our students when school starts next week.

The whole situation reinforced for me our commitment as a school to be respectful, understanding, and supportive of each other, regardless of our backgrounds. Of course, this is more easily accomplished when people are trusting of others and feel safe enough to make themselves vulnerable. I continue to be excited by the launch of Positive Education, which is founded on personal well-being and a growth mindset. (Specifics associated with the parent/guardian launch can be found later in the letter.) Committing to such a mentality allows us to better understand ourselves and the roots of our own perspectives and actions. It also allows us to better respect and understand others’ views.

Having participated in the colleague well-being retreat that revolved around the formal integration of Positive Education into the community, I rediscovered that becoming more respectful, more accountable, and more welcoming doesn’t call for huge changes initially. I was taken by how much more thoughtful, aware, and supportive people seemed to be once they had been able to make themselves vulnerable and had gotten comfortable having discussions with others that went below the surface. Discussions were more substantive, enjoyable, and productive; people were more interested and able to take themselves out of their comfort zones to get to know others and to help them manage different tasks. Moreover, as people made themselves more vulnerable, they appeared to be more understanding and more compassionate. Understanding your own perspective, making yourself available to others, and doing little things for others may be keys to helping each and every one of us see the world in a more positive and productive way.

Sometimes relationships can be developed by reaching out and doing little things that may seem unimportant and/or unrelated to the issues that were seen in Virginia. For example, following is one of the stories that Caitie shared in a recent issue of The Lightning Notes that particularly affected me. She wrote:

Months ago, a stranger behind me bought me coffee.

The card reader at the coffee shop wasn’t working. I had no cash. And the stranger said, I’ve got it.

Yesterday, I decided to pay it forward.

I walked into a coffee shop. I ordered my drink. And I told the barista I wanted to pay for the coffee of whomever came behind me.

I do that at tolls, the barista said with a great smile. Once, a fellow I paid for drove up alongside me to wave thanks.

That’s terrific! I said, handing her my card.

She rang me up and added a few bucks to cover whomever came after.

I walked over to the bar to wait for my coffee. I buzzed around on my phone. A man in a mint colored shirt approached me.
That was very nice of you, he said with a great smile, mug of coffee in his hand.

My pleasure, I said. He went to sit down. And I sent a little thought out to the stranger behind me months ago, Thanks for this. I saw some great smiles and felt a little more connected to strangers in a coffee shop.

The barista brought me my drink.

She nodded towards the man in the mint green shirt and said, He paid for the drink of the person behind him.

Having bought a number of people (that I did not know) beverages since reading Caitie’s recollection, I can tell you that the recipients have been both shocked and pleased. Small gestures like this will not eliminate the hatred we know exists – but they do help you and those around you see the world in a different and more positive way. Such small acts can even bring a couple of people together who see the world in different ways and have divergent views. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave great advice about doing small things to make a difference: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

With all the above in mind, let me remind you that our launch for Positive Education will be on Wednesday, October 11. The keynote speaker will be James O. Pawelski, PhD, the Director of Education and Senior Scholar in the Positive Psychology Center and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Pawelski is a remarkably knowledgeable, engaging, and effective speaker. It is an event you will want to attend.

Let me also mention Super Saturday on September 23 when we will enjoy lots of events, including the community barbecue and the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new squash and rowing centers. Super Saturday will begin at 10:00 a.m. and will go through the day. The ribbon-cutting will take place at 11:30 a.m. and will be followed by the barbecue. There will be athletic games throughout the afternoon, starting at 12:00 p.m. with Girls’ Varsity Soccer and Tennis, followed by Varsity Field Hockey at 2:00 p.m. and culminating with Boys’ Soccer at 3:00 p.m. I will look forward to seeing you at these events (and, I hope, many other times throughout the year) and to doing the little things together that will reinforce the community we want to be.

Have a wonderful start to the school year. I look forward to seeing you soon.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School

*Caitie Whelan’s father, Jamie, has been among my dearest friends for about thirty years. I first met Caitie when she was an elementary school student and have loved watching her develop into such an incredibly thoughtful, committed, and impactful individual. Caitie is a graduate of Brown University and was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress before she decided to make her ambitious and “out of the box” idea of The Lightning Notes a reality. The blog features great ideas and striking stories to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter; the blog is just one thing Caitie does to move things forward in the world. You can read more about Caitie here.

P.S. I would like to thank all members of the community who have already contributed items to the relief effort in support of those impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Special thanks to Adam Wojtelwicz, our CFO, and his family for leading this effort and to our Girls’ Varsity Soccer Team who will be assisting in delivery of the items to the Camping World location in New Jersey. Here is the expanded list of items being accepted at the Shipley Commons until noon on Friday.

Baby formula, diapers, toiletries, gently used or new clothes, towels, sneakers, bottled water, non-perishable pet food, brooms, buckets (5 gallon with resealable lids and smaller), liquid laundry detergent, liquid household cleaner, dish soap, bleach, scrub brush, cleaning wipes, kitchen dishwashing gloves, mops, sponges, scouring pads, paper towels, disposable rags, canned air freshener, clothespins, clotheslines, heavy duty trash bags, insect repellent spray, bottled water, first aid kits, rain ponchos.
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.