Letter from Steve Piltch - August 2018

August 30, 2018

Dear Shipley Families,

Welcome back to school as we celebrate Shipley’s 125th anniversary! From my perspective, summer vacation goes faster each year. It seems like only yesterday our Class of 2018 graduated, and yet we’re back and ready to go. I’m hopeful that you and your families found the summer to be restful, revitalizing, and enjoyable and that you got to spend time together that allowed you to connect in meaningful ways. The memories of the things you do as a family will play a vital role in the shaping of your children’s lives. They will take those memories with them into adulthood; and, the memories will influence their decisions for the rest of their lives.

Because this is my last year at Shipley, this was a summer of great nostalgia and special importance as my wife, Sunny, and I contemplated the forthcoming changes in our lives. Everywhere I turned, I found myself doing things that forced me to reflect on the many years I’ve had the privilege to spend as the Head of Shipley. The books I read and the movies I watched brought back memories of earlier times in my life – times that helped shape our family in important ways. Two meaningful examples follow:

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, is about a dog named Enzo, who, in Elizabeth Delp’s words is “a philosopher with an almost human soul.” Delp, the author of an article entitled “30 Incredible Books About Dogs,” described the book as “a heart-wrenching but deeply funny and ultimately uplifting story of family, love, loyalty, and hope and is a beautifully crafted and captivating look at the wonders and absurdities of human life… as only a dog could tell it.” As I read the book, memories of our first dog, Brooklyn, flashed through my head. Brooklyn was with us for twelve years and played a major role in our kids’ childhoods. We were all deeply saddened when he died, and I wrote a piece about his impact on us and especially on me (you can read it here.)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary film about Fred Rogers, brought back memories of a television show that really was committed to the support and wellbeing of kids. Although I did not fully appreciate Mr. Rogers when I was a teenager, I realize now that he was ahead of his time. He stressed the importance of celebrating kids as individuals and having them develop strengths that they could rely on. In fact, his ideology, which revolved around the education of the whole child, is rooted in the same ideals and goals as Positive Education.

As great as the movies and books I watched and read were, the most important thing I did this summer was spending time with Sunny and our children, Matthew ’08, Ali ’10, and Jamie ’13. For whatever reason, our connections seemed unusually strong this year. Although I think we are always supportive of each other, we seemed to have an increased level of understanding and perspective. And, when three or four of us were together (and one or two were elsewhere), we yearned to have the missing members with us. The highlight of the summer for us all was Ali’s wedding in mid-August. Although I could not have been more excited for Ali or her husband, Cong, I must admit that I struggled to fully comprehend the meaning of her getting married. While I felt prepared for her and for Matt and Jamie to go to school and face other major life milestones, and I thought I was prepared for her to get married, I am coming to grips with the fact that her marriage clearly indicates that she really is independent from the rest of us. She and Cong are both devoted to the families that helped shape their lives. They will need to balance that devotion with their commitment to each other and the family they are developing. And, Cong’s parents—his mother, Yan, and father, Guowei—and Sunny and I will need to support the process and adjust our own expectations when necessary.

Even though this change is both natural and important, it is not easy to process. Fortunately, the looks on Ali and Cong’s faces when they exchanged their vows told a story of two people deeply in love and committed to making a life together. We feel fortunate to have Cong join our family and are excited to help Ali and Cong enjoy their lives together.

My experiences throughout the summer—and especially with the wedding—forced me to think carefully about the role of a parent. I was reminded how challenging and enjoyable parenting is and that all training for being a parent is retrospective. As I thought about this reality, I could not help but reminisce about my mother. Even though she has been gone for more than ten years, her imprint is found on everything our family does. Over time, I have realized that she may have been the best educator I have ever known. She had no “formal” education about child development—she learned what she knew through experience raising nine children, born over 13 ½ years—and the lessons she imparted on us have significantly guided all of the choices Sunny and I have made.

Four lessons in particular stay with me: First, I heard her say on more than one occasion, “What works with one doesn’t necessarily work with any of the others.” Each of us was different and had to be treated differently because of it. She also used to say, “When they are little, there are little problems; when they’re big, there are bigger problems,” and, “Don’t worry about the small things, and most things are small!” I have tried to remind myself of these facts as our children have grown, both in considering the increasingly complicated struggles they are wrestling with in early adulthood and in trying to keep perspective about even those bigger problems. Finally, she always said that she only felt as happy as her least happy child – a fact that most parents are challenged by on an ongoing basis. Ultimately, it was important to my mom to celebrate each of us as the individuals we were while still holding us all accountable to a consistent and clear sense of values and expectations. Although she certainly had more than her share of frustrations with us, my mother found a way to appreciate our strengths and to help us deal with our challenges and weaknesses.

As I have been thinking about my mother, and reflecting on my own experience as a parent, I took the time to read Lea Waters’ The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish, a new book on parenting that asks us all to help our children celebrate and develop their strengths. The book deeply resonated with me and has received praise from a number of noteworthy individuals. For our community, perhaps the most notable commentary comes from new Shipley parent Adam Grant, PhD, a professor at Wharton and the best-selling author of Originals, Give and Take and co-author of Option B, who said: “As parents, we often obsess about fixing our children’s weaknesses and neglect the importance of developing their strengths. This book is full of concrete ideas on how to change that.”

The Strength Switch asks us to revisit not just how we parent but how we live our daily lives. Lea Waters’ suggestions and advice will be helpful to people regardless of whether they have children. It speaks to the expectations we have of ourselves and of other people in our lives. It reinforced for me how important personal wellbeing and a positive frame of mind are in dealing with the challenges of day-to-day life. The more difficult the challenge, the more important it is to come from a positive perspective.

Having enjoyed the book so much, I’m excited that Lea Waters will be here to speak on Thursday, September 6 at 7:00 p.m. (Add to Calendar). I hope you will join us.

As we celebrate Shipley’s 125th anniversary and reinforce our commitment to Positive Education and the education of the whole child, I invite you to join me in doing the little things to help each other identify and celebrate our strengths and work with each other to be a better community. If we do this, individually and collectively, we have a greater chance of achieving excellence and flourishing. Welcome back to School. I hope Shipley’s 125th year is a great one for you and yours.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School

P.S. I hope you will mark your calendar and join us for the first public celebration of our 125th anniversary. Super Saturday will take place on Saturday, September 29 (Add to Calendar). We will have carnival games for kids, a free community barbeque, live music featuring Shipley students and colleagues, athletic teams in action, a DJ, food trucks, and a night soccer game under the lights. I hope to see 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.