Letter from Steve Piltch - November 2018

November 30, 2018

Dear Shipley Families,

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday of the year. Even all these years later, I have wonderful memories of my family’s celebrations while I was growing up in Brookline, MA. In the morning, any number of us would go to a triangular field at the corner of our street for a family football game that never lacked for competitiveness even if it lacked talent.

The game was just the beginning of a day full of family traditions. We all gathered with friends somewhere around 2:00 p.m. and socialized until we had our meal between 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. Since I have eight siblings, when other family and friends joined us, there would be anywhere from fifteen to thirty people around our table. Despite the size of the group, we always began the gathering with each person sharing what he/she was thankful for. Although it took quite some time to go around the table, sharing gave us an appreciation for the moment and helped put the holiday in perspective; in fact, it was so meaningful that my own family continues the tradition today.

After sharing, we’d go on to have a traditional meal of turkey, candied yams, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and other things followed by desserts of pumpkin pie and pineapple fluff (an incredible dessert my mother made involving sliced pineapples and a lot of whipped cream) before finishing the evening with games as a family.

Today, our own family’s Thanksgiving is very similar to the one I experienced growing up. For many of the past twenty-seven years, we have celebrated in our home on Shipley’s campus and have hosted family members and friends for a festive time. Since one of our children is now married and the other two have significant others (only one of whom could be here this year), it was especially nice to have our kids all home and even nicer to see them help to prepare for the meal. Of course, this year was our last in our home on campus – which made the experience even more meaningful. As I reflected on our upcoming move and watched our daughter and sons do their parts to get ready, I realized that in the not too distant future, one of them will probably bear the responsibility for making the turkey and hosting our tradition, one of deep conversation, great food, and family games into the evening.

Only once in my life do I remember questioning the meaning of Thanksgiving. It was November of 1963. President Kennedy had been assassinated the preceding Friday, and it was hard to make sense of celebrating in the face of such a tragedy. I remember taking a moment of silence in his memory and having my parents tell us the importance of celebrating in his memory.

Thanksgiving this year was on the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, a fact I found quite moving. And while I did not speak about it openly, I took a personal moment of silence in his memory. Although I was only eight when he passed away, I have clear and poignant images of him in my mind. Since he grew up a few blocks from where we lived in Brookline, I thought of him as a local citizen. And, though I know he was neither a perfect President nor person, he remains a hero in my mind.

One of President Kennedy’s statements in his inaugural address remains particularly fresh in my memory: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Those who know the history recognize that President Kennedy borrowed the original statement from the Rev. George C. St. John, long-time Headmaster of Choate (now Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding and day school in Connecticut) who quoted a Harvard Dean who had said: “The youth who loves his alma mater will always ask not ‘What can she do for me?’ but ‘What can I do for her?’” At our All-School Thanksgiving Assembly last week, I modified it one more time for the celebration of the holiday and said, “Ask not what others can do for you; ask what you can do for others.”

Of course, these suggestions of service do not necessarily mean doing grandiose things. Sometimes, it’s doing the little things that may go unnoticed but may be more important. This was borne out by our All-School President, Henry Katz, who talked about his own growth and the School’s growth during his fourteen years at Shipley. To paraphrase his words, while he is incredibly impressed by and appreciative of the new facilities that have gone up around him during his time at Shipley, it is what has happened in and around the facilities that have made the biggest difference in his life.

He spoke specifically of the teachers that have pushed and supported him, the friends he has developed, and the risks he has taken as the heart of his experience. He emphasized the importance of community and the need to collaborate and to cooperate to make things work. He stressed the importance of being appreciated as an individual and noted that as he and others in the community have strived for excellence, they have learned the importance of giving back to others. To quote him: “At the end of the day I have become so thankful and so appreciative of this community that is filled with people who do small acts of kindness every single day, acts that make all a difference, and that one by one add up to make Shipley the great community that it is.”

As I listened to Henry, I could not have asked for greater affirmation of our commitment to our mission – one of excellence, love of learning, and compassionate participation in the world. In particular, since it was a Thanksgiving Assembly, it was especially nice to hear him talk about giving back. Of course, this is not new at Shipley. If you track our history, you find ongoing efforts to make a difference. Here are just a few from our 125-year history; although many of the ones mentioned may be larger in nature, there are so many others, perhaps even more important, that go unnoticed:

  • During the Second World War, even before the United States joined the war, students raised funds to buy an ambulance sent to England. They ripped up all the iron fencing around the campus to be melted down for armaments. 
  • In the 1950s and ’60s, students participated in American Friends Service Committee Weekend Work Camps in the inner city doing activities comparable to what Habitat for Humanity does today. The student-run community service organization, the precursor of today’s service group, sponsored activities throughout the year, such as collecting clothes for the needy at Christmas. Students volunteered for Bryn Mawr Hospital and the Royer Greaves School for the Blind, among others. 
  • During the Iraq War, Middle School students wrote to servicemen. Then, after Katrina hit New Orleans, we took a senior service trip to build houses in impacted communities in New Orleans. 
  • More recently, we have been committed to and been involved in Brain Tree Primary School in Uganda, Andrew Jackson School, the Special Olympics, and Think, Care, Act. 
  • And there is our annual turkey drive to feed families in Greater Philadelphia. This year, the generosity of the community allowed us to give 225 full Thanksgiving dinners, including turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and fruit. It was a privilege to watch students, colleagues, parents, and friends of the community put the dinners together in the Commons to be taken to different sites. More than one person commented on Fox 29’s coverage of the event

As great as these acts of service are, I believe that Henry is exactly right about the small things being important. I hope all of us will find the time to slow down during the holiday season and do the little things to make others (and ourselves) a little calmer. Here are a few suggestions:

  • When things feel particularly frenetic, take a deep breath and be present in the moment. 
  • Take the opportunity to say hello to those you do not know, hold the door, let someone go before you in line, or simply work harder to be present when having a discussion with others. 
  • Find time to be with family members and friends and let them know just how important they are to you. If you do, those around you will feel better and so will you. 
  • And, as you face the challenges that will be there, look to meet them directly, honestly, and effectively. As Oprah Winfrey suggested: “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” 

Finally, as you go through the season, heed Oprah’s words, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” May the holiday season bring light to you and yours.

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.