Letter from Steve Piltch - January 2019

January 31, 2019

Dear Shipley Families and Friends,

Have you ever read a book that changed the way you viewed the world? As I think back over the years, one of the books that did that for me was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (you can read a summary here). The book earned Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize and played a significant role in his selection as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In the book, Santiago - an old fisherman - is perceived by those in the community to be unproductive, and perhaps even a little bit crazy. Of course, he’s actually someone with a clear vision and an understanding of what’s important to him, a passion to live life his way, with consistency, integrity, and pride.

After going 84 days without catching anything, those in the community were making fun of him; they saw him as inept, unaware, and old. On the 85th day, he went out on his own and proceeded to successfully catch a huge marlin. The book captures the battle he had with the fish, his thoughts about it, and the reality that - though the only part of the fish he returned to shore with was the skeleton - his catch proved that he was still a capable (though tired) fisherman and person.

The story reinforces the importance of understanding that what we initially see in people may not be who they really are. We need to look below the surface and encourage them to share their voices so that we have a better sense of their world and their perspective. I re-read the book once every other year or two, and it always reminds me to reassess my assumptions and to be careful not to pass expedient judgment about people.

As impactful as The Old Man and The Sea was for me, I watched one of the sections of our fifth grade read a book that seemed to have that same impact on many of them. Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind is a fictional story about a young woman named Melody who was born with cerebral palsy and without the ability to speak, move, or seemingly communicate in any effective way. People assume that her intellectual ability is limited and that she has little to offer. How wrong they are. As Melody develops the capacity to communicate through movements in her head and use of computerized voices, people begin to realize the person they thought she was is completely different from the person she is. Though she was limited in movement and speech, her mind was superb. In fact, she may well have been the brightest kid in her class. Moreover, her ability to communicate not only changed people’s view of her but her own view of herself to make her a more confident, capable person.

As our kids read the book and discussed it, you could feel their connection with the novel. They identified with the story in a way that suggested that they not only comprehended it but were also developing empathy, compassion, and understanding. The kids made connections with Melody and other people they know with disabilities and questioned their assumptions about all kinds of people. It was therefore incredibly thought-provoking and enjoyable to hear their observations about the book, which included the following:

“One of the messages the book sent me was don’t judge someone by how they look. Another message in this book is don’t take anything for granted. It helped me be more grateful for what I have in my life, especially when there are kids who have nothing.”

“This book really showed me how beautiful people can be on the inside.”

“I like that Melody is different from everyone and she expresses that in her own unique way.”

“I learned that you don’t have to be anyone else to know that people like you, and even if you are being who you are and people don’t like you, then just keep being who you are and find friends that like you for who you are.”

“This book did change my outlook on life… whenever I see a person with a disability of any sort I’ll remember that Melody was so smart and she could do anything, so they can too.”

It is clear that the book and the discussions about it created a transformative experience for our kids. It has already impacted the way they see their own world and the world around them, and I have no doubt that the book will continue to influence them for many years to come. Their teacher, Sally Siebert-Hall, who (in my opinion) taught the text superbly, was in awe of the work her students did. “The book was the most compelling experience of the year, perhaps even of my own career,” she said. It is not a surprise to me that The Denver Post said of the book, “If there’s only one book teens and parents (and everyone else) can read this year, Out of My Mind should be it.”

As important as reading impactful books and having other transformative experiences is to our students’ development, it is truly remarkable when the lessons manifest themselves in the development of their individual voices, especially in difficult or challenging situations. We saw the implications of this work at our All-School Assembly this week; the theme of the assembly was “Courage for the Deed.”

As we celebrated Black History Month (a few days early) and diversity from many different perspectives, some of our students shared stories that reflected on the country at large, beyond Shipley. For example, Kayla Pierre '19 reflected on and presented images of thousands of young people who took to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama on May 2, 1963 in support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work to fight racism in a non-violent manner. Even though authorities jailed many of the protesters and did what they could to thwart the effort, children continued to protest for days until authorities agreed to meet over issues of civil rights. Then Randall Brown '20 discussed Dr. Julian Hayter (who was here in October) and his work to deal with racism and the appropriate response to monuments that represent racism over time. Randall emphasized that although Prof. Hayter is Black (or perhaps because he is Black), “he believes that we cannot and should not erase the statues, but rather, we must use them to understand and learn about the Confederacy and what it stood for.” According to Randall, “Dr. Hayter suggests placing glass around the monuments with the names of Black men and women whose lives were taken as slaves and soldiers throughout the Confederacy (in order to add context and perspective).”

Others shared their own stories about who they are, the challenges they have faced, and the goals they have moving forward. The stories were thought-provoking and inspirational; they brought tears to many eyes.

Carina Jiang '20, one of our students from China, discussed her experience going to school so far from home. Though there are plenty of times when Carina is lonely and wishes she could be with or at least share her thoughts with her parents, she is grateful to pursue the freedom of education and the opportunity to be more of an individual here than she had at home.

Angeline Jiang '20, the #2 runner on our cross country team, spoke about overcoming her challenge of having had her foot run over by a bus when she was ten years old and being told she would probably never run again. As she recalled her battle of nine surgeries and the pessimistic diagnosis of her doctors, she noted that “perhaps people part from their dreams not because they are incapable of achieving them, but because they lack the courage and determination to pursue them.”

Finally, Anna Camden '19, our all-time leading scorer in girls’ basketball, shared a compelling piece about what it means to be a young woman. Anna shared her poem entitled "Letter to my Future Daughter" to note the conflicts and frustrations and hopes of what it means to be a woman today and what it will mean tomorrow. You can read Anna’s entire poem; here’s part of one stanza that reflects that grit, determination, and resilience are necessary to deal with the challenges:

How can I explain to my daughter, the unfairness of sports
Because being a female athlete, means that men can do more.
That though you may make school history
You will look into the stands, and find them empty
And when your heart breaks at the utter lack of support
A desire will grow within you, to accomplish even more
To make your name unerasable, wherever it may be
To put it on a banner for all men to see

Impressed by our fifth graders and all of our students who contributed to our assembly, it is clear just how important it is for our students to develop their own voices and to use those voices and their energy and enthusiasm to affect growth and change here and in the greater world. Randall Brown said it well: “Courage to me is speaking without fear and facing new obstacles without hesitation…” And, Henry Katz '19, our All-School President, summed it up this way: “In our community, courage comes in all different shapes and sizes. From the smallest Acorn to the largest Mighty Oak, we are all at different points in the journey to making the world a more accepting place, but I believe that it all starts here, under this one roof, where a group of people more than 800 strong are here to learn how to treat others.”

As always, the students know it and say it better than we do as adults. Let’s continue to work together so that our students have the transforming experiences that allow them to develop and share their voice and go on to utilize the courage necessary to deal with inequities and make a difference. I have never felt more fortunate to be the head of this School.

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.