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Letter from Steve Piltch, September 2016

September 28, 2016

Dear Shipley Families:

What can I say? For me there is nothing better than the start of the school year. The return of everyone in the community is always remarkably revitalizing. This year is no different. In fact, in many ways I’ve never been happier to see people fill our halls with the energy, enthusiasm, and direction that they bring.

With the loss of Austin Wylie, parents of students, and spouses and family members of others associated with the School, I was concerned that we might start school without the vim and vigor of most years. Fortunately, everyone involved in the community seemed to understand instinctively the importance of coming together to remember those we lost and to use our memories in a positive and meaningful way. It has been comforting and reinforcing to see people reach out to each other with patience, commitment, and understanding. We have been able to collectively honor those who have passed both explicitly and implicitly through our actions every day.

Personally and selfishly, I have enjoyed welcoming our students back and have been invigorated by their interest and enthusiasm. Their response to the start of the year has been overwhelmingly positive. When I recently read to one first grade class and asked how things were going, one of our students blurted out: “Great. Awesome. Fabulous!” How could I ask for more? While it would be naïve to think things will be that good for everybody all of the time, I am hopeful that we will get the same response from that student (and many others) throughout the year.

Our Back to School Nights, athletic games, and Super Saturday and Welcome Back BBQ have provided us with wonderful opportunities to welcome everyone, renew relationships we have developed over the years, begin to develop new relationships, and enjoy time with our community. I am grateful to all those people who put time into making the events possible and all those who attended them. Of course, the School’s long -term vision – as articulated in Shipley’s strategic plan – reinforces our need for and commitment to community engagement, so I am especially pleased that so many people have been here to share in our early annual experiences and to reinforce the sense of community that makes us who we are.

We have also been incredibly fortunate to have various experts on loss and suicide on campus speaking with our students, faculty/staff, and parents/guardians. Particularly notable were the visits of Dr. Tony Rostain, Vice Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UPenn School of Medicine and a well-renowned adolescent psychiatrist, who came to speak to all groups about the nature of loss in our lives. I paraphrase what he said to our parents/guardians: "Disappointment and loss are natural parts of life which we need to understand, appreciate, and deal with as resiliently as possible... ” In that context, this month has been one of true reflection, not just about events here but also throughout the country. Two topics of particular note are 9/11 and the Presidential election.

While 9/11 continues to cause a visceral reaction for many people who were alive when it happened, the reality is that for our students it is a historic event. Most of our students were not yet alive and our current seniors were only two or three when it happened; though they have heard much about it, very few, if any, remember their experiences on that day.

When we refer to 9/11, many people think of the planes that went into the World Trade Center without necessarily remembering or knowing about the other two planes, one that hit the Pentagon and the other that went down in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Moreover, they do not necessarily know details about the politics behind the act or the chain of related (if not directly causal) events that have taken place since – from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to the dissolution of the Syrian state to the rise of ISIS. (For more information on terror trends globally, please take a look at this piece from the New York Times, published in August.) If we do not teach our students about this complex array of issues and events, then 9/11 becomes merely symbolic, rather than an event that has affected an incredible number of lives, American and non-American, both on 9/11 and in its aftermath.

Meanwhile, the Presidential election has many people unnerved and looking for a better process. The vitriolic nature of modern campaign rhetoric and the lack of nuance present in the conversation has left many of us wondering how to discuss the process and the candidates in an effective manner without adding to the negativity, even hatred, that seems to surround the race.

On some level, the depth of the problem can be seen through the polls that indicate each candidate’s negativity rating is over 50%; if these numbers are accurate, the majority of people voting will be casting a ballot for the candidate they are least offended by – the lesser of two evils, so to speak -- rather than someone they believe will be a great president. In turn, I am hopeful that between now and Election Day, enough good things will happen that each of us will feel good about the ballot we cast.

In this environment, we find ourselves compelled to hope for a systematic change that brings an exchange of ideas (not just in the election but also everywhere) in place of today’s exchange of negativity. We can only accomplish this work if we hold ourselves in the elective process to higher standards. While there may not be a clear path to doing so nationally, we will make that effort here at school by being open to and understanding of a range of points of view.

Of course, this work is more difficult in many communities by the lack of openness to different perspectives. Too often we shut people down because they have a point of view that we find discomforting, unsafe, or offensive. Ironically, the ability to express and the willingness to consider different points of view are at the heart of a good liberal arts education. The world is a diverse place, and many of the beliefs people hold are foreign or offensive to others. But it is only through engaging with others in a respectful way that we will be able to change those opinions. Empathy, respect, and challenge define the path to personal and community development. If we cannot take that path, challenging as it might be, then we will never be able to thrive as individuals or a society.

As someone committed to the exchange of ideas, I am hopeful that Shipley can be a community where we are respectful of, open to, and appreciative of different points of view and where we can be understanding and accepting of each other regardless of our backgrounds, opinions, or points of view. In fact, these values define our Community Commitment. It reads:

We are committed to cultivating an environment where all members of the Shipley community are engaged, feel respected and valued, grow as individuals, strive for excellence, and have the opportunity to do their best work. We honor and value all differences and are committed to being a safe and inclusive environment for all people.

As we strive to make this commitment a reality, we understand the importance of doing things in a thoughtful, understanding and compassionate way, with courage and grace. If we work together and remain true to our values, we will accomplish our goals and be the community we want to be. Here’s hoping the weeks ahead bring good health, joy, and fulfilling discussions to everyone.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School

P.S. In case you did not hear Dr. Rostain when he was here or simply because you want some added insight about to talk with your children about suicide, you might read his blog post: Talking with Children About Suicide. (By the way, The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds is a wonderful resource for all kinds of articles about parenting.)
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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.