As the month of November whizzes by, I find myself reflecting back on the first trimester of school - my last first days as Head of School at Berwick Academy. September is inevitably a blur, but it is impossible not to be excited when the students come back to the Hilltop and suddenly outside of my window I once again see soccer balls, frisbees, and footballs zinging across the quad. Upper School friends reconnect on rhythmic strolls from Fogg to lunch at the Commons, and the Lower School turf field is back in heated competition once again. Truly like a living, breathing, organism, it only takes a few hours for this place to burst out of hibernation into its normal existence of lively human interaction marked by curiosity and growth. As parents, we breathe a collective sigh of relief as our children return to some semblance of predictable structure and routine – the same structure and routine from which we sought release in June. We hit our stride in October with so many athletic contests and even our spooky Halloween festivities. As the first trimester now comes to a close and the leaves have virtually all fallen by now, I’m reminded that this annual cycle will look far different for me come this time next year.
For the Schneiders, we find ourselves wired in a mode of appreciation and gratitude as we experience this final year at Berwick Academy. Each event on the calendar elicits a small trigger of sorts: my last Berwick faculty opening meeting, my last Convocation, my last community circles, my last Halloween parade, etc. For me, this year will be a daily reminder of why this community has meant so much to me as a leader and even more so as a Dad. And yet, I will happily bear witness to the excitement and enthusiasm for what lies ahead. Back in September, I expressed my sentiment to the faculty that a Head of School search will not be the headline for the 2017-2018 school year, as we have too much important work to do in executing Curriculum 2020, bringing our Wellness program to life in a new way, and beginning the process of integrating residential students into our community at the Hancock House (formerly the Academy St. Inn). I know that our next Head of School’s biggest challenge will be keeping up with a faculty culture that has become so forward thinking and committed to student outcomes. I look forward to soaking in that powerful energy for a final year.
Yet as I write the first 1791 edition in my final chapter of communications to our community, I am far more concerned about what is occurring in the world. We began the year as multiple hurricanes devastated the southeast, leaving us to wonder what we can do to have impact from South Berwick, ME. More recently we have seen unprecedented fires raging in California. I worry these kinds of natural disasters could once again shine an unforgiving light upon the disenfranchised in our country. For while hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, and Maria (even Katrina) gravely impacted these communities, one senses a temporary equalization and shared common experience for human survival. In many cases, there are no racial, ethnic, religious, or class lines drawn across a common human need to survive these disasters when they rage. Heroism emerges and courage inevitably flourishes in such times of crisis. However, once the storms finally move through and the rebuilding process begins, we often see these divisive lines return with a new distinctive hue that can feel even more exposed than ever before.
Yet we need no natural disaster to remind us that our world is in need of Berwick graduates to lead our nation in new ways. The troubling events of Charlottesville, VA this past summer reminded us that our country’s capacity for hatred, divisiveness, and violence is surely alive and well. Our faculty and staff tackled Bryan Stevenson’s powerful book Just Mercy this past summer, which was a sobering commentary on the realities of race and poverty’s impact on our criminal justice system. In a video we watched before the start of school, Stevenson reminded us that to create social change we must do four things: 1) Become proximate to the world’s problems. As long as we hold issues at a distance, we will never be compelled to act. 2) Change the narrative. We have some obligation to see through some of the false narratives that have been presented to us. 3) Remain hopeful. Hope is the unquestioned superpower that allows humans to accomplish tremendous things. 4) Be willing to do uncomfortable things. Just like we ask our students, we need to be willing to become uncomfortable if we hope to enact meaningful change in the world.
As I consider the events of Charlottesville, I see yet another real world example of why Berwick’s commitment to both Social Emotional Learning and Cultural Competency must become even stronger in the future. We need to educate students who are able to listen and dialogue about truly complex real time conversations such as the appropriateness of confederate monuments and icons in our country as we move forward. The way we will choose to preserve history is a source of lively debate on college campuses everywhere – not just at Jefferson’s idyllic UVA. More importantly, we need to empower students to stand up against bigotry and hatred with conviction and clarity. We need to do this in a paradigm of understanding, empathy, and appreciation of nuance rather than in a simplistic or vitriolic paradigm of divisiveness and rigidity.
These are tall orders for a little private school in Southern Maine, but we are more than up for the challenge. The students on this campus continue to exhibit an intrinsic willingness to push beyond their own boundaries. We watched Berwick students just this past summer travel to assist the rural poor in West Virginia. We have seen them navigate a trip to Sikkim, India, and we have seen one student launch a homemade autonomous kayak from the shores of Portsmouth to the Isle of Shoals. These children are nothing short of extraordinary, and if you are seeking a source of hope in a world filled with layers of shadow, you need look no further than this educational community that we know as Berwick Academy. It is an honor to be carrying the torch for promoting virtue and useful knowledge for this final year, and my sense of connection to this purpose has never felt clearer.
As we all stumble towards the finish line of the first trimester together, let us take this Thanksgiving to truly be grateful in a new way. The power of gratitude feels far more present in my life this year, and I hope that these words might spark you to lean into this kind of reflection and gratefulness as well. Thank you, as always, for the gift of working with your children on this Hilltop. Please enjoy a restful holiday season with your family and friends.