Assistant Head of School

Ryan Feeley

As we approach Thanksgiving, I don’t believe there’s any way that I could write about the concept of gratitude without focusing on an ongoing personal situation. And while, on the surface, the focus might seem to be on my family, I feel strongly that our situation speaks to the power of this special community at Berwick Academy.
By now, most of you are aware that in late June, life took a surprising turn for my family when my daughter, Shea, a seventh grader at Berwick, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. A beautiful summer day that began with what we assumed would be a relatively routine visit for Shea to an optometrist in Portsmouth quickly became the first of 72 days at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Jimmy Fund Clinic. We suddenly found our healthy, active, and ever-smiling 12-year old undergoing extensive brain surgery, shunt placement and revision procedures, six weeks of radiation treatment and chemotherapy, and ongoing physical and occupational therapy. We were terrified. We found our minds drifting to “what if” scenarios that no parent should ever have to consider. It was a dark summer for all of us.

Yet, in the midst of such a horrifying experience, time and time again, we felt the incredible support of this school community in so many ways. Faculty, staff, parents, students, trustees, alumni, friends of colleagues, relatives of Berwick parents, people we’d never met, people two, three, and four times removed from our family reached out in staggering numbers because they saw a Berwick Academy student in a tough situation, and they wanted to help in any way they could.

When I consider the magnitude of what so many in the extended Berwick community have done for Shea and for our family, any expression of gratitude immediately feels inadequate. Faculty members and staff have brought meals to our home, dropped by to mow our lawn, offered to give our sons rides while my wife and I were in Boston with Shea, and organized a mid-summer concert in Shea’s honor. Two Upper School students spent a chunk of their summer vacation making a fleece Wonder Woman blanket for Shea, and, if that weren’t thoughtful enough, they made two more blankets for our sons. Two other students took time out of a family vacation to Japan to create a thousand origami paper cranes by hand for Shea to have in her hospital room. Berwick families reached out to offer apartments and homes in the Boston area for us to use during Shea’s ten-plus weeks in the hospital. A steady stream of classmates and teachers visited Shea both in the Intensive Care Unit and on the neurology floor for the better part of July and August and cheered her on as she began to regain her appetite and started taking steps down the hospital hallways during her physical therapy sessions. A Berwick Academy alumna whom we’d never met reached out via social media because, having beaten cancer herself, she wanted to pass on her headscarves from one Bulldog to another.

I could continue for paragraphs, listing the incredible gestures of kindness, compassion, and support that people in the Berwick community have offered us. And the easy analysis is to simply say that Berwick people look out for their own during times of need, but I’m also grateful for something deeper than that. I’m grateful for how Berwick Academy as an institution and as a school culture has prepared Shea for these difficult days. And here I’m referring to those Berwick Academy virtues, to borrow from our School’s mission statement, that have equipped Shea, and all of our students, to address challenges in healthiest manner possible.

I’m grateful for the school environment that has fostered impressive levels of resilience, optimism, and character in our students. We see it in our students’ response to a failed prototype during an innovation pursuit or in the way they keep their heads up when their team trails an opponent at halftime.  These Berwick Academy virtues have allowed Shea to face her challenge with a smile and with a level of hope that I don’t believe she would have if not for Berwick. Not long ago, we traveled to Boston for an MRI to determine how much Shea’s tumor has shrunk thus far, and while my wife and I sat anxiously waiting for the oncologist’s update, Shea looked at us and asked “How long until we can go grab a frozen yogurt?”. In recent weeks, Shea has taken to telling really corny brain tumor jokes… “Why did the brain tumor cross the road?”... and the like. And while some of these reactions might be attributed to a 12-year old’s perspective, I’m convinced that the lessons she’s learned at Berwick, about a balanced approach to life, about the importance of play, and about never letting a setback break your spirit, have absolutely helped her muster the hopeful and positive attitude necessary to face this challenge head on.  

I’m also grateful for a place where students want to come to school each morning, where kids stretch themselves daily. We see this desire to engage in the eager facial expressions at morning drop off, in the raised hands during a history class discussion, in the poise our students show as they climb the steps to the stage to perform, in the hurried pace of students headed to the Inspiration Commons to squeeze in a little more time designing and making their ideas come to three-dimensional life. Shea is not quite ready to return to classes full-time, but she’s making more and more frequent visits to campus to attend a few classes, to participate in rehearsals for the Middle School musical, to cheer on her classmates at cross country meets, or to simply join her friends for lunch in the Commons. And each time Shea heads home after a visit to the Hilltop, her comments quickly turn to “When can I go back?”. Being around peers who want to immerse themselves in school life is contagious, and it makes her all the more motivated to recover quickly so she can take advantage of the amazing Berwick experience too. Research tells us that motivation and a positive attitude are key psychological factors in healing, and Berwick has fostered both in Shea, as it does in all of our students.

I hope none of our Berwick students ever have to experience a challenge on the scale of what Shea has been through these last several months (or what lies ahead as she continues her battle). Yet, I also recognize that none of our students are immune to challenges and all of them will face their share of trying times in their lives. As parents, we will never be able to completely protect our children from what life might throw their way, but in the absence of guarantees, I take comfort in the fact that beyond the academic, artistic, and athletic growth our students experience at Berwick, they’re also developing the virtues necessary to face tough times with courage, strength, and a balanced perspective. And for that, as an administrator, teacher, and parent, I am eternally grateful.

Serving Maine, The Seacoast of New Hampshire, and the North Shore of Massachusetts

Berwick Academy, situated on an 80-acre campus just over one hour north of Boston, serves 600 students, Pre-Kindergarten through grade 12, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Deeply committed to its mission of promoting virtue and useful knowledge, Berwick Academy empowers students to be creative and bold. Berwick strives to graduate alumni who shape their own learning, take risks, ask thoughtful questions, and come to understand and celebrate their authentic selves.  Founded in 1791 and rooted in a tradition of college preparation, our culture of innovation prepares students for a complex and dynamic world.