June 2013

Dear St. Margaret’s Friends and Families,

Normally, at this time of year I find myself flooded with mixed emotions as the thought of some summer downtime is offset by the realization that our school community as we currently know it will never be the same again. It’s a time to say goodbye to the senior class and bid farewell to friends and colleagues, all the while knowing that in a few short months we will come together again, rejuvenated by time away with friends and family and ready to kick off another school year. I have always loved the cadence of the school calendar, and I have come to expect and even depend on the inevitable emotional ups and downs and the priceless opportunity for new beginnings.

The arrival of June is of course different for me this time. While I am greatly looking forward to summer and time with kids and grandkids, I am ever mindful that my career at St. Margaret’s is coming rapidly to an end. I am once again flooded with emotions, but this time I am acutely aware that this is now my time for new beginnings. As we load up the moving van and make the move across the country later this month, we will do so with an endless supply of wonderful memories and an enormous sense of gratitude for the privilege we have been afforded to be a part of the St. Margaret’s community.

The past ten years have flown by and I am enormously proud of the school we are today. It has been a joy to watch the school grow and thrive, to see new buildings rise from the ground, to witness the continued strengthening of all our programs, and to bid a fond farewell every year to seniors, prepared and ready for the next chapter in their lives. I have loved beginning each day in Lower School Chapel, and I have been rewarded beyond words by talented students who have deeply and profoundly enriched my life with their intellect, their curiosity, their passions and their kindness.

I am also grateful for the privilege of working with a dedicated faculty and staff and a diverse community of loving parents, joined together by a shared commitment to care for all our children. We each bring our own experiences, hopes and dreams to school every day and despite, or perhaps because of the inevitable differences of opinions and perspectives, we have been able and willing to keep ever present the reason we’re all here in the first place – to love and serve our children.

As I have said many times in the past ten years, this is an awesome time to be a Tartan and our future couldn’t be brighter. Yes, we will be different when we gather again in late August, but we’ll be ready! I have been honored to have been part of this school community and I thank each and every one of you for your friendship, your support and your presence in my life. Most of all, I thank you for your children and for the priceless gift they have given to me.

But now, summer is fast approaching and it’s time once again to let go of our little charges and return them affectionately to you for what I sincerely hope will be a summer filled with happy times and precious memories.

Safe travels and Godspeed. And save a seat for me in Chapel, you little Red Sweaters!

With gratitude and affection,

Marcus D. Hurlbut

April 2013

Dear St. Margaret’s Families and Friends,

In recent years for reasons not totally clear to me, I have found myself increasingly drawn to country music. Maybe it’s because the music is a little less twangy and a little more “rocky” than it used to be or maybe it’s because the songs tell stories that now have some kind of deeper meaning for me. Regardless, I am now a fan and the other day while driving along lost in thought I heard for the first time a relatively old song by Suzy Bogguss called Letting Go.

Some of you may be familiar with the song — I definitely wasn’t. I was, however, familiar with the feeling and my guess is that most if not all of you know it too. Of course, the notion of letting go means different things to different people at different stages of their lives. Some of us feel it the day our children are born and we realize how vulnerable we are and how closely we want to hold these extraordinary beings we have created. Yet, somewhere deep inside we know also that the time will come when we will have to let them go – not entirely at first but in stages over time. But no matter the degree, each stage carries meaning, emotion and a certain sense of loss, and for most of us, it’s never easy.

The power of letting go was especially prominent for me when my children began planning for college. I am well aware that this phenomenon begins far earlier for others and I definitely recall a very big lump in my throat when we first dropped our oldest off at school and watched this very little boy enter a world that didn’t include us. It is a feeling I will never forget.

Fortunately, for me at least, my children attended the middle and high school where I happened to be the headmaster, and for those precious few years I was given the priceless gift of not missing a thing. My kids were pretty good athletes and for the last two or three years of their school careers, I spent an inordinate amount of time with a video camera plastered to my face in a nearly desperate attempt to capture each and every moment of victory and defeat. Truth be told, those videos remain in the family archives largely untouched for the past decade or so. Regardless, they’re there – waiting!

My closeness to my kids throughout their school careers was a double-edged sword. While I was afforded a privilege unique to most parents, this also made their departure from home that much more painful. I eventually came to realize that I was in the powerful grip of the “goddess of letting go,” an irrepressible presence that plagued me relentlessly and began to resemble a period of grief or mourning. I was basically a wreck and as the time drew near for my oldest to head off to college, I plunged deeper and deeper into the abyss.In retrospect, my feelings were a combination of fear of loss and fear for him. How would he manage without me? How would he handle the inevitable dark moments far from home? How would I manage without him!

On the fateful day when we drove him to college (much has been written about this rite of passage), I dreaded the moment when we would actually part. As we walked across the Colby College campus toward the parking lot where our car awaited, the lump in my throat was beyond description and I really had no idea how I was going to handle the final goodbye. And then from out of nowhere, came a loud shout from a group of students. “Hurlbut! You’re coming with us!” In an instant, he was gone!

I am well aware that this is not the norm in most colleges nor is it the norm at Colby, but for some reason it happened to us. Once the initial shock wore off and I realized what had happened, I was greatly relieved and ultimately, very grateful. Colby had a required outdoor trip for all freshmen, and this abrupt separation was the beginning of this trip for Matt. After all those months anticipating letting go, it was over — he was in great hands and he was launched on his college career. I never would have designed it this way, but in the end, it was the perfect solution to a problem that had plagued me for a long time. Somehow, those students who hauled Matt away must have felt my pain.

So, these many years later, there I was listening to this song, Letting Go, and thinking of the next walk to the parking lot where the car awaits. While each situation is different, I do know that I have come to love St. Margaret’s in so many ways, from so many perspectives and in ways I never expected. Both Pat and I knew ten years ago that there would eventually come a time to say goodbye and I actually remember thinking as we left family and friends on the east coast that when that time comes, I hope it will be painful. This was not masochism but rather a long-held belief that if a piece of your heart isn’t torn out when you leave a place then you really haven’t invested. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

In this season of Easter and spring and new beginnings, I remember well my feelings that day on the Colby College campus when my thoughts went from grief and despair to hope and promise. Despite my worry and fear of letting go, I knew that Matt was in great hands with people who would love and care for him and help him grow in ways far greater than I could have done for him at that stage in his life. He was the better for it and so was I, eventually.

In a few short months we will say goodbye to St. Margaret’s, head back east to kids and grandkids, and move on to the next chapter in our lives. And like that moment at Colby, I will do so knowing that this school I so love is in the great hands of Will Moseley who is the perfect person to love, care for and move the school forward at this stage in its life. I have absolutely no doubt that St. Margaret’s will be the better for it, and eventually, so will I. But, as the song says, “It’s never easy, letting go.”

With abiding respect and affection,

Marcus D. Hurlbut

December 2012

Dear St. Margaret’s Family and Friends,

As we approach Christmas and the joy associated with this time of year, I find myself conflicted once again as the glow of anticipated time with children and grandchildren is dulled somewhat by the deep ache I have felt for nearly a week now. Like many of you, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking, reading, watching and talking about the terrible tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Sadly, we have experienced far too many school shootings in recent years (15 since Columbine) but thus far it seems that after a period of mourning and sympathy, we move on, more mindful perhaps but not necessarily changed. For me, this one is different. It is different because the vast majority of the victims were little kids, babies really. It is different because Sandy Hook had what seemed to be a very solid security system in place. It is different because there seems to be no logical connection of the violence to the school. And I hope it is different because this time, we will see this tragedy as a call to action and work diligently to make our schools and our world a safer place for all, especially for our children.

It is tempting to address this issue from just one perspective – school security. There is absolutely no doubt that this is a vitally important consideration in addressing the safety and well being of our students, but it is just one of several important considerations. We have begun the process of reviewing all our security measures from assessing campus access, to refinement of lock-down procedures, to coordination with local law enforcement, and we plan to send a separate communication when we return in January explaining what we are doing and why. Overall, our goal is to use common sense, good judgment and expert advice in carefully thinking through how best to create the safest environment possible on our campus. An important component of this is conveying to all members of our school community that we are in this together and we all share the responsibility of looking out for the safety and well being of each and every member of our school community.

But campus security is not the only issue here. Preventing violence on school campuses is largely treating the symptom and not necessarily addressing the problem. UCI psychiatrist and medical school professor, Dr. Adrian Preda, offers this assessment: “The easy answer is to do whatever it takes to establish safety. But how do we define safety? Where is the problem coming from? Does establishing safety mean beefed up barbwire fences, metal detectors, around-the-clock security guards carrying assault weapons and bullet proof jackets marching down the school hallways? Or does it mean an open school, without isolating fences, where students are connected to each other, respectful of their teachers and excited to learn? As a psychiatrist, I know that fear begets fear and violence begets violence. More of the same begets sameness. When I see violence I first look for the violence that preceded it.”

This past weekend I found myself reflecting on the courage of Todd Beamer who took action on Flight 93 on 9/11 with his famous words – “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” While the situation is of course different, the overall concept is the same and it says to us that we just can’t sit passively by and expect that others are going to solve this problem for us. This is our collective problem and we need to work together, as a school community and as a culture, to take reasonable, thoughtful and effective steps. When President Obama spoke in Newtown several evenings ago, he reminded us of our highest obligation: “This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”

Our “call to duty” transcends the specific measures of creating a secure and safe physical school environment and goes to the larger, more challenging issues of how we parent and the little and big things we can do to change the culture. Some issues in the end must be dealt with by our elected officials whose job it is to protect us all. I’m not sure how it gets done, but I would hope we could figure out a way to make it more difficult to get a gun than it is to get Sudafed!

Closer to home, we need to have some honest conversations with ourselves about how our current culture desensitizes young people to violence through video games and other forms of “play” violence. Research identifies a clear link between aggressive behavior and violent video game exposure. A fellow school head in Atlanta recently commented: “As parents, we need to do our best to stop our children from the desensitizing impact of video games. We have ‘gamified’ the murder of people and we leave our children, hours on end, shooting, stealing, bombing. Like the basketball player who practices foul shots, we get better at things when we practice. These habits become automatic, reactionary, and responsive. It seems to me that we can stop letting our children kill people over and over and over again — and call it a game.”

And finally and perhaps most importantly, the topic of mental health and mental illness needs far more attention, support and action. As Steve Pitman, Board President of the National Alliance on Mental Illness- Orange County informs us: “Mental illness is so misunderstood; so seldom discussed. The stigma associated with mental illness silences those suffering and their families. The isolation common in those who suffer is also common in their families. How do you go to a social event and tell your friends that your brilliant family member has dropped out of school, not working and isolated in his bedroom when you are asked how your son or daughter is doing? It is easier for many not to discuss it: it is easier not to go. The problem becomes worse.”

We are deeply committed to the promise that each student at St. Margaret’s will be known and loved by at least one adult in our school. The counseling component of what we do is central to our mission. Under the leadership of Janice Avalone, our all-school counselor, our school chaplains, and Dr. Greg Koch, we regularly engage in counseling support for our students and their families. This does not necessarily reflect a mental illness but it does illustrate that mental well-being is a critical aspect of creating a safe environment where those who need help can get it.

There is much to think and talk about when we come together again in January. It saddens me deeply that we are faced with these critical issues at this time of year when our focus should be on family and the joy of the Christmas. But perhaps this is the point. In this season of the winter solstice when the days shorten and the darkness deepens, we know that soon, as Judith Brown, the poetry editor of Friends Journal, reminds us: “It is exciting to think that the Light that shone in that stable, the Light that glowed around the angels singing, was so bright as to dim the stars in the same sky with it. It came at the darkest time of the year, the time of the winter solstice. A light shone out to assure the shepherds that something good, not something to be feared, was entering the world.”

This then is our call to action, our obligation to our children, to work our way through this period of darkness and find the light on the other side.

With love and affection to all our Tartan families and friends – Merry Christmas and the very best of wishes for a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year.

November 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

Dear St. Margaret’s Family and Friends,

From the time I was a little boy, Thanksgiving has always been special for me. I have vivid memories of family trips on Thanksgiving morning to my grandparents’ house when we all climbed in the family car and made the two hour drive to the best smelling house on the planet. My grandmother was a wonderful cook and the food that graced the table in those days was truly awesome. In the early going, there were lots of us there – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and dogs. The day always included a touch football game when my older brother and cousins inflicted serious pain on me followed by a family game of whist (does anyone still play that game?), dinner with small tables off to the side for us little ones and more food than we ever saw at any other time of the year.

Perhaps the most vivid memory for me of those Thanksgiving days long ago was standing together, holding hands and singing “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” Truth be told, I never could remember the rest of the words, but I loved the melody and more importantly, I truly loved that we all sang the song together in a genuine display of family love and thankfulness. Of course, as time and loved ones have passed, the family gatherings have taken on a new look but we have tried to maintain the same spirit that permeated those memorable family reunions.

Thanksgiving this year is, of course, very different for many people in our country and around the world. On the east coast, Hurricane Sandy has provided a graphic reminder for all of us never to take our many blessings for granted. Fortunately, none of our family members was impacted by the storm, but as we know all too well, thousands of others weren’t so fortunate. In only the way that our school community can, serious efforts have begun across all divisions of the school to develop a plan to provide aid and support for those in Sandy’s path. We will present a detailed plan for our school-wide relief effort when we return next week, but at this point we do know that a special showing of the movie “Grease” will occur on November 30 followed by a “Sock It to Sandy” all-school Music Festival on December 14. By all measure, the early stages of this plan reflect yet again an extraordinary commitment on the part of so many in our school community ready and willing to reach out and lend a hand to those in need.

As we break for another Thanksgiving and time with family and friends, Pat and I do so with a deep sense of gratitude for our time at St. Margaret’s and the wonderful memories we share with so many of you. While Thanksgiving Day itself does indeed come only once a year, we have felt blessed to be a part of this school community where the spirit of gratitude and appreciation is a major part of each and every day.

October 2012

Last week, two seemingly unrelated events occurred that speak volumes about the past, the present and the future of St. Margaret’s. These events reflect years of hard work and dedication, a deep love of and respect for the school and a commitment to striving for the very best. I have closely watched both, and I am enormously proud of what has been accomplished and more optimistic than ever about the future of St. Margaret’s.

This past Saturday evening, The Sound of Music played for the sixth and final time in our new Performing Arts Center. To say that this production was a tour de force is a huge understatement. When conversations began last year about how best to open our wonderful new facility, The Sound of Music was immediately the choice, but Darcy Rice cautioned that this was a complex show requiring a broad range of age groups (grades 2 – 12) and exceptional musical and acting talent, even more than usual given the universally high level of familiarity with this particular musical. These factors combined with the excitement surrounding the opening of a new theater created inordinately high and potentially daunting expectations.

There really is no written description that can do justice to what emerged. Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of attending school musical performances of all shapes and sizes and as would be expected, some are better than others. In fact, I would submit that what was produced on our campus in the venerable Sillers Hall was much better than most, and there were some who wondered if our new facility would really make that much of a difference. I don’t think the jury is still out on this one. The answer is an emphatic and resounding, yes!

This was, by all measure, the very best school musical I have ever seen — by a factor of many. What made it so is what bodes so well for the future of theater at St. Margaret’s. This new space enabled our highly skilled and dedicated performing arts faculty to tap the talents of our students in ways never before possible. Music fit for a cathedral was produced by a large and hugely talented chorus of nuns, an orchestra comprised mostly of students set the “tone” for the entire production, a whole new era in the technical side of theater was introduced by a student crew that controlled all the lighting, sound and set changes, and the actors and actresses, led by two, 15-year-old sophomores, performed at a level that led many who attended to exclaim – “this can’t possibly be a school production!”

Where we go from here remains to be seen, but I do know it will only get better. There is no question that we have entered a new and exciting era at St. Margaret’s in more ways than one.

Coincidental to The Sound of Music, a search for a new headmaster was also in the works. That these two events concluded at roughly the same time and with the same high result is, however, no mere coincidence.

For more than six months, a small committee has been working diligently to search the country for the very best person to lead St. Margaret’s beginning July 1, 2013. Similar to producing a first-rate musical with the accompanying high level of expectations, a search of this magnitude requires an extraordinary commitment to the school and a willingness to devote untold hours to the process and to the result.

Once again, by all measure, this search was conducted with the highest level of dedication and integrity and the result bodes incredibly well for the future of St. Margaret’s. Throughout the search process, one person stood above the rest in both his qualifications and his “fit” for SMES. Not surprisingly, other schools across the country felt the same way about Mr. William N. “Will” Moseley. Led by trustees and current parents, Mike Berchtold and Paul Heeschen, the Search Committee worked tirelessly to represent the school community and bring the very best person to St. Margaret’s. This may seem to some like a small undertaking, but this is a hugely complicated process and the potential for failure is high. Like school musicals, much of the heavy lifting takes place behind the scenes and it is, in the end, the “performance” that matters the most. Once again, we have truly distinguished ourselves.

Since announcing my decision to retire at the end of this school year, I have had many opportunities to reflect on my time here and what the future holds for St. Margaret’s. I will confess to more than a little anxiety as I have thought about my successor and the direction he or she would take the school. Change is not always easy and there is inevitably a certain level of unpredictability in the process, but I am as confident as I can be that Will Moseley is the perfect person to lead St. Margaret’s forward. I know for certain that he had many options, and the very fact that he chose us speaks volumes about the school and the place we occupy in the world of education today. I won’t say it’s going to be easy for Pat and me to leave in June (leaving is never easy if your heart has truly been touched), but it is reassuring and comforting to know that the school will be in exceptionally good hands.

Fortunately, we still have many months before we move on to the next phase of our lives. I am enormously proud of the school we are today and what has been accomplished these past 10 years. Yet, I know too that like the performances in our new Performing Arts Center, we are just getting warmed up and we will only get better. Or more to the point, in the immortal words of legendary Broadway jazz musician and entertainer, Al Jolson – “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” These are extraordinary times to be a Tartan!

August 2012

Over the course of the summer, I have found myself spending random moments of time in atypical places reflecting on school and the importance of the great work that takes place at St. Margaret’s each and every day. Such places as riding a lawn mower in an open field in Maine, a mountain bike ride high above Dana Point, a very long drive across a vast and seemingly endless expanse of Utah, and the emergency room in Damariscotta, Maine* have provided interesting venues for some wide-ranging thoughts on what we do, why it is so important and how I have loved my life in schools.

This past June at the Grade 5 Promotion ceremony, Reverend Phil Duval offered a prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis, and encouraged those who knew it to join in. The words weren’t on the program and they weren’t projected on the wall, but the prayer was known and said by the vast majority of students there that morning. From the time I first heard this prayer many years ago, I have been moved by the words and increasingly by the connection these words have to what takes place or should take place in school communities like ours. In those moments of quiet reflection these past now fading weeks, this prayer stands out as the perfect mission statement for the perfect school.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace
Where there is hatred, let us sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is discord, union
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
Where there is sadness, joy

We are bombarded nearly daily with hateful comments in the news, on television, in social media, and occasionally, sadly, within our school community. I must confess that I am more than a little discouraged by the vitriolic comments that appear regularly as part of our national political discourse in this hotly contested election year. Contrary to what we see outside the school, I believe our challenge is to do all we can to bring out the very best in people and to offset hatred with love. The greatest reforms in our country have come about because people were courageous enough to stay true to their cause and not succumb to the hatred that surrounded them. As the Quakers have long said in times of conflict, “let’s see then what a little love can do!”

The notion of responding to injury with pardon is so much at the heart of what great schools should do as we help our students and each other through the inevitable rough spots of life. We have all been hurt by mean-spirited comments and it is very difficult to forgive those who have offended us. How many of us have responded to a child’s mistake with a strong rebuke or stated categorically that a certain behavior was both unacceptable and unforgivable? Yes, children, students, colleagues and parents do make mistakes, and one measure of our humanity as a school is the extent to which we stand for strong principles but at the same time provide the framework and the support for each of us to find ourselves and learn from our missteps.

Creating union out of discord is a challenging and seemingly mutually exclusive concept. How can we be one when we have so many divergent opinions? Isn’t it better for the unification of the school to discourage debate? Isn’t it far better to simply say this is the way it is? If you don’t like it, keep your feelings to yourself. Or, “love it or leave it,” as some used to say. The strongest and best schools are those that are united in the very fact that diverse opinions are welcomed and celebrated. This is sometimes painful and potentially divisive, but schools that do this well emerge stronger and more united, as each member of the community feels his or her voice matters.

Changing doubt to faith seems to be very much at the heart of our hope for our students. Great schools create the climate where essential questions can be asked and students are encouraged to find their voice and their own set of beliefs, especially here in an Episcopal school. I suspect that many of us can well recall memories as a student when we had many unanswered questions, and in time, perhaps because of a wise mentor or thoughtful friend we came to have a belief and a faith in something bigger than ourselves – a higher calling.

The challenge of changing despair, darkness and sadness into hope, light and joy seems to me to be a daily part of our work. Our school community has experienced profoundly sad, dark and desperate moments when we have witnessed tragedy and death and felt the excruciating pain of people we know and love. These feelings run deep and each of us in those moments of despair looks for beacons of hope and light in an otherwise dark and depressing landscape. Schools – schools like ours – we are those beacons, places where each of us should feel welcome, understood and safe and where the promise for the future burns bright in the eyes of our students. And we, all of us at one time or another, are called on to light the candles and eliminate the darkness.

At our recent opening faculty and staff meetings, we spent a day with Dr. Jennifer Bryan, a distinguished scholar, psychologist and author (From The Dress Up Corner To The Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools) who took us through some enlightening conversations on sex, gender and sexuality that will make us even better equipped to understand and lend support to all our students. Dr. Bryan was invited to St. Margaret’s not to advance a political agenda but rather to provide yet again another perspective from which to reach out and support our students and each other. In the spirit of continuing revelation, we have an obligation to engage in substantive conversation about difficult topics and broaden our perspectives on important issues that clearly matter to our students.

This summer I joined a group of school heads for a day at Harvard’s Kennedy Center talking about students and how best to serve them. One of the professors in the session mentioned the results of a survey that Harvard conducts annually where students are asked at the end of their freshman year if they have at least one adult on campus they can go to in a moment of tragedy or sorrow. Eighty-five percent said they did – a very positive result, or so it seemed. When the survey results were presented to Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, she expressed deep disappointment – what about the other 15 percent? What happens to them? To whom do they turn? How can we be satisfied with these results?

In a new novel by Liz Moore called Heft, a high school student from a very troubled family happens upon his mother who has attempted to take her own life. He calls 911 and then spends time with her at the hospital. Many hours later, when she is stable and out of the woods, he leaves, gets in his car and begins to drive. At first he doesn’t know where to go – he just drives. Eventually, in the middle of the night, he ends up in the parking lot of – of all places – his school. “It is a comfort to me to see the building,” he says. “At school I am generally happy and relaxed. At school I have friends and am respected.” In short, at school, he feels safe.

My sense is that the majority of our students feel the same way. But I, too, can’t help but wonder about the few who might not feel that this is a sanctuary where they are known, valued, respected and loved. Dr. Jennifer Bryan provided the perspective and the language to help us support all our students, even and perhaps especially those we know least.

St. Francis calls us to see our work as being guided by a commitment to empathy, compassion and understanding – “grant that we may seek not so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” This is hard work and it requires a willingness and desire to get out of ourselves and strive to understand, console and love our students, our parents and each other. When I first began my career as a teacher, I recall well that the prevailing climate was one of telling students what to do and expect blind obedience in return. We spent very little time trying to get inside the heads of our students and much more time telling them what to do.

There is a higher calling for us today. We are presented each and every day with an opportunity to help others, to do what we can to understand where they are coming from and to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I become frustrated with a student’s lack of commitment or effort, it is incumbent on me to remember that I, too, had those same days, many days in fact, as a student. When demanding parents storm into my office, I try – not always successfully – to imagine what it feels like to be in their shoes and understand what’s behind the position they have taken. Much as I hate to acknowledge it, I have also had moments when I have wanted to write someone off, turn my back on a parent or a student and wash my hands of them. They simply don’t get it, but this works both ways, doesn’t it? Did I try to “get” them? I mean, really try?

I have been blessed to be part of an incredibly impactful profession and an extraordinary school community, the very best I have ever been a part of, where we hold the future in our hands as we help nurture good, caring, compassionate human beings who will go into the world inspired by the gifts we have given them. And it is in this giving that we receive – the joy and satisfaction from knowing we can make a difference and that we, all of us in this wonderful school community, can shape the future as instruments of God’s peace.

On Wednesday, August 29, it all begins again. Our students will come and we’ll be ready. What an amazing gift!

June 2012

A Place in the Choir

In the final stretch of the school year I am reminded daily of the extraordinary talents and accomplishments of our students. This is the season of concerts and playoffs, projects and final reports, exams and Advanced Placement’s, open houses and awards, and emotional farewells to beloved friends and colleagues and the Class of 2012. If April is the cruelest month, then May is without doubt the busiest with a seemingly never-ending calendar of events where our students demonstrate how much they have learned and how talented they truly are. This time of year requires stamina and fortitude, but it also challenges us to avoid donning what author Sharon Daloz Parks refers to in her book, Common Fire, as the “armor of busyness.” At this time especially, our collective busyness can cause us to miss precious moments and unique experiences with our children and each other as we charge headlong to the finish line.

Last month, at one of the many outstanding end-of-the-year musical concerts, a combined Lower-Middle School choral group sang a song that momentarily penetrated my own “armor of busyness” and reminded me once again of the important role we play as an Episcopal school. The first line in the chorus of A Place in the Choir pretty much says it all – All God’s creatures got a place in the choir, some sing low some sing higher. This is a very fun song with a catchy melody and lyrics that kids love, and for those of us who live and learn in Episcopal schools, the song emphasizes our special commitment to foster school communities that celebrate the dignity and unique worth of each and every person in our midst. We live in an increasingly diverse world and central to our mission is a commitment to welcome, love and care for people from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. We are honored to be a part of a larger Episcopal church that believes that God pushes us all to be more inclusive and open-minded in our thinking. As the Reverend Daniel Heischman, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, reminds us, “We human beings may well have made some progress in our understanding of inclusivity, but it is God who challenges us to ever widening circles of care and openness to difference. We still have much to learn about our own limitations when it comes to accepting other peoples and groups. Fortunately, not only is God there to teach us what we have yet to learn, it is the very nature of God to be inclusive.”

A Place in the Choir is a wonderful statement about how we are called upon to look at difference. There are many places where this is not the accepted viewpoint, but at St. Margaret’s we are all God’s children and we come together each and every day guided by this perspective. As Dan Heischman adds, “It is Jesus who breaks beyond the restrictiveness of social or religious norms at the time and ministers to so many at the margins, bringing the whole world to himself.” Even in the small world of St. Margaret’s there are those at the margins on a variety of levels who deserve their rightful place in the choir.

As we come together to bring the 2011-2012 school year to a close, let us do so with a mutual commitment to prevent the “armor of busyness” from denying us the opportunity to reach out to those in need or those on the margins. While our students have accomplished so much since we began last fall and there is without question much to celebrate, we do so ever mindful that this has been a very challenging and at times tragic year for far too many of our families, who despite the demands of our calendars and the busyness of our days continue to need our love and support. After all, when the year ends and the dust settles we are all God’s creatures, with a place in the choir.

All the best to you and your families for a successful conclusion to the school year.

April 2012

Developing Technologically Savvy Students

The inclusion of technology in schools has undergone a significant and much needed change in recent years. In the early going, gigantic computers (the first one I remember filled a small classroom) were used primarily for programming and touched only a few students. The development of the PC and the Mac triggered a veritable arms race where the merit badge for technology was awarded to the school with the greatest number of computers. Somewhere along the way, we started talking not so much about the numbers but about how computers are tools for students and teachers to streamline their work, etc. Today, we have arrived at another phase in the development of educational technology, which bodes very well for the future.

Many times in my career I have heard people offer a rationale for a certain educational requirement or expectation by stating that it exists because it will prepare students for what they will need in the next step in their educational journey. The list is long and seems to touch on just about everything schools do. Many of the explanations and rationales make perfect sense and constitute carefully thought out building blocks in a student’s education. We have worked diligently at St. Margaret’s to make sure that one hand knows what the other is doing and that our curriculum is carefully coordinated and aligned across the divisions and disciplines to prepare our students for the college experience. The process is thoughtful, collaborative and logical. But it is only a small part of what we should be doing.

Slightly more than four years ago, we developed a vision statement for the school which read:

St. Margaret’s Episcopal School is a diverse community dedicated to developing the whole child. We nurture spiritual growth, an appreciation for lifelong learning, the courage to lead and a responsibility to give to others. Our graduates are independent thinkers of integrity and compassion who reveal their resilience and collaborative nature in the face of challenge and opportunity.

I recall well the intention behind this statement and feel that it is especially relevant today. At the heart of the issue then and still today were the questions: who is the St. Margaret’s graduate and what qualities should we have nurtured in our students by the time they leave our school? Importantly, the statement says nothing specific about preparing students for college or the use of technology. Rather, the vision is broader and deeper and speaks to the enduring qualities our graduates should carry as they head off to lead “lives of learning, leadership and service.”

In a recent publication in the Independent School magazine, Pat Bassett, the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, asks, “How do we inspire our students to be leaders, problem solvers, conflict resolvers, coalition builders, and ‘solutionaries’ in a rapidly changing and increasingly divided world? How aggressive a role do independent schools have in embedding the shifts the country and the world need so that future generations inherit a world that is more peaceful, economically equitable, environmentally responsible, culturally sensitive and globally connected?”

I find myself increasingly drawn to these larger questions and ever more mindful that our job as educators and as school leaders goes far beyond the basic requirement of preparing our students for the next step in their education. Of course this is important but as our vision statement suggests, we see our role as nurturing and inspiring our students to use their gifts as critical and independent thinkers guided by a strong sense of moral and ethical conduct to serve the common good and be leaders in whatever profession or career they pursue to create a more sustainable, humane and just world.

This is a formidable task but it may not be as daunting as it appears. I am increasingly amazed at the creativity and innovative spirit possessed by many of our students and their innate ability to use the technology at their disposal to actually address and even solve profound issues. They are open, inquisitive, thoughtful and creative. We need to capture this energy and provide meaningful and even unstructured, open-ended opportunities for our students to explore the major issues of our time and use their ingenuity, intelligence and technological savvy to raise awareness and develop solutions for today’s problems. I know they can do it. In the immortal words of Bill Gates, it may be just as simple as getting out of their way.

February 2012

The Identity of an Episcopal School

Our Episcopal identity is at the heart of our mission and provides a framework for all members of our school community to live and learn together. While we are committed to preparing our students for the world beyond our campus, this very same world presents constant challenges to what we stand for as a school. With this in mind, all members of the St. Margaret’s Episcopal School community are called to support and advance our mission and to adhere to the highest standards of ethical behavior and conduct.

The National Association of Episcopal Schools describes the unique qualities of Episcopal schools as being “models of God’s love and grace, created to serve God in Christ in all persons, regardless of origin, background, ability or religion. They are created to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. Episcopal schools are clear, yet graceful, about how they articulate and express their basic identities.” There is much in this description, and each of us has an obligation to measure our lives at St. Margaret’s by these standards. Do we conduct ourselves with love and grace? Do we serve, respect and value all members of our school community? Do we strive for fairness and justice from the least significant to the most important? Do we seek to understand before being understood? Do we work to resolve our differences in a peaceful and respectful manner? And, do we “live” our core values with integrity, compassion, dignity, respect and a commitment to the common good?

Membership in the St. Margaret’s Episcopal School community carries with it a responsibility to adhere to the basic principles articulated above. We assume that families choose us because they want to be part of a school community with a clear mission and common core values. Central to our Episcopal identity is a willingness to explore complex topics, inspire debate, welcome diverse ideas, value ambiguity and paradox and celebrate the pluralism of our school community. In this way, we invite all members of our school community – Episcopalians and non-Episcopalians, Christians and non-Christians, people of no faith tradition – to seek clarity about their own beliefs and religions and to honor those traditions more fully and faithfully in their own lives. We acknowledge that in a world that seeks simple answers to complex issues, we are willing to keep asking questions. Occasionally, our openness is misunderstood or challenged, and in these moments of tension and potential disagreement, it is incumbent upon all of us to strive faithfully to be “models of God’s love and grace.”

In the end, however, we must always be mindful that we are here to serve our children and provide for them a sound, moral and ethical foundation from which to launch their lives and bring value to the world they will inherit. We join together each day as an Episcopal school community guided by a strong and courageous national Episcopal Church, and while we are not all Episcopalian, we are called upon to live our lives together guided by the belief that we exist not only to educate and be educated, but to demonstrate and proclaim the unique worth and beauty of all human beings as creations of a loving, empowering God – to be, as we say in the Prayer of St. Francis, instruments of God’s peace.

December 2011

Dear St. Margaret’s Family and Friends,

I often find myself at this time of year with mixed emotions and looking for reassuring messages that all is well with the world. The Christmas and holiday season is clearly a special time for a variety of reasons. While each of us approaches the season in ways consistent with our own religious and cultural backgrounds, there are nevertheless important aspects of the holiday season that are common to most of us. Time with family is a central theme for many and even as the magic of the season changes as our children get older, the value of these moments together becomes even more precious as we are reminded that these special times don’t last forever.

Of course, the holiday season is not always one of joy and merriment for everyone. For those dealing with personal hardships or even tragedies, the conflict of emotions can be very painful. At a time when all indicators point to happiness and joy, the realities of life unfortunately fall short for some. These situations test our faith and present significant challenges to the manner in which we look at our lives and the world around us.

Some time ago, I came across an article by Judith Brown, the poetry editor of Friends Journal, entitled “A Seasonal Meditation.” Ms. Brown is a Quaker and her perspective is unmistakably Christian, but what she has to say has, I believe, universal application at this time of year. Her point is that the light that shone so brightly in Bethlehem when Jesus was born 2011 years ago provided a sense of hope and a promise for the future for all humankind. “It is exciting to think that the Light that shone in that stable, the Light that glowed around the angels singing, was so bright as to dim the stars in the same sky with it. It came at the darkest time of the year, the time of the winter solstice. A light shone out to assure the shepherds that something good, not something to be feared, was entering the world.”

Indeed, many faiths around the world celebrate with a tribute to light and a promise for the future. The Jewish Festival of Lights or Hanukkah commemorates the miraculous eight-day burning of the oil at the time of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Hindus celebrate Diwali, Festival of Lights, designed to ward off the darkness and welcome light into peoples’ lives. There is a common theme here, a theme central to many faiths and especially to Episcopal beliefs (and schools) where the search for truth and peace is connected to an acknowledgment that the light of God shines faithfully and constantly in each of us. It is hopeful, optimistic and reassuring even in the most difficult of times and it suggests that each of us has the capacity to be guided by the wisdom that comes from within, by the ongoing revelations of God in our being, as we navigate the spiritual journey of our lives.

As you and your families celebrate in these long and dark days of the winter solstice, my hope is that the lights in your lives will burn so brightly as to dim the stars and point the way to peace and happiness in this Christmas and holiday season and throughout the coming year.