Social Contact

Humans are not isolationists. Regardless of your political views on isolationism – foreign policy asserting that a nations’ best interests are best served by keeping the affairs of other countries at a distance – the majority of people do not fare well isolated and alone. We are social creatures. Sure, we have our share of hermits and loners, or free climbers, working alone and focussed, but in general, humans thrive on relationships and daily interactions.

As you may imagine, I have been thinking a lot about relationships in the past week as Kent School moved quickly, and mightily, to distance learning this past week, after being on spring break, when the markets went south and COVID-19 ramped up. We came together for two days to plan and then launched a wonderful, fun, connectedness that inspires and moves me. I am so proud of the faculty, and those who support teaching and learning at Kent School, for an abrupt shift which by all accounts, at the end of Week One, was hugely successful.

It is not the teaching and learning, though, that I value the most. I am in the process of calling each Kent School family. I have only finished one and a half grades. Although I am leaving many voice messages, the parents I am reaching are talking at length. Education has always been about relationships. Students, especially boys, work hardest for teachers they like. Today, in this surreal world of contagion and uncertainty, relationships matter more than anything else. I am also holding a virtual coffee and conversation with parents this week to help them feel connected to School and, just as importantly, to each other.

These past two weeks have made me value the independence of the independent schools in Maryland and in the country, even more than I did a month ago. I have been on numerous video conferences, calls, and webinars learning lessons from Seattle schools, who are 10 days ahead of us with distance learning. I have heard legal and financial advice, as well as great operational tips. Peter Baily, Executive Director of the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools, is working tirelessly to keep Heads informed and connected. I feel so fortunate not to be hanging out on a limb, isolated.

The best two pieces of advice I heard over the past week are as follows:

Less is more with distance learning – families are anxious and stressed with siblings vying for computer time and parental attention. Those parents who can are trying to telework while homeschooling, and those who cannot work from home are shuttling children to grandparents or sitters, thus school work is hard to accomplish in some families. 

Secondly, more important than the student learning, we must continue to strengthen relationships with parents, take care of our exhausted teachers, and take care of ourselves.

Humans need social contact with immediate and extended family, friends and co-workers. We must find continued ways to connect with technology in the weeks to come. Our happiness depends on it.

In an Abundance of Kindness

If I hear or read in an abundance of caution again, it will be too soon. Every single communication about COVID-19, including one I wrote, uses this language. It is the omnipresent phrase of the day. Out of an abundance of caution used to be a phrase that only serious scientifics used as a way of depicting the risk while not appearing to overreact, because it implies proactiveness and restraint, instead of panic. It is also slightly poetic – an oxymoron, if you will — abundance meaning plenty and caution signalling limits.

I have decided not to use this phrase in the next few weeks during Kent School’s closure. Instead, I will adopt in an abundance of kindness, are you with me? In an abundance of kindness we should observe social distancing so as not to spread, or unwittingly catch, the contagion. In an abundance of kindness we should isolate ourselves with family members. Oh, and while we are isolating with loved ones, perhaps we can slow down a bit and enjoy this spring gift of time. I realize this is slightly unrealistic for people who are not able to stay home from work, but we could all benefit from a slight slow down. 

At Kent School, we will meet tomorrow as a faculty group to plan for distance learning. (We will keep a safe distance apart and not hug each other.) A work in progress, we started to think about our plan two weeks ago. I am inspired by my colleagues all of the time, but especially in this unprecedented time of worry and fear. In an abundance of kindness, Kent School faculty are busy creating lessons, projects and fun activities to complete at home to maintain a connection to our students and their families, to foster student learning, and to help parents. 

I hope we are back in school on March 30, but there is no telling how this pandemic will progress in the next two weeks, as each day brings news of its evolution. I am mindful of how this crisis is affecting all of us. My cousin just reported that after several days of delays and cancellations, his college-aged daughter is finally home from Europe, in isolation in her bedroom, after having to cut short her semester abroad. So much disruption, nervousness, and stress.

I am grateful my three children are keeping their humor and managing well, although I bet none of them have a few extra rolls of toilet paper or food in their freezers. That is definitely another story. 

In an abundance of kindness, let’s breathe. Let’s go outside and watch spring blossom before our eyes. Let’s read. Let’s organize our junk drawer. Let’s connect with loved ones and friends in responsible ways. Let’s stay healthy and strong. 

And, for me, it turned out to be the perfect time to get a puppy!

Blustery Day

Ten more days until the Vernal Equinox, yet I feel the sun’s warmer kiss already, if only the March winds would calm. Springtime – the eternal optimist of the seasons. A time of hope, when the Earth awakens and the outdoors blooms right before our eyes. As new puppy owners, Jim and I have been outside a lot over the past two weeks, watching the natural world spring to life. We meant to wait until summer for a puppy but that is another story! The only unpleasantness in being outdoors is the wind. Why is March so darn blustery?

Some weatherdudes made it clearer – it is windy in March because of the increased atmospheric instability caused by the increasingly strong sunshine. This heats the earth’s surface and since warm air is lighter than cold air, the air rises. This process results in more “mixing” of the air, which tends to bring down the stronger winds from the upper atmosphere. 

This makes complete sense. The sun is ready for summer, but winter still has a hold on the earth. No wonder the lion that is March cannot go away quietly. March is also the month when we lose an hour of sleep. I don’t mind because daylight savings time is my favorite eight months of the year. I truly cannot understand why we don’t adopt it all year, in order to make better use of natural daylight. Created by Congress in 1918 as a “way of conserving fuel needed for war industries and of extending the working day” (Library of Congress), it was repealed after World War I and re-established in 1942 during World War II. 

Four months of standard time does nothing but make us cranky. To go to work in the dark and return home in the dark is why many people feel depressed in the winter months.Can someone please tell this to the Department of Transportation who oversees the time changes across all time zones. I was surprised to learn it was the DOT, but I guess someone has to do it. The DOT reports that DST saves energy, reduces auto accidents and crime. Seems like a great reason to make it last for 12 months!

This week we have a time change, a full moon and Friday the 13th. I am on spring break, but I feel for my educator friends who are in school. March’s full Moon, called the Worm Moon, will be amazingly bright as it rises above the horizon tomorrow night. This full Moon is the first of three supermoons in 2020—the other two occurring in April and May. Our Kent School Little School just completed a spectacular unit on space, completely transforming their physical space into outer space. It was so impressive. But, the most magical part was our three- and four-year-olds’ knowledge of all things space. It was a highlight of last week.

For those of you on Spring Break, enjoy. And, hold on to your hats! It’s March.

Welcome River

Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs? Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

Yes, we got a black lab puppy a week ago. Welcome River. Some of you may ask, why? Others of you will know. Dogs are joyful, energetic, a lot of work, yet a warm and wonderful companion on a cold night. We had two yellow labs while our children were growing. Maggie and Mia brought lots of happiness to my family, and lots of annoyance to me, but after all, I had three young children. Adding two dogs did not help with the chaos, but that is another story. I admit I was not a dog lover.

When James got his black lab, Boh, the summer after Mia died, I literally did not have to do anything, at first. When he left for his sophomore year of college, Boh did not get packed. Thus, Jim and I ended up with Boh until James was able to get an apartment his junior year. Did you know Jim is a dog whisperer. I am not kidding. Jim loves dogs and has a stern but loving way he speaks with them, so they listen and follow his lead. It is amazing to watch, and I became a dog lover that year with Boh. It is amazing how much you can appreciate a dog when you are an empty-nester.

The relationship between humans and dogs is age old and dogs have played an important role in the history of civilization. They were among the first domesticated animals, and were important in hunter-gatherer societies as hunting partners, and protection against predators. According to genetic studies, modern day domesticated dogs originated in China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. 

River joined us last week as a 7 week old. We got him from former Kent School First Grade teacher Kay Sweezey of Double Creek Kennels. He is so little – I had forgotten. We are enjoying getting to know him and he is settling in quite beautifully. He has been to Kent School with me a few times as he is going to be the #schooldog (you can follow him at @adventuresofriverinctown on Instagram). River joins the ranks of Duchess, our founding Headmistress Joan Merriken’s black lab, and Natty Bo, Interim Head of School Joan Flaherty’s black lab. Our students are in love. 

River is my new obsession. Dogs don’t just hold your heart; they can make it stronger. Studies show that having a dog is linked to lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, and decreased triglyceride levels, which contribute to better overall cardiovascular health. Spending just a few minutes with a pet can lower anxiety and blood pressure, and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, two neurochemicals that can help calm you and contribute to well-being. Pets can also help prevent depression. For me, I am looking forward to the added exercise. Earlier this year, a study in the journal Gerontologist found that older adults who walked dogs experienced “lower body mass index, fewer activities of daily living limitations, fewer doctor visits, and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise.” This is perfect as I plan to stay mobile and healthy for a long time.

Gotta go walk River….

Cast Away

Nothing a child ever does is trash. It is practice. 

Nothing by Naomi Shihab Nye, Cast Away

Young People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye was Kent School’s Kudner Leyon Visiting Writer in May 2017, my first year at the School. I could not wait to welcome her to my new school by the river. We met in the urban-ness of my former city school, and I was eager to show my friend the beautiful river views and lush farm lands surrounding my school.

That visit indelibly marks my first year as a new Head of School. Naomi brought me strength, disguised as olive oil soap, when she arrived on my campus. Strength also arrived as her driver, my friend, mentor, and former Head of School Jean Brune. My time with Naomi and Jean over a two day period meant everything to me. I began to breathe in my new role.

Flash forward to nearly three years later. As I sit with my coffee staring out across the porch on this cold, February morning, I am reading Naomi’s newest collection of poems for our time, Cast Away. I am remembering her smile on my porch as she gazed at the tidal river. Her notebook, everpresent, so she could jot a note or a phrase she particularly loved in the moment it was uttered and still in the air. 

Reading these poems today, and thinking about how much we have thrown away in our lives, I am literally struck silent by Three Wet Report Cards on Camden Street. It is a coincidence, or maybe not, that on Friday we held a professional learning workshop for Kent School faculty specifically addressing what assessments tell us. Naomi is speaking to me this morning from San Antonio, and I am listening. In 20 years, reports cards will be lost, thrown away, smudged and bare. Teachers don’t want to be remembered on a report card. All teachers really want is to help create and witness the spark of discovery and passion in their students’ day to day experiences. Why does our educational system place so much emphasis on grades? They likely won’t matter much in a child’s future.

Nothing a child ever does is trash, yet we cannot keep every single piece of practice over a decade and a half of schooling. There are still two large storage boxes for each of my three children in my basement. They made the move to Chestertown, treasures to be saved and never looked at, cast away by my adult children. Now, it is time to cast them away for good. Keeping some memories is healthy, keeping everything is not. There is always a time to let go of material collections and free yourself of the past.

Makes me think about what is really important in a purposeful life – people and experiences, not things that can fit in a storage box in the basement.

Three Wet Report Cards on Camden Street
Sorry, all that homework
and now even your own name
has washed away
Report cards from the late 1970s
dumped in a clump
smudgy grades
Teacher Comment areas bare
Was someone moving and 
they fell out of a box?
I'm tempted to leave them
lying by the curb behind
the Catholic school
feeling great sadness
for the hard work of teachers
filling in so many little boxes
dreary evaluating and judging
when what teachers love best
is that spark of discover
that great question
the shy person
finally speaking from the stage

The Civility Moon

Middle schoolers I know are better mannered than the adults who claim to represent us in Washington. That is a sad fact in our society. And, I cannot even say that the leaders of our country are acting like children, because that would be an affront to children. Our country’s leaders, on both sides of the aisle, are morally corrupt and ill-behaved, and frankly, I am tired of seeing it.

Many of you know that I never talk about politics or religion, (or football, but that is another story). These topics are really not appropriate for a Head of School to have a public opinion about, and I will not talk about them with you unless we are married, or close family members. In reality, no party represents me. This was especially evident this past week.

All of our political leaders need a lesson in civility. I had the privilege to meet the late P.M. Forni during my time at Roland Park Country School. He was an endowed lecturer one year and I was his RPCS contact and guide for the day. The former Johns Hopkins professor and director of the Civility Initiative wrote two books, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, (2002), and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude (2010). These should be required reading for all humans, and most especially, for those who serve the people. In Choosing Civility he wrote “civility derives from the Latin civitas which means “city,” especially in the sense of civic community.” Thus, I believe it is every human’s responsibility to act with civility to improve the quality of life for all in our community.

In Choosing Civility, he also wrote: Speaking with consideration and kindness is at the heart of civil behavior. To speak kindly you need to be aware constantly that you are speaking to living, breathing, vulnerable human beings. Don’t discount the power of words. The thoughts that they might cause unnecessary hurt or discomfort should inform every conversation. I would add “acting” to “speaking.” Actions are just as powerful as words – not shaking an outstretched hand, not standing for a 100-year-old World War II veteran who is being honored, or ripping an important document on national television were too much for me. I have added two characteristics to my list of must-haves for a candidate to receive my vote: civility and kindness. You can learn lots of things on a job, but kindness is not one of them. That trait is innate.

Forni also wrote: If we agree that life is important, then thinking as we go through it is the basic tribute we owe it. It also happens to be the golden way to the good life — the kind of life in which happiness blooms. I could not agree more. I do my best reflecting when I am outside, or on the porch, looking outside. Have you seen the Snow Moon this weekend. This February full moon is named after the snow that we normally have on the ground at this time of year, although some Native American tribes named this the Hunger Moon due to the scarce food sources and hard hunting conditions during mid-winter. Regardless, it is simply breathtaking. Look up. If we take the time to observe the beauty that surrounds us, we can better appreciate our lives. This, in turn, should help make us a more civil society.

For millennia, Native American tribes and people across Europe, named the months after features they associated with the Northern Hemisphere seasons. Let’s make this coming November’s moon the Civility Moon, and only elect a leader who is civil and whose words are respectful and kind.  

Words and actions matter.

Photo cred: My friend and RPCS alumna Shelby Strudwick, The Snow Moon over the red roof inn from across the river on February 8.

Groundhog Day

While everyone I know is anxiously awaiting tonight’s Super Bowl, my day is already complete. At sunrise this morning Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow and spring is on the way. Spring was going to be on the way regardless, but I always enjoy this 134 year old tradition. The members of Punxsutawney Phil’s top-hat-wearing club will celebrate all day in western Pennsylvania at a festival that has its origin in a German legend that says if a furry rodent casts a shadow on the second of February, winter continues. If not, spring comes early. 

Phil does not predict spring very often and “today’s prediction may be the 21st time in over 100 years the cuddly oracle has called for an early end to winter” according to Janice Dean, meteorologist. Warmer days are apparently ahead. Woohoo! Although we really cannot complain as we have yet to have snow in Chestertown. My students at Kent School have several Snow Stix from our visit last year with meteorologist Justin Berk, and they are standing tall in the grass right now in a few spots on campus.

I am sure many of you are hoping for a snow day tomorrow so you won’t have to go to work or school following the Super Bowl. I know it will be a late night for die hard fans who may have a stake in the game. I think I saw a piece of paper on the counter with a lot of squares on it. Some of the boxes say Mugele, and at a closer look, I see Jim, Jenna, Kelsy, and James have boxes, but not me. Guess I did not make the cut.

Truthfully, I could care less about the actual football game, although my first date with Jim was to a Super Bowl party 33 years ago, but that is another story. So, while watching does bring back some fond and funny memories, I really only watch the Super Bowl for the advertising. From a person who spent many years in the advertising industry, the 5.6 million dollar 30-second commercials are fun for me to critique. It drives Jim nuts. And, since I know companies paid a lot of money to have this coveted time for showcasing their product or service to millions of viewers, I feel compelled to tune in. Last year there were 42 Super Bowl commercials, but who’s counting. 

Enjoy your Groundhog Day and Super Bowl Sunday. Fingers crossed for snow overnight!

What I Did For Love

My sister-in-law Tracy and I were reminiscing via text messages yesterday morning. She is in Boston and it is our way of staying in touch every few weeks. We could actually talk on our phones, but neither of us likes that as much as we like texting, looking at photos together, and using emojis. It is probably because we are both multi-tasking as we type – doing laundry or cleaning, you know the drill on Saturday mornings if you work full time. She said something that stuck with me though. “Wish I kept a journal. It was crazy busy raising kids but we did it. We were resilient. I can be reflective now – wish I was a little more back then.” 

Her words made me think immediately of the song What I Did for Love from A Chorus Line, one of the most impactful musicals I saw as a young woman in New York. By 1985 when the show opened, I had given up my dream of dancing on Broadway and was fully entrenched in the mad-men world of advertising. Yet, experiencing A Chorus Line was an emotional journey for me. Set on the bare stage of a Broadway theater, the musical features seventeen Broadway dancers auditioning for six spots on a chorus line. The show describes the events that shaped their lives as dancers.

At my first Broadway audition, I did not get asked to dance because I was not tall enough. At my second Broadway audition, I got to dance but was not selected. The dance captain noted that my dance skirt was too long (meaning I was not tall enough). Message received. I did get to see a college classmate who made the cast of A Chorus Line during that time, and it was with pure joy that I watched her realize her dream.

During a tap sequence at the end of A Chorus Line, one of the dancers falls and re-injures his knee. When he is carried off to the hospital, the remaining dancers are solemn and quiet, realizing that their careers can also end in an instant. The director asks them what they will do when they can no longer dance. They reply that no matter what, they will have no regrets, because they pursued what they loved. What I Did for Love is their anthem, and now looking at my life – it is also mine.

As parents of adult children Jim and I look back fondly on the chaos of raising our family, and oftentimes as we sit reflectively in our now-quiet home, we miss it. I don’t regret anything that I did to make my husband and my three children know they were always loved and always my highest priority. That meant doing a lot of driving and a lot of cooking, not to mention endless piles of laundry, and dealing with two dogs – one that loved to run away. It also meant being present, making choices for their education, traveling for their sports, and supporting them through disappointments and successes. No regrets.

Now, I feel an inner peace knowing my children are thriving, even as they complain about “adulting.” I am confident they have the skills needed to be successful and lead lives of purpose. The gift of my children’s daily presence was only mine to borrow. I always knew they would be launched one day, and I would feel that a small part of my soul was missing. I used to joke with them about “18 and out” – wish I had never said that. I hope they always know that love’s what we’ll remember, even as we point them toward tomorrow.

And, as for me, I can’t regret and I won’t forget, what I did for love.

What I Did For Love
by Priscilla Lopez

Kiss today goodbye
The sweetness and the sorrow
Wish me luck the same to you
But I can't regret
What I did for love
Look my eyes are dry
The gift was ours to borrow
It's as if we always knew
And I won't forget
What I did for love
Gone 
Love is never gone
As we travel on
Love's what we'll remember
Kiss today goodbye
And point me toward tomorrow
We did what we had to do
Won't forget can't regret
What I did for love
Love is never gone
As we travel on
Love's what we'll remember
Kiss today goodbye
And point me toward tomorrow
We did what we had to do
Won't forget can't regret
What I did for love
Songwriters: Marvin Hamlisch / Edward Kleban

Maryland “Spring”

Today is January 11 and it is 60 degrees outside. I am writing from the porch while looking at Christmas lights, unlit but still wrapped around our shrubbery. Climate change? Or, just the fickle weather in Maryland. 

Maryland has always had an identity problem. Are we northern or are we southern – regardless of the placement of the Mason Dixon Line. This winter, our weather has been more like Kelsy’s in Nashville than my brother Tom’s on the Cape. 

The first sentence of this entry on climate in Maryland from worldtravels.com made me laugh: Maryland’s climate varies drastically throughout the year. That is an understatement. We know summers in Maryland are generally hot and humid, and winters are generally snowy and cold. We often do not have a spring weather season and fall is generally short. Cloudy days are pretty common, but when the sun comes out, on a crystal clear day, there is no better place to be than in Maryland.

By now, I have spent more time in Maryland than my youth in Massachusetts and my 20s in NYC. For over 30 years I have called Maryland home and I could not be happier. Moving to the Eastern Shore from the Western Shore a few years ago, provided me and Jim with a different perspective on our beautiful state. Claiming a small piece of the Chester River has been a dream come true. I am forever spoiled, and will have to live on the water for the remainder of my life. I am grounded here and feel at peace when I return home from Kent School at the end of each day.

My office at school is perfectly situated so that the entire Middle School has to walk by to get to the playground for recess. Often students pop in to share something they are grateful for…..my word of the year, and the only way to get a Jolly Rancher or Caramel Cream from my candy bowl. I am always surprised by how many of the students are grateful for some form of weather – they comment on the sun, the rain, the fog, the cold, the warmth, the wish for snow, and they are shaped by all of it. Our playground has an exceptional view of the Chester River. I love that Kent School students are so attuned to our outdoor campus and the benefits of our changing weather. Just wish I could get the boys to wear pants (not shorts), and the girls to wear leggings, in the really cold weather!

So, no matter if the fickle Maryland weather is due to climate change, or just the normal seasons of planet Earth’s aging, it is still a gift to enjoy the porch on a January Saturday. 

Oh, and Go Ravens!

Walking Into A New Year

This past week Jim, Jenna, Kelsy and I spent our winter break in Florida, soaking up the sun and warmth. We ate several incredible meals, drank some fruity concoctions, and mostly, just relaxed. The most fun we had, however, was on an airboat touring the Everglades. I somehow missed on the website that the excursion was also an Everglades history experience, complete with a bus and a very special tour guide, but that is another story.

Most of our airboat trip was in the salt marsh ecosystem of Immokalee, FL in Everglades National Park. (This makes three national parks this year including Yellowstone and Cape Cod National Seashore!) Our boat captain took us under and through an amazing mangrove forest. Mangroves are a group of trees and shrubs that live in brackish coastal intertidal areas and grow in low-oxygen soil, where slow-moving waters allow fine sediments to accumulate. (NOAA)

As temperatures warm and the sea rises, thickets of mangroves are forced landward out of their current habitats. Mangroves are sometimes called “walking trees” because their continuously growing long and spindly dry roots make them look like they are walking on water. (National Wildlife Federation)

I had never seen anything quite like this before and was obsessed by the appearance of neglect amid the artistic way the roots wove a beautiful pattern as they walked just above the water. Where one mangrove tree grew, it appeared that there were many tree’s roots holding it up. The metaphor was not lost on me. In a family, and also in a school, it is the job of every member to support and hold each other up, to walk beside each other and not let anyone fall. One for all and all for one, the unofficial motto of Switzerland, and a phrase made famous by the novel The Three Musketeers, is personified in the mangrove forest.

It is with clear 20-20 vision that I walk into the new year and the new decade bound and determined to foster in my children, and the children in our care at Kent School, the notion that one for all and all for one is the best path forward in life and in education. To build a family or a learning community, we need to always think of others. Nature has found a way to walk together, I hope that humans can find the same path as we move forward into the next decade.

I am not suggesting that we put others ahead of our own personal growth. It is important to strive for excellence individually to become the best person we can be. I am suggesting, however, that empathetic citizens will lead the world in the future as we all awaken to the realization that our shared humanity is the most important unifying factor we must cultivate. Our differences in perspective help us look at issues and solve problems in unique ways, yet ultimately we all have the same goal, to lead a life of purpose and to make the world a better place.

I am proud of the passionate and thoughtful adult children Jim and I have raised, and I look forward to hearing how Kent School alumni are changing their communities in the years to come. 

Happy New Year!