Tightening the Net

By Craig Gemmell
Head of School

Opening weekend at boarding school inspires more emotion than reality TV: joy, despair, stress, enthusiasm, fatigue, amity, enmity. Life’s great drama writ small; surely worth the wait after the humidity of August and butterflies of Labor Day weekend.

On Monday classes were finally up and running, and this step into routine allowed me to pause and reflect on all the remarks I had prepared in fits and starts over the last month or so and then delivered throughout the past two weeks. In reflecting, I discovered that what I had to say to staff, faculty, parents, student leaders, students, those in town, and even my own two boys really revolved around a few basic ideas, even if the way these ideas got framed and the particulars differed based upon the audience.

Two ideas: ecology and integrity

Ecology: Every single person affiliated with this school – students, parents, teachers, administrators, staff – plays a powerful role in the ecology of our school. I use this word ecology doubly. The conventional definition of “ecology” – the interaction between organisms and the environment in which they live – reminds us of the important role we as individuals play in shaping how effective we are in doing the work of helping good kids to become great adults. Using this word, I also have in mind the Greek from which “ecology” derives – oikos, translated as house. Oikos. House. Literally for many, and figuratively for all, Brewster Academy is the house in which we live, the place, the entity, through which we are building a home of learning for our students.

Integrity: If we wish for this school to operate in ways that make it feel ever more truly like a highly-developed home of learning, we all have to be operating with integrity – in other words, operating with right values we all share. We talked about this simple idea endlessly: as a faculty and staff, in all-school meetings, with new parents, on academic teams, in the dorm, on the playing field, and in advisories. In giving words to this idea in all of these contexts, it became clear that we are having this conversation from a position of strength because we share so many values intuitively already as a community. As we strive to be ever better, our goal is to make the foundation of our house – our integrity – yet more unitary. Our three community pillars (responsibility, respect, and investment), values conceived in support of one culture, in support of our house, have already become part of our vernacular.

My hope is that my speaking a coherent set of ideas to an array of different audiences reveals to all what, in my mind, really matters here and what really matters in education more broadly: an ecology that confers integrity.

But I also realize that language can fail me at times. I keep thinking about a line from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: “language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite.”  

So we start with words, but we’ll need to rely on the unfolding dialectic between words and action to keep tightening our net.  We must all think and work with integrity in ways that support the development of our “house” – and all who live, serve, educate, and are educated within it. I have faith that by living in a culture that supports and reflects integrity, our beliefs will morph into reality, become a fact of our existence here, and be perpetuated outward, infinite.