Reflections from a school head…

A Standard for Everyone-Op Ed in Ellsworth American March 2015

Early in March, Michael Willette, a Republican representative from Presque Isle, posted on Facebook a photo of President Obama originally posted by Conservative News Daily that featured a caption saying, “Why haven’t I done anything about ISIS? Because I’ll deal with them at the family reunion.” Such humor. Obama is Muslim. He is a member of ISIS. ISIS is something to laugh about. There is humor in ISIS’s actions. I get it. Soooo funny. Willette wrote on the same Facebook entry: “I’ve been very good over the last year and a half about not posting things about Obama, but this one was too good to pass up. I promise this will be the last one for some time.”

Mr. Willette later issued an apology that fell short both in sincerity and maturity. He stated: “…I think many of us can identify with the temptation to not listen to our better angels and instead to lash out publicly against those with whom we disagree. As a state legislator I am held to a higher standard and need to show restraint.”

I am so very tired of politicians attempting to explain their incivility by stating that they are being held to a higher standard. They have done nothing to be deserving of higher expectations other than perhaps being an adult chronlogically. Further, there is a discernible and embarrassing whine in Mr. Willette’s inference that  those higher standards verge on restrictive and unfair.

Enough. Sit down and be quiet, Mr. Willette.

Mr. Willette, you are not held to a higher standard…no higher than the standard we hold all of our high school students to. Interstingly, they all passed a standard that you so clearly failed.

Paul B. Perkinson, headmaster

George Stevens Academy

Blue Hill

Nailed it….

Like Baryshnikov ‘ablomb’ or Henry Aaron catching a fly ball over his shoulder, this girl nailed it.  Simple, elegant, passionate…. a teacher in training…


Let’s Play Two

For over ten years while we lived in a northern suburb of the city, my three kids had the illness that is known as being a Chicago Cubs fan.  They joined the multitude in the midwest every April dreaming, “This year…this year we are going to the world series.”  Every year, sometime in  June or July, a dismal reality would set in.  The Cubs were going nowhere again.  It is hard to be a Cubs fan.

The Cub’s greatest fan in history died yesterday.  It caught my breath when I read about it.  I should have seen it coming.  Ernie Banks died.  A man who played for the Cubs for nearly two decades and who, in all of those years, never played in October…never a single post-season game.  Not once.  Not one at bat, not one put out. Not one.

Yet Bank’s love for the game and spirited enthusiasm remained undaunted his entire life. 

Banks is famous for saying “Its a great day for baseball.  Let’s play two.”  As a kid, I learned this motto, recited it as creed, and whispered it on Saturday mornings as I skipped to the little league field. Regardless of age, hasbeen ballplayers across America can look at each other and say “Let’s play two.” and thereby relive that moment of welcoming the grand possibilities of play.

Banks got it.  He captured in three words the ways in which someone can love an activity so dearly that failed season after failed season could not deprive or depress or dispell.

In 1958, Banks became the first player from a team with a losing record to be awarded the National League Most Valuable Player. He beat out Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

By most modern measurements however, Banks’ career is a failed one.  He never led a team into playoff competition.  To do that is one of the standards we have for ‘great’ baseball players.  He never did that.

The story of his greatness is quite different…perhaps more heroic. In a culture that is more and more seduced by standards, Banks seemed to care about them, but never allow them to have the last word.  He had the last word. “Let’s play two.”

You don’t have to be a baseball fan to love and admire this undauned spirit.  You have but to cherish some activity so fully that no person and no disapointment and  no event and no words can deprive you of the joy in the endeavor…the thrill of whatever’s next….the love of the play.

“The riches of the game are in the thrills, not in the money.” Ernie Banks

Four Words of Advice

Seven new students joined our school this week.  They came from four countries and are currently in various stages of jet lag.  They are joining a school that is in the middle of semester exams.  In meeting with them this morning, I suggested that they are about to step into a quickly moving stream and advised that they simply jump in to that stream remembering four words.

Roughly, here is what I shared with them.

“I want to welcome you to GSA.  We have been waiting for you for months and are happy you are here.  I have been asked to offer some advice on how to succeed at GSA and I will try my best to do that.

I have seen so many students thrive and grow and benefit from our learning community.  My advice to you as you begin your GSA experience comes from observing those students who made  the most of the opportunities that GSA offers. 

I advise you to create.  Think of every assignment and every paper and every drawing and every lab and every exercise in PE as a creation.  You are in the business of creating in part because it is our job to help you to develop your creative abilities.  Remember that you are naturally creative.  Our job is to enhance this part of your being.

I advise you to contribute.  You have joined a community that wants and needs you to give of yourself.  I advise you to not wait for an invitation to give but instead step up in ways that might make you feel a bit uncomfortable.  You might be naturally shy and that is fine.  But, do not be shy about contributing to the welfare of those around you.  Contributing make us more human…and more humane.

I advise you to learn. We are a learning community.  Learning is the most important enterprise of our school.  Learning is one of the most complex activities of our species and yet, more often than not, it is not that difficult.  Trust your instincts and trust your teachers as you learn.  Hold yourself responsible for learning every day. This may sound arrogant so I apologize in advance…but here is the thing. “You are such a powerful learner…you do not know how powerful you actually are!”

I advise you to belong. This is your school; this is our school.  We hope you accept our invitation to really belong to our community.  This cannot be a passive act.  We want you to actively belong by joining in the activity of being a community.  You have joined a dorm and you will soon join new academic classes.  Join a club.  Belong to a team. Join a band, a hike, a sail, a conversation.  Don’t just join the easy things…join the activities that stretch you a little. 

If you do the work…and it must be intentional, to create, to contribute, to learn, and belong, so many other vexing issues such as friends and grades and time management will take care of themselves.

Again, welcome.  School should be an adventure.  It now awaits you. Indeed, you have already started it.

Create in it…contribute to it…learn from it…and belong to it.”

A Boston Lobster In Shanghai

While visiting with George Stevens Academy parents on a recruiting trip in Shanghai this year, I found this series of tanks and cages in a restaurant while on an evening walk.  Customers could order their very fresh dinner right from the tank.  It was an amazing, slightly spooky experience knowing that at any moment any one of these creatures might be boiled or fried or chopped.

I lingered looking at a Boston Lobster for quite a while perhaps because I was happy to find something from home and perhaps because it was something of a metaphor for being ‘from away.’ You think jetlag is hard on us humans?  Just ask a Boston Lobster swimming in a Shanghai tank waiting for someone to drop roughly $67.00 for dinner.  Let me simply note that the chances are pretty good that  this is probably a Maine Lobstaah rather than one from Boston Harbor.  Let me further note that the creature never moved the entire time I stood there.  It seemed totally exhausted, dazed, and confused.

It would have been interesting to follow this creature’s path from a pot in the chilly North Atlantic to warm tank in eastern China. Perhaps this is a good idea of a new cable series with a fun, amazed host who asks the simple question “How Did This Get here?”  Maybe something like “Dirty Jobs.”

Someone had a tasty and expensive meal as the tank was empty the next day. Lobster in Shanghai

Very few people ever put the words ‘Maine’ and ‘hot’ remotely close together in the same sentence.  But today, the hottest room in Blue Hill, Maine was the GSA gym that had temps cresting over 95. Bill Case was directing his annual Summer Basketball camp this week.  The athletes were forgoing relaxing, lazy afternoons at the sand beach or a nap in the hammock and instead were practicing basketball for three hours in the heat of the afternoon.

I was reminded of something I was once told by a Hall of Fame coach from Illinois. He told me that “In order to become good at a sport, you must practice and play it thoroughly while in season but to get great at a sport you must play and practice fully out of season.”

I have seen that truth play out so many times..of sacrificing something to get something else that a person wanted more….and that was playing out in the GSA gym today.  The public results will have to wait.

When those girls win close games that there were not winning in previous years, and when their legs don’t give out in the fourth quarter on a late January Friday evening, and when they so perfectly execute a play in the playoffs that some think it was just blind luck, I will and they will remember these hot days in Maine when they developed stamina, resiliency, and the willpower to give up something now to achieve a shared, distant goal.


Listening to Every Sam

As teachers and as parents we are constantly reminded to listen to our children.  I often add to that when meeting with parents to learn from your children.  As a parent, I have been a student of my children.  I try to listen, observe and learn from them because they make me better.  A teacher can say the same about his or her students.

The story of Sam and what he said to his mother is instructive. When Sam was nine years old, he left a letter on his mother’s desk hoping that she would find it and read it.  “I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault.” Imagine getting a letter from your child who is less than a decade old who is also trying to teach you something you may not be ready to learn.  Who would be ready for that?

Sam continued. “To begin with, I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer.”  We do not know how the mother responded then but she surely kept reading.

Sam finished adding “I’ll ask you one more thing-Don’t ask me to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football._Please-Sometimes I’ve been worrying this so much that it makes me mad (not very), Love, Sam.” What a beautiful small addition to the letter when Sam reassured his mother that he is sometimes mad but “not very.” How many times has one of our students seen us in a spiraling anxiety or fear and tried to calm us with a look or a touch or a few words?  Were we ready for that?

Sam was teaching and it seems his mother listened. A year later Sam began to compose his first opera, The Rose Tree.

By now you have perhaps have figured out that Sam is Samuel Barber one of America’s most recognized and celebrated composers.  You know one of his most famous works Adagio for Strings as it was used to great effect in two very powerful, uplifting yet sad movies.  (The Elephant Man and Platoon.) Here is a how it was used in Platoon-

Sam’s letter to his mother is a nudge…a reminder to look to your children and look to your students for lessons of their passions, commitments, desires, and their direction.    It will make us better.


A Partner That Makes a Difference

Every GSA student and parent should know the extent to which our partnership with Maine Maritime Academy helps us to be an exceptional school. We hope to continue to grow this relationship and I will work tirelessly to expand this partnership.

For the first time, four GSA students took a college level physics class taught by a MMA professor. The students found the class challenging and engaging. I drove them over to MMA several times (as did Rada Starkey and Carol Bennatti) just so I could hear their reflections and thoughts before and after class. This course allowed GSA to meet the needs of our most scientifically talented students after they have maxed out our program.

Again for the first time, MMA gave us access to their pool at a reduced rate so that our very successful and growing swim team did not have to share pool time with Ellsworth High at the Ellsworth YMCA as they have had to in past years. The team now has the entire pool for up to two hours. The wonderful thing about swimming as a high school sport is that it is something that can be picked up as a beginner in 9th grade and that same athlete can improve tremendously in a short period of time. Everything hinges on pool time. Thanks to MMA, we now have lots of it.

For many years, MMA has supported out sailing program in an inspired and phenomenal way. We receive access to their beautiful boats and waterfront as well as significant support from their sailing personnel. Simply put, we would not have the exceptional and competitive sailing program we have without MMA’s assistance.

GSA is a school that has a history of reaching out to individuals and institutions that can help our school.  We are a strong school but we are stronger when we build connections with others. We will continue to seek out educational partnerships with other entities that expand our possibilities and and increase our outcomes.


Inflection Points…or “I was there when THAT happened.”

Last winter, I witnessed what I like to call a point of inflection. In mathematics, an inflection point is the point on a curve that separates an arc concave downward from one concave upward and vice versa. The inflection point I observed was at a sports practice at 8:07 AM on a Saturday morning last November. Because of something the coach did (a particular message delivered, a directed change in team habits, an elevation of expectations) the team that started the practice was changed by  that practice. It was evident to all in the next six weeks of practice and play that the team played with more intention, more conviction, with more direction, and with greater effectiveness. I remember sitting in the stands as they were routing a team and thought…”I was there when everything changed.”

We witnessed another possible ‘point of inflection’ in May at GSA. Many, many people participated in it. Jen Traub, Rada Starkey, and Maggie Overton conceived and executed our first Giving Day in GSA history. The goal was to seek and attain as many alumni gifts in a single day as we possibly could. While the number of new donors was impressive, and the amount of money raised will absolutely help in our Annual Fund drive, what was most impressive was the palpable, demonstrative, and energizing spirit behind the day.

So many people served the school that day with joy and enthusiasm. So many people took the time to reach out to alums and remind them of their experiences at GSA AND then, and this is key, ask them to support the school so that future students might enjoy the same experience. What felt different about this day was that so many volunteers spoke of pride in their school and celebrated each alum as they came by to drop off a gift. The shyness and slight embarrassment that sometimes comes with asking for a gift to the school was replaced by a belief in a mission and an institution and a willing to stand up and make the ask.

Educating our school community as to the central importance of our development efforts is a key goal in our strategic plan.  There is great momentum in our development efforts. Let us all keep that momentum going all summer and into the fall.

Week 17 Senior Debates, January 2014

Upon completing her/his Senior Debate, each senior rings the school bell in celebration of completing this capstone experience at George Stevens Academy. We are finishing Semester I debates this week. All debates are open to the public. Semester II debates will be in late May. Look for a schedule of those debates and debate topics in early May.

Week 17--A Chilly Academy Building, January 2014

While it might be warm and active inside as students and teachers prepare for exams, it has been sub-zero outside the Academy building as the now famous polar votex makes things absolutely frigid in Blue Hill. For over 115 years, GSA students have been entering, laughing, learning, and taking exams in this historic building.

Week 17-- Student and Teacher, January 2014

Science teacher Jeff Goldman checks in with an honors chemistry student while on lunch duty. GSA teachers and students are learning all the time. Active, engaging relationships between students and teachers are at the core of a GSA educational experience.

Week 17--Semester Exams Study

All GSA students sit Semester I exams. This week, our libary has been full of study groups, teacher help desks, and volunteer tutoring sessions. The purpose of the exams is to give students a opportunity to draw together a large body of information and communicate their knowledge, command, and original insight.

The Work of School: A Back to School Night Talk to GSA Parents 9.21.2013

Head’s Welcome To Parents                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

I want to welcome parents to our Back to School Night.  We have so many George Stevens Programs to share with you.   We have so many people for you to hear from, and so many curricular experiences that we believe will enrich the lives of all members of this community.  Thank you for coming this evening.

Tonight marks the end of the start of the school year.  It is one of many benchmarks in the rhythm of our community.  How schools start up each year, how they morph from beautiful but empty buildings to vibrant human communities, how newcomers learn and gradually embrace the school ethos and traditions, how an institution prepares physically for the arrival of 334 young learners, how teachers prepare themselves and their classes for that important first day, how coaches and music directors introduce that powerful dynamic of team play or working within a repertory, how students adjust to early wake ups and independent academic work, these are all dynamics that have endlessly fascinated those of us who choose to spend most of their waking hours amongst teenagers.

Your children and our charges have been very busy.  Since the start of school, your sons and daughters started reading The Autobiography of Fredrick Douglass, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, Agatha Christi, and John Steinbeck.

Your kids have learned new cross-country courses and renewed their love of team play on a soccer pitch.

They designed and built objects of beauty and use at Haystack Mountain School of Craft.

They learned the mathematical concept of “continuity” in Calculus.

Students assessed the political and cultural impact of America’s Great Awakening and the idea of American Exceptionalism.

They assembled and disassembled polynomials in Algebra II.

They elected student leaders to student council.

Students completed T diagrams in Accounting.

GSA students launched canoes in the beaver pond, studied the hemispheres of our brains, began their study of Greek and Latin, interpreted ancient burial rituals, surveyed the political impact of 9/11, and learned Herby Hancock’s jazz composition ‘Chameleon.’

And one 10th grader, in class discussion of Beowulf’s braggart nature as he presents himself in Hrothgar’s house, concluded “Not only is he lying, he is lying stupidly…about dumb things.”

Teachers challenged students to think like a critic,  to think like a systems engineer, like a furniture designer, like a diplomat, like a prosecuting attorney, like a scientist, a president, a tax collector, a composer, a physician, a poet, and a teacher.

They have been busy and engaged in the very complex yet natural act of learning and growing. We have seen effort, passion, conviction, and triumph.  And this will continue for the next 262 days until graduation next June.

At George Stevens, we seek to be an antidote, to be a foil to what Ted Sizer observed in Horace’s Compromise that “American high schools are not thoughtful places…but only places of routine and boredom.” We seek to be a thoughtful place where students are excited and furthered by new ideas everyday.

Leon Botstein observed in his work Jefferson Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture  that “our schools fail to challenge the critical faculties of young learners and that this is a dangerous thing to do.”  We seek to be the rebuttal to that argument.

We want students to thoughtfully consider.  We want them to talk about books, about ideas, about subjects, about tragedies and problems, about glorious success, about heroes and demons, about numbers and combinations and possibilities.

We want to engage their imagination and their intellect so as to make them part of community of knowledge makers.  We invite them to envision solutions that did not exist.

We invite them to think of their world both materially and spiritually and to see and feel the connection between those two worlds.

We hope this evening you will get a better sense of what happens at George Stevens Academy on a typical day.

It will be a fun and enlightening night…just like most of our school days.

I would ask you all to turn and look at the teachers and staff who make this happen every day.  Besides you parents and guardians, they will be some of the most important adults in the lives of your children and I wish to take this the opportunity to commend and salute them for their good works.

In order to get them to their rooms in anticipation of your arrival, please excuse them so that they might do final set up.

(Teachers depart)

This is not an evening for individual discussion of students.  If you have specific questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to set up an appointment to meet privately with a teacher.

This campus can be complex.  If this is NOT your first GSA Back to School Night, please stand up.  Those of you sitting…know that you can ask them for directions.  We can give you reasonable directions.  We will ring bells to change classes.  Attend to them.

I welcome you all.  Let us head to your advisory.

Paul B. Perkinson

Head of School

George Stevens Academy

9/11 Assembly Talk

September 11, 2013                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Assembly Talk                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Paul B. Perkinson

You might see in some of your teachers and perhaps your parents a mellowness or a tenderness or a softness today and I wanted to briefly address that in our assembly.

On this day twelve years ago terrorists changed the world by slamming passenger jets into the World Trade Building, into the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania.

You seniors were perhaps in kindergarten then and your memories might be vague and unclear.

For those of us who were working that day…many of us working with school children, there is really no lack of clarity.  The memories are vivid.  They are not just the memories of the tragic and horrific…but also memories of kindness, of sacrifice, and of love.

Memories of selfless firefighters and first responders who in doing their job, lived and acted far above and beyond their call to duty.

We remember stories of individuals electing to help others when they could have simply walked away.

We remember the heart-wrenching phone calls that women and men made to loved ones when they knew that their loved ones would live through this tragedy but that they themselves would not.

I encourage you all to take the time to consider this tragic affair and its consequences.  I encourage you all to talk about it…and share.

I will leave you with what Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said about September 11th…in part because it is a message not just about a day but a message about how to lead a life.

Giuliani said on that day “We met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity.”

Let us remember that every day….but especially today.