Dear KES Family:
Dear KES Family,
The story is told by Prince Harry that in the early days of their courtship, Meghan Markle’s (now the Duchess of Sussex) first visit to Windsor Castle to see Harry’s grandmother went very well. The reason for the successful visit was that the Queen’s beloved corgis, who had always given Harry a frosty reception, greeted Meghan warmly and happily. The royal canines gave their instant approval. The Queen’s quickly followed.
Belinda and I don’t have corgis but we do have two small dogs, both of which partake in receptions and School events with regularity. When hockey legend Guy LaFleur came to our home during the Long Pond Classic, Guy spent most of his time on the kitchen floor playing and petting with Zuri and Nara. Similarly, hockey famous tough guy Chris “knuckles” Nilan, would have much preferred scratching Nara’s exposed belly (she has no shame…) than signing autographs for the other guests. Who knew that these “larger than life” hockey players were so sensitive? (Guy confided that his little tea cup dog sleeps on the bed.)
And so on Tuesday night at 9:30pm, I made my way across the snow to the Dining Hall with Zuri and Nara for an evening walkabout. We did not actually make it into the Dining Hall itself as in the hallway were a group of students who spontaneously started petting and playing with Zuri and Nara. It was great chatting with Susana and Andrea and all their friends as well as Christian and Duncan and everyone who meandered through the hallway. Evening snack was ending and everyone seemed relaxed and happy. Zuri and Nara were in heaven with all the attention and quickly picked up the Spanish instructions they were given (Zuri is half Papillon so being a Spanish breed it was easier for her…).
While I sometimes lament that we are all generally more relaxed, expressive, and affectionate with animals than with people, I love the interchange that takes place. Perhaps our true selves show more clearly? Or, maybe dogs can sense who we really are inside. It was clear that all the students were happy and comfortable and in a ‘good space’. Christian mentioned that I should bring them around during exams. Maybe I should. Studies have shown that petting an animal reduces anxiety and lowers heart rate and blood pressure.
Be it the Mess Dinner, the record-breaking long assembly this week (superb prom-posal, Lane!), or the way in which the students embraced the winter storm which hit, I am finding the student body relaxed and fun to be with. As one Mess Dinner guest exclaimed after the student reception, “I have never seen such confident children. It is such a rarity to meet teenagers who look you in the eye.”
Dear KES Family:
Okay…where did February go? Wow, that was fast!
They say that if it were not for the weather we would not have anything to talk about. I try to avoid the subject as a result. However, when the wind chill takes the temperature below -30 Celsius it becomes a significant feature of one’s life. When not one but two water pipes freeze and burst, the resultant flooding is worth a remark or two.
I have never seen it rain indoors until last night. Stepping into the Fauchers’ apartment in Buckle House was like walking into a torrential downpour. The burst sprinkler pipe on the top floor sent cascades of water through every cranny and crack of the ceiling which then flooded the second floor before consequently cascading yet again through the first floor ceiling into the kitchen and dining room areas below. Within minutes the fire trucks started to arrive as did our own staff. The instant response from our community was remarkable.
Dear KES Family:
The last time I went with KES students to Africa, our service work took us to the Maasai village of Ngare Sero in northern Tanzania. There is no electricity or running water. The traditional agrarian lifestyle abounds. Outside the fence of thorns which protects our campground are the ageless bomas and mud dwellings of the local people. The sounds of goat and cattle bells, the bleats and bovine moos, fill the quiet stillness of the evenings. Located in the depths of the Rift Valley, it is excessively hot during the day. Dust devils swirl and heat waves shimmer and distort the horizon’s edge. Ancient volcanoes stand watch over the baked land and alkaline waters of Lake Natron.
Outside our campground children wait, hopeful for a morsel of food or a charitable shilling. We are advised not to feed them, not to give them anything. Tears flow. On both sides.
Life is not perfect in North America, but how could one even begin to describe to the children we will meet the technology and wealth involved with an Uber Eats app on an iPhone, or the Boston Pizza concept of “finger cooking”, or a HelloFresh weekly menu and meal delivery service?
The difference we will make there will be in education, in building classrooms and food shelters and water supply. The 26 KES students and their families have done an admirable job raising money to help fund the projects that the tribal elders have requested we undertake. I have no doubt that our labour and sweat (and funds) will make a huge difference in the lives of the children and families in the Lake Natron area. However, I think the lessons we learn from our experience will make the biggest difference of all.
Dear KES Family:
A week does not go by when I don’t miss teaching in the classroom. Few things in life are better. Jeff Smith often says that he has the best gig going, and there is no doubt that teaching music at KES has brought him and his students decades of joy. I suspect that you would also see the exact same zest in Mrs. Shields’ Math class or in Mr. DeCoste’s Physics lessons. Teaching is, and should be, thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding. Happiness is not subject specific.
However, being an English teacher, I enjoyed a unique relationship with my students and with the literature we studied. Sometimes I miss the books as much as the students themselves. What could be better than spending a day with Prince Hamlet or Jane Eyre or Ozymandias?
Years ago (I actually think it was 28!) I taught a Canadian novel entitled Crabbe. Written by William Bell, it is the story of an angry teenager who eventually figures things out after he runs away into the wilderness. Far from civilization he meets a woman Mary who possesses a rough kind of wisdom. Crabbe is a whiner and has excuses for everything. She says to him, “You know what I think Crabbe? I think a person reaches maturity when he strikes the last name off the blame list.”
There are nuggets of wisdom in books and this is a good one. Growing up we have our rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies, but there is something about getting rid of one’s blame list that has always struck a chord for me as the best measure of adulthood. Being responsible and accountable for one’s life is not a function of chronological age or physical maturity. Unfortunately, we see examples all the time in the news of “adults” casting blame and accepting none. Literature is also rich with examples of maturity coming too late, often with tragic consequences. Hamlet is thirty before he stops his whining and starts acting with any real maturity. Juliet is not yet fourteen when she seems to suddenly grow up and take responsibility for her life and the predicament she is in.
Blaming others always seems rather hollow. Like cotton candy, excuses are never satisfying – either to the one making the excuse or the one hearing it. Mary also says to Crabbe, “Waiting around for someone to change your life is a loser’s game.” It is bluntly expressed but perfectly clear. Crabbe needed to hear this. From time to time I think we all do.
Dear KES Family:
The UAE may be an ancient land but there are more than a few innovative vertebrae in its cultural spine. A visit to the ultra-modern planned city of Masdar brought us deep into the heart of a city designed to be sustainable (ride share bicycles and Tesla (!) cars, clean energy sources and electric buses, etc.), which hosts forward-thinking businesses who incubate new ideas and attract talented engineers and designers from around the world. MIT has a campus there. One of the think tanks is devoted to creating the best educational environment, programme, and software in the world. We had a tour of a "test school" and were amazed at the research and design and data collection that has gone into answering the simplest of questions: what is the best way to educate children? After 230 years of tradition and teaching, there is an opportunity for King's-Edgehill School to be at the forefront of educational philosophy, program delivery, and leadership in the world. Needless to say, my lack of sleep here in the UAE has as much to do with excitement as it does with jet lag.
Architectural renderings are supposed to be impressive. The recent Ministry of Education approved designs for KESAD are unbelievable. They are gorgeous and functional, and take into account everything from the movement of the sun and the shade cast by the buildings, to the movement of students between classes. Over the last year, I have been afforded input and in a presentation by our UAE architects this week, I was astounded to see that every suggestion and criticism I had communicated previously has been addressed. We are limited by the size of our plot of land, but the maximization of space while remaining elegant is impressive. I can hardly wait to see it built.
The Ministry of Education here has a department of Creativity and Happiness. One of their initiatives this year is dedicated to serving others and raising awareness of the needs of the less fortunate. It is called the Year of Giving. I am sure there are challenges that the government faces which are well beyond my understanding, but I love the idea of having a programme of creativity and happiness. Simply put, no one learns anything if they are not happy. And, quite frankly, childhoods should be filled with joy. Being happy, as I am now, is pretty great too.
Dear KES Family:
Not all of our ideas are popular. This year the students suggested that we vary the menu for Tuesday lunch. Traditionally it is “Pizza Day”. Once pizza was eliminated, the complaints were numerous and immediate! Who knew that Pizza Day was an entrenched tradition? So, we have brought it back. Overall, I try not to be the abominable “No-Man” and treat each agenda item thoughtfully. Some suggestions are small but make a big difference – like installing a proper Bluetooth speaker in the fitness room, or switching the sensor from the water dispenser to a simple button (that was huge actually!).
This week one of the suggestions was to change the examination period so that no one would ever have to write two exams in a single day. Given that we have a wide variety of courses and many students with unique timetables, I knew instantly that this would double the length of the examination period and make it impossibly unwieldy, but the reality is that I like schedules that challenge students. KES is in the business of creating stressful situations, not cushy ones. No one’s schedule is full of two-a-day exams, and some students escape that particular challenge some years, but having the occasional day where one has to write a morning and afternoon exam is good. It forces students to organize their time and their study schedule. It teaches them stamina and gives them valuable experience. Like a hockey tournament with multiple games in a single day, one has to learn how to prepare physically and mentally and emotionally in order to perform well.
Two exams a day is good practice, not just for those students who will take the all-day IB exams in May of their Grade 12 year, but for students going to university. My daughter attended Acadia University and had two exams in one day. She also had exams from 7:00 to 10:00pm on Saturday nights! My son attended Queen’s University and in his last set of graduate exams he had to show up at 7:00am and was not released until 5:00pm that night.
There is a difference between good stress and bad stress, eustress and distress. We will always be compassionate and flexible with students who are in distress. However, the idea of making school “easy” actually undermines a key ingredient of growth and development. School is supposed to be hard. So while I was pleased this week to see Elvis Presley singing on his birthday in the Dining Hall, and open to having music playing from time to time during meals, I have to admit that I said no to changing the examination schedule to make it easier.
Dear KES Family:
Picture yourself playing in North America’s largest high school basketball tournament. University and college scouts are everywhere. It is Day 4 and you are on the floor. KES is down by one point in the second overtime period. There are four seconds left on the clock and you have the ball. A blatant foul sends you to the free throw line. Two shots: sink them both and we win. Miss them both and we lose. Sink one and we tie, forcing a third overtime period.
It is the stuff of sports fantasy, and yet, this is the exact situation Aaliyah Arab-Smith (Grade 11) and our KES Girls’ Prep Basketball Team found themselves in on December 22nd at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, Arizona.
Aaliyah took to the line and the referee tossed her the ball. Both benches and every spectator held their breath as Aaliyah took her first shot. After circling the rim, the ball bounced out. Cheers erupted from the opposition stands. The rest of us, hearts beating wildly, watched as Aaliyah prepared herself for her second shot.
Down by one: sink the ball and we go to overtime. Miss it and the game is lost. With practised ease, Aaliyah bounced the ball a few times and then deftly launched it towards the basket. Swish! Everyone leapt to their feet cheering. What a shot to make under that kind of pressure!
I love moments like this. They are transformational. For sports to have educational value, they must act like metaphors – offering us safe opportunities to perform as individuals and as a team in search of a goal. We learn about ourselves and how to communicate and act with others. We learn to adapt and to react to the moment. With good coaching and mentoring, the lessons we learn in sports transcend the athletic arena and play out in real life. We become better people, not just better athletes.
We did not score as many points as our opponents in the final overtime period, but the girls emerged champions nonetheless (in my heart at least!).
Happy 2019 everyone. May it bring you thrilling moments of joy.