Road Trip

One of the privileges of this role is traveling the country and the world and speaking with alumni and parents about their experience of The Gunnery. I had three conversations last week that exemplify why these trips are so encouraging—and the fact that they came on the day that our acceptance letters went out to prospective students only re-emphasized their importance.

Kiersten Marich, The Gunnery’s interim Director of Alumni & Development, had lunch with a member of the great class of 2013 enjoying his first year in college. As we talked the alumnus told us of his decision to attend The Gunnery. He said that he’d visited six schools and he knew that none were the right fit. He returned home and a friend of the family said, “You really should check out The Gunnery.” It hadn’t been ‘on his radar.’ So he made the trip up and, he says, the minute he stepped on campus he knew it was where he wanted to spend the next four years of his life. I can say, in retrospect, that it was a great fit—he had a terrific career, grew a lot as a person and as a student, learned to challenge himself and accept challenges from the faculty. It became, as he put it, his “second home.”

My next stop was to visit a current parent. Similarly, she said [I’m paraphrasing from a great, long conversation], “I’ve had kids attend a variety of great schools over many years and, with the children of my friends, I have a pretty broad sample size. There simply isn’t another school I know of where my daughter would be known as well by faculty, received as fully by peers, and pushed in the way that she would respond to uniquely. She’s always been smart but teachers in grammar school and middle school didn’t know how to challenge her in a way that she’d respond to.”

I drove from that conversation, feeling pretty good about our school, to dinner with the father of a member of the class of 2010. He shared an experience similar to the recent graduate: “We had a great experience through the interview—such genuine, warm people—and about two miles off campus, on our way to tour the next school, my daughter said, ‘That’s my next school.’” Her father went on to articulate more beautifully than I ever could what made his daughter’s experience so special—what confirmed for her and for him that she’d made the right choice. I told him I wished I’d recorded him—and then realized that I could ask him to put it in an email, which he kindly did. Here is his take on The Gunnery:

“The Gunnery was not on our “radar” of schools when we did the secondary boarding school tour.  On a suggestion of a guidance counselor we worked in a visit.  When we left and were on our way to see another campus, we came to a stop sign on Rt. 202.  It had been 10 or 15 minutes since we left our Gunnery tour and interview.  At the very same time, my 15 year old daughter and I turned to each other, and simultaneously both of us blurted out “I really liked that place”.

“From the very first time I set foot on The Gunnery campus, I felt that it was a good place, a safe place, to leave my youngest daughter.  There is a sense of extended family one gets when on campus.  No one confronts you, student or faculty, they welcome you without even knowing exactly who you are or why you are there.  It is a down to earth sentiment that pervades the entire school.  Unlike some larger New England boarding schools, there is not a pretentious, we are better attitude.  Maybe that comes from having such a relatively small student body…”

“But somehow that translates into being more personal.  The Gunnery is a school that is big enough to compete, academically and athletically, but small enough where every teacher knows every student.  And I don’t mean knows who they are, but knows about each and every kid.  As a parent, it felt like I was leaving my daughter with a large extended family, not a staff of hired hands.”

“From my daughter’s perspective, her choice of The Gunnery was initially influenced by the bonding with her tour guides (she later became one herself), and the concept of a dress code, and believe it or not, sit down meals.  It meant a lot that The Gunnery was going to treat her the same as her parents did.  Too many boarding schools today try to be colleges…”

“Everything we both felt about The Gunnery on that very first visit turned out to be true throughout the three years we both spent with the school.  The spirit is warm, and embracing.  The campus is charming and beautiful.  The structure of daily life is embracing but liberating for students away from home for the first time.  Some might say The Gunnery is old fashioned.  It still holds traditions and routines that were common to boarding schools in the first half of the 20th Century.  That was a time that the reputations of now better known, larger schools, such as Choate, Exeter, or Deerfield, were created (as I know from firsthand experience).  But many of those schools had to experiment with the cultural shifts of the second half of the 20th Century, and in so doing lost many traditions that made the boarding school experience of New England so well-known and copied.  It appears The Gunnery…preserved many of those traditions, such as really being parents in absentia, sitting at meals with their “kids”, teachers knowing the real daily lives of their charges, holding kids accountable.  It was these traits that attracted my daughter to The Gunnery.  That was the experience she was seeking.  For me, as a parent, the comfort of knowing my child was looked after, even loved, made me comfortable…That is hard to say, and being without my youngest was a sacrifice of the heart.  Having been through the experience, I would do it again without question.  At least at The Gunnery.”

I can’t put it better than that and you’ll see why visiting alumni, current, and former parents of this great school is such an encouraging privilege. ​

Failing Well

I found myself on ice regularly this winter. At the school’s rink, to be more precise, every Sunday afternoon with my three year old daughter taking advantage of the town’s “Family Skate.” I don’t really know how to skate so it’s overstating it to say that I was teaching her to skate. What I could do was get her out to the middle of the rink and encourage her to try to move. Of course, the first few times she tried to do so she fell down, which came as a bit of a shock. Eventually she wanted off and eventually I complied. Absent the ability to instruct any more specifically about what to do, I found myself repeating, “But if you don’t fall down, you’re not learning.”

The unwitting truth in that phrase reminded me that it applies to people who are thirteen and thirty as much as it does to three year olds. Falling down on the ice—failing—hurts. It hurts physically (I put myself in the infirmary as a boarding school student trying too aggressively to learn to skate…and hadn’t skated again until this winter) and emotionally (I haven’t yet met the person who enjoys falling in public). And the same goes for falling down in other contexts—whether learning in a classroom or leading a school. But, at the risk of a cliché, it’s from the process of attempting and failing that we learn. Which means that one of the most important things we can do as educators, parents, and leaders is to create the context within which it is safe to go through this process and to do so publicly.

A book about leadership that I’ve been reading recently, James Kouzes’s and Barry Posner’s The Truth About Leadership, makes this point nicely at the adult level:

Whenever you’re challenging the status quo, whenever you’re tackling demanding problems, whenever you’re making meaningful changes, whenever you’re confronting adversity, you will sometimes fail. Despite how much you see challenge as an opportunity, despite how focused you can be, despite how driven you are to succeed, there will, no doubt, be setbacks. Think again about leaders throughout history who are remembered for their greatness. Some lost battles, some were imprisoned, some saw their businesses shut down, and most were ridiculed while trying to achieve the extraordinary. Mistakes happen. Defeats occur. Failure is inevitable. None of these are dirty words to leaders. Rather, they are signs that you’re doing something tough, exacting, and out-of-the-ordinary. That’s why you need grit. It’s also why you need to see failure as learning.

I argue that this can apply equally well to students, which means one of the tasks of teachers is to teach towards this—something that is perhaps more complicated or nuanced than teaching towards a test. In this same chapter, Kouzes and Posner quote now-famous University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, and her work on grit. Defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” grit “entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

This is not to condone mediocrity or poor performance. Failing continually at the same thing is closer to madness than to learning. Instead, this speaks to the importance—for adults and students alike—to cultivate the willingness to grow, learn, experiment, and, yes, fail, even if your mom isn’t there to pick you up.