From the Principal: February 2016

Dear Families,

Over the weekend, my family and I went for a toddler-paced walk around Walden Pond. It was a beautiful, bright day, and Walden was in fine winter form, with soft white sheets of ice covering much of the pond. As we walked along the shore, I noticed that the ice was littered with rocks, from pebbles to small boulders, tree branches, and even a railroad tie. The debris spread from the edge of the water to about 30 yards out onto the pond, probably the collective result of individual efforts to break the ice. And who could resist such an activity? Not me. Within minutes of arriving, my daughter and I were hunting up rocks of steadily increasing size to hurl out onto the ice in the hopes that we might succeed where others had failed.

Despite the warmer weather, every rock I threw landed with a thud instead of a splash and skittered across the indifferent ice to rest with the others on the surface of the pond. This is an outcome Thoreau might have predicted, having recorded the average thickness of Walden ice to be almost one and a half feet, enough to support a team of horses cutting out blocks of ice for shipment to India and the Caribbean. So my efforts were doomed to failure. Without a team of horses or a chainsaw, I was not going to break the ice. But as I thought about the hundreds of rocks on the ice, I began to find this activity satisfying in a different, less dramatic way.

Each rock on the ice can be thought of as representing an intention, an investment of energy in a simple task: move a rock from the shore to the bottom of the pond. The ice is a barrier which is both impermanent and beyond my control. Every rock will fall; it is just a matter of when. And unless I camp out on the side of the pond, I will never see my rocks complete their journey. They might fall tomorrow or a month from now. The ice may give way all at once or by degrees, but I will never know. So the question is, given this knowledge, why throw a rock on the ice?

In education, as in parenting, it's easy to value that which breaks the ice, an investment of energy that has an immediate, measurable impact. But there are other things we can teach, things that won't have an impact for years, which will sit like rocks on the ice, waiting for the spring to come. The uncertainty can be almost too much to bear, which means that we don't often throw the rock or teach the lesson that has no immediate effect. But lessons that address the “big questions” of ethics, identity, knowledge, and beauty have a way of lying dormant until we're ready for them, and then whole worldviews can shift or give way beneath the weight of an idea we encountered years before.

As you look over your child's first progress report of the year, it is important to carefully review the lists of standards and skills they are working on in class. The reports are a valuable, fine-grained look at what your children know and can do. But it is equally important to remember that these lists do not describe the entirety of a student's experience at Graham and Parks or what they have learned. There are more subtle ideas and lessons, on fairness, justice, and self-knowledge that are not easily captured with columns of numbers. And in the end, these are the lessons that often matter the most.