Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 


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Summer reading and Mrs. Cleaver's Three C's

I love July.

While our campuses are still brimming with DA’s Summer Programs, Student U’s Summer Academy, and the construction of our STEM+Humanities Center, many of my hours have shifted away from meetings and emails and toward family adventures and luxurious learning. What bliss to be swimming in books, articles, podcasts . . . and pools too!

Along with my colleagues, I am reading a few of the following books this summer – nominated by faculty and selected to correspond with the goals of our Strategic Plan.

I’m also re-reading some of the great work of our own people. Below is one example: the remarks shared by Kathy Cleaver (Co-Director of College Counseling) to the parents and students of the class of 2017. Delivered at our annual Senior Dinner, Kathy’s thoughts struck me then and now as wise, timeless, and relevant for more than just those soon-to-be-graduates and emptier nesters.

I hope you enjoy the speech – and the leisure of this season. 


Good evening Seniors and proud parents, family, friends, and fellow faculty members!

It’s a great honor to be here tonight…for the second-to-the-last time that seniors will gather on the Upper School campus. There’s so much happiness and excitement in the air…indeed, as one senior told me earlier this week, school can be a fun place without all the academic pressures and responsibilities! Seniors -- I invite you to sit back and relax for the next few days. The work is done – no more papers or projects or presentations; no more tests or quizzes or AP exams. You have all made it through the Upper School – I checked with Mr. Reg and you will all graduate on Friday. CONGRATULATIONS!

This 2016-17 academic year has been an extra-ordinary one indeed.

Over the course of this year, we’ve experienced a series of seismic, unexpected outcomes in elections around the globe – in our own presidential election, as well the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and in the recent national election in France.

This year, we witnessed drama-filled sporting events – with the Cubs ending their 108-year curse to win the World Series; with my New England Patriots staging an incredible 4th quarter rally to win the Super Bowl; and I even heard that a team up the road won a national championship (DANG, are those words hard to say. :)

On our own campus, 2017 has been a year of firsts and lasts:

  • The first year of the new schedule, and the last year in the Physics Building
  • The first year with Dean Bitterman in the Upper School driver’s seat, and the last year with our beloved Ms. McNall.
  • The first year of the Robotics Club and the last year with desktop computers on campus.

I could go on and on, and maybe later you’ll put together your own list of “firsts and lasts”… if you do, share your list with me. I’d love to read your ideas.

For me personally, 2017 marks my 25th year at Durham Academy … as this charming group of seniors made the tremendous effort to remind me about in a recent class meeting. I remain truly touched by that sweet, thoughtful gesture!

This Silver Celebration has been a great time for me to reflect on what I've learned over these many years about the transition to college.

I’d like to take this opportunity to share a few of these musings…I like to call them Mrs. Cleaver’s Three Cs (the letter C, of course, not the Mediterranean, Baltic and South China Seas!)

The first C is for COMMUNITY:

Your college experience may be the first, and possibly the last, time you will be a member of such an interesting, dynamic community, living and learning with other students who were each chosen to represent the university’s image of a collegiate community…hundreds, even thousands of young people your age (18-22 years old), with similar ambitions and shared academic goals, with access to unbelievable facilities, ever-evolving resources, and brilliant mentors.

Though you share similar academic goals, you will likely also be different from many of these other students in almost every way imaginable. On your college campus, you might meet people from different cities, states, countries, hemispheres, and continents. You will meet people of different faith backgrounds, of different ethnicities and races. You will meet people of different political beliefs and ideologies; people who observe different national holidays, listen to different kinds of music, who eat different foods, who use different words to describe emotions, events, and experiences -- people who are different from you in almost every way.

The secret to making this work can be found in that word “community” – defined as a “feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

I believe a college community – even a richly diverse, complex, dynamic one filled with thousands of students – works only if its members strive to find these shared common interests and goals…and discover what makes people similar to, as well as different from, each other.

For me, this must move beyond just “tolerance”; in fact that word, “tolerance” is one of my least favorite words in the dictionary.

You tolerate Friday afternoon traffic on I-40

You tolerate flight delays due to weather or equipment changes

You tolerate the guy who smacks his gum through the entire movie

But you should NOT “tolerate” your roommate who is of a different ethnicity, or the guy down the hall who practices a different religion, or the young woman in your chem lab who voted for a different political candidate.

These next four years must be more than just about “tolerance.” They must be about acceptance, empathy, learning, questioning, and growth; they must be about embracing the similarities and differences you will see and come to know in your fellow students. These next four years must be about building “community”.

It won’t be easy…and it will probably be uncomfortable at times. But I think you all want to be “uncomfortable” – because if you wanted easy and comfortable, you could have lived at home next year, and taken online classes. You could have stayed in your comfort zone. But each one of you opted for the more challenging path.

I hope you will embrace the challenges of creating community in college. These interactions will be what you remember most when you look back 5, 10, 20, 40, 50 years after you graduate. It won’t be what you learned in your Econ or Biology class…but it may very well be what you learned from your roommate who was of a different ethnicity, or the guy down the hall who practiced a different religion, or the young woman in your chem lab who voted for a different political candidate.

College will change you…and that’s the most exciting part of what’s about to happen!

Which leads me to my second C, COURAGE…20 seconds of insane courage, to be exact. 

I borrowed this idea from a cute movie with a pretty bad title --“We Bought a Zoo”. In the movie, the main character, played by Matt Damon, tells his young son:

“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

OK, I’m not talking here about the kind of insane courage that will result in a conversation with campus police, or the kind that gets you a one-way pass to the Dean of Students’ office, or the kind that’s memorialized in your fraternity’s annual spring break video.

Instead, I’m talking about 20 seconds of insane courage to walk across the hall, and ask that other new student to get dinner or coffee with you; or 20 seconds of insane courage to show up to the a cappella try-outs, or to sign up for the three-on-three water polo tournament. Or 20 seconds of insane courage to see a professor during her office hours, to attend the pre-law or pre-med interest meeting; to email about a research assistant position you saw advertised on a bulletin board in the psychology building; or 20 seconds of insane courage to grab your friend and leave a party, or to shut down racist or sexist or homophobic comments you hear in your dormitory study lounge.

Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.

My third, and I promise, last C . . . is CURIOSITY.

In high school, it seems we’ve taught students that curiosity should often resemble PASSION…another one of my least favorite words, as it is so over-used and incorrectly referenced in college applications and life.

We so often hear students say “I’m so passionate about history; or I’m passionate about engineering, or current events, or issues surrounding climate change.”

But rather than that word “PASSION”, I encourage you to think “curiosity” … as in, “I’m so curious about history; I’m curious about engineering, or current events or issues surrounding climate change”

That word “curious” implies that a student can develop a friendship with a topic – it doesn’t need to be a passion, but rather a conversational friendship with a new or a familiar idea or concept. A friendship that allows you to question, to explore, to lean in and learn more about it…without feeling committed to it forever!

That word “curiosity” also reminds me of an incredibly thought-provoking idea that I first heard about – interestingly enough – fifteen years ago in a Durham Academy Commencement Address delivered by the then President of Duke University, Nan Keohane. I’m going to borrow liberally from President Keohane’s address for a couple of moments.

In the coming decades, she wrote, each of you will spend a lot of time with many different people—but the person you will spend most time with is yourself. One of your major purposes in college should be preparing yourself to be an interesting person to spend time with. This has a double advantage: first, that you will enjoy your own company in solitude, when you choose to be alone or find yourself in circumstances where you are alone. And secondly, that you will be a more interesting person for other people to spend time with, so that friends will seek you out for your wit and conversation, not avoid you as an airhead or a pompous bore.

President Keohane referenced an interesting perspective on this matter, penned by one of her favorite authors: a sixteenth century Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne, and this idea has fascinated me all these 15 years.

Montaigne wrote of a lovely image of a “back room of the mind”—literally an “arriere-boutique”, a workshop out back. He thought of his own mind as a kind of tower library to which he could retreat when he was far from home, a back room in his mind filled with quotations from wise people, with experiences, ideas, jokes, and anecdotes, where he could keep company with himself.

Montaigne was surely not advocating a life of isolation, but instead, was encouraging each of one of us to furnish our mental workshop as places where we can refine our raw ideas in the fires of our intellect before sharing them with the world. Whether you work in an impoverished rural county in NC with Teach for America, or as the head of mergers and acquisitions in a major Wall Street firm, use the back room of your mind to make your words -- and your life -- more meaningful, and more enduring.

Back to my point about curiosity –  In college, as you continue to fashion that back room of your mind, curiously seek out diversity among your companions, because difference—whether a difference of opinion or language or geography or skin color—is a source of wisdom. Put away your cell phones, power down your laptops, and engage with the people and the environment around you. Prepare yourself to be an interesting person to spend time with.

In choosing your courses, be bold enough and curious enough to be adventurous and challenged; but also remember the sheer value of play, because playfulness is the source of the exuberant, freewheeling, unfettered interplay of ideas…so be sure that some of your mental furniture can be played on – a mental jungle gym, so to speak! Give your mental design team free reign with this assignment!

I’m envious of the 64 college communities that will call you their own in the coming year. Each of those campuses will soon be enriched by your intellect, your leadership, your grace, your hilarity, your kindness and compassion, your determination, your grit, and your remarkable resilience.

My hope is that this summer, as you are packing your boxes and bins, your suitcases and trunks, to head off to your respective campuses, you will be sure to tuck in an open-minded spirit of community, those 20 seconds of insane courage, and your keenly curious eye for some truly unique pieces of mental furniture to furnish your own back room.

Please come back to see us – soon and often. We already miss you!

Thank you.


Posted by mulkus on Friday July, 7, 2017 at 02:15PM


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