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-Steiner, Head of School
Newcomers and welcomers
This morning my colleagues in the Preschool and Lower School hosted an Open House for families considering applications to Durham Academy. Similar events – in all divisions - will follow in the coming weeks.
Seeing crowds of curious, hesitant strangers on our sidewalks reminds me just how formidable a challenge it can be to join a new school community. Whether parents, kindergartners or teenagers, we all faced the same daunting questions on arrival: Is this place right for me? Can I be myself here? Might I find an even better self here?
What follows are remarks delivered recently to our Upper School students and faculty by a DA 10th grader. A little more than a year ago, she was one of those curious, hesitant strangers.
As you read her thoughts, I hope you’ll think about your own first days at DA, and about the role you can play in smoothing the path into our school for next year's new students and their families.
Hello everyone, my name is Madeleine Genova, and I started at DA last year as a freshman. I would first like to thank Mr. Wilson for inviting me to speak today, and would like to welcome all of the new and returning students to the first day of the 2017-18 school year. Also, if you’re wondering why you can hear my heart beating, it’s only because I was just doing cartwheels to get out my jitters.
I won’t lie; when I got into Durham Academy, I had my concerns about being a part of the student body. I had heard, like an unfortunate number of the well-meaning strangers that I’ve encountered, that it was a school of stereotypical private school kids who were utterly unaware of their privilege. Of course, DA has done nothing to deserve this reputation. In fact, if one were to do the research, which needless to say, I had not, one would be struck by how dedicated this school is to community service, and how many students here, being completely aware of their advantages, step forward and offer their services and ideas to help make the world a better place.
When a family friend first suggested that I should look into DA as a high school, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I had had my whole high school journey planned out, and it was a given that I would be alongside one of my closest middle school friends the whole time. When someone offered up an opportunity that scrapped my entire plan, significant as that opportunity may have been, saying that I was happy would be like saying that my cats’ litter box “smells decent."
I was confused enough as it was, because somewhere deep down I knew that getting into DA would mean a happy, moral, and productive future, although I don’t think my subconscious actually drew directly from the school’s mission statement. On the other hand, I knew that choosing DA would force this antisocial butterfly to enter an environment where I knew no one, and I preemptively told myself that friend groups would already be formed and unchanging. But even on top of that, I received conflicting messages from friends and family. Some would say that trying to get in was a great idea, and tell me all about how they had friends with kids at DA who loved it and were always excited for another day of school. Others would give me a big smile, use one hand to cross their fingers and the other to shove a thumbs up in my face, and say “Hey, maybe you won’t get in!”.
However, I did get in, and as much as I wanted to stay with my friend, I knew that there was no way that I could look this incredible opportunity in the face, and flatly turn it down, stereotypical private school kids or not. A few days experiencing Durham Academy was all it took for me to realize just how prejudiced and wrong I’d been. In fact, on the very first day, an extremely friendly student popped seemingly out of nowhere and excitedly introduced herself to me. I didn’t quite know what to do. I hadn’t expected anyone to actually reach out to me, but there I was, in front of this girl, being ecstatically and almost frantically welcomed. I think I managed to stutter through my name, and probably looked gently stunned for the rest of the day. But, I have been friends with her since that moment when she first introduced herself. I continued to experience this eager welcome throughout my first week and beyond, and I learned then that the DA community will do everything it can to make sure that you can see the valued part you play within it.
At last year’s Convocation assembly, again on the very first day of school, I heard a student’s speech that drastically changed my perspective, and showed me once again just how wrong I’d been. This student spoke about an experience he had had volunteering. When he arrived to help out, someone immediately asked what he needed to be signed for school. The student then explained that he had fulfilled all of his volunteer hours. He was there because he truly and sincerely wanted to donate his time and aid. With the help of our numerous community service days, including the much-awaited and fun-filled “Special Olympics”, his speech taught me something else about DA. It is a school committed to community service, and helping those with fewer resources.
Though I began my high school experience with misconceptions and ill-founded thoughts, it didn’t take long for the DA community to correct them. As much as I have come to appreciate being a part of this student body, I wish that every time I explained to someone where I go to high school, I didn't also feel the need to explain that this school is an open and welcoming environment with a strong loyalty to community service and volunteer work, and that the greatest lesson I have learned here so far, is that you have to be careful about making judgements before you’ve experienced something for yourself. That said, if it means people will have a better understanding of this community, I will gladly tell the world exactly what I’ve come to learn, one well-meaning stranger at a time.
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