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Archives - October 2018

A love of libraries never fades

October 29, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.
–Libba Bray

Do you remember the first time you entered a library? Do you recall the sense of wonder and possibility? An entirely new world opened itself up to you and you alone; the experience felt both gleeful and truth be told, almost illicit, but no, it was fully allowed and even encouraged!

I reminisced on this moment as I listened to best-selling author Susan Orlean at last weekend’s Texas Book Festival in Austin. My wife and I drove up for the day to hear such highly regarded writers and speakers as Cecile Richards, Michael Beschloss, H.W. Brands, Dani Shapiro, Daniel Mendelsohn, Alfredo Corchado, and Lawrence Wright. There was something awesome and inspiring in seeing literally thousands of people crowding the State Capital and its surroundings to listen to book talks, purchase signed copies, and revel in the written and spoken word.

Orlean, the author of The Orchid Thief, was reading from her newest book, The Library Book. In this book, she studies the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1968, which burned over four hundred thousand books and damaged another seven hundred thousand, in order to consider the role of libraries in our world in general. As she recounts the history of the LA Public Library, Orlean looks at libraries and books and the role they play in our lives.

She begins her story by recounting her first visit to a library with her mother in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “On those visits, my mother and I walked in together but as soon as we passed through the door, we split up and each headed to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place I was ever given autonomy. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to head off on my own...Our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so bountiful.”

As Orlean read this passage from her book, I was transported back to my childhood visits to the library. As she explains, visiting the library is different than going to the store. In the store, parents and children negotiate and perhaps argue over what to buy; at the library, we can have as much as we can hold. The library didn’t force choices, since it was all free. (It only began to cost something when we neglected to turn things in on time.)

This difference even exists between bookstores and libraries. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a bookstore, and I’ve been known to spend way too much time and far too much money in bookshops in different cities. Hibernating in locally-owned, independent bookshops is one of my favorite activities, and just this past summer, our older son and I spent a rainy afternoon in Portland, Maine going from bookseller to bookseller buying books on philosophy and science-fiction. Nevertheless, our budget was finite, and we did have to prioritize.

Even today, one of the first items on my “to-do list” when we move to a new city, whether it’s St. Louis, Albuquerque, or San Antonio, is procuring a library card. It symbolizes that this place is now home. A library card is also kind of like a credit card, but even better. You can get everything you want, but you don’t have to actually pay anything! What could be better?

The library is one of the few places in our world that doesn’t force us to choose. However, libraries can also be daunting if one doesn’t know how to use them. Of all the lessons that teachers and parents should teach their children and students, perhaps one of the most valuable is how to be most effective in a library. One of my favorite writers on reading, writing, and libraries, Alberto Manguel, once said, “The love of libraries, like most loves, must be learned.” Give them a lesson on how to navigate the stacks and then set them free to wander and wonder.

There are few places on Keystone’s campus that are more lovely and more cozy than the Lower School library, and we are fortunate to have this space and such a wonderful guide as Ms. Carolyn Denny. However, as good as she is, I invite you to come with your child and spend some time in the library, and if not at Keystone, visit a branch of your local public library. Introduce your child to the excitement and boundless opportunities in a library. It may be one of the most enjoyable and long-lasting gifts your child receives.

Shaping our futures by shaping our buildings

October 25, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us

So said Winston Churchill in 1943 when Parliament debated whether to rebuild the Commons Building after it was destroyed during the London Blitz. In typical Churchillian fashion, the indomitable Prime Minister provided inspiration through his clarification of a concept we know intuitively but may sometimes forget. The interaction between humans and their constructed spaces can either elevate them to new heights or it can reduce them to their lowest instincts. Whether it’s a soaring cathedral ceiling or a constricted airport hallway, we are products of our environment.

How much more true this is for schools! The design of a classroom can challenge students to broaden their minds and hone their ideas, or it can reduce adolescents to a soporific slumber. For example, there is a direct correlation between standardized test scores and natural light; as you may imagine, more sunlight correlates to higher scores. I learned this firsthand in my first headship; my school was a former grocery store that had been retrofitted for middle and high schoolers. Like many stores, this one had long concrete walls with no windows. One summer, we busted holes in the concrete block and created glass block windows that allowed sunlight to enter.  The mood of the entire school shifted; we saw higher performing students who were even happier than they had been previously.

One of the things my wife and I appreciated immediately about the Alamo City is the admirable re-use of structures for new purposes. We have been impressed with the Landa Library, the McNay Museum, the San Antonio Art Museum, and of course, the Pearl. Like those unique San Antonio institutions, Keystone has repurposed historic and beautiful structures. In our case, we have created places of teaching and learning for students. There’s something wonderful about children studying and playing in spaces that have stood the test of time; in effect, it places our current generation in a historical continuum. The historian in me also wonders what children inhabited these rooms and hallways before Keystone took over. What ghosts, both literal and figurative, walk our halls at night?

However, like other places in historical districts and as with other elements in a school, we can improve. For this reason, we hired a firm out of Dallas to spend last week on our campus, assess our facilities, and produce a report on ways we can better our spaces.  In a few weeks, we will receive a report that will form the foundation for a master planning process for Keystone’s future. We hope to complete this process by next spring so we can begin planning.  

For seventy years, Keystone has been challenging and supporting children to achieve their potential as students and as human beings. Since 1953, teachers and students have been engaged in this noble endeavor here at 119 East Craig. During those seven decades, people have been shaped by these spaces, and they in in turn have influenced these facilities. As we prepare this generation and future generations of Cobras for a world that is interconnected, fast-moving, and global in scope, we will reconfigure our buildings and they in turn will reshape us. It’s exciting and energizing work, and I look forward to joining with you in it.  


A love of books is a gift of many lifetimes

October 19, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“I cannot live without books.”
Thomas Jefferson

Perhaps one of my favorite sites at morning drop off is when children are still reading as parents pull up to the curb. Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing adults and children engaged in a conversation or jamming to music; however, I am sucker for the boy who gets out of the car still reading his book and barely looking at where he’s going or the girl who’s so much in the world of her novel that she doesn’t realize that it’s time to open the door and get out. I am genuinely curious when I ask them what they’re reading, and I love hearing their excitement as they explain the plot. Last week a third grader informed me that her goal is to read seventy books this year, and I congratulated her on this lofty aspiration. Beyond being a self-proclaimed bibliophile, why does observing children read warm my heart so much? Perhaps I am reliving the excitement of when I was young and I realized that reading opens one to a unlimited number of new places to go and people to meet. Game of Thrones author George RR Martin once had one of his characters say, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.The man who never reads lives only one.”

As study after study has shown, reading can improve one’s attention span, patience, and vocabulary; other research demonstrates that reading literary fiction can even increase a person’s empathy. This should come as no surprise; when we’ve lived in the worlds of Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Vikram Seth, we come to know their characters as people in our own lives, and we live out their dilemmas as if they were our own. Reading helps children grow cognitively and affectively, and as the adults in their lives, we should support it in whatever way we can.

When I was a child, my father made me a deal. As long as I was reading instead of watching television, he would buy me my books. Although I continued to go to the library, I knew I could always purchase the latest thriller or nonfiction bestseller; I held my dad to his promise until I was in my twenties. Consequently, I always had a healthy library of books I had finished and those still waiting to be read.

I thought about this bargain I had with my father who’s been dead for seventeen years now as I read a recent essay in the New York Times by Linda Huang called “All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read: There’s a Word for That.” As Huang explains, in some ways keeping books on the shelves that we have yet to read reflects an understanding that we still have a great deal to learn. Rather than our libraries being a trophy case of those stories we completed and things we already know, our unopened books demonstrate an intellectual humility and an insatiable curiosity.

Huang points out that there’s a Japanese word-tsundoku that translates as a stack of books that one has purchased but not yet read. Maybe it’s self-rationalization, but knowing that there’s a word for this provides some relief. As my wife and I downsized in our move to San Antonio, we donated somewhere close to eight hundred books, but we still have many more on the shelves of our much smaller house, and most of those I have yet to open. In our short time here already, I have become a big fan of the San Antonio Public Library system and the Libby app for e-books and audio books. Nevertheless, there’s still something exciting about buying a new book or pulling something off one’s shelf and discovering a great piece of literature that has been just waiting for someone to open its pages.

So, if your child approaches you her arms laden with Young Adult novels and historical tales, or he says that he simply must have this new mystery or science fiction story, you might avoid the perfectly understandable response, “You still have so many books at home you haven’t read!” Just be happy that your child has an open mind and realizes that there’s an infinite amount of things to learn and know.

With teens, it's not just what you say but how you say it

October 11, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“She may not have raised her voice, but her tone yelled at me!”

I recalled these words from a former student in a conversation with fellow parents and Keystone’s two counselors, Allison Raymer and Dr. Erica Shapiro during a book talk last week. We gathered in the Lower School Library to discuss Dr. Wendy Mogel’s newest book, Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen. I should say that I have been a fan of Dr. Mogel for a long time, and I have recommended her two previous books, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee and The Blessings of B- to many, many people. Based in Los Angeles, Dr. Mogel is a practicing social-clinical psychologist who has an excellent handle on how to help children develop resilience and independence in today’s world. With humor, she offers sage and practical advice for parents and educators.

In her newest book Mogel explains how the way in which we speak to children at all stages of their lives can be so formative in their upbringing. We know this intuitively, but all too often, and in the heat of the moment, we may forget. There’s a wonderfully, cringe-worthy scene in last year’s hit movie, Ladybird, where the mother and her senior daughter are shopping for prom dresses. The mom does not intend to be condescending and patronizing, but her comments made many of us in the audience both laugh and squirm as her daughter experienced a combination of pain and frustration.

Mogel shows in chapter after chapter how from early on, we talk to our children in ways that can be either uplifting or overly critical, without even thinking about it. Mogel recalls anecdotes from her practice while offering concrete tips that can help us all improve. There’s so much to learn from this book, and Mogel teaches in a way that is both helpful and easy to access.

Perhaps one of my favorite sections is called “What Teenagers Wish Their Parents Knew.” She categorizes these comments from adolescents into three subsections called “What do your parents worry about that they don’t need to?”, “What’s one piece of advice you would like to give your parents?”, and “What are the sweetest things your parents do that they may not realize you appreciate?” Each of these units contain food for thought as we help our teens navigate these turbulent times.

For example, teens offered several comments regarding what they see as unnecessary worrying by their parents. Among them are:

  • “They expect me to be as smart as my brother.”
  • “They ask too many questions.”
  • “They think you have to save the entire country of Darfur to get into Yale.”

We may think that we’re showing our teens how much we care by posing many queries when they get home, but they may wish to relax and not feel like they’re being grilled. Similarly, we’re just trying to be helpful by letting them know what they’re facing in the college process, but they may be stressed out already and not want to discuss it yet again at the dinner table.

All too often, we may think we know what our kids are thinking, but we can be way off base. That’s why it’s helpful to hear the advice they offer to all parents. For example,

  • “There’s a difference between pressure and motivation.”
  • “Please listen instead of thinking up the next thing you’re going to say,”
  • “Ask about my life, not just my grades. Say, ‘How are you?’”

It can be extremely difficult having a teen in the house. (That may be one of my greatest understatements ever.) Their moodiness and seemingly ever-changing personalities can test the patience of a saint, and in our desire to keep open every door open for them or respond after they have said something particularly cutting, we can misstep. We’re constantly walking on eggshells, and sometimes a seemingly innocuous comment can catalyze an eruption. That’s why it’s crucial that we constantly show them we care even when we’re frustrated.

The final question in this section may be the most positively practical. Just as a seemingly innocent remark can cause a shockingly negative response, a small kind gesture can go a long way. Among the things parents do that may go a long way with our children are the following:

  • “When my favorite kind of ice cream just appears in the freezer.”
  • “My dad watches The Walking Dead AND Family Guy with me.
  • “She texts me before a test, Good luck, I love you, instead of texting after How did you do?

Sometimes, it really is the little things that can go a long way, and we may not even realize their import until later.

In our conversation at Keystone last week, we shared things that have worked in our own parenting and some things that we would not recommend. Dr. Mogel’s book provided a great jumping off point for our discussion, and I want to thank Ms. Raymer and Dr. Shapiro for convening the group and choosing the book. If we can all bear in mind what we so often say to our own children, “it’s not always what you say, but how you say it,” we may find navigating the years of adolescence a little easier and more pleasant.

Ninth-grade trip brings perspective and optimism

October 05, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

This might sound like a scene from a movie, but I promise you, it really happened. Fifteen Keystone 9th graders, an educator from the Nature Bridge program in Washington’s Olympic National Park, another Keystone chaperone, and I were perched on a boulder looking down on the roaring rapids of the Elwah River.  Our educator had asked us to close our eyes and imagine all of the people who had been in this beautiful place before us, and right as we were about to do so, a bald eagle slowly soared above us before heading on its way. We all sat in reverence and silence as the magnificent symbol of our country glided over us.  It was one of those moments when you feel lucky to be alive and in the company of others who you both like and respect.

This reverential moment was one of many emotional events I was fortunate to experience during last week’s freshmen Outdoor Education trip. This annual excursion offers Keystone students and teachers a chance to study the Elwah and Solduc River watersheds, observe the beauty of this national forest, and bond as a class.  Mr. Spedding, Keystone’s Upper School Head, called me during the summer and invited me to come along as a way to become more acquainted with the newest high school students; I eagerly accepted his invitation. I had high expectations going into last week’s trip, and I was not disappointed.

Whether we were hiking in what had been a lake until the Elwah River dams were demolished in a successful attempt to restore the river, canoeing across Lake Crescent, climbing to see a waterfall, or doing a night hike through the forest, the students were game to try new things and deeply appreciative of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.  In addition to the reverence they felt about the world around them, they expressed a variety of other emotions.

Perhaps one of the most touching to witness was their awe.  Every night, they asked us chaperones to take them down to the dock so we could lie on our backs and stare at the stars.  They would point out constellations, compare the night sky of their native Texas to that of Washington, and sometimes just sit in silence and soak it all in. It was during one of these quiet times that several students suddenly squealed with glee and amazement as they observed a shooting star. For some, it was the first time they had watched a star make its way across the sky, and their excitement was still palpable the next morning when they described it for others.  For me, it was pure joy to see their enthusiasm, and I counted my lucky stars to be with them.

On our final night at Nature Bridge, we had a campfire down by the lake, and as one would expect, we sang songs, told silly stories, and reminisced about the previous five days.  While all of this was heartwarming, it was fairly standard for a closing activity.

The unusual part occured next.  Our educators passed out sprigs of cedar and asked anyone who wished to share something for which they were appreciative to come in front of the group, speak, and drop the cedar in the fire.  I followed Mr. Spedding and thanked him for inviting me on the trip, Mr. Jim Lindsey, former Keystone Director of Finance and Interim Head for helping develop the school’s Outdoor Ed program, and the 9th graders for being so kind and welcoming to me as I endeavored to get to know them.  

After I spoke, student after student came up to the fire and expressed gratitude to the school, their teachers, and their friends. They pointed out how much they appreciated the welcoming nature of the Keystone community and how grateful they were to the classmates for their support and care.  Their awareness was sincere and heartfelt, and it was beautiful to behold.

What I found as impressive as their gratitude was their courage.  Students discussed how alone they may have felt at other schools and how welcoming their fellow Cobras were. They shared their initial trepidation in coming to Keystone as a new 9th grader and how kind everyone was in making them feel right at home. Perhaps most touching was the student who had left Keystone for a couple of years to attend another independent school in San Antonio only to return this year. With a wisdom far beyond her years, she said, “sometimes the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else.”  I told her afterward that I was moved by her bravery in acknowledging the lesson she had learned.

Reverence, awe, gratitude, and courage-four emotions that many grownups may not associate with today’s teens.  All too often, we hear that adolescents are addicted to their phones, they are self-centered, and they demonstrate little appreciation for what they have.  Yes, they may spend too much time looking down at a small screen, OK, their world views can be circumscribed, and sure, they sometimes forget to appreciate the wonders around them. (As if all of these same things cannot also be said about adults.) However, after this last week, I would sing a different tune. While I cannot pretend to speak for all adults about every teenager, I can tell you that if the thirty-seven young women and men I spent time with are any indication of today’s youth, we are in good hands indeed.  As we landed at the San Antonio airport at 2:15 in the morning, I felt grateful for the previous seven days and optimistic for what lies ahead.


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