Billy's Blog

Archives - January 2019

Keystone strives to live by MLK's values

January 25, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of my favorite holidays is the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, and I have come to appreciate it even more in San Antonio. For the second year in a row, I had the privilege of walking with other members of the Keystone community in the MLK march, which is now the largest of its kind in the nation. There’s something awe-inspiring in seeing the hundreds of thousands -- yes hundreds of thousands-- people walking in support of peace and justice. It provides one with a sense of hope and energy in these contentious times.

Every January, I try to read or listen to something related to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. It could be re-reading the seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” finding a recent article, or listening to a history podcast. A couple of years ago, I heard a speaker explain that as educators, we should relish the opportunity to teach our students about the ongoing struggle in American history to realize the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Watching our Cobras walking with others in the MLK march humbled me, and I considered myself fortunate to to be in their company.

As we walked, I also considered how Dr. King’s work meshed with Keystone’s core values of academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership. King entered Morehouse College as a 15 year old, then attended graduate school at Crozer Theological Seminary where he received a Masters’ Degree, and ultimately received a PhD from Boston University. As King developed his own personal philosophy, he immersed himself in the Old and New Testament, the American Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau, theologians such as Paul Tillich, and 20th Century anti-colonial leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. As an 18 year-senior at Morehouse College, he said, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.” In 1951, when King graduated from Crozer with valedictorian honors, Dean Charles Batten praised him as “one of our most outstanding students,” who showed “fine preparation, an excellent mind, and a thorough grasp of the material.”

At times in his career, Dr. King overcame an internal resistance to speak out when his personal ethics compelled him to proceed in spite of the cost. For many years, he refused to comment publicly on the war in Vietnam out of fear of alienating the Johnson administration or potential supporters. Although King began voicing anti-war sentiments in 1965, it was only after seeing pictures of bombing victims while on vacation in 1967 that King felt he could no longer remain silent. On April 4, 1967, he gave a speech at Riverside Church that explicitly called for the US to change its policy toward Southeast Asia. People responded to his speech with either strong support or bitter criticism; however King believed it was his ethical duty to bring attention to a conflict that he felt was morally wrong.

Although Reverend King’s work took place within communities, the nature of his efforts differed depending on the issues. In August, 1966, King commenced his first major protest in a northern city when he led a protest for fair housing and integration in Chicago. While some might predict that marching north of the Mason-Dixon Line would be easier or more welcome than in the South, King’s foray into the Windy City proved otherwise. As soon as he exited his car, King was struck in the head by a rock and required the protection of his aides from hurled bricks and bottles. King remarked “I have never seen, even in Mississippi, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” While the movement was designed to address particularities of Chicago’s housing patterns, the results were generally mixed; there was greater attention now paid to inequities but residential segregation in the community remained.

As we know, responsible leadership can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Perhaps one example from King’s life was his trips to Memphis in March and April, 1968 to support the sanitation workers in their struggle for better working conditions. After two workers were crushed in a sanitation truck, laborers went out on strike. When a protest led by King and others on March 28th turned violent, King called off the march. Although King considered not returning to Memphis, in the end, he felt the need to return and lead a non-violent march to prove that this form of civic action could work. Sadly, we are all too aware of what followed.

Whether it was achieving excellence in his academic career, speaking out on the ethics of war, responding to a community’s housing patterns, or putting himself in harm’s way to demonstrate the power of nonviolent protest, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life can teach us to live out Keystone’s core values in our own lives. The spirit of his movement was with us as we walked on Monday; we can be proud of our students and their efforts to realize his work in today’s world.

Alums show how Keystone is like the Peace Corps

January 17, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“It’s the toughest job you will ever love.”

I thought about this motto of the Peace Corps developed by the AdCouncil in 1961 as I listened to Keystone alumni last week. Over two days, I heard from former Cobras as they recounted their times in high school and college.  On Tuesday, January 8th, alumni returned to campus and served on panels speaking to current students in grades 9-12. They offered advice on how to handle the workload of high school, how to plan for the college process, how to manage the competing demands of senior year, and what to look for in a college.

On Wednesday, we heard from members of the Class of 2018. They discussed how Keystone prepared them for the rigors of college. When asked what we could have done better to ready them for their post-secondary educational experiences, they did not have much to say because they explained, they were so well prepared.  We discussed helping them find internships, possibly providing them with even more chances to pursue their individual passions, and when to schedule trips during junior and senior year.

Listening to these former Keystone students was an absolute pleasure. As you would expect, they were articulate, thoughtful, reasonable, and they had many good ideas.  It was interesting and reaffirming how their comments and suggestions dovetailed so well with the discussions we had earlier in the week around our self-study. Their comments supported what we have been studying during the self-reflection process, and it was heartening to hear so much commonality in the themes we’re addressing.

Perhaps most surprising were the opinions expressed by the alumni regarding stress at Keystone.  When asked repeatedly by administrators about the level of stress in high school, the response was the same.  They agreed that Keystone is hard, and at times, it can be very stressful. However, they also concurred that they were more than well-prepared for college, and in fact, they were much better equipped to handle the transition to college than their peers.

From those students attending Ivy League colleges to those at large state universities to alumni in art schools to former Cobras at small liberal arts colleges, they agreed the academic program at Keystone is outstanding.  They also said that while it’s intense, it’s also doable because the teachers are so caring and compassionate. They explained that the nature of the relationships between students and teachers enabled them to succeed and be ready for whatever came next.

Hearing these thoughts from alumni was affirming and helpful.  As a school committed to academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership, we will always study how we meet our mission and look for ways to improve.  In addition, in our commitment to student wellness, we always want to gauge how students deal with stress and anxiety. We will attempt to balance how students manage their current course load while ensuring that they are ready for the work they will encounter in the next step of their educational journey.

One of the most succinct explanations for the benefits of the Keystone program came when an alumnus said, “Yes, Keystone is hard, but it’s worth it.”  As parents and as educators, we should maintain one eye on the present and one eye on the future; if we do, we can feel good indeed about the Keystone experience and where our students are headed.

Lessons in resiliency from Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling

January 11, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation in which I built my life.”
--J.K. Rowling

By now, the story is well known. While stuck on a delayed train, a medical researcher for Amnesty International hatches the idea for a series of books about a boy and his friends who attend a school for wizards and do battle against evil.  The aspiring author goes through a seven-year period of loss as her mother passes away, divorces her first husband, and battles poverty until her first book is published in 1997.

While this kind of rags to riches story may seem like a fairy tale, J.K. Rowling’s journey from personal hardship to the richest author in the world is in fact true and can serve as an inspiration to all of us.  As a parent and as an educator, I have loved the Harry Potter books for the lessons they can teach us. In particular, I appreciate how Rowling captured the ups and downs that students in school experience and how important it is for children to learn resilience, whether it’s because the fate of the world is in peril or one is arguing with his friends.  

I mentioned how well the Harry Potter series portrays this concept during conversations our younger son and I had while hiking in Big Bend National Park over the winter holiday. For a number of reasons and for many years, our college freshman has been interested in the role that struggle plays in one’s personal life and what separates those people who bounce back from hardship versus those who succumb and never achieve their potential.  He wrote his high school senior thesis on this topic, and after much research, he came to the conclusion that one of the most important criteria for success is the way that parents help their children deal with adversity.

A November 26th article in the online magazine Fatherly called “Resilient Kids Come From Parents Who Do These 8 Things” by Lizzy Francis supports the notion that we parents play a large role in helping our children grapple with difficult situations.  In this piece, Francis quotes advice from Amy Morin, LCSW, and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do.  Whether it’s not being chosen for a team, receiving a low grade on a test, or opening a rejection letter from a college, our children will experience a number of “failures” over their lives, and as parents we can teach them how to respond so they don’t crumble but in fact come back even stronger than before. This is not to deny that there will be pain-there will be, but we can aid our children in learning that, as a colleague once said, “a failure is an event, not a person.”  

Morin gives eight suggestions for bringing up resilient children. (If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a large body of fascinating research on building resilience, including a multi-year study by the US Army.)  She advises parents to allow their children to experience struggle and rejection, but we need to give them the tools to do this successfully and not allow them to fall into the trap of self-victimization. This may sound obvious, but as parents it’s all too easy to adhere to the notion that we’re only as happy as our least happy child, and as a result, we attempt to protect our children from adverse experiences.  According to Morin, we need to do more than just tell our children to “suck it up;” we should help them learn how to identify what they’re feeling, acknowledge their mistakes, practice self-care, and develop a plan for moving forward. In addition, we want our children to understand the connection between their effort and their achieving positive results. As Angela Duckworth explains so well in her book Grit, we should recognize our children’s work ethic and habits, rather than their innate ability, when they do well.  

Of course, implementing these suggestions is not easy.  In fact, teaching our children how to be resilient may be one of the most challenging components of parenting. It hurts to see them feel pain, rejection, or loss, and it can surface many of our own personal experiences. (Perhaps, and while not minimizing what they’re feeling currently, we can use our own life events as teaching tools for our children to let them know that others have gone through something similar and have flourished.) If we want our children to be successful in the long term, rather than merely happy in the moment, coaching them on how to rebound from life’s adversities may be one of the most important skills they develop.


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