Dear Parents and Students:
After being away from New York for 11 years, my family and I crossed the Throgs Neck Bridge in late June and immediately felt like we’d returned home. I hope that as you arrive on campus in the coming weeks, you feel the sensation of coming home as well. No matter what this year brings, it will require our collective patience, dedication, and energy!
My name is Chris Disimile and I’m the new Director of the Upper School. I hope you had an enjoyable and relaxing summer and I look forward to meeting you all very soon.
I’m currently reading a memoir by Ray Dalio, a Long Island native who became one of the most influential people in the world according to Time magazine by building a business and creating a unique culture based on “idea meritocracy” and “radical truth.” As I reflect on this year’s theme of “Cultivate Curiosity, Learn Deeply,” his words have proven especially relevant. Dalio says that “human greatness and terribleness are not correlated with wealth or other conventional measures of success . . . judging people before really seeing things through their eyes stands in the way of understanding their circumstances – and that isn’t smart. I urge you to be curious enough to want to understand how the people who see things differently from you came to see them that way.”
Whether you’re new to Portledge or a rising senior, I hope that in the coming year, you feel three things as you make your way in the Upper School. That is, you feel known, loved, and that the teachers, coaches, and administrators here are committed to your success, and indeed, expect your success. Of course, we don’t just want you as students and families to succeed but to thrive. What does thriving look like at Portledge? I’m still getting to know the community, but to me, thriving means developing three things in our students and the community as a whole: Competence, Autonomy, and Relationships. This concept became a mantra at my previous school and was adapted from the concept of Self-Determination Theory originally coined by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.
Competence comes from learning a skill or content thoroughly. It’s when our students gain an appreciation for the material, absorb it with the help of our accomplished faculty, improve upon their knowledge and skills until they love it even more, creating a momentum that will encourage them to eventually develop mastery; and while engaging in that activity, time seems to elapse without noticing. Whether in our impressive International Baccalaureate program or not, our students aspire to learn deeply and develop competence in their classes, their sports, and the arts.
Autonomy is about choosing your own path at Portledge and realizing that this is about your journey as a scholar, artist, athlete, and community member. Earlier in the summer, I sat down with my family for a “movie night.” My daughter argued for Elsa and Anna, my son pleaded his case for “The Mighty Ducks.” We settled on a new Disney+ film called “Luca.” If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it! To me, the most memorable part of the film is when Alberto is explaining to his friend Luca that he needs to silence his inner critic and to believe in adventure, curiosity, and hope. Alberto tells him during a moment of doubt, “you got a Bruno in your head. Don’t listen to . . . Bruno. Silenzio Bruno! Andiamo!” This becomes the friends’ mantra and Luca repeats it whenever he’s doubting himself or his desire for adventure becomes overwhelmed by skepticism or cynicism. “Silenzio Bruno!” and he pushes on to further cultivate his curiosity. Should you try out for the musical? The soccer team? Not sure you can do it? Silenzio Bruno! Make a choice about your remaining time at Portledge and take advantage of the many clubs, teams, and opportunities we have as a community to develop your interests.
Relationships are at the core of what we do here at Portledge, making the past 18 months especially challenging for our students, faculty, and families in part because adolescents (and adults) are so dependent on others. Such interdependence teaches them how to get help, support, and learn from peers; and, to recognize when others in the community or beyond need their help. It is important that our students have the courage to take the first steps when they encounter others in need so that in very unexpected ways they can learn the remarkable things they are capable of doing and the power that relationships have to transform lives for the better.
A few days ago, I watched the delightful Academy Award-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” It’s about a man who’s going through a crisis of confidence and purpose. He spends an entire year visiting the kelp forest on the South African coast of his youth to observe an octopus, visiting her every day, and eventually gaining her trust, befriending her, playing with her, and caring for her. Over time, he becomes an expert in the ways and behavior of this “anti-social” animal. “She was teaching me to be sensitized to the other” according to Craig Foster, the film’s narrator. His daily visits certainly cultivated his curiosity and led to deep learning about a seemingly alien creature. Their relationship helped him realize how much he cared for the others in his life, and how much he can learn from them. I look forward to meeting you and learning from you all very soon.
Director of Upper School