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CA Curious

Letting Our Children Be Who They Are Meant To Be

October 27, 2022

The other day I was watching a clip* from a neuropsychologist Dr. Russell A. Barkley who was addressing a group of educators in a series called “Essential Ideas for Parents.”  He began with “The problem with parents these days…” and he almost lost me. Heavy sigh. Eye roll.

I usually have no tolerance for whatever negativity comes after such grand, generalized statements—especially one aimed at parenting (which is arguably more complicated now than in any previous generation). While defensive, I continued watching. He jabbed his finger in the air and proclaimed, “Parents do not get to design their children.”I was intrigued. He went on to say:

Nature would never have permitted this to happen. Evolution would not have allowed a generation of a species to be so influenced by the previous generation.  

A quick perusal of any medical office waiting-area parenting magazines would suggest quite the opposite. There, in glossy print, you’ll find recipes for The Perfect Baby.  The D1 Athlete.  The Child-Who-Has-An-Easygoing-Temperament. Who is writing those articles?

Reading one of those magazines gives a false impression that if parents just do the right things, their children will become what they plan for them to be. No pressure, right? Dr. Barkley would rip those magazines to shreds. Based on everything neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists, and many other researchers have studied, our children are born with a “unique genetic mosaic” comprised of hundreds of psychological and physical traits from genes that extend beyond the biological parents and well into your extended families.

The development of these genes in your children is, science tells us, largely out of the control of parents. Regardless of whether the mother ate enough broccoli when she was pregnant or if she frequented Bojangles for fried chicken twice a day (totally random example, don’t look at me), a large part of her child’s gifts and challenges are already pre-programmed. Too often, society likes to suggest that we have control over so much of what is not in our control. Our kid’s success, we have been told, is based on the choices we make as parents.

The truth is:  we don’t have that degree of power.  Nature would never permit that to happen.”

What does this mean, that we’re not in control?  Is it frightening, or is it freeing?  You tell me. Yes, Dr. Barkley says, a stimulating environment is better than a deprived environment.  But ‘more is better’ reaches its point of diminishing returns, and overload in the name of child design has negative consequences. Maybe our pre-covid schedules and our post-ish-covid schedules in our homes tell that same story. Dr. Barkley and his colleagues encourage us to think of ourselves as parents as Shepherds, not Engineers. He goes on to explain:

The idea that you can engineer IQ, personality is just not true. Your child is not a blank slate on which you get to write.  Instead of an ‘engineer’ view of parenting [that makes you responsible for everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong—totally guilt inducing] step back and take the ‘Shepherd’s View’.  

You are a shepherd to a unique individual. You don’t design the sheep. But shepherds are powerful people. They pick the pastures in which the sheep will graze and develop and grow. They determine whether they’re appropriately nourished. They determine whether they’re protected from harm. The environment is important, but it doesn’t design the sheep. The shepherd knows that he will never make the sheep into a dog, no matter how much he wants a dog.

I read that as this:  we can do what we can to make sure our children have opportunity and surround them with great teachers, healthy friends, and intellectual stimulation. And then we get to observe, accept, and encourage. 

The stress we put on ourselves to engineer our children, surely rubs off on the child—how can it not?  We can unpack the damage of all that parental pressure:  it undermines confidence, sense of self, sense of trust in knowing who you are, and ultimately, paralyzing stress narrows your child’s options rather than follows their lead to new horizons. It certainly would decrease the competitiveness the world wants us to feel with other parents. Imagine this gentler, graceful approach snowballing into a new wave of parenting that encourages observation, discovery, and celebration. And, imagine, our children growing into their authentic selves—confident, assured, proud, and supported.

*After I saw the short video, I dove into literature that was footnoted at the end of the talk. Wow, one can really go down a rabbit hole if one chooses!  Stephen Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature boils the nature vs. nurture argument down and highlights many of these points.  He’s a psychology professor at MIT and was featured on a MIT author series.   I’ve talked about this book before but Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree reads like a textbook but is an ambitious exploration of children’s search for identity in families, in the world. 

Written by Josette Huntress Holland, Head of Middle School

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September 22, 2022

What do we do when our children don’t get what they want? When they’re little, we coach them on the value of sharing, waiting their turn, or accepting the situation. If you are a parent of siblings, you’ve probably set multiple invisible timers to negotiate toy time between equally indignant children. You’ve heard ‘it’s-my-time-with-the-Xbox!’ and ‘I WAS HERE FIRST!!!’ I remember the days when one of my children ONLY wanted to practice the piano at the exact time that their sibling was practicing. Have you ever seen piano-bench wrestling? It’s not pretty. 

But how about when they’re older? An adolescent? What happens when your child struggles with self-regulation when they don’t get chosen for a sports team, their arts major preference, or their first choice in an X-day activity? 

They might seem mad or sad—even indignant; fear of rejection can wear many masks (and some, simultaneously). And, wow, can it be tough to parent a child through that, especially when, as parents, we might struggle ourselves with FOMO (a.k.a. Fear Of Missing Out. It’s a real thing, I promise).  

Or maybe it’s not self-regulation they are struggling with, but rather: what if they’re struggling with a side effect of people-pleasing?  It might stem from a fear of disappointing YOU, their parent, if they did not get or do something that was expected of them.  How can you parent them through those choppy waters?

You can ask a parent of a first-year college student who is at their ‘second choice’ school and thriving. Or you can ask the parent of a child who was put into a random X-day activity last year and ended up loving it.  Or Jay Sagrolikar ’21 who was placed in band as his second-choice arts major in the 6th grade and ended up being one of our school’s most prolific and joyful saxophonists, completing multiple independent studies and performing as a key player in a newly formed jazz band.  His band teacher wrote

Jay, Xavier, and Marvin all stopped by at the start of this school year just to jam a little bit together and be in the band space.  Wonderful young men who have definitely found a passion in their gifts of music.  Here is a short video of what they were playing around with that morning.  Warmed my heart for sure!  

There are lessons to learn here that go well beyond placement.  Parents who have experienced such challenges and have experienced any measure of success have reported that they did a few things:

  1. They let their child feel their emotions—whatever those were.
  2. They sought their child’s permission to discuss the disappointment and their feelings about it.
  3. They discussed it without shame or judgment, approaching the issue with curiosity and empathy, including that it’s okay to have “wants”.
  4. When their children felt like a victim of ‘not being selected,’ they kept the focus on things in their child’s control, like attitude and enthusiasm.
  5. If it wasn’t life-threatening, they didn’t jump in to fix it.
  6. Worth repeating: if it wasn’t life-threatening, they didn’t jump in to fix it. (It’s hard, I know.)
  7. They asked their children for their suggestions on how to move forward, opening an empowering space for their kids to flex agency, figure out self-advocacy, and practice problem-solving.

In short, all found success when the parents signaled that their kids could handle their disappointment and when they stopped assigning judgment to their kids’ feelings. It’s totally normal to feel sad and disappointed and bummed—yes, it makes us parents uncomfortable, but there are no such things as ‘bad’ feelings. 

I know it can be hard to watch your child sit in discomfort, to resist the urge to swoop in and manage a situation or “fix” it on their behalf. However, I promise that there is something extremely valuable in finding safe, low-stakes ways for your children to experience disappointment and find acceptance of an outcome different than what they had planned and envisioned. In a recent podcast entitled How to Raise Untamed Kids, Dr. Becky Kennedy talks with Glennon Doyle and her pod squad (We Can Do Hard Things) about these very topics.  

Of course, I’m not talking about ‘settling’ in a marriage or a career or anything like that. Rather, having a mild-to-moderate disappointment is a chance to understand that sometimes, for reasons that may be as random as a lottery, life deals you your second choice–and that you will be just fine, perhaps even better for it. It can also present an important opportunity to practice breaking the bonds of people-pleasing, which plague so many of us adults. 

You might be saying, “But Josette, my child has had her fair share of disappointments.”  And there are undoubtedly heavy sighs when we recognize societal disappointments, like how COVID shaped the last few years of these children’s social lives.  But if we are genuinely looking to celebrate authentic success, let’s start by recognizing the value in building a worldview in which our children are sometimes the main character and, other times, a supporting crew.  After all, it is in those alternate outcomes, second choices, and “disappointments” that resilience and flexibility are forged. And these are skills you want your kids to have in spades when larger challenges and disappointments come their way. By granting a space for your children to experience and process a disappointment, you are arming them with the confidence and knowledge that, when things don’t go their way, they can handle it—that they’ve “got this.”

And that is how disappointments don’t become setbacks, but new opportunities.

Written by Josette Huntress Holland, Head of Middle School

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The power of purpose

September 2, 2021

Coach Pullen is a genius.

We had been watching our 65 middle school cross country students struggle through an early-season workout. A few students dutifully completed the warm-up jog. Still, most had quickly defaulted to walking — all the while grumbling about the heat, sore ankles, and assorted other tribulations associated with physical activity. 

“OK, runners,” Coach shouted as they came in from the first loop of the field. “Those of you who are one of the top 15 to 20 runners on the team — my best runners — you can go out for another loop. The rest of you, go ahead and stop for a water break.” 

I watched in amazement as at least half the team looked at one another, trying to assess the situation, themselves, and their friends… and then headed back out for a second loop. This time, at a full run. 

Coach Pullen’s motivational technique got me rethinking about something I shared with Upper School students at their opening convocation this year. 

There is a growing body of research on the positive impacts of having purpose in life. As Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow recently explained on an NPR podcast: “There seems to be accumulating evidence that one of the benefits of feeling a sense of purpose is that it can help us remain even keel in moments of stress or challenge, and sometimes even uplifting experiences.”

The challenge for all of us — but especially young people — is how to “find” that purpose. 

Professor Burrow would be quick to point out that this might be the wrong way to look at it. 

Purpose, he would say, is “cultivated,” not found. This happens by creating an environment where you establish a sense of identity and self-understanding, are exposed to new things, interesting questions, and challenging ideas, and then have some self-determination in where you go in life. 

Fortunately, as I told the students in August, research shows us three potential ways to cultivate purpose. 

  1. Proactive: A gradual, sustained attempt to engage in a topic or opportunity. Think of a hobby that morphs into something more, sometimes without even realizing when the transition happened. 
  2. Reactive: Responding to something that happens in life, which can often be negative, that nonetheless gives somebody a newfound sense of purpose or direction.  
  3. Pro-Social: Cultivating a sense of purpose through interacting and learning from other people and their passions or purposes. Like a hobby, this type of purpose acquisition may grow gradually over time — but it comes from our natural desire to share experiences with others. 

We can see opportunities to cultivate purpose in all three ways here at Cary Academy, but certainly more clearly in ways 1 and 3. As we move further down the path of our strategic plan, we seek to build more opportunities to grow student interests and passions through coursework, extracurricular programs, and new experiential learning pathways embedded in X Days. 

Which brings me back to Coach Pullen and seeing first-hand the power of pro-social motivation. None of our new runners are really experienced enough to know if the sport will be for them or if it will lead to a life-long association with running or fitness. For now, though, the experience of being together and of trying on the identity of “top runner,” is a powerful motivator and a positive experience. 

That’s ultimately how the race is won—one step at a time.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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April 29, 2021

In speaking with Middle School Head Marti Jenkins about this week’s Fun Fest activities – rife with bouncy castles and bingo — she said: “This is the first time in over a year that things have felt normal.”  

Indeed, the transition to Yellow Mode has brought a sense of joy, and normalcy, to the routine of school and rituals of spring. Even against the backdrop of ongoing challenges, there is a sense of hope and optimism that very much matches the season. Watching the kids run, and jump, and laugh, on the MS Field lifted my spirits in unexpected ways. It felt right to smile, and maybe for a moment, look forward to better times ahead.  

Of course, one of the reasons to be optimistic for “better times ahead” is that we do not expect to rewind and return to “normal.” While the pandemic and racial reckoning have been isolating and painful, they also have been instructive. We will honor the pain by growing from the experience(s) and doing some things differently, and better, going forward.  

Now, it might be a bit too early to outline precisely what those things are … but I feel quite confident that Cary Academy will start next school year stronger and more committed to our mission than at any time in our 25-year history.  

As a school, I am proud that we have moved our programs and strategic plan forward this year against any number of odds. We’ve put renewed emphasis on student wellness, reimagined how we structure and use time, and leaned into new ways to further experiential learning. Together, these efforts have offered new avenues for our students to exercise agency, leadership, and choice. At the same time, we’ve also reconfirmed and strengthened our commitment to being an anti-racist organization, institutionalizing important ways to genuinely listen, understand, learn from, and support one another.   

While we’ve struggled like every organization and every community this past year, we’ve also learned that we are individually and collectively resilient. Our community is comprised of deeply caring people who want the best for our own families, our school, and our world.  

And our collective patience and goodwill, while stretched at times, never snapped. I cannot overemphasize how important—and, frankly, remarkable–that has been. While there have been plenty of opportunities for Monday morning quarterbacking this pandemic, our families put their trust in CA. Fighting the virus has been hard enough; thankfully, we never started fighting each other. Given the times in which we live, this is greatly appreciated. Thank you, all!  

I’m looking forward to closing out the 2020-2021 school year in the most typical way possible, and planning ahead for a new and improved “normal” for 2021-2022. 

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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December 10, 2020

Every year about this time, we circulate a draft of the next year’s academic calendar before finalizing it in January. It is an opportunity to give our community a heads up so they can start thinking about the coming year and a chance to solicit feedback. Over the past several years, there have been no changes to the calendar once the draft has been posted. 

However, this year, I want to draw your attention to a fairly significant change to the Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks and explain a bit of the background. Please indulge me with what will no doubt be the longest “calendar explanation” you’ll ever read.  

For those who would prefer just the highlights of the significant changes:  

  • Thanksgiving Break for MS students: Wed Nov 17 – Fri Nov 26 
  • Thanksgiving Break for US students: Mon Nov 22 – Fri Nov 26 
  • Winter Break for MS students: Mon Dec 20 – Fri Dec 31 
  • Winter Break for US students: Mon Dec 20 – Wed Jan 5 

If that gives you a headache: take an aspirin, rest your eyes for a moment, and read on for a more detailed explanation.  

It all starts with semesters vs. trimesters 

This year, the Upper School switched to a semester academic schedule, while our Middle School remained on trimesters. This may seem odd, and it is worth a more in-depth explanation.  

When the school was founded in 1996, a great deal of thinking went into building around a trimester schedule. Two significant advantages stood out. 

  • Assessment and Stress: Trimesters were viewed more favorably than semesters because they gave teachers and students more exposure to material before a grading period (which traditionally came at the quarter mark). CA has always believed in the intrinsic motivation of learning and wanted to institutionalize that by having fewer times when we give report cards and focus on grades – three as opposed to four times a year.  
  • Planning and Recoup Time: Another key feature of the trimester schedule was the ability to build in a two-week break for students at the end of a marking period. Importantly, several of these days have been used by faculty as professional days to close out one term and collaborate on curriculum and activities for the next term.  

Changes in the Upper School 

As a part of our strategic planning process, the Upper School has made several changes to their program to enhance student choice – giving them more chances to “own their own learning.” These changes started even before the strategic plan with the introduction of the Path Program in the social sciences department, which introduced a selection of topical, trimester-based history courses in the ninth- and tenth-grade years. This has expanded in other grades to new trimester-based selections in English, world languages, PE, and fine and performing arts. 

Not only are these choices beneficial in helping students delve deeper into areas of interest, but they also give students more flexibility and variety in course selection and more ability to craft their own unique narrative about their educational journey. That sense of self-awareness and ownership is so important as students apply and prepare to transition into college – where even greater choices and decisions await.  

However, there have been two significant tradeoffs to adding so many trimester based courses into the schedule:  

  1. First off is that a trimester is not that long, and it can be a challenge to find opportunities to dive a bit deeper into more complex material or build off of earlier aspects introduced in a course.  
  1. Second, all of these trimester courses end up on the transcript – introducing waves of grade anxiety that didn’t exist when nearly all our courses were year-long. In essence, these new courses did the exact opposite of what we chose the trimester calendar for all those many years ago … to reduce stress and unnecessary focus on grades.  

Finally, a smaller but not inconsequential factor is that, as we’ve expanded our opportunities for choice and experiential learning, more and more students are blending outside courses and programs into their learning journeys. They may be taking online classes with the Global Online Academy or the VHS Collaborative or participating in place-based programs such as High Mountain Institute or the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. All of these programs operate on a semester calendar, and meshing them with our trimester system has grown more complex as more students pursue more programs.  

While we are only in our first year of the semester calendar, early feedback has been positive. When discussing grade anxiety, it is also important to note that, with the change to semesters, we have not adopted quarterly report cards. We do report “mid-term grades,” which we also did at the mid-trimester level. These are important check-ins but very different than a report card.  

All told, these changes are unique to the Upper School. While the Middle School has adopted more choice within their courses, they generally still remain year-long, with grade check-ins three times a year. The trimester system still fits the needs, and the program set up in the MS quite nicely.  

So, what does this mean for the calendar? 

This background can be helpful in understanding why we have shifted the breaks in the calendar. The addition of a week of instructional time for the Upper School does two critical things. First, it gives more balance to the first-semester and second-semester courses. Second, it takes away the momentum killer of a two-week break right before semester end, rather than at the end of the trimester.  

The breaks also take into account the now different divisional needs for planning/professional time.  

We recognize that this might prove slightly inconvenient for some families with children in both divisions. However, we hope that, given enough advance time for planning, it will be manageable.  

You will notice that we made no changes to the two-week break in the spring. That break does fit nicely as a mid-point break for the US semester.  

Finally, a preemptive answer to some lingering questions 

We suspect that you may have two other questions regarding next year’s calendar: 

Will the start times remain the same? 

Yes. We implemented new, staggered start times as both a pandemic and wellness initiative. We believe the sleep research is strong, and will continue with these new start times next year. We will reassess again a year from now, when we get a better sense of potential impacts on travel time and athletics.  

Will Flex Days remain? 

Yes. We appreciate the flexibility (pun intended) families have shown as we roll out some new programs this year. We’ve learned a lot, and we expect the program and the communication will continue to improve.  

We will communicate a much more detailed Flex Day calendar in the spring. The calendar will look different; we expect that some flex days will be used for more academic purposes once we can get everyone back on campus (such as days where all classes meet for shorter periods or some classes meet for makeup/review sessions).   

That was a lot, and we are open to feedback. Please feel free to send it to me directly.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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The joys of an (ir)regular routine

September 24, 2020

Next Tuesday — after 29 weeks, or 148 days to be exact – we will have students on campus for regular coursework!

OK, so maybe “regular” is pushing it. Nothing about the last six months (or the coming six months) could fit within a reasonable definition of regular. 

Let’s just say it will be a great to have students back on campus on a more regular basis. That’ll work. 

In addition to feelings of relief and excitement, the next few weeks will also be a little uncertain as we adapt to new routines and refamiliarize ourselves with in-person learning (or some facsimile). As we’ve shared quite a bit about health and safety expectations recently, I won’t belabor the point here. Other than say: Be mindful that just because we are returning to school doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. We are learning to adapt to living in the world during a pandemic, and in doing so we must remain vigilant. 

With that important reminder out of the way, what I really want to talk about is how we can embrace our new reality and manage the loss that we feel as the pandemic continues. 

The restart of on-campus learning does not mean that things will spring back to normal anytime soon. Some traditions and experiences that we’ve come to associate with school in general (class bonding trips) and Cary Academy specifically (world language trips) have disappeared. Other traditions may be continued in some form but altered in such a way as to be unrecognizable. (Yes, the incoming 9th graders did sign the welcome books during small advisory orientation meetings, but this is traditionally done during a raucous opening convocation with the whole Upper School.)

However, the change in our routines does not in any way diminish the validity or power of new experiences and relationships. This can be hardest on us adults, who are maybe a bit more set in our ways and feel more acutely the loss of experiences we had wanted for our children. I felt this last spring when I took a middle-of-the-night-call to assist in evacuating my own college-age son from his study abroad experience in the Czech Republic. As winter turned into spring, all of us holed up in our house, I was pained for what he didn’t get to experience. But while I was stuck focusing on what I had wanted reality to be, he adapted much more quickly to the disappointment and moved on. He has his own memories and stories about his experiences – and, in his telling, rather dramatic evacuation – that are powerful and poignant. 

When we look back on the pandemic, and the adjustments and sacrifices we have had to make, this will be a powerful moment in the lives of our children. It will be their moment. Unique. A test of their resilience and fortitude. They won’t remember what didn’t happen, but instead what did happen – how they laughed, cried, got bored, made a friend, got in fight with said friend, learned something new, missed a deadline, got embarrassed by their parents, had their dog loudly pass gas during a Zoom class meeting… You know, the stuff of life.

While we may layer on our hopes and dreams for our children, this is their only reality. 

This is our reality, too. 

And we are going to have a great year together.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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Patience, flexibility, grace, and oodles of kindness

August 13, 2020

Pandemic. Hurricane. Earthquake. And that was just the first half of the month! 

Despite so many headwinds, it has been delightful to see students back on campus this week. Even though we couldn’t see the smiles, we felt the energy. We all needed this week — together, even if only briefly.

The start of any school year is always one of imagination and invention. Excitement and possibility. This year, we unfortunately have to mix in caution and anxiety. We don’t have a playbook for opening a school year in a pandemic, made even more complicated against the backdrop of important reflection on race and equity and a highly politicized national election.

One of my first emails to parents and students this year involved asking you to read and sign something we call the CA: United Compact. Yes, this was in one sense a document that outlines behavioral expectations that will allow us to do face-to-face school in a pandemic. It was also an acknowledgment of the risks of doing same. 

In another sense, it is a call to a higher purpose. It is a recognition that, as a community, we all have a stake in both our individual and collective wellbeing. At this stage in our understanding of the pandemic, we can all recognize that the individual choices we make could have a direct, negative effect on the health of another person — hence the expectations around masks and distancing. 

Equally important, though, is the need to extend goodwill as we re-learn how to come together as a community. We need to uplift each other through this transition, as we all navigate so many different emotions. 

Practically speaking, these suggestions are familiar: 

  • Assume positive intention. 
  • Listen to understand.
  • Speak to be understood. 

Putting these into practice when we might be nervous, anxious, angry, confused (insert your own adjective) is much, much harder. 


But, now is the time to work — together — to create our best possible future. We cannot shrink away from the many challenges that confront us, but instead we need to lean into one another for comfort and support as we forge ahead. 

Doing this well is going to require patience, flexibility, and grace — and as Mr. Bob Ingram told the graduates of the Class of 2020 at their virtual commencement — oodles of kindness.  

Chargers, we are up to the challenge. Now is our unique moment to reinvent what it means to be a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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ICYMI: What might social distancing look like in the fall

April 29, 2020

What might social distancing look like next fall? While we don’t yet have all the answers, CA’s leadership has launched a series of task forces to grapple with the many complex dimensions of opening a new school year amidst a global pandemic.

Tonight, Head of School Mike Ehrhardt sat down for a virtual interview with WRAL’s Amanda Lamb to discuss the complex challenges and decisions ahead—from possible health screenings to mask usage to social distancing considerations to dining hall preparations and everything in between.

“When you start to get into it, you realize how much a school has to examine in order to feel like we can open things [back] up and be safe and comfortable for students,” Ehrhardt told Lamb.

Watch the entire interview, here:

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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It all starts with Twinkle, Twinkle

August 16, 2018

I can’t stop thinking about that smile.

It came while I was shadowing Kevin, grade 6, last fall.

We had arrived in last period: beginning orchestra. Mr. Qiao was helping students tune their instruments — violins, violas, cellos. He asked them politely to refrain from strumming, banging, or tapping while he made his rounds. Alas, this was too much to ask fidgety 12-year-olds at the end of the day. Each “sshhhh” would quiet the room for a few moments before the noise would swell again.

Just when I started feeling nervous (it felt like an hour but was probably no more than 10 minutes), the instruments were ready. Mr. Qiao pointed to notes on the board behind him, and tentatively the group began to pluck (they were too raw to use the bows). I couldn’t make out much through the din, until slowly, somewhat unsteadily, the cacophony came together.

ViolinI heard the familiar tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

At that moment, Mr. Qiao looked up from his podium with an absolutely radiant smile.

In a normal visit, I might pop in for five minutes and leave. Had I done so on this particular day, I would have left right in the middle of the crazy din of the tuning. What was going on, I might ask. Are those kids learning anything?

As an educator and a parent, I have to confess sometimes wondering — in the middle of that multi-year journey, with all its dramas and triumphs — if we’re making progress. It is hard to see the forest through the trees. Especially when the tree’s have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.

In my 45-minute visit to Mr. Qiao’s class, the value of being patient, of trusting the system, came into stark relief.

CA’s first alumnae commencement speakerThat long-term view was reinforced at the end of the year when CA’s first alumnae commencement speaker, Lianne Gonsalves, addressed our graduating seniors. Lianne left CA in 2006 and is now with The World Health Organization’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research in Geneva, Switzerland. She spoke of her journey since Cary Academy and the skills and mindset she developed that helped guide her to her current place in life — researching in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and working with youth in Caracas, Venezuela.

She is not alone in doing good work after graduating CA. Ben Davalos (‘15) was a student at Reedy Creek elementary when he first received tutoring through a CA service program. Ben went on to join CA in high school and is now a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Last spring, he came back to campus to promote a tutoring partnership between CA and his organization NC Sli, which promotes academic and life skills training within the Latinx community. During a lunch meeting at Duke just a week earlier, Madeline Thornton (’14) told us about her work at WISER, an international non-governmental organization that works toward the social empowerment of underprivileged women through education and health. The week before that, during a lunch at NC State, Lindsey Wrege (’17) shared her vision behind creating 321 Coffee, a student organization on NC State’s campus designed to provide work opportunities to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It goes that way when you spend time talking with our alumni.

Over their entire journey through Cary Academy, our students have nurtured a compassion for others, developed a deep set of complex skills, and honed the curiosity and drive that will allow them to move boldly within the world — wherever their interests may take them.

Which brings me back to Mr. Qiao’s smile. After all that set-up, his was partly a smile of relief.

It was also a smile of recognition.

Mr. Qiao knew that this was the first step on a wonderful journey to make music together. After so many years leading our orchestra, he knew what was in store for these kids — at the end-of-year concert and the stage at graduation.

He saw potential, and he was radiant.

And to think, it all starts with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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