By Bob Whelan P '24
Head of School
Possibility is a powerful concept. One could make a pretty good case that those of us who work in schools are really in the possibility business. The Greeks have a word, Arete, that means virtue or excellence, or more specifically, living up to one’s highest potential from moment to moment. The pages of this magazine are filled with examples of the ways in which members of our community set ambitious goals and then find the courage to meet them. I consider it a great privilege to partner with young people at such pivotal points along their educational journeys as they engage in the challenging work of identifying who they can become. Within these halls, classrooms, stages, and fields our students are deciding what world they will create.
I draw energy from a profession that I find inspiring. I feel profoundly grateful to have the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
I am motivated to help create opportunities for young people, in part because my teachers did the same for me. So many of the lessons learned during youth — resiliency, compassion, self-respect, and love of learning — are among the essential lessons of life. These are concepts that are not learned quickly, nor in lecture format. They become ingrained though repeated positive experiences in an atmosphere of support and high expectation, an environment of warmth and rigor.
There’s a Zulu word sawubona that means, “We see you.” We really see you. And for a young person, that’s particularly powerful. I went to a pretty good-sized public high school before going to an independent school, which was an experience that changed my life. I found myself in a community where I was indeed seen and known, and my teachers and coaches had higher expectations for me than I could ever imagine for myself.
Tom McGraw saw me. He was an English teacher and basketball coach, and one of the main reasons I am an educator today. He taught us about art, The Odyssey, punk rock, and basketball. Mr. McGraw instilled in me a sense of possibility. We would play one-on-one after practice and he played with the kind of abandon that challenged me to raise my game. It was an environment where it was okay to try something new — it was encouraged. He knew my love of music and he encouraged it. His mantra was: “Make it happen.” I know there are many Tom McGraws among our faculty members today.
At GFA we incubate that concept of possibility. Here, students are known and deeply valued by the adults. We are not strangers to “making it happen.”
One of the many inspiring comments I heard during the interview process came from a longtime administrator and parent. He said that while GFA is a school rooted in tradition with an unimpeachable legacy, it is always looking for opportunities to innovate. From seemingly small decisions made every day in the classroom to broader, forward-thinking curricular advancements like the new schedule (see page 20), there is a culture of continuous improvement. GFA stays nimble — always looking for the next opportunity to be the best possible place for students. Innovation is not a buzzword at GFA it is a hallmark. Here, thoughtful progress travels alongside a long tradition of achievement.
During my four, carefully orchestrated visits to campus this spring, I witnessed several moments of great possibility. During Upper Schoolers’ presentations at World Perspectives Symposium, I was awed by the confidence exhibited as students explored a year’s worth of thoughtful and detailed research. I was wowed by the joy of the Middle School production of Lion King, Jr. (page 46) and deeply touched by the reassurance of an administrator’s soothing “you got this” when stage fright struck during the Lower School talent show. I was inspired by the toughness and teamwork I observed on the playing fields this spring, and at an electric Pack the House this winter. That grit and tenacity spoke volumes about the persistence required to be one’s best.
The building blocks of a life of purpose are often revealed in some of the “main stage” moments as well as some of the seemingly smallest human exchanges. We know that when kids feel connected and engaged as partners in a dynamic learning community like Greens Farms Academy, they lead different lives as a result. Impressive and diverse lives, too, as exhibited by our alumni community from War on Drugs drummer Charlie Hall ’92 (page 52) to filmmaker and activist Chris Temple ’07 (page 60).
Kids make me laugh — every day. They surprise me with insights, ideas, and questions that I hadn’t considered, and they regularly see the world quite differently than I do. PreK and Lower School students make me smile with their unbridled joy, creativity, and curiosity. Middle and Upper School students help me remember that I need to continually grow and evolve. They challenge me, which I deeply value. And what I enjoy most with all students is when they are sharing what’s most important to them — music, popular culture, relationships, sports — and what they so keenly observe in the adults around them.
I consider it a gift to work alongside people who are drawn to education not because it is a job, but because it is a calling. Teachers with the latter profile had a transformative impact on my life — they still do. Looking back, there were common themes shared by those educators; they were unwavering in their commitment to developing strong relationships with their students, they were passionate about their craft, they had high expectations, and they were empathetic. I recognize now that they almost all modeled a growth mindset, well before that concept was developed.
Youth is a time of such amazing possibility and hope. A young person, sustained by a supportive and innovative learning community, will be positioned to generate new ideas, relationships, and avenues of understanding. Cultivating the next generation of lifelong learners and leaders is one of the most important contributions we can make toward an unwritten future. I cannot imagine a more worthwhile endeavor.