Will MacNeil ’89 Writes Home

I graduated from Waynflete in 1989. At the time, my favourite subject was English. Classes like Creative Writing with Elizabeth Maiman and Essay with Ellie Dwight were where I discovered a talent for telling stories, and a way to explain the world as I saw it. I’m in no doubt that what I learned there was vital. But, funnily enough, it turns out that the classes I dreaded most were the ones that opened doors to my current career.

I went into the compulsory studio art classes kicking and screaming. Nothing seemed less pleasing than a mandatory lesson in humility. What the hell was I going to do with with refined skills in cutting and pasting? Why should I even bother to attempt a drawing when the person to one side of me can sketch like Matisse and the one on the other side can make a charcoal pencil dance in their hands? And for god’s sake, do I really need to put my work up on a board next to everyone else’s, just to hear how terrible it is?

Well, it’s been 25 years since I left Waynflete. Despite my determination to become a writer, I am now, through some sort of twisted plot, a professional artist. Of course I still use the writing skills I picked up. But I draw on the things I learned in that art studio every hour of everyday. Those teachers taught me to see, to interpret, and to convey. I now make animation using a computer.  I lead small teams of artists as we try to make moving images that will tell stories for documentaries or encourage people to sign up for Amnesty International or (unfortunately) to buy something. In other words, I have to see, to interpret, to convey.

I remember the frustration I felt when I first started Major Art in Junior year. I look at schools where I live now (and where my children go) and see students and parents happily see art classes cut from the curriculum as though they’re a luxury. And I realize, as with so many things that you can only understand with hindsight, how wise my teachers were, how vital it was, and is, to keep things like Major Art going and to expose students to a full range of subjects. I’d only suggest they ditch the charcoal pencils.  Nobody can really draw with those things. Not even Matisse.

Maddie Berrang ’09 Writes Home from Ecuador

Life can take you on unexpectedly wonderful adventures, to places you had never expected, and on journeys you had never even dreamt about. You can find yourself looking back at the path that has led you to your current job, city, relationship, continent, and ask yourself what the tipping point was that started the journey that led you to this place.

Maddie on a hike from Quito, Ecuador, where she is living now, to Mindo.

I’m sitting in Quito, Ecuador, asking myself these same questions. I’ve been living here for seven months, teaching English at a university and working with E-Tech International, an NGO committed to assisting communities affected by mining. I have spent the past five years devoted to researching and my desire to work in Latin America. After graduating from Waynflete, I  took a year off and volunteered at Safe Passage in Guatemala City. My year there solidified my love for Latin America and working with other cultures. Then, at McGill University, I majored in Latin American Studies and International Development. During my four years there I researched Canadian mining in Latin America and the environmental and social problems that it causes. That research is what brought me to Ecuador in the first place.

When I reflect back on my past five years and the journey that led me to Ecuador, I realize that the starting point was Waynflete Upper School. More specifically, my journey started my first semester of 9th grade when I joined the Safe Passage activity, which raised money to sponsor a Safe Passage student. Through this group I was given my first opportunity to travel to Guatemala to teach lacrosse to middle school girls and immediately fell in love with the organization and the country.

It is easy to point to my first trip to Safe Passage as the key to where I am today, but really, it was just a small part. My entire experience at Waynflete was what shaped my future; the school  fostered my sense of adventure and my desire to give back to my community and to communities worldwide. The teachers pushed me take on a larger role in my classes and activities, demanded that I think critically and expansively about things, and always encouraged me to go above and beyond my own goals, whatever they may have been. The classes opened my eyes to new topics and ideas, and made me view information from all different angles. Students are given the freedom to collaborate and reach their own conclusions, which makes us think critically about the information we are being taught and the environment in which we live. Graduates then take this critical thinking attitude and apply it to the rest of their lives, questioning what they hear and see, and looking for ways to better the lives of those around them.

In addition to academics, Waynflete offered me many extracurricular activities to feed my desire to work with children. Along with Safe Passage, I was a member of Make-A-Wish for four years, mentored an elementary school girl with Project Respect for three years, coached lacrosse at the Waynflete Summer Camp, and tutored a 2nd grader in math for a year. These experiences showed me that helping other people is not only worthwhile, it is an essential part of being a compassionate and caring world citizen.

The teachers at Waynflete are truly what impacted me and changed the course of my life. Those teachers were huge influences on my life when I was in high school and continue to influence me today. They encouraged me to think freely, question everything, and always follow my passions, no matter what they were. Sue Stein, the ELL teacher, traveled with me to Guatemala on my second volunteer trip. We worked together with one year olds, and her presence on that trip made it much more special. Sue is still a big part of my life, and we continue to keep in touch even five years after I graduated.

Other teachers have been equally important in positively shaping my high school experience. Lowell Libby, Upper School director, was not only my 12th grade English teacher, but also my mentor and therapist when I would go to his office unannounced and rant about issues that I was facing in my personal essays. He helped edit my college essay and put up with multiple trips by both my younger sister and me to his house after school if we wanted extra help.

Cathie Connors (one of the kindest, funniest, most wonderful women I have met) was my lacrosse coach and helped me gain the confidence I needed to later become the captain of my college lacrosse team. I didn’t make the varsity team my freshman year at Waynflete, and Cathie encouraged me to be more confident in my skills. I still remember that she once referenced a drill when a varsity upperclassman and I were chasing a ground ball and I purposefully slowed down and let the other player get it. Cathie said that I should always go full speed after loose balls like that and never be held back by my own fears or insecurities. I still clearly remember that conversation and apply that advice to every situation in my life. Those are the kind of values that Cathie and other teachers instill in their students: to always go after what you want and don’t let you or anyone else – or yourself – hold you back.

Waynflete influenced my life more than I could have imagined. When I reflect on what brought me to teaching English in Ecuador, collecting lacrosse gear for children in Guatemala, and researching destructive mining throughout Latin America, I realize it all began at Waynflete. Some people may think that high school is just a 4-year period before going to college to get a degree that will hopefully lead to a high paying job. From my experience, I know that high school can be and should be a place that shapes your morals and serves as a jumping off point for amazing, life changing adventures.

Maddie is organizing a lacrosse gear drive to benefit girls in Guatemala City.  The drive ends in mid-December.  Click here for more information about the drive.