Opera Comes to the North Woods of Maine

An illustrated synopsis of 9th Grade Outdoor Experience 2013
By Lowell Libby, Upper School Director
It was an unlikely place and a less likely circumstance for Leah Israel, Waynflete ninth grader, when she took to the stage last Thursday evening.  By then, Leah and her classmates had already had a busy week.  Waynflete’s ninth graders left Portland early Tuesday morning and headed north to the Nahmakanta Public Reserve.  The Reserve, which is part of a giant swath of preserved wilderness in north central Maine that also includes the Appalachian Trail Corridor, The Nature Conservancy’s Katahdin Forest Project, and Baxter State Park, is home to the Chewonki Foundation’s Debsconeag Lake Wilderness Camp on Fourth Debsoneag Lake, which serves as base camp for the ninth grade Outdoor Experience program.  Divided into six groups that will meet weekly throughout the upcoming year for the ninth grade seminar, the students began their Upper School experience with four days of building outdoor and mindfulness skills and awareness, getting to know each other and faculty outside regular school activities, and having lots of challenge and fun in the process.


The Thursday of her performance, Leah and her seminar group woke up in their tents on the banks of Nahmakanta Lake, where they had paddled the day before.  After breakfast they broke camp, paddled back down the lake, and were joined by a second group of campers.  They then settled into an orienteering lesson lead by a Chewonki staff member and your faithful reporter.  The lesson began by asking students to look for clues in their environment to determine which way is north.  When asked to point north, the students’ vividly demonstrated why an orienteering lesson was in order as their theories varied widely.  Motivated by the news that they would be navigating the two miles back to base camp where lunch would be waiting, students paid close attention to the lesson and poured attentively over the maps as they learned the basics of how to navigate without a GPS.


Having arrived at base camp, the two seminar groups moved their gear into the yurts where they would staying and reported to the main lodge where English teacher turned master chef Lorry Stillman had prepared yet another nutritious and delicious feast.   After lunch, the orienteering lesson continued with a climb to the bald top of the steep cliffs that rise 800’ above the lake level to study the spectacular surrounding topography.  Back at the lake after their strenuous ascent, they were joined by two other groups that had been out on a day long hike, relaxed by swimming, and then reported to the lodge to help Lorry prepare dinner for the students and staff at base camp.


After dinner, two of the groups met with Dean of Students Lydia Maier for the evening program.  Each evening during the week, groups took turns circling up in a yurt and taking the time to consider the poignant moment of transition into the Upper School.  After role-playing various parts of the brain, students reflected on how fear can motivate or hold back active engagement with their lives and relationships.  Sitting in silence allowed the students to tune into their body signals for stress or relaxation.  They explored how awareness of emotions expands their options for positive and empathetic responses.  On that final night, the students sat in mindful silence for fifteen minutes as the first rain of the week fell and lightning lit up their circle in memorable intervals.  As they embark on their journeys into the Upper School, it was inspiring to hear how many students already practice self care, enhancing the likelihood that they will contribute to making a resilient Upper School community built on shared experience.


Meanwhile, the other two groups, including Leah’s, met in the lodge after dinner clean-up was complete for a hotly contested game of Minute to Win It hosted by science teacher turned game show host Neil Rice.  The competition included such events as juggling balloons, flipping and catching pencils, and moving Oreo cookies from the eye socket to the mouth without the use of hands.  The evening was filled with the thrill of triumph and the anguish of defeat.
The final event featured each team’s choice to show off a special talent.  The first contestant tried stand-up comedy, the second danced the Cancan (which we suspect hadn’t happened in the north woods for quite some time).  And then Leah stepped onto the stage, a modest cleared space amidst the dining hall tables. Accompanied only by rain pounding on the metal roof, she belted out an aria that filled the lodge, blew away the competition, and then, when she had finished and was high-fiving with her triumphant teammates, rolled through the surrounding hills and forest to the heavy clapping thunder.


And so ended another highly successful week for a ninth grade class in the north woods.  We returned to civilization the next day, carrying with us new skills and confidence, fresh and freshened friendships, strengthened connections to the natural world, and happy, vivid memories as we head into the school year.

Lowell’s Opening Address to Upper School Students

The other day my wife Melissa was going through a pile of papers that my mother had collected and found a couple of my high school report cards.  She couldn’t wait to read the comments aloud to me, to my kids, to my nieces and nephews, to my neighbors, really to anyone who would listen.  While she seemed to be amusing herself, I was reminded of a reality that I rarely bring up and generally try to not to think about too much, which is that for much of my high school career, I was a distinctly mediocre student.


I am going to read you a couple of samples of my teachers’ comments to give you an idea of what I mean by “distinctly mediocre.”  At my school, at the end of each marking period, teachers submitted grades and comments to the guidance counselor, who then created a report card that listed the grades and summarized each teacher’s comments.  Here are a couple of comment highlights:
  • Mr. Rogers feels that Lowell put forth a steady effort in English but really wasn’t interested.  He did a rather poor job on the grammar section of his exam.
  • Mr. Reeve states that he believes Lowell will improve in his science work next year.  He could have done a better job this year.
  • Mr. Teerlink compliments Lowell on having an exceptional talent in mathematics.  He hopes that Lowell will use it more to his full ability.
  • Mr. Beauchamp comments that Lowell wrote one exceptional paper for him, but the rest were average or below.  He did not participate very frequently in class discussion.
  • Mr. Blackburn comments that he has been delighted to know Lowell this year and have him as a student, in spite of the fact that the two of them never came to a sufficient meeting of the minds such as might have produced a happier result.


Other than academics, I actually functioned pretty well in high school.  I was captain of the basketball and football teams and senior class president.  I had lots of friends. It turns out that I actually have a reasonably well functioning brain, so that eventually I became a pretty good student.  But now reading these comments and looking back on myself, I know the reason why for such a long time there wasn’t what Mr. Blackburn called “a meeting of the minds” between me and any of my teachers.  I made sure of it.  I didn’t want such a meeting.  I carefully avoided it. In simplest terms, I was afraid I might fail.  Now I know from experience that speaking up, putting myself on the line, leaning into my discomfort are the ways I learn best; back then I routinely stymied my own potential for growth because I feared that doing any of that might result in embarrassing mistakes or failure.  I wasn’t willing to take that risk.


Some of you may indeed be fully functioning right now, but I wonder to what extent fear or anxiety of some kind holds some of you back from getting everything you could from your Waynflete experience.  Maybe some of you are afraid to put yourself out there for the same reasons as I was.  Or maybe you have received the message that it isn’t cool to be too smart in school, so you hold yourself back.  Or maybe you are trying as hard as you can but are terrified that even your best won’t be good enough to get into the college of your dreams, or to please your parents, or to impress your teachers, or to keep up with your friends.   Such fear may keep you working hard at school but it will make you pretty miserable in the process.  True learning is ultimately an invigorating and even joyful experience, not a miserable or debilitating one.


We have an an exceptional cast of capable and caring teachers at this school who have been busy creatinig an incredibly rich array of opportunities for all of you.  Contemplating the start a new year, I wanted to find a way to get you to think about ways that you might be holding yourself back and then to inspire you to overcome them.  With that in mind, I came across a video that I am going to show you. It is a video of a graduation speech delivered last spring by Susannah Parkin, a student at Hamilton College.  She was the recipient of the school’s community service award; as part of the honor, she was invited to speak at graduation.  I don’t want to say anything more by way of introduction except that I find her speech to be incredibly inspiring.  Put yourself in her shoes as you watch and listen, and I think you will find her inspiring as well.



“… do things because we are afraid… to see fear as an opportunity for growth… to seek out challenges.” Doing so, she says “makes us stronger because it puts us in control of the fear.”


Through her words and example, Ms Parkin inspires us to “… do things because we are afraid… to see fear as an opportunity for growth… to seek out challenges.”  Doing so, she says “makes us stronger because it puts us in control of the fear.”


Eleanor Roosevelt, a former first lady of the United States and a powerful force in her own right, made the point even more succinctly when she once advised her audience to “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  That is great advice for us to carry into our Outdoor Experience week and to hold throughout the school year.
Thank you for your respectful attention this morning.  I wish you all a fun day, a productive week, and a meaningful start to our new year.

Rich Henry Surpasses 100 Wins

Congratulations to Waynflete Varsity Boys Basketball Coach Rich Henry who has recently exceeded 100 wins while at the helm of the Waynflete program.  Rich reached the milestone with a 75-35 win over North Yarmouth Academy on January 11th.  The Waynflete boys have continued to play well and are currently 12-2 and ranked fourth in Class C West.  Rich now has 105 wins for his career.  Taking over the program to start the 2004-2005 season, Rich Henry has built the Flyers into one of the top Class C programs in Maine over his ten year stay.  His teams go to the post-season consistently and in 2013 the boys had their best season ever, going 17-2 and reaching the Western Maine Championship game.  Rich credits the success of the program to the great players and leaders he has coached and the strong support from the parents and the entire Waynflete community.  However, Coach Henry, who captained the University of Maine team in 1986, has been the catalyst for the success.  His focus on strength training, team play and defense have earned the program more and more wins every year and several conference championships.  Congratulations to Coach Henry and Waynflete Boys Basketball.   Good luck to the team in this year’s post season.