Developing strong, resilient, curious, and caring people

By Philip S. Cox, Head of Middle School

A few years ago when I was head of middle school at The Pingry School in Basking Ridge, I was asked by parents if I could take their son on his college visit to Yale. The student, Jeff, then a junior, was being heavily recruited by several Ivy League schools for his talents on and off the tennis court. Jeff’s mother was scheduled for knee surgery, and they asked if I could take their place. The request is both an honor and an eye-opener.

We drove up to New Haven and were given a VIP campus tour by the tennis coach. Afterward, we headed over to the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center to observe practice. As you might imagine, the facility is world-class, and the courts were full of talented players battling in tight rallies. It was an impressive sight. Jeff and a team captain began to talk, so I continued to walk alongside the coach around the courts.

The coach pointed to players and rattled off some statistics about each of them. They were from places as far afield as Moscow, Malmo, Cyprus, and El Paso; a few from California ... it seemed all roads led to New Haven. I asked the coach how was it possible for them to assess all of these players from so many parts of the globe? What was it that Yale was looking for? He laid it out for me.

“We’re fortunate at Yale,” he said. “We know we can have almost any student we want from anywhere in the world ... but we don’t want just any student.” The coach told me that every player sends their videos to Yale, but he also knew that the kids only send their best match victories. “So while we know all about them from their transcripts and SATs, ACTs, and AP scores, it’s important for us to get out and watch them in tournaments — when they don’t know we’re there,” he continued. “We watch them play matches and we look closely at the flow of the match. How do they handle setbacks? How do they treat their opponents – especially on close calls? We look at how they treat their parents. Because we can have our pick of students, we want to be sure these young people work hard, show resilience, and that they are respectful.” And then the coach turned to me and said, “And then there’s one thing we are really interested in: before and after the match, we look to see who carries the bag. Did the player pack-up their tennis bag, sling it over their shoulder, and walk off the court? Or do they have a parent who does all of that for them? Those aren’t the kids we want. We want the players with more self-reliance; more character. We want the players who carry their own bag.”

Among the reasons I enjoy the morning handshake ritual at EMS is the brief moment it gives me with each child. I get a sense of how many students are tired, how many are cheerful, and I also get a glimpse into the difficulty of their day. Some students are small, but mightily lugging a cello – and also carrying a backpack of swimwear, towels, and goggles for their after-school commitment. 

But as much as I enjoy morning handshake, I have really prized the opportunities I’ve had to go out and play foursquare with the students in the Courtyard during Morning Break. How do they handle setbacks? How do they treat their opponents – especially on close calls? Do they win with humility? Lose gracefully? Or argue about the wind – or the condition of the ball? How do they treat their classmates? 

Both the formal, structured ritual of the morning handshake and the loosely organized realm of foursquare reveal different attributes of our children. Play can provide incredible insight into a child’s character: where they are well-grounded, and where they still need work.

Like any other faculty member here, we spend a lot of time with these wonderful children. We all know, as educators, that everyone is a work in progress. We see all the behaviors that occur in the context of the life of a young adolescent in a vibrant, dynamic, social culture. Most often, the students are amazing. But not always. Sometimes, their behaviors are out of alignment with the 4Cs. When we have these experiences, we may take the opportunity to reach out to you for your help and support. Please keep an open mind. We all understand that our kids will act differently depending on their context, so what you see at home is not always what we see here. But it is important that we share our common desire to create people of good character. We’re not grooming students for Yale’s tennis program, but part of what we are doing is shaping what this world needs: human beings who are strong, resilient, curious, caring – and who carry their own bag.

I’m grateful to be with you on this journey.

The Elisabeth Morrow School