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Six Words

-James Milford, Maclay Head of School

It is curious to me the things you remember.  Decades ago, I was sitting in a sociology class and my professor, Dr. something-or-other, practiced the Socratic Method long before it hit the mainstream as a best practice in progressive education.  So there we were. Everyone in a circle and the expectation was for individual participation and risk-taking.  One fellow student was discussing child development and I remember my professor making the comment, correcting the student that, “you do not raise children, you raise corn. You rear a child.”  My professor also had an aversion to contractions. She was very precise with her language…again, interesting what you remember.

I left that class with many things, but one was a heightened awareness and appreciation for not only how the efficiency of language could impact influence, but also how the connotation and denotation of the word oftentimes, needs to be appreciated as well as the power of a single word in context.

I was reminded of this moment when I happened upon a Maclay alumna last week, Briana.  As Head of School, I teach for the Florida Council of Independent Schools several times a year and this particular trip took me to South Florida to teach new Headmasters about successful transitions into their schools.  During an airport layover, I bumped into Briana and we were able to catch up on life’s twists and turns.

Through our alumni events over the years, I have seen Briana several times and have always found her to be a hard pressing professional, in many ways outperforming her peers by society’s standards. Personable, approachable, serious, a loving wife and mother, engaging, fun - all of these characteristics would be appropriate descriptors of this young woman.

Briana had recently gone through a tough transition that required a move and job role change.  This was one of those events in life that happens to you, and all you can do is choose to adjust and do the best you can with the hand you are dealt. But, that was the remarkable part...she was thriving through the challenge.

She clearly expressed the fear, the uncertainty, the questions, the nights of worry...but, she kept moving and is now in an even better position than before to attain her dream leadership role.  Colleagues and friends came, “out of the woodwork” for Briana.  I had chills as she shared her story and joined her in joyful tears accompanying the pride of a life being well lived.

After an encouraging time together of swapping stories about our children, and of course the collection of an entertaining story or two about faculty during her time at Maclay, we parted ways and promised to stay on touch. But not before I gave her an assignment (as is typical for a teacher), and I think it is a good idea to give you the same.

There is a story from the 1920’s when Ernest Hemingway’s colleagues bet him that he could not write a complete story in just six words. Hemingway wrote the following words on a napkin and won the bet: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  Hemingway is said to have considered it one of his best works.  I have always been challenged by the simplicity and depth of the exercise of writing my own story … in six words.

So, I asked Briana to reflect on her journey and write her six-word story and share it with me when she felt she got it right.  I’ve written mine a few times over the years.  It is obviously influenced each time by recent events in my life, but certain themes always seem to remain: positive assumptions, a bias toward action, elimination of negatives, and high expectations are the constant themes.

Through a yearlong listening process, Maclay asked our families about their desires, looked deeply at what we do to meet those desires, and wrote our six-word story as an aspirational outcome for each of our students.  In alignment with the core purpose of our Mission Statement to reach “each student and develop their inherent ability to the fullest extent”, we claim our six-word “flash story”. 

This is the story we hope for, plan for, and work each day for… to see our students “Be Inspired, Be Determined, Be Unstoppable”. 

I saw this perfectly manifested in our alumna, Briana. 

Now, this week, we launch our 51st year as the premier college prep school in Tallahassee, and our focus is to make sure every child is exposed to incredible teaching in a way that inspires them, to present challenges within each class and extracurricular activity that pushes them just enough to stretch them past their last success and to build in each individual student the confidence to never quit…to be UNSTOPPABLE.

I’d love to hear your six-word story.  Hemmingway’s was “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn”... and now you know Maclay’s.  What is yours?