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Sue’s News – A blog from the Head of School

Vol. 1, No. 3

Dear OA Families,

Only three weeks left until the end of year! It’s hard to believe, but school is almost over – graduation will be here in a flash. We will be headed off in many directions come mid-June, so please get in touch soon if you would like to check in with us.


Recent News

Spring Concert – a Broadway tunes montage, two rock bands, a trio, and an (almost) a capella group entertained a packed crowd at the OA Spring Concert on Friday. It was a great display of both talent and moxie by our musicians, singers, and musical theater actors. Bravo! Kudos to Molly Smart and Kathy McCarty for working diligently with our students all year to produce this great showcase.

OAPG – We had our final OAPG meeting of the year last week. I want to thank Rhonda Davidson, chair of the OAPG, for her inspired leadership throughout the year. In addition to hosting the school-based meetings, Rhonda planned and hosted the new family picnic in August, instituted the informal parent gatherings at the Claremont Hotel, worked with the team on the Derby Fundraiser, coordinated the much appreciated Teacher Appreciation Day, and kept parents connected through the OAPG Facebook page. Rhonda will be passing the torch of leadership to Jill Gorman and Rebecca Castelli for next year; however, she promised me (in person!) to continue to help the OAPG with communications. Thank you, Rhonda, for all your hard work!

Farewell to Juvenal and Maria – It is with a heavy heart that I report Friday will be Juvenal Bermudez, our Facilities Manager, and his wife Maria’s last day at OA. Unfortunately for us, Juvenal has gotten another job, and we will miss them terribly.
Juvenal and Maria have been integral members of the OA community since 2014, and I honestly can’t imagine coming to work without them.

Juvenal is an unsung hero in so many ways. When the heavy rains flooded some classrooms this winter, Juvenal built a concrete culvert to divert the water away from the building. After a student slipped on the gravel path near the storage containers, he cemented the path to enable sure footing. When the fire alarms were ringing off the hook, he diagnosed the problem as being an old and faulty (and very hard to detect) sensor built into one of the exit doors. Every day Juvenal brings to his work a degree of intelligence, precision, and professionalism that is unsurpassed.

If there’s one person who’s Juvenal’s equal, it is Maria. Each evening Maria scours the whole campus to ensure that we arrive in the morning to a pristine environment. Her high standards mean that we have a spotless kitchen, clean bathrooms, and orderly classrooms every day.

Juvenal opens our doors in the morning and Maria closes them at night. They are the essential bookends in our day.
We will formally recognize Juvenal at All School Meeting on Thursday.


Coming Around the Corner

Prom – the Prom is scheduled for this Friday, May 17. We have over 50 students planning to attend. There is a lot of excitement building as the prom committee promotes the event and makes final arrangements.

Final Exams – Finals are May 31, and June 3, 4, and 5. You can access the finals schedule HERE. Not all classes have final exams; your student is receiving information about finals along with study guides in the coming days. Danielle, our Learning Specialist, has offered final exam organization help for students, so please contact Danielle directly to schedule a time for your student (danielle@orindaacademy.org).

Parent-Advisor Conferences – Macy will be in touch soon with a signup to schedule your end-of-year conference with your child’s advisor. Conferences will be scheduled for Monday, June 10, and Tuesday, June 11. Please let us know as soon as possible if you are unable to meet on either of these days and we will schedule another time.

Graduation – Graduation is Friday, June 7. 8th grade graduation is at noon. 12th grade graduation is at 3 p.m. Senior parents and 8th grade parents please check your email for a separate message about details. Contact Laura Turnbull, Director of Academics, at laura@orindaacademy.org with questions.

Plans for the Future

Getting the Word Out About OA – I first heard about Orinda Academy when I saw the job posting for Head of School. I have worked at schools in the Bay Area since 1992, including a stint at College Prep School and consulting gigs at Head-Royce and Bentley, schools that are within spitting distance of OA. How could I have not heard of OA when I’d worked right around the corner? I’m going to chalk it up to modesty, but it’s time for that to change.

OA has much to be proud of, and I believe I was hired, in part, to get the word out. The phrase that came to mind as I was interviewing last year was hidden gem, and I have come to see how accurate that first impression was. OA is not only precious, but it is also unique, and our current challenge is to communicate this uniqueness to the world. We will be turning our focus this summer to articulating and enhancing our message on our website, reaching out to potential students and their families, connecting with area schools, and broadcasting our message through advertising. I will share specific details about our efforts as we roll them out, and as always your feedback is welcome. Finally, the best endorsement for a school is a current family, and so we hope to enlist your help next fall at our Open Houses.

Sue’s Muse

I am adding a new section to Sue’s News called Sue’s Muse. Technically, this section should be entitled Sue’s Musings, but Sue’s Muse sounds, well, catchier. Sue’s Muse will be an occasional feature where I share some of my musings on things that relate to adolescents, education, parenting, or all of the above.

The Advantages of Neurodiversity

In this first edition of Sue’s Muse I’d like to share some thoughts on neurodiversity, specifically the advantages of being on the autism spectrum.

In addition to transforming the way we live, Silicon Valley has brought a new awareness to the phenomenon of neurodiversity because many of those on the vanguard in this digital age think differently. A number of incredibly successful, and indeed revolutionary, thinkers in this arena are on the autism spectrum, so it’s not far fetched to say that without this way of thinking, I might not be writing this essay on a laptop. As Steve Jobs said, he wanted to punch a hole in the Universe, and he did. This is what you get for thinking differently.
But there are other noteworthy advantages to being on the spectrum. A certain kind of emotional resilience can be one of them.
A few years ago, at another school, I worked with a boy named Luke. Luke was bright, a little squirrelly, and he desperately wanted to make friends. When he started high school he was eager to connect with peers but inevitably ran afoul of social rules he couldn’t interpret or grasp.

A typical social misfire for Luke went like this. He was on the periphery of a conversation with a group of girls. One of them complained she was fat and that her derriere in particular was too large. Luke, wanting to help the girl feel better about herself, chimed in with his personal assessment. “No,” he said. “I think your butt looks great.” Not surprisingly, Luke’s response set off a cascade of negative reactions and social reprisals among his peers (including being accused of sexual harassment), only to leave him feeling confused and isolated.

Okay, so no advantage yet, but keep reading.

Luke came up against this sort of situation on occasion, and each time he learned a specific lesson about what not to do (don’t say she’s got a great butt, don’t say she’s got a great butt . . . ). He didn’t do the same thing twice, but he also didn’t apply the lesson to other social situations. But here’s what he could do, and it’s something I have come to see as an almost superhuman trait: he could forgive. Luke could forgive absolutely, emphatically, without reservation, and quickly. Luke was able to bounce back from thorny social situations without bringing with him the kind of emotional baggage that leaves the average sensitive teen wracked with confusion, anger, and resentment.

Here’s an example of Luke’s superpower of forgiveness. He was on a field trip with some classmates and got caught in a dynamic with several other kids. One of the girls involved posted something on Instagram about Luke being annoying, and of course, it got back to Luke. Not surprisingly, he was upset. I had a conversation with the girl in question to help her recognize what she’d done, and she apologized to Luke. Luke accepted her apology immediately. But he didn’t accept it immediately because he was denying his feelings, he accepted it because he didn’t harbor any of the complicated and multi-layered emotions about the social situation that a neurotypical teen might. He had felt bad. Someone apologized. And he felt better–case closed.

Once I started to appreciate this aspect of Luke’s functioning, I saw how adaptive it can be, and how advantageous it is compared to the functioning of a neurotypical teen. Luke’s younger brother, for instance, was socially adept. He had lots of friends, starred in the school musical, and could read a social situation easily. His family, including Luke, had always seen these qualities as advantages over Luke’s skill set, and often hoped that Luke would develop them. But there was a downside to this high EQ. Luke’s brother spent all his time on social media, worried over every pimple on his face, and was highly attuned to the opinions of his peers. The family saw this as typical teenage angst, and it was, but Luke never suffered in this way.

An additional advantage Luke had over his brother was his ability to remain present. Because Luke didn’t accumulate a lot of emotional baggage, he was able to stay in the moment more easily than his brother. He rolled with the punches when it came to certain family dynamics much better than his brother did, but it wasn’t until the family started to view Luke’s functioning from this strengths-based perspective that they truly appreciated what he contributed to the family.

As I worked with Luke and his family over time, they developed a new narrative about Luke and his skills. They started to talk about Luke’s superpower of forgiveness and capacity for presence, and used them as examples for their younger children. Luke, in turn, developed pride in his strengths and what his neurodiversity gave him and them. He still struggled to read social cues and make connections with peers, but his parents and his own anxiety were reduced somewhat by the recognition that with his challenges came significant strength.

Imagine the advantages Luke will have with these superpowers, and imagine what he can teach others by example about letting go and moving on.

The longer I worked with Luke, the more I was reminded of the Zen lesson, Two Monks and a Woman.

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.
Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk couldn’t contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

I bet the older monk was on the spectrum.