CA Curious

Gravel Road Lessons: The Serendipity of an X Day

September 29, 2022

I swear I’m not making this up. Just ask Max, or Coach Hall, or any of the students who were on the bike trip—they can corroborate the details.

Here’s a bit of the backstory. Several weeks ago, Max had asked me if I was willing to help with an X Day centered around biking—specifically, gravel biking through Umstead State Park. I cheerfully agreed for two reasons, even before he really finished asking the question: first, I knew that Max would put together a great experience for his peers and the adults who happened to tag along, as he has led previous X Day and Flex Day activities. And second, I love to bike.

True to expectations, Max crafted a lovely day. We gathered in front of the CMS on Wednesday morning, helmeted and biked and watered. Max reminded us of some necessary details. We discussed the route. Maps were shown, tire pressures double checked, roll taken.

At 9:20, nine of us—two adults, seven Upper School students–pedaled past the Upper School, the Admin Building, the Middle School, and then out to Research Drive. A quick jaunt across North Harrison, a zip through the neighborhoods, and we found ourselves on the greenway, which led us to the Old Reedy Creek Road parking area by Lake Crabtree.

Max stopped us again, making sure we were all good before starting up the gravel road. We gulped some water and chatted a moment about the downhill through the neighborhood (which meant a crazy climb through the neighborhood when we returned), and then we pedaled up Old Reedy Creek Road. Over the course of the next twelve miles or so, we huffed and puffed up hills, roared down downhills (all while staying true to our comfort zones), and watched out for each other. Naturally, we stopped periodically to catch our breath and keep the group together.

At one of those moments, late in the ride, we were paused on the edge of the gravel road when a white-haired gentleman came over the hill, striding toward us. He stopped when he saw us on our bikes.

“Hello,” he said, looking at the students. “Is this a class?”

We explained that we were a school group, that on this day we were taking the learning outside the school walls.

“Oh,” he said. “Tell me what you are learning!”

Max explained not only the activities that we were doing, but also a number of the associated skills.

The gentleman smiled. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “And it’s so important to keep learning! I’m 85 years old, and I’m still learning and still moving! That’s why I hike these trails every day. If you limit yourself to the rocking chair, you won’t get up again!”

He told us about working hard, starting in his late teens, and finding success in his roles. He talked about retiring once in his fifties, getting bored and starting his own business and retiring in his 70s, and then volunteering—now well into his 80s. “I probably volunteer about 50 hours per week,” he confided. “And that’s what’s really important,” he added. “Helping others—that’s when you are really successful, when you can add to your community.”

We thanked him, wished him well, and then started our way back to campus. At one of our final stops, Adi said, “So what did you think of what the gentleman said?” A number of us marveled at his age—he may have been 85, but he looked much younger. Several of us reflected on his message: we are truly successful when we help others. Those thoughts stayed with us as we cycled back to school, retracing our earlier path.

That afternoon, under Max’s guidance, we shifted to other aspects of the day: how to plan bike routes, how to develop one’s biking skills. But most of us reflected, individually or in small groups, on the chance encounter, on yet another lesson outside the classroom, one that none of us were expecting.

By its very nature, we can’t plan for serendipity. But we can make sure that the conditions are ripe (yay X Days!), that we welcome learning and lessons and joy not only inside the classroom walls, but outside as well—even if it’s on the dusty gravel road in the middle of a state park where we hear a gentle reminder about what’s really important in our world.

Written by Robin Follet, Head of Upper School

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Salutations, esteemed learners

August 26, 2021

Yes, students, I know that I typically start my weekly emails with that opening to you.  I like that beginning, though, because it combines two important elements: my love of delicious language, and my respect for you.  So, once again, in the spirit of literal and figurative introductions, salutations to you, and to all parents, alumni, and/or Middle School students who happen to be reading this epistle. 

We are starting the school year, and I’ve naturally been thinking about how you are transitioning into all the newness—the new classes, the new classrooms of the Upper School, the new schedule.  And paradoxically over the past few weeks, along with all my conversations with you, I’ve also been chatting with some of the alumni, who, unprompted, have helped remind me of some of the timeless elements of Cary Academy—both the good and the challenging. 

A few days ago, I ran into a former student gabbing with a teacher in the CMS.  He was laughing as he recounted how he and some friends had built a fort of furniture in the middle of the CMS lobby a few years ago.  I remembered that building–the edifice definitely towered overhead, much to my chagrin at the time.*  I joined the current discussion, and the alum reminisced a bit more about friends, about cross country, about various classes, about being in the hallways.   Then, as we talked about his college experience, he interjected, “and I just have to say, the College Counseling Office is awesome!”  He mentioned their help as he looked at college fit, rather than university name.  He mentioned the excitement that they shared with him as he worked through the opportunities.   

Not once did he mention his grades from Cary Academy. 

I met with another alumnus several weeks earlier, and in our conversation, we reflected on the opposite of relationships, talking about the pressures that students face at Cary Academy.  Yes, Cary Academy avoids the overt methods of measurement: we don’t calculate GPA or class rank.  But that person described the quiet ways that CA students tend to measure themselves against each other—number of advanced courses taken, grades achieved, colleges applied to, hours overworked.  “And the funny thing is,” this person said, “once I got to college, none of it mattered.  Everything that I thought was so important in high school—the things I got stressed about—they weren’t that important.  I wish I knew then what I know now.”  What did the alum really remember?  The relationships.  The work ethic that was developed.  The stories about interactions with others. 

I’m sharing those words with you for obvious reasons. 

The college counselors, in all their talks with you, whether you are in grades 9, 10, 11, or 12, offer one key piece of advice: focus on building your life.  You are crafting experiences with friends.  You are exploring topics that intrigue you.  You are using your creativity for good (yes, the furniture fort is chaotic good, more or less). 

So I am tying those wise words from the college counselors together with the reflections from people who have walked your pathways from science classrooms to English seminars to history discussions to art room creations to playing fields to debate rooms to math competitions.  Yes, get good grades, but avoid that mistaken belief that you are measured by a letter or number.  And even though your teenage brain is demanding that you compare yourself in some way to the people around you, remember that those comparisons are ephemeral.  They feel so important right now.  They will be meaningless in several years.   

I’m sharing these stories now, at the start of the school year, because in this year of new, in this exhausting time of yet more COVID, it’s more important than ever that you are learning for you.  Find ways to embrace the joy in that journey.  

On Tuesday afternoon, I spent an advisory period with a group of seniors, and they demonstrated the best of learning for oneself, of developing relationships, of honing a work ethic.  Yes, they had to accomplish various tasks, and they did so, bouncing between focused (how do I complete this portion of the Common App?) to the not so focused, from the inventive to the joyfully silly.  And they did it with each other. 

So, esteemed learners, find joy in this year.  Support each other.  Listen to the college counselors.  Eschew measuring yourselves against your friends (or even your frenemies). 

And have a good year. 

*A description of previous questionable decisions does not grant approval for future bad choices. So please don’t try to build furniture forts (or fortresses of any type) anywhere on campus, even if a couch-based structure in the past was an example of chaotic good. 

Written by Robin Follet, Head of Upper School

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August 3, 2021

Congratulations to Sydney Ross (’23) for being named to the 2021 USA Volleyball AAU Academic All-American team! The award recognizes high school student-athletes for their excellence in the classroom as well as the volleyball court. Ross is the only Triangle-area student-athlete named to the team for 2021.

In addition, Ross received the Junior Volleyball Association AthLeader award. For 2021, Ross is one of 22 players from across the country to receive this prestigious award, which recognizes the top JVA member club players in the nation for outstanding achievement outside of the volleyball court. 

Ross’s mother, Donna, credits her time at CA with enabling her to reach such national heights, “Sydney’s experience with CA’s Leadership During Crisis Program, along with her facilitator role set her apart from other scholar athletes.”

Go Chargers!

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Sophomore writes the book on financial literacy for her generation, literally

June 3, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed significant economic disparities across the American economic landscape, Ella Gupta ’23 realized that there wasn’t anyone guiding her generation on how to save and spend wisely. So, she decided to write the guide herself.

“I was shocked by the wealth disparities for people of color, and I saw a lack of financial literacy, in general, for young people in our society. It’s not a topic commonly found in school curriculums,” shares Gupta. “So, I decided to write the book I felt was missing. There are tons of financial guides on the market for millennials, but not for Gen Z.”

Over the past year, while balancing virtual and in person learning, Gupta — whose personal financial passion began at age 10 with a business selling rainbow loom bracelets — was also hard at work on Gen Z Money $ense: A Personal Finance and Investing Guide, now available at major bookstores, from New Degree Press.

“Being at CA definitely bolstered my sense of independence and my eagerness to take on a topic I’m curious about. I was fortunate to grow up in a house where finances were never a taboo topic; my parents and grandparents always made a point of involving me in financial decisions.”  

As she set out to write her book, Gupta interviewed financial industry professionals and economic communicators, from CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin to JJ Kinahan, Chief Market Strategist at TD Ameritrade, and Metropolitan Capital Advisors co-founder Karen Finerman. Gupta is currently working with Tim Ranzetta at Next Gen Personal Finance to distribute the book to educators across the country in the hopes of bolstering financial education for young people. 

The book features unique topics that are very relevant today, including investing apps, cryptocurrencies, Environmental Social Governance investing, automation, mobile banking.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager


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May 20, 2021

Even before our Director of Communications, Mandy Dailey, asked me to write this week’s blog, I was savoring scenes from around the Upper School, especially since they all seemed to coalesce around a common theme: community.  I thought I would share a few of them with you. 

Yearbook day

One morning last week, a senior stood in front of a classroom of adults, a group that included the Head of the School, Director of Facilities, and Board members. She explained what she had learned over the course of this year in an independent study focused on environmental sustainability.  Specifically, she shared how she had calculated Cary Academy’s immediate carbon footprint, then she offered suggestions about how we can move forward as a community, mentioning small and large actions we can take as a school to improve our world.  The adults scribbled notes the entire time. 

One afternoon last week, the six students in Yearbook, along with their teacher, parents, and advisor volunteers, passed out the 2020-2021 Yearbook, a compendium all-the-more impressive considering we started the year with much of our school life boxed into Zoom meetings. That afternoon, Upper School student stood in clumps about the Quad, pens in hands, flipping through pages, scribbling quick messages, perusing pictures. 

One afternoon last week, students lounged at the end of the Quad close to the Library, enjoying Quadchella. CA performers played and sang for each other in an informal concert developed over the course of a week with energetic input from StuCo and our arts faculty. Under that afternoon sun, the audience applauded the student performers, grabbed snacks, and laughed with a joy that we haven’t seen in some time.   

One morning this week, a gaggle of seniors sprawled under the trees, chatting and laughing and debating and—oddly enough—laying on their backs, the soles of their feet pressed together. That small scene (minus the feet) echoed countless other versions of the small conversations I witnessed this year, conversations about both nothing in particular and everything in general. 

The Jazz Band plays Quadchella

Earlier this week, the seniors on campus danced through the hallways and onto the Quad, the leader holding a speaker on his shoulder like some throwback to an 80’s movie. Their fifteen-minute pilgrimage was an homage to our annual Glow Stick dance, a soiree that didn’t take place this year. But this week’s journey, with its moments of exuberance, celebrated their bond built across the years—celebrated their bond with the school. 

A bit later that day, two of those same seniors, along with a group of 10th and 11th graders, talked about a year-long Cary Academy class, one that melded English and history and art and activism and entrepreneurship and experiential learning. They discussed once more that idea of community, even though they didn’t immediately form a close-knit group in August. At least not a first. The essence of their discussion? How even with their differences, they came to trust one another as their learning became personal, as they understood how their knowledge linked to each other and the larger world. 

Next week, a group of new alumni and newly-minted seniors will lead a symposium for 10th graders that brings national figures to campus virtually (yay Zoom!), allowing our students to hear from professionals in a variety of fields that touch our lives.  This opportunity comes to us, once again, courtesy of student ingenuity. 

During a year when so many of us yearned for physical community, the students have taken that urge and built beautiful, sometimes unexpected celebrations of togetherness.   

Yes, the adults have been present. Yes, we provide the guardrails and the reminders and food. Yes, that sense of belonging is coded into our school’s DNA; just consider the C in DICE. Or look at the opening phrase of our Statement of Community Values. 

But in a year when students could be forgiven for shying away from collecting together, they instead embraced opportunity: they searched for ways to understand, to come together, to lead. 

They built communities—so many enchanting, vibrant, celebratory communities. 

So, to our students: thank you.  Your actions give all of us hope.  Even when you play pattycakes with your feet. 

Written by Robin Follet, Head of Upper School

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May 6, 2021

Congratulations to Bella Nesbeth ’22 on being selected as a featured playwright for Burning Coal Theatre Company’s KidsWrite Festival, streaming on stage May 28-29, 2021.

Nesbeth’s one-act play, Queen of the Night tells the story of singer Whitney Houston’s early career.

Later in the summer, Burning Coal will produce a second of Nesbeth’s plays, A Tale of Two Stops, which explores the duality of the American experience, divided along racial lines. Similar events on a single night take very different paths for two families – one Black and one white – in a play inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Inspired to write the play after seeing Burning Coal’s call for submissions on Twitter, A Tale of Two Stops is Nesbeth’s first serious foray into writing for the stage. “I really enjoy Broadway musicals, but I don’t consider myself a singer or an actress. So, I thought, ‘why don’t I try and write my own play?’” One Tuesday evening, in order to give her sister, Cici some privacy while she prepared for the SAT in their shared bedroom, Bella sat down and wrote the play in a single four-hour session.

“I kept thinking about how, in police brutality cases, people always seem to say, ‘well, if they were white, this wouldn’t have happened.’ So, I wanted to explore the exact same situation, but with characters of two different races,” explains Nesbeth.

Nesbeth is currently working with directors Eric Kildow and Amy Lloyd to adapt A Tale of Two Stops for production. It and other KidsWrite plays written by Triangle area 6th-12th grade students will be presented via streaming, free of charge, on Friday and Saturday, May 28 and 29, 2021 at 7:00pm on Burning Coal’s website.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager


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