By Craig Gemmell
Head of School

I was startled a few afternoons ago.

I was walking my dog quietly along the drive down to the lake, exchanging pleasantries with students and chatting with those who stopped to pet the dog. Then a boy whipped by on a hoverboard while talking on his iPhone, one ear bud dangling out of his hoodie. A non sequitur. Or was it?

Unless you just arrived from the Pleistocene era, you know what an iPhone is. But for those of you who are not familiar with hoverboards, they are the rage among adolescents here and, surely, in many places where there is pavement. They just might be the it present this Christmas.

The premise of a hoverboard is simple: two wheels are connected to a platform containing a powerful battery and some sort of gyroscopic gizmo. Standing on it (as I did a few weeks ago), one leans forward gently and is conveyed silently along. Weight one foot slightly more than the other, and the board turns around almost telepathically. A wild and eerie sensation it is.

This missive is not to extol the virtues of hoverboards even though they are, as gadgets go, really quite cool. Nor is it a narrative to dismiss their dangers; we are trying as adults to figure out now how to let kids have fun safely and in ways that are enforceable with these and the other wheeled devices – scooters and skateboards – that arrive from Amazon every day.

This is a missive about the perplexing rise in technology I only seem to notice when something radically new, like the hoverboard, appears on our otherwise relatively timeless campus.

A boy riding a hoverboard while talking on the phone (and soon about to listen to his music.) Hmmm…

I’ve come to think that Brewster, like many small New England boarding schools, thrives best when people are, well, mostly together. Walking together. Talking together. Getting along. Not getting along and working it out. Struggling and seeking out a teacher or friend instead of using minutes on their calling plan to pull a parent in. Living here, together.

And yet when I walk about campus, I see many kids zipping along tapped into technologies that draw them inward rather than outward. I walk through, say, Estabrook on a beautiful day like today, where I see kids staring at screens over their lasagna instead of talking with or watching others; kids eating with earbuds in rather than conversing with a new schoolmate.

I know that technology has made learning a more portable endeavor, and classrooms are far more dynamic places at Brewster than they were when I was in high school, in part because of the power technology confers on both teacher and student to access, display, manipulate, and present information. I know that technology makes us a better school in a narrow sense. And I also know that we all need our “down” time, but are there ways in which technology might at times hinder us within this community?

Here’s my fear: our wheeled and pixilated devices — not thoughtfully used — threaten to take us away from what really makes a place like this tick: talking, lingering, strolling, being really present.

I’m an educator who leans toward general principles over prescriptive rules, and the general principle I’m inclined toward here is a simple one: we need, all of us, to pay attention to what matters most. I’d love for us to talk some about this — not through texts or Facebook posts or tweets or any of the other social media portals. Talk by sitting, not while rolling by each other in different directions with buds in our ears.

What, I ask, would it be like to just slow down and walk together a bit more, chat? Look around at each other instead of our own reflections in our screens? Would we be able to give and gain more if intent on those right here, around us, in real time? To hear our classmates and peers – the voices and sentiments of those right next to us rather than those that we can hit replay on and listen to over and over again when we are truly alone. I am inclined to think that we’d be yet a better school and prepare kids to enter their next community and more ready to become themselves by engaging ever more fully in the human opportunities available on these beautiful campuses. Education v. 2.0.

I’d love to know what others think. Send me a note – perhaps even by snail mail.

Craig Gemmell
Brewster Academy
80 Academy Drive, Wolfeboro NH 03894