by Robert Burkhard
Today five talented individuals graduate from Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center (ERS), having met and mastered a twenty-four day wilderness trek; a challenging value system; rigorous interdisciplinary classes; numerous Presentations of Learning; countless KP hours preparing meals and washing dishes; hard-fought intramural athletic contests in floor hockey, soccer, softball, water polo, volleyball and more; daily chores and service projects in Estes Park; three-mile runs for morning exercise; the joys and travails of community living with diverse companions; and the wonders of mountain living at 8000’ elevation. They are ready to take flight.
Critical to their admission and achievements at Eagle Rock were the tireless efforts of a special man who, in a sense, also earns his diploma today. After twenty-three years Philbert Smith is stepping down as Director of Students at ERS. Alumni have returned from across America to honor his contributions. Their comments help measure the man who helped them succeed.
Former Public Allies Fellow Mohammed Elgazzar: “Philbert is perhaps the most influential educator I’ve had in my career. He showed me that care, compassion, generosity of spirit, accountability, and love are just as central to teaching as curriculum planning and learning targets. I was one of the lucky ones to watch a master execute his craft. I learned, and continue to learn, an immense amount about teaching, relationships, and life from every engagement with Mr. Smith.”
Javonnie Campbell, who graduates today: “He makes me think about taking care of myself. He makes me value people more.”
Former student Jesson Cardoza: “He represents the arc of discipline. You don’t see it when you are a student here but you understand when out in the world. He’s one of a kind.”
ERS graduate Loula Tesfai: “The only way I can say what I feel about Philbert is through a poem by Joanne Raptis. Philbert taught me to: ‘Be Like A Tree—Stay Grounded—Connect With Your Roots—Turn Over A New Leaf—Bend Before You Break—Enjoy Your Unique Natural Beauty—Keep Growing.’”
ERS graduate Jeremy Martinez: “He had great quotes—‘When the pain of staying the same exceeds the pain of change, you will change.’ He makes you think about what the right thing to do is in any situation.”
Chemi Lewis, current ERS student: “When I first came here he was a bad guy, kicking everyone out. When I got to know him he was really cool. I have love for him. He watches out for me and looks after me. He’s the centerpiece of ERS. He’s always around, he always knows what’s going on. He doesn’t play games or sugarcoat anything that’s going on.”
Djibril Cayolbah, current ERS student: “Philbert’s impact on me has shifted. At first I didn’t understand; I heard he was a bad guy. Then I saw he has love for all the students. I appreciated that because he’s here for us, he wants us to graduate, he understands where we have come from. His impact on ERS is limitless—I can’t speak for everyone, but it was a blessing to have him here. I appreciate all the work he has done.”
Current ERS student Courtney Coleman: “When I first came here I didn’t like him, but then we had conversations and he became the father figure in my life. I go to church with him. He’s extremely intelligent and a really great person.”
Community advocate Courthney Russell: “I came as a visitor because ERS aligns with what I am doing in the world. I met Philbert, who was surprised that I was young but wanted to make a difference in the world. I was impressed that he had a life in Houston but came here to an unknown. He went away from the normal to come here. For him to take that risk for the betterment of youth is something I marvel at. He is a visionary, a leader. I also want to leave a legacy like his. He is a legendary man and I feel blessed to know him. I hope I can do a sliver of what he did. Thank God for Philbert.”
Philbert excelled at “the taming of the shrewd.” When working with recalcitrant students he neither believed in nor practiced the decibel theory of persuasion. Instead, his soft, low, mellifluous voice seeped through callow defenses to elicit confessions and cooperation. “Facts are stubborn things,” he often remarked, quoting John Adams as he nudged wayward adolescents toward full accountability for dubious behavior.
“Calm adults equal calm kids” was the first thing Philbert said to ERS faculty in January 1994; his talented peers leaned forward. He counseled students to “Live one life.” When conflicts arose he raised a pertinent question: What is the best obtainable version of the truth? Students slow to trust him concocted exculpatory stories of dubious merit, prompting him to quote Sir Walter Scott, more in sorrow than in anger: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.” Over time they learned to match words with deeds.
Philbert: “Working with young people helped me understand what forgiveness is. You can empathize with what they are doing but you have to be tough enough to confront them on how their behavior is negatively affecting themselves and others. I have become more patient with my own shortcomings as I have become patient with the shortcomings of others.”
Ultimately and fundamentally, Philbert Smith impelled adolescents to pursue lives of integrity. Victories were not guaranteed. Despite recurrent setbacks he was resolute, and found consolation in the life success of so many Eagle Rock alumni, and as well in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 preface to the first dictionary: “In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed.” Thanks, Phil. Godspeed to you.
Next column: Location, location, location.
Estes Park. Nice town. Nice people.