The unremitting, numbing winds of December and January seemed eternal, but one day last week it happened—the first, faint, slim sliver of Spring danced delicately down the lake behind eight low-flying Canada Geese. The sun now rises earlier and further north, edging in sharp relief the early morning shadows on Lumpy Ridge.
Too many adolescents sit stymied or stranded on the long road to productive adulthood. They may not be thriving in high school and success may elude them; they may be vulnerable emotionally or wounded spiritually. Yet they nurse hope (however faint) for their futures without tumbling into angry despair. How do we help them move forward?
They pose urgent questions: What does it take to turn adversity into opportunity? How does resilience arise? How do we nurture hope? What are possible early steps towards reclaiming a life? In short, how do they find Philbert?
Bruce McClellan, former Headmaster at Lawrenceville, regularly advised his faculty: “Remember, when you are teaching you will frequently be in the presence of your intellectual superiors.” During my time at Eagle Rock, I passed this sage counsel on to the ERS staff; one who listened was Philbert Smith.
In the late autumn of 1993 it was time to hire a counselor for the recently opened Eagle Rock School. I asked my friend Ellen Porter Honnet to identify the best young counselor in the country. “Give me two days,” she said; she telephoned back in less than 48 hours. Like Abou Ben Adhem, Philbert’s name led all the rest. I called him.
Philbert was in his 12th year at Covenant House (CH) in Houston. As intake director, he was responsible for all young people entering CH: initial interviews, assessments for services and needs, referral services, etc. CH provided shelter for 60-80 adolescents each night.
The son of a 43-year Pontiac line worker, and a graduate of Cass High School in Detroit, Philbert went to Wayne State University anticipating a career in medicine. Part-time work at St. Francis Home for Boys inspired him to take more social work classes, and he graduated with a degree in sociology. During a 1980 telephone conversation, a friend in Texas mentioned an open position at CH. Philbert looked out the window at a raging November snowstorm: Hello Houston!
Serendipitously, he had attended a conference at St. Malo Retreat Center one week before my call, and had enjoyed a free afternoon walking aroundEstes Park. Back in Houston, he told his wife Melita, “That’s a cute little town up there, Estes Park.”
Philbert Smith, in his 21st year and Director of Students at Eagle Rock, has helped to shape the school’s culture as much as anyone. The first thing he said to the faculty: “Calm adults equal calm kids;” his talented peers leaned forward in their chairs. Periodically, in that low, mellifluous, imperturbable voice he counsels students, “Live one life.” When issues or conflicts arise he begins with a pertinent question: what is the best obtainable version of the truth?
Students who have not yet learned to trust him concoct 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.”
When teenagers stray from the true path and seek pleasures of the flesh, Philbert cites Will and Ariel Durant’s THE LESSONS OF HISTORY: “A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.”
His talents are in service to Eagle Rock’s value system, a set of eight curricular themes, five broad expectations of students, and ten behavioral commitments, all of which are subsumed in the phrase 8+5=10 (www.eaglerockschool.org). Paramount among these for Philbert: Creating and Making Healthy Life Choices; Living in Respectful Harmony; and Designing an Enduring Moral and Ethical Code.
Not all students are ready for Eagle Rock’s daunting value system; their pasts may trammel them. Says Philbert, “Despite frustration, I really do like adolescents. I never get tired of their energy, their outlooks. They are probably the most adaptable beings of the human species. Working with young people has 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 them. I have become a little bit more patient with my own shortcomings as I have become patient with the shortcomings of others.”
Students occasionally lose hope and assert pessimistically that things are “going to the dogs.” Philbert has a ready poetic response that concludes: “There’s one thing that I have to state– The dogs have had a good long wait.”
His job demands countless hours one-on-one with students and parents. Philbert gratefully acknowledges his primary support team, Melita, Nia and Ayanna, and the sacrifices they have made that enable him to do what he needs to do.
Ultimately and fundamentally, Philbert Smith impels adolescents to pursue lives of integrity. Victories are not guaranteed. Despite recurrent setbacks he is resolute, and finds 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.
Next Column: Fifty-year Flashback
Estes Park. Nice town. Nice people.
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