December 2021 – “The little fish with the very big name”

Mike Schloat, Head of School

Some of my family’s deepest roots lie in the Pacific island nation of Samoa. I grew up hearing stories of my maternal grandfather’s life as a boy in the South Pacific: swimming with a knife in his teeth to ward off sharks, traveling by boat to boarding school, and celebrating the indigenous traditions of his mother’s native people. My grandfather would also tell me of his days in Hawai’i, and as a lover of language, I was fascinated by the amazingly baroque name of Hawai’i’s state fish: the humuhumunukunukuapua’a. (Pronunciation lessons available free of charge in Barton House during regular school hours!)

Known in English as the reef triggerfish, this small, colorful fish with a Hawaiian name that is as much fun to pronounce as it is to spell encapsulates for me the island life my grandfather described. Fun-loving, beautiful, maybe a little silly but coyly aware of it, and, most importantly, proud of its quirks and unique culture. (Grandpa’s favorite joke was to point out that opposite the little fish with the giant name was one of the ocean’s largest fish, the marlin, whose Hawaiian name, a’u, is dwarfed by that of its little neighbor.) 

My wonder at the oddities and beautiful sounds of the language of a far-off people whose blood I distantly share has stayed with me for decades, and I think now about how important it is for schools to find ways to stoke that same feeling in their students. As we close the books on another mini-term at Bement–this year’s theme was “The Beauty of Math”–our tradition of a month spent studying one topic across the entire school strikes me as one of our school’s special eccentricities that promotes the curiosity and fascination that are prerequisites for lifelong learning. Like the Hawaiian people and their beloved fish, Bement has crafted a lexicon unique to the features of mini-term (collaboratives, mini-term electives, the showcase), and over three weeks in December each year, students discover a breadth of learning and knowledge as variable and mysterious as the sea itself. 

Watching mini-term unfold this year, I was struck by the power of our faculty pausing some of their traditional teaching duties to share their own quirks, hobbies, and curiosities with students. Modeling the very wonder and lifelong learning that Bement hopes to inculcate in its students, our teachers this month showed off their quilting skills, dance moves, puzzling prowess, and general mathematical wizardry–even some of the humanities specialists! That the faculty is able to replicate the experience each year, no matter the theme, is an amazing testament to their versatility and commitment to their craft. Leaping back into Bement’s typical curriculum and the challenges of winter in a rigorous independent school is surely an easier transition each January thanks to the December reminder that exploring the vast unknown reaches of learning beyond the classroom is a lifelong journey of wonder, laughter, and the unexpected. 

As mini-term concludes, so does 2021, and Bement’s community has much to be proud of and happy for from the last twelve months. May your 2022 be full of wonder, too, along with plenty of good health and time to consider enduring curiosities like the humuhumunukunukuapua’a and its humongous pal, the a’u. 
 

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