Head of School Blog: On Semipermeable Membranes

One of the many benefits of living and leading a school on the Upper Cape is the inspiring influence of our prestigious scientific institutions, with whom Falmouth Academy’s relationships are broad and deep–symbiotic to borrow a scientific term. Perhaps that is why, this past week, in all-school meeting in order to engage my fellow Mariners in an important and timely conversation, I borrowed another scientific term, one that is currently (and quite serendipitously!) being studied by our tenth grade biology students.


On the big screen, I displayed an animation, asking Ms. Borden to open and close the gates between the many circulating small dots on the right and the larger green ones on the left. I allowed a few minutes for the students to observe them passing through the membrane into one another’s realms, colliding randomly into one another.  


I asked two questions, the first of which was, “Does anyone know what this animation represents?”  Not surprisingly, a host of hands from the tenth grade section shot up (Thank you, Dr. Ament!) and the rest of us were skilled up on the definition of “semipermeable membrane.”  Confident that everyone understood the scientific concept, I gave them a week to consider my second question, “What on earth does a semipermeable membrane have to do with attending Falmouth Academy?”


As expected, student interpretations were varied.  One student suggested that the dots were the students and the green balls were the teachers, and that we are invited into one another’s spaces; there are no walls that separate us from one another.  Another student suggested that space is tight around here and we can’t help but run into each other. Still a third offered that we were the dots and the green balls were people on the outside that we invite in.


All good thoughts that hint at why I really introduced it: thanks to our parents and benefactors, our students get to learn and grow in a safe, respectful, highly cultured, richly resourced, caring, bright and clean environment.  It’s not the real world and to some extent that’s the point: the fact that it’s not the real world is precisely why so many students thrive here. But, it’s also no bubble. Consider the speed with which news travels. The term “notification” barely existed ten years ago. Consider that our students hail from more than 37 towns, and finally, consider that we bring our families, our neighborhoods, our socioeconomic backgrounds, our cultural and racial identities, our politics, and more back and forth to school with us every day.  


Yes, Falmouth Academy may be tucked in the woods and quite literally behind an iron gate and yes, it may exist in what at first glance appears to be a picturesque seaside town, but it also resides in and is responsible to a local, regional, national and global community.  Students in our Engage elective are certainly aware of this. Whether working with Neighborhood Falmouth, meeting with volunteers from the League of Women Voters to register students eligible to vote, offering a technology workshop at the Falmouth Senior Center, leading our annual canned food drive, working on a Habitat for Humanity build site in Marston Mills, or attending the Barnstable County Human Rights Academy, they are aware of the risks of an ivory tower existence and are committed to being a bridge between our students and neighbors.


To those of us who choose not to engage the world, know that the world will foist itself upon us.  Look no further than last week’s tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, last month’s supreme court confirmation hearing, this week’s contentious midterm elections, or the effects of climate change that seem to be increasing in frequency and severity with each passing year.


So take another look at the animation; see those little dots?  That’s us. See those big dots? Those are the things that happen out in the world.  And see everyone and everything bouncing into one another? That’s life, my friends, and we cannot and should not hide from it by closing a gate, because well-managed collisions are where the learning really happens.


At Falmouth Academy, we have more than freedom of speech; we have a responsibility to engage, and to do so responsibly; we have a responsibility to tell and listen to one another’s stories.  In so doing, we must choose our words carefully. They matter. And, these days, they are casually launched, easily shared, and, alas, permanent and consequential. We are a semi-permeable membrane; even in here, we are going to bounce into one another, even in here, we are not entirely protected from what’s out there, even in here, we have an obligation to prepare you so that when you go out there, you, like so many that have graduated from Falmouth Academy, will be the change that we seek, the change we need.

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