Category Archives: Staples HS

Honoring Rachel Doran

In August 2018, Rachel Doran — a rising senior at Cornell University, former National Merit Commended Scholar, talented Staples Players costume designer, and founder of “Rachel’s Rags,” a company that makes intricate cotton and fleece pajama tops and bottoms — died.

She was diagnosed a month earlier with Stevens Johnson Syndrome and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, a rare reaction to common medications. She then developed Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome — another rare syndrome.

Rachel was mourned by many. Her presence continues to be felt by those who knew and loved her.

Among them is State Senator Will Haskell — a classmate of Rachel’s at Staples High School. Recently, he petitioned the state to name a road after her.

A sign recently went up on the Sherwood Island Connector. Now her name will be known by many.

(Hat tip: Elaine Daignault)

ADL Helps Make Staples A Safer, Braver Place

Everyone knows about “safe spaces”: the rooms in a school or college where students can discuss issues openly, free from epithets, putdowns or other attacks.

That’s important, of course. A new program at Staples High School aims to provide a special place to connect, feel comfortable and grow.

But “Connections” — the innovative, twice-weekly project that will keep small groups of students connected with staff members throughout their 4 years on campus — hopes to go one step further.

The goal is to create “brave spaces.” That’s where teenagers and teachers can do more than discuss bias incidents like swastikas or hurtful comments.

It’s where they can think critically about them, learn from them — and learn how to talk about them, openly and honestly and directly.

“Connections” helps students reflect on what it means to be a community member making a difference. It was in the works before Stafford Thomas was named principal, but he has embraced the concept and put the full weight of his position behind it.

Educators — even at Staples — have not always been trained in how to lead discussions of bias and hate. They may feel uncomfortable, and worry that students may feel uncomfortable too.

Marji Lipshez-Shapiro knows those feelings well. “It takes a lot for people to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and uncomfortable with what can be too uncomfortable,” says the deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut chapter.

She’s spent nearly 30 years running professional development workshops for teachers, through the ADL. For “Connections,” she designed a special one — much more targeted to the program, to Westport as a community, and to Staples as a school.

“Every school has bias incidents,” she notes. “Too often the district doesn’t want anyone to hear about them. They sweep them under the rug, and they become ‘lumpy carpets.'”

Swastikas and other symbols pop up in bathroom stalls. Racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments are made in hallways, cafeterias and before class.

The ADL program used case studies: actual examples from schools nationwide. They could happen here too.

“We want educators to have tools, to be proactive and reactive,” Lipshez-Shapiro says. “The ‘Connections’ discussions are about prevention and intervention. When there is an incident, we want everyone to learn from it. After all, this is school!”

Lauren Francese — the Westport Public Schools’ 6-12 social studies coordinator, who helped design the workshop — says that it will help all teachers talk about challenging topics, in the classroom as well as during “Connections.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg (a Westport resident) and Marji Lipshez-Shapiro (3rd from right) join Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas (far right) for “brave spaces” training.

Lipshez-Shapiro agrees. What happens, she asks rhetorically, when a teacher overhears a boy tell a friend he’d take a girl to the prom “only if she puts a paper bag on her head”?

“When do you challenge that statement? When do you not say anything?” she says. “Silence is what does harm. But lots of people are afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or coming down too hard.”

The ADL workshop gave teachers tools to begin nuanced conversations. That way, Lifshez-Shapiro says, they can help students “not just stand up, be brave and say ‘Don’t say that,’ but go beyond.”

In the Staples session, she asked educators to think about their own favorite teachers. What qualities did they have?

And when they were in school themselves, she continued, how did you feel like you belonged? How did you feel when you did not belong?

She also asked teachers to share their own best practices. “These are gifted professionals,” she notes. “They’re already doing excellent things.”

“Every high school needs to do this,” Lipshez-Shapiro says.

Thomas — the new principal — agrees.

He calls the training “timely and especially helpful in preparing our teachers and ultimately our students in navigating brave conversations in a responsible and, most importantly, productive manner.

“It was extremely well received, based on the feedback data. I believe this training and continued assistance from the ADL in the future will go a long way to cultivate a caring and nurturing school community.” He echoed those sentiments at Back to School Night.

“Our teachers were really engaged and energized by these conversations,” Francese adds. “They’re the starting point for making Staples a safer — and braver — space.”

Unsung Hero #114

Plenty of youth coaches deserve shout-outs. They work tirelessly on behalf of their sport. They pass on their knowledge and passion to young athletes.

Many times those youngsters include their own children. When their kids grow up — or stop playing — the coaches move on.

Jeb Backus was coaching long before his own children, Tripp and Jillian, played. He’ll coach long after too.

Jeb Backus

Jeb is a head coach for Westport travel baseball and softball. He’s also the head junior varsity softball coach at Staples High School, and serves Westport Little League as director of field operations.

He was a longtime player too. And a very good one.

Now Jeb is getting some long-overdue recognition. He’s been named to the Connecticut ASA Softball Hall of Fame.

Jeb started playing softball for the legendary Sonny’s team at 16. He was already a star baseball and football player at Staples High School. He continued with Sonny’s while at Flagler College, on a baseball scholarship. In 1987, he earned college All-America honors. In 2004, Jeb was named to Flager’s new Athletic Hall of Fame.

Jeb helped Sonny’s win 5 state championships. He pitched in 4 title games, and went 13-for-14 while driving in 17 runs.

Jeb then starred for other teams, at the national level. He added 5 more state championships at the Over-35 level.

Jeb Backus in action.

Jeb finished his 25-year softball career with a .625-plus batting average, and over 900 pitching wins. His teams earned more than 40 local crowns, and qualified for 19 national tournaments.

As a coach, his work with young players is legendary. Many former players, parents and friends look forward to honoring Jeb at the dinner (Sunday, October 13, Costa Azzurra restaurant, Milford, 4 p.m.). For ticket information, call 203-876-0078 or email lisa.dilullo@aol.com.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Little Barn, Big Welcome

An alert “06880” reader — and grateful parent — writes:

Like many local businesses, Little Barn gets hit up for lots of good causes. Donate a gift card to a fundraiser? Buy an ad in a program book? Sponsor a team?

Owners Scott Beck and Kevin McHugh always say “sure!”

But the pair go way beyond donations. They’ve made their casual, friendly Post Road restaurant — formerly Dairy Queen, then Woody’s and Swanky Frank’s — what those other places never were: a “Cheers”-like home-away-from-home, where everyone feels welcome any time, and everybody knows your name. (And your kid’s name.)

Enter here for the Little Barn.

Some of their most devoted customers are Staples High School sports teams.

Take last fall’s freshman football squad. The heart of the squad has been together since 4th grade. Parents formed bonds as tight as the players. They all celebrated together after every game.

Many places viewed the enthusiastic group as an intrusion. Little Barn embraced them.

After the final game of the year — when the 9th graders finished undefeated — parent Miki Scarfo warned the restaurant that this gathering would be particularly large.

“Can’t wait to see you!” they said.

Players and siblings filled the back. Parents hung out in front. The varsity coaches and captains arrived, surprising the freshmen. It was organic, free-form and fun — a snapshot from another part of America, perhaps.

A small part of a large Little Barn gathering.

The rugby and wrestling teams have made Little Barn their own too. It’s where coaches, parents and athletes gather before and after competitions; where their booster clubs meet; wherever anyone goes at a random moment, knowing they’ll be welcome.

Little Barn’s support of Staples goes beyond sports.

Some restaurants with live entertainment hire adult musicians. Little Barn gives student bands a shot. The same parents who meet up for athletes pack the place, supporting the teenagers.

How does everyone know to go? When a gathering takes place, parents often send out texts. A group assembles in minutes. They call it “flashing the bat signal.”

Little Barn owner Scott Beck likes the “bat signal” idea so much, his marketing team created this graphic for it.

Little Barn sounds like a throwback to a different era.

But the “bat signal” texts are all about 2019.

Dairy Queen has sure come a long way.

Pic Of The Day #863

Longshore Sailing School, from offshore. Meanwhile … (Photo/Bruce McFadden)

12 year-old Tucker Peters won 7 of 15 races, to claim Longshore Sailing School’s 2019 Doug Sheffer Cup.

The Bedford Middle School 8th grader won convincingly, with consistent finishes. Just behind him were Staples High School freshmen Devon Jarvis and Alan Becker.

The Doug Sheffer Cup is awarded annually in memory of the late 1969 Staples graduate, who was instrumental in the early years of Longshore Sailing School.

Tucker Peters

Jill Johnson Mann Takes Lara Spencer To (Dance) School

The other day, “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer made a moronic, smirking “joke,” mocking Prince George for taking ballet classes. Her co-hosts cackled along. Audience members joined in the laughter.

The internet erupted in outrage. This is 2019, after all.

Jill Johnson Mann went one better. The Westporter wrote all about ballet in the Washington Post.

Jill Johnson Mann

She should know. Her 4 kids — 2 girls, 2 boys — have all taken dance classes. Plus, she’s a writer. And — oh yeah — back in 2012, she interviewed Lara Spencer for Greenwich Magazine.

Her 9-year-old son Jamie had just performed in “The Nutcracker.”

Jill is a lot softer on Lara than I would be. But she pulls no punches when she talks about her family’s experiences with dance.

She describes how Jamie was “entranced” the first time he saw “Swan Lake.” He was 3 years old.

At 7 he saw “Billy Elliot the Musical” on Broadway. “My son took the leap and began taking ballet classes — with all girls, which is often the case in the suburbs,” Jill writes. “He was not fazed. He loved it.”

The next year, he joined Alvin Ailey’s Athletic Boys Dance Program.

Commuting 90 minutes to class was worth it, so he could experience a studio filled with 25 boys who loved to dance as much as he did. The program is free — a common perk for young male dancers. Especially at ballet schools, the lure of free tuition compensates for the threat of teasing.

In fact, there was teasing. Jamie wanted to go to private school.

But 5th grade “turned out to be fine. Jamie was becoming a stronger dancer and fighting to have a strong viewpoint about what is okay for boys and girls to do. He began studying ballet with a tough Russian teacher who made the boorish kids at school seem like kittens.”

In 6th grade, things got even better. Jamie was accepted into the School of American Ballet — and danced with New York City Ballet. The Wall Street Journal included him in a story on boys in ballet.

Jamie continued to rock the dance world. He landed his dream role of Billy Elliot, in 4 productions from Florida to New Hampshire. Jamie’s parents — including his “ball sports guy” dad — watched proudly as he played his part: “a physical and emotional feat unmatched by any other child role.”

Jamie Mann in “Billy Elliot the Musical.” (Photo/Zoe Bradford)

Still, Jamie was living a real life — not a Broadway musical. His mother writes:

Despite an Actors’ Equity card in his pocket, the biggest test for Jamie was daring to don ballet shoes and perform Billy’s “Electricity” in his middle school’s talent show. In 2016, even in artsy Westport, Conn., “dare” still felt like the accurate term. He got cold feet a few days before. My husband insisted he not do it. “You don’t know how boys are,” he told me. I countered, “He has to do it, for every boy who comes after him and wants to dance.”

I remember Jamie’s mop of golden hair and his white ballet shoes as the spotlight fell across him during his dramatic entrance. My husband and I braced ourselves for heckling, but instead the audience roared with encouragement. Classmates shouted Jamie’s name as though he were a star. He was, because he made it a little bit easier for kids like George.

“06880” wrote about that day. It’s still one of my favorite stories ever.

Jamie is now 3 years older. He’s continuing to dance — and to dance beautifully. This summer, he performed in a new musical at Goodspeed Opera House. It’s based on the great children’s book “Because of Winn Dixie” — a story about kindness and acceptance.

It was a fantastic show. I look forward to watching him on stage this fall in “Mamma Mia!” with Staples Players.

And if Lara Spencer wants to come, she’s welcome to sit next to me.

(Click here for Jill Johnson Mann’s full Washington Post story.)

For Whom The School Bell Tolls

Forget January 1. Pshaw, Rosh Hashanah. Today — at least for Westport parents and students — is the real start of the new year.

It’s the first day of school.

Whether you’re a kindergartner heading off on your own, a Staples senior already counting the days to graduation, or a mom or dad feeling pride, trepidation and the warp-speed passage of time — or anyone else, who has ever gone to school — this story is for you. 

Summer vacation ends with a thud today. Each year it’s the same: One day a kid’s free as a cat; the next he’s trapped, chained to the rhythm of the school calendar for 10 long months.

Greens Farms Elementary School.

Some youngsters love this time of year; they’re eager to greet old friends, and meet new ones. Or they can’t wait for the smell of newly waxed floors, the security of assigned seats, the praise they know will be lavished on them day after day.

Others abhor it. The thought of entering a strange building filled with strange faces, or trying to be part of a group of peers who won’t accept them, or sitting for hours at a time, doing work they can’t stand, is excruciating — even physically sickening.

Around this time each year, I think about the entire school experience. I wonder which kindergartner will hate school for the rest of the year because his teacher makes a face the morning he throws up in front of everyone, and which will love school because an aide congratulates her the afternoon she almost puts on her coat all by herself.

Which 1st grader will invent any excuse not to go to gym because he can’t throw a ball, and which will get through the school day only because he knows gym is coming soon?

Saugatuck Elementary School

Which 4th grader will walk meekly into class each morning with just one ambition — to get through the day without anyone noticing how ugly, or stupid, or poorly dressed she is — and which will look back on 4th grade as a turning point in her life because a guidance counselor took the time to talk to her, to show her how to comb her hair better, to make her feel good about herself?

Which 5th grader will have a teacher who does nothing when she catches him cheating on a test — too much effort to raise such a touchy issue — and which will have a teacher who scares him so much when he’s caught that he vows to never cheat in school again?

Which 6th grader will enter middle school intent on making a name for himself as the best fighter in his class, and which with the aim of never getting a grade lower than an A?  Which 6th grader’s ambition will change, and which will remain the same?

Bedford Middle School.

Which 9th grader will temper his fledgling interest in current events with the feeling “it’s not cool; no one else in class cares,” and which will visit the New York Times website every day because her class is working on “this really neat project”?

Which 10th grader will hate English because all she does is read stupid books assigned by the stupid teacher from some stupid list, and which will go to Barnes & Noble on his own for the first time because his teacher suggests there are more books by the same author he might enjoy?

Which 12th grader will have the brains to apply to 3 Ivy League schools, but lack the common courtesy to thank a teacher who wrote glowing recommendation to all of them? And which will slip a note in a teacher’s box the morning of graduation that says, “Thanks.  I’m really glad I had you this year”?

Staples High School

It’s easy to wrap our school years in nostalgic gauze, or try to stuff the bad memories down our mental garbage disposals.

We also tend not to think in concrete terms about what goes on inside school walls every day. Learning, we assume, happens. Kids read, write, use laptops, draw, eat and see their friends.

We seldom realize how much of an impact this institution we call “school” has on our kids.

Or how much it has had on us.

He-Man Returns; Westporter Helps

“He-Man” is coming back to life.

And one of “the men” responsible is a Staples High School graduate.

Rob David is executive producer of Netflix’s new anime series. Called “Masters of the Universe: Revelation,” it will take place in a Mattel-inspired world, and focus on unresolved story lines from the classic 1980s show. It picks up on “what may be the final battle between He-Man and Skeletor,” says executive producer Kevin Smith.

Rob David (left) and Kevin Smith.

David — a 1992 Staples alum, where he was active in Players and co-president of Model UN — is well suited to the task. He’s vice president of Mattel TV, and author of He-Man: The Eternity War. 

After graduating from Columbia University, he wrote for several New York-based animated series, including “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He now lives in California, with his wife and twins. (She is in charge of online content for Sesame Workshop, and has helped develop their highly regarded autism, LGBT and military family inclusion material.)

Staples classmate Evan Stein says, “Having read Rob’s reboot stories of He-Man and She-Ra that he wrote when he moved to LA, and the fanboy favorite crossover of He-Man and the ThunderCats, I’m sure this will be a runaway success.”

The original He-Man animated series ran from 1983-85. Set on the mythical planet of Eternia, it featured Prince Adam — transformed into He-Man — as the most powerful man in the universe.

He-Man

[OPINION] There Must Be Ways To Prevent Suicide

Alan and Sheri Snedeker lived in Westport for 30 years. He’s an “eclectic creative”; she’s a painter.

They raised 2 sons here. Kirk is a drummer, and builds websites. Mark — who left Staples High School in 1990, when he had enough credits to graduate — committed suicide at 19.

The other day, Alan saw a Tedx Talk. He learned that psychiatrists and psychologists are the only medical professionals who treat a body part that they do not test, look at or scan.

Instead, he says, “they rely on medical companies to create a pill that, hopefully, will work.” Alan is convinced that his son would be alive today if his brain had been scanned.

Alan wants Westport teenagers — and their parents — to see this video. He also sends some thoughts on Mark.

Mark told me one day, “You will never know how bad I feel.”

He attempted suicide the next day…the first time. Police found him, and rushed him to the hospital. I’m sure that a scan of his brain would tell us a lot about his depression.

He was hospitalized in Norwalk Hospital, and given nothing but lithium to help his feeling.

He was mixed with alcoholics and drug addicts, and treated like he was a moron.

After Norwalk, we had Mark on daycare at Silver Hill. He was deeply depressed. One day he went out to take pictures. At Staples, he easily shot excellent photographs. That day, he came back with nothing.

Mark Snedeker was an excellent photographer — and also a talented musician.

He was 19 at Silver Hill — legally, an adult. The psychiatrist he saw could not tell us to search his room for weapons and drugs — and we didn’t think to do it. We did not know that people who attempt suicide often do so more than once.

On the day he died I was raking leaves. I thought to myself that exercise is good for a person in depression.

The day before he died, he acted normal. That should have been a warning sign. We now know that people kill themselves when they are strong enough to do it.

I found his body in his bedroom. I could barely recognize him. He was totally disfigured. He must have suffered terribly before he died. He took hundreds of pills.

My point is 2-fold. Demand brain scans for manic depression and depression. It’s ridiculous that this is not done for mental illness.

And don’t treat a 19-year-old with mental illness as an adult. A psychiatrist should talk to parents, and possibly prevent a suicide.

There have to be better ways to treat people like Mark. The brain must be studied, and people over 18 must be able to talk to those who care.

Over 40. But Not Over The Hill.

There are certain sports you can do all your life: Golf. Tennis. Swimming. Running.

At some point, baseball players move on to softball. Football players trade their helmets for flags.

Soccer — a game of constant running, tough physical contact and diving* all over the place — seems to be a young person’s game.

Don’t tell that to the Fairfield Gaelic-American Club team. With a roster filled with Westport and Westport-related players, they made the finals of the national Over-40 Cup tournament, in Maryland.

In the semifinal, they edged the Florida Kickers — the defending champions national champions — 1-0.

Unfortunately, they fell in the finals to a team from Chicago. “They were fitter, better organized and had a few former MLS [pro] players,” says Todd Coleman.

By day, he’s an investment banker. In his spare time, he’s co-president of the Westport Soccer Association. And — as a former Staples High School captain — he’s representative of his team that is not very Gaelic, but quite Westport-oriented.

The Gaelic-American team. Front row (from left): Anton Camaj, Mauro Rodrigues-Costa, Tim Yates, Sebastian Wojdeska, Michael Hennessey, Tyler Ricks, Edwin Leon, Sofronis Vlahos. Rear: Jamie Poff, Brian Thomas, Larry Piturro, Javier Oritz, Edik Eskandarian, Andy Hoffmann, Omar tork, Xavi Egurbide, Todd Coleman, Matt Lawlor, Seth Cohen, Frank Surace.

Todd’s teammates this weekend included Westporter Tyler Ricks, plus Edwin Leon, Steve Halloran, Tim Yates and Andy Hoffmann. All have played on many Westport men’s teams, and in Staples soccer alumni events (though they are only “honorary” alums).

Gaelic players who helped the team reach the finals, but could not make this trip, include Dr. Jonathan Sollinger, a former Staples captain and Dartmouth College star; Mickey Kydes, Westport Soccer Association director of coaching, former MLS player and Westport resident; EJ Zebro, a certified movement and performance coach who owns Westport’s  TAP StrengthLab, and Mike Brown, who won 2 state championships at Staples and starred at Middlebury College.

Congratulations to all. “06880” is indeed where Westport meets the world — and the world game.

*For headers and tackles, not the fake-injury kind.