Category Archives: Teenagers

Roundup: Tennis Courts, Stephen Wilkes, Monarchs …

A reader writes:

I am infuriated by this community.

My daughter and I played tennis Wednesday at Staples High School. I was disgusted to see all of the trash left on the court. The same trash I saw 2 days prior had grown in volume.

In addition to empty water bottles and tennis cans, there were about 8 of those sharp and dangerous metal seals. My daughter and I cleaned up the mess.

I don’t understand why people can’t clean up after themselves. They think it’s ok to leave their trash behind. There is a green receptacle on the court, and a garbage can just outside the fence.

Why is it so hard? Come on, people. Let’s all enjoy this public space together!

Mess at the Staples tennis courts.

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World-renowned (and Westport) photographer Stephen Wilkes is featured in a new Westport Library exhibit.

Encompassing all 3 galleries, the show will explore how his visualization of the concept of time has evolved from the earlier days of his career, on through his latest series “Day to Night” and “Tapestries.”

The exhibition opens September 8.

The program will be preceded by a reception with the photographer at 6:15, followed by a Q&A in the Forum, with Stacy Bass.

The show runs through November 29.

“Flatiron 2010” (Photo/Stephen Wilkes)

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Longtime Weston resident Bill Rother — a well-known musician and travel company executive — died August 1, at his beloved Kettle Creek Camp in the Pennsylvania mountains, surrounded by family. He was 89.

A strong athlete, Bill was captain of his high school swimming and crew teams. He continued to swim throughout his life, winning dozens of medals in the senior Olympics. Bill swam his age in laps on his birthday – hitting 89 this year.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State University in forestry in 1955, and remained a lifelong Nittany Lion supporter. Although he never worked in the field, Bill loved to quiz his grandkids on the Latin names of trees in the woods.

He served as an Army second lieutenant in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Penn State, then first lieutenant and platoon leader with the combat engineers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina with the 82nd Airborne Division.

He was a musician from his earliest days, working his way through college playing banjo with a Dixieland band, The Sadistic Six. This led to work as a professional musician with Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians. He traveled the world with the group, performing on live television with stars like Perry Como, Jackie Gleason and Garry Moore, and appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” right before the Beatles.

Highlights for Bill were playing at the White House and meeting a President (Eisenhower), a Queen (Elizabeth), and a King (Elvis).

Bill’s next foray into Hollywood was an attempt to produce his own TV show in London about a race car driver called “Knights of the Road.” Despite a year of work, even hiring a down and out actor who went on to future success (Peter O’Toole), they ran out of money and Bill returned to Los Angeles penniless.

He saw an ad in the L.A. Times: “Tour Director to lead deluxe groups to Hawaii.” He was quickly hired by the company, Ask Mr. Foster. Within days they bought Bill a tuxedo and sent him to work on the SS Lurline cruise ship, chatting with the likes of Lloyd Bridges on his way to run tours in Hawaii.

After several years in the travel industry Bill connected with his close friend, Arthur Tauck, who hired him as a tour director with his premier tour company, Tauck Tours. It was a career he enjoyed for over 30 years.

His most proud accomplishment was setting up Tauck’s first itinerary in Hawaii, fulfilling a lifelong dream of living in the islands. Bill couldn’t believe he got paid to travel the world, and live at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Bill married the love of his life, Bonnie Marie Orton, in 1969 on Kauai. Their honeymoon included adventures in Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Bora Bora. Bill and Bonnie raised one daughter, Samantha Carrie Maile Lou Li’i Li’i Rother Nagy, who Bill called “the light of my life.”

In Weston, Bill became friendly with José Feliciano. He became the singer’s tour manager, and performed with him locally.

Bill was preceded in death by his brother Bobby. He is survived by his wife Bonnie, daughter Samantha, son-in-law Christopher, and grandsons William James and Luke Robert Nagy.

A celebration of life service will be held in September at the Unitarian Church in Westport, at a date to be determined.

In lieu of flowers, his fmaily says: :be kind, laugh, play music, love big, drink the good beer, and live a great life.”

Bill Rother

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Longtime Westporter Jo Ann Miller has a question: Should children and teenagers call adults by their first names?

She comes from a military family, where that was a no-no. But she’s seen and heard it around Westport.

Jo Ann wonders: Does the trend show a lack of respect? Or is it simply a new way of raising kids?

She’d love to hear readers’ thoughts. Click “Comments” below.

Back in the day, kids did not call parents — or their parents’ friends — by first names.

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Wakeman Town Farm’s lecture garden series continues August 29 (6:30 p.m.). Master gardener Alice Ely talks on Milkwood Growing and Monarch Raising.”

Monarchs have suffered tremendous habitat loss recently. Alice will describe ways to attract egg-laying monarchs to gardens, raising eggs into hungry caterpillars, and tips on growing a variety of milkweed species to help them thrive.

Click here for more information, and tickets.

Monarch butterfly and milkweed.

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Season 2 of “Kids are Talking” has been a great success.

Producer Michael Bud of Weston brought in new moderators for each episode. Among them: State Senator Will Haskell, who inspired teenager to get involved in politics; a “conspiracy rhetoric” professor who talked about the JFK assassination and lizard people; a Yale professor who discussed sleep habits and moods; an expert on boundaries, and last night, teen leaders of a suicide prevention organization.

Click here for past episodes, and more information.

Last night’s “Kids are Talking” episode.

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The Westport Library has added a noir film to Miggs Burroughs and Ann Chernow’s exhibition, “Double Indemnity.”

“Mildred Pierce” will be shown on the Trefz Forum big screen on August 25 (7 p.m.).

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Today’s “Westport … Naturally” features some luscious tomatoes from Tom Cook’s Community Garden plot.

(Photo/Tom Cook)

Your bounty may not look like this. But there’s plenty of produce available today at the Westport Farmers’ Market. It’s runs through 2 p.m., at the Imperial Avenue parking lot.

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And finally … Judith Durham, whose beautiful voice helped make The Seekers the first Australian pop group a success during the British Invasion — died today in Melbourne. She was 79, and suffered from a lifelong lung disease.

“Georgy Girl” was the Seekers’ biggest hit. I didn’t care for that one, but I loved many of their other songs — those well known, and others less famous. Australians considered them a treasure, and they were right. Click here for a full obituary.

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For Aiden Schachter, The Sky’s The Limit

The pandemic was tough on some teenagers. Stuck at home, they stalled academically, socially and emotionally.

Others took the lockdown lemon, and made lemonade.

Or — in the case of Aiden Schachter — they made LED lightclouds. And built a thriving, national business.

In the spring of 2020 he was a Bedford Middle School 8th grader, spending more time than usual in his room.

LED light strips — the  wireless bedroom decoration that changes colors and looks cool — were hot. Aiden took a stuffed, falling-apart penguin, and created a prototype.

Today, he says, it looks like “a piece of junk: a stuffed animal in a ball.” But to his 8th grade eyes, it was impressive.

He made a few more. His aunt bought one. Aiden wondered if he could sell to non-relatives.

One of Aiden Schachter’s LED light clouds.

He thought about eBay. But Etsy — the homemade-and-craft site — seemed more appropriate.

At that point, you or I might simply have made a few LED light strips, taken quick photos, and posted them on Etsy.

But you and I are not Aiden Schachter.

The young teenager conducted market research. He watched videos. He read articles. He learned how to sell online.

His first ads were “not very descriptive,” he admits. But quickly, he discovered how to engage potential customers.

He tailored his ads to a variety of platforms: Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Google.

Studying Etsy’s analytics to find out who was buying, he crafted different ads for different niches — “dorm room décor,” say, and “baby gifts.”

Screen shot of Aiden Schachter’s Etsy StormcloudLEDs page.

Aiden learned photographic techniques too. He’s taken 2 courses at Staples, to hone his skills.

Aiden’s mother taught him how to use spreadsheets, to pay taxes.

He was selling enough to make serious money. The 2020 holidays were a breakout period: 123 orders. With a wide price range — $60 to $180 — appealing to a wide range of customer, his product took off.

Aiden works hard. Each LED cloud light takes 20 to 40 minutes to make; each is made to  oder.

He uses recycled tin cans (sourced on the Nextdoor neighborhood app), attached with spray adhesives.

Everything except the cans comes from his Amazon business account. “I’m a big fan of 2-day shipping,” Aiden says. “And Prime Day is huge.”

The rising Staples High School junior handles every aspect of his business. After making what he calls Stormclouds, he has to package and ship them.

Aiden moved from using old Amazon boxes to ordering cardboard boxes in bulk. He invested in a label printer, which helped a lot. Now, he seals each box with custom tape, bearing his logo.

Aiden Schachter heads to the post office.

Aiden’s lessons included customer service. Etsy is a person-to-person site. “I’m a teenager. I’m always on my phone,” he notes. “I can respond instantly to everyone.”

Not that customers know they’re dealing with a high school student.

An early review said, “it looks like a teenager made this.” Aiden laughs, “Well, yeah, I’m a kid in my parents’ basement making it.”

Now though, his average rating is 4.9 stars (out of 5) — with over 100 reviews.

Other lessons came through the process of incorporating (via LegalZoom) with the state of Connecticut. His LLC is LEDCloudLight.com.

“As a 16-year-old, I struggled to learn tax and legal stuff,” he notes. (Welcome to the club.)

There’s more ahead. Aiden has just been accepted into the Westport Young Woman’s League’s indoor craft fair (November 5-6, at Staples High). That’s a big deal: It’s the longest running event of its kind in Connecticut, and extremely tough to break into.

In addition to his usual holiday sales, Aiden will make plenty of money at the fair. But he’s as philanthropic-minded as he is creative.

Last year, he donated $500 to combat climate change — a gift that was tripled by the Climate Reality Project.

He’s donated Cloudlights for charitable raffles, and is looking for more local organizations to partner with.

Aiden’s numbers are impressive. He’s sold 312 lights this year, up substantially from 219 in 2021. Orders have come from all 50 states.

He’s serious about what he does. He’s spent 6 to 7 hours a day at his business this summer. During the school year, it’s 2 to 3 hours.

Yet as impressive as this is, it’s not all that Aiden does.

He’s also a Staples High School wrestler. That’s an incredibly demanding sport, physically and mentally. 

Aiden Schachter (left) on the wrestling mat.

But there’s even more to Aiden’s story.

Long before he got involved in LED lights, he wanted to fly. Now, in addition to making Cloudlights, he’s soaring — literally — into the clouds. 

From a flight simulator in 7th grade, he’s advanced to lessons. On his 16th birthday in March, he soloed.

Aiden has flown — by himself — from Stratford’s Sikorsky Airport to Groton and Poughkeepsie. His goals are to get his full pilot’s license at 17 — and eventually, fly commercially.

Aiden Schachter, about to pilot a Cessna 172.

Back on earth, Aiden is working on Cloudlights enhancements. He’s developed lights that can be controlled by Alexa and Google Home. (They’re already controlled through an app.)

Aiden Schachter’s app to control his lights.

He’s also building up stock for the craft fair. And training for the upcoming wrestling season.

Aiden Schachter has a lot to look forward to. Thanks to him, kids and parents all over America have a lot to look up to, as well.

(For Aiden’s Etsy page, click here.) 

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Small Car Company Provides Big Help

It was called the Small Car Company. But for several years in the late 1960s, the Westport dealership sold more Volkswagens than any other in the US.

The Small Car Company was a Post Road West landmark from the ’60s through the early ’80s. It later became Dragone Classic Motorcars. Today it’s Carvana — the used car dealer selling entirely online — and if that doesn’t say something about yesterday and today, I don’t know what does.

The Small Car Company lives on, though, as SmallCarCompany.org — which also shows how the world has evolved. The brainchild of former Westporters Tom Truitt and Dave Abelow, they’re an informal group of vintage VW and Porsche owners who meet to share their passion, trade information, and host driving rallies and shows.

The club’s shows raise awareness — and funds — for local needs. Their focus is on youngsters in underserved areas who are interested in cars, but lack the resources to be introduced to automobile dealers and classic car owners.

Working with the Piston Foundation — a national organization — they help make connections.

This spring, for example, the Small Car Company brought 30 students from Bridgeport’s Bullard-Havens Technical High School’s auto technology program to the Malcolm Pray Achievement Center in Bedford, New York (including its private 4-story garage filled with classic autos), and then to a meeting with vintage repair mechanics.

Curran Volkswagen in Stratford — a dealership with Westport roots — has promised to hire some of the students from the program.

On October 9, the Small Car Company’s 7th annual Air-Cooled Classic Car Show & Fun(d) Raiser is set for Veterans Green.

Bullard-Havens’ students and teachers will be there.

Seen at Veteran’s Green, last year. (Photo/Sarathi Roy)

The week after, the Small Car Company will be back, as part of the Westport Downtown Association’s Westoberfest. showing off their classic cars and raising even more funds for youngsters who just need a bit of help to begin fulfilling careers.

Plenty of Westporters own Porsches, and other very cool (and air-cooled) cars. We’ve got plenty of vintage car owners and collectors too. For more information on the Small Car Company — and the chance to drive forward a new generation of youngsters looking for guidance, apprenticeships and a foothold in that fascinating world — email tom@smallcarcompany.org.

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Shark! Tyler Mace’s Update

Tyler Mace is a Westport teenager. He recently graduated from King School in Stamford, where he played hockey on a state championship team, lacrosse on a division-winning squad, and was named a  “Teen to Watch” by Moffly Media.

This fall, he heads to the University of Miami, to pursue his passion: shark research. Two years ago, “06880” profiled Tyler (he was about to be on Discovery Channel’s “Sharkadelic Summer”).

This year, news of recent shark activity in Long Island Sound has worried some area residents. Tyler eases our minds:

I have always been fascinated and amazed by sharks. When I was very little, my mom would tint my bath water blue. I would wear a mask and snorkel, and play with plastic marine animals underwater.

Tyler Mace, in his shark-filled room.

As I grew, I watched River Monsters. and of course Shark Week. I was incredibly fortunate to find top shark scientist Dr. Craig O’Connell, and the summer camp he runs through his foundation, O’Seas Conservation Foundation.

After just one summer working at his camp, he invited me to Guadalupe Island in Mexico, to dive and help with his research on the largest great white sharks in the world (we’re talking 18 feet and 4,000 pounds!).

I became his first ever research fellow. and got to appear along side him on one of his episodes for Shark Week in “Sharkadelic Summer” (narrated by Snoop Dogg. It’s airing again this Shark Week (Thursday, July 28, 5 p.m).

Tyler Mace, conducting research near Guadalupe Island.

His work is inspirational/ Following in his footsteps, I started a 501(c)3 foundation, The Shark Side in 2020 during COVID. Our goal is to support shark and marine biology research projects, to help with shark conservation and research.

So far, I have raised over $18,000. The money is used for research projects I believe will make a direct impact on shark conservation, and for things such as shark tags to help with tracking for research — and also to help humans and sharks safely co-exist.

Next summer, The Shark Side will sponsor a student to attend Dr. O’Connell’s camp. I am happy to pay it forward, and give someone the same life-changing experience that I had.

I will continue to run the foundation while at college, hoping to raise money to eventually fund my own research project.

Tyler Mace, with a blue sharp off Montauk.

At the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, I will pursue a BS in the Marine Biology and Ecology program. I hope to join their renowned shark research program.

I have an idea that I hope to pursue for research, but I also hope to help spread the word that sharks are an essential part of our ecosystem, not the scary man-eating predators many fear when they think of “Jaws.”

In fact, “Jaws” author Peter Benchley was often quoted as regretting the fear of sharks that his book and movie created. He became a full-time marine conservationist, often advocating for the preservation and conservation of sharks.

People hear about the shark attacks in Long Island and panic, thinking sharks are trying to eat them. That could not be further from the truth.

A shark swims with fishes. (Photo/Tyler Mace)

Most shark bites are just that — bites — not massive thrashings. Most often, a person is misidentified as food, but once the shark bites, it realizes its mistake and goes away.

How likely are you to die from a shark attack? In 2021, according to The Florida Museum of National History’s International Shark File, there were just 73 unprovoked shark bites worldwide. Only 9 of them resulted in death.

Time to go back in the water! And, if you’d like, to donate to Tyler Mace’s Shark Side foundation.

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Your Kids Are At Camp. They’re Fine. Are You?

A Westport girl wrote her parents from sleepaway camp.

“I love camp so far,” she said. “I’m having conflicts with a bunkmate. I’m playing so much soccer and basketball. It’s great!”

The mother’s reaction: Anxiety, misery and sadness.

She focused on the second line. But it was sandwiched in between other, much more positive comments.

More importantly: Conflicts are a normal part of growing up. They’re how we learn to navigate the world. And there’s no better place to learn those lessons than independently, at camp, away from parental interference.

Plus this: The girl did not ask her mother to help.

“Trust her,” Tracy Brenner says. “She loves camp.”

Dr. Tracy Brenner

Tracy knows. A former camper and counselor — and daughter of a camp director — she’s also a licensed psychologist, in private practice here.

She knows the value of sleepaway camp for kids. She knows youngsters thrive there.

And she knows — particularly in these days of instant access to all kinds of information — that parents worry constantly that they won’t.

“Camp is a bubble,” Dr. Brenner says — a place far different from home, with all its distractions and expectations (and technology). Parents send their children to that bubble because they want them to grow, mature, make friends and memories, and be happy.

Those are great reasons for children to go to camp. But, Tracy notes, there may be people there they don’t like. Activities they don’t care for. Food that isn’t fantastic.

So that bubble is just like real life.

“Whether you send your kid to camp for 7 weeks or 3 weeks, think about yourself,” Dr. Brenner advises.

“When in your life have you been consistently happy for 7 weeks, or even 3?” she asks rhetorically.

“It doesn’t happen. Kids can’t be happy all the time either. That’s okay!”

Kids are usually happy at camp. But 100% of the time is impossible — for anyone, anywhere.

One of the magic parts of the camp experience, she emphasizes, is that boys and girls learn to solve those less-than-perfect parts of life on their own.

Back in the day, parents worried — and sometimes read between the lines — only when they got a letter from their child.

Now — with daily photos on camp websites, group chats with bunkmates’ parents, and a general heightened anxiety over children’s safety, coupled with societal pressures to ease every bump in a youngster’s journey — the opportunities to worry are exponentially greater.

If a child writes “I miss you,” Tracy says, the instinct today is to call the camp director, to make sure the child is okay.

Slow down, the psychologist advises.

“It’s okay for kids to miss parents,” she says. “They love you.”

If a child calls home and cries on the phone, that’s natural too: “They haven’t heard your voice in a while.”

And, Tracy continues, remember why you chose that particular camp: You liked the director, the staff, the activities, the values.

Trust that decision.

Like many camp directors, Laurel’s Jem Sollinger knows and cares for every camper.

(There may be something else going on, Dr. Brenner adds. “Maybe those photos bring up a parent’s anxieties about their own friendships.”)

“Your child is learning to experience the full range of emotions without you  there,” she repeats. “That’s a good thing. And it’s why you sent them to camp.”

The psychologist offers a few steps to help parents manage their anxiety.

First, “notice and name your emotion. Say to yourself (or out loud): ‘I’m worried my child may be unhappy.'”

Next, “have compassion for your feeling.” That means: “My child is away from home. It’s okay to worry.”

After that, Tracy advises, “Slow down. Step back. Look at the context.” For example, letters are written during “down time” — not when kids are out playing, swimming or canoeing.

Then, she says, “Remind yourself: If something is really wrong, the director will call.”

But, she adds, the director should be able to spend most of his or her time outside, with kids” — finding out if something is wrong — rather than replying to frantic emails and texts because in one photo, a child stands apart from his group, or is not linked arm in arm like the other girls.

Dr. Brenner has one final thought: “It’s a privilege and a luxury to send a child to camp — and to have those worries.”

Just as it is a privilege and a luxury to have a psychologist like her to explain how to let those worries go.

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Library Re-Purchases Controversial Book

A controversial book on transgender issues will soon be back on the Westport Library shelves.

Last month, after “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters” was taken out of circulation, a group of residents accused the Library of “political censorship.” They asked the Library to re-purchase it.

The Library said the book by Abigail Shrier was rejected by the Purchasing Committee because it included misinformation about scientific studies on transgender issues, and omitted other information.

The residents called the decision “unacceptable and most likely unlawful.” 

Today — noting that the Library’s appeals process works as intended — executive director Bill Harmer says the book has been re-evaluated. It will be re-purchased.

The decision was announced in an email to Alessandra Gordonos, who made the original complaint. Harmer said:

In accordance with the Library’s Challenged Materials Procedure, the Library has reevaluated the book in question in the context of the Library’s Collection Development Policy.

As a result of this reevaluation, the Library has made the decision to re-purchase the book for the Library’s collection.

The Library is committed to its mission of empowering the individual and strengthening the community through dynamic interaction and the lively and open exchange of ideas.

In furtherance of its mission, the Library also is committed to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, and The Freedom to Read Statement of the ALA Council and AAP Freedom to Read Committee.

The Library is committed to making available books and materials that promote diversity of thought and opinion, and deepen patrons’ understanding of issues.

I note that inclusion of any materials in the Library collection does not constitute or reflect an endorsement of any particular opinion, idea, or viewpoint by the Library.

The Westport Library first added “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters: to the Library’s materials collection in February 2021.

To the best of our knowledge, the book circulated only once, and was withdrawn in June 2021. In July 2021 and again in September 2021, you made separate requests for the Library to re-purchase the book for the collection.

After review, the Library’s selection committee decided not to re-purchase the book, due in part to the mixed reviews that the book had received during that summer — reviews that highlighted omitted information and misinformation from some of the results from the studies the author cites in the book.

The Library’s collection manager indicated to you that the Library had a selection of other recent books on this topic in our collection, and offered to borrow a copy of the book for you from another library.

The Westport Library’s collection is always in flux. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

In selecting materials for the Library’s collection, the Library follows its Collection Development Policy. The fact that this item was once in the Library’s collection and was then removed is not unusual, given space considerations and in keeping with Library best practices.

The Library’s collection, at any given moment, is always in flux. We are not an archive. Much of our collection comes in based on interest, and leaves — is replaced — when interest wanes. Out-of-date books, for instance, are removed by librarians, as are multiples of a book as its popularity decreases.

Library staff constantly reviews items in our collection against the Collection Maintenance criteria in our Collection Development Policy, to determine whether any items should be withdrawn.

The Library also has a Contested Materials Policy and Procedure to ensure that all patrons have an opportunity to appeal any decision reached by the selection committee — and to provide us with a complete system of checks and balances.

“Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” has been reevaluated in accordance with the Library’s Challenged Materials Procedure. The book represents a current, diverse viewpoint on culturally significant subjects (gender identity and expression, gender dysphoria, being transgender, adolescence, and development) that are relevant to the community. The book and its author have gained widespread public attention and are relevant to the contemporary discourse concerning the subject matter of the book.

The Library recognizes that public response to the book has been divided; that the book endorses theories concerning gender identity and gender dysphoria that are controversial and disputed; and that the book’s accuracy and objectivity have been challenged.

In reaching this decision, the Library also takes into account the extent to which other materials addressing gender identity and expression, gender dysphoria, being transgender, adolescence, development, and related topics are available in the Library’s collection, as well as the Library’s commitment to providing materials that reflect a diversity of thought and opinion.

The Library’s collection includes more than 100 physical books, over 900 e-books, and other materials concerning these subjects, rounding out the body of information available to patrons and permitting patrons to educate themselves, test ideas, draw conclusions, and make their own, informed decisions abou what to read and believe.

The Library’s collection is dynamic. Materials in the Library’s collection are subject to ongoing evaluationm and may be retained or withdrawn by the Library as circumstances change or warrant. Decisions concerning the development and maintenance of the Library’s collection will continue to be guided by the Library’s Collection Development Policy.

I also reiterate that inclusion of materials in the Library collection does not constitute an endorsement by the Library of any particular viewpoint, idea, or opinion.

Thank you for taking an active interest in the Library’s resources. Please feel free to contact me directly with any further questions you may have

Madelyn Spera Plays The Bitter End

When the world closed down during the pandemic, some people ate. Others grew anxious, or bored.

Madelyn Spera wrote songs.

The rising Staples High School senior was always drawn to music. She took classes beginning in preschool; sang at Sweet Frog at age 10;  joined Music Theatre of Connecticut for shows like “James and the Giant Peach,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” then performed with Bedford Middle School and Staples Players in “Mamma Mia!,” “Grease” “The Descendants” and “Into the Woods.”

Madelyn Spera

COVID slammed the curtain shut. Isolated at home starting in March 2020 — Staples Players’ “Seussical: The Musical” was canceled 2 days before opening night — Madelyn studied songwriters like Taylor Swift.

She figured out her own process. She thinks of a title or creative first line; plays with it on piano or guitar, then crafts the rest of her lyrics.

Madelyn calls her all-acoustic style “indie-ish. It’s mellow pop, relaxed.” She is not into techno.

She writes about what she knows: family, friends, growing up in Westport, experiences she’s going through.

She recorded 6 original songs at Bridgeport’s Tarquin Studios. Working with a member of the Alternate Roots band, she learned the ins and outs of recording. Right now she’s editing those songs, and figuring out the best marketing strategy.

Earlier this month, Madelyn performed at New York’s Bitter End. The famed Greenwich Village club has hosted Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, James Taylor and Neil Young, among many others.

More recent performers include Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. “I was playing on their piano!” Madelyn says.

Madelyn Spera, at The Bitter End.

Like Gaga, Madelyn sang about loving yourself, and “embracing who you are.” Audience members told Madelyn that her lyrics resonated.

This summer, she’s interning at MTC. She’s teaching music choreographing children’s shows, and giving back some of what she got growing up there.

Soon, she’ll audition for Staples Players’ fall production: “Guys and Dolls.”

She hopes too to return to The Bitter End. Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga’s piano is waiting.

Wynston Browne: Autism Does Speak

Helen Keller lived for many years in Easton.

A few miles away in Westport, Wynston Browne is a 21st-century Helen Keller.

The Staples High School rising sophomore is severely autistic. He does not speak.

From his diagnosis before he was 2 years old, to just a year or so ago, everyone — including his parents and 4 siblings — thought he was intellectually disabled. His IQ was believed to be 60 or so. The books read to him were 1st-grade level.

With his detached look and inability to focus, he was assumed to be off-the-charts disabled.

Last week I spent a couple of hours with Wynston and his parents, Lynda Kommel-Browne and David. It may have been the most astonishing, eye-opening afternoon of my life.

Research shows that for Wynston and others, the inability to speak is not cognitive. It’s muscular.

He cannot make connections between his brain, and his mouth, jaw and tongue. But Wynston’s brain is spectacularly active.

And it always has been.

Using a spelling board — a simple, low-tech device with letters and numbers he points to — and working with an extremely gifted, dedicated and professionally trained communication partner named Elisa Feinman, Wynston has made great progress in the past year.

Wynston’s low-tech spelling board. Pointing to letters is easier than typing, for someone without fine motor skills.

But in the last month, his parents say, his growth has been phenomenal — about 10 years’ worth of progress. They now know he can graduate from high school, and go on to college.

He might even follow the path blazed by Dan Bergmann, a non-speaking Harvard Extension School graduate, who gave his school’s commencement address.

Or the co-valedictorian at Rollins College, Elizabeth Bonker,

Wynston might follow 2 top University of California-Berkeley undergraduates, one of whom graduated with a 4.0 GPA. He’s headed to Vanderbilt, to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

Or UCLA’s first non-verbal graduate,who earned summa cum laude honors.

During the pandemic, Lynda and David heard about organizations promoting the idea that non-speakers had motor — not intellectual — differences. Wynston began working with the letter board about a year ago.

He points to the letter he wants, to spell out words. It’s easier than typing. Because of motor difficulties, when non-verbal people make typos, it’s assumed they lack intelligence.

Elisa holds the board for Wynston. But what he does with it is amazing.

It’s inspirational. And life-changing.

Wynston and Elisa, at work with his spelling board.

In the past month, Wynston’s parents have watched in wonder as he not only answers questions and does math problems, but demonstrates abstract thinking. He expresses his emotions — something it seemed he was never able to describe — and answers open-ended, personal questions.

On Fathers Day, Wynston spelled out, and Elise wrote down, a card to his dad.

“I like to give my dad hugs,” he said. He wanted to honor his father by being “the best person I can.” He vowed to work hard “to increase my skills like communication.”

His spelling board, he added, makes him feel “happy.”

Wynston’s Fathers Day card. He spelled out the answers to Elisa Feinman’s questions; she wrote them down.

Suddenly, Wynston’s world has been unlocked. It’s not unlike Helen Keller spelling “water” for the first time with Anne Sullivan.

There were several books on Wynston’s table. I chose a biography about Temple Grandin — the scientist, animal behaviorist and autism advocate.

I read a few pages out loud. Wynston did not make eye contact; it looked like he was not even listening.

But he sure was.

Wynston Browne learned — and remembered — everything about Temple Grandin.

When I was finished, Elisa asked him some questions. Where did Grandin earn her master’s? (Arizona State). What was her major? (Animal science.) What was her highest degree? (Ph.D.).

He did the same with a book about the atom bomb, which Elisa had read to him a couple of days earlier. He remembered Lyman Briggs (head of FDR’s Uranium Committee — a name and group I’d never heard of), He spelled every word correctly — including “physicist,” which trips up many people.

And he did it all despite never having had a formal spelling lesson.

For years, Lynda says, “He was learning basic math. Because he couldn’t express how easy it was, he exhibited extreme behavior” — rocking and other motions. “That reinforced for others that he did not understand basic math. Bur really, he knew much more than that.”

Elisa held up a board with numbers. Wynston quickly went through addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems well beyond “basic math.”

Then it was time for a chess lesson. The game demands many types of intelligence: pattern recognition, thinking ahead, analytical skills, long-term memory.

Wynston made his moves quickly and confidently.

Scenes like these excite and hearten his parents — and make them angry and wistful too. They rue the nearly 15 years they held low expectations for him. They wonder what he felt all those years, with so much intelligence bottled up inside, and no way to express it.

Wynston Browne (3rd from left), with his parents and 4 siblings.

“I get goosebumps,” Elisa says, her voice breaking. “I feel we wasted so much time. But now he will excel. and we will push him as far as we can.”

“Wynston is not non-verbal,” Lynda emphasizes. “He is non-speaking.”

She notes one small sign of Wynston’s abilities to think deep thoughts, and express them well. The other day, she asked him which dog he preferred: his service animal, or the family pet.

He chose the one with “a calm temper.”

On the outside, Wynston may not seem calm. He rocks, makes repetitive motions, and is in constant motion.

It took nearly 15 years for the people closest to him — his parents — to realize that his brain was moving just as rapidly. He had thoughts, ideas and feelings — but no way to “speak” them.

Now he does.

Wynston Browne is non-verbal. But he’s not unintelligent.

Far from it. He’s learning how to communicate well. He’s learning many things people thought he never could.

And the rest of us are learning that he may very well be gifted.

(Hat tip: Jill Johnson Mann)

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[OPINION] Middle School And Rowing: The Race Defines Us

Summer is in full swing. School is already in the rear view mirror.

But before we lose it completely, let’s look back on the year. Weston Middle School 8th grader Owen Bernheim answered the call to submit a graduation speech.

His wasn’t selected. But his mom Jennifer thought the parallels between life at school, and with his Saugatuck Rowing Club teammates, was worth sharing.

I agree. Take it away, Owen!

Hello everyone!

It’s been a crazy few years filled with Zoom calls, new experiences, laughter, lessons learned, and COVID tests. Walking in to middle school on the first day, I thought “wow, this is going to be great.” New friends, new teachers, new school.

Owen Bernheim

I don’t like change, but I knew something was going to be different. Let’s just say this is not the type of different I was expecting.

Halfway through 6th grade, we were sent home. Just a quick break from school, nothing to worry about. Well, 2 weeks turned into a month, a month turned into 2 months, and from there, we all know what happened.

However, people took up new hobbies during the pandemic, all from home. Most of them continued back in person. Some opportunities were life-changing. The big one for me was rowing — the sport famous for early practices, grueling cardio work, and athletes with no social life.

Middle school isn’t too different from rowing. During the spring season we focus on a 2k. Spring is a sprint-race season. You go all out, as fast and hard as you can, for 6 to 9 minutes. A 2k is broken down into 3 chunks: the first 500 meters, the middle 1,000 meters, and the last 500 meters.

The first 500 is all about getting out on top, while still maintaining energy. That’s pretty comparable to sixth grade, right? Light work.

The middle 1,000 meters is all about staying where you can push, but still keeping a certain level of comfort so as to not burn yourself out, without settling too much. Seventh grade was like that, but I think we were all a little bit burnt out after seventh grade.

The last 500 meters is all about fighting for speed, and the win. It’s where your lungs and everything else starts to hurt. It consists of trying to keep your head above water (metaphorically, of course). It also consists of a sprint, which all sums up 8th grade.

Owen and his Saugatuck Rowing Club teammates, at the USRowing Youth National Championships in Sarasota, Florida. They finished 6th in the U16 8+ category.

What people don’t realize about rowing though is that it’s a team sport. You’re not doing a 2k alone; you never go through anything alone because there is always someone to guide you along the way. A friend, a coach, an older teammate. I think this is a lot like middle school.

And what people don’t realize about middle school, something that I think we all forget, is that you’re not alone. There will always be friends and teachers to support you, even when you’re struggling. Middle school is much like a team. I think it’s important to notice that and to embrace your team, because without friends, teachers, guidance counselors, principals, and many others, none of this would be possible.

Owen Bernheim at the USRowing Youth National Championships.

Everybody plays an important part in this journey. Without just one of these people, the puzzle wouldn’t be complete. There will be some struggles along the way, but that’s part of life, just like catching a crab while rowing.

A crab is when a person’s blade flips underwater, causing it to get stuck and occasionally throwing you out of the boat. Other times, your oar gets flung out of your hands. However, it isn’t about the crab itself, but how you recover. This is much like getting a bad grade on a test, or handling school during COVID. It’s also like making a split-second decision, which could determine a good grade, a bad grade, a win, or a loss.

When we make a wrong decision, it should never define us. What should define us is how we recover from those mistakes. How we change our future, try to do good, and help others. These are all things that we should be defined by. Everyone makes mistakes, but what is truly important is how we pull ourselves out of that crab that wants to suck us in. How we handle ourselves in the face of adversity is what we should take note of.

Now is the time to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them. But now is also the time to be smart and not let what you do negatively impact your future.

Sometimes people hesitate to try new things in fear of mistakes and failure. However, you would be surprised how many people have been greatly successful after trying something new.

I have a small podcast where I interview CEOs and entrepreneurs about their businesses. It’s called The Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast. One thing that every interviewee has told me is that they wish they had not gone into things so hesitantly. They wish they had taken more chances sooner, because without taking calculated risks, success would not have followed.

Trying new things right now in this phase of our lives is important, because you’re only a teenager once. You’re surrounded by a big team who is truly committed to you: teachers, family, friends, coaches, and your community.

So, let’s make these next 4 years of our lives count, because after high school, we’re all going to go different ways, to meet different people, and experience new things. As I end this speech tonight, I don’t just want it to mean the end of middle school. I want it to mean the beginning of a new part of our lives. Four years that will be unforgettable — but hopefully in a different way than the last few. Thank you.

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Roundup: Pickleball, Trampolines, Duck Race …

The agenda for next Monday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting (July 11, 7 p.m., Zoom) includes important discussions, such as converting the current Westport Rehabilitation Complex on Post Road West into a more modern eldercare facility, and redeveloping the 117-room Westport Inn into a smaller hotel with a restaurant, bar, event space, fitness center, pool and site improvements.

The existing Westport Inn (left), and the proposed new structure.

Two other interesting items are up for discussion too.

Birchwood Country Club wants to construct 4 pickleball courts, near their existing tennis courts. They’d fill a need — at least, for members of the private club — but they’re close to a few homes.

The ball will be in P&Z’s court.

The other intriguing item involves trampolines: Should they be regulated by zoning? And if so, how?

Most trampolines are above ground. But what about permanent, in-ground trampolines? A resident has asked for an interpretation.

Click here for the full P&Z agenda, including a Zoom link.

In-ground trampoliine.

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Westport Sunrise Rotary’s Great Duck Race returns this Saturday (July 9). There’s a new location — Jesup Green — but the same family fun.

The day begins with a 10 a.m. Fun Fair in the Westport Library parking lot. Activities include a Nerdy Derby, face painting and bubble machines.

At 1 p.m. on Jesup Green, 3,000 plastic ducks will slide down a 160-foot sluice course. Each wears a number, matching a $20 raffle ticket. The first 10 ducks down the course win money for their ticket holders. First place is $5,000. Second place wins $1,000. The next 8 finishers get $500 each.

The event is a major Sunrise Rotary fundraiser. Proceeds support charitable endeavors in this area, the state and around the world.

Click here for tickets. Click below for a sneak quack peek.

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The Great Duck Race is not the only water-related activity this weekend.

Sunday marks the 43rd annual Westport Weston Family YMCA’s Point-to-Point Compo Beach Swim. The mile-long event includes competitors from across New England and the tri-state region.

All proceeds go to the Y’s aquatics programs to improve aquatics safety in the community, including swim lessons for all ages.

There are 4 heats, based on ability. Advanced swimmers start at 8 a.m., followed by intermediate swimmers (8:05), beginners (8:10) and myTeamTriumph (8:15).

That last group is special. My Team Triumph is a national non-profit serving children, teens adults and veterans with disabilities who could otherwise not experience endurance events like open water swims, road races, or triathlons.

“Captains” (special needs athletes) are paired with able-bodied “angel” volunteers, who use specialized racing equipment such as rafts to pull their captains during the race. Special needs athletes who would like to participate must register in advance with My Team Triumph.

Eegistration can be done online at westporty.org/43rd and is $50. Walk-registrations costs $60, starting at 7 a.m. The top 3 men’s and women’s finishers win awards. Swimmers get Point-to-Point swim caps and t-shirts.

The start of the Point-to-Point swim.

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No small potatoes: 19 teenagers and 9 adults just returned from Saugatuck Congregational Church’s High School Youth Group mission trip to Maine,

They stayed in Old Orchard Beach, and worked on a Growing to Give farm in Brunswick. The organization raises organic vegetables using climate-friendly methods, and donates them to food banks and pantries.

The youth group also cleared trails for the Saco Land Trust.

Saugatuck Church youth group, in Maine.

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Whatever’s old is new again.

Back in the day, movies like “Casablanca” drew large audiences to drive-in theaters across America.

Most drive-ins are long gone. But Westport has one: The Remarkable Theater, in the Imperial Avenue parking lot.

Last night’s screening was (of course) “Casablanca.” Here’s a classic photo, of a classic scene:

(Photo/Pippa Bell Ader)

Next up: “Caddyshack,” on Monday. Click here for tickets, and the full schedule.

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Westport Lifestyle Magazine’s July issue is out. Among the highlights: a deep dive into the Westport Library’s Verso studios. Click here to learn more about the professional-quality production facilities right under our noses (and open to the public).

One of the Verso studios. (Photo/Brendan Toller for Westport Lifestyle Magazine)

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Today’s “Westport … Naturally” feature is this visitor to Franco Fellah’s garden. Judging by its looks, I wonder if there is anything left for Franco to eat.

(Photo/Franco Fellah)

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And finally … on this date in 1928, sliced bread was sold for the first time (on the inventor’s 48th birthday) by the Chillicothe Baking Company of  Missouri.

There is no record of when the phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread!” was coined.

(“06880” may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread. But we do rely “greatly” — okay, entirely — on reader support. Please click here to help.)