With his retirement only about a month away, Eagle Hill's Director of Psychological Services, Dave Sylvestro, reflects on his legendary 43-year career at the school and offers some parting words of advice for first-year students as well as those who are about to graduate.
Tell us about your upbringing and how it shaped you.
I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts with my parents and my older brother, Steve. Our family lived in a neighborhood of very modest duplex homes built for soldiers returning home from WWII. My dad worked as the purchasing agent for a machine company for more than 55 years—beat me by more than a dozen! Steve and I both went to public schools through junior high and then on to a Catholic high school in town called Assumption Prep.
When I was in elementary school, I was assigned to a speech teacher because I had a pretty significant stutter. I credit my teacher, Mrs. Grady, with preserving my self-esteem and confidence in school. Until I started working with her, it was really hard for me to participate in class or to avoid the teasing from some of the other kids. I guess it's no surprise why I treasure the close relationship that we in my department have with our colleagues in the Speech and Language department. During high school, I worked summers as a sports counselor at a day camp. It's interesting looking back to that time because, apparently, I always liked the quirky kids: those who didn't fit in socially, the ones who weren't particularly adept at sports, the ones who weren't exactly sailing through childhood. The fun ones!
How did you end up at Eagle Hill?
When I was at Trinity College, my brother, Steve, who was also a psychology major, had graduated and taken a job at Eagle Hill in Hardwick, Massachusetts. Up there in the boondocks of central Massachusetts, the faculty played basketball on Friday nights. Steve called me at Trinity and said that there was a really tall guy that he thought—erroneously—I could guard. That tall guy happened to be Mark Griffin—as in the Eagle Hill Hardwick School Psychologist and future EHS Greenwich founding Headmaster, Mark Griffin. Several times, I drove up from Hartford and joined the basketball game—vainly trying to guard Mark the Giant! The best part of the evening was afterward when we'd all go to Mark and Rayma's house for beers and pepperoni and cheese. I'd listen to them all talk about the school. The stories about these quirky kids were a riveting combination of hilarity, intensity, and camaraderie. I was intrigued.
After I graduated from Trinity in 1974, I called Mark and asked if there were any openings for the summer program at Eagle Hill. He told me the school had been fully staffed since April. But the very next day he called to inform me that someone they had hired from California wouldn't be coming, so I snapped up that opening for the summer and was hired for the next year. In 1975 my wife, Lea, and I were asked to come down to be a part of the team that started the second Eagle Hill School in Greenwich. We managed to put together a program that started with 11 faculty members and 17 kids. I worked as a teacher, dorm duty master, and coach here until I finished up my degree in school psychology in 1981.
Tell us about the work you do here at Eagle Hill.
The primary job of the EHS psychological services program is to help kids manage the emotional and social challenges that so frequently go hand in hand with having language-based learning disabilities. Kids who come here—and they are bright kids—most often have struggled mightily in their previous school. That can be an extraordinarily confusing, frustrating, depressing, anxiety-producing situation. Kids have different capacities to accommodate these feelings. Our job is to help those who continue to struggle with these issues.
How has your work evolved over the years?
Our collective understanding of learning disabilities is so much greater than it was when we started. We professionals in the field, parents, and the children themselves all have a clearer idea of what the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of LD and ADHD really mean. We know much more about the brain, neurological development, and the social-emotional impact of learning disabilities. We also have a better understanding of the gamut of influences that affect our kids' performance. We can't control them, but we can anticipate them much better and have a plan to deal with them.
We are working much more in groups now than we did before because we recognize that there's a real social component to learning disabilities in addition to the academic ones. Working closely with our exceptional Speech and Language department, we've found that talking with kids in groups fosters both their emotional and social language development. We've also gotten better at helping parents through this process by providing informational presentations via the PA and support groups.
What is your proudest achievement?
I'm proud of helping to expand the knowledge about our school—and learning disabilities—by giving presentations throughout the community. And I have loved being a bridge between our alumni and our current students and families. It's been inspiring and gratifying to talk with our alumni and use those stories to help current parents who are worried about their kids. It's been very beneficial for our parents to meet successful adults who were once in the same place as their daughter or had the same teachers as their son, and then hear how these alumni describe their individual paths to where they are now. It allows them to see that there is, indeed, hope, even during the more discouraging times. And, of course, I've been lucky to have made many connections with kids that last for years—decades, even—after they've left. I've attended weddings and held the babies of kids who were here in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Listening to six of my former kids being interviewed by current students for this year's Upper School Parent Visiting Day was about as powerful an experience for me as it gets.
Why do you think Eagle Hill is such a transformative place for its students?
Success breeds more than just success. It also breeds confidence, self-esteem, and a positive outlook on the future. We give kids the opportunity to perform and achieve at a level that's within their grasp and provide them with legitimate praise in a way that is meaningful for them. Also, kids trust adults at this school. That's critical. If we are going to ask our students to persevere with doing things that are really difficult for them day in and day out, then we need to make sure that we are perceived as trustworthy and sincere. It's an immensely brave task that they've taken on. We've been given the gift of having a ringside seat to witness their extraordinary courage every day.
What advice do you have for students who are new to Eagle Hill?
First, I'd let them know that we all admire the bravery they've shown by coming to a new school that is very different from the one they've come from. I'd explain that while they are here, they're going to have the opportunity to develop a different sense of who they are and to learn that they are smarter and stronger than they thought.
What advice do you have for students who are graduating?
Much like Mark Griffin and Rick Lavoie used to say, I would tell them that the skills and confidence they developed here don't stay at Eagle Hill when they leave. These things belong to them, and they can use them wherever they go. Also, if they are nervous about going to a new school, that's normal. It isn't a sign that it is going to be a struggle like it used to be. At some point, the butterfly has to come out of the cocoon, and that's what the kids do when they graduate. Most of the kids are ready to go, but it's often hard for them to leave.
What's next for you?
The very first thing I'm going to do: Shut off my alarm! In my free time, I plan to learn how to play the old saxophone I've had in my basement for more than a decade. We've always enjoyed traveling, so there's likely to be plenty of that in our future. One of the joys of retiring for me is not having any big immediate plans. That said, I'd like to continue to help capitalize on the willingness of our alumni to give back to this community in some way. We've started that with Drew Saunders (EHS '88) and the Alumni Association, but I'd love to nurture that growth however I can. I want to help the Alumni Association find its direction, its purpose, and its voice as a vehicle to give back to this community.