Faculty Paul Gelles Reflects on 19 Years at Midland

Milestones: Longtime Faculty Paul Gelles Celebrates 19 Years at Midland

A Reflection

One of Midland’s long-standing traditions is for faculty and senior students to address the community in short talks set in the historic chapel building. These talks can be on any topic of the speaker’s choice, and twice a week, the community gathers in this intimate setting to learn more about each other. Paul Gelles, Spanish & Anthropology Faculty, is in his 19th and final year teaching at Midland. These are the words from his last chapel, given in the Fall semester of 2023. 

Midland’s Class of 2024

This chapel is dedicated to the Midland Class of 2024. 

The song that was playing as you walked into chapel is a famous Miles Davis song called Milestones from 1958. It’s a play on words: his name is Miles, and it can be read as Miles’ Tones; in any case, the album Milestones actually became a jazz milestone. “Milestones” is the first example of trumpeter Miles Davis composing in a modal style and his experimentation in this piece led to the most famous of jazz albums, 1959’s “Kind of Blue,” another jazz milestone.

But what exactly is a milestone? Originally it referred to a roadside marker that lists the distance to a particular location; yes, you guessed it: one mile. These days, the word is more often used figuratively to refer to significant events, ones that often result in a big change in life: it’s often a moment when you reflect on where you stand in life. Often a milestone marks the start of a new chapter in your life.

For me, my last chapel is one such milestone. So, too, coming to Midland 18 ½ years ago was a major milestone, a turning point in my life. I lived with my family on campus for 16 years, about a fourth of my life–and in fact those 16 years are the longest by far that I have lived in any one place in my 65 years.  

Paul shared his love of hiking and cultural exploration with faculty and students. Photo by Faith Nygren.

Of course, at this point in my relatively long life I have had many milestones. The first milestone that I have memory of was learning how to make my own breakfast. I am sure there were milestones before this: learning to walk, my first word, etc. But I don’t remember those. But I do remember making my breakfast on my own for the first time. I was four years old, when my mother showed me: take the bowl and spoon and put it on the table. Carefully open the cornflakes and pour in a bowl. Carefully take milk from the refrigerator and open, then carefully pour into the bowl. Then open one of the two paisley blue tin cans and scoop out a spoonful of sugar and sprinkle on top of cereal. The next day I did this by myself and felt a surge of pride as I savored my newfound independence, autonomy, and competency.

But then came complications. In the next few days, sometimes my cereal was delicious and sometimes it tasted horrible and stuck to the roof of my mouth. I could not understand why. I didn’t want to ask my mother as I was now newly independent and competent. But finally I could not stand it any longer. And that’s when I learned that one of the blue paisley tin cans held sugar and the other held baking flour! No wonder it tasted horrible and stuck to the roof of my mouth. My four year old brain could not discern the difference between the two. So the first milestone I remember was not only being able to make my own breakfast but learning the hard way the difference between sugar and baking flour!

Paul still loves surfing and has taught many in the Midland community.

Since then other major milestones include the first time I stood on a surfboard at eight years old, graduating high school, my university degrees, studying abroad, and writing my first book. However, the biggest milestone in my life was marrying my wife Iliana and the birth of our kids: daughter Daniela came in 2003 and then, six months after moving to Midland, Darien came along. Marrying Iliana and becoming a father: these are by far the most significant milestones in my life.

Coming to Midland was also a significant one. It’s now been 18 and ½ years at Midland and this is my18th chapel. But wait a minute? But since this is my 19th year there shouldn’t this be my 19th of these chapels? Why 18 then? Was it because of COVID? Maybe I was sick during one year? Did I duck out of giving a chapel? What do you think? No, it was none of those. Back when I first arrived in 2005, new teachers were not allowed to give a chapel their first year. The idea was to observe, understand the decorum and ethos of chapel. While I was frustrated that I could not share my thoughts in a chapel that first year, looking back I think it was a good process. Though disappointed, it forced me to think more about the chapel that I would give my second year and also understand the general culture of Midland better. 

Paul and his family as pictured in the Midland Mirror in 2010.

This is just one of many changes, some of them milestones, that Midland has experienced since I came here 18 ½ years ago: for example, back then at the end of a semester we would put final grades for each student on a clipboard (no MyMidland or any computer program for that matter); none of the faculty or staff carried phones back then; there was a computer bank in the library and that was the only way for students to connect to the internet; Phil was a math teacher, not our tech guy; and I was the only surfer among the faculty (now there is something like twelve (everybody surf!); maybe we should rename our school the Midland School  and Surf Retreat. 

Back then the school was more run down and we did not have an endowment. My classroom was not insulated for many years and it was like a sauna in summer and would take hours to heat it with the wood burner in winter. So getting my classroom insulated was a major milestone. We lived where Ellie and Michael live now and it has now had some major renovations and I hope, pest control. When we lived there, there were annual bug infestations: earwigs, flying earwigs, ants, and potato bugs, but the worst were really bad earwig infestations. They often rained down on you when you opened the front door. As I mentioned in a previous chapel, once when I was sleeping an earwig crawled into my ear. And it’s not fun when eating your morning granola only to feel that unfamiliar crunch, ugh, earwigs in my breakfast cereal. And between eating cereal with baking flour and cereal with earwigs, I much prefer baking flour!

Paul teaching Anthropology to seniors in the 2022-2023 school year.

But if we look at the bigger picture even those living conditions were pretty deluxe when compared with previous years at Midland.  Let’s think back to some of Midland’s milestones: Paul Squibb deciding on, leasing, and eventually buying this land; bringing in teachers and the first classrooms built by the students and faculty was a milestone. Getting electricity: milestone. Creating a memorial for those Midland boys killed in World War II: milestone. Girls being admitted and Lower Yard coming into being: milestone. Building an endowment and the windfall from putting our land in trust, making it through COVID, both milestones, as was the renewal of Upper Yard and returning to in class instruction during the pandemic. And soon we will have our first female Head of School, another major milestone. Change keeps happening. It’s been said before: the only thing that does not change is change itself.

And so, in this last chapel, a milestone, I want to give thanks and gratitude for all that this wonderful school and community has given me and my family. It has been one big adventure, with trials and tribulations, certain challenges, but also a lot of joy raising my family and teaching in such a unique, healthy, and beautiful environment and community. This is a great community with great values, a great place to raise our kids. Sixteen years of having a view of Grass Mountain from our bedroom, and of going to sleep with the sounds of owls and coyotes. Our kids walking through the garden to Family School for eight years, preschool through fifth grade. The garden, the library, the horses and wildlife, the pole barn, the amazing trails, the changing colors of our amazing landscape during the year, our cozy house with the wood burner going 24/7 during the cold months. 

Paul speaking at graduation. Photo by John Litchwardt.

I am also grateful for living on this campus during the pandemic, a great place to be during a difficult time. 

So, too, I am grateful for Gloria’s amazing food; farm fresh eggs from Cierra, horse riding lessons from Gina, the clothes provided for our kids in hand me downs, long friendships with Phil, John and Faith, Jacob and Genevieve, Charlotte and Sam, John Isaacson. Gaining new friends and being surf buds with Dan, Andrew, and the rest of the surf squad. I am also grateful for chapel; this core ritual of our community is so special and so unusual for a school. It is one of the things I miss most since moving off campus.

So, too, I am grateful for this community of educators and the amazing education, both formal and informal, that my kids have gotten here. Midland has a way of attracting eccentric, interesting people to teach here, people also wanting community and a different living and teaching experience. I estimate that some 60 people or so have circulated through the staff and faculty here during my time, and most of them have been extremely interesting, unique individuals. You students are so lucky to have such an amazing group of educators united in a common purpose. It has been such a pleasure to be part of such an idiosyncratic, quirky place, an ethical honest community with great values, a place with a certain utopic vision, one that I share.

Paul Gelles and family

Paul Gelles with his wife Iliana and their children Daniela ’21 and Darien ’24.

So, on behalf of my wife Iliana, and my children, Daniela and Darien, thank you Midland for all that you have given us. 

As I mentioned at the beginning I dedicate this chapel to the seniors. In six months or so Darien and his classmates, and all of us, will be celebrating a big milestone, their high school graduation. And when the senior class returns for their 10th year reunion, Midland will have reached a huge milestone, its 100th anniversary.

So again, many thanks. It’s been a great adventure.

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