Balance

The following remarks were delivered to the Middle and Upper School Community during Opening Convocation:

I remember this memory quite vividly. I was about 14 years old and brought a bowl of soup to my grandmother. I walked slowly, intent on not spilling any of the soup, trying not to blink as I focused on the liquid in the bowl moving back and forth and coming close to the edge. 

Just after I placed the bowl down gingerly on the table, my Uncle Bruce said to me, “hey Joshua. Here’s something I learned as a waiter. The trick is to not look at the bowl or cup, and just pick your head up and focus on where you are going.” I wasn’t completely sold, but I trusted my uncle, so I gave it a try with the next bowl and fighting the urge to look down, I walked more normally across the room without spilling any of the soup in a third of the time of my last trip. 

My uncle would explain to me later that when you are so focused on not spilling, you have a tendency to overcompensate and all that work you are doing to try and not spill, ends up making it more likely for you to make a mess on the floor. 

As a teenager and for a long time after, I saw this as helpful advice to not spill liquid while carrying it in a bowl or mug. As a matter of fact, I still try to employ this tactic to this day. In thinking back recently, I began to view this not only as advice for carrying soup or coffee, but as a metaphor for balance in our lives. 

How do we respond to the challenges that we face? How are we impacted by the moments we encounter? What changes do we make in response to these challenges or our goals?  

Many people tend to have an all-in attitude. Do you know an adult who wants to get into shape or lose some weight and start a strict workout routine or diet, only to have it stop a few weeks or months later? Have you ever canceled plans with a friend or a family member to get some last-minute studying in for a test you are worried about? Avoided taking an elective or lacked confidence in playing a sport, a subject matter, or acting on stage, because you saw yourself as not being good at it? 

When we take these paths, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to be well-rounded, balanced people. We are focused on the immediate outcome of each step we take while carrying the soup, making it more likely to spill, versus looking towards the overall goal. When we focus on the outcome of every point lost on a test, a mistake made during a game, or a misplaced comment to a friend, we lose our balance and get disappointed in ourselves over the little mistakes, and the small spills. 

So today, for this year, I want to challenge you to think of balance in a different way. For the past two and a half years, we have been hyperfocused on everything due to the pandemic. We were forced to worry about the smallest things as simple as touching a door handle. 

Instead of thinking about every mistake, every time you may color outside of the line of a drawing, pull back and look at the incredible picture you are in the midst of creating. Do not worry about the little mistakes.  

Instead, learn from them and make the small adjustments needed to do better in the future. Do not let the fear of messing up get in the way of trying something new. Two weeks ago, Leni Hicks-Dutt and some other members of the Class of 2023 created a beautiful new mural for the school. No one will know if this is identical to the drawings made in advance or if any adjustments were made. Instead, we just get to enjoy the incredible art that has been created in our hallway. 

The same is true for you this year. Create your goals, try new things, and find ways to be well-rounded people, don’t give up on an opportunity to try something fun or new. Don’t worry if things do not go exactly to plan. Embrace failure and learn from it. At the end of the year we will hardly remember the little mistakes along the way, just the great accomplishments you achieved. So, look at the big picture, because when you pick your head up and focus on where you are going instead of every step you take along the way, you will inevitably spill less soup and be happier with the outcome. 

Commencement Speech – 2022

The following are the concluding remarks for the Class of 2022 Commencement on June 3, 2022

I have long been fascinated by the concept of time. What is it? How do we perceive it? Why does it appear to slow down at times, and stand still at others?  Does time really fly when you are having fun?

To explore time more deeply, and because you can never go wrong with Albert Einstein, I reached for his 1905 publication on the ‘Theory of Special Relativity.’ In it, Einstein established that time was, indeed, relative. The rate at which time passes depends on your frame of reference. While it can be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years, Einstein also believed that time was just an illusion, that it is our way of making sense of growing older.

In that, time can be measured in experiences, adventures, and shared histories. It can also be measured in milestones.  Perhaps we could look at time a little differently. Imagine time as a collection of moments, large and small. And what if we could collect them. Put them in a mason jar. And look at them. There would be big moments that would stand out. Imagine these as large marbles in your jar, the importance of the occasion marked by elaborate design and distinction. They, by design, stand out and their size shows prominence, but they alone do not fill up the jar.

Now imagine pouring sand into the jar and moving it gently. The sand will work its way down to the bottom, filling in the gaps. The sand represents the little moments that happen each day, the moments that make you smile, the ones that make you cry, and the ordinary ones you don’t think twice about. These memories, though small in stature, belong in your mason jar. When looked at from afar, the sand appears to be amorphous and undifferentiated, but with a closer look, you see that each individual grain of sand has its own unique shape. Some of these will get lost in your memory, blending with other memories, but others will continue to stand out in your mind.

I was reminded of this just a few weeks ago at the 11th and 12th grade Prom. While you were creating your own memories, I found myself texting with a good friend from high school on the occasion of our 25th reunion. We had not spoken in a few years, but we found ourselves reliving some of these grains of sand that we deposited in our jars years before. Despite the physical time that had passed, we dove back into those memories as if they had occurred yesterday.

The following quote’s author is unknown, but the meaning resonates so deeply that I wanted to share it with you today: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away”.

Class of 2022, today’s a big moment kind of day. It’s one of those marbles that will live on in your jar. Yet, when you think back on your time at Brimmer, it is going to be the individual moments that stand out to you. Something that happened in the lounge, on a bus to a game, or backstage at a rehearsal. It’s important to not lose track of the little moments and to appreciate them along the way. To store them, so they can be taken out and cherished when you see or talk to each other again.

Marbles, large and small, are made of grains of sand, melted together and reformed. They are the physical representation that it takes countless small moments to make the big ones. Today is your last day here, together, as the class of 2022. It would be easy to get swept away with the big moments. Instead, let’s take a moment to take time to breathe it in.

Now, I want you to stand up and look around the tent. Start by looking at each other, and create a lasting image of your classmates in your mind. Now turn and look at your family and friends all gathered here today to celebrate you. Take a mental picture of this moment and store it in your jar, allow your breath to be taken away in the beauty of this picture in time.

As we come to the final moments of today the sun is setting on your time at Brimmer. It’s important to remember that while the sunset represents an ending, it also makes way for a new beginning. The sun is heading towards the horizon and you are closing the chapter on this stage of your life, but tomorrow you will start a new chapter as alumni with new opportunities and new memories.

My final wish for you is that you don’t get swept away in the momentum of life. That you remember to pause, allow yourself to lose your breath, and store away your little moments so you can pull them out from time to time to enjoy them with each other when the time is right.

Senior Dinner Remarks

One special aspect of the yearbook is the opportunity for each graduating student to design and personalize their own page in the yearbook. Each page takes on the personality of the student, pulling back the curtain on some of the important moments from their high school career.

This year, I was struck by many of the quotes that were shared by students:

“You belong among the wildflowers, you belong in a boat out at sea, sail away, kill off the hours, you belong somewhere you feel free”

“I’d rather be happy than right any day.”

“It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

“Where you are doesn’t matter as much as who you are with”

“The difference between an adventure and ordeal is attitude.”

I was struck by the theme of the quotes, giving more weight to the process and not just the outcome. Actually, Brian Barrera literally wrote “trust the process” on his page. As educators, this is what we are hoping to cultivate in students, a joy of learning and a desire to grow as a person. While grades in school are a reality, teachers regularly discussed with each other the vibrancy of this class as learners, artists, athletes, and activists. Even as senioritis kicked in, students shared with me their desire to do well on their final projects, taking pride in what they’ve accomplished, and wanting to finish the year on a strong note.

It has been such a pleasure watching each of you grow as an individual and find ways to make an impact.

Anthropologist Jane Goodall said, “Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.” “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world [and people] around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” Class of 2022, as your time concludes at Brimmer, I leave you one final set of questions. What do you want your story to be? I hope you let your story be one where you choose your path, listen to and feel for those around you, and make choices that will better our community and thus our world. That you continue to focus on the process and learn for the sake of learning.

As we get ready to move forward, I leave you with one more quote by Bill Waterson used on Jackson’s page in the yearbook. It comes from the final strip from the iconic comic Calvin and Hobbes, where Calvin and Hobbes are sledding down a hill into a world of possibility: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…Let’s go exploring.” Class of 2022, it’s time for you to take sail and start your next adventure.

Robb Elementary School Reflections

The following remarks were delivered to The Upper School Community during Morning Meeting on May 25, 2022:

Like many of you, I learned of the devastating news out of Uvalde, Texas, yesterday afternoon (5/24), where a man walked into Robb Elementary School and opened fire. The first report I saw said that 12 people were injured, and I remember almost feeling a sense of relief that there were no deaths. Then as I checked the news over the course of the evening, the numbers changed from 12 injured to 3 people killed…9…12…14…18…19 people reported killed by the time I went to sleep, only to wake up and learn that 19 elementary children and 2 adults were killed. 

 Last night, as I sat down to think about what I might say to you this morning, I was at a complete loss. I have to be honest, I kept saying to myself, I can’t believe I have to do this again. I can’t believe I need to stand up in front of the students and talk about another needless tragedy.  

I have no new profound words to share or advice. All I could think of doing was to share how I am feeling. I’m feeling: 

Anger: I am angry that this continues to happen with no action to address the issues that lead to this type of violence. I am angry that I am here talking to you about this senseless violence again and that nothing has changed. 

Sad: I am sad about the horrible loss of life. The children whose futures will never be known. The world will never know what was lost yesterday. We will never know what the ways these young people would have made a positive impact on our world. 

Frustration: I’m frustrated with myself that the regularity of these incidents has begun to make me numb to the news, that I could so easily move on. I’m frustrated that just 9 days ago, Mrs. Guild stood here in front of you talking about what happened in Buffalo. 

Powerless: I feel powerless to make a difference. I feel like regardless of what I say or do, or what others say or do, nothing will change.  

I wish that I had some words of wisdom to give you today. Instead of advice, I hope that sharing some of my feelings will help you make sense of your own feelings. I hope that whether you have any of these feelings or any others, you know that you are not alone. Your friends and teachers are processing their feelings about this in their own way.  

As we have done in the past, if you need someone to talk to this morning or at any time this week, you can always speak with Ms. Luckett, Ms. Escobar, Mr. Murray, your advisor, me, or another trusted adult. Ms. Escobar and Ms. Luckett will be in the Dining Commons during the first two periods of the day for anyone that may want to stop by and talk with them. They also will be available in their offices as they usually are during the day. 

I also want to remind you that we are safe here at Brimmer and Mrs. Guild talked to you about this last week. For the past year, we have been keeping doors propped open to improve airflow, but Mrs. Guild has asked teachers and staff to keep doors closed for the remainder of the year. This is not because there is any specific danger, but to use the precautions we have to keep everyone in the community as safe as possible. 

A New Depth to Curriculum

This fall was filled with similar moments that brought back a sense of normalcy. From fans on the soccer field to our theater filled for the US play, Trap, to classrooms set up for the style of learning we pride ourselves on, it has been a year so far that more resembles 2019 than 2020.

There have also been moments where we cannot ignore the realities of the continuing pandemic. Checking vaccine cards before performances, spectator restrictions in the gym, and not having parents inside our buildings during the school day are just some of the ways we continue to feel the restrictions of the pandemic on a regular basis.

However, new doors have opened from what we have learned since March 2020. It was April of that year that history teacher David Cutler began bringing in virtual speakers who, under normal circumstances, could not come to a Brimmer classroom. (Click here for my blog post on these incredible speakers.) We quickly saw other teachers follow suit, and our students were given the opportunity to connect with historians, artists, scientists, and policymakers.

A Brimmer education has never been one that is contained by the walls of the classrooms, and the incorporation of Zoom allowed us to create unique learning opportunities during one of the most challenging times of our lives. Our teachers found that they could provide new depth to their curriculum by opening up the classrooms virtually to outside guests, and it has continued to this day. To give you a sampling of this work, here are examples from just the last few weeks:

Sasaki architecture and design firm came to Brimmer to run a workshop with the Architecture class to create vision boards using architectural photographs of campus along with a collage giving students more insight into architectural brainstorming practices.

Professor Jaime Hart, Associate Professor in Department of Environmental Health, Chan School of Public Health, spoke to students in the Geographical Information Science course on issues of environmental justice and public health and the ways she uses geographic data to assess the distribution of air pollution.

Janice Corkin ‘66 visited our Sculpture class on campus to share the clay figure technique she used to create the bronze figures dotting Brimmer’s campus.

Brian Forist, Professor, Indiana University, and Liora Silks, Newton Energy Coach, spoke to the Environment Club on separate occasions on the subjects of the relationship between parks and mental health and the positive effects of renewable energy in Newton.

In Current Events, Morgan Hook, a Managing Director in the Albany office of SKD Knickerbocker, spoke with students about his experience in public relations in politics and the ways that news we see and read is generated. Marshall Hook, Assignment Editor at Channel 7 News Boston, talked about the decisions that go into daily local news broadcasts. In this case, the speakers provided opposing views giving students an opportunity to consider different viewpoints and develop their own ideas.

Eliza Butler, Mental Health and Mindfulness Coach, taught 9th grade students the foundations of stress management and self-awareness in 9th Grade Wellness.

The Global Studies Program welcomed Jessica Chicco, Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, to speak to diploma candidates about her work in supporting immigrants and refugees and her career path as an immigration lawyer working in non-profits.

NYPD Detective Rose Muckenthaler spoke with students in Criminal Law about her work supporting victims and investigating human trafficking over her twenty-year career, including the work as part of the team that arrested Jeffrey Epstein. Criminal Law also learned from Assistant District Attorney Graham van Epps about his work as a prosecutor in Massachusetts and the Bronx.

The past two years have provided a lifetime’s worth of challenges for our School. Yet from the tremendous loss and ongoing struggles, there are ways that we have adapted to provide more light and deeper connections. Our teachers and students are doing incredible work, and I cannot wait to see what they accomplish during the second half of the year.

To Bear Witness

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must, at that moment, become the center of the universe.”

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Price Acceptance Speech, 1986

As educators, we must encourage our students to examine the stories of those who have been the subject of discrimination and hate. In doing so, they learn to recognize and respond to these acts. Our hope is that the work we do with our students will help empower them with the skills to be upstanders rather than bystanders. so human dignity is not put in jeopardy, and they graduate from high school with the skills to affect positive and ethical social change.  

This can be difficult at times as events fade into history and become less relevant to the lived experience of our students. In a 2020 Pew Study, results showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans are unaware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 23% of respondents 18-39 years old believe the Holocaust is a myth or exaggeration.   

Knowing this, how do educators combat misinformation, apathy, or mistrust of other humans? A foundational part of being an upstander is developing the skill of empathy. A recent study and article reviewed by Psychology Today in August 2021 show that teenagers are naturally developing deeper empathic skills from age 14-18. And, what accelerates this development? Relationships. Developing deep and meaningful relationships is key to developing empathy.

It is not just about developing relationships with people but about finding ways to build meaningful connections to past and current events. Our students have shared how difficult it can be to connect with notable events they were not alive to experience. An op-ed in The Gator this year displays the intellectual struggle some students have putting 9/11 into context. It is not that teenagers do not care; they struggle when they lack personal connection to what happened. 

We actively seek to bridge that gap by inviting guests and members of our community to share their personal stories. In reference to his own life story, Elie Wiesel, author of Night and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, once shared that “whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.” Recently, Steve Goldberg came to campus virtually to share the story of Holocaust survivor Abe Piasek with our students in Grades 7-12. Mr. Goldberg met Mr. Piasek while teaching history. After hearing Mr. Piasek speak to his students, they developed a close relationship. Mr. Goldberg was deeply moved by Mr. Piasek’s story and decided to record his presentations to keep his legacy alive, a decision that became increasingly important following Mr. Piasek’s death in 2020. In committing his time to retell Mr. Piasek’s story, Mr. Goldberg is helping to inform and create a new generation of witnesses. His time with our students deepened their connection to and understanding of the Holocaust by giving them a personal story to recount. By listening, they became witnesses who can now share Mr. Piasek’s life story with others. 

In the Classroom: Lessons in Biology

With the return to more normalcy, it has also given me a chance to sit in on lessons more regularly. Watching our talented educators engage with students and observing students learning is always a delight.Part of my professional practice has been to document the great teaching and learning that occurs in our classrooms. Recently during one of my walk throughs of classes, I found myself in a 9th grade Biology class. When I entered the room, I immediately saw groups of 3 or 4 students staring at cards on their table discussing what was printed on the cards and moving them around. 

Curious about what they were looking at, I stepped into the room to get a closer look. Spread out on the tables in front of each group was a series of cards that had information about various animals, creatures, and plants. The cards were organized differently on each table and when you turned them over, the backside was filled with information. Students were talking about the role each element played in the ecosystem. 

It was clear that students were activating critical thinking skills as they sorted the information. And then, Ms. Stublarec introduced a new element that would turn the activity into one that engaged students in higher order thinking skills. Students also had “disaster” cards and at this point in the class they had to consider how different types of natural and human-made disasters would impact what they had just been discussing. How would forest fires change the balance of nature? What would it mean if war laid waste to the land and top predators were killed in the process? And how might this impact the balance of the food chain? 

In this lesson students were learning about the complexities and interconnectedness of ecological relationships. The activity that was set up by our Biology teachers, Zoë Stublarec and Jared Smith, allowed students to explore the fragile relationships that exist in our nature world and allow them to build their understanding by discussing these scenarios. In that moment our students were not just teenagers sitting in a classroom, learning biological concepts, instead they were bioecologists studying how nature adapts to change and developing predictive models that could be used to help preserve resources in the future. And in doing so, this powerful lesson not only helped students understand these concepts and develop scientific skills, it helped model what a career in the field may look like.

The Power of Reflection

The following remarks were delivered to The Middle and Upper School Community during Opening Convocation: 

As the school year ended in June 2021, we finally lifted our heads, stopped sprinting, took a deep breath, and felt the power of the moment and enormity of what had been accomplished. When I think of those final days of the school year and the days after, I remember seeing smiles radiating through your eyes, glimpses of teachers’ shoulders that were once being carried high due to stress dropped down, watching the worry evaporate from the faces of everyone that had kept their head down and worked so hard to keep everyone safe and the school moving forward for 16 straight months. 

Like many people in March 2020, I instinctively put my head down and started working. Never one to see a problem as unsolvable or to go into a situation unprepared, I simply put on my tunnel vision glasses and got to work; as a team we were making plans, sorting out logistics and doing everything we could to make a safe and meaningful environment for the Brimmer community. It wasn’t until last Spring, that I began to slowly pick my head up for short glimpses, not yet taking full breathes or full stock of just how much we accomplished over the last year. 

When the pace of summer hit, so did the opportunity for all of us to find ways to escape and relax. Some of you went to camp, others took family trips. Some of you got jobs that broke free from your normal routine, and some of you found other ways to step away. For me, the Summer Olympics could not have come at a more perfect time. For as long as I can remember, the weeks set aside to celebrate the accomplishments of these dedicated athletes and their families has been a portal into a different time, and this year it was needed more than ever. 

These Olympics, however, felt different. They were still a beacon of hope, but with the shadow of COVID working to eclipse the competition. These elite athletes were forced to adjust their multi-year training, putting their heads down and lives on hold for another year to train for the opportunity to compete in Tokyo. 

Like all Olympics there was controversy leading up to the games and drama surrounding the competitions. But this year, there was something else that stood out to me – something else that felt different. With COVID restrictions in place, the stands that are traditionally filled with family and friends, started off empty and eerily quiet. So quiet that you could hear the stomping of feet on the track and the splashing from strokes in the pool. Realizing the strangeness of competing with no fans, athletes started showing up to cheer each other on. It started with teammates cheering on other teammates, but it quickly grew to communal support. Swimmers cheering for a competitor from another country that recorded a personal best and medalists consoling those that finished off the podium due to an off day. There was a sense of empathy and support that was growing throughout the games. 

Isaiah Jewitt was accidently tripped up by Nijel Amos during the 800m semifinals and instead of getting angry, he stood up and helped Amos get to his feet, then both men ran side by side to the finish line. And after the US Women’s National Soccer Team lost to Canada in the semifinal match, Christine Sinclair of Canada spotted an emotional Carli Lloyd and paused her own celebration to console Lloyd, sensing that this may have marked the end of Lloyd’s iconic career. Athletes around the world rallied to the side of Simone Biles when she pulled herself from the gymnastics competition due to her mental health. 

As we start this new school year, we could all just put our heads back down and get to work: students, you could work hard to learn, challenge yourselves, and get your work done; teachers, you could work tirelessly planning lessons and activities. We could all be successful this way. But that success would be limited. The problem with putting our heads down is that when we do, we only focus on the task in front of us. We lose sight of all the beauty we pass and everything we accomplished. We aren’t fully present. Imagine how these Olympic games would have felt if those athletes never showed up to cheer each other on because they were only focused on their own preparations. 

The 14th Dalia Llama said, “It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself, and others”. I think he is talking about the Power of Reflection. We have to stop ourselves from always needing to move forward and remember to pause to think about what has happened and what is happening around us. What were you forced to do differently last year that you want to bring forward? What was gained? What was lost? How might we each be better humans due to the way we collectively looked out for each other? How did that adversity unlock new potential? 

These past 19 months tested us, but it has also brought about tremendous growth and success. There was not a fairy tale ending at the Olympics for Jewitt, Amos, Lloyd and many others, but they showed us what is possible when we do not let adversity diminish the best of ourselves. They showed us why it is so important to lift up our heads. Few people will remember who won the 800m finals, but many more will remember watching Jewitt and Amos run side by side to the finish line. Why? Perhaps it is seeing the best of what is in others that inspires us to see the best in ourselves. 

So, this is my challenge for you. Let’s all work hard, but let’s all lift our heads up together. Let’s celebrate each other’s victories and our own. Let’s help lift up those that may stumble or fall along the way. Let’s remember how resilient we are and how far we have come. Let’s reflect on the lessons of the last 19 months and use them as motivation to stay present and true to who we are as a community. Let’s focus on looking up, enjoying the moment, and truly being present.

Summer Reading 2021

Like most, the past year plus has forced me to shift priorities and focus time and energy in different ways. While I carved out plenty of time to read some great books over the last twelve months, the hyper focused planning and iterating led to less overall reading during down time. So, this summer I have recommitted to reading, putting aside more time to read and escaping less to Netflix and Prime Video.

What’s on the list of for Summer 2021?

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Open Heart by Elie Wiesel

Our Team: The Epic story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball by Luke Epplin

What were some of my favorite reads since June 2020?

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

The culture shifting read of 2020 that forced the world to rethink just about everything about race.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

An eye opening recount of the inequities in the American criminal justice system and the way racism has destroyed the lives of innocent people and their families.

We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve our Most Urgent Problems by Mitchell Weiss

A wonderful read to remind leaders that innovation does not just happen and it is required for us to move forward.

Caste by Isabella Wilkerson

Drawing on the parallels of the Indian caste system, Nazi Germany, and American slavery and systematic racism, Wilkerson offers readers, what should have been obvious, a new way to think about inequities and how we need to respond.

Talking to GOATS by Jim Gray

The perfect escape during the pandemic for me. Craving live sports, Jim Gray takes you behind the scenes to conversations and interactions with many of the greatest athletes of all-time.

Stay tuned for updates on the summer reads!