2021 Commencement Address

The following are the concluding remarks for the Class of 2021 Commencement on June 4, 2021. A video recording of the ceremony can be found here.

Like many over the past year, I spent a good amount of time watching Netflix and Prime Video – exploring new shows and movies and re-watching old favorites. As I watched Dr. Strange as part my Marvel Cinematic Universe refresh, walked through as students enjoyed Back to the Future during lunch this winter, and re-watched episodes of Quantum Leap, the concept of time connectivity, the threads that tether our past, present and future together, kept surfacing.

Class of 2021, my final questions for you to think about are these:

What is it that connects the past to the present and the future for you?

How does this concept of time connectivity bring meaning or importance to your life?

One way we experience this connection is through traditions. Traditions help bind the past to the present. They are anchors to our history, and the familiarity they provide brings comfort and a sense of stability. Traditions connect us to those who came before us and provide a deep sense of belonging.

Today, you are participating in one of Brimmer’s most sacred traditions – – Commencement. Today, we mark your completion of high school and the start of your next journey. Today parts of this ceremony resemble those of years past, while others are different. We honor the past and still make space for new and exciting ways to celebrate your success. We know it’s not how the ceremony looks that matters most; it’s about the ritual of coming together to honor our students and their accomplishments that connects us to the past and the future.  

Perhaps traditions are not only meant to be anchors.  We could also look at them as lighthouses or guide posts. In this way, they illuminate a path forward that provides comfort without holding us back from enhancing and innovating.

Back in April, Chef Craig served his family’s matzah ball soup. The meal he shared with our community  was steeped in tradition and meaning, but not because he followed his grandmother’s exact recipe. Instead, he captured her essence in his version, using her recipe as a guide post. He paid homage to his family history by keeping the recipe alive, but he brought his own sense of self and love for cooking by adding modern and meaningful updates. The tradition of that soup is not about the amount of carrots, dill, or celery used; It’s about bringing something from the past into the present in order to maintain a connection in the future.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke this spring to students on a podcast in South King County, Washington. During the conversation, he was asked about futuristic ideas such as teleportation and time travel. He began his response by saying:

“My advice will be anchored in today, yet you are going to invent a tomorrow…You will invent whole new ways of living that today I don’t even think a person can dream about.”

Brimmer and May Class of 2021, this is my wish for you- Allow your roots strengthen your foundation by remembering what is most important to you and what you value most. Allow what you’ve debated, learned, and experienced to illuminate your path forward. As you move on:

  • Remember and honor what is important from the past
  • Think critically, ethically, and empathically about what you experience and learn in the present
  • And Dream and innovate for an even brighter future.

Now, stand up. Stand up and look around. Look at the faculty, staff, and administrators who have supported you. Turn and look at your family, look at the pride on the faces of your family and friends in the audience or surrounding you at home. Think about those in the Zoom-o-sphere(as Kat called it) that have been there for your best and worst moments. Now, look at each other and take a mental picture of this final moment as Brimmer students with your classmates.

Brimmer has been your home and you are ready to be launched onward to your next adventures. Our light will provide a beacon for you to return to from time to time, whether in physical place or spirit. When you return to visit, there may be things that look different, but underneath it all will be the essence of the Brimmer experience that you enjoyed and will connect you to those who came before you and everyone who will follow after. Congratulations Class of 2021. We will miss you and cannot wait to see all that you accomplish in the years ahead.

Finding Moments of Joy and Wonder

Last Friday, I paused during morning meeting to talk briefly about the landing of a second Mars rover, Perseverance. Over the past year, with so much of our attention on the global COVID-19 pandemic and racial inequities, there have been long periods of time when it feels like we are surrounded by more darkness than light. The work that went into landing an autonomous robot on Mars was years in the making and was the result of the incredible work and collaboration of a diverse team of people representing a multitude of racial, gender, ethnic, and religious identities. Perseverance reminded us that, at our best, humans can do incredible things when we work together.

Perseverance was also a reminder of the joy in finding wonder and awe around us–experiencing the moments when the hair on our arms stands on end and gives us goosebumps. This year has been marked by so many losses and provided so many limitations that it can sometimes be hard to find those moments when you get the chills. Whether it is listening to a singer deliver a performance with raw emotion, watching an underdog sink the game-winning shot during March Madness, taking in a breathtaking view from atop a mountain, watching the first woman be inaugurated as Vice President, or listening to the wind blow in the first audio recording from Mars, finding moments of wonder and joy are critical to our well-being, whatever they may be for each of us personally. As I look at what has been happening on campus and look forward, I see more of those moments for our students–juggling a soccer ball with friends on a snowy field, spending a day hiking in Outdoor Ed, being entertained by the upcoming performance of the Upper School Musical, Is it Over Yet? and Upper School Band Concert, and reconnecting with teammates for our modified spring sports. As we approach the one year mark of the shutdown, the losses can feel debilitating if we don’t also look at everything that has been accomplished and find those moments of joy and wonder. As a community, we have been able to help students learn despite the obstacles and find ways to connect even with the limitations. During these last weeks before Spring Break, let’s enjoy all that has been accomplished and, as Joe from Pixar’s Soul taught us (and the 10th graders who watched it at lunch), allow ourselves to get lost in the music.  

Defending the Core of Democracy: A Response to the Attack on the U.S. Capitol

We will model a pathway to stop the extreme division we have been living with and for people to begin listening respectfully to one another and take steps to help those who are in need.

The following is a speech delivered to the Brimmer Upper School the morning after the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol

The countdown to 2021 filled social media with funny memes, expressions of relief, and hopes that the future seemed brighter. However, yesterday was a dark and tragic day for our country where we witnessed an attack on the core tenets of our Democracy when a Pro-Trump rally turned into an insurrection and attacked Congress after being urged to do so by President Trump. Last night, Congress returned to their chambers and worked through the night to complete the work they set out to do yesterday, to certify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next President and Vice President of the United States.  

I want to acknowledge that everyone will process or think differently about what happened and is happening. For some of you, what happened yesterday may not be something that you think about a lot or at all. Others may find themselves glued to the news and social media, trying to take in every report that comes in. Many of you will likely think about the videos of people storming into the Capitol building. Some of you are wondering what happens next, and how could this happen? Others may be outraged by the clear differences of how the majority-white mob was treated in contrast to Black Live Matters protestors. What do we do with all this?  

In 1797, George Washington did the unthinkable. He chose to step down from the newly formed presidency and create what has been the hallmark of our Republic; it was a blueprint for what a peaceful transition of power looks like. Four years later, President John Adams would lose his reelection campaign to Thomas Jefferson, and another in another historic first, he ceded his power to the newly elected President.   

A peaceful transition is at the very core of our Democracy. It is the crescendo to the election process where citizens exercise their free will and choose those they hope will lead them and uphold the freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution. Yesterday this was threatened. It was not only an attack on Congress but an attack on the foundation of who we are as a country. The Constitution guarantees the right to protest but gives no one the right to incite violence or deny another person their right to vote.  

There is a lot to unpack with what happened yesterday. Your teachers are here for you to answer questions, to talk, and to process. It is not clear what will transpire over the next few days, but there is a pathway to change. It requires us to stand up and engage in civil discourse, work together, and live our Core Values. We will continue to work together, students, faculty, and staff to create a positive change at our School, in our community, and beyond. We will model a pathway to stop the extreme division we have been living with and for people to begin listening respectfully to one another and take steps to help those who are in need. 

Elevating Black Voices

Empathy is one of the most important tenets of this year’s theme, “Living our Core Values and Building an Equitable Community.” Empathy requires us to, as Brené Brown says, “feel with people.” One of the most effective ways to build a connection and feel with people is through storytelling. Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel are powerful examples of this. Their storytelling stands out as exceptional in how they get their audience to feel, to connect, and to empathize with their personal narratives and fictional characters.

“Feel with People”

Brené Brown

We recently heard the stories of three members of our community, Clayton McLaren ’21, Stephanie Cranmore ’21, and Kindergarten Teacher Ms. Vaughn as part of our Voices assembly program. The program specifically focused on elevating Black voices, and these three members of the Brimmer community shared their personal stories and narratives about their experiences in school, times when they have experienced anti-Black racism, and moments when they have felt like outsiders. They taught us the power of having a friend who is an upstander, shared how they have been profiled because of how they look, and offered guidance on how we can do better if we want to live up to our new Core Value, Equity. Though we may not all share the same personal experiences as the ones that Stephanie, Clayton, and Ms. Vaughn described, we can all relate to the difficult emotions they felt as a result. Their stories made us feel. Their stories brought our community closer together by illuminating the work that we need to do and will continue to do in order to build a more equitable community. I am grateful that they felt safe enough to share with the School and for the way our students in grades 6-12 listened and supported them.

Empowered to Lead at Brimmer and Beyond

Earlier this week, during morning meeting, we played the song Waiting on the World to Change by John Mayer. The song was released in 2006, and I can still vividly remember driving with my windows down, listening in my car, and feeling conflicted about the song’s message. To this day, when I hear it, I am captured by the beat and the catchy lyrics, yet I am left questioning what the song is trying to tell us. 

“Now we see everything that’s going wrong

With the world and those who lead it

We just feel like we don’t have the means

To rise above and beat it” 

The lyrics share a feeling of being powerless and voiceless to change the world’s problems, so we are left to wait for the world to change. 

At morning meeting, I shared my struggle to balance my appreciation for the great music while feeling conflicted about the song’s meaning with students. I challenged them not to wait for the world to change, but to actively participate in shaping their vision for the future. If we want to live out our guiding principle of “Empowered to Lead,” we need to help students develop their voices, so they feel authorized to enact the changes necessary to improve the world. 

I believe that we are working to help students see themselves as active participants, rather than young adults who will simply wait for the world to change. This is evident in classes such as Problem Solving Through Design, where students are asked to solve a real world problem, one of which is currently patent-pending. 9th grader Evan Michaeli is living up to this creed by working to combat climate change and raise awareness about the environment. He is currently looking to bring a representative from the National Parks Service to Brimmer to teach students about the California wildfires and run an awareness campaign at school. 

This week, we concluded our Election 2020 Civics Education Series, which focused on using one’s power as a citizen to make an impact through voting. We concluded the series with a session on engaging in civil discourse titled, “How to Discuss Controversial Topics Without Coming to Blows.” This is an important subject because, in order to make lasting change, we must be able to both share our perspectives and listen to others’ ideas—especially those with whom we may disagree.

Making lasting change is hard work and does not happen overnight. It requires commitment and perseverance. John Mayer sings, “It’s hard to beat the system when we’re standing at a distance,” but instead of waiting on the world to change, we will continue to encourage our students to develop their voices, so they feel empowered to lead at Brimmer and beyond.

Opening Remarks: Honors Convocation 2020

The following speech was given at the Honors Convocation ceremony on June 5, 2020. Due to COVID-19 the ceremony was held over Zoom. Honors Convocation traditionally is a time to celebrate the academic achievements of the community. In addition to the academic focus, this year’s opening remarks also addressed anti-black racism.

 

Last week, we celebrated the graduation of the Class of 2020. Those students lived out our theme for the year Student Voice and Responsible Leadership and they were particularly good at using their voices to bring about change and enhance the intellectual conversations that occur in classes. For those that watched our Commencement program, you heard in detail the deep impact they had on Brimmer. They, and many others in our community, have been the voices and leaders who have helped guide us throughout the year.

In this room today, we also have tremendous leadership. We have people who are already making an impact in the community and others who are ready to take on new leadership roles.

Sixth grader Thatcher Purdy, organized a yearlong focus in the middle school to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that creates life changing wishes for children with a critical illness.

The Middle School Senate, led by Jonas Peña, shared inspiring quotes and reflections at virtual MS Meetings during the difficult times these past few months.

11th grader Kyrell Luc showed how to lead through action on the basketball court. His dedication led him to his 1000th point and NEPSAC Player of the Year, but his true character and leadership was captured in moments like when he checked on the safety of an opponent who had fallen to the ground, even though he was on a fast break, as shared by Spanish Teacher Mirna Goldberger.

Students on the Gator staff opened about their personal experiences in Op-Ed pieces such as Zoe Kaplan’s article, “My Diagnosis Five Years Later” and Nico Jaffer’s How it Feels with Parents on the Front Line.

However, we cannot talk about student voice without recognizing the symbiotic relationship voice has with the ability to listen, hear, and internalize what others are saying through words and actions. Voice is important. It empowers us to speak up and to share our thoughts, but in order to be a responsible leader, we must learn to hear and respond to the voices of other by becoming an active, empathic listeners. This can be difficult, especially when we run into an idea we may not agree with or stretches us beyond our comfort zones. I challenge you all to allow yourselves to truly consider ideas that may not feel comfortable. We grow from the discomfort.

Over the last few weeks, we have seen what happens when issues of racial injustice are not heard and changes are not made. In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time during the national anthem, the country did not listen to his message. Instead many people focused solely on his action. I wonder where we would be today if instead of villainizing Kaepernick, the NFL and more of our country had been able to truly hear, understand, and take to heart what Kaepernick was saying about racial injustice.

George Floyd was the not the first black man to utter the three words “I can’t breathe” while being arrested. I wonder what the world would look like for black and brown people if we had worked harder to bring about change. What if we did not just outlaw choke holds in New York after Eric Garner’s death, but addressed the underlying issue of anti-Black racism and excessive use of force by the police, particularly against the Black community.

What can we take from the recent protests that stem from the frustration and anger of unjust treatment based on racial identity? We can focus on listening. Each of our voices hold the potential to make a difference in the daily lives of our friends, our family, our community, and to make a change in the world. Sometimes the most powerful way to use your voice to make a difference is by elevating the voices of those who are not always heard and by listening carefully to what they are saying.

Today’s program is one where we celebrate the voices of our community. It is to honor the incredible work that has happened in the classroom throughout the year, to recognize the ways students engaged intellectually with each other and the work they completed. We begin to look towards the future and the possibility it brings, welcoming the 8th grade to the Upper School, opening new opportunities for student leadership, and shifting the Class of 2021 into their new role as eldest students in the School. I want to congratulate each of you for completing the school year and coming together in spite of the circumstances this spring. I think that our learning community will emerge stronger.

Class of 2020 Commencement Speech

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The following speech was given to the Class of 2020 during the Brimmer and May School Commencement. The speech was recorded in advance on May 19, 2020 prior to the May 29, 2020 event due to COVID-19.

Class of 2020, I want to you to close your eyes for a moment.

Take a deep breath and remember back to September 7th, 2016. You arrived at Upper School Camp a few hours ago and now you are sitting in a circle in the Pearl B at Wingate*Kirkland. If you can, try to channel some of the feelings you had that day. There was a sense of excitement about starting high school, some fear and nervousness about the unknown, and a myriad of mixed emotions. During that meeting, I asked you to think about what you want to accomplish during your time at Brimmer and what your goals were for your first year of high school.

With your eyes still closed, let’s jump ahead to September 4th, 2020. We are all gathered in the Leoj at Wingate*Kirkland. Once again, we are sitting in a circle about to start our discussion. This time, you are deeply connected to each other. You are hanging on every word that is said as your friends talk about how much being at Brimmer has meant to them and the legacy they hope to leave, both individually and as a grade. This time there are tears- tears that come from the depth of your connection and general love for each other as a grade. Even though there is excitement about the potential that lay ahead for your last year of high school, you are already thinking about the end of your Brimmer journey, not yet ready to let go of each other. This powerful moment in the Leoj, where you opened up about the profound way you have influenced each other was a testament to who you are as a grade. A group that has achieved so much and is committed to one another. While we may not be able to sit with each other on stage today, to hug one another and experience this momentous milestone together, I want you to remember that moment in the Leoj and keep it as a lasting image of who you are – and what you mean to one another – and this school.

You have grown so much from that September day in 2016. At today’s commencement you are standing in the doorway between two worlds. The first being Brimmer, the place that you have called home from anywhere between 1 year and 14 years. Here you have experienced so many firsts and created the foundation for your futures.

You are not the same people you were when you arrived. Yet you owe so much to your pasts. In 2016 you spoke about being more organized and getting good grades. In 2019, your focus was on your impact on the community. Your 9th grade self was focused on self-improvement, while your 12th grade self is about legacy.

Just like who you were earlier in high school was critical to who you became today, who you are today, will lay the groundwork for tomorrow.

You are pointing in a new direction that is the start of a new journey. Nothing is set, just the possibility for growth. For this reason, I want you to think about the following phrase that was shared with my by Rabbi Becky Silverstein.

Another world is possible. You are authorized to enact its vision

Here you are. You are ready. You have the tools and the knowledge to go forth. We live in a world with problems. This moment is a testament to that. Having arrived at Brimmer’s Upper School at the same time as most of you, I have looked forward to your graduation for the past few years. We never could have imagined that we would gather in front of screens to participate in Commencement. If this time has tought us anything, it’s that some of the problems and challenges we encounter can be anticipated and others will be unexpected. You have learned through your time at Brimmer that we are not judged by the mistakes that we make, but instead how we respond to the challenges that we face.

Your high school career is bookended by the themes Building the Future and Student Voice and Responsible Leadership. We, quite literally, are asking you to use your voice and to create a better future.

Another world is possible. You are authorized to enact its vision.

You have learned while here, how to draw new meaning from a text, how to stand up for those who need a voice, the ways that art can inspire, and how to use data to draw conclusions.  We have empowered you to use your voice to lead.

As you prepare to go forward, we need you to focus on the solutions and not be paralyzed by the problems. We will overcome our current crisis, because there are people working on solutions. Solutions that help individuals, communities, and the world – solutions that you will undoubtedly be a part of.

My dear Class of 2020, there is no doubt that this is a scary time filled with uncertainty. However, do not forget another world is possible. You have been the leaders at Brimmer and will be leaders in your colleges and beyond. You are or are authorized to enact its vision…You are ready to take what you have learned and what you have experienced at Brimmer and bring it with you. Our school is a better because of the impact you had on it. The School, your parents, and I could not be prouder of each of you.

Close your eyes, one last time. Feel the energy of this moment. You have grown so much and have the ability to have a tremendous impact on our world, to use your voice to solve problems big and small. I hope that when you find yourself facing a new challenge and are faced with uncertainty or doubt, that you remember how you felt on this day- the joy, the sadness, and the pride that we are all feeling today.

Class of 2020. Thank you. It has been an honor to have gone through my first four years at Brimmer with you. We love you, we miss you, and we cannot wait to be gathered in person again.

 

 

A Unique Opportunity for Upper School Students

While we are all missing being physically on campus, remote learning has opened some incredible opportunities that can sometimes be more difficult to coordinate during the school year. One of these has been the opportunity to invite guest speakers into our classrooms. Like the rest of us, many world renown authors and academics now find themselves temporarily teaching and working from home, and several Upper School faculty members have taken the initiative to reach out to experts in their respective fields to invite them into their classrooms through Zoom.
David Cutler has invited guests into his classes weekly. Mark Waid, one of the most popular and sought-after authors in the superhero comic book industry and author of two books read in our Popular Culture in American History elective, joined class to discuss the use of superheroes to tell historical stories. Popular Culture students were also able to speak with Josh Elder, a DC Comics writer and founder of Reading With Pictures as well as a United Nations diplomat for comics in education, about his work with Superman. 
In United States History, Kenneth C. Davis, historian and author of More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War visited to talk with students about the 1918 epidemic. Last week, Professor Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project and Cuba Documentation Project, spoke to students in our Latin American History elective. Kornbluh’s work has been nothing short of revolutionary for historians, politicians, and world government. He has played a leading role in shedding light on covert US policy to undermine Latin American elections throughout the Cold War. Next week, Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner will speak to Brimmer students about his work as an American historian. 
In Paul Brauchle’s chemistry classes, Eric Arsenault spoke with students about why he chose to pursue a PhD in Chemistry, the research he is doing, and what drew him to science. Arsenault graduated from Wesleyan University (CT) in 2017 with a dual degree in Chemistry and Physics and is currently pursuing his PhD in Physical Chemistry at UC Berkeley, studying photosynthesis using ultrafast spectroscopy.
Bill Jacob, Creative Arts Chair, and the students in our Creative Arts Diploma Program, organized a Coffee House for the Brimmer community inviting some of our own “experts”—current students, alumni, and community members—to perform. Brimmer’s version of the virtual concerts that are popping up on social media, it helped spread good spirit.
These special guests and events are just one example of the innovative and exciting ways that Brimmer’s Upper School teachers are taking advantage of the current learning environment to provide unique opportunities for our students. Whether it be the opportunity to learn from a top-level expert or a chance to share our expertise with others, our emerging virtual environment has enabled us to reach far beyond the walls of our school in a way that has enhanced our students’ learning experience during this unprecedented time.

Maintaining Community During Remote Learning

As schools create curriculum for remote learning, they must spend an equal amount of time developing ways to keep students and teachers connected. While academic growth is the primary purpose of schools, teaching social-emotional skills and guiding students through relationship building is essential for their development. During these unprecedented times, cultivating community and focusing on health and wellness cannot take a back seat to academic learning.

How can we do this at Brimmer? Recorded videos, video conference calls, and emails are a good start to help teachers remain connected with students and help them learn. It is equally important to find ways to highlight the talents in our community to maintain and deepen connections. We have already started this process in the Upper School, and we have found that in some ways it is bringing about new ways to engage the community.

Morning meetings have transitioned into mini celebrations with birthday announcements and themed compilation videos, such as last week’s “Coronacation” video and this week’s Pets of Brimmer. In the coming weeks, morning meetings could include candidate speeches for Student Senate, GatorTalks, and mindfulness activities.

Student leaders are in the midst of planning a weekly trivia game during Monday lunches, a reimagined version of the US Camp Talent Show, and shared playlists on Fridays. In addition, department chairs are looking at ways to hold end-of-year assemblies in new, creative ways so that we can celebrate our students’ incredible talents and accomplishments.When speaking about her husband’s legacy, Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” I am humbled by how the our community has responded with compassion and care in the face of adversity. Whether it is the way students and teachers have come together to support each other or the motivation of students like Avery Alperin ’21 to organize a mask-making campaign, our school is working to ensure that we do not just make it through this time, but use it as an opportunity to rise.