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!

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.