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. 

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.

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.

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.