The idea that no condition is permanent resonates as we head into Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Next week we will take time to recognize and honor the work of Dr. King and those who followed him. King also believed that no condition is permanent. He worked tirelessly as a non-violent civil rights activist in the fight for racial equity, a cause which ultimately cost him his life. In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he whole-heartedly embraced this mantra when he famously said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
It has not been due to a lack of effort, but I have never been able to get into yoga. Hearing about all the positives that are associated with it, both of mind and body, I was eager to try it. After a 10-week session a number of years ago, I enjoyed the physical aspect of yoga, but was never able to connect effectively with the mindfulness piece.
Over the last 5-7 years, the efforts to improve wellness programs and include mindfulness exercises has been a national trend in schools. At Brimmer, we continue to evaluate our programming, tweak existing options, and provide new opportunities. This has included inviting Will Slotnick from the Wellness Collaborative to talk with students about managing stress and anxiety and the risks involved in using alcohol, drugs, and, more recently, e-cigarettes. Slotnick addresses the subject from the perspective of managing stress and incorporates meditation and mindfulness into the program. After sessions, students report feeling more connected to their thoughts and feeling more relaxed. In addition to being armed with important information, they can physically be seen carrying their shoulders lower as much of the stress has melted away during the sessions.
In a 2011 article (full publication can be found here)from the American Psychological Association journal, Psychotherapy, Dr. Daphne Davis and Dr. Jeffrey Hayes share “empirically supported benefits of mindfulness.” The list of benefits is one that we would all want for our students and children: stress reduction, boosts to working memory, improved focus, and more flexibility in challenging situations. In 2013, in an article published by the National Institute of Health in Social Cognative and Affective Neuroscience, research on the use of meditation was reported to improve emotional stability, supporting and building upon the documented research of its benefits. This was further supported by neuroscience research that showed increased serotonin levels in those that practiced meditation. So, while incorporating mindfulness as skill has been a trend, it is also very much supported by nationally recognized research.
Knowing this, I have continued to listen and research what experts are saying, often trying out techniques to improve my own mindfulness. Slotnick has recommended phone apps like Meditation Studio to our students. Dr. Helen Riess, who spoke recently at Brimmer about her book, The Empathy Effect, suggested HeadSpace, and those with an Apple Watch or Fitbit are likely familiar with the built in mindfulness activities focused on controlled breathing and reducing one’s heartrate. I know that I have found these to be useful from time to time, but more importantly, many students have incorporated them into their daily routines to help manage stress.
I fear that when we talk about meditation and mindfulness we often lose people once we use those terms. For some people, meditation and breathing exercises do not work. What do we tell those who cannot connect in this way? During Thanksgiving preparation last week, while I was preparing my apple pie, peeling apples, slicing them, and rolling out the dough, I found myself experiencing a heightened awareness of my own senses. During that process, I recognized that I was experiencing what I was missing during those yoga exercises. It turns out that baking, and also sports activity, that requires intense focus and mimics the effects of meditation.
Pyschology Today writes that mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. When we are mindful we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” As we continue to venture into a world that moves quickly and we encounter incredible amounts of information at unprecedented speeds, we are going to find mindfulness activities will grow in importance. Whether it be through meditation, breathing exercises, baking, or shooting free throws on the basketball court, it is important that we help our students and children develop these skills.
I love going to the movies, and when a friend asked if I wanted to see Mission: Impossible, I could not resist the offer. So, there I was sitting in the movie theater enjoying some popcorn and ready to escape to the fictional world, when right at the start of the movie, within the first five minutes, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, was faced with a critical decision. Should he protect the plutonium that could be used by the bad guys to create a nuclear weapon or save his teammate and close friend? Here right in front of me, Ethan Hunt was at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking, living out our theme for the year. And I was left wondering, how does one make this type of decision?
As you heard from Mrs. Guild and Mr. R-V, at the heart of empathy is being an authentic listener and working to understand and share the feelings of others. Ethan Hunt knew what his friend was feeling and wanted to help him, even if his friend was telling him not to worry and to save the world.
At that moment Ethan Hunt had to make a choice–to save his friend or to save the world? What is the correct decision? Now, I do not want to share a spoiler, but I know we cannot all be super spies and manage to both make the empathetic choice, while also saving the world from disaster. However, I have seen plenty of evidence of your classmates being engaged at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking.
Last year the Middle School and Upper Schools came together to fundraise for hurricane relief. With three devastating hurricanes, Harvey, Irma, and Maria having ravaged Houston, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean Islands, a group wanted to help as many people as possible. However, they were faced with a decision on how to best direct the resources. Was there a right way? Is there always a right decision?
The second example from 2017-2018 was the emergence of a new community service effort–the Prison Book Program. In this program, students volunteered on weekends to send books to incarcerated people. Again, at the crossroad of empathy and ethics. Should someone in prison receive our help?
In both cases, students found ways to connect with the people impacted and made informed decisions. Whether it was finding an organization to distribute the funds efficiently or learning that by sending books to people in prison and supporting their development, it helps reduce the likelihood of them returning to prison, students used the research and critical thinking skills they learn in class to collect the necessary information to make an empathetic, ethical decision.
So, this year when you continue to volunteer at organizations such as Greater Boston Food Bank, Community Servings, Wingate Senior Center, the Charles River Clean-up, or by identifying organizations on your own, you are attempting to feel and understand what another person is going through and choosing to find a way to help those people.
This intersection of empathy and ethical thinking does not just live in the realm of social justice. It lives in our classes and hallways as well. As Mr. R-V just said, this is the purpose of the humanities is to challenge our understanding of the world through a different medium, to feel the story of another human, and to engage intellectually about the decisions confronted in the text. When you combine empathy and ethics, you get real life. Every day, you face these moments–a friend upset about something that was said about them, looking at the ethics of gene manipulation in science, or learning about another culture through our global programs.
But, I also want to challenge you today, as we start a new year. How can we as individuals and as a community do better? How can we understand what a classmate or colleague is going through and how can we better help them? Can we lead with kindness? Can we work towards having more in-person interactions and fewer online, where words can be misinterpreted and are often hurtful? The world around us is modeling something different, but let’s be better. Let’s be a model for empathy and kindness.
As 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.” What do you want your story to be this year? You do not need to be a super spy named Ethan Hunt. Let your story be one where you choose your path, listen and feel for those around you, and make choices that will better our community and thus our world.
During the Brimmer and May Commencement we work to honor the accomplishments of the graduating class. During the primary graduation speech, we read vignettes about each graduate highlighting their time at Brimmer and May. To view the full graduation or watch the vignettes, you can click here for a replay of the Commencement Ceremony. The individual stories start at the 23:00 minute mark.
I had the opportunity to speak to our 12th grade students and families the night before Commencement and then to give concluding remarks at the Commencement ceremony. Here are my remarks about Brimmer and May’s incredible graduate, the Class of 2017.
Senior Dinner Speech, May 31, 2018
Thank you to all the students and families for joining us this evening to celebrate the Class of 2018.
I want to share a story I heard earlier this year. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo came through the Caribbean and left a path of destruction. It made landfall in Charleston, South
Carolina and at the time, it was the most devastating hurricane on record. After the Hurricane had moved on there was a reporter along the shoreline looking at a row of houses. Among the destruction only one house remained standing. The reporter found the owner of the house that survived and ask the woman, “why did your 150 year old house survive while the other houses were washed away by the sea?”
The woman answered, “When they built my house first they laid the big field stones, then they added smaller rocks, sand, and dirt. Then they repeated this layer after layer after layer until they were done.” The reporter said “I see, I see, but how did your house survive?
The woman repeated, “First they put down the large field stones, then smaller rocks, then they filled in with sand and dirt. Layer after layer until the foundation was complete.” Again the reporter said, “Yes, yes, I understand, but WHY is your house still standing. All the other houses were washed away.”
The woman repeated again, “It is because of the foundation. They put down layer after layer until they had built a strong foundation.” Again the reporter said “I get it, they put down all the rocks to make the foundation, but you have not told me why your house is the only one still standing?”
The woman finally just responded, “It must have been an act of G-d” and she walked away.
As individuals and a group you have each helped to strengthen our School’s foundation. You brought your unique talents and views to Brimmer. This school is built upon the foundation of all those that come through and each of you has helped to put down a new layer, fill in the gaps, and strengthened the foundation. You have engaged in profound discussions in class, raised awareness of important issues, brought joy to audiences through performances, raised championship banners in the gym, and brought a new level of creativity to the school. Your class has left a strong base for those that follow you.
At the same time each of you have been building your own personal foundations. Layer by layer, grade by grade, each year, strengthening the base that you will build upon in the years to come. The field stones of knowledge, rocks of extracurricular activities, and the sands of experience.
As you move on from Brimmer, remember your foundation. You will experience all the highs and successes of life, but will also be faced with the storms that life often brings. The house that you begin building in the coming year and will continuously work on during your life, will sit upon your Brimmer experiences and can bring you stability throughout your life.
And to help you with the small fixes that may come up, I hope that the toolkits you’ll find in your bags will remind you of your Brimmer foundation and help you make any adjustments along the way.
It has been a true pleasure getting to know each of you over the past two years. And I cannot wait to hear about all your successes in the years to come. Congratulations.
Commencement Concluding Remarks, June 1, 2018
I present to you the Brimmer and May Class of 2018!
As we near the end of Commencement, I wanted to take one last moment to address this year’s graduates.
In front of us you sit. 37 unique individuals with your own talents, ideas, and futures. We just heard of your stories, your passions, and your strengths. How you have left an indelible mark on the school, one which the classes that come after you will build upon as they work towards their future. Today we focused on all the success that you had individually and the great things you accomplished as a grade. However, for every success there were failures, skinned knees, stumbles, disagreements, and mistakes. Self doubt has most definitely crept in at times.
Maya Angelou in an interview once said “We may encounter defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away – I rose right where I’d been knocked down.”
As you, the Class of 2018, move forward in life, you will be faced with great successes but also more defeats than you will be able to count. Each day we are faced with choices. Not every decision you make will work out. Let your defeats, your failures, be opportunities to grow and learn. Let those be the moments where you rise back up and allow them to be defined as moments of growth instead of failure.
Along the way, do not forget your Brimmer foundation. Hold tight to the lessons you learned here and use them to guide you through all the failures. As Abby Wombach recently said at the 2018 Barnard Commencement: Failure is fuel and fuel is power. I say, may your failures fuel you in the path ahead and lead to all the successes you each deserve.
Congratulations to each of you and to your families.
At Opening Convocation in September, I shared a quote from Golda Meir. She said, “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” As we near the end of the school year, it seemed apropos to look back at some recent observations that show the depth of achievement our students have made this year. One such example of students transforming the sparks of possibility into flames of achievement comes from the success of our spring sports teams.
All of our teams should be proud of their seasons, including the Varsity Baseball team, which won the League Championship, but I want to highlight the Girls’ Varsity Tennis and Girls’ Varsity Lacrosse teams. Both of these teams have generally flown under the radar during the spring, but this year, they made Brimmer history by each winning their team’s first league championship. Two teams that came into the year with modest definitions of success, both saw those sparks catch fire.
In the classroom, it seems like it was not that long ago that the Class of 2018 was starting Upper School. Over the past few weeks, teachers and administrators have been busy listening and watching our twelfth grade students present their culminating humanities project. Each student dived deep into the works of an author and produced a scholarly paper and presentation on their research. The students wowed their teachers with their interpretations of the text and the personal connections they made to their work.
A final example comes from the tremendous creativity that filled our School this week at the All-School Arts Celebration. I often find myself, and others, pausing in front of displays in awe of the way students have transformed their medium to create such wonderful artwork.
The list of personal and grade level achievements goes on and on. The students should be proud of their accomplishments this year! Billows of smoke have filled our hallways, from the sparks of possibility that have turned into their flames of achievement. Congratulations to everyone!
With apologies to my parents, I shared a story from my childhood during Upper School Morning Meeting while wearing my vintage Boston Celtics jacket. Ever since I can remember, I have loved the Boston Celtics. The images of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish running out of the tunnel onto the court and the sound bites of Johnny Most are etched in my memory.
As a child, I had talked to my parents about how much I wanted a Celtics jacket. I desperately wanted one of those hooded Starter jackets that everyone, at least it felt that way, was wearing. So when I opened up my birthday present that year and saw a satin green Celtics jacket instead of that hooded Starter, my heart was deflated. Of course, I feigned appreciation, wore it around the house, but remembered feeling embarrassed to wear it. It lived in my closet for a long time, until my parents were moving out of my childhood house. When I opened the closet and found the jacket, I immediately felt embarrassed about my lack of gratitude.
There, right in front of me, was the most incredible Celtics jacket one could own. This vintage jacket represented the 1980s Celtics and the magic, no pun intended, that Bird brought to the parquet. It was reminiscent of the fans cheering on the team with Red Auerbach sitting in the stands with a smile. I was filled with the disappointment of not recognizing at the time the incredible gift I had been given by my parents and that this gem had been buried in a closet for the better part of two decades.
Appreciation and gratitude are not always as straightforward as we think. Often, we are distracted by the moment and do not fully understand the meaning of our interactions. We get wrapped up in our hustle and bustle of our daily lives and take for granted that which has been right in front of us. While keeping in mind how hard it can be to be authentically gracious, it is important to think about ways to express appreciation to family and friends. We should take a moment to pause and express gratitude and appreciation for those around us.
As our 12th grade begins to close out their academic careers at Brimmer, I want to take a moment to share an appreciation. Each member of the Class of 2018 has uniquely made an indelible mark on our School. Whether they have been at the School for two years or thirteen years, they have contributed in ways that have defined us and moved us forward, each person leaving their prints on our School. Leading class discussions, mentoring other students, giving tours to prospective students, volunteering for countless hours in their free time, performing on stage, competing on our sports teams, and being a representative of School are just a few of the ways they have led our community.
We appreciate all that they have given to the School. We will miss them, and we wish them all the best as they begin their next journey.
I hope that the path they forge challenges them to grow, while also achieving all the success they each deserve.
Like most of New England, I have been mesmerized by Tom Brady’s ongoing DocuSeries Tom vs. Time. At first I was intrigued to see the inner workings of the person who has been at the center of one of the most successful runs in sports, but as I watched I began reflecting on the ideas that were shared during the videos.
As I watched the second episode, I was struck by a comment made by Tom Brady’s quarterback coach Tom House. During the video, House refers to the preparation and work Brady does and his focus on improving in even the smallest areas. He says, in reference to Brady working to make a small adjustment to his throw, “You realize this is like nothing[the adjustment], but it’s big to him. Tom and some of these other elite quarterbacks, they don’t come to get five percent better. They come to get one percent better.”
Working to get one percent better struck me and has been on my mind since I watched the video. As fans, we see the results of a daily work regiment that is based on a growth mindset. Yes, the ultimate goal for someone like Tom Brady is winning the Super Bowl, however that’s not an actionable goal. Instead, the focus is on the small thing you can do each day to improve. Whether it’s throwing more touchdown passes, organizing your work more effectively, being a more active participant in class, or writing a stronger paper, you need to find ways to make small improvements. Students need to focus on getting better by one percent each day.
For students this means working to help them break down their big goals into smaller attainable goals or action steps. Brimmer teachers have shifted to writing their goals as questions, so that we can focus on the answers, or the actions, to get us to the goals. One goal I set this year was “How can we further improve the transition from middle school to high school for our ninth grade students?” Some of the action items were– survey ninth and tenth grade teachers to develop a list of key student skills; develop a ninth grade team approach for teachers; and improve the experience of eighth grade families and students at Curriculum Night. Truthfully, most of these action items had their own set of action items to create the one percent improvements needed to reach the goal.
While we do not want to lose track of where we are trying to go, we need to focus students on the small steps they can take to improve. The only way any of us can get better is to continuously improve. And, I do not know about you, but feeling like I only need to be one percent better each day feels much less overwhelming. Imagine the confidence we build in students when we empower them to improve incrementally instead of needing to make instantaneous leaps. We cannot expect them to turn a B- into an A or write a stronger paper without helping them define the one percent improvements. Every journey starts with a single step. I believe this is what Carol Dweck is trying to communicate with her growth mindset work, and the documented practice habits of Tom Brady may just be in one of her next books.
At graduation this past June, I ended my remarks to the Class of 2017 by quoting Golda Meir. She said, “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” These words are a perfect bridge from last year’s theme of Building the Future to this year’s theme: Inspiring Thinkers and Doers. What are those inner sparks of possibility? How do they become flames of achievement?
To help us understand, I want to share two stories with you today:
A number of years ago, I had an advisee named Wyatt who was also in my Chemistry class. As his advisor, I had known that Wyatt suffered from debilitating migraines—the kind of migraines that can make it difficult for you to get out of bed. At the end of the semester, as part of his final project, Wyatt chose to research the brain chemistry of migraines, why they occur, and how they are treated. Over the course of a couple of months, Wyatt learned from texts and journals, met with his doctor, and spoke with other people that suffered migraines. He finished his Chemistry project and turned it in at the end of the year. For many students that would mark the end; not for Wyatt. The next fall, Wyatt returned and petitioned to do an independent study. He wanted to learn how to create apps in iOS in order to put what he had learned into use. He went on to learn how to code for iOS and created an app to help people track the potential triggers of their migraines. Wyatt released the app just a few years ago. His doctor now regularly recommends patients to use it, and he has already made a difference for people suffering from migraines.
The second story is about two students that helped raise the consciousness of the Brimmer community just a couple of years ago. While the story does not begin then, it was spurred forward when Alexis Ifill, Class of 2017, and Katheryn Maynard, Class of 2018, went to the National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference. At the PoCC they listened, shared, and learned with other high school students from around the country. They listened to the struggles and successes around diversity at other schools and shared the work that has been done at Brimmer. What they learned and brought back has had a profound impact on our School and will help shape the experiences of everyone in this room and future students.
After the conference, they wanted to share what they learned with the Brimmer community. They were eventually invited to present at a Board of Trustees meeting. Their message was that, at Brimmer, we are grateful to have such a diverse and accepting community. AND, at Brimmer, we should be proud of the work that has been done to raise awareness of issues of equality and inclusion. Katheryn then explained, however, we cannot just give ourselves a pat on the back and be content with where we stand and the success we achieved. Being a diverse community is hard work and you cannot rest on your laurels. You need to continue to think about what our community is capable of accomplishing and then work towards those new goals. Seeing the need, they focused improving in areas of gender and identity. The message from Katheryn and Alexis left a lasting impact on the School leadership and has helped lead to an updated dress code that strives to be inclusive and does not talk about bodies as a distraction, the removal of gender specific pronouns in the Student/Family Handbook, the formation of affinity groups for our students of color, and the reassignment of single-use bathrooms in the school as all-gender restrooms.
What does being a Thinker and Doer mean to you? Perhaps it is building something new to help people. Maybe it is creating a new club for the school or designing a way to help limit food waste. It could be organizing a fundraiser for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Or it might be simply performing a small act of kindness or finding a way to make the experiences of your classmates more positive. No matter what the idea is, or how big or small it may be, we are all capable of being thinkers and doers.
Each one of you has the potential to transform the sparks of your ideas into actions; Actions that will lead to the flames of achievement that emanate from our community this year.