From Sparks to Flames of Action

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, theyall gender 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. 

Vignettes on Resilience

Back in the fall, I wrote about Teaching Resilience and the importance of developing specific skills and mindsets to aid in the development of building resilience in students. As the end of the year approaches, I thought I would highlight a few examples of our students rising above the challenges they faced in each scenario.

When you think about Winterim, it is not generally a time you would imagine moments of great resilience. Generally, the trips are filled with fun, educational programming. However, due to snow, many of the return trips were impacted, and flights had to be rebooked. For the Cuba group, many found themselves stuck in a country that does not accept American money or credit cards, for an extra three days, waiting for their new flights. Students on the trip had limited communication with family members and in many ways felt cut off from their regular lives. As a School, we put as many things in place as we could so the students would have a positive extended stay, but there was still the feeling of being trapped in a foreign country. This could have been a moment of despair for many students. Instead, they found ways to balance their frustration with what was happening to them with the opportunity to spend more time as a group and in Cuba.

A second recent vignette displaying the resilience of our students was with the recent student directed production of The Last Five Years. Our students were solely responsible for all aspects of the show, which is difficult to manage without any major issues. This group showed tremendous grit when one of the lead actors faced a difficult decision to step down from the show for medical reasons. This student did not just step down from her role, but instead took on a mentorship role for the new actor to start rehearsing, just two weeks before the show. For a show that is based on two main characters, it would have been easy to cancel the show, but the entire cast and crew came together to ensure that the musical would still run. The way that each student reached out, put in extra time, and did not give up, displayed all the best that our students have to offer the Brimmer community and world.

The final example I want to highlight was how our Varsity Boys’ Lacrosse team overcame great adversity. After coming off a difficult season last year, the Lacrosse team had high hopes for the 2017 season. With a new coach in place, the program looked like it would be heading in the right direction. Unfortunately, the coach missed a few practices early in the season due to a medical issue and then a significant work conflict forced him to suddenly resign his position. For a group of players that ranged from first timers to college playing hopefuls, they very easily could have given up on the season. Instead, the group came together to face the challenges as a team. In the first week after the coach’s resignation, the team had multiple coaches and faced a lot of uncertainty. And then something great happened– instead of using their adversity as a scapegoat they used it as motivation. Under their new coach, the team began playing competitively against the top teams in the league. Finally, during the last week of the season, the team was able to beat Boston Trinity Academy, a top 2 team in their league, and beat Gann in overtime after just minutes before giving up the game-tying goal. We have seen professional athletes give up in less stressful situations, and the Lacrosse team deserves immense credit for the resilience they showed this season.

All three of these cases represent nearly half of our student body, which allows me to confidently say that we are doing the work necessary as a community to help students face the challenges they face and overcome them.

The Power of Disagreement

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend an event where Governor Charlie Baker was speaking. It was a fantastic event, and it is always such a pleasure to hear the Governor speak about the state of the Commonwealth and our society. During the discussion, I could not help but be encouraged by a story he shared from his childhood that has shaped his view on debate, disagreement, and decision-making.

Governor Baker shared that his mother was a registered Democrat, and his father was a registered Republican. In his house, while growing up, his parents often engaged in conversations and disagreements on a number of issues. As he reflected on growing up in a household that embraced debate, I want to share two important ideas that resonated with me and are relevant for our students.

First, Governor Baker talked about the idea of surrounding oneself with the best minds regardless of their party affiliation and encouraging debate. He empathized the difference between intellectual disagreement and malicious disagreement. It was a critical distinction. The purpose of debate is not to tear another person down, but to deepen one’s own understanding, as well as the other person’s.

The point he shared was about how his parents and family friends were able to enter into strong arguments over politics, but it never impacted their relationships. By not entering a discussion with malicious intent, they knew that the arguments was about ideas.

Governor Baker’s words ring true if we are to live up to our mission of “develop[ing] life long learners who are informed, engaged, and ethical citizens and leaders in our diverse world.” We must continue our work with students so that they can engage in authentic discussions about what they are learning, the issues in our own community, and current events.

In recent conversations with ninth grade students, it was clear that they want to be a part of intellectual debate. They want to engage in conversations about our world and to dive deeper into the issues. They also shared that they believed the Brimmer community was one that was welcoming of all diversity–race, ethnicity, religious, identity, and intellectual.

We need to continue to teach students to engage in these discussions in order to learn and not to create conflict. In this way, like Governor Baker’s parents and family friends, respectful debate can lead to stronger personal relationships and deeper understanding, instead of creating wedges between people.

First Day of School

The first day of school always brings a lot of excitement and nerves. First days bring with them hope and possibility and opportunity to start anew. Whether it is the first day of Kindergarten, Middle School, or your senior year, you are faced with new experiences and opportunities to grow. Of course all that change and unknown also can bring about feelings of anxiousness.

During our Faculty Opening Meetings we had the opportunity to learn from Lynn Lyons,fullsizerender LICSW, an expert in Anxiety and Worry. During her presentation she spoke about how we often feed “worry” instead of acknowledging “worry” for what it is- a state of mind. She spoke in depth on how to avoid the worry trap by focusing on the process instead of feeding the worry with content. Lyons said “Don’t ask the person afraid to ride a bike, ‘what’s the worst thing that will happen.’ Instead, normalize the experience and move into action. Use phrases such as:

  • I don’t like it, but I can handle it
  • This is what I’m experiencing
  • I’m willing to feel uncomfortable

Every person has nerves about the start of a new school year in different ways. It may be the anxiousness of starting a new school or having moved to a new town, the desire to get a lead role in the school play, or the pressures of what comes after high school. However, if we frame these nerves as opportunities, we can enjoy the excitement of a new year.