Balance

The following remarks were delivered to the Middle and Upper School Community during Opening Convocation:

I remember this memory quite vividly. I was about 14 years old and brought a bowl of soup to my grandmother. I walked slowly, intent on not spilling any of the soup, trying not to blink as I focused on the liquid in the bowl moving back and forth and coming close to the edge. 

Just after I placed the bowl down gingerly on the table, my Uncle Bruce said to me, “hey Joshua. Here’s something I learned as a waiter. The trick is to not look at the bowl or cup, and just pick your head up and focus on where you are going.” I wasn’t completely sold, but I trusted my uncle, so I gave it a try with the next bowl and fighting the urge to look down, I walked more normally across the room without spilling any of the soup in a third of the time of my last trip. 

My uncle would explain to me later that when you are so focused on not spilling, you have a tendency to overcompensate and all that work you are doing to try and not spill, ends up making it more likely for you to make a mess on the floor. 

As a teenager and for a long time after, I saw this as helpful advice to not spill liquid while carrying it in a bowl or mug. As a matter of fact, I still try to employ this tactic to this day. In thinking back recently, I began to view this not only as advice for carrying soup or coffee, but as a metaphor for balance in our lives. 

How do we respond to the challenges that we face? How are we impacted by the moments we encounter? What changes do we make in response to these challenges or our goals?  

Many people tend to have an all-in attitude. Do you know an adult who wants to get into shape or lose some weight and start a strict workout routine or diet, only to have it stop a few weeks or months later? Have you ever canceled plans with a friend or a family member to get some last-minute studying in for a test you are worried about? Avoided taking an elective or lacked confidence in playing a sport, a subject matter, or acting on stage, because you saw yourself as not being good at it? 

When we take these paths, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to be well-rounded, balanced people. We are focused on the immediate outcome of each step we take while carrying the soup, making it more likely to spill, versus looking towards the overall goal. When we focus on the outcome of every point lost on a test, a mistake made during a game, or a misplaced comment to a friend, we lose our balance and get disappointed in ourselves over the little mistakes, and the small spills. 

So today, for this year, I want to challenge you to think of balance in a different way. For the past two and a half years, we have been hyperfocused on everything due to the pandemic. We were forced to worry about the smallest things as simple as touching a door handle. 

Instead of thinking about every mistake, every time you may color outside of the line of a drawing, pull back and look at the incredible picture you are in the midst of creating. Do not worry about the little mistakes.  

Instead, learn from them and make the small adjustments needed to do better in the future. Do not let the fear of messing up get in the way of trying something new. Two weeks ago, Leni Hicks-Dutt and some other members of the Class of 2023 created a beautiful new mural for the school. No one will know if this is identical to the drawings made in advance or if any adjustments were made. Instead, we just get to enjoy the incredible art that has been created in our hallway. 

The same is true for you this year. Create your goals, try new things, and find ways to be well-rounded people, don’t give up on an opportunity to try something fun or new. Don’t worry if things do not go exactly to plan. Embrace failure and learn from it. At the end of the year we will hardly remember the little mistakes along the way, just the great accomplishments you achieved. So, look at the big picture, because when you pick your head up and focus on where you are going instead of every step you take along the way, you will inevitably spill less soup and be happier with the outcome. 

Senior Dinner Remarks

One special aspect of the yearbook is the opportunity for each graduating student to design and personalize their own page in the yearbook. Each page takes on the personality of the student, pulling back the curtain on some of the important moments from their high school career.

This year, I was struck by many of the quotes that were shared by students:

“You belong among the wildflowers, you belong in a boat out at sea, sail away, kill off the hours, you belong somewhere you feel free”

“I’d rather be happy than right any day.”

“It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

“Where you are doesn’t matter as much as who you are with”

“The difference between an adventure and ordeal is attitude.”

I was struck by the theme of the quotes, giving more weight to the process and not just the outcome. Actually, Brian Barrera literally wrote “trust the process” on his page. As educators, this is what we are hoping to cultivate in students, a joy of learning and a desire to grow as a person. While grades in school are a reality, teachers regularly discussed with each other the vibrancy of this class as learners, artists, athletes, and activists. Even as senioritis kicked in, students shared with me their desire to do well on their final projects, taking pride in what they’ve accomplished, and wanting to finish the year on a strong note.

It has been such a pleasure watching each of you grow as an individual and find ways to make an impact.

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.” Class of 2022, as your time concludes at Brimmer, I leave you one final set of questions. What do you want your story to be? I hope you let your story be one where you choose your path, listen to and feel for those around you, and make choices that will better our community and thus our world. That you continue to focus on the process and learn for the sake of learning.

As we get ready to move forward, I leave you with one more quote by Bill Waterson used on Jackson’s page in the yearbook. It comes from the final strip from the iconic comic Calvin and Hobbes, where Calvin and Hobbes are sledding down a hill into a world of possibility: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…Let’s go exploring.” Class of 2022, it’s time for you to take sail and start your next adventure.

Robb Elementary School Reflections

The following remarks were delivered to The Upper School Community during Morning Meeting on May 25, 2022:

Like many of you, I learned of the devastating news out of Uvalde, Texas, yesterday afternoon (5/24), where a man walked into Robb Elementary School and opened fire. The first report I saw said that 12 people were injured, and I remember almost feeling a sense of relief that there were no deaths. Then as I checked the news over the course of the evening, the numbers changed from 12 injured to 3 people killed…9…12…14…18…19 people reported killed by the time I went to sleep, only to wake up and learn that 19 elementary children and 2 adults were killed. 

 Last night, as I sat down to think about what I might say to you this morning, I was at a complete loss. I have to be honest, I kept saying to myself, I can’t believe I have to do this again. I can’t believe I need to stand up in front of the students and talk about another needless tragedy.  

I have no new profound words to share or advice. All I could think of doing was to share how I am feeling. I’m feeling: 

Anger: I am angry that this continues to happen with no action to address the issues that lead to this type of violence. I am angry that I am here talking to you about this senseless violence again and that nothing has changed. 

Sad: I am sad about the horrible loss of life. The children whose futures will never be known. The world will never know what was lost yesterday. We will never know what the ways these young people would have made a positive impact on our world. 

Frustration: I’m frustrated with myself that the regularity of these incidents has begun to make me numb to the news, that I could so easily move on. I’m frustrated that just 9 days ago, Mrs. Guild stood here in front of you talking about what happened in Buffalo. 

Powerless: I feel powerless to make a difference. I feel like regardless of what I say or do, or what others say or do, nothing will change.  

I wish that I had some words of wisdom to give you today. Instead of advice, I hope that sharing some of my feelings will help you make sense of your own feelings. I hope that whether you have any of these feelings or any others, you know that you are not alone. Your friends and teachers are processing their feelings about this in their own way.  

As we have done in the past, if you need someone to talk to this morning or at any time this week, you can always speak with Ms. Luckett, Ms. Escobar, Mr. Murray, your advisor, me, or another trusted adult. Ms. Escobar and Ms. Luckett will be in the Dining Commons during the first two periods of the day for anyone that may want to stop by and talk with them. They also will be available in their offices as they usually are during the day. 

I also want to remind you that we are safe here at Brimmer and Mrs. Guild talked to you about this last week. For the past year, we have been keeping doors propped open to improve airflow, but Mrs. Guild has asked teachers and staff to keep doors closed for the remainder of the year. This is not because there is any specific danger, but to use the precautions we have to keep everyone in the community as safe as possible. 

A New Depth to Curriculum

This fall was filled with similar moments that brought back a sense of normalcy. From fans on the soccer field to our theater filled for the US play, Trap, to classrooms set up for the style of learning we pride ourselves on, it has been a year so far that more resembles 2019 than 2020.

There have also been moments where we cannot ignore the realities of the continuing pandemic. Checking vaccine cards before performances, spectator restrictions in the gym, and not having parents inside our buildings during the school day are just some of the ways we continue to feel the restrictions of the pandemic on a regular basis.

However, new doors have opened from what we have learned since March 2020. It was April of that year that history teacher David Cutler began bringing in virtual speakers who, under normal circumstances, could not come to a Brimmer classroom. (Click here for my blog post on these incredible speakers.) We quickly saw other teachers follow suit, and our students were given the opportunity to connect with historians, artists, scientists, and policymakers.

A Brimmer education has never been one that is contained by the walls of the classrooms, and the incorporation of Zoom allowed us to create unique learning opportunities during one of the most challenging times of our lives. Our teachers found that they could provide new depth to their curriculum by opening up the classrooms virtually to outside guests, and it has continued to this day. To give you a sampling of this work, here are examples from just the last few weeks:

Sasaki architecture and design firm came to Brimmer to run a workshop with the Architecture class to create vision boards using architectural photographs of campus along with a collage giving students more insight into architectural brainstorming practices.

Professor Jaime Hart, Associate Professor in Department of Environmental Health, Chan School of Public Health, spoke to students in the Geographical Information Science course on issues of environmental justice and public health and the ways she uses geographic data to assess the distribution of air pollution.

Janice Corkin ‘66 visited our Sculpture class on campus to share the clay figure technique she used to create the bronze figures dotting Brimmer’s campus.

Brian Forist, Professor, Indiana University, and Liora Silks, Newton Energy Coach, spoke to the Environment Club on separate occasions on the subjects of the relationship between parks and mental health and the positive effects of renewable energy in Newton.

In Current Events, Morgan Hook, a Managing Director in the Albany office of SKD Knickerbocker, spoke with students about his experience in public relations in politics and the ways that news we see and read is generated. Marshall Hook, Assignment Editor at Channel 7 News Boston, talked about the decisions that go into daily local news broadcasts. In this case, the speakers provided opposing views giving students an opportunity to consider different viewpoints and develop their own ideas.

Eliza Butler, Mental Health and Mindfulness Coach, taught 9th grade students the foundations of stress management and self-awareness in 9th Grade Wellness.

The Global Studies Program welcomed Jessica Chicco, Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, to speak to diploma candidates about her work in supporting immigrants and refugees and her career path as an immigration lawyer working in non-profits.

NYPD Detective Rose Muckenthaler spoke with students in Criminal Law about her work supporting victims and investigating human trafficking over her twenty-year career, including the work as part of the team that arrested Jeffrey Epstein. Criminal Law also learned from Assistant District Attorney Graham van Epps about his work as a prosecutor in Massachusetts and the Bronx.

The past two years have provided a lifetime’s worth of challenges for our School. Yet from the tremendous loss and ongoing struggles, there are ways that we have adapted to provide more light and deeper connections. Our teachers and students are doing incredible work, and I cannot wait to see what they accomplish during the second half of the year.

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.

Opening Remarks: Honors Convocation 2020

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2020 Commencement Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Unique Opportunity for Upper School Students

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

GatorTalk

On Thursday, March 5, months of Senate President Stephen Moreno Jimenez ’20’s work came to fruition when students started arriving for the Upper School’s first GatorTalk, an optional “TED Talk” style presentation during their lunch period.
Moreno developed GatorTalk in order to help elevate student voice and empower students to share their passions. Without knowing what would happen, he asked students who were interested in presenting on a topic of interest to apply to speak.
A few weeks later, the School was ready to host the first GatorTalk; William Apostolica ’20 was chosen to speak about climate change and his hope to defend the planet through the law. On March 5, with uncertain expectations and hopes that ten to fifteen students would be attend, sixty students packed the classroom to hear Apostolica share information on climate change, talk about how the law could be used to help the planet, and answer questions. In doing so, a new student-led initiative was launched.
Creating an environment that supports student-led programing and emphasizes student initiative requires the commitment of our dedicated faculty to foster a love of learning and spark the desire to engage intellectually on a deep level. GatorTalk is the newest example of how Brimmer helps each individual student grow, which in turn strengthens our community.
Whether it is supporting the pursuit of passions through Diploma Programs, expanding students’ understanding of the world through Winterim and classes like International Relations and Global Diplomacy, or elevating student voice through work in the classroom, the online paper The Gator, and student groups, our goal is to encourage students to explore all of our School’s offerings during their high school years so they leave with the self-confidence they need to be successful.
It was no surprise that as students left the first GatorTalk, I overheard them encouraging one another to apply to present at one of the upcoming meetings. I am looking forward to learning more from our students in the coming months.