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!
Recently, many people have created preset rules for social gatherings in order to try and minimize conflict–with the number one rule being “No talking about politics.” Family members and friends dance around the major issues facing our communities and try to focus conversation on topics that will not create conflict.
“Wow, Uncle Al, this apple pie is delicious! What type of apples did you use? Did you make the crust from scratch?”
“Mom, you really outdid yourself with this chicken soup. It tastes like you added something different…really? I never would have guessed you used the pearled onions”
“How was your trip to Charleston? Did you have nice weather? I cannot believe the weather we had here while you were away.”
While these niceties show gratitude and are polite, they are not exactly “soup questions.”
Last year I wrote a blog post, The Power of Disagreement, and I could not help but reflect on these ideas over the past few weeks, especially after reading a pair of articles in the NY Times, The Dying Art of Disagreement and How to Find Common Ground. Why do we need to avoid conversations where we may disagree? What does it mean to live in a free society that is absent of debate?
The concept of debate goes back to Ancient Greece, the first democratic society. The Greeks believed that engaging in conversations over controversial topics is what pushed society forward and led to a greater understanding of the world. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — these philosophers’ debates became some of our great literary works.
Fast forward to the founding of the United States of America. The Founding Fathers did not agree on how to shape the country and build a government. As a matter of fact, they got it wrong the first time around. Without the ability to come together, argue their ideas, and find compromise it is unlikely that the American experiment would have been as successful. We got a glimpse of this in 1861 when our country broke out in Civil War.
So why are we talking about pie and weather instead of the great problems of our time? At Brimmer, we do not want our students shying away from the hard conversations. In history class, students are asked to take positions, research the opposition’s side, and develop meticulously crafted arguments that often leads to disagreement. Eleventh and twelfth grade English classes use the Harkness Method to create student lead class discussions where they argue for and against each other’s points of view. Science students discuss the validity of data and its meaning.
Our students are the future leaders of their communities and our country and they are learning the skills necessary to disagree. It has become far too common on college campuses for students to “boo“ or walk out on speakers they disagree with. We do not want our students to tune out those with different ideas. Instead, we want them to use the skills they learn in class so they can enter into productive debate — actively listening to the people around them, striving to understand another person’s ideas, and being able to speak passionately and respectfully when they find themselves in disagreement. If they can resist the temptation to talk about pie, then our future will be brighter.
In 2011 President Barak Obama issued a challenge to the nation in his State of the Union Address to train and hire one hundred thousand new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teachers. Over the next five years President Obama continued to usher in this generation’s Sputnik Challenge. During this time there was a message that continued to develop about the needs of the nation’s workforce and the need for students to adapt to the demands of our modern society. Over this time the rate of change has increased exponentially forcing institutions and companies to reevaluate the skills employees need for their institutions to be successful.
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to visit non-profits, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies. These visits allowed me to discuss with them what they are looking for when hiring interns and employees, as well as how they are redesigning their spaces to meet the needs of collaboration and work flow. Each conversation affirmed that today’s students need to be strong problem solvers, collaborators, critical thinkers, and adaptable. In addition our spaces need to be flexible, as well as promote collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
As an educational institution Brimmer and May was identified by the National Association of Independent Schools for its progressive thinking and its leadership in developing skills that are necessary to prepare students for a 21st Century workforce. While we have been successful in creating programs in our current space to prepare students for what lies ahead, our Chase Addition is a critical next step for the school to continue developing students that are prepared for our rapidly changing world.
The new space will enable Brimmer to be an incubator of innovation and social entrepreneurship. No longer will space be an obstacle for student success. Equipped with a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, CNC mill, and other fabrication tools, Brimmer’s creators, innovators, developers, and makers will have the space to develop and build their ideas. It will enable classes such as Problem Solving Through Design, STEAM Lab, and Media Production to work at a more sophisticated level and for the creation of new classes such as 8th Grade Innovation Hour and the Upper School elective TechShop. However this space is not just for physical creations and developing technical skills.
Instead it is about providing more opportunities for students to further develop the essential skills identified by employers. In addition, the continued incorporation of Design Thinking into our Lower, Middle, and Upper School curriculum plays a key role. We have learned from design firms like IDEO that this way of thinking is not solely about building products. This was evident during the Boston Winterim program this past March.
Students used the design thinking process to engage in social innovation. During the weeks leading up to, week of, and weeks after Winterim students worked to make an impact on the Newton Community. They identified an issue in nearby Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Woods and prototyped different solutions. During this process they communicated with the City of Newton, local representatives, State Legislature Representatives, and State Senators. Their work even was presented to a design firm that was retained by the Commonwealth to address issues with this area.
It is projects like the Boston Winterim program and classes which balance skill development with content mastery that will ensure that Brimmer students develop the essential skills needed to be successful in the stage of life and to be the architects of our future.
Article published in the Summer 2017 Brimmer and May Ambassador magazine
Recently, I have been reflecting on some of my encounters with Elie Wiesel. Though none of them were personal, they still left a lasting impact. It is hard to imagine that it has been a year since his passing last July. Over the past week, I could not help but think about his work and his commitment to speaking up for the voiceless- how he made it his mission to fight for equality.
As an undergraduate student at Boston University I was able to attend lectures given by Elie Wiesel. Each year Wiesel would offer a 3 part lecture and then would host a more private meeting. I had the opportunity to attend the private meetings all four years at Boston University. At the time I knew it was important to listen to his words and hear his perspective on the world, but the full depth of their meaning was not evident to my 18 year old self.
I remember rushing from the lecture to the more intimate setting to get a good seat before it filled up. The room would be abuzz with people discussing what they heard during the lecture and the question they hoped to ask him. During these meetings many people came angry over how different people in the world were mistreated. They were confused that he did not display bitterness or share their visible outrage. Instead, Wiesel would humbly respond to the questions with answers that were deeply layered. He challenged students to stand up for what they believed in and to not let any injustice go unchecked. He reminded us that we could not settle for simply feeling frustrated, but needed to allow those feelings to drive us to action, to stand up for those in need. This sentiment comes from one of Wiesel’s most well-known quotes from his 1986 Nobel Lecture, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
There is something coincidental about the anniversary of Wiesel’s death falling two days before United States’ Independence Day, a day that symbolizes the result of protest and a country built on the precept of protecting the right to assemble peacefully (Bill of Rights, Amendment 1). What can we learn from Wiesel? How would Wiesel react to the divisiveness we have seen growing in our country over the past year? My guess is that he would urge us all to stand up for the voiceless and to embrace those that need help. Lastly, he would remind us to never forget. To never forget what happens when we stop seeing the humanity in each other. To never forget the Jews that were killed in the Holocaust. To never forget the genocides that occurred in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, Armenia, and in every other country where these atrocities took place. While Elie Wiesel is no longer here to act as a conscience for the world, he has left us a legacy. He taught us how to use our own voices to stand up for those that have been silenced.
How do we approach this work as a school? How do help make sure our students stand up for the voiceless? It means building on our relationship with Facing History and Ourselves, continuing to empower students to speak out when they see inequality and supporting them to work towards solutions, and ensuring that we do not take our community and values for granted. And remember Wiesel’s words “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”
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, June 1, 2017
I can still vividly remember the first night of US Camp with this group of 12th graders. There we were sitting in a circle in the rec hall at Camp Wingate-Kirkland. My hope that evening was to just listen to them talk about themselves, their grade, and what made Brimmer unique. About ten minutes into that conversation- two incredible things happened. First, I realized that we should have recorded the entire conversation because the statements the students gave about what makes the school unique could have been used in Brimmer marketing materials for the next decade! Second, I knew from the way they described the school and each other that I would not regret coming to Brimmer.
Over the past few weeks, as I continued to reflect back on this class I kept thinking back to a theory one of my college professors, Presidential and American Historian Robert Dallek, shared with me. I would just ask you bear with me for a few moments as I dig into the idea a bit.
As many know in the early 20th century the United States was thought of as a melting pot. A place where people could come and cultures would mix. The concept being that everyone would influence each other and form a new norm for society. The problem with the model was that it was only a homogenous view of the world and didn’t celebrate or even recognize our diverse backgrounds. It assumed we all had to be the same. So, historians and sociologists began referring to America as a Salad Bowl instead. Showing that we each have our own cultures and identities, we are mixed together without losing who we are. Together as a whole we are greater. Dallek, my professor, predicted that sometime in the future the model would shift to a fruit salad. And I think that this perfectly describes our incredible class of graduates. Each of our students has their own distinct identities, personalities, and stories. They each bring their own unique flavor to our school. But over time, as they continue to work together, learn from each other, and challenge each other, some of their flavors start to get absorbed by other classmates. The cantaloupe begins to have some hints of honeydew and strawberry, the pineapple keeps some of its tartness, but also absorbs the sweetness of the watermelon, and even the grapes that seem impenetrable are coated with the ideas and experiences that help to shape what they have become in the fruit salad.
These 29 students are all incredible individuals with bright futures ahead of them, but they also have each shared a piece of themselves with every other member of the class and the school. They have enriched all of our lives by adding their unique flavor to each of us. And for that we will always be grateful.
I want to end with a short poem from Maya Angelou that seems fitting for this class and for them to keep in mind as they start the next phase of their journey:
Open your eyes to the beauty around you,
Open your mind
To the wonders of life,
Open your heart to those
Who love you,
Always be true
Commencement Concluding Remarks, June 2, 2017
I present to you the Brimmer and May Class of 2017.
As we come to the conclusion of Commencement, I wanted to take one last moment to address the Class of 2017. During Convocation at the beginning of the year I shared with you the following:
“Our world needs young leaders who are actively working to make a difference. So, do not just sit back and be consumers of information. Be creators. Be active participants in the world and strive to make a difference- no matter how big or small. Some days you will take a risk and you will fail miserably. Other days those risks will pay-off. But in the moments of attempting something new and stretching yourself, you will be setting yourself up for future success”
Everything that we have heard today and all that you each have done over the past 2, 4, or 14 years at Brimmer and May is evidence that your futures are bright. 29 individuals with their own stories, passions, and strengths. Each one of them has grown from the risks they have taken at Brimmer and they each have helped shape our community. The Class of 2017 have individually and collectively pushed us to think differently about music, art, science, race, identity, and so much more. They are a group of people that simply do not accept the status quo and I want to thank you for imprint you have left on our school.
As I conclude, I want to leave you with one final thought. Golda Meir said: “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” May your sparks of possibility never be extinguished so that one day we may see the billowing smoke from all that you achieved. Congratulations!
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.