In just a few weeks, the Ruth Corkin Theatre will be filled with students, parents, and alumni as we are transported back to New York City in 1899. While we will most certainly tap our feet and clap our hands to the music and feel amazed by the intricate set design and incredible choreography, it is also important to note that this year’s U.S. Musical,Newsies, offers an important history lesson to the cast and crew and those who watch the show.
Much like Hamilton: An American Musical helped to tell a historical story through song and dance, Newsies provides an opportunity to learn more about a segment of American History. Through its retelling of the 1899 Newsboys Strike, Newsies focuses on how society treated low-income children during this time period. Through dialogue and lyrics, we are given a glimpse of what it was like to be a child before protective labor laws. While early 20th-century America would shift its view on child labor laws, the United States did not ratify a change until 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Newsies is just one example of the importance that the arts and humanities hold in education. Theater engages audiences through storytelling and song, draws people into the story, and creates a connection to the characters. Angela Modany describes the process in a February 2012 Smithsonian article as “embodying empathy.” By creating connections to characters, either as an actor or observer, you empathize with their experience, gaining a deeper understanding of the historical context. The concept of embodying empathy is not a foreign one to Brimmer classrooms. Whether it is through special programming like Model UN, the Chinese Temple Fair, Winterim, and community service days, or in-classroom mock trials, debates, skits, and Harkness discussions, the Humanities and Creative Arts departments create experiences for students to build connections with people, characters, or events.
This year we have discussed the meaning of empathy and its etymology in detail. To be empathic means to be “in suffering” or to feel the feelings of another. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that we naturally connect to those with whom we share common experiences or traits. The concept of embodying empathy works seamlessly with Riess’ research. When students share experiences, they are both learning important topics and developing a profound connection that creates stronger empathic responses.
I look forward to seeing you at one of the performances of Newsies in March, and if you would like to learn more about the 1899 News Boys Strike in New York City, here is a link to resources produced by the New York City Public Library.
“No Condition is Permanent” was the title and central theme of this week’s Bissell Grogan Humanities Symposium keynote speech by Dr. Rajesh Panjabi. Dr. Panjabi captivated the audience as he shared his personal experience of escaping Liberia during the onset of civil war as a child, resettling in North Carolina, and eventually co-founding the non-profit, Last Mile Health. By embracing the mantra, “no condition is permanent,” Panjabi and his team have set out to change the way people in developing countries access health care by creating networks of support that could save up to thirty million lives.
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.”
People like Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Rajesh Panjabi are inspirational, but we don’t want students to be daunted by the scope of their impact. We asked students to think about the conditions that exist in their lives that they can work towards changing and how might they react to changes that are not within their control. How might they approach improving their work as a student, becoming involved in a cause that they connect with, or trying a new activity or extracurricular to move out of their comfort zone?
We asked the 12th graders to think about the legacy they want to leave on the School and what they hope to accomplish during their final months as Brimmer students. Some of the goals that members of the Class of 2019 shared were: “I want to build an even more supportive community by going to more community events”; “I want to help the community know more about traditional Chinese culture”; “I want to help my friends who will be CAP leaders next year develop their voice as leaders”; and “I want to promote the idea of what it means to be a student-athlete and a leader among the community and becoming mindful of the impact (negative & positive) that we have on each other.”
As our students continue to figure out their place in the world, I hope that they will carry with them the idea that no condition is permanent.
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 Studioto 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.
As a community we continue to engage on our school theme for the year Empathy and Ethical Thinking. Whether it is through professional development for faculty and staff, programming with students, a more intentional focus in classes, or presentations to our parent community, it has been a tremendous experience so far this year.
Over the first few months, one theme that consistently comes up is the difference between Empathy and Sympathy. In a recent Upper School Morning Meeting, I showed the following video by Brené Brown.
The video vividly points out the differences between sympathy and empathy. This past week, the Parent’s Association welcomed Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Empathy Research and Training in Psychotherapy Research group at Mass General Hospital, to talk about her research in Empathetics. Near the beginning of her talk (click here for an earlier version at a TEDx Event), she highlighted the Greek etymology difference of “sympathy” and “empathy”. Sympathy coming from “sym” “pathos”, meaning with suffering, and empathy coming from “em” “pathos, meaning in suffering.
If we start with the most basic definition of these words, the difference is so clear. To have empathy literally means to be in the same feelings as the other person. This idea means a person has developed a deeper connection to friend, family member, colleague, or stranger by being in that moment with them, with those feelings. In addition to this clear definition, Dr. Riess highlighted that compassion is the action that we take when displaying empathy. She differentiated that the empathy was the internal feelings you have, while compassion is the action you take towards a person.
As teachers and school administrators, the question becomes what does this mean to our students? What are the ways that students may develop empathetic responses towards their classmates? And how do we guide students towards learning with empathy?
The first comes through the regular conversations we have on an individual basis, in small groups, and as a community. What does it mean for a child if they see a friend looking sad or more reserved? We are trying to help students understand that these are times to engage with their friends and not avoid them. In many ways, this has been something that Brimmer students have regularly displayed. Often, listening to their friends and helping them when possible. The more complicated situations for students come when a person’s actions may be hurtful. The automatic human response, especially adolescents, is to rebuke the person. With teenagers, this can often have impacts on social circles which just furthers any divide that may be created between each other.
What if instead, we were able to help the members of the community to have an empathetic response?
Our hope, through this year’s theme, is to help students move past the hurt and work to understand what the other person may have been feeling. Perhaps someone is not hanging out on the weekends, because they have a family member that was recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Or could someone that is carrying a lot of anger, be carrying guilt for a decision they made at a different time.
In our classes, we are highlighting the importance of empathy as well. This takes a front row seat in Humanities and Creative Arts classes, where the foci of these classes is the human experience. Just imagine the last book you read or show you watched and the connection you developed with the characters. In history, teachers are helping students see history through more than one lens. This fall US History students have debated George Washington’s decision to maintain the status quo on slavery and recently discussed the question- should we celebrate Christopher Columbus or think about Thanksgiving in a different way based on the experiences of people that were colonized by Europeans?”
In our design classes, students regularly are working to understand the user as they developed their ideas. As a parent recently mentioned to me, “empathy is one of the pillars of design.” This comes to life in classes like Problem Solving for Design and Architecture, as students spend significant amounts of time learning about the needs of the users and important cultural information. I would invite you to explore more at the BrimmerID portfolio page.
Regardless of where students may end up falling on these debates, breaks from the normal routine provide an opportunity to pause and reflect. Whether the time-off means time with family and friends, volunteering, or just a slower pace, I hope that students can use the time to connect in a deep, meaningful, and empathetic way.
After a night of celebration and excitement with the Red Sox winning the World Series, Mr. Vallely and I want to take a moment to reflect on two more solemn things from this weekend.
I want to start by taking a moment to reflect on the antisemitism this weekend that resulted in the murder of 11 members of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, PA.
I can still remember the smell of smoke and charred wood from when I was 13. Just a few weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, a man had come into my synagogue in Albany, NY, dousing the pulpit and ark with gasoline, and setting it on fire in order to destroy the holiest part of the building. The person came into the synagogue for no other reason, other than it was a Jewish building. Thankfully no one was hurt and though the damage was extensive, it would eventually be repaired. For me, this was not my first nor would it be my last experience with antisemitism. There had been and would be more swastikas painted and engraved on walls, derogatory comments directed at friends, and pennies thrown at me as I walked to my synagogue. Yet, despite these experiences, like most, within the walls of my place of faith there was a sense of safety.
However, something has changed over the past few years. We have seen people feel emboldened to use hateful speech. We have seen words of hate and bigotry turn into more deadly actions. Targeting specific faith base communities because of their beliefs or the way they appear. A shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, SC in 2015, and The Islamic Center of Quebec in 2017 are just the first ones that come to mind. Hate-filled people searching out those that had a different skin color or held a different faith.
Then. This weekend. This weekend we experienced a person filled with such vitriol go into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA with the intention of killing as many Jewish people as possible. Another example of unchecked hate that has taken the lives of at least 11 people. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons.
Words are so powerful. They have the ability to build people up or to cut them down. They have the ability to build deep, deep, profound connections or to develop deep misunderstandings that lead to inhumane beliefs. While this inexcusable tragedy has left many with more questions than answers, out of darkness there comes light. The days after this tragedy have shown an outpouring of support- the Pittsburgh Penguins canceling a Halloween Party and hosting a blood drive instead; church communities offering to line the entrances to synagogues to show solidarity and provide safety in numbers; Muslim organizations raising tens of thousands of dollars to support the victims’ families; and an outpouring of love and kindness. We only need to look at the overwhelming response of support across the country to understand that our world is not as broken as it sometimes feels.
When my childhood synagogue completed rebuilding the damaged area, it included a thirty foot stained glass window of the tree of life. In Squirrel Hill, PA, The Tree of Life synagogue’s namesake is a symbol in western faiths of peace and tranquility. Amidst the turmoil and chaos of our world, this symbol serves as a reminder to lead with kindness and love.
To honor the victims of this tragedy, let the words you use be a beacon for building people up, creating understanding, and bringing about peace. By doing this you can be a part of the light that pierces through the darkness.
A version of this statement was shared at Morning Meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. It has been edited for this format. In addition, thoughts were shared by Carl Vallely on the internment of Matthew Shepard.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the historical musical narrative Hamilton at the Boston Opera House. As a lover of musicals and American History, I, along with my family, have been enjoying the soundtrack for the past two and a half years. While historians will point out some of the artistic liberties taken in the telling of the story, there is little doubt that the musical has reshaped the way in which an entire generation of Americans will view the Founding Fathers. For many young people, the musical has been a source of inspiration to find ways to lead. While Hamilton the musical did not share this specific quote, in 1784 Hamilton, under his pseudonym, Phocion, wrote, “A share in the sovereignty of the state, which is exercised by the citizens at large, in voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law.”
Over the past eight months the country has seen an uptick in student civic engagement, which has been focused on elections and voter participation. In the spirit of Alexander Hamilton and this national civic engagement, students at Brimmer led a Voter Registration Drive on Thursday during lunch. Regardless of their political beliefs, students were given the opportunity to register to vote if they were 18 years old or pre-register to vote if they were 16 years old. I am proud to know that our students are thinking about the power they either hold or will hold as voters.
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!