Monday, September 16, 2019

Why we hike the Billy Goat Trail

We begin each year with a vigorous hike along the Billy Goat Trail so that our entire community goes into the second week of classes having had a common experience, for good or ill. We hope that it's fun, that it's challenging, that it stretches everyone a bit beyond their comfort level. We hope that they're amazed that a place so similar to Montana is but a few miles from DC. We hope that they feel a sense of accomplishment. We hope that they learn that to take on difficulties and persevere. We hope that they'll find a lifelong activity, walking in nature. We hope that they support each other over the tricky parts (especially the cliff). We hope that they'll gripe and grumble and yet love what they did. We hope that they see the parallels to school and life and can draw on this confidence in the year ahead.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Commencement Remarks, June 14, 2019

Remarks to the Class of 2019

Well, seniors, it’s time for one last quiz... what time is it? Yes, it’s time for the fun part of your day!  Thanks for picking a reasonable color for your caps and gowns this year.  Some years we have not been so fortunate, particularly the green and purple year!

    And so we gather again, at the 55th commencement of our tiny school, over-half of which I’ve had the honor of addressing.  I’m glad you all made it to the stage today, as that is not the case in all schools, or, sadly, with all your classmates this year.  A colleague from another school told me about the year one of his students, when told he would need to write a 5,000 word essay to graduate, got up and left the room saying “I don’t even know 5,000 words.” Since it’s Friday, I have to work in one last dinner table story: Looking back over my early career recently I remembered that when I was teaching trumpet lessons I got into trouble... because I told my students to read band books.

    Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, death are the big ones... you don’t remember the first one and you won’t enjoy the last, you’d better enjoy this one!

    On Fridays, in addition to bad puns, we usually take a few moments to practice mindfulness, in preparation for those times in life when we need to draw upon inner reserves for whatever challenges confront us. Among our practices is the metta, or gratitude meditation, which, on a day like today, is particularly appropriate. So I invite everyone here to join us. Sit up, close your eyes or allow them to drift into a soft unfocused gaze, and bring attention to the breath.  Bring to mind the person whose presence is responsible for your being here today, the graduate on the stage, or the parents, grandparents, or supporters in the audience.  And as you hold this person in your mind, offer them this thought: may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

    And now offering the same thoughts to the entire class of 2019: may your lives be happy, may your lives be healthy, may your lives be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

    And finally offering the same thoughts to the world at large: may your lives be happy, may your lives be healthy, may your lives be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

Soon to be graduates, it’s important for you to remember that, as exciting as this day is for you, you did not arrive here without a great deal of love and support. I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading you bedtime stories, and paying your Nora School tuition.   Please stand and accept our congratulations as I call your name.

    There are many people who support the school behind the scenes, setting policies and ensuring that the Nora School will be thriving for the class of 2029 and 2039 as it is today, and has been since 1964.

Would those members of the Board of Directors here today please stand.

    I’d especially like to recognize one Board member who is stepping off the Board this year, a few months shy of his 90th birthday. Dr. Louis, Beau, Kaplan was younger than I am now when he began teaching science at Washington Ethical High School 32 years ago.  Having retired from a successful career as a dentist, while continuing to teach dentistry at Northern Virginia Community College, Beau decided that his life was incomplete without wrangling ornery teenagers through Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at WEHS. The stories are legion, from the annual Bomb that the Chemistry class built and exploded on the lawn of the Ethical Society to his taking his morning shave in class to demonstrate to a student why doing makeup during Biology wasn’t really appropriate. Beau and his wife Linda have been generous philanthropists with the school over the years as well, helping us buy the parking lot that now houses The Nora School, named in honor of their late daughter Nora. Having served as a teacher, Board member, substitute teacher, baseball inspiration, and Board Chair, Beau has now achieved  Emeritus status at Nora. We’d like to present him with a token of our appreciation to help him fill up those lonely autumnal Thursday afternoons when the rest of us are debating the budget.

    I’d also like to thank my colleagues on the faculty for their hard work with these young men and women over the past four years, Allison Chang, Dr. Avé Luke-Simpson, Brennan Boothby, Chrissy Jarina, Christina Mullen, Chris Conlon, Marcia Miller, Marylin Riptoe, Nisaa Abdusabur, Prose Cassells, and Will Simpson. A special thanks to Scott Madden, who has shepherded the Class of 2019, and their parents, through the anxiety, fear, and trepidation of their post-graduate planning.

We have a couple of teachers celebrating anniversaries with us this year. 20 years ago Hedy Szanzer joined Beau and Elaine and Chris and Scott, as a teacher at Washington Ethical High School. A generation of students has overcome their fear of math in her capable hands so we’d like to offer her this token of our appreciation.

Norman Maynard is celebrating 10 years at Nora, and 25 years as a teacher. As Assistant Head of School, Norman had big shoes to fill, following Elaine Mack and Mara Nicastro, and he has done so impressively, building upon the work they began, improving systems and operations, and providing wise counsel over the years to students, parents, teachers, and, most importantly, to me. Thank you.     Well, that’s enough self-adulation, it’s time to talk to, and about, our soon to be graduates. You have worked hard to get here.  You are survivors.  Not only did you survive middle and high schools that were big, impersonal, and bureaucratic, you survived Nora, which is no easy task.

    Not everyone can handle it, and sadly this year, not everyone did, but all of you did.

    There is often a misperception that being in a small school like Nora is easy, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances, and all of that is true. 

    But equally true is that going to a small school is hard,  because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances.   There’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t written your second draft, your math homework always gets checked, and when it’s your turn to present there’s no one to hand it off to.  It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have. 

    You’ve survived not only the classrooms, in three different buildings, but also the whitewater rafting of your sophomore year, the goal setting of the junior retreat, and writing your own recommendations and sharing your life stories on the senior retreat. 

    You set up your own senior year community service, late though it may have been for some of you, and you learned to balance two of the most precious gifts of adulthood: freedom and responsibility.  The freedom part is easy, every teenager gets that.  The responsibility part is a lot harder.  Too few adults understand responsibility, as witnessed by, well, lots of what’s going on in the world.  Learning when to have fun and when to work, when to sleep in and when to get up, finding where the boundaries are, and which ones it’s safe to cross, these are things that your parents and teachers have to juggle every day.   

    You managed, if imperfectly, the four lessons with which we start every school year.  These same lessons will stand you in good stead as you move forward into your adult lives: Show Up On Time.  Do Your Work.  Care For Your Health. Be Kind. 

   These thirteen words are perhaps the most important lesson you take from Nora, because you have to keep living them the rest of your life if you wish to be successful. Showing Up, and On Time, cost a few of your classmates their graduation. Learning from others’ mistakes can be as valuable as learning from your own.     Your class had the unique challenge of moving the entire school twice during your four years. In your time at Nora many of  you have essentially gone to three different schools... Nora with one floor, Nora At Grace, and Two Floor Nora. It’s been quite a ride!

In the Tao Te Jing, Lao Tzu tells us that

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

Never have these words been more resonant than in recent years, where knowing and mastering oneself seems increasingly rare.

We see on display daily the difference between trying to master others, in which the external validations of strength are provided by society, and the mastering, or lack of mastering, of oneself.  Which is not to say that this is a place at which any of us arrive. Knowing ourselves is a lifelong journey, mastering ourselves is an ongoing challenge. But in having the wisdom to strive for this knowledge and mastery, and in using the tools we’ve tried to teach with which you can work on them, you’ll find that, indeed, the journey IS the reward.

    Knowing oneself is one thing that, so far, Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is unable to do. Regardless, AI is the next big thing that’s going to affect your lives. I’d like to propose that, rather than be dazzled by AI, you consider IA, or IAA, in terms of the things that robots can’t yet do.

    I is for Intention - each day, what 3 things do you plan to accomplish? This needn’t be work, it could be rest, reading, or calling a friend. The important thing is to have an intention. What is your intention for tomorrow? Get off of a robotic Autopilot and lead your life with intention.

    The first A is for Attention - to what do you pay attention... or are you just going with, whatever shiny new distraction is in front of you? Are you on Autopilot, checking Facebook and Snapchat, or do you bring attention to whatever it is you’re doing, even if it’s just breathing? You always have a choice, and we’ve practiced lots of tools to help you catch yourself and make that choice.

    The final A is for Adaptability - when the universe throws you a curve ball, how do you respond? Or do you just react, again and again, on Autopilot. The jobs that can be done on Autopilot are disappearing... we have to pump our own gas and check out our own groceries.

    Our robot overlords are, at least for now, mostly on Autopilot, not yet able to control attention or work with conscious intention. They’ll always have limits. Will you? This is why we wanted you to study Algebra and Chemistry and Art and Writing and Literature, so that you can be intentional, adaptable, and able to thrive. This is why we taught you mindfulness practices, so you can intentionally bring attention to your both your internal and external worlds and cope with the stress of change. I hope that you’ll continue to use these tools. Those without the capacity for adaptation, setting intentions, and bringing purposeful attention, will find life challenging in the years ahead. Be intentional, practice paying attention, and be prepared to adapt.

    Part of IAA involves your mindset. When you leave here today you’re headed off on your life’s adventure, perhaps knowing the next move or two, but without any real idea of what the next 5, 10, 30 years will bring. At my own high school graduation I was certain I’d be playing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra within a few years. And here I am! The one thing you can count on is change, noted by Siddhartha Guatama 2,500 years ago.  Can you approach the unknown with courage, and, dare I ask, excitement and anticipation? Or will you cower in terror and let change run you over? Embrace the unknown and enjoy the adventure it provides, even if it’s a bit scary.

    Each of you has, in your own way, shown courage in passing through our halls.  School, and life, have not always been easy for you.  Despite this you persevered, and we are proud of you.  Now that you have finished high school, the world is open to you, full of possibilities, indeed a fascinating place. When this school was founded 55 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country.  What will the next 55 years hold for your generation?  How will you help to shape it? And you must shape it, get involved, because the world needs all the help it can get from bright, enlightened, joyful, mindful, compassionate, artistic, insightful  people like you. Keep in mind that, just as Beau was younger than I am now when he started at WEHS, and spent the next 32 years continuing to contribute to the world, in another 55 years you’ll be older than I am now! It goes quickly!

So to all of you members of the class of 2019, as you move ahead through the next few decades, keep in mind the notion of Ikigai (e-kee-GAI), the Japanese notion of “why do you get out of bed in the morning?” There are four aspects to consider why to get out of bed:   What do you love?
What are you good at? What contribution can you make to the world? What can you be paid for?

The more intersection you can find between the answers to these questions the more meaningful you’ll find life to be. I hope that we’ve contributed to your finding those answers.

The world is full of amazing things to explore and fascinating people to meet. You are among them.  Read, take action, stay curious, be joyful and mindful, and take every opportunity to do the small things that can make your corner of the world a better place. By doing so you spread those ripples of goodness and kindness out into a world that desperately needs it. Godspeed.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dispatches from Burkina Faso

This is an old draft I recently stumbled across from Christina, now a veteran teacher at The Nora School.

The further adventures of our short term sub (and my daughter) Christina as she finishes her Peace Corps training.

I like lists. A Lot. So I’m going to do some lists about life in Burkina. We’ll go with top 5 because creativity is hard when it’s over 100 degrees in your bedroom and you can’t tell if your sweating or just haven’t dried off from your shower 3 hours ago.

Top 5 weirdest things I’ve eaten here so far:
5) To (pronounced tow): It’s basically millet flour mixed into water for a long time and then glopped onto a plate where it thickens into sort of a firm mush that you pick with your fingers and dip in a variety of sauces.
4) Dried fish: People here seem to love to use tiny pieces of dried fish as a spice. It is pretty weird looking in your meal, since it’s skin and all. It also doesn’t taste…great.
3) Bushmeat: Since my host father is a hunter, I’ve been eating lots of meat, which is a huge plus. The downside, I rarely know what animal I’m eating. I’ve been taking pictures and asking Burkinabe to identify it, and they respond that it’s just bushmeat, aka any animal that you find in the bush.
2) Chicken heart: That was an interesting one. But when someone kills a chicken for you and tells you that it’s really good for you to eat the heart, you do it. So that happened. It had a weird texture, but the taste wasn’t terrible.
1) Bushmeat tongue: Again I had no idea what animal this came from, but tonight I had a tongue. It was definitely a tongue, that much I’m sure of. It was REALLY chewy and kind of hard to eat. But it wasn’t so bad.

Top 5 biggest surprises:
5) Laughing cow cheese doesn’t need to be refrigerated: FUN FACT! I can make mac and cheese here with Laughing cow cheese because it is more or less shelf stable. It has quickly become a staple of our diets.
4) Condoms here cost 2 cents a piece. Depoprovera shots cost around $6 USD. In the states, I think Depo costs $300/injection. Birth control here is so incredibly cheap, mostly because it’s not in high demand BY the actual women. The government wants women to use birth control, however, so it is heavily subsidized, whereas in the states, birth control is a luxury and for the most part in high demand by the consumer, so drug companies can jack up the prices.
3) Despite being ridiculously hot and dry, Burkina has some of the best access to water in all of Africa. Every person lives within several hundred feet or yards (I’m not sure which), of a water pump. This is amazing. There is no walking miles to get water. For the most part, even in the north, water is not scarce. I’m not sure how they pulled it off, but its great that among the many problems Burkina has, access to water is not one of them.
2) When you’re biking by yourself and you pass by a young man (age 15-30), they will speed up and follow you right on your tail. In the states this would be moderately terrifying. But here, they do it to sort of escort you home and make sure you get to your destination safely (only in village, I would imagine in the capital or other large cities this would be weird). Today, for example, the nice young man that followed me got the cows out of my way and told me when a moto came, but never attempted to talk to me, or harass me at all. When I got to my turn, he just said have a good day, in French and continued on his way. It was very nice and very gentlemanly. This is an almost daily occurrence, but always with a different person. It makes me feel very safe and very well cared for. (Don’t worry, I always turn off before my actual destination, so they don’t know where I live or where I work/spend time, just as a safety precaution).
1) It has taken me very little time to adjust and create a new normal here. I seriously love it. This place could not be more perfect for me.

Top 5 favorite parts of my new routine here:
5) Biking to and from Kayero as the sun rises and sets. It just seems like this is way the world should be. People wake up much earlier, but also go to bed much earlier. I like living with the patterns of the sun. The bike ride is also awesome. The road is full of…I would say potholes, but that doesn’t really describe the massive ditches that are all over the road. It’s basically like a mountain biking trail, except with motos and small busses. And three BIG hills each way. Its 14k of pure bliss each day.
4) The tofu lady coming during our morning break to sell us tofu brochettes. There is a tofu association in Leo, and for 50CFA (10 cents) we get a skewer with three pieces of tofu, stacked with onions, marinated, and flavored with amazing spices and some mustard to put on top. It’s awesome to get tasty protein each day. She’s super nice and sometimes even brings soy yogurt. We all love the tofu lady.
3) Drinking “café au lait” with Moodi, the 21-yr owner of a little maquis (kind of restaurant, usually along a road), and practicing Moore (More-ray). He introduces me to everyone that comes in when I do and makes me feel very comfortable. I can see this becoming a routine at a maquis once I get to village. Café au lait here is about ½ an inch or so of sweetened condensed milk, 3 small spoonfuls of bad instant coffee, and 3-4 inches of steaming hot water. It’s amazing.
2) Playing cards with my host siblings every night. They love teaching me the game, that still doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, but I do win every now and then. It’s a really fun activity and helps me bond with them.
1) Saying hello and how are you to everyone on the 14k route. And actually, everywhere all the time. It’s awesome. I hated how in the US people would look at you like you were crazy if you said hi to them as a perfect stranger. Here, it’s kind of insulting if you don’t do it. And I love it. It makes me so happy every morning.

Top 5 reasons why Peace Corps Burkina Faso gets the most street cred:
5) We are landlocked, which means not a ton of money coming into the country. No real tourism, no real imports or exports. Not a lot fresh fish or other fresh things.
4) Most sites don’t have electricity. This is unusual for most Peace Corps countries these days. Some sites are even without reliable cell coverage. In addition, we don’t visit our sites before we move in. We swear-in to the Peace Corps and then the very next day get driven to our sites and dropped off.
3) Everyone in Burkina gets issued a mountain bike because our sites are that remote that we need these bikes to get around.
2) Everyone has to learn at least two new languages—French and a local language that can only be taught through French. Some local languages literally have no structure and many are just spoken in Burkina. Many volunteers end up learning 3 languages here.
1) We’re pretty much surrounded by countries in conflict: Mali, Niger, and Cote D’Ivoire are all extremely volatile right now, and Burkina has now pledged troops to go into Mali. There is a high possibility that at some point in our service we will be consolidated (meaning that we’ll all have to go to our regional capitals for an unknown period of time until it is safe for Americans to be living on their own again). At this point, at least from our understanding, it’s not a matter of if, but of when. We’re just hoping it doesn’t escalate to the point of being evacuated from country. Because that would really stink.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Some Snow Day Activities on this early Snow Day

Sign up for Remind.com
Write a letter to Montgomery County about their snow closing policies

Meditate

Read a book

Check PlusPortals

Some snow day articles:

I Gave Myself A “No Phone in the Bedroom” Rule. Here’s What Happened.
https://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/09/i-gave-myself-a-no-phone-in-the-bedroom-rule-heres-what-happened/

W. Kamau Bell’s United Thanks of America
In a Q&A, the comedian and host of United Shades of America explores the place of gratitude in a divided country.
https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/kamau_bell_united_thanks_of_america

Download the Headspace Mindfulness App (free 10 lessons)
https://www.headspace.com/

Take a free online class on Creative Live
(Photography, Knitting, Drawing, Business, are on today)
https://www.creativelive.com/onair
But please sign up for Remind.com, and stay safe!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Commencement Remarks to the Class of 2018

 
Nora School Graduation
June 15, 2018

Well, seniors, it’s time for the fun part of your day!  I have to start by thanking you for picking a reasonable color for your caps and gowns this year.  Some years we have not been so fortunate, particularly the green and purple year!

And so we gather again, at the 54th commencement of our tiny school, half of which I’ve now had the honor of addressing.  I’m glad you all made it to the stage today, as that is not the case in all schools.  A colleague from another school told me about the year one of his students, when told he would need to write a 5,000 word essay to graduate, got up and left the room saying “I don’t even know 5,000 words.”  Fortunately, you’re a brighter group than that.

And since it’s Friday, I have to work in one last dinner table note: As the principal, spaghetti, said to the class of raviolis when they graduated, the world is full of pasta- bilities.

Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, death are the biggies... you don’t remember the first one and you won’t enjoy the last, you’d better enjoy this one!

On Fridays, in addition to bad jokes, we usually take a few moments to practice mindfulness, in preparation for those times in life when we need to draw upon inner reserves for whatever challenges confront us. Among our practices is the metta, or gratitude meditation, which, on a day like today, is particularly appropriate.    

So I invite everyone here to join us. Sit up, close your eyes or allow them to drift into a soft unfocussed gaze, and bring attention to the breath.  Bring to mind the person whose presence is responsible for your being here today, the graduate on the stage or the parents in the audience.  And as you hold this person in your mind, offer them this thought:  may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

And now offering the same thoughts to the entire class of 2018: may your lives be happy, may your lives be healthy, may your lives be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

Soon to be graduates, it’s important for you to remember that, as exciting as this day is for you, you did not arrive here without a great deal of love and support. 

I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading you bedtime stories, and paying your Nora School tuition.   Please stand and accept our congratulations.

There are many people who support the school behind the scenes, setting policies and ensuring that the Nora School will be thriving for the class of 2028 and 2038 as it is today, and has been since 1964.  Would those members of the Board of Directors here today please stand.

I’d also like to thank my colleagues on the faculty for their hard work with these young men and women over the past four years, Allison Chang, Dr. Ave Luke-Simpson, Brennan Boothby, Chrissy Jarina, Christina Mullen, Chris Conlon Hedy Szanzer, Marcia Miller, Nisaa Abdusabur, Norman Maynard, Prose Cassells, Will Simpson. A special thank you to Yevgen Kryukov who is leaving us after three years of service. And finally a special thanks to Scott Madden, who has shephered the Class of 2018 through their post-graduate planning.

Well, that’s enough self-adulation, it’s time to talk to, and about, our soon to be graduates. You have worked hard to get here.  You are survivors.  Not only did you survive middle and high schools that were big, impersonal, and bureaucratic, you survived Nora, which is no easy task. 

Not everyone can handle it, but you did.

There is often a misperception that being in a small school like Nora is easy, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances, and all of that is true. 

But equally true is that going to a small school is hard,  because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances.   There’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t written your second draft, your math homework always gets checked, and when it’s your turn to present there’s no one to hand it off to.  It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have. 

You’ve survived not only the classrooms, in three different buildings, but also the whitewater rafting of your sophomore year, the goal setting of the junior retreat, and writing your own recommendations and sharing your life stories on the senior retreat. 

You set up your own senior community service, late though it may have been for some of you, and you learned to balance two of the most precious gifts of adulthood: freedom and responsibility.  The freedom part is easy, every teenager gets that.  The responsibility part is a lot harder.  Too few adults understand responsibility, as witnessed by, well, lots of what’s going on in the world.  Learning when to have fun and when to work, when to sleep in and when to get up, finding where the boundaries are, and which ones it’s safe to cross, these are things that your parents and teachers have to juggle every day.   

You managed, if imperfectly, the four lessons with which we start every school year.  These same lessons will stand you in good stead as you move forward into your adult lives: Show Up On Time.  Do Your Work.  Care For Your Health.  Treat Others Respectfully.  These fourteen words are perhaps the most important lesson you take from Nora, because you have to keep living them the rest of your life if you wish to be successful.

Your class was one of three that has had unique challenges, moving the entire school twice over your sophomore and junior years. In your time at Nora many of  you have essentially gone to three different schools... Nora with one floor, Nora At Grace, and Two Floor Nora. It’s been quite a ride!

In the Tao Te Jing, Lao Tzu tells us that
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

Never have these words been more resonant than in recent years, where knowing and mastering oneself seems increasingly rare.

We see daily displays of the difference between mastering others, in which the external validations of strength are provided by society, and the mastering, or lack of mastering, of oneself.  Which is not to say that this is a place at which any of us arrive. Knowing ourselves is a lifelong journey, mastering ourselves is an ongoing challenge. But in having the wisdom to strive for this knowledge and mastery, and in using the tools we’ve tried to teach with which you can work on them, you’ll find that, indeed, the journey IS the reward.

    Steve Kerr,  coach of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, which has won three of the last four NBA championships, teaches his players four core values: Joy, Competition, Compassion, and Mindfulness. Please note that only one of these is what might be considered a “hard” value... competition, and this in a business that measures success by only that metric. Yet the most successful team in the NBA over the past four years, a team that last lost a game on April 10, promotes three other values that many might consider “soft” Joy, Compassion, Mindfulness.  Note as well how little these last three values are promoted in our cultural and political discourse, Joy, Compassion, Mindfulness. Note how important they are in our own personal lives, with our friends, and with our families. And note how rare they are in the world. This is where you can make a difference.

Each of you has, in your own way, shown courage in passing through our halls.  School, and life, have not always been easy for you.  Despite this you persevered, and we are proud of you.  Now that you have finished high school, the world is open to you, full of pasta-bilities, and it is indeed a fascinating place. When this school was founded 54 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country.  What will the next 54 years hold for your generation?  How will you help to shape it? And please do shape it, get involved, because the world needs all the help it can get from bright, enlightened, joyful, mindful, compassionate  people like you.

So to all of you members of the class of 2018, bonded by the unique high school experiences of the past few years, like Steve Kerr, bring Joy, Compassion, and Mindfulness to everything you do. The world is a wonderful place:  there is much to love, much to learn, great needs to serve, and much delight to savor. But the world also needs your Joy, your Compassion, and your Mindfulness.

Whether you’re doing fashion design or song design, renovating houses or renovating economic policy, creating art or creating comedy, fighting for justice overseas or in America, climbing Everest or climbing the corporate ladder, studying modern video or ancient wisdom, the world is full of amazing things to explore and fascinating people to meet. You are among them.  Read, take action, stay curious, and take every opportunity to do the small things to make your corner of the world a better place. Godspeed.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Oral Report from the Middle States Commission on Colleges and Schools Visiting Team

Oral Report from the Middle States Commission on Colleges and Schools Visiting Team
March 15, 2018

Welcome! We’re glad you are all here for our report. This oral report represents the thinking of our entire Team, not just George’s ideas.

We know that you are accustomed to discussion and open dialogue, and up until now we have asked for questions and encouraged discussion. However, to curb any temptation to ad lib, I will read the team report, and when I am finished, we will head home - no Q & A, no discussion. I know it sounds abrupt, and it is. But we don’t want to get in the way of your opportunity to celebrate. Besides, there will be plenty of time for discussion and reflection when you have received the approved report from Middle States.

At the outset, I want to recognize and thank publicly the four members of our Team for their service to you and to the Middle States Association. This is an outstanding team of educators. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but they are volunteers who have given their professional and personal time to provide this service to you and your school. We team members were all strangers to each other before we came together at the hotel at noon on Monday. Since then, we have definitely bonded as a team. We have worked hard day and night to conduct as thorough an evaluation of your school as is possible. It is a tribute to their professionalism and expertise that they were able to come together with me as a team so quickly and to produce such fine work in service to your school I believe you owe them your thanks for their service to Nora..

It is important that you remember that accreditation is a voluntary activity. We are here because you invited us. You asked us to study the work that you are doing and your plans for the future. Therefore, we came here with several purposes.

First, we were charged with ensuring that Nora meets the Middle States Standards for Accreditation. In addition to meeting the Standards, the protocol you chose, Excellence by Design, requires that you have a system of continuous planning for school improvement. It also requires that you develop goals for improving areas of student performance and that you create plans to achieve those goals. The expectation is that, after our team departs, you will faithfully implement your improvement plan over the next seven years and make a good-faith effort to achieve the objectives you set.

First, I’d like to tell you what the Middle States guidelines require me not to tell you today. I cannot tell you anything specific about our detailed findings and recommendations, and I cannot answer any questions about our visit.

I’m happy to report that the first draft of our team report is written. Once it is assembled and edited, your Head of School, Dave Mullen, and your Assistant Head, Norman Maynard, will have the opportunity to check it confidentially for factual accuracy. They will send me any corrections that need to be made. I will make the corrections and send the revised copy to the Middle States office. There, it will be analyzed by a staff person, reviewed by the Domestic Schools Advisory Committee, and by the Commission on Secondary Schools, and, finally by the Middle States Board for final approval. In a few months, Dave and Norman will get the written report to share, as they determine, with the community here. At that point you will have the official decision of the Board of the Middle States Association.

So now here’s what I can and will tell you about our findings:

I will share with you what our Team considers your outstanding strengths, your areas most in need of attention, as well as our Team’s overall recommendation in terms of accreditation.

Here’s what we see as your Outstanding Strengths:

-A warm, energetic, purposeful and joy-filled atmosphere that makes students, staff, families, and visitors all feel welcome. Your commitment to the school’s mission is impressive. The school embodies your mission.

-A visionary team of administration and faculty with the skills and energy to lead Nora.   

-A governing Board that cares passionately about the school’s mission and uses it as the basis for their policy and financial decision making. The have guided the school’s finances with wisdom and skill as it has navigated the various changes throughout the years including the latest major construction project, the second floor addition.

-A dynamic, exemplary program that is true to your mission, and that is ever-evolving to develop and incorporate the latest best practices to meet the academic, emotional, and physical needs of this community of talented young people.

-The passionate commitment to the Nora mission that is evident in all the people with whom we interacted and observed.

The Major Areas we see as in need of attention:

-Your emerging emphasis on professional development led by faculty and with the support of your Head of School.

-Development of a Curriculum Guide

-Greater visibility for the Mission Statement, as it is written, in every place possible to serve as a reminder of what drives this school, for all who see it.

-Development of a professional performance evaluation process.

-Full-time school counselor.

-Create and support a library/information resource center where students may study and do research.

Furthermore, as I have assured some of you, we will be recommending that Nora be re-accredited. But remember, it is a recommendation only. It will be official only when the Middle States Board approves it.

We hope our report will be helpful to you as you continue on your trajectory of continuous improvement in this exceptional educational adventure.

On behalf of our entire Visiting Team, I want to express our gratitude to all of you and the entire Nora community. You have warmly welcomed us into your lives here. You have taken superb care of us both here and at the Double Tree Hilton. We appreciate the candor with which you have shared your pride in your school, your concerns, and your greatest wishes.

You have a highly effective program here. We heard testimony countless times from students, parents, Board and staff at all levels asserting that Nora truly helps its students to learn, to try new things an d to discover who they are. One student said, “The teachers here are better because they will actually take time to talk to you.” Another said, “Working through tough social interactions allows students learn something from each other.” Yet another said, “Nora recognizes case-specific needs, and that blanket policy is not effective.” And another summarized with, “It’s a really chill environment.”

A parent said, “The teachers know my kid.” Another parent said, “My son just felt so accepted here.” Another said, “The teachers love and care about my daughter.” Yet another said, “Nora is defined by challenge and support for students. Another summarized with, “Deciding to send your student to Nora comes down to the right fit.”

A Board member said, “I’m really passionate about the Nora mission. We use it as a guide for all our decision making, and it’s what fires us up to be a real ‘working board.’” Another said, “Not having current parents on the Board enables us to be objective and stay out of operations. We can concentrate on strategic issues exclusively.” Others concurred.

A teacher said, “This school is about relationships and making connections.” The Head of School said, “Teachers need flexibility, but also high expectations.” Another teacher said, “Nora is a very supportive place for a faculty member.” Another teacher said, “The Lab Period has enabled us to be even more helpful to individual students.” Another said, “The school allows us to get to know the students and what they need.”

Your desire to help others to reach their full potential does not stop with the students in this beautiful building. There is an emerging emphasis on professional development with leadership from the faculty and support from the Head of School.

Another theme that emerged in all our meetings with students, parents, and teachers was the sense of a family-like community at Nora. The care and concern that you, the faculty, staff, and administrators, have for your students is remarkable, and your students are keenly award of your care for them.

Your self-study and your preparations for our visit were outstanding. Your Head of School, Dave, your Assistant Head, Norman, and all the faculty, staff, and students certainly have made us feel welcome. Special kudos to your Internal Coordinating Team, spearheaded by Avé and Norman, who led the Self-Study and orchestrated our visit beautifully, helped by many of you. We have been able to complete our work thoroughly and in a timely way because of the comprehensive and thoughtful effort you made to honestly examine every aspect of your program. As we discovered in writing our report, we found many things to affirm, and we have made recommendations in many areas as well.

In closing, let me say that Nora clearly lives its mission every day. Your new expansion of the building is beautiful, and, more importantly, with it you have appropriate space for your purposes. From the moment we arrived on Monday, we could feel the unusual and special essence of the Nora culture. We have loved being here. We leave today knowing that we have had a full and rich experience of your school. We have learned much from you, much that we can digest and carry back to our own work.

We sincerely thank you for so fully and opening sharing your community with us. It has been a pleasure to be part of Nora during the short time we have been here.

Stay flexible and mindful.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Response to Remarks by the President on the Eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday


Remarks delivered to the Nora School community on Jan. 12, 2018

"I mostly keep my politics to myself. For the past year I’ve talked about the value of civility in our discourse, and that while we may disagree on tax policy and immigration policy and environmental policy, we can, and should, have that conversation in a civil manner.

"But racism has to be called out for what it is. It’s not the same as debating whether to allow oil drilling off the coast of Ocean City, which you might also find outrageous.

"When I was your age, Richard Nixon was the president. He once famously said at a news conference “I am not a crook.” But he was. Behind closed doors he was also a racist and anti-Semite, but he kept this to himself, without giving permission to the greater society to be racist and anti-Semitic.

"The president of your youth will, in the next couple of days, say “I am not a racist.” But he is. And worse than Nixon, he’s been overt about his racism, and his misogyny, and worse, he has unleashed permission in the culture for others to be open and overt in their racism.

"When the president of the United States says that only white people should be allowed to immigrate, and that poor people of color should be kept out, and disparages their homes and culture, that’s racist.

"This is unacceptable. This is not normal. This is why you need to know history. This is why you need to read the newspaper, and magazines, and listen to NPR, and to watch the evening news. If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.

"You need to know history so that you know, unlike our president, the reason that many parts of the world have economic challenges is due to white European, and later American, colonialism. That their natural resources, including their people, were taken without permission to Europe and the Americas. You ask in your history and English classes “when are we ever going to have to use this knowledge?” The answer is “today.”

"This weekend we celebrate the birth of a man who raised America’s moral aspirations, tried to bring people together, especially poor people, both black and white, to overcome the systemic oppression and racism that then, overtly, existed. In the 50 years since Martin Luther King died that racism became increasingly unacceptable, not that it disappeared, but it was culturally sublimated. Now you’re growing up in a time when it’s increasingly acceptable to express overt racism... you have to push back.

"There’s a quote that I like by Alex Steffen, “Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience.” So don’t be cynical. Remember this weekend that 50 years ago the president and congress were fighting a war against poverty, instead of a war against poor people. We can return to those days if you get engaged, remain engaged, and fight back.

"You can write to your congressperson, you can donate $10 to a political candidate, you can attend a rally or protest, you can join organizations whose values align with your values, you can register to vote, and you can show up and vote. If you’re unhappy with what’s happening to your country and your culuture don’t become cynical, resist."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Commencement Remarks, 2017

Well, gang, it’s time for the fun part of your day!  I have to start by thanking you for picking a reasonable color for your caps and gowns this year.  Some years we have not been so fortunate, particularly the green and purple year!

And so we gather again, at the 53rd commencement of our tiny school.  I’m glad you all made it to the stage today, as that is not the case in all schools.  A colleague from another school told me about the year one of his students, when told he would need to write a 5,000 word essay to graduate, got up and left the room saying “I don’t even know 5,000 words.”  Fortunately, you’re a brighter group than that.

Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, death are the biggies... you don’t remember the first one and you won’t enjoy the last, you’d better enjoy this one!

On Fridays we usually take a few moments to practice mindfulness, in preparation for those times in life when we need to draw upon inner reserves for whatever confronts us. Among our practices is the metta, or gratitude meditation, which, on a day like today, is particularly appropriate.

So I invite everyone here to join us. Sit up, close your eyes or allow them to drift into a soft unfocussed gaze, and bring attention to the breath.  Bring to mind a person who loves you deeply, who always cares for you, who has your best interest at heart.  And as you hold this person in your mind, offer them the following thoughts: may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

And now bring to mind the person whose presence is responsible for your being here today, the graduate on the stage or the parents in the audience.  And as you hold this person in your mind, offer them the same thought:  may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

And finally, offering the same thoughts to the entire class of 2017: may your lives be happy, may your lives be healthy, may your lives be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

Soon to be graduates, it’s important for you to remember that, as exciting as this day is for you, you did not arrive here without a great deal of love and support. 

I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading you bedtime stories, and paying your Nora School tuition. 

Please stand and accept our congratulations as I call your name.

There are many people who support the school behind the scenes, setting policies and ensuring that the Nora School will be thriving for the class of 2027 and 2037 as it is today, and has been since 1964.   Would those members of the Board of Directors here today please stand.  Beau Kaplan, Elaine Mack, Matt Harre, Andy Shoenbach, Dr. Val Wise, Judy Gelman, Jimmy Kraft, Chris Conlon, and Norman Maynard.

I’d also like to thank my colleagues on the faculty for their hard work with these young men and women over the past four years.  Norman Maynard has done a tremendous job, as always, running the school during my absences, and usually during my presence, and was invaluable in bringing his architect’s eye to our construction project. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank him. 

Marcia Miller has seen you through these past four years with good counsel and a shoulder to cry on. The rest of your teachers have worked hard to get you here today, and while their contributions are too numerous to mention individually, I’d like to recognize them publicly: Allison Chang, Ave Luke-Simpson, Brennan Boothby,  Chrissy Biederman, Chris Conlon, Christina Mullen, Hedy Szanzer, Nisaa Abdusabur, Prose Cassells, Will Simpson, and Yevgen Kryukov. 

Scott Madden gets a special shout out for shepherding you through the transition to whatever college and life plans you have for next year.
Well, that’s enough self-adulation, it’s time to talk to, and about, our soon to be graduates.

You have worked hard to get here.  You are survivors.  Not only did you survive middle and high schools that were big, impersonal, and bureaucratic, you survived Nora, which is no easy task.  Not everyone can handle it, but you did.

There is often a misperception that being in a small school like Nora is easy, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances, and all of that is true. 

But equally true is that going to a small school is hard,  because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances.   There’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t written your second draft, your math homework always gets checked, and when it’s your turn to present there’s no one to hand it off to. 

Your parents hear if you missed the trip to the Ice Rink, and they know when you’re not doing your Pre-Calculus homework.  Yevgen notices when you show up late to Physics, and Brennan notices when you don’t have your Chemistry Lab.
It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have. 

You’ve survived not only the classrooms, in three different buildings, but also the whitewater rafting of your sophomore year, the high ropes and goal setting of the junior retreat, and writing your own recommendations and sharing your life stories on the senior retreat. 

You set up your own senior community service, late though it may have been for some of you, and you learned to balance two of the most precious gifts of adulthood: freedom and responsibility.  The freedom part is easy, every teenager gets that.  The responsibility part is a lot harder.  Not all that many adults get that, as witnessed by, well, lots of what’s going on in the world.  Learning when to have fun and when to work, when to sleep in and when to get up, finding where the boundaries are, and which ones it was safe to cross, these are things that your parents and teachers have to juggle every day.   

You managed, if imperfectly, the four lessons with which we start every school year. 
These same lessons will stand you in good stead as you move forward into your adult lives: Show Up On Time.  Do Your Work.  Care For Your Health.  Treat Others Respectfully.  These fourteen words are perhaps the most important lesson you take from Nora, because you have to keep living them the rest of your life if you wish to be successful.

Seth Godin posits that “small is the new big,” and as graduates of one of the smallest schools in the country, you should understand that it’s a big accomplishment to graduate from a small school. It’s a small accomplishment to find a clique of people you get along with in a big school, but it’s a big accomplishment to get along, intimately, with people who annoy you and get on your nerves in a small school. 

It’s a small accomplishment to hide in the back of a big classroom and avoid the teacher’s radar and do the minimum necessary to get by, but it’s a big accomplishment to push through your resistance and actually do the work.

Small IS the new big.  By doing something small, like saying hello and making eye contact with the cashier at McDonald’s, you can make a big difference in their day.  All of us have daily frustrations, but by offering small kindnesses to others we can, collectively, make a big difference in the world.  By cutting another person some slack when they’re having a bad day, you can make a big difference. 

Your class in particular has had unique challenges, yet you handled moving the entire school twice in a year with minimal hassle and aggravation. In the past 16 months you’ve essentially gone to three different schools... Nora with one floor, Nora At Grace, and Two Floor Nora.  In 500 years, when archeologists dig up the Nora School,  they’ll find where you inscribed your names on the steel girders... congratulations!

In addition to spending the last year in challenging circumstances in school, you’ve also come of age in a time of extreme technological, political, and social upheaval. It’s hard to believe, but the iPhone is only 10 year old, yet it has transformed us in ways we barely understand yet. And don’t get me started on the political and social landscape, suffice to say that Nora is more counter-cultural than ever before, and proudly so.

In the Tao Te Jing, Lao Tzu tells us that
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
Never have these words been more resonant that in recent months, where knowing and mastering oneself seems increasingly rare.

Let me repeat:
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

We see daily displays of the difference between mastering others, in which the external validations of strength are provided by society, and the mastering, or lack of mastering, of oneself.

Which is not to say that this is a place at which any of us arrive. Knowing ourselves is a lifelong journey, mastering ourselves is an ongoing challenge. But in having the wisdom to strive for this knowledge and mastery, and in using the tools we’ve tried to teach with which you can work on them, you’ll find that, indeed, the journey IS the reward.

Let me connect Lao Tzu’s 2500 year old writing with the Golden State Warriors, (a professional basketball team for those of you who aren’t fans) the coach of whom is Steve Kerr. In the 1980's he was a marginal basketball player barely recruited for college, who’s father was killed by terrorists in Beruit during his freshman year, who wound up having a successful career as a member of the Chicago Bulls championship teams, who is now coaching for his second championship in three years at Golden State.
When he became a head coach, Kerr spent several months talking with other coaches in basketball, football, and other sports, about what was needed for success. Why? Because he knew that he didn’t have all the answers, he knew that he didn’t know everything.  Like the sign outside my office says, “Smart People Ask For Help.” Pete Carroll, who as coach of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks taught the team mindfulness meditation, told Steve to be authentic in relating his core values.

That conversation caused Kerr to reflect on his core values in a way he hadn’t prior to this. What he came up with, and what he teaches his team, are four core values: Joy, Competition, Compassion, and Mindfulness. Please note that only one of these is what might be considered a “hard” value... competition, and this in a business that measures success by the results of competition. Yet the most successful team in the NBA over the past three years, a team that last lost a game on April 10, promotes three other values that many might consider “soft” Joy, Compassion, Mindfulness. Note as well how little these last three values are promoted in our cultural and political discourse, Joy, Compassion, Mindfulness. Note how important they are in our own personal lives.

As a result of a similar conversation with a senior several years ago I came up with my own core values, which are love, learn, serve, and savor. ...

... as one last homework assignment I urge you to spend some time this summer thinking about your own core values, what it is that makes life meaningful to you, and in that examination you’ll find, I think, some clarity about your own choices and direction in life.

Love is something we need to give as well as receive, and today would be a great day to let your parents and  grandparents know how much you love them, and appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made for you out of their love. It’s said that we can never love our parents as much as they love us or we’d never move out and get on with our lives, and from my perspective as both a parent and a child I completely understand that. But you’ll be amazed at how much smarter your parents get as you get older. And don’t be afraid to love, and perhaps more importantly, forgive yourself, when you mess up, as, indeed, we all do. 

As you’ve learned, hopefully, through our mindfulness practices we can be our own worst critics, putting up with self-talk that we would never accept from anyone else. Take the time to be aware of what’s going on in that thought-stream in your head... is it kind and loving, as your parents have been to you?

“Learn” is my second big one, and it’s not really about school.
The world is an amazing place, full of interesting people and things, and there’s so much to explore. Foster your curiosity and follow your passions, when you stop learning you’ve taken a step into an intellectual grave.  Look at Chris and Christina as role models, heading off to the Peace Corps in Africa in their 20's to learn about themselves and the world, and taking a leap of faith that as they continued to learn and grow success would find them. Never stop being curious.

“Serve” is an idea that I hope we’ve helped inculcate during your years at Nora. Leave your small corner of the world better than you found it, and try, in each interaction with other people, to leave them a bit better off than you found them. It’s easy to take, to BE served, but all of us in this room have already won the lottery just by virtue of our birth... if the rest of the world lived like we do we’d need 5 planet Earths to support us, so pay something back to the world in recognition of this.

And finally, “Savor.” Enjoy the moments of grace in your life, such as today, or a good meal, or a beautiful sunset. While we all have challenges in our lives, which are always on our minds, take a Dot-B from time to time to savor and recognize all that is wonderful about your life, and about this moment in time.

Each of you has, in your own way, shown courage in passing through our halls.  School, and life, have not always been easy for you.  Despite this you persevered, and we are proud of you.  Now that you have finished high school, the world is open to you, and the world is a fascinating place indeed.  When this school was founded 53 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country.  What will the next 53 years hold for your generation?  How will you help to shape it? And please do shape it, get involved, because the world needs all the help it can get from bright, enlightened people like all of you.

So to all of you members of the class of 2017, bonded by the unique high school experiences of the past few years, like me, try to remember to love, to learn, to serve, and to savor.  Like Steve Kerr, bring Joy, Competition, Compassion, and Mindfulness to everything you do. The world is a wonderful place:  there is much to love, much to learn, great needs to serve, and much delight to savor. But the world also needs your Joy, your Compassion, and your Mindfulness. Whether you’re doing fashion design or song design, renovating houses or renovating economic policy, creating art or creating comedy, fighting for justice overseas or in America, climbing Everest or climbing the corporate ladder, studying modern video or ancient wisdom, the world is full of amazing things to explore and fascinating people to meet. You are among them.  Read, take action, stay curious, and take every opportunity to do the small things to make your corner of the world a better place, because small is the new big. Godspeed.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rededication Remarks, April 21, 2017

Thanks to all of you for coming tonight, and for your support of The Nora School in many ways over many years.  I’d like to offer a special thanks to Marcia Miller for organizing both our open house this morning and this reception tonight.

Legacies have been much on my mind lately, and I realized a couple of years ago that The Nora School is my professional legacy. And for many of you The Nora School is certainly a large part of your legacy to the world, and while we’re here to socialize and enjoy each other’s company, I’d like to recognize a few of the folks who’ve been instrumental in the development of Nora, and this wonderful building, and for whom this school is part of their life’s legacy that, at the end of the day, will live on past all of us.

We would not be in our own building without the gift that Beau and Linda Kaplan made out of the tragedy of their daughter Nora’s passing 20 years ago, and I hope that the two of you see this school as a major part of your life’s legacy.

Gerry Widdicombe was the Board Chair and a generous friend 17 years ago when we built this school the first time, and I hope that you see this school as a major part of your life’s legacy. Robert Herman was the Board Chair prior to this construction project, and in addition to his and Andy’s generosity he helped lead our investment efforts that allowed this project to be feasible. I am grateful for your years of work on our behalf and I hope that you see this school as a major part of your life’s legacy.

Jimmy Kraft is our current Board Chair, having been associated with the school for almost 20 years when he refused to leave the building until he talked with the Head of School about his son’s admission. That stubbornness has served us well.  With background in construction Jimmy oversaw both the original building and this expansion. The Nora School is certainly part of your life’s legacy.

I’d also like to thank the other members of the Board who have been generous with their time, talent, and treasure as we’ve pursued the creation of an ever more dynamic and caring school: Judy Gelman, Elaine Mack, Val Wise, Beau Kaplan, Matt Harre, Chris Conlon, and Andy Schonbach.

None of this happens without the careful tending of financial resources, and our construction projects have been greatly helped by the invaluable work of the three assistant Heads with whom I’ve had the honor to work. Elaine Mack, now a Board member along with Beau, has a tenure at the Nora School which, like Beau, is now in its 30th year.  Mara Nicastro, now Head of School at Friends Meeting School, carried on that critical work. And this project would not have turned out nearly as well without both the financial, architectural, and moving skills of Norman Maynard, who’s previous life experience as an architect greatly improved every aspect of our new home.

Building on the work of Jane Nelson, the actual architect of the expansion is Glenn Forrest, who’s artistry and attention to detail can be seen as you turn every corner upstairs.  Glenn, I’m sorry I picked the wrong grout for the bathrooms.

The second story was built by Abramson Construction, who’s president Jeff Abramson is here tonight. He kept the project on time and within budget, and offered us some terrific value engineering as we went along. We highly recommend Abramson construction for all your construction needs.  Rusty Rowles was our construction superintendent, who kept the subcontractors moving forward, even when Montgomery County and Park and Planning wouldn’t cooperate. Rusty was always happy to see Norman or me arrive on site first thing in the morning! Ultimately this is but a building, and what’s really important is the activity that occurs in inside the classrooms every day. We’ve worked with many talented teachers over the years, including this year, but three in particular have been on this long march from the Washington Ethical Society building, to The Nora School, to Grace Episcopal, and back again to The Nora School. Moving a school twice in one year is pretty absurd, but having moved it three times I’d like to recognize and thank these three as representative of all those who have worked here since 1964. Scott Madden,  Chris Conlon, and Hedy Szanzer.

Most importantly, thanks to all of you who support us in the work we do, because a the end of the day this space is but a container for the teaching, the nurturing, the caring, the relationships, the pushing and the hand holding, the encouragement and the tough love, that goes on here on a daily basis. Everyone deserves a second story, and the lives that are changed in this building, that are given a “second story,” are your true legacy. We now have a space that allows our creativity as teachers to flourish, for which, on behalf of our students, present, and future, I thank you.  Please enjoy the evening!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nora Values and the Election

My remarks to the Nora School community on the morning of November 9, 2016


The sadness that many of you feel today is, I suspect, not about tax policy, or climate change, or even immigration policy, but rather about the apparent retreat in parts of our society of respect, civility, kindness, and tolerance. Please keep in mind, however, that this represents only parts of our society, not all of it, and not even a majority. I know that I worry for those of my friends and family who don’t look like me, have my privilege, or my way of relating to the world as a middle-aged heterosexual white man with a decent health care plan. 

Whatever the next four years may bring, you have it within your power to create your own community, the community you want around you... one that is kind, civil, caring, tolerant, and just. Raise the bar on yourself, your friends, your family, and the stranger you run into on the street in order to spread ripples of kindness, civility, and justice. You may not be able to change the wider culture in a day, but you can do your part to change it over a lifetime. It’s no longer up to someone else to do this for us, we must do it ourselves. This is not a time for cynicism, it’s a time to challenge ourselves to do better.

Marcia sent me an article this morning from Ali Michael, Ph.D,  the Director of K-12 Consulting and Professional Development at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve paraphrased her words and ideas in part to reiterate the values that we stand for at The Nora School.

Decide that you will fight bigotry. We will not tolerate bigotry at Nora. We will stand by our Muslim families, our same-sex parent families, our gay students, our Black families, our female students, our Hispanic families, our disabled students, our immigrant families, our trans students. We'll do all we can to keep others from hurting or threatening or demeaning anyone in our community. And we have to watch ourselves, to be certain that our own words and actions don't hurt, threaten, or demean, even if inadvertently.  

Silence is dangerous, you must learn how to speak up when something is wrong. You must learn how to love one another, how to understand one another, how to solve conflicts peacefully, how to live with diverse and conflicting ideas, and work on gaining the skills to live in a world that often doesn’t know how to do this.
 

You must be responsible members of a civic society. Posting on Facebook is not enough. Learn how to engage in discussion, not for the sake of winning but for the sake of understanding and being understood. Learn how to check facts, to evaluate news sources, to question assumptions, to see your own biases, to take feedback, and to challenge one another. Learn how to disagree with love and respect. These skills will be priceless in the coming months and years as we work to build a society that protects the rights of all people.

Remember that not everyone who voted for Trump did so because they believe the bigoted things that he has said this year. Many voted for him because they feel frustrated with the economy, they feel socially left behind, and they are exercising the only power they have. We need to challenge everyone to differentiate between their fears and the bigotry created by those fears.


At Nora we want you to disagree, to argue about ideas, to challenge orthodoxy, but in order to create a more perfect union, or even a more perfect school community, we must do so with grace, caring, openness, and, yes, love.

Be the change you want to see in the world. You can not take progress for granted. Today is but a snapshot in time. Your lives are long and your power great if you choose to exercise it toward the values in which you believe.     


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A student asked this morning if there’s a meditation for a day like this, and indeed there is one that we’ve noted before, the RAIN meditation. This is a useful framework when dealing with any difficult emotion or time.

R stands for Recognize.
    Knowing that you’re distressed, recognizing how it’s affecting your body, your emotions, your energy, your mood. Feeling where those sensations are lodged, noticing how your mind has been hijacked.

A stands for Allow.
    Allowing means that you’re letting the difficult emotions sit with you, in awareness, like a stranger on a park bench. Being able to sit with the discomfort, allow it to just be, lessens it’s hold on you, as you can see it a bit more dispassionately. Wishing away the difficult emotion doesn’t deal with reality... you’re feeling the emotion. Allowing the fear, anxiety, sadness or other difficulty to just be, without pushing it away or being overtaken by it will better allow you to move forward.

I stands for Inquire.
    Why has this event had such an impact on you? What triggers did it set off? How does the event conflict with your beliefs about yourself, about the world? What are you wishing for? Can you work toward getting it? What are you running from? Can you escape?

N stands for Non-identification
    The difficult emotion is not you, not who you are. It doesn’t define you, even though it’s with you now.  Like clouds in the sky, it will eventually move on, as all thoughts do. By seeing it as the ephemeral thing that it is, you’re better able to proceed with your life.

Please note that Allowing does not denote passivity. While you must Allow the reality of a difficult situation, you can take steps toward changing it once you’ve come to terms with it and not allowed it to consume your identity.

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And finally, a reminder of the culture that your predecessors at Nora defined back in the early 1990's, perhaps more relevant today than ever:

We expect people to be open minded,
        ...friendly,
            ...sensitive to other people's feelings,
                ...honest,
                    ...non-judgmental,
                        ...respectful.           
We expect people to stand up for others.
    ...to treat others the way they want to be treated,
    ...to work to create the environment they want.
    ...to think about the consequences of what they say,
    ...to respect each person,
    ...to challenge cruelty,
    ...to help each other follow these standards,
    ...to take responsibility for themselves,
    ...to end gossip,
    ...to acknowledge other's ideas and viewpoints,
    ...to treat everyone with dignity and basic human respect,
    ...to respect and value people's differences,
    ...to listen,
    ...to admit mistakes,
    ...to participate in community life.




Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Nora School Graduation, Class of 2015

Well, here we are at that most highly anticipated moment of the graduation ceremony, the head of schools’ remarks, and I have to start by thanking you for picking reasonable colors for your caps and gowns this year.  Some years we have not been so fortunate, particularly the green and purple year!

Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, and death are the biggies, and you probably won’t much enjoy the last one, so you’d better enjoy this one!

It’s important for you to remember that, as exciting as this day is for you, you did not arrive here without a great deal of love and support. I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading you bedtime stories, and paying Nora School tuition.  Please stand and accept our congratulations as I call your name: Ina and Ron Smith, Debra Prybyla and David Blockstein, Lena and Emerson Browne, Margaret and William Cornett, Rita and Don Harris, Leif Kjoita and Lajla Jakhelln, Kathleen and Chris Mantua, Lois and Michael McCabe, Patricia Eyster and Martin McGinley, Susan Blumen and David Mosher, Francine Blume and Matt Salomon, Catherine and Alex Savich, Paula and Edward Sella, Patricia Yeghissian and Arvid Muller, and Ruth and Raymond Zanoni.

There are many people who support the school behind the scenes, setting policies and ensuring that the Nora School will be thriving for the class of 2025 and 2035 as it is today, and has been since 1964.   Would those members of the Board of Directors here today please stand.  Beau Kaplan, Elaine Mack, Matt Harre, Andy Shoenbach, Val Wise, Judy Gelman, and Jimmy Kraft.

I’d also like to thank my colleagues on the faculty for their hard work with these young men and women over the past four years.   Norman Maynard has done a tremendous job, as always, running the school during my absences, and I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank him.  Marcia Miller has kept the school full during her tenure at Nora, and will be running the show for a good part of the summer, for which I thank her. The rest of your teachers have worked hard to get you here today, and I’d like to recognize them:  Hedy Szanzer, Patrick Vongchan, and Nic Galloro. We’d like to recognize and congratulate Spanish teacher Ave Luke-Simpson and future music and digital art teacher Will Simpson on the birth of their daughter Ellis, and to thank Steven Watkins for coming in to sub for Ave for the last quarter of the year. I’d also like to thank Nina Hagan and Rachel Korr who came and pitched in as our enrollment grew this year, and finally a couple of folks who are moving on to new endeavors, Trey Harris and Robin Steitz.

It is a tradition at Nora to honor 5 year anniversaries of faculty, and today we thank Scott Madden and Chris Conlon who both arrived at Washington Ethical High School way back in 1995.  While bringing their unique perspectives to the classroom, Scott has coached all our sports at various times and served as athletic director, while Chris established the Nora Poetry series and has run our community service programs.  Both Scott and Chris have served as WEHS and Nora college counselors.   Today we’d like to recognize them for their 20 years of service.

Well, that’s enough self-adulation, it’s time to talk to, and about, our soon to be graduates.
You have worked hard to get here.  You are survivors.  Not only did you survive middle and high schools that were big, impersonal, and bureaucratic, you survived Nora, which is no easy task.  Not everyone can handle it, but you did.

There is often a misperception that being in a small school like Nora is easy, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances, and all of that is true.  But equally true is that going to a small school is hard,  because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances.   There’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t done the reading, and your math homework always gets checked, and when it’s your turn to present there’s no one to hand it off to.

Your parents hear if you missed the trip to the Corcoran, and they know when you’re not doing your Pre-Calculus homework.  Robin notices when you show up late to Physics, and Patrick notices when you don’t show up to Chemistry.  It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have.

You’ve survived not only the classrooms,  but also the whitewater rafting of your sophomore year, the high ropes and goal setting of the junior retreat, and writing your own recommendations and sharing your life stories on the senior retreat.  You set up your own senior community service, late though it may have been for some of you, and you learned to balance two of the most precious gifts of adulthood: freedom and responsibility.  The freedom part is easy, every teenager gets that.  The responsibility part is a lot harder.  Not all that many adults get that, as witnessed by the various crises on Wall Street and Capitol Hill.  Learning when to have fun and when to work, when to sleep in and when to get up, finding where the boundaries are, and which ones it was safe to cross, these are things that your parents and teachers have to juggle every day.  

You managed, if imperfectly, the four lessons with which we start every school year. These same lessons will stand you in good stead as you move forward into your adult lives: Show Up On Time.  Do Your Work.  Care For Your Health.  Treat People Respectfully.  These fourteen words are perhaps the most important lesson you take from Nora, because you have to keep living them the rest of your life if you wish to be successful.

Show up on time.  Or rather, Show up.  On time.  There are two parts to this one, and you have to master both, because if you don’t, someone else will.  The world you head into is more competitive and less forgiving that the world of Nora that you’re leaving.  Professors aren’t going to give reinstatement projects so that you can earn credit in college, and your boss isn’t going to let you come in early to make up a tardy.  If you can’t show up, on time, they’ll find someone who will.
Do Your Work.  Again, the real world is a competitive place, and it’s becoming flat.  You’ll be competing with folks not only from around the block, or around the country, but around the world.  Professors and employers don’t want to hear what you’re GOING to do, they just want to see it done.  And don’t do the minimum necessary if you want to get ahead.  The world is always looking for people who do the little bit extra as opposed to those who are out the door.   Be one who does more than is asked or expected, and you’ll find yourself trusted and respected.  Yesterday I came into school to find the place transformed.  When I’d left on Friday, there were papers strewn around, the bulletin boards were empty after the Arts Festival, and all-in-all the place needed a few hours of attention.   On Monday morning the bulletin boards were decorated, the bookshelves re-arranged, and the building looked great, because Scott, who was at school administering the SAT, took it upon himself to make The Nora School look better.  He didn’t do it because he was paid to, or because he was asked to, but because he saw it needed to be done.  Do more than is expected and success will follow.

Take Care of your health.  Let me be explicit: drugs and alcohol will mess up your lives, and you’ll have even easier access to both in college than you did in high school.  No one will be looking after you any more.  If you indulge then you won’t show up on time, you won’t do your work, you won’t treat people respectfully, and you won’t graduate. Only 25% of all college freshmen in the United States graduate in four years, and drugs and alcohol are a big reason why.  Stay away from both.  

Other pieces of taking care of your health include nutritious eating, which can be a challenge if you don’t make conscious choices.  Those college buffets are the reason behind the “freshman fifteen”, which will slow down your body and muddle your mind.  Get enough sleep, which means stay away from those video games in the student union, and turn off  your computer in the dorm room. Use the health facilities, the weight room, the running track, and sign up for intramural sports.  Life is a lot more fun when you physically feel good.

Treat others respectfully.  This can be a tough one, and as you head off to college it’s one you need to work on.  Those folks you don’t like or couldn’t get along with in high school will not only be in your classes, you’ll be living with them. You’ll find people in your dorm just like you, and others who are your polar opposite.  You’ll find people who are noisy, and want you to be noisy with them, and you’ll find people who are quiet, and want you to shut up.  You’ll have to get along with them all.  It may even be enough that you’ll appreciate living with your parents!

Seth Godin posits that “small is the new big,” and as graduates of one of the smallest schools in the country, you should understand that it’s a big accomplishment to graduate from a small school. It’s a small accomplishment to find a clique of people you get along with in a big school, but it’s a big accomplishment to get along, intimately, with people who sometimes annoy you and get on your nerves in a small school.

It’s a small accomplishment to hide in the back of a big classroom and avoid the teacher’s radar and do the minimum necessary to get by, but it’s a big accomplishment to push through your resistance and actually do the work, because you know that in Chris’small classroom your missing homework will be noticed.  Small is the new big.  By doing something small, like saying hello and making eye contact with the cashier at McDonald’s, you can make a big difference in their day.  We all have our daily frustrations, but by doing the small kindnesses to others we can, collectively, make a big difference in the world.  By cutting another person some slack when they’re having a bad day, you can make a big difference.

I remember earlier in the school year having a deep conversation with Nate about the meaning of life... alas, one of his favorite topics this year. As I thought about our conversation through the succeeding weeks I came up with my big four, which have guided me and with which you might consider placing your own paths in context. My big four are love, learn, serve, and savor.

Love is something we need to give as well as get, and today would be a great day to let your parents and  grandparents know how much you love them, and appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made for you out of their love. It’s said that we can never love our parents as much as they love us or we’d never move out and on with our lives, and from my perspective as both a parent and a child I completely understand that. But you’ll be amazed at how much smarter your parents get as you get older.

“Learn” is my second big one, and it’s not about school. The world is an amazing place, full of interesting people and things, and there’s so much to explore. Foster your curiosity and follow your passions, when you stop learning you’ve taken a step into an intellectual grave.

“Serve” is an idea that I hope we’ve helped inculcate during your years at Nora. Leave the world better than you found it, and try, in each interaction with others, to leave them a bit better than you found them. It’s easy to take, to BE served, but all of us in this room have already won the lottery just by virtue of where and when we were born... if the rest of the world lived like we do we’d need 5 planet Earths to support us, so pay something back in recognition of this bounty.

And finally, “Savor.” Enjoy the moments of grace in your life, such as this one, or a good meal, or a beautiful sunset. While we all have challenges in our lives, which are always on our minds, take a Dot-B from time to time to savor and recognize all that is wonderful about your life, and about this moment in time.

Zachary, I hope that you are open to savoring and enjoying the new experiences that college will offer, and not focus on the ways in which it falls short of your expectations. Continue your music writing and production, find some like-minded fellow students, as you’ve done at Nora, and open yourself to the best that college has to offer and let go of the BS that is always present in everyone’s life.

Daelyn, your smiles and good humor and cheer shined the love you have on all your classmates through the years. Whether dancing in the talent show, singing Happy Birthday in the men’s chorus, or dressing up for spirit day, you’ve always been a sweet and loving presence in the Nora community. You’ve served to brighten everyone’s day, which I’m sure will be appreciated in the years ahead.

Julia, you’ve been such a good friend to so many students at Nora, and your group will sorely miss your company. You’re one of those folks for whom we can visibly see the benefits of meditation in your increasingly calm response to life over the years. I hope that you use this practice as life’s stresses increase.

Michael, the hole in our knowledge of upcoming Apple products next year will be immense. I hope that your technology passion expands beyond what you know and are excited about into areas that you don’t know about... which is where the real excitement lies.

Acie, your curiosity about cars, motion, electricity, and engineering of all sorts will take you far. We’ve enjoyed watching your enthusiasm for concrete learning even as you’ve become quite a good student at the more theoretical aspects of school.

Andrew, you’ve been savoring the activities these past few weeks in a really sweet way, almost like you want to leave, and you’ve savored the friendship of your classmates throughout your time at Nora.  I know that your love for your family, and particularly for your brother, over these past couple of years has had a profound impact on your life, and I hope that you are both able to savor this day, and the years ahead, together.

Ara, I remember when you were first learning to play the drums with Trey, and the band had some real adventures with rhythm and tempo. Over these past few years you’ve become rock solid, not only as a musician but as a human being.

Aden, you came to Nora already a great musician, and your music is a great service to the world. And just as the world has much to teach us, some have much to teach the world. In our little corner of the world you have indeed taught us much over the past few years.

Danielle, I’m sorry. Actually, I’m not sorry, because sometimes the way we best serve others is by challenging them, and I know that in the years we’ve known you that you HAVE been challenged, and that you’ve risen to every challenge, even when it’s been frightening, and by rising to challenge you’re on this stage today ready to move on with your life. Congratulations.

Rachel, we’ve quite enjoyed your infectious enthusiasm at talent shows and poetry readings throughout the years. Your dramatic readings and thoughts have livened up these events time after time, and I hope that as you pursue higher education that you get involved in drama and writing and music, and take advantage of all the college experience has to offer a person with your energy and ambition.

Eva, your curiosity, hard work, and enthusiasm for graphic design helped turn out the best yearbook ever, and is reflected on banners and doors throughout the Nora building as well as at the Silver Spring Fire Department.  While we’ll miss your creativity, I know that Trey will really miss having such a valuable assistant next year.

Max, each year you allowed a bit more of the veneer to come off and the real Max show through. And you grew more comfortable allowing others to know that Max. You’ve been one of those students whose curiosity, which was on full display in Italy, knows no bounds. Don’t be afraid of not looking cool... the coolest people don’t really care.

DeAnna, one of our “frequent fliers,” the hallways will be a little emptier without your presence next year. One of the things you learned over the past few years is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be your REAL self, and to trust that good things can result.  Just remember to wander INTO classes next year.

Nick, over and over during the past couple of weeks we’ve heard about how you’re the kindest student at Nora. In your own quiet way you’ve been an integral part of the community... really demonstrating what leadership is all about by serving others, in the classroom and on the playing fields. I hope that you’ll participate in sports at some level in college, and that if your Orioles manage to beat my Red Sox for the American League pennant that they go on to win the World Series.

 Torgeir, you’ve shown us that still waters run deep indeed. Your world travels taking on the chess world have been largely out of our sight, but your modesty and confidence have not. I’m pleased to note that you provided me with the high point of my chess career, for the one move when I put you in check before you mercilessly crushed me two moves later.  I don’t imagine it was the high point of your career.

Each of you has, in your own way, shown courage in passing through our halls. School has not always been easy for you.  Despite this you persevered, and we are proud of you. Now that you have finished high school, the world is open to you, and the world is a fascinating place indeed.

When this school was founded 51 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country.  A woman’s place was in the home.   What was good for GM was good for America.  From a space telescope that can see back to the beginning of time to our first black president here on earth, the world is unfolding in ways beyond my generation’s dreams.  What will the next 51 years hold for your generation?  How will you help to shape it?

So, our newest alumni, remember to love, to learn, to serve, and to savor. The world is a wonderful place, and there is so much to love, so much explore, so much need, and so much delight . Whether you’re doing fashion design or song design, renovating houses or renovating economic policy, art or comedy, foreign or domestic, modern video or ancient wisdom, the world if full of amazing things to explore and fascinating people to meet. You are among them.  Read, take action, stay curious, and take every opportunity to take a small action to make the world a better place, because small is the new big.