"Holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die." -Buddhist teaching.
Those of a certain age (i.e., Nora parents and teachers, not students) are fortunate to have lived in a time when one of the seemingly intractable scourges of humanity was overcome through moral authority. Most of us were born after Gandhi’s death, and were too young to be cognizant of the work of Dr. King, but as adults we were privileged to witness through the life of Nelson Mandela how a great moral force could overcome the most vicious hatred and racism. While there are a great many military and political heroes in human history, there have been very few moral heroes who receive that same level of acknowledgment. Certainly Mandela was not alone: Steven Biko, Desmond Tutu, Walter Sisulu, and thousands of lesser known activists stood, and suffered for that stand, against apartheid. What made Mandela stand apart, however, was not imprisonment for his beliefs in a multi-racial South Africa, but the forgiveness of his oppressors upon his release. His refusal while imprisoned to make his own life easier while others still suffered is likewise impressive, but the enormity of spirit it took to forgive those who stole the prime years of his adult life is truly astonishing. Another sad fact stands out to me: Mandela was imprisoned at about the same age as Dr. King was killed. We can only wonder how much better America might be had Dr. King enjoyed the fullness of years that Nelson Mandela lived.
In our own small corners of the world we can, and should, try as much as possible to emulate that spirit of forgiveness against those who transgress us, as swallowing the poison of vengeance hurts us far more than those who have hurt us.
One of my great heroes has died, and I’m surprised at how much my own world feels a emptier with his passing. I can only hope that in the next 50 years another moral exemplar is noted by the world, so that my students, children, and the world have an aspirational moral figure to whom they can look for inspiration.
"Here lies a man who did his duty to the world." -Nelson Mandela on how he'd like to be remembered.
Well, it's not quite Monday morning, but I don't think I can really stay up another twenty minutes! It's late Sunday night and I'm halfway through a four-day training with 50 teachers from all over the US and the world (Austria, New Zealand, Mexico). Quite inspiring work on teaching Mindfulness in schools, amazing the amount of interest and research on this. I'm pretty excited to bring this curriculum back to Nora, though it will take a bit of tweaking to translate from the UK to the USA. Here's a TED talk by Richard Burnett, one of the creators of the .b (stop, breathe) curriculum.
This year we've begun an new initiative to help our students deal with stress, anxiety, and social and academic pressures through mindfulness meditation. We began last fall with a visit from Dr. William Stixrud who spoke at a school assembly about the benefits of meditation, particularly for students with ADHD and other learning challenges. Shortly thereafter we began a pre-school meditation session available to all students and teachers. Attendance was spotty, since the time before school begins is prime-time for socializing, so this year we've been taking time out of morning announcements on Mondays and Fridays for all-school mindfulness meditation. Our goal is to help students (and teachers) become more aware of what they are experiencing in any given moment, whether frustration, joy, anger, or boredom, and step back to take a 20,000 foot view of the experience. As Victor Frankl put it in Man's Search for Meaning, between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies our freedom. By enlarging the space between stimulus and response, we aim to enlarge our freedom to choose. Many of us, even well past adolescence, too often react on autopilot to everyday aggravations... rude drivers, supermarket lines, our kid's messy rooms. Teens are no different, if anything they are on an even tighter hair trigger of reaction. Our culture certainly reinforces this "quickness response" (count the number of seconds any single shot lasts on your favorite television show), and the expansion of multi-tasking only makes things worse. Spending time in silent meditation, concentrating on the breath while being aware of the present moment without thought or judgement, has been an amazing adventure for me over the past year. I've not only noted an increased patience and less anxiety within myself, but I'm now seeing students giving themselves a time-out to practice their breathing when they are feeling stress.
You can see the presentation I used at the beginning of the school year here, which includes links to the scientific literature supporting mindfulness as a cognitive tool. (Yes, I'm afraid I'm responsible for the drawings.) As we continue through the year I hope that having this tool available at any time will prove invaluable to all members of the Nora community. If you'd like to join us in mindfulness meditation we meet daily between 8:00 and 8:30am, and on Mondays and Fridays during morning announcements at 10:15am.
I came across a fascinating and provocative set of responses to the Common Core Standards that are now replacing state standards in many (most?) state public education systems. While replacing one set of measurable standards with another may make testing easier, and facilitate mobility between public school districts, one professor rightly points out that by embracing any set of standards we are by definition not asking more pertinent and important questions. Here's a sample from Dr. Daniel Coupland of Hillsdale College: “Yes, man is made for work, but he’s also made for so much more… Education should be about the highest things. We should study these things of the stars, plant cells, Mozart’s Requiem… not simply because they’ll get us into the right college or into the right line of work. Rather, we should study these noble things because they can tell us who we are, why we’re here… If education has become –as Common Core openly declares– preparation for work in a global economy, then this situation is far worse than Common Core critics ever anticipated. And the concerns about cost, and quality, and yes, even the constitutionality of Common Core, pale in comparison to the concerns for the hearts, minds, and souls of American children.” You can read the article here. What do you think the purpose of education ought to be?
We sent our students and teachers out for an early day of labor last Friday, giving them a common experience with which to begin the year. While the annual Billy Goat Trail hike is a breeze for some (not including this "approaching middle-age" correspondent), for most it's a real challenge. Up and down the rocks, often using hands as well as feet to hoist ourselves up the cliffs, many of us woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit stiff and sore.
Nonetheless it's a great way to start the year, with everyone getting a good workout whether they took the trail or the towpath, or a combination of both. When we return to school in the morning almost everyone will have had the experience of a challenging walk on a beautiful day where they had the chance to talk with new and old friends alike.
Finding the right level of challenge is, always, the challenge for us as classroom teachers as well as for us as human beings. Trying to tackle an activity that is just a bit beyond our current capability is how we grow not only intellectually, but in confidence and courage. The Billy Goat Trail has been a wonderful challenge for Nora students going back many years, a bit of Montana ten miles from downtown DC, and will hopefully provide a good start toward tackling the challenges of the school year ahead.
Yes, I know it's Thursday, but the beginning of the year is always a bit hectic for the head of school. As we tell the kids, better late than never!
"We all have straight A’s today, and we all have perfect attendance." Thus begins another school year, with high hopes and great expectations in schools across the country. For too many students in our country, however, the bloom will soon be off the rose, as rote memorization and test preparation overtake the joy of exploration and the satisfaction of solving real-world problems. At Nora we’re off to a great start, with a full roster of uniquely talented and curious students and teachers, all of whom embrace our motto of "Think Differently." Certainly our opening day has its share of unusual evens, from the ball-toss-name-game with new students to the musical papers game with sophomores and juniors. Our students are seeking something more, and something different, from their education, a relaxed engagement that they haven’t found in larger settings. They will once again create a vibrant, welcoming, and unique community as we move through our classes, practices, games, hikes, performances, dances, and other activities that make life at Nora one that is at once engaging, rigorous, nurturing, challenging, and fun.
News last night about the Washington Post sale brings up some familiar emotions, a too familiar feeling that once again a pillar of our existence is not as solid as we believed it to be. There was a time, which doesn't seem that long ago, when a bi-polar world split between the Soviet Union and the US was an immutable fact of our existence. Likewise, the Democrats would always control the House of Representatives. Closer to home, our good colleagues at Thornton Friends School prodded us to do better work and provided The Nora School with sports teams that were competetive. We miss them greatly! Now the Graham family, after 80 years of ownership, is stepping away from the Post. They survived Nixon's enemies list, but not the Internet. Even as we in education feel the tug and pull of online education and the disruption that it causes, we need to be mindful that it is all the more important that our students learn to think rather than to regurgitate facts. While No Child Left Behind may have done a good job at forcing public school districts to look at how all their students are doing, one sad side effect is that too much teaching is aimed at making Adequate Yearly Progress and too little at grappling with interesting and meaningful questions. We have no idea what challenges and changes the classes of 2014 or 2017 will face, but they'd better be able to think and react flexibily and thoughfully if they are to thrive.
Twenty-five years ago I could not imagine a world without the Soviet Union or a Democratic controlled congress; fifteen years ago I could not imagine a world without Thornton Friends. As much as I enjoy my Kindle and iPad, I hope that there's never a world without print newspapers and books, with all the unexpected avenues of curiousity into which they lead us.
Well, here we are at that most highly anticipated moment of the graduation ceremony, the head of schools’ remarks. I promised the seniors that I would keep my talk to less than the 80 pages of their yearbook, and I just barely met the requirement.
The last days of the week, or in this case the school year, are known for the tradition, particularly dear to the seniors, of a Friday story that they’ve hopefully brought home each week to the dinner table. As we’ve gone through the year I’ve offered at least 40 puns to you on Friday mornings. Pun after pun, some you got, some you didn’t. I was really hoping that at least a tenth of them would make you laugh, but, sadly, no pun in ten did.
Yet another reason they’re glad to be graduating.
Soon to be graduates, 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, and you probably won’t be there to enjoy the last one, so you’d better enjoy this!
You are here because of the work of many people, most notably your parents and teachers. I would like to recognize them now. From the Nora faculty, Mara Nicastro, Scott Madden, Chris Conlon, Nic Galloro, Hedy Szanzer, Patrick Vongchan, Trey Harris, Norman Maynard, Courtney Davis, Ave Luke Simpson, and Marcia Miller.
I’d like to particularly thank the senior advisors, Trey Harris, Norman Maynard, Patrick Vongchan, and Scott Madden for their conversations with the seniors throughout the year, and particularly Scott for all his efforts to help each of you consider and plan the next stage of your lives.
The members of our Board of Directors support and guide the school behind the scenes, giving generously of their time, treasure, and talent. Joining us today from our Board of Directors, Robert Herman, Beau Kaplan, Elaine Mack, and Matt Harre.
And finally, you need to thank your parents, as they have supported you far longer than we have, and, despite what they’re hoping, will continue to do so. I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading your bedtime stories, and paying your Nora School tuition. Please stand and accept our congratulations as I call your name.
Nicholas Burbank and Nan Ass-tone
Miller and Andrea Cunningham, and Alicia Marvet Lindsay
Jan and Douglas Farmer
Denise Galbo and Peggy Bradberry
Walter and Jeanette Gray
Kathy Wagner, Mike Hill, Joy Bernstein, and Reuben Guttman
Susan BEN-esch and Thomas LeBron
Neil and Lori Lefkowitz
Tacie Dejonikus and Angela Marney
Soon to be alumni, I am hopeful that you will take away from today, your last day at Nora, the same precepts I discussed with you on your first day at Nora. It may seem long ago, but on your first day, and on each first day thereafter, you went around to get lockers, photo ID’s, and to write down your goals. You also spent time with me discussing the school rules, which can be boiled down to four simple sentences that will stand you in good stead throughout your lives.
Show up on time. Do your work. Take care of your health. Treat others with respect.
Look back on your time at Nora and honestly assess to what extent I was telling you the truth.
Did you show up on time? Did that make your life easier or harder? What are the consequences in the next part of your life for showing up late? What does it say about being trustworthy?
I can tell you that there are tremendous benefits to showing up on time, being a person of your word, having others see you as reliable. The Noble Truth of Buddhism is echoed in the first sentence of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled: “Life is Difficult.” I don’t think you’ll find many people here today who would disagree with that statement, but I’d like to follow it up with a question, “Now What?” OK, life is difficulty, now what? You still need to show up. If you have to show up, show up on time. It will make life slightly less difficult.
Do your work. Same questions. How was life when you did your work? How was your life affected when you didn’t take care of business? What happens in the world when you drop the ball? What happens when you follow through? And what kind of work will you do? As you do whatever work is before you as you go through your life, whether schoolwork or office work or mechanical work or the work of raising a family, is the work, and are you, making the world a better place? What are you consciously doing to ease someone else’s burden? Might I suggest that next week you cook dinner for your family, or perhaps do the laundry? Making the world a better place can happen in small as well as large ways. In fact, if everyone were to work on the small ways our world would be a much better place.
Take care of your health. Stay sober, because it’s hard to have any lasting success if your brain is messed up. Exercise and eat healthy food, because you’ll feel better, have more energy, and be a happier person. Monster Energy drinks, ho-hos, and giant Slurpees as an occasional treat are one thing, as part of your daily diet they’re not so great. Take care of your health.
Treat others with respect. Yes, I know it’s the Golden Rule, but there’s a reason it’s called Golden. Treating others with respect doesn’t only mean your friends, or people you get along with, it also means those who rub you the wrong way and get on your nerves. This doesn’t change outside Nora, there will always be people you find annoying. One of them might be your roommate next year! This is where your room for growth lies. Paula Weymiller says that the person who annoys you the most is like a little angel sitting on your shoulder, telling you to grow up, and that you have the most to learn from that little angel and that annoying person. In the words of Plato, “be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” Treat everyone with respect.
I think you’re ready to move on.
Our goal has been to help you to pursue possibilities. The broad liberal arts education that you received at Nora has opened doors to a variety of possibilities, but note that the harder you worked the more possibilities you had. Now it’s up to you to find those passions worthy of your pursuit. Here is where the fun, and the fear, come in. You don’t have to know your passion right now, most of you will change careers at least once before you’re my age. But right now you’ll get to study and work at things that are interesting to you, and that’s the fun part of moving past high school.
But try to take courses and have experiences outside your areas of interest as you pursue your further education, as you never know what new endeavor might spark a new passion. Be open to serendipity, when a door opens, go through it and see what happens. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t Know,” and remember that “smart people ask for help.” You’re smart, ask!
And ask other questions as well:
Anna, ask the question “Why wouldn’t I?” Take the chance and go for it. I hope that this summer you go out every day and take one photograph, and each week work the best photograph into an amazing print. I’ve enjoyed seeing you grow as a digital artist, and hope that you find continue to feed your artistic passions.
Ashley, ask the question “How can I make YOUR day better?” You figured out sometime during your junior year that it was better to work with your teachers rather than against them. One that lightbulb went on there was no stopping you! Your intellectual growth and willingness to work through challenges rather than avoid them has been great fun to watch. And remember, the magic word isn’t good-bye!
Carina, ask the question “Is it kind?” When it comes to being the social butterfly in any group of people you have an amazing talent for grasping the situation in all 360 degrees. Your challenge will be to take that same intelligence and motivation and apply it to your academic life in college, when there’s no Dave or Homework Club or Mom to keep things in balance.
Dan, ask the question “Do I really need to worry about this now?” I’ve found that 90% of the things I worry about fall by the wayside by the time I have to deal with them. I’m really glad we’ve gotten through the ceremony so far without any fines! You have been a loud voice of caring and concern for your friends and classmates, and a great promoter of Nora, while managing a stellar academic and athletic career. Going all the way back to Sparks your freshmen year to your current crew here today, you’ve been a good friend to many at Nora. A daaaarn good friend. Good luck in Mississippi.
Gwen, ask the question “How can I do this on my own?” We’ve gradually been able to wean you from the vampires and little ponies that you sometimes used to escape reality. Reading is a great pleasure for many of your teachers, but be sure to engage the physical world as well as the fantasy world. Your maturation over your four years with us got you over some tough challenges, and the ones ahead of you will be no less daunting. You have the tools, and we hope the confidence, to tackle life on your own going forward.
Jesse, ask the question “Is there evidence to support this belief?” We found it amazing to see the photos of you during your sophomore year, and the change in your emotional and intellectual maturity through today. I have no doubt that you have a great future ahead as either Secretary of State or a famous naturalist. Just remember when you take the Appalachian Trail to avoid the Mark Sanford side routes.
Jordan, ask the question “How can I do this?” You’ve been unafraid to take chances, keep doing so. Both Janette and I remember school fair that your aunt ran, when you came over and spoke with us and talked your way into Nora. A real rock-star without the prima-donna pretense, you’re steady presence in our musical performances and on our sports teams have been a great gift to Nora. And I’ve appreciated having someone greet me at the front door every morning at 7:30. You’re living testimony that by walking softly you can have a big impact. Good luck in Florida.
L’Darius, ask the question “Can I get help with this?” It’s been nice to get to know you this year, you’ve been a special guy, a friendly welcoming presence to all our new students this year. I hope you leave us knowing that just by being yourself you impress people, so there’s no need to put on a different persona.
Nadia, ask the question “Is this what I should be doing right now?” I can’t ever remember you having a bad day. There’s a phrase that describes some people’s impact on those around them, they’re known as “the straw that stirs the drink.” That has certainly been you, as you’ve welcomed new students into your circle of friends, which includes just about everyone at Nora. Just remember to balance pleasure with business
Patrick, ask the question “What do I have to lose by trying this?” From basketball to photography, your quiet steady presence belied a strong determination to do well at Nora. You were open to trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone, which really helped us on the basketball court. We eagerly anticipate your first feature film.
Sophie, ask the question “What are that person’s challenges in life?” You were also a quiet, steady presence showing your classmates what true resilience is, and your work ethic set an example for all. As you head out for new challenges you’ll no doubt meet more obstacles. We think that you have the strength to meet them.
Trey, ask the question “What’s the big picture here?” Your challenge going forward will be keeping the forest in view and not getting too lost in the trees. Your painstaking attention to detail has been interesting to watch, the trick now is to find a passion into which you can delve deeply. And remember to look at the big picture.
Vivian, our Sunshine Girl, ask the question “How can I make that person’s day better?” When I think of where you were 10 years ago, and then again 4 years ago, not only your career at Nora but your entire life has been a remarkable story of hard work, tenacity, and resiliency. Remember that everyone is having a tough time, and to forgive others as you wish to be forgiven.
Walter, ask the question “Why not?” It’s been great to see you come out of your shell and stretch your comfort zone, not only with your blistering guitar riffs but finally, in your senior year, in athletics and academics. I know that Trey in particular will miss the riffs and patience you brought to your classmates at Nora.
Class of 2013, 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.
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 everyone, even with people who annoy you and get on your nerves in a small school.
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.
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 Ave’s Spanish class your missing homework will be noticed.
Your parents hear if you skipped the trip to the Smithsonian, and they know when you’re not turning in drafts of your papers. Courtney notices when you show up late to Physics, and Patrick notices when you didn’t do your Chemistry lab. 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 presented your best academic work to the faculty in your Senior Portfolio presentations. 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 on 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, those four lessons with which we start every school year, it’s almost time to master new lessons, one’s that you’ll create yourselves.
During morning announcements each day we note historical events of great and small importance, as it gives us a sense of our place in the march of history as well as in the world. Today is the birth anniversary of two notable people, born thirty years apart, who made a difference in the world in very different ways. Jacques Cousteau was born on this date in 1910 in France. Like you, he studied hard in school, and went on to become an undersea explorer, as well as a writer, film maker, and environmental activist. He invented the Aqualung, which allowed divers to stay underwater for much longer periods of time than had previously been possible, thereby allowing all of us to know more about the oceans and the human impact upon them.
Jeannette Rankin was born in 1880, in Missoula Montana, forty years before women were allowed to vote nationwide. A suffragette, feminist, and pacifist, she became the first woman elected to Congress, and was the only representative to vote against US entry into both World War 1 and World War 2.
Why do I bring up these two disparate people? Because there’s one more question I want you all to ask yourselves, like these two people: “What can I do?” This is not just one excellent question to ask yourself, but it’s really four.
WHAT can I do? What am I good at? What do I enjoy? How am I spending my time? Am I choosing how to spend my time, attention and energy in interesting and worthwhile pursuits?
What CAN I do? What talents do I have? How am I developing those talents? How can I get better at what I do well? How can I compensate for things with which I struggle?
What can III do? Am I leaving those with whom I have contact better off? Am I making my small part of the universe a better place? I may not be able to bring peace to the Middle East, but am I bringing peace and comfort to my parents, my siblings, my classmates?
What can I DO? Am I taking action, or just dreaming my life away? Am I waiting for success to fall upon me, or am I doing the things I need to do to create the life I want?
Class of 2013, each of you has had challenges and obstacles in your life and in our education. Yet despite this you are among the luckiest people who’ve ever walked the face of the Earth. While American society and culture have plenty of problems, compared to the way most of the world lives we’re all in the top 10%. But to whom much is given, much is expected. Jacques Cousteau and Jeannette Rankin didn’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves, or sit around dreaming about how wonderful life could be, or wish that someone would invent the Aqualung or give women the right to vote to make their lives easier. They didn’t ask “What Do I HAVE to do?, They answered the challenge with which I leave you today. What. Can. I. Do?
On behalf of the entire Nora faculty and board of directors I wish you many joyful episodes in the years ahead, and hope that by bringing happiness to others each of you constructs a fulfilling life for yourself.