By Ouarida Benatia ’18
I showed up to my first day at Pingry in the September of 6th grade wearing the preppiest outfit I could think of: khaki shorts, a pastel orange shirt, and tennis shoes. I had gone to a Newark public school for my entire life up until then, and choosing my own clothes was a stark difference from the daily uniform I was accustomed to. Although I was still technically out of dress code, I remember feeling so lucky that I could wear anything I wanted to.
I had missed my bus so I was very late to my first class, which was Spanish with Sra. Lawrence. When I stepped inside Pingry, I was greeted by Ms. Egan, who knew my name and how to help and immediately stepped into action. She was a comforting source of warmth and I knew I had someone to fall back on then, which was reassuring.
When I stepped into class half an hour late, clearly out of dress code, and dripping from the pouring rain, I could feel all eyes on me. It dawned on me that I knew no one and this was everyone’s first impression of me. I tried to make a friend. I introduced myself to the person sitting next to me and reached out for a handshake, but my hand was so wet from the rain that they slowly retracted theirs. I can laugh about this now, but at the time, I deemed it one of the top 5 worst moments of my life. I began to wonder if I would ever fit into this foreign environment, and closed myself off from new interactions for a long time.
As the day progressed, I made many visits to Ms. Egan’s desk, asking her a wide range of questions to try to get the run-down on Pingry. She answered each question clearly and thoroughly, and assured me that I would get the hang of things soon enough.
Ms. Egan was right, and eventually I could focus on all the great things Pingry had to offer. These discoveries were admittedly surface level at first; they were all things you could find out on the Pingry website, such as the wide range of clubs we had or the fantastic help we got from our teachers or how fun our overnight trips were.
I also remember being so shocked at the diversity of food options at lunch, as I had eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of boxed chocolate milk every day for the past 6 years. I wish I had kept that gratefulness with me throughout my entire Pingry experience, because it was easy to lose sight of how lucky I was, as these privileges became the norm.
Throughout my middle school years, I would occasionally get detentions for things I can’t recall, and I would have to sit on the couch next to Ms. Egan’s desk. These detentions were where I actually discovered the most valuable thing Pingry has to offer. It was something you can’t just look up, but instead have to experience yourself.
The rule of detention is that you sit quietly and reflect on whatever it is that you did. Instead, I would chat away with Ms. Egan and anyone that walked into the office. I would ask about her personal life, and she would answer my questions, always followed by, “but Ouarida, I really shouldn’t be talking to you.” I realized through those detention talks with her and others that everyone is so much more complex than they seem — especially the people at Pingry.
Every single person has a lifetime of wisdom and experiences to share. As soon as I realized this, I began talking to everyone I saw, including teachers, students, maintenance workers, photographers, cooks, and the parents at the bookstore. And I got to learn so much about everyone. I gained a wealth of knowledge through small, unexpected moments of interaction in my days, and although they all started off as small talk, they are the moments I cherish most.
When asking Mr. Chilmonik how to pronounce his name while getting coffee one morning, he presented to me a thrilling history of the origin of names, 1920’s alcohol laws, and how his family tied into that.
When asking Ms. Easter about why she always responds “I’m blessed” to a “How are you,” she opened up to me about the setbacks she’s had in her life and how lucky she feels to be where she is now.
When waiting for another teacher during conference period, Ms. Torres and I shared the similarities and feats/frustrations of claiming two different countries as home in a relaxed but meaningful conversation.
I often hear people talking about how the assembly speakers we have at Pingry open their eyes to struggles they had never considered and stories they overlooked. Those speakers truly are extraordinary and I personally find myself moved by every speech I see. But you don’t have to wait for those special arranged moments to learn from the lives of others. I’ve come to understand that one of the best things about Pingry is that you can enhance your life at any time through the smallest ways. Something as simple as getting to know the person you smile at in the halls everyday can change the path of your life for the better.
Everyone at Pingry has an amazing story to share, and I am confident of that. It is up to us individually to seek those stories and take advantage of the wisdom in our community. It’s a type of education you have to facilitate yourself, and I think that it is also the most rewarding.