By Noah Bergam (V), Justin Li (V), and Aneesh Karuppur (V)
June 18, 2020
On the evening of June 11, the Pingry community received an email from Head of School Matt Levinson and the Board of Trustees confirming that Mr. Jake Ross was fired from The Pingry School. A few hours earlier, an apology email which Mr. Ross had sent to the baseball team earlier in the week began to circulate around the student body, and gained more public visibility as a result of an email from Alexandra Weber ‘20 sent to juniors and seniors; in her email, Weber stated that Mr. Ross had been barred by “the administration” from sending his apology to the whole school. The next day, a group of students, backed by over 600 petition signatures, sent an email to the Board of Trustees asking them to reinstate Mr. Ross.
Here is how we interpret the situation, according to the content and rhetoric of the Board’s June 11 termination letter, Mr. Ross’ apology letter, and the students’ June 12 letter to the Board.
On the week of June 8, an Instagram account operated by Pingry parents known as “_bigbluebaseball_” posted a picture of Mr Ross and the seniors on the boys’ baseball team, holding a banner that read “Everything Matters.” Some Pingry students thought the timing of this banner was in bad taste, since it resembled the slogan “All Lives Matter,” which is used as a protest against the Black Lives Matter movement.
If the June 11 letter from the Board answered one thing directly, it was that Mr. Ross was not fired for the Instagram post itself. Rather, he was fired for disrespectful conduct towards “school administrators,” including Mr. Levinson, when they attempted to “engage the community in dialogue” about the post and its impact.
Why was Mr. Ross disrespectful? Rather than providing any direct insight into the context of his frustration, or affirming the confidentiality of such context, the June 11 letter expounds on the idea that the conduct was part of a longer pattern of bad behavior: “This is also not the first instance in which he has demonstrated poor judgment and disrespect. We have learned there have been other instances that have resulted in a demotion of leadership responsibilities.” These words attack Ross’ character in past, possibly unrelated incidents rather than shedding light on the moment that actually caused him to get fired.
Moreover, the vocabulary describing Mr. Ross in this email is much harsher than that used to describe Mr. Graig Peterson in the August 27, 2019 email which announced Peterson’s firing in the wake of his use of “extensive, non-school-related electronic communication with several Upper School students.” In the August 27 email, written by Mr. Levinson and Upper School Director Ms. Chatterji, the only directly negative word used to describe Peterson’s behavior was “inappropriate,” whereas the June 11 email condemns Ross’ behavior with phrases such “unprofessional and inappropriate,” “unacceptable and antithetical to our values,” and “poor judgment and disrespect.” The June 12 petition letter pointed out the “usually strong terms used to characterize this incident,” going so far as to say that “the Dean Ross you described is not the Dean Ross we all know and love.”
The June 11 letter props up the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, treating Ross’ termination as a stepping stone towards that goal. The letter begins by quoting Mr. Levinson (or, as the letter colloquially refers to him, “Matt”) about his determination to uphold Pingry’s “inclusivity, honor, respect, and civic engagement” and ends with actions the school will take towards making a more inclusive educational environment. The aforementioned, overtly negative depiction of Ross, bookended by positive descriptions of the inclusive mission of the Board and Mr. Levinson in particular, implies that Mr. Ross personally stood in the way of this mission, and moreover that his termination contributed to the school’s goals of diversity and inclusion: “This letter and the actions below are only the first step.”
In his apology letter, Ross takes on a very different style from the Board; while the June 11 letter is self-promoting and, with 29 authors, profoundly impersonal, Ross’ letter establishes a voice that acknowledges mistakes and commits to personal change: “I clearly missed this one, but I will learn. I will be better.” Ross’ language is perhaps not as professional and self-assured as the Board’s (“The emotional rage and hurt I feel each time I think about what it must be like to be a black person in America, is not something I can convey in an email”) yet it embodies his open, relatable style as a leader, which the June 12 petition letter from students defends as a quality that allowed him, as a dean, to contribute to diversity and inclusion at Pingry with “sensitivity, dignity, and swiftness.”
The June 12 petition letter takes a sharp stance against the rhetoric of the June 11 message, stating that the “vagueness of the statements in the letter we received has also done little to assuage our concerns about the handling of this incident.” It implies that the June 11 email increased the very “deepening polarity” it pointed out and may have broken the Honor Code principle of “confidentiality in disciplinary proceedings” considering how it “so readily and publicly humiliate[d] a colleague.” Ultimately, the letter makes a bold request to the Board: “rectify your mistake by reinstating him.”
As of June 19, The Board of Trustees and Mr. Levinson have yet to respond.
We do not know much about the situation surrounding Mr. Ross’ misconduct: neither its severity nor its source. What we do know is that, between the language that the Board and Mr. Levinson used to describe Ross, and the language used by students and Ross himself, we have two very different pictures of the former dean––one depicting a disrespectful figure who stood in the way of diversity and inclusion, and the other depicting a crucial part of the Pingry community who actively supported the endeavour.
The annual Art Faculty Exhibition was on display in the Hostetter Gallery through January 31. The exhibition featured the work of many Pingry studio art teachers, including Ms. Xiomara Babilonia, Ms. Melody Boone, Mr. Miles Boyd, Mr. Russell Christian, Ms. Rebecca Sullivan, Mr. Rich Freiwald, Ms. Patti Jordan, and Ms. Nan Ring.
Last year, the faculty exhibit, entitled “Now and Then,” explored the teacher’s artistic evolutions. By comparing their older pieces to new creations, viewers were able to see the growth and development of the teachers’ styles. Once again, this year’s exhibit displayed the faculty’s creativity and talent. On Wednesday, January 29, Pingry students and faculty were invited to a reception that celebrated the exhibit. While enjoying snacks, visitors explored the various pieces and appreciated the beautiful artwork.
Among the pieces on display was Ms. Nan Ring’s “Veiled Figures” series. Throughout the series, she explores “the way we fit in—or not—to our bodies, our clothes, our culture, and the planet.” When searching for inspiration, Ms. Ring was drawn to a veil’s “myriad folds and geometric patterns formed by the way the gauzy material overlaps itself as it is draped on the wearer.” She’s hopes that her “paintings evolve for viewers as the viewer evolves” and that they “mean different things to the viewer at different times of their life, just like a poem does for a reader.” In her paintings, Ms. Ring showcased the beauty and complexity of veils, as she explored the versatility of them.
Next up in the gallery is the 24th annual Student Photography Show, which will be showing in the gallery until March 3. The show features the works of students from eleven different private and public schools across the region. Both exhibits, back-to-back, put the talent and creativity of the faculty, and the students they help mentor, on display for the whole community.
Herr Igor Jasinski is back! This year, he will be teaching a variety of both Upper and Middle School courses: German I, German III and IV for high schoolers, and German IA for the sixth graders. He is also a faculty advisor of the Polyglot magazine, and a Middle School Homework Club proctor.
Herr Jasinski grew up in a small town in Germany outside of Düsseldorf, and later went to the University of Düsseldorf, earning his Grundstudium (bachelor’s) degree in Philosophy and German Literature and Linguistics. From there, he received his Hauptstudium (graduate) degree from the University of Tubingham in Philosophy and Modern German Literature. He then participated in graduate studies, including a Ph.D. program in Philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York, earning an MA in the subject.
Herr Jasinski’s teaching career began at Bergen County Academies, shortly after finishing his Ph.D program. He had never taught before, but he says that even during his interview for the position, he could tell that teaching was something he really loved: “It’s hard to quantify it, but it was interacting with the students that felt great… How you create a community, and the feeling you get when it works and you’ve created a curiosity and openness in a student, I feel like I connected with that.” After Bergen County, Jasinski taught at a variety of schools, both private and public, including William-Cullen Bryant High School and Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School for German and/or Philosophy.
Herr Jasinski began at Pingry in 2009 and taught classes here for five years before deciding to take a sabbatical in 2014; he enrolled in a Montclair-based EdD, or Doctorate of Education, program in Pedagogy and Philosophy. To write his dissertation, he moved to a city on the coast of Mexico, Puerto Escondido. While he was there, he received and accepted his first book offer. Giorgio Agamben: Education without Ends was published at the end of 2018.
After publishing his book, Herr Jasinski decided that it was time to get back to teaching, scouring the U.S. for available jobs. Luckily for us, he was able to come back and teach at Pingry. Though he admits he does not have a lot of free time, Herr Jasinski loves to run, Salsa dance, and do yoga. He is also hoping to start a Philosophy Club here at Pingry this year, and maybe even propose a course on the subject. “Teaching philosophy to young people is a real passion of mine,” he says. We wish him the best of luck this year, and are excited to have him back!
Mr. Joseph Napolitano is thrilled to join the Pingry faculty as a teacher as well as a set designer. He will be co-teaching sections of the Scenic Costume and Design course this year, and has already been named Head Set Designer for all of Pingry’s drama productions. In addition to designing, he plans to assist in set construction, as well as tackle various other aspects of Pingry Drama, ranging from ticketing services to environmental graphic upgrades and marketing initiatives.
Before joining Pingry, Mr. Napolitano attended Rowan University. After graduating, he worked on design. “[I] collaborated with a variety of organizations and universities on creative placemaking, experience design projects, large-scale public art, and production design for theatre and television,” he mentioned. He’s also taught design workshops and classes and really enjoyed the experience, which is one of the reasons he wanted to teach at Pingry. “[They] inspired me to seek out further opportunities for sharing my knowledge of process,” he recalled.
So far, Mr. Napolitano enjoys being a part of the Pingry community. “My experiences thus far at Pingry have been wonderful!” he remarks. “I’m extremely grateful for the drama department faculty and staff. I could not have asked for a better team to be a part of.”
Mr. Napolitano is currently working with part of the Student Tech and Design Crew for this year’s fall play, Our Town. He has really enjoyed working with these students so far, stating, “I’m most grateful to have witnessed moments of brilliance amongst our theatre design/tech crew students in the shop.”
One goal he has for this year is to educate his students about the different areas of production design and hopefully spread his passion to aspiring designers. Another goal is to “draw parallels to adjacent areas of study [e.g., architecture, thematic design, technology, etc.] and identify specific skills that are used not only in theatre-making, but in many other disciplines as well.”
Outside of Pingry, Mr. Napolitano designs professional productions, including Into the Woods, Urinetown, and other productions both on and off Broadway, and has won multiple awards for his designs.
He also is passionate about sustainability in his profession, and enjoys working with the charitable organization Broadway Green Alliance. With this organization, he works “on multiple sustainable initiatives industry-wide,” which promote recycling and sustainability in the Broadway community.
He is incredibly excited to getting to know the community in the upcoming year! Welcome, Mr. Napolitano!
The Upper School Mathematics Department welcomes Mr. Zhaojun Yong, who will be teaching both Honors Geometry and Advanced Algebra and Geometry. Besides teaching, he will also be coaching the boys’ freshman basketball team and advising a club in the middle school.
Mr. Yong is no stranger to New Jersey. Having grown up near Rutgers, he is familiar with the Basking Ridge area. In his free time, he enjoys playing sports, mainly tennis and basketball. “Sports, as well as running in general, are great ways to get my mind off of school and academics,” he said. Mr. Yong is especially drawn to playing basketball, having been a member of his high school basketball team. This experience played a large role in his inclination to coach basketball at Pingry. “I’ve always loved playing basketball,” Mr. Yong said. “Especially now that some of my students are also involved with the team, it creates another dimension towards them in terms of understanding who they are.” Mr. Yong praises basketball for its ability to “allow kids to interact in a manner different from class settings.” With the season approaching, he is looking forward to coaching the team.
Prior to coming to Pingry, Mr. Yong attended college at NYU, where he majored in mathematics. He recently finished graduate school at Columbia University. There, he furthered his schooling in mathematics, earning his master’s degree in Mathematics Education.
During his time at college, he often served as an informal tutor for his fellow peers; he helped them whenever they had difficulty with math-related problems. This informal service soon unveiled Mr. Yong’s passion for teaching and paved the way for his future career.
Mr. Yong started his educational career by working as a substitute teacher. “The desire to want to help students and help others” was his main motivation for teaching. In the past, he knew that many of his peers saw math as too difficult, and they would, therefore, shy away from the subject. In hopes of changing these perceptions, Mr. Yong strives to create an atmosphere in his classes where “students do not feel discouraged,” and rather feel open and “accepting towards new challenges.”
At Pingry, Mr. Yong aspires to “help more high schoolers to not feel so intimidated by math.” He plans to achieve this by “helping prepare [students] as best as I can, in terms of what I know and what I can do.” Good luck, Mr. Yong!
With a passion for teaching and love for the Spanish language and culture, Ms.Guadalupe Nunez receives a warm Pingry community welcome. This fall, Señora Nunez joined Pingry as a Middle School Spanish teacher and Form I advisor. In addition, she will be helping with the production of the Middle School play.
Ms. Nunez graduated from Syracuse University, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Human Resource Management. She received her Master’s Degree in Foreign Language Education from New York University. Before joining Pingry, Ms. Nunez taught Spanish to elementary and middle school students at schools such as Hunter College Elementary School, Trevor Day School, and New Canaan Country School.
Besides her teaching posts, she also implemented a program for non-English speaking students at Teach for America and worked with other non-profits around the New York City area including the International Rescue Committee, the Coalition for the Homeless, and El Museo del Barrio. In addition to these roles, Ms. Nunez has also worked with a middle school on their diversity committee.
Throughout this school year, Ms. Nunez sincerely hopes to “infuse a love for learning languages and for appreciating the people and culture of the Spanish-speaking world,” which ties in to her passion for teaching. Ms. Nunez says that she was “inspired to become a teacher because through teaching, I feel you can empower students to follow their dreams and be advocates for themselves.”
Outside of Pingry, Ms. Nunez enjoys cooking and taking part in different recreational activities with her two sons. When asked what she enjoys about Pingry, she says that she particularly admires the inquisitive nature students and honorable character of the students.
This year, the Upper School History Department welcomes Mr. Saad Toor, who will be teaching three sections of World History 9 and one section of World History 10.
Mr. Toor recently completed his M.Sc. in South Asian Studies at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where he was fortunate enough to be taught by important world leaders such as Hillary Clinton, the Prime Ministers of Kosovo and Kenya, and many British ambassadors. In addition, he was a classmate to politicians and important figures in the world, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
At Oxford, Mr. Toor studied the history of Pakistan and India under British colonization, as well as the geopolitical aftermath of decolonization that continues to affect the region to this day. Outside of class, Mr. Toor played cricket for the Oxford Pakistan XI club team and Merton College club teams, and trained with the Wolfson-Saint Cricket Club and Oxenford Cricket Club. Mr. Toor was also active in debate at Oxford, and was fortunate enough to debate Gandhi’s grandson on the Indian Partition.
Alongside his M.Sc. in Modern South Asian Studies, Mr. Toor holds both an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction and a B.A. in Political Science with a minor in History and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Connecticut.
Mr. Toor taught college students at the University of Connecticut’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Stanford Unviersity’s Bing Overseas Program. He also taught history to high school students for two years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at an international school, and taught for two years in the Connecticut public school system.
Mr. Toor brings a unique global perspective from his studies in the UK and two years teaching in Saudi Arabia, and he hopes that his “extensive global experience will inspire Pingry students to reach out of their comfort zone and go abroad to have life-changing experiences similar to what I did.”
Having lived in three different countries and two different states in the last four years, Mr. Toor hopes that New Jersey will be a new and welcoming home for him. He is especially interested in Pingry’s Honor Code, and how it “inspires students to hold themselves to the standards of ‘Excellence and Honor’ and try new things in school.” He plans to try new things as well, and intends to “learn all sorts of life lessons from [his] own students” as they grow throughout the year. He is thrilled to bring expertise on the histories and politics of the Middle East, Pakistan, and India to the classroom, and hopes that his students will be just as interested in history as he is.
In his free time, Mr. Toor loves playing and watching cricket, and has written several commentaries on the sport. He is an avid Dallas sports fan, and loves watching UConn college basketball during March Madness.
As the new school year begins, Pingry is extremely fortunate to welcome Dr. Zachary Wakefield to the History Department. He attended Juniata College, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in history. He then went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D at Auburn University, both in history as well. Prior to joining the Pingry community, he spent four years working as a history teacher and coach at a boarding school.
At Pingry, Dr. Wakefield is teaching three World History 9 classes and one AP US History Class, where he has already spearheaded some of his unique classroom practices. These include placing phones in a basket at the start of class, as well as taking paper notes instead of electronic notes. When asked how these tactics benefitted the classroom environment, it all came down to keeping students focused: “People have been conditioned to pick up their cell phones or check social media as soon as they get a notification,” he explained. “I get that, so rather than me getting upset and disrupting class, I like to just take it out of the equation.”
In addition to the techniques he has brought with him, Dr. Wakefield wants to try new methods and expand his horizons. “My goal for the school year is just to get out of my comfort zone, teaching-wise, and maybe try more student-driven activities,” he said. He would also like to attend a number of academic conferences. After his first month at Pingry, he is optimistic: “The students are smart, and they keep me on my toes,” he said laughing. “They’re pushing me, which makes for a really good classroom environment.” He also enjoys the vibrant atmosphere, as well as the rural setting. “I love the area; it reminds me of where I grew up,” he remarked.
In keeping with his passion for history, Dr. Wakefield’s hobbies are quite worldly. When he’s not teaching, Dr. Wakefield loves being outdoors, whether that be hiking or going to the beach. He is also an avid reader and traveler.
Being a new teacher can be intimidating, but Dr. Wakefield is ready to rise to the occasion. “Even though I’m starting at a new school, which is challenging, I’m going to try my best to grow as a teacher and achieve my goals,” he stated. Good luck, Dr. Wakefield!
This fall, the Pingry community welcomed Mr. Michael Wang, who teaches Chinese 1, two sections of Chinese 3, and Chinese 6. In addition to teaching, Mr. Wang chaperones the Middle School Homework Club.
Mr. Wang graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Before coming to Pingry, he was a teacher at St. George’s School in Newport, RI. He has taught Chinese for 18 years at all levels, including AP. Besides teaching Chinese, Mr. Wang coached soccer and was a dorm advisor.
So far, Mr. Wang really enjoys Pingry. “Pingry is a very friendly environment; it is like a home and like a family,” he said. His goal this year at Pingry is to get to know his students well in order to better serve and adapt to their needs.
The one aspect of Pingry which really sticks out to Mr. Wang is the teacher-student relations. In his interview he pointed out the constructive familiarity between teachers and students. This was a large factor in his decision to work at Pingry. The small greetings and interactions he saw were something he hadn’t seen in other schools.
Outside of school, Mr. Wang likes to exercise. He enjoys running, playing basketball with his youngest son, and exploring new local areas.
The Pingry community welcomes Ms. Yifan Xu this fall as a teacher of Middle and Upper School Chinese. She will be teaching levels 1A, 1B, and Chinese 2 in the Upper School. She has two years of prior teaching experience before coming to Pingry, having taught Chinese at an all-girls boarding school in Virginia. Ms. Xu received her B.A from Beijing Language and Culture University, majoring in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. She went on to study at SUNY Binghamton where she received her M.A in Asian Studies.
Ms. Xu loves the Pingry community so far, explaining how other teachers have welcomed her with open arms. “The faculty here are all very dedicated to their work and have a passion for teaching.” She said, “They are all very supportive of me as a young teacher.”
Her inspiration for teaching comes from a passion for spreading knowledge. “Every time I can see the excitement and curiosity in the students’ eyes, that motivates me to be a teacher.”
Ms. Xu is a dedicated teacher with many objectives for her students. She has been impressed and is excited by her students thus far, saying that, “They are very creative and engaged in learning.” Her main goals at Pingry this year are to develop a positive environment in her classroom and make sure her students progress as Chinese speakers. “I want to build positive student-teacher relationships,” she remarked.
Outside of Pingry, Ms. Xu currently lives in New Brunswick and enjoys hiking, as well as cooking and K-Pop. On the weekends, she is always up for viewing a good horror movie. We wish Ms. Xu good luck on achieving her goals!