Some time back, I wrote a commentary regarding AP-designation courses at Pingry, and how Pingry ought to consider phasing them out. Given the events of the past few weeks, I would like to update that message: I feel that it is now imprudent for Pingry to offer AP Courses, and I hope that this transition occurs as soon as possible.
This might seem like a bit of a dramatic change––I admit that perhaps my last commentary was less vicious towards the College Board. However, the coronavirus has exposed some of the concerns that before, we could only hypothesize about. Our current situation demonstrates that the College Board is ineffective, unnecessary, and has been abusing its monopolistic status over testing.
Colleges and universities have begun showing the same attitudes towards the College Board’s standardized test products. Almost every school will be test-optional for the upcoming admissions season, if they were not already. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced in March that it would refuse to consider SAT Subject Tests outright for future admissions seasons as well. As colleges emphasize “holistic admissions” and considering “the whole person,” it’s clear that traditional exam-based metrics are being relegated to first-round screening of applicants rather than acting as deciding factors.
I agree wholeheartedly with those decisions. I have forgotten much of the material that I crammed for my AP World History exam last year; meanwhile, the information that I learned in Pingry’s World History 9 and 10 classes still stays with me. I have no appreciation for AP exams other than the fact that colleges take them as proof of introductory-level course completion. In fact, I feel animosity towards the College Board for their insistence that the exams demonstrate understanding rather than memorization; I have found that their exams are based around limited interpretations and memorized facts, despite their pretensions.
The coronavirus has only demonstrated how embarrassingly pointless College Board’s exams, particularly the APs, have become. The shortened 45-minute exams include a maximum of two questions, with many exams only having one single essay question. In addition, not only do this year’s exam exclude large chunks of material due to their truncated nature, but the College Board has axed the final few units from the accompanying AP Courses. Classes that strictly follow those courses learn less and still demonstrate only a fraction of that knowledge on the exam.
The College Board insists that they have worked with colleges to consider these new AP Exams as course credit, but I am extremely doubtful of that. Take the AP Physics Mechanics exam: why should any college consider a two-question exam that covers probably half of the learned units, not to mention the complete removal of orbital and simple harmonic motion, as equivalent to a full year of introductory physics? In any case, the normal AP Courses are not at the level of rigor as a college course––how could a truncated version carry any semblance of the same value? The College Board refuses to answer these questions properly or honestly.
Moreover, the College Board has done a less-than-satisfactory job of administering the online exams. Countless students––including many at Pingry––have watched their exams refuse to submit through the AP testing system. Beyond that, the College Board sent out a broken makeup test link; after outrage online, they fixed it, but didn’t bother to update anyone or even apologize. Meanwhile, they’ve been posting tone-deaf Tweets about catching cheaters, while upstanding students are left to wait several weeks just to learn whether they’re eligible for the makeup exam. And, despite the fact that the exam is a quarter of the length that it was before, College Board is charging full price ($94) and will take longer to grade the exams than normal.
All of this stems from the fact that College Board’s AP is essentially unchallenged in the market for class-based, subject-specific standardized tests. Its only competitor is the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Most schools offer either one or the other; few offer both, meaning that most students don’t have a choice as to which advanced courses they can take. Their quasi-monopoly over such schools has allowed them to offer lower-quality products while remaining unchallenged, as it’s very difficult for a school to suddenly switch from AP to IB. While the IB program has cancelled their exams, the AP system forged ahead in their revolutionary product of mismanagement and terrible user experience.
As a final note, Pingry doesn’t benefit from boasting about the number of AP courses or exams it offers. Pingry’s curriculum highly restricts when and which AP Courses students can take. For example, all students must take the Biology-Chemistry sequence in the first two years, while other schools (including public schools) allow students to take AP Chemistry or AP Biology much earlier. Pingry doesn’t offer AP World History, AP Environmental Science, AP Human Geography, AP Research, or AP Seminar courses; for the latter two, I can’t recall a single Pingry student who has taken those exams. Thus, since Pingry already does not fully conform to the AP program, we should be able to do away with AP Courses with few qualms. If teachers can design curricula that have real-world value, rather than dedicate time to an increasingly obsolete test, all members of the community will benefit. The AP Exams can be offered as independent signups for those students who wish to take them.
The College Board has nothing to lose by remaining aloof and ignorant of students’ and teachers’ frustrations. I hope that Pingry can join other independent schools in abandoning the AP for good.
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.
When my parents told my brother that they wanted him to take a gap year before starting school at Trinity College, let’s just say he was less than pleased. To be more precise, he was mortified. Taking a gap year would mean he wouldn’t be in the same grade as his friends. It would mean he wouldn’t have the freedom that college grants. And, worst of all, it would mean he’d have to wait another year before he could join a fraternity. To my brother, taking a gap year was a social death sentence.
My brother wasn’t alone in his eagerness to go to college. The concept of college life, with all its glorious freedom, is one that entices many Pingry students. I myself have been talking about college so much that my father had to buy me college guide books just to get me to shut up about it. But while college is exciting, is it smart to rush into college so quickly?
The concept of the gap year––a year spent between the end of high school and the beginning of college, usually for the sake of travel––was popularized as early as the 1960s. Its original purpose was actually geopolitical, not simply for the enjoyment of the traveling individual but more importantly for two countries to exchange religious and cultural ideas in order to maintain peace between them. Although war is less thought about now than it was then, gap years have only grown in popularity and variety. A number of celebrities, including Steve Jobs, J.K Rowling, and Hugh Jackman, took gap years.
But, what makes a gap year appealing? A 2015 national alumni survey conducted by the American Gap Association asked one hundred students from across the country that very question. The data showed that by taking a gap year not only did students’ communication skills and self-confidence increase, but they were able to learn through hands-on experience about different cultures. The data showed that gap years can also improve students’ academic performance. According to a 2017 study of GPA results by Robert Clagett, gap year students tended to outperform in college by 0.1 to 0.4 on a 4.0 scale, with the positive effects lasting the entire four years. Gap years are so effective, in fact, that certain colleges have gone on to encourage them. These colleges include Tufts and Princeton, both of which have been very popular colleges amung Pingry graduates in past years.
And if traveling isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry. There are thousands of other things you can do on a gap year. From interning to volunteering locally to enrolling in online courses, the possibilities are endless. A gap year is simply a time to develop as an individual. It’s a time to learn things that you wouldn’t ordinarily learn in a classroom. You choose how and what you want to learn. And that is, perhaps, the most appealing thing about them.
As for Ben, he ended up going on his gap year. He spent five months in Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia, where he did everything from skydiving to volunteering with local youth to scuba diving. When I asked him, he said he couldn’t remember why he didn’t want to go in the first place.
Of course, gap years aren’t for everyone. But it’s comforting to know that there are options for the future. If the conventional timeline doesn’t appeal to you, then there are thousands of other ways to live your life that are both exciting and educational. All you have to do is find the path that works best for you.
In the last year-and-a-half, the departures of teachers such as Mr. Peterson, Ms. Taylor, and Mr. Thompson did not pass without controversy and speculation. Despite the uncertainty clouding most of these departures, it is undeniable that each one these teachers, and every faculty member at Pingry, offers something unique to the community; this year, the absences of these teachers have made us especially aware of this fact. As such, their departures left many of us feeling disappointed, and in many cases confused.
By speaking one-on-one with a few students, I have gleaned that the effect of these recent departures and the broader issue of teacher turnover is a topic students want to discuss. Aneesh Karuppur (V), for example, tells me that he is specifically “concerned regarding the number of departures each year, as it hurts the continuity throughout the years, as well as the solidity of Pingry’s teaching style and curriculum.” He also mentions that “as more and more of the Magistri faculty leave each year, it’s very important to secure replacements who will be able to stay at Pingry for similarly long periods of time.“
The foundation of an effective education, especially at Pingry, is the student-teacher relationship, and the concerns of Aneesh and many others raise important questions about Pingry as an educational institution. However, it is important to examine whether concerns like these are even justifiable. Looking past the particularly conspicuous departures in recent years, is teacher turnover really an issue at Pingry? Is the administration doing enough to make Pingry a place where teachers want to teach, and keep teaching?
To begin my investigation, I took a quantitative approach. In search of a reliable faculty database, I spoke with Dr. Dinkins, who informed me that such a resource was not readily accessible and instead advised me to look through past yearbooks. While yearbooks would not allow me to examine metrics, like average faculty tenure, using them in combination with departing faculty articles in the Record’s annual commencement issues allowed me to generate an annual proportion of departing faculty. This statistic would provide a broad picture of teacher turnover each year, which I could further categorize by department.
At home, I laid out the yearbooks I had accumulated on my bookshelf from 2012 to 2019 and recorded the number of Upper and Middle School faculty in each department each year, as well as the number of Magistri across all three campuses (I chose to exclude administrators since their turnover does not necessarily fit within the scope of my investigation and a large portion of administrators also taught classes in other departments). I added the department totals to obtain a total number of teaching faculty, making an effort to avoid double-counting faculty members who appeared in multiple departments, such as Mr. Lear or Ms. Thuzar.
I found that from 2012 to 2018, the proportion of faculty departures remained relatively consistent. The only notable feature of the graph occurs in 2019, where 9.4% of total teaching faculty departed and the graph indicates a significant upward spike, giving some justification to the recent concern. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that this singular spike, which could very likely be an outlier, indicates any overarching issue with teacher turnover at Pingry. However, it is notable that the number of Magistri has declined rather steadily since 2012, a trend that affirms Aneesh’s concern that fewer and fewer of Pingry’s faculty are holders of this prestigious distinction.
I decided it might also be interesting to see the differences in faculty retention across departments; I observed that the department that seems to retain its faculty the best is the arts department, which sees an average 5.47% of its faculty leave each year since 2012. By my metric, the language department seems to be the worst, with an average percentage at 11.04%, which doubles that of the arts department
While quantitative analysis can be informative, I do not feel it is sufficient to survey an issue as nuanced as teacher turnover solely by the use of statistics. In an effort to humanize my analysis, I spoke with US Director Chatterji, who was familiar with many of the recently departed faculty and could give me a more personal outlook on the issue. We talked first about the measures Pingry takes to incentivize teachers to keep teaching at Pingry. While she pointed out that Pingry has no formal incentivization program, she stressed the importance of “conversation” to faculty retention. She says that “teachers want to teach at Pingry because of its emphasis on human relationships.” She cited the numerous instances in which she had written recommendations for teachers applying for positions at other schools: by speaking about their experience and perhaps making a change to what they’re teaching, their office space, or the number of seasons they coach, these teachers were often happier and chose to continue teaching at Pingry, even with other job offers on the table.
She also made an important distinction between the types of departures, saying that “[Pingry] can’t hold all people. Our goal is not to retain people who are leaving because of retirement, marriage, or other life circumstances.” Instead, she believes that the more important number to look at is how many teachers are moving to other schools in pursuit of something Pingry wasn’t providing. Mr. Karrat or Dr. Chin-Shefi are examples of teachers who could fall into this category. Looking at departures from this lens, there does not seem to be a trend or major issue, with an average of 2.5 faculty moving to different schools each year and the rest leaving for largely unpreventable reasons.
The third category of departures is dismissals. While often the most dramatic and memorable, this is the category over which Pingry has the least control, as the school cannot control the behavior of its faculty. Nonetheless, I chose to look into an area where Pingry can exert at least some influence over the frequency at which they are forced to dismiss teachers: the hiring process. Ms. Chatterji explained that Pingry posts job openings in various locations, including job search websites, as well as on the “Employment” page of pingry.org. Mr. Dinkins, and now Ms. Holmes-Glogwer, in collaboration with department chairs, then sorts through resumes and applications from these various channels to identify qualified candidates. If the number of dismissals is actually an issue, which I don’t have the data to conclude (the Record does not write departing faculty articles for dismissed faculty), perhaps Pingry is losing its ability to attract candidates who, once hired, can continue to uphold the standard that Pingry expects from its faculty. Eva Schiller (V) also mentions that “there seems to be very extreme punishment for certain teachers without widespread preventative measures being made across the board,” and I concur that clearer guidelines for faculty conduct might help reduce the number of necessary dismissals.
Ultimately, though, I believe this investigation indicates that the Pingry administration seems to be doing their best to retain faculty. As the statistics I gathered show, recent concern likely stems from last year’s unusually high departure rate, and while the number of Magistri does seem to be declining, there is no way to say it will not rise again in the near future. At the same time, teacher turnover is an important issue to monitor, and investigations like this one can allow us to hold the school accountable if an abnormal teacher turnover rate begins to more conclusively tarnish the Pingry experience.
A metapoem is a poem about poetry. The poem, somehow, has crossed the fourth wall and recognized itself as a sequence of words and letters. It can then evaluate itself, and even criticize itself. Think of this article as something of a meta-article: an article about articles. Specifically, an article about the credibilityof the Pingry Record. Are we openly and accurately reporting Pingry news, or have we––as my title indicates––gone soft?
Perhaps I should clarify what it means to “go soft.” I define it as ignoring relevant topics for the sole purpose of avoiding controversy and protecting the Pingry ‘brand.’ I should also clarify that the Pingry Record is not, nor has it ever been, an organ of the administration. All content and all editorial decisions come from students and faculty advisors. As Dean Chatterji informed me, “the administration does not provide input into what the Record covers.”
Nonetheless, based on issues from the last fifteen years, the Pingry Record is undeniably more conservative than it used to be. The following are examples of controversial and problematic topics found in old issues, all of which I believe are not appropriate for a 2020 issue.
1. An opinion piece called “The Real Zero Tolerance Policy,” which appears on page three of the January 2003 issue. The article, which is publicly available on the Pingry website, discusses racial issues at Pingry, as well as political correctness and racist politicians. It takes just one quick skim of the article for a modern day reader to spot multiple points of contention. In addition to its subject, the piece includes biting quips about racial inequality, as well as racist statements (written ironically) and uncensored racial slurs. Clearly, this is in no way acceptable for a 2020 issue, nor should it be. However, it certainly demonstrates just how significantly the culture of Pingry, and by extension, the Record, has changed in past years.
In addition to publishing controversial articles, older issues of the Record report a coarser version of Pingry news.
2. The April 2004 issue dedicates a front page headline to the news that “Financial Aid Funds Will Not Meet Students’ Need.” An editorial on page two, and two additional articles on page four further explore the problem and criticize the “moral message… the school [is] sending if qualified applicants cannot attend Pingry due to financial need.”
3. The April 2004 issue also includes a rather harsh letter from former Assistant Headmaster Adam Rohdie, who “…ask[ed] the editors to rethink what is at the core of Pingryʼs Honor Code.”
3. The April 2009 issue includes a student interview featuring expletives and a joke about anorexia (in response to the question: “Mary Kate or Ashley”).
It is important to note that the aforementioned cases are not consistent with every single article and issue published during these years. As Student Body President Brian Li (VI) noted, “the content of the paper ebbs and flows as leadership transitions from year to year.” However, I chose to highlight the most controversial articles because they set the previous limitations of the Pingry Record. Topics that were once considered in bounds are now considered out of bounds, making it difficult to deny that the Record has developed into a “softer” establishment.
This could be due to a number of reasons: cancel culture, increased awareness of diversity and inclusion, and rising political polarity have found their way into Pingry and beyond within the last ten years. As a result, we all have to be more conscious of how our actions affect others, and the Record has come to reflect that. Just this year, the editorial staff took steps to ensure that our opinion remained neutral on difficult topics such as teacher-student relationships. As an editor, I can attest that other hot topics––TikTok Honor Code violations and racial slurs still floating around on campus––are also, by some unspoken rule, not within the bounds of Record material (ironically, in mentioning them, I run the risk of crossing that boundary).
That said, a softer Record is not necessarily a bad thing.
The internet age puts us all in the spotlight, amplifying the impact of small actions that would have gone unnoticed pre-social media. This makes the new decade a difficult time for daring or accusatory articles. A kinder and gentler Record could perhaps indicate that “students are more considerate of the community, and how their words might impact those around them,” Dean Chatterji points out.
Of course, I in no way advocate the curses, racial slurs, and insensitive comments I found in older issues of the Record. However, the candor of the content I cited, despite fostering controversy, did increase its appeal and create a genuine time capsule of the Pingry community. I respect those articles for their openness. At the end of the day, the Record staff has the power to impact the opinions of the Pingry community, and if we can’t discuss hard topics openly, nobody will. Thus, as an editor, I feel it is our responsibility to learn from past articles and recapture their candor, while still retaining a higher level of cultural respect. If we do so tactfully, we could paint a more raw and genuine picture of Pingry.
A few weeks ago, I got to participate in my first Pingry Career Day; I found it to be just what I expected. The alumni were engaging, knowledgeable, and insightful, and my only complaint was that I didn’t get to spend enough time with them. Overall, it was a great experience.
But, as I left each room, I thought about the speakers’ thoughts on college education and the value of Pingry. Most said they did not learn the knowledge they use on a daily basis in college or at Pingry, but instead entirely on the job. To these speakers, their college education was more of a logic exercise than a specific skill-set.
Of course, this heavily depends on the line of work one goes into. Somebody interested in researching computer science would obviously find it beneficial to study computer science in college, while somebody planning to work in an oil field would find a chemical engineering major useful as well. Though, in the panels I attended—entrepreneurship, medicine, and management consulting—only a few of the speakers had degrees that specifically related to their fields.
The skills that were oft-cited by my speakers were logic, communication, and problem solving. While a college education can help develop these skills, they are learned through practice rather than lectures.
This made me think about the value of Pingry’s curriculum in a modern workforce from a student’s perspective. The number of fields that rely on technology to do the bulk of the work and calculations is already high and constantly increasing. The understanding of a process has become more important than simply memorizing the result. So, is the typical Pingry class supportive of that goal?
The answer is complicated and depends on who you ask. The College Board would probably wax and wane on how useful its AP Exams are, but given its insistence that the SAT is a meaningful predictor of student competence, I take it with a grain of salt. I took the AP World History exam last year, and I found that simply memorizing all the events and dates is much more helpful for the exam than understanding why something happened. If I had never taken World History 9 or 10, I would probably have an exceedingly shallow knowledge of World History based on the exam. My AP Calculus BC exam featured problems about counting the number of plankton in water; if a real ecologist was studying those organisms, I would hope they weren’t using vague estimation methods like the ones the AP asked me to use.
But does this formulaic learning extend to Pingry’s AP courses themselves? Some, perhaps, more than others. While AP Calculus BC is definitely a well-taught and engaging class, the curriculum is tied to the AP course schedule, which means the course can’t go into as much depth as I might have liked. In AP Physics this year, we glossed over some in-depth analyses of topics like rotation and air resistance because of the number of topics that need to be covered for the AP Mechanics exam. This is in no way the fault of the teachers; it’s just that the AP tends to reward specific application of knowledge (that often has little real-world significance) rather than sound logic, good communication, and problem solving skills that one might actually use in a job.
Pingry’s courses are meant to prepare students for specializing in college, but I often feel as if those courses ought to be more organic and less tied down.
Here’s a radical solution: get rid of AP-designation courses. Numerous independent schools have eliminated AP courses entirely, and I don’t think it’s too revolutionary for Pingry to follow suit. Pingry prides itself on letting teachers develop their own curriculum. Non-AP classes, such as Biology II Honors, tend to include case studies and real-world projects, while AP United States History has to speed through Reconstruction to get to the 1920s by March.
Pingry teachers could have much more control over their lesson plans and replace tests with papers, essays, and projects (as I discussed in my last opinion here). Pingry can still host AP exams for students who want to demonstrate their aptitude for colleges; it just shouldn’t have to teach to the test.
I don’t expect Pingry to drop all AP courses tomorrow and replace them with totally faculty-and student-driven ideas. However, I hope that Pingry takes note of the changing world and skillsets and ultimately realizes that the College Board’s outdated conceptions might not be sufficient anymore.
Four out of five people will be affected by a mental illness or neurological disorder at some point in their lives. Whether you or a loved one is affected, the mental health crisis has touched the life of every single human, placing mental disorders in the foreground of global health issues. However, despite the extent to which mental illness permeates our society, significant improvement will not be possible until we erase the stigma surrounding it. Mental illnesses aren’t uncommon, so why are we still speaking about them in hushed tones and behind closed doors? Why don’t we send our ‘thoughts and prayers’ to people suffering from debilitating bouts of mental illness? And why are we so afraid to speak up about our mental health problems?
The answer lies deep within centuries of cultural stigma. In the Middle Ages, mental disorders were thought to be a punishment from God or a form of demonic possession. People who displayed symptoms were burnt at the stake or locked up as a means to control them. Although science and philosophy have since shown that mental illness is a medical condition, thousands were still persecuted in Nazi Germany due to their condition. Even more recently, people with mental disorders have been cast aside and locked away in insane asylums because others were afraid of them. They were thought to be crazy, violent, and dangerous.
Since then, society has shown some progress. Doctors and medical organizations now recognize mental illness as a genuine health problem that can be treated using therapy, medication, self-help, and rehabilitation. Treatment and support systems are more available than ever before; and yet, the people who need them may never receive them because of this prevailing cultural stigma. The false perceptions and stereotypes surrounding mental illnesses isolates victims and only makes them sicker. This is common around the world, with the stain that mental illness carries making people afraid to disclose their problems to their families. As a result, they end up hiding symptoms and sweeping their illnesses under the carpet, which only hinders recovery. People are so afraid of being seen as “crazy” or “weird” that 60% of people with known mental health disorders never end up receiving help from a mental health professional (Worldwide Health Organization). This is even worse in developing countries, where that percentage reaches 90%.
In addition, media and popular culture paint a misleading picture, through fear-mongering movies like “Split,” which present a character with a dissociative identity disorder as dangerous, or shows like “13 Reasons Why,” which dehumanize characters with depression and glorify suicide. With negative portrayals consuming youth entertainment, there aren’t enough positive portrayals that accurately describe what it’s like to have or support someone who has a mental illness. Misrepresentation and underrepresentation are what leave people uneducated in the subject matter, making them perhaps more likely to distance friends who have mental health problems– as we are always scared of things we don’t understand.
So, when someone confides in a loved one that they are suffering, the reactions are often
insensitive. Even in families who understand and legitimize mental illness, there is hesitancy around getting professional help because it makes people feel that they have failed. In reality, mental illnesses are never a personal failure—they are real illnesses that reflect nothing about the character of a person. We must treat sufferers the same way we treat people with other illnesses: with kindness, empathy, and concern. But widespread change can only happen through education and awareness. The issue lies in a lack of knowledge and understanding, and teenagers are particularly afflicted. Especially in high school, the stressful atmosphere and clash of cultures creates a community where illnesses go untreated all the time. Therefore, it is our generation’s responsibility to help educate parents and students on the reality of mental illness. We must stop speaking in hushed tones and, instead, create an accepting and supportive community. As students, it is our responsibility to step up and be there for our friends when they need it, show empathy and concern, and foster an open dialogue between parents, students, teachers, and healthcare professionals about mental health.
“You shouldn’t go outside without pepper spray,” my dad tells me over lunch.
“Nothing is going to happen,” I say.
“Just be careful.”
I sigh, grab the small canister of Halt! that sits on my desk, and exit the house for my quarantine walk. I feel safe, because I know my new neighbors across the street are Asian-American, and so is the other house five doors down. There is a new house being built on the next street over and the new family stood outside their house admiring the construction, and I smile at them. However, the owners of that new house are not as kind, and throw me one of the nastiest looks I think I have ever seen.
I feel the can shift around in my jacket pocket.
I then see a mother walking with her children and a dog, and then one of the other neighbors steps out of her house with her dog, joins the mother and her children, and gives them each a hug. I laugh internally, thinking that they are breaking social distancing rules, but just as they noticed me they moved to the other side of the street. I tried not to notice the occasional glance back from the two adults.
I don’t take that route anymore when I walk by myself. An overreaction? Maybe. I don’t think they’re going to hurt me. I just don’t want to have to go through that again. The shame, the feeling that I need to somehow cover my face. These thoughts have become my new norm.
I have always believed in activism and utilizing our freedom of speech to speak up about topics which are important. While I have been lucky enough to be able to avoid the violent discrimination resulting from the coronavirus toward Asian-Americans, I’ve been pretty vocal about some of the hate crimes that have happened to members of my community, as well as the wider Asian community worldwide. There was the stabbing of a Burmese family in a Sam’s Club; a gun drawn at a Korean university student who had confronted someone for posting coronavirus pamphlets on his dorm room door; man killed as a result of suspected foul play from his neighbor; people beat up in Philadelphia and New York City for not wearing a mask; and the ones who got beat up for wearing one. Unfortunately, these instances only name a few examples.
Comments online about these hate crimes are dominated by people saying things like, “Wow, now you know how all the other minorities feel,” or my personal favorite, “You’re mad now that you got your honorary white person card revoked huh?”
This comment struck me. I think I always subconsciously felt it, but I feel like Asian-Americans aren’t always treated as people of color (POC) in this country. Rather, I view that we are treated as people of color when it is advantageous for a certain view, and viewed as beneficiaries of white privilege at other times. It’s why the system of affirmative action in universities goes against us, but also the same reason we are encouraged to “stand together as minorities” when other groups have their own activist movements. It’s also why politicians use us as a “model minority” for other minorities when those politicians cannot provide adequate support for broken systems.
A large part of this sometimes-POC sometimes-white-privilege dynamic stems from a certain Asian-American community wide unwillingness to “make trouble.” For instance, one of my Asian-American friends encountered a situation where a racist comment was made, and when I encouraged her to speak up, she said her parents didn’t want her to make trouble. This problem with being afraid of conflict is something I’ve heard countless times. It’s why a lot of the hate crimes that are happening now aren’t being reported on by major news media networks like CNN, MSNBC, or FOX. I feel like most of the country mistakes Asian-Americans’ unwillingness to bring about conflict with us not encountering any.
As a leader of the Asian Student Union, this time has brought many questions to me from other members of the community. “What should we do?” and “How do we stay safe?” are all things that younger students, and friends outside Pingry have asked me. I don’t have the answers, and part of me feels like I should as someone who is vocal about Asian-American topics. These aren’t questions I’ve had to ask myself until now. I started the ASU with my friends to enact dialogue and some shift in thought, even if it was just among members of our small Pingry community. I wanted to encourage my peers to recognize and stand up for discrimination, but most importantly to find the courage to stand up for themselves regardless of their identifiers. I never could have expected that the greatest test of my activism would come now. Suddenly, as if overnight, the sphere of these discussions have left the little safe haven that I have helped create in Room 310 at a small private school in Basking Ridge. They feel much more real now, which is scary at the same time as it is empowering. That call to action we’ve been waiting for, that spark that we’ve been hoping will ignite, finally came. It’s time for us to enact the change we wanted to see in our own communities.
I’ve faced a lot of criticism from those around me, those who think I’m being too vocal about the situation at hand, those who think my words aren’t constructive action against the crimes being committed. I’ve even been told that the racism that we are seeing as a result of the coronavirus is justified due to the horrible actions the Chinese government is taking against Africans in China. However, groups pointing fingers at each other is the thing that is least constructive. Racism is racism, no matter which group is committing it, and it should be condemned, not based on the political climate in which it takes place, but for the morals that we as a society have been trying to progress.
As the ball in Times Square finished its long descent, with the chants of over a million people in Times Square and millions more glued to their TV screens counting down, our world would be ushered into not only a new year, but a new decade.
5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Happy 2020.
For many of us here at Pingry, 2020 will be a year of great accomplishments and change. Seniors will go to college. Juniors will embark on the college process. Sophomores will start another hectic year of high school, and the freshmen will no longer be the wide-eyed newcomers they once were when they first walked in. This year, we will meet new people, we will learn new and fascinating subjects, and we will write the next chapter of our lives, as we enter another year, full of hope for the future.
At least, that was the plan.
On January 3, I opened Instagram to find a deluge of posts about World War III. These posts were in response to the U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and they ranged from sensationalized faux news reports on how the US was about to start a war with Iran, to memes detailing how to dodge the draft that the U.S. government would soon supposedly start. Media outlets had a field day with this news, as they scrambled to point a finger at who was to blame for this sudden escalation of panic.
As tensions rose, Iran would launch missiles at American troops, and 176 people would tragically die in a commercial airplane crash after being accidentally shot down. Maybe World War III would start after all. Of course, as we know now, World War III never did start, no one would be drafted, and the world breathed a collective sigh as we stepped back from that tense moment.
But it was just the start.
Later that week, I read on Hong Kong news that a new SARS-like virus had infected around 100 people in Wuhan, China, and medical experts were scrambling to identify what this new deadly virus was. By the next week, experts called it the novel coronavirus, which was spreading at an exponential rate and killing hundreds. As of February 2020, coronavirus has now spread to 28 countries, infected 35,000 people, and has killed 700 people.
As the world focused on the possibility of World War III and the spread of coronavirus, there would also be terrible and highly destructive environmental disasters. New wildfires would ravage the Australian Outback, there would be devastating earthquakes in Turkey and the Caribbean, and the worst locust swarms in over 70 years in East Africa would destroy thousands of acres of crops, eating over 1.8 million tons of vegetation a day.
On January 26, I, along with many other people around the world, watched in horror at the news that the great Kobe Bryant, at age 41, and his daughter Gianna, age 13, had been killed in a horrific helicopter accident in California. Fans around the world mourned the basketball legend, who had been an inspiration to the whole world on and off the court.
All of these horrible events, in the span of just a month into the new year. It is evident that this is not the 2020 we were looking for.
Browsing the internet today, it’s very easy to find memes or articles lamenting just how bad the start of the year was. The memes try to find some sense of humor in all the tragedies, while the articles will try to find a source of blame for the problems, whether in politicians, climate change, or even ourselves. Both sources continue this fearmongering with the argument that 2020 will only get worse. These memes and articles, while trying to be funny or push a pessimistic message, expose a wider, pernicious problem. It is evident that there has been a loss of hope in our world these days. According to a recent YouGov/Economist poll taken on January 9, 2020, less than 39% of respondents said they are optimistic about 2020.
Is this the world we want to live in? As we move deeper and deeper into 2020, we should not be afraid of this new year.
Pope Francis told diplomats in a speech at the Vatican in early January as tensions rose between the U.S. and Iran that “Precisely in light of these situations, we cannot give up hope. And hope requires courage. It means acknowledging that evil, suffering and death will not have the last word, and that even the most complex questions can and must be faced and resolved.”
If we move on past all the terrible events of January, there is a lot of hope that 2020 will be a good year. Already, efforts are being made to combat the spread of coronavirus, with new treatments and potential cures being discovered every day. New technologies will be unveiled that have the potential to change our world forever. We will meet new people and start new friendships and relationships that will change our lives forever. The year is still young, and there is so much to look forward to in this new year, regardless of all the tragedies that have befallen us. All we have to do is just remind ourselves there still is good in this world, and there is so much more to look forward to.
It’s February 1979. The phone rings. The clock reads 3 a.m. as my grandfather holds it up to his ear. It’s 11:30 a.m. in Iran, where the Shah, Mohammad Raza Pahlavi, had fled in response to insurgency a month earlier. At the time, my grandfather was working for American Bell International, an AT&T subsidiary tasked with facilitating the improvement of telephone and communication systems in Iran. However, with the overthrow of Pahlavi and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, AT&T’s project ceased. Over the next few weeks, my grandfather, who handled insurance for the company, worked to repossess valuables left by AT&T employees, who were forced to leave their apartments in Iran following the fall of the Shah. After finding where workers had left clothing, jewelry, pets, and more, my grandfather transferred that information to employees still in Iran, in hopes of reclaiming their belongings.
Prior to the winter of 1979, during the height of AT&T’s project in Iran, U.S. relations with the country were bolstered. The pro-Western policies of Pahlavi fit American economic interests, specifically in regards to the oil industry. However, to many Iranians, the Shah’s policies felt repressive and tyrannical. The “White Revolution,” a number of reforms established by Pahlavi in the early 1960s, implemented land redistribution, and the expansion of women’s rights. These policies were quickly met with popular dissent, as the poor found little relief. By the end of the Shah’s reign, the U.S. appeared to support a leader unpopular with his own people. Once Pahlavi fled, his favorable relations with the U.S. seemed to continue, much to the resentment of Iranians. U.S. President Jimmy Carter went so far as to allow Pahlavi into the U.S. to receive cancer treatment.
In November of 1979, in retaliation for Carter’s action, Iranian students took 66 Americans hostage at the U.S Embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran. The crisis, which lasted 344 days but ultimately ended in the safe return of the hostages, began a long history of strained relations between the U.S. and Iran.
These historic tensions were in the spotlight this January, when President Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. After the strike, Trump threatened to carry out further attacks. On Twitter, he referred back to the 1979 crisis, noting that the 52 Iranian sites that had been identified as targets represented “the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago.” Many Iranians, who considered Soleimani a hero, were quick to declare revenge and violence against the U.S. However, President Trump and his administration have continued to justify the act as a preemptive attack against a supposed plan of Soleimani to strike a U.S. embassy.
Over 40 years after the overthrow of the Shah and the consequent American hostage crisis, U.S.-Iran relations seem rockier than ever. Under President Obama in 2013, the countries attempted reconciliation through the Iran Nuclear Deal, which outlined that Iran would restrict their nuclear activities. In 2018, however, President Trump abandoned the plan, and the two countries have faced growing tension and subsequent violence over the past few years. Now, after Soleimani’s death, there seems to be no end in sight.
Thus, the question remains: is compromise between the U.S. and Iran possible? Is an amicable relationship on the horizon, or will we continue towards aggression and animosity? To me, the two countries have grown too divisive to ever find a real compromise, and the U.S. does not have a compelling reason to concede to the Iranian government. When President George W. Bush coined Iran one-third of the “axis of evil,” it was clear the United States viewed the country’s regime as radical and dangerous; the government has been accused of supporting terrorism and seeking to bolster weapons of mass destruction. Thus, our government doesn’t owe the Iranian government diplomacy, but it does have a responsibility to support the Iranian people. As a result of economic sanctions placed on Iran in 2018, its people have faced an economic recession, rising prices, and stagnant economic growth. As innocent people suffer, the U.S. government seeks to break a regime, without thinking of the consequences for the average citizen. So, while I believe I will never see a time like my grandfather’s, where the United States and Iran came together for economic gain, I do believe it’s possible for our government to protect itself against Iranian threats while still treating the Iranian people humanely.