Parting Pictures of Jake Ross: A Rhetorical Analysis

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. 

Black Lives Should Always Matter

By Noah Bergam (V)

The far-reaching solidarity we see for Black America right now is a rightful cause for hope. However, we – and when I say we, I’m pointing to White people in specific – ought to make sure our energy on this issue does not fall back into familiar patterns of ignorance surrounding police brutality. 

 In other words, we have to make sure we don’t let this fade into the background of our political perceptions once the media hype dies down. If we want to fight this issue, and be real allies, we have to act and educate ourselves for the long run.

We know media attention alone has not fixed this issue. Even in the most high-profile cases, such as those Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, we have failed to see the policemen found guilty. We have seen the media storms, the rises and falls of #BlackLivesMatter, to little real avail in terms of legislative change.

What makes the George Floyd protests different? 

George Floyd’s murder was set in such a context to set off the perfect storm.

His murder came in the context of the coronavirus, which disproportionately hurt African American communities. His murder came after a string of other racist killings, most notably those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. His murder was caught on camera from multiple angles, and was unacceptably gruesome.

The public outrage has rightfully reached a boiling point, and it has already been constructive in a number of ways. The dialogue is more far-reaching than ever. The petitions and donations are growing, and it’s encouraging to see so many people taking part. It’s unfortunate that people are trying to shift the discussion to the destruction of rioting, but ultimately I think many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum see such rioting (and its frequent roots in provocation from the police) as a symptom of a much larger issue that has to be addressed.  

However, I’m disappointed to say that these riots were a wakeup call for me. It took this kind of public outrage for me to feel the pain of these injustices and realize how bad it’s been for Black America.

In the wake of the Floyd protests, I reread a certain chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and listened to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Two of my favorite pieces of art, which were about police violence and racism against Black Americans. I thought I knew these works well, but after seeing and hearing what was going on in protests in real life, something new clicked. My heart started beating faster. They suddenly made me stress in ways they never before did, even though I always knew the issues in them were real and ongoing. 

The difference was, in the midst of widely recognized tragedy and tangible grief, I was forced to stop internally compartmentalizing and start empathizing. I was forced to realize the stress of being Black in America, and moreover my dangerous ability as a White American to ignore it. 

That is why I want to hammer home that Black Lives Matter has to be more than a hashtag, a trend, a meme that rises and falls like any other. Because there aren’t going to be protests on the street forever. People are eventually going to stop posting activist messages on their social media as they hunger for some sense of normalcy. 

We’ll get tired, along with the news cycle, which will eventually find another story. That’s the natural reaction. But the crucial thing here is that Black Americans can never really just forget about this. Police brutality is a burden on their community, and it always will be unless we non-Black people help them with this burden for the long haul, to effect real change.

As citizens, this means being an active and precise voter on every level of government. It means contacting legislators and local police systems, amplifying Black voices, taking part in rallies, donating to the right organizations, showing and acting on allyship consistently, treating this as a central political issue even when it isn’t always convenient to do so.

For Pingry it means a change in mindset. A change in curriculum, where we teach the manifestations of systemic racism not only in the 1800s but also in our present day. It means ongoing, uncomfortable, but ultimately educational conversations in the classroom between racial groups about why and how our country has yet to fulfill its social contract.

Ultimately, Black lives shouldn’t just matter now. They shouldn’t just matter when it’s cool to post it on an Instagram story, or necessary to uphold your reputation. 

Black lives should always matter.

Beefing Up Economics Education at Pingry

By Noah Bergam (V)

The bipartisan government report on the 2008 Financial Crisis and the Great Recession paraphrased Shakespeare in its analysis: “The fault lies not in the stars, but in us.”

I read parts of this report, as well as numerous other sources, for a history project, and it was really eye-opening how much I learned about the human nature that plays into economics, from perverse incentive to predatory lending to, ultimately, the ethical dilemma of the bailout. 

Over the course of my entire childhood which existed in the backdrop of this Recession, I never really understood the event and the different interpretations of it that persist to this day. Talking to some classmates, I realize this gap in knowledge might be more widespread than I thought, and it makes sense; in all our years of coursework, we never had the chance to sit down and actually discuss it.

The economics around me only became more eye-opening when, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I sought to educate myself on some of the systemic racism in our country. From there I discovered the sheer severity of racial wealth inequality in this country and the covert redlining which contributes to it. This is once again something I knew vaguely, but I wish I could have learned about it in detail in a structured classroom environment. It should not have taken a national crisis to learn this.

On this note I would like to make a request. Pingry should mandate economics education throughout all four years of high school, teaching not only good practices for personal finances but also looking at systemic issues, both past and present, to examine their causes. 

In our current system, aside from the one trimester of Financial Literacy in freshman year and the online Financial Literacy coursework in senior year, Pingry students need not think about economics unless they have the interest and the space in their schedules to take a course in it. 

That’s not enough.

And look, I know it’s easier said than done to ask Pingry to teach more of this or that. But I think economics as a subject, in the context of the kinds of issues that I brought up, stands out from the crowd of other subjects. I say this not only because of its obvious usefulness for students as future consumers but also its importance right now in terms of intellectual discourse.

Understanding economics is a civic duty. It makes us question policy rather than assume someone else has it all figured out.  It can also help us have more fact-based discussions surrounding social issues in America, which may help open students up to discussions of privilege and diversity and inclusion more than our current, opinion-based approaches. 

Four years of economics education would make for a continuity that the current system lacks. Additionally, it would not be particularly hard to implement for the sophomore and junior classes, for it should not require new hirings or substantial schedule changes – in fact, it should exist outside the course schedule and be largely asynchronous, with progress marked by quizzes or short responses. 

However, for the more curious students, there should be occasional, optional meetings where students can discuss some of the material with an economics teacher and ask questions. Think of it like an addition to our community service requirements. A requirement for the intellectual well-being of Pingry students, and moreover an opportunity for interested students to engage in the subject. 

Ultimately, we’re living in history. That should have been evident since 2008, and it is more than evident now. Our financial literacy curriculum, moving forward, should reflect that.

Positivity During COVID-19

Positivity During COVID-19

By Andrew Wong (IV)

If I had to pick a headline to summarize the entire COVID-19 pandemic here in America, it would have to be “North Carolina Man Steals Truck With 18,000 Pounds of Toilet Paper”. In a close second would probably be our good friend, the Florida Man with, “Florida Man Steals 66 Rolls of Toilet Paper”. In this time of great struggle and uncertainty in our nation, and indeed the entire world, it has become evident that it is fear, not reason, that drives the decision making of not just the two aforementioned characters, but also that of the entire world. We’ve all seen the news. Videos of people fighting over the last bag of rice at the supermarket. Lines stretching out the door of big box stores. As my friends across the world can confirm, there is not a single scrap of toilet paper to be found on store shelves anywhere. People are fearful, and it is evident that hope, just like toilet paper, is nowhere to be found.

      Yes, people do have a right to be scared. The statistics can speak for themselves: Over 2.6 million people have been infected globally, with more than 800,000 cases here in the US alone. The world economy has come grinding to a halt, and American jobless claims are at their highest in the last 10 years. Our everyday lives have come to a complete standstill, as everyone around the world practices social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Yet, with all of these tribulations and challenges that we face presently, there is a brighter side to this crisis — more than just the infection numbers, death toll, or economy the media keeps yapping about. 

The coronavirus has brought out the best in America, a good side that many in our country did not believe exist. Our entire nation, once derided by political pundits as “hopelessly divided”, is now united in a great crusade to fight back against the coronavirus. On Capitol Hill, for what may be the first time in recent memory, Democrats and Republicans have found common ground in a bid to provide relief packages for all Americans. President Trump and New York Governor Cuomo, once bitter political enemies, now work together daily to direct government policy towards the virus. Governor Cuomo’s daily press conferences have now become regular viewing for millions of Americans trapped at home, as he continues to send messages of encouragement and positivity not just to the state of New York, but to the entire nation. 

Manufacturing companies have put aside their quest for profits to retool the production lines and make much needed PPE and ventilators. America’s biotech firms have now developed testing kits that can diagnose the virus in minutes and allow for more tests to be run, while scientists in laboratories across the globe work at breakneck speed to develop a vaccine in record time before winter arrives. 

           Doctors, nurses, and first responders in all 50 states are working tirelessly around the clock to contain this virus. It is thanks to the valiant work of our healthcare companies and professionals that the rate of infection is no longer exponential, and as Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said two weeks ago, “we’re seeing [the curve] stabilize, and that gives us great encouragement”. 

Social Media, once criticized as a force that only divided society, has now become the very thing holding everyone together while we are all separated. Crowdfunding campaigns to save local businesses from the economic tsunami caused by COVID-19. In New York City alone, thousands upon thousands of dollars have been raised by New Yorkers on GoFundMe to support local restaurants and stores who have been forced to close due to the pandemic. John Kransinski, of The Office fame, publishes new videos detailing good news happening around the world on YouTube every day to try and keep people positive during social distancing. New quarantine food trends, such as Dalgona coffee and no-knead bread have become popular as a result of these easy but tasty recipes being shared on the internet. Facebook groups have been set up to help provide groceries, toiletries, and home cooked meals to the elderly in order to keep them protected from the virus. 

But the coronavirus hasn’t just brought out unprecedented goodness within our communities. It’s also brought us new opportunities. While COVID-19 may have forced us all to social distance inside, this new reality presents a whole host of opportunities for us. We have been given the gift of many months of free time, so what do we do with it? How about learning a new skill, or experimenting with new recipes? What else can you do with all that stockpiled food anyways?

Perhaps you could build a healthier lifestyle and use this time to build a better you. You could finish those side projects that you never had time for, or maybe start a new lifelong obsession with a new hobby. The choice is in your hands.

There is no way to know how long we will be inside, and based on the current numbers, there will be many more months, if not a year, before things return back to “normal”. But until then, as we witness the first great global crisis of the 21st century, an event that will be forever etched into the collective memory of our generation, let us be reminded that this crisis will be over some day. As we edge closer and closer to the light at the end of the tunnel, let’s put our best foot forward and do our best to remain positive through this tumultuous time. Let’s be inspired by the acts of kindness and humanity throughout the entire world and be our best selves. Let’s not allow our fear to control us, and instead remain hopeful that there are better days ahead of us. All we have to do is stay positive, keep smiling, and just believe.

 

The Light Behind the Dress

The Light Behind the Dress

By Brynn Weisholtz (VI)

As the sun rises each morning, I wake to see the light peeking through the shades in my bedroom window. In front of that window hangs a gown, my senior prom gown, draped from a hanger with nowhere to go. April 22nd was supposed to be the night of my senior prom, a night that my friends and I have looked forward to since walking through the clocktower doors many years ago. I find myself in a state of limbo, walking from floor to floor and room to room all within the walls of my home. I silently wonder, how can my senior year be slipping away this quickly? Is this really happening? What can I do to turn the shadows of the moment into light for what will ultimately be? 

As events started to get cancelled, part of me could only focus on the negatives of this tumultuous turn of events: no prom, no fashion show, no senior prank day, and possibly no graduation. The suddenly unnecessary prom dress casts a shadow on my outlook for the rest of my senior year and beyond. Towns that once were bustling with open businesses and families walking the streets now look more like ghost towns as masked people stop their cars for curbside pick up from their favorite local restaurants. How is life supposed to return to normal? Will we ever shake hands and talk to strangers on the street again? Will our town centers thrive once more?

As quarantine continued and classes began, I developed a morning routine, returning some normalcy to my day. I wake up, brush my teeth, put in contacts, and then start my commute: walk down the stairs, take a sharp right and then a quick left, and I have arrived at my destination, my classroom. While my classes don’t have the same level of energy virtually as they did when on campus, I know students and teachers alike are giving their all to remain upbeat and engaged. We hold on to what we can in the midst of what appears to be life spiralling out of control, and when the day ends I return to my room to see light coming through my prom dress in my window. 

The shadow of my prom gown is a subtle reminder of the darkness we all feel as a community, born from the uncertainty and loss of the familiar and the known, the expected and longed for, the mundane and extraordinary––but I choose to see the light. I choose to focus on the moments when the sunlight escapes and shines through the shadows, illuminating the silhouette of my dress and reminding me to embrace the here and now, to be thankful for those around me, and, above all, to be hopeful for the joys of life that will emerge in the days and months ahead.  

While the world is at a socially-distanced standstill, the ways the public has been able to shift into this new norm is nothing short of remarkable. In what felt like a blink of an eye, we’ve connected via our computers, reached out to old friends, checked in on our grandparents, and found appreciation for what was. We have embraced the unexpected family time that was once thought as long gone. My brother, another graduating senior, now lives at home for the first time in four years, bringing back game nights, family dinners, movie nights, wiffleball games in the backyard, and walks through our neighborhood.

Though I miss seeing my friends, having passing conversations in the hallways with teachers, and occupying Mr. Ross’ office, we as a community are making the best of everything. I continue to be inspired by those around me and optimistic for our collective futures. In light of this, I took down my prom dress from the window and let all the light shine through. 

Prorating the Priceless

Prorating the Priceless

By Noah Bergam (V)

The Pingry tuition for the 2019-20 school year was $42,493. Lunch cost $1,378. Those are significant numbers in my life, numbers that, for over six years, have hovered over my head, acting as a reminder of what doesn’t go to my younger siblings each year. 

Those numbers are especially relevant in the era of remote learning. Assuming the very likely scenario that the rest of the school year is remote, it appears students are on track to lose out on both tangible and intangible aspects of an expensive educational experience. This problem, of course, isn’t unique to Pingry. Many universities have issued refunds on room and board and meal plans in the wake of this change. I believe Pingry ought to follow suit and prorate our SAGE Dining meal plans––and while it is unlikely that we could receive a partial refund on the less quantifiable intangibles that we lost this year, it’s a conversation worth opening up … especially if this remote learning situation continues into next fall. 

I remember back in seventh grade when some friends and I tried to break down the cost of Pingry life into an hourly rate. It came down to about $30 an hour, and we joked about how much we were getting robbed by DEAR time––but even back then I think we understood this metric wasn’t the end-all-be-all. The years since have only affirmed that for me: in a normal Pingry hour, you’re getting a lot more than what’s on the schedule. In fact, I would argue that most of Pingry’s value comes down to the stuff you don’t expect: the triumphs and the failures, the conversations, the relationships, the journey as a whole. We cannot and should not try to assign dollar values to those kinds of experiences. 

Such is the paradox of the educational product: for students, the beneficiaries, Pingry is a priceless experience, but for our parents, the customers, it is a hefty investment with a fairly clear goal: “success” in a high-quality educational environment. In my experience, the student and parent perspectives mix like oil and water––where the external parental perspective sees a clear-cut result, the internal student perspective sees the fruits of a complicated learning process.

The issue we now face critically disrupts the learning process and the experience as a whole, which makes it much easier for students and parents alike to take a critical stance on Pingry as a product. Of course, we are fighting it. We are trying our best to believe in the intangibly valuable educational community, and to an extent, we’re succeeding … but at the end of the day, Google Hangouts can’t replace the little things that make real school real: the fast-paced conversation of class, the small talk with teachers, the time with friends, the work-home separation. A screen can’t project all those priceless dimensions of the Pingry experience. 

But can we prorate the priceless? Can we somehow reimburse students for the intangible education that they lost, while still keeping faculty paychecks running? The answer, especially in the wake of this unforeseen disruption, is probably no. Neither universities nor private high schools have even entertained the concept, citing the argument that, despite the drop in quality, they are still doing their best to provide educational resources remotely. That being said, if school is unable to resume in the fall, that changes the game, since tuition adjustment would be an act of foresight on behalf of a “new” product rather than an after-the-fact reaction in the midst of chaotic change. 

In any case, there are two requests we as students can and should make, in the event that remote learning extends to the rest of this year and potentially beyond.  

  1. For the Board of Trustees: please prorate our Sage Dining meal plans. If we are not receiving a service that our parents paid for, we deserve reimbursement. In addition, please consider the prospect of “prorating the priceless,” for both this semester and, if need be, next semester––even if other institutions have dismissed this idea, it is certainly worth deducing and communicating its viability. 
  2. For Mr. Levinson: please address both parents and the student body on this topic. Tuition matters, and in times like this, when the product of Pingry is being tested in unforeseen ways, it ought not to be taboo.

The prospect of refunding some portion of school costs is a matter of goodwill and care for the community. It is the kind of action that recognizes the state of our education not only as a journey in life but as a financial investment that ought to be respected. 

Big Fish Refuted

By Noah Bergam (V)

  Lights. Silence. 390 seconds of glory.

     Ever since I first watched in sixth grade, I knew I wanted to do LeBow.

    From the win of Katie Coyne ‘16 to the two-year reign of Rachel Chen ‘18 to the triumph of Miro Bergam ‘19, I sat anxiously in the audience year after year. I was the nervous yet critical viewer, who, in his endless deification of the stage, kept imagining how he himself might fare or fail in front of 700 academics. Time flew like an arrow, from imagination to reality. In my sophomore year, I took the stage with a speech about memes. And I won.

   The aftermath followed a rapid progression from satisfaction to excitement to terror. I achieved what I had dreamed of for years, and I could still look forward to another chance at the stage in 2020. But I also knew I could very easily fail that second chance and fall short of the high expectations.

   In preparing for this year’s competition, I believed that the only way to successfully replay the game would be to break it. So I chose to call out the unsettling pattern of universal agreeability that LeBow speeches were developing, a problematic pattern I myself upheld the year before. In this sense the speech was a critical self-reflection––I chose to burn the magic that I had internalized and glorified over the years, and from those ashes construct an argument against the very anti-argument nature of Pingry culture I embraced. 

   Did I fail? Certainly in the sense of losing the title.

   But in retrospect, I got what I asked for. I did not design my speech to maximize likability among a judging panel––I wrote it in order to spark critical thought and disagreement among the broader student community. And in that sense, I think it was a success.

   I met two counterarguments that, in the spirit of debate, I want to address.

   To reiterate, my thesis is as follows:

    “In order to make sure students develop the key skills of political disagreement, we ought to bring timely, wholehearted, messy debates into the classroom––and then we students ought to embrace more of that argumentative style in our own independent endeavors [eg LeBow itself].”

   1. My message is NOT that Pingry students lack the capability to have difficult discussions. I can’t speak for what goes on within specific environments like affinity groups. I simply question how far-reaching, especially between identity boundaries, these discussions are. Thus, I assert that the humanities classroom is the best place to make controversial discussions informed and ubiquitous. Otherwise, Pingry students, like most citizens, will naturally flock to echo chambers, and schoolwide communication, especially in assemblies, will continue to favor numbing agreeability and “political correctness.”

   2. Yes, I do think teachers should give their personal opinions in class. Obviously, this comes with a two-pronged expectation of maturity. The student should be able to respect the teacher’s opinion without bowing down to it, and the teacher should be able to be subjective with the explicit intent to inform rather than directly convince. 

   As I defend this thesis, I don’t pretend my speech was perfect. I made plenty of miscalculations, the most obvious of which was the exclamation that “I’m the Big Fish in a Little Pingry Pond!” Yes, that sounds arrogant. I was trying to be ironic, I was trying to make it clear that the concept of a big fish here is a dangerous illusion that limits one’s ability to think outside the scope of this community’s limited discourse. But I suppose using such a phrase as the cornerstone of the speech might have given some pretty negative impressions. So it goes. 

     It’s over now. Now I will return to the audience for one last year to watch the brilliance of LeBow from a new lens. But I won’t forget the message I crafted. I’ll continue to defend it and live it out, especially in regards to this newspaper. 

     The theory of the Big Fish was refuted. But defeated? The point was made on stage and proven offstage.  So I accept this loss wholeheartedly.

A Complicated History of U.S.-Iran Relations

A Complicated History of U.S.-Iran Relations

By Meghan Durkin (V)

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.

Freedom to Choose

By Brynn Weisholtz (VI)

At Pingry, a student’s academic coursework is primarily determined by the administration and follows a fairly regimented path. There is limited flexibility for a student to “choose” any portion of his or her schedule in the early years of high school. This rigidity is seen mostly during the freshman and sophomore years when students are expected to take core classes to meet Pingry’s requirements for graduation. With the exception of a few electives, such as Art Fundamentals or a second language, ninth and tenth grade schedules are overflowing with mandatory classes in math, English, history, science, and foreign language requirements. These packed schedules do not leave much room for signing up for more specialized classes. 

While junior year allows for some wiggle room with course selection, there are still mandatory classes, like American Literature and the next math and language classes on a student’s respective track, that eleventh graders must take. The real change occurs senior year when no mandatory classes are required, and the course choices become abundant. For the first time as a Pingry student, I had the ability to select courses I truly wanted to take. AP Gov or AP Euro, Science in the 21st Century or Anatomy and Physiology, Greek Epic or Shakesphere, Spanish 6 or French 1. This was empowering. 

Every class I am participating in this year is a class I chose to be in, with subject matter I wanted to explore. While I have always been happy to come to school, eager to share my insight in class, it wasn’t until this year that I felt everything align, allowing my innate curiosity to soar beyond my own expectations. This heightened sense of fulfillment can only be attributed to the personal interest I have in each class I selected. Sitting side-by-side with peers with similar interests, we seem more motivated to engage deeply in the subject matter.

Having the opportunity to finally spend my days studying material that sparks the most interest in me leaves me asking the question: why did it take so long to arrive at this point? Could I have benefited from having more choices earlier in my academic career? What experiences could have further shaped me into me? Rather than lament what could have been, I choose to look ahead and embrace what is and what will be. 

That said, I believe it would be beneficial to explore offering additional electives to students starting freshman year as a way to broaden horizons and spark intellectual curiosity, which is inherently one of Pingry’s pillars. Who knows what class will inspire a young mind to thrive intellectually?

ShopWrong: An Argument Against Arguing the Negative

By Noah Bergam (V)

When I was a little kid, I got angry when I heard my name. Noah. I heard the word ‘No.’ Somehow that just pushed me over the edge.  My older siblings, realizing my dislike, would further taunt me by calling ShopRite ShopWrong. I would cry. 

Now it’s more sophisticated. I cry a little inside when I see political arguments and platforms supported fervently in the negative. 

Ralph Ellison’s anonymous namesake Invisible Man asked a simple question. “Could politics ever be an expression of love?” The quote reads quickly in the context of the chaotic unfolding of the novel. But when I read it, I stopped and realized this combination of words is powerful.

It comes back to me every month for the Democratic debates. As I’ve watched these candidates give their heartfelt pleads for their causes, I’ve gone through my own little evolution as a viewer. 

When I first watched in June, I was amazed by how eloquently they all could speak, swinging from topic to topic with such ease and intensity. Each candidate presented their own style, playing different gambits and spinning sophisticated responses, tying it back to their audience. All on the spot. It blows me away. But … but what? The charm blurred with repetition? The candidates are all a bunch of phonies? Emails!? Perhaps. But the fundamental issue I see is not with any of the specific values they hold or policies they endorse. It’s about a frame of reference. Their tendency to express their stances in terms of the partisan negative rather than the general positive. The tendency is captured by the standby:

I’m the candidate that can beat Donald Trump.”

There’s a use for this phrase in moderation. But it ought not to become a cornerstone argument of the party—2016 is proof that doesn’t work.  

When this mindset of opposition takes over for a few questions, the stage curls into an echo chamber, where counterpoints that lean to the center are labelled as enemy territory.

This was especially evident in the July debate; when Warren and Sanders kept recycling a certain phrase, they were met with opposition. 

John Delaney warned against taking away private health insurance. John Hickenlooper objected to the Green New Deal’s broad promises of government-funded jobs. Jake Tapper asked Bernie how much taxes will rise for his healthcare bill.

The same response kept ringing up: “stop using Republican talking points.”

The intent of this phrase, as I see it, is to paint criticism as illegitimate partisan attacks. It’s defense built from offense––take the hard questions, that many voters are interested in getting direct answers to, and mark it as Republican, Trumpian spam.

This attitude has continued monthly. Of course, it doesn’t ruin the entire debate––most major candidates have their shining moments of clarity––but it confuses the very intent of these debates, which is to give the candidates a chance to explain their policies and disagree, so that we viewers can determine their differences and make the most educated vote we can. What is not needed is a constant, propaganda-esque reminder of our unity against those dreaded Republicans!

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.” Do not weaken the potential of your vote by thinking only in terms of who you are beating out. Vote for a positive, progressive vision of the future, not simply an anti-Trump candidate.

But everyone––this is a lesson that transcends party lines. I don’t know if politics could be an expression of love, but I like to believe that the heavy focus on partisan differences and identity could be relieved. That politics can be less an expression of electability and more an expression of a concrete stance, a vision.

In short, ShopRite instead of ShopWrong.