Each year, The Far Brook School hosts the Widening the Lens Conference, a space for independent schools in New Jersey to come together and discuss diversity and inclusion. Each school is expected to send one or two representatives from different constituencies of the school, including administrators, trustees, parents, students, diversity and inclusion practitioners, faculty, and alumni.
This year the conference was titled “Class in the Classroom: Exploring Socioeconomic Diversity in Our Schools,” with keynote speaker Anthony Jack, a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and assistant professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The conference started with a speech by Dr. Jack, author of Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, who discussed how, despite the fact that many elite colleges and private schools are making an effort to provide access to students with varying socioeconomic statuses, there is little to no action to cultivate a sense of inclusion. “Access and Inclusion,” he repeats; that is what elite colleges and independent high schools must aspire to reach in regards to the maintenance of socioeconomic diversity.
The second part of the conference saw the group split into “pods”: students met with students, teachers met with teachers, and so on. In the discussion among students, topics ranged from stories of being bullied for relying on financial aid, to the impending burden of college tuition, to not being able to afford class symbols like Airpods or a Canada Goose jacket. However, one student from an all-boys school in Jersey City opted out of speaking on the panel, saying that he did not have anything to talk about: “My school actually does a pretty good job.” He went on to talk about the incorporation of legitimate diversity-building implementations at this school, and how it fostered an environment for socioeconomic diversity to be candidly discussed and subsequently addressed. The student panel was arguably the prevailing aspect of the conference, as Mr. Levinson notes “I think it made an impact on everybody, but in particular the adults at Pingry; it got everyone thinking. Those personal stories are what people remember. When you hear actual voices of students, you think about what we can do or continue to do to improve the student experience, while also considering all the different layers involved.”
The conference concluded with each pod of students, faculty, and administrators coming together to talk about takeaways from the conference and how this discussion could be brought back to their respective schools. Pingry’s pod included Mrs. Ostrowsky, Ms. López, Mr. Levinson, myself, and other board members, alumni, faculty, and parents. The primary focus of the meeting was to brainstorm a tangible, realistic plan to engage discussions about socioeconomic diversity and possible solutions to further facilitate the aspect of “inclusion” at Pingry.
For tuition-based schools like Pingry, socioeconomic diversity can be a tricky subject. No one wants to talk about money, which in and of itself is a luxury and an indication of how we deal with socioeconomic diversity at independent schools. Pingry’s attendance at the Widening the Lens Conference was undoubtedly a necessary and powerful stepping stone for the cultivation of a community that is aware and active in regards to socioeconomic diversity. But this should not be all that is done. If you, or anyone you know, wants to help create a plan that enables the growth of socioeconomic diversity at Pingry, please talk to Mrs. Ostrowsky, Ms. Lopez, or myself. It is our responsibility to do more than just talk about socioeconomic diversity; action is pressing and necessary.
On October 21st, Pingry’s Middle and Upper School students attended an assembly where guest speaker Sean Swarmer shared his inspiring life journey. Sean has survived cancer twice and is the first cancer survivor to climb the highest mountains on each continent (with only one fully-functional lung). In addition, he has completed the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon.
Sean’s battle with cancer began when he was just thirteen years old. Diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Sean was told that he only had three months to live. Intense chemotherapy resulted in weight gain and hair loss. Life seemed grim, but Sean had two choices: he could either give up, or choose to fight for his life. He chose the latter.
“I could either fight for my life or give up and die,” he says. “I wasn’t focused on ‘not dying.’ I focused on living.” Keeping a positive mindset during his battle, he survived.
However, the fight was not over. Three years later, doctors discovered a second cancer known as an Askin’s tumor and informed Sean that he had only fourteen days to live. The thought of having a two weeks’ notice on your life sounded like too much to bear, but Sean knew that once again he had the choice to keep moving with a positive mindset or to give in to cancer. Though one of his lungs lost its function due to radiation treatment, Sean survived.
Sean then set out on a new adventure. He wanted to become the first cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest. Through intense training, Sean prepared himself for the climb and succeeded. Carrying a flag signed by cancer patients up to the summit, he climbed the mountain for them.
While in Nepal, Sean visited a cancer hospital where, on average, ninety-five percent of the patients pass away. Sean gave one patient his lucky green t-shirt that had carried him through countless treatments and told the patient to pass it on to another patient once they recover. According to Sean, all patients in the hospital who have worn the t-shirt have survived, a miracle ostensibly caused by the boost in confidence it inspires.
In addition to climbing Mt. Everest, Sean has summited Mt. Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Denali, Elbrus, Vinson, and Puncak Jaya.
Mrs. Marotto, the chair of the Health Department, coordinated the assembly along with Dr. Rosen and said that “the theme for this year’s strategic plan is student wellness. Dr. Rosen and I thought Sean’s inspirational message of resilience and accomplishment in the face of a life-threatening cancer diagnosis was valuable for our community to hear. There are so many life lessons to be learned from someone like Sean, and we hope our community was inspired by his story and his courage.”
Sean taught the Pingry community a lot of lessons, the most important of which was to choose to fight rather than to give up.
The weekend before Thanksgiving Break, Pingry students embarked on a trip to the nation’s capital to participate in the Princeton Model Congress. At ten o’clock, the bus left the Pingry campus to start its journey to the prestigious conference. There, in order to simulate the dynamics of a Congress, students prepared bills and presented them to a group of students, engaging in discussions and working on amendments until it came time to put each bill to a vote. If the bill passed within its committees, students then had a chance to present their bill in front of a larger group of students, known as a full committee.
The club’s leaders, Lily Schiffman (VI) and Thomas Beacham (VI), were interviewed and asked what attracted them to Model Congress in the first place. Schiffman answered, “Model Congress is and always has been another way for my voice to be heard on issues that I’m really passionate about.” Beacham added, “In my freshman year, [Model Congress] seemed like some vague interesting field about the government. … However, Model Congress really stuck to me and that’s why I’ve been really steady with it.”
When the bus arrived at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Pingry students, along with advisors Dr. Jones and Dr. Johnson, made their way to their assigned rooms to relax before the opening ceremony. After resting, the students and faculty gathered in a ballroom with students from schools all over the country. The opening ceremony started off with introductory speeches, though the primary goal of the ceremony was to elect a president to represent the entire body. Three candidates made speeches stating why they would be the best fit for office, and later, answered questions on their opinions and plans regarding certain subjects. When reflecting on her experience at the opening ceremony, Zara Jacob (V) stated that “it was both very exciting and inspiring to be modeling a version of what it could be like to take part in the government today.”
Over the course of the next few days, students mirrored practices of delegates in the legislative branch by debating and amending bills until an agreement was reached. Beacham noted, “I personally really love being in small committee and getting to know people’s ideas and debating them and trying to figure out how things work and the best way to make things work.”
On Sunday, the students participated in their last full committees, where they wrapped up voting on the remaining bills. After the closing ceremony, Pingry students got back on the bus to return to campus.
In reflecting on her first experience at a Model Congress conference, newcomer Sophie Pollard (V) stated, “At such an important point in our government’s history right now, it’s cool to be participating in something like Model Congress where you understand the process of what’s going on and the role that the government’s playing … When the events that are taking place are so significant, modeling congress just feels like a really cool and great thing to do.”
On Sunday, November 10, Pingry Taiko Drumming attended Columbia University’s Fall Taiko Festival in Manhattan. The drummers performed “Dokokara” and “Matsuri” and they enjoyed the performances of many talented groups, including Swarthmore, Cornell, and Stony Brook Taiko. Noah Bergam (V) represented Pingry in the group performance of “Tonbane” at the end of the festival. Noah said that the performance “made me realize that our Taiko group doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are so many nuanced styles and group dynamics––it was awesome to see it all coalesce on stage and form a community of drummers.” Belinda Poh (IV), another member of the club, added, “It was a really cool experience to see how many different people played and the different ways to play. I think it was worth it and all in all a really interesting and fun thing to do. Performing was fun, but watching the other groups I think was the best part.”
Mr. Leone, Pingry’s Taiko Club leader, was interviewed shortly after the festival, and below are excerpts of that conversation:
How did you learn about the festival?
I performed at the Columbia Fall Taiko Festival last year as a member of New York Taiko Aiko Kai (NYTAK). One of NYTAK’s performing members and Columbia Taiko’s president, Koh Yamakawa, was in charge of running the festival last year, and after learning that I advised a taiko group at Pingry, he was eager to have us perform at this year’s festival.
What was your favorite performance to watch?
I’m always in awe of any performance of Jack Bazaar (performed by Swarthmore Taiko at the festival). Kris Bergstrom, the composer of the piece and lead instructor at the Los Angeles Taiko Institute, is a pioneer of naname (slant drum) style choreography, and looks for ways to push and challenge the boundaries of how to play taiko. He ran a workshop at the East Coast Taiko Conference a few years back, and we spent the full two-and-a-half hour workshop just learning the first six measures of the piece (a section titled “Cronkite”). While the rhythms aren’t necessarily difficult, the movement is incredibly challenging, so it’s something special to see the piece be performed.
Are there any pieces that you would like to bring to Pingry that you saw at the festival?
I’m thinking of bringing in Omiyage (performed by Taiko Tides at the festival, composed by Shoji Kameda) as one of next year’s performance pieces. The rhythms and choreography are a little tricky, but it is a fun and satisfying piece to play. It’s also one of the pieces that inspired me when I first started playing taiko, so it would be special for me to get to teach and have our students perform it. I’m hoping to get a couple of student-written pieces worked in to our repertoire. Getting to see other groups play, each with their different styles, opens the door for what is possible rhythmically and choreographically, so I’d like to channel that into helping our group write a few pieces of our own to help us define our own Pingry Taiko style.
On Friday, November 8, students at the Basking Ridge campus refreshed their emails to find that the school day was cut short due to a stomach bug spreading throughout the school community. After being dismissed from their classes, confused students and faculty wandered around the school, some waiting for parents or buses to pick them up. All after-school activities were cancelled to allow the cleaning staff time to perform a “deep clean and disinfect the building,” according to an email sent by Associate Director of Operations, Safety, and Strategic Initiatives, Mr. David Fahey.
Perhaps the most shocking result of this announcement was the rescheduling of the Friday night performance of the Fall play, “Our Town,” to Saturday afternoon. To boost attendance, students who bought tickets for the Friday show were given free Saturday matinée tickets. Students could also use the discount code “PLAGUE” to gain free admission to the show.
In the aftermath of the incident, the community began to wonder what caused this local epidemic, dubbed “The Pingry Plague.” Some students theorized that the virus originated among the play cast and then spread throughout the rest of the school. Others assumed that the boys’ and girls’ soccer championship games led students to come to school even if they were sick.
School nurses Mrs. Joyce Livak and Ms. Jennifer DiBiasi provided their insight on the epidemic. According to them, the potent stomach virus was likely spread by someone who had come to school with the virus already in their system; they also theorized the students had contaminated communal surfaces, such as a lunch table, with the virus. The rest is history.
To stop the further spread of the virus, the nurses recommended washing your hands and staying home for at least 24 hours after symptoms have ended. With the cold and flu season upon us, it is vital that Pingry students follow these directions, so that this “Pingry Plague” is the last one.
On November 22nd, the Buttondowns raced down from the top of Hauser Auditorium to begin their annual Buttondowns assembly. This year, the all-boys a capella group is headed by president James Wang (VI), vice-president Charlie Malone (VI), and secretary John Roberston (VI).
As is tradition, the assembly began with the highly anticipated Buttondowns movie. Directed by Wang, this year’s movie was largely influenced by the 2010-2011 movie. He described it as a movie that was “so low budget and horrible production-wise, but very funny.” Wang further elaborated on his plan for the movie. “I wanted to bring the Buttondowns movie back to what it was, just something more casual… a simple concept for every Buttondown.”
After the movie ended, the Buttondowns, dressed in their signature white buttondown shirts, khakis, and no shoes, ran down to the stage to begin their performance. The first song was Stephen Bishop’s “On And On,” with soloists Alex Kaplan (V) and Vared Shmuler (III). Wang defended its role as an opening number, saying that, “It’s the song that we’ve practiced the most. It’s one of our strongest songs but also one that not a lot of people know.” Furthermore, “On And On” incorporated choreography to the crowd’s delight. The Buttondowns constantly moved across the stage, forming lines and semicircles that kept the soloists at the center.
Directly following “On And On,” Nolan Baynes (V) and Justin Li (V) paired up as soloists for “Slide” by Calvin Harris, Frank Ocean, and Migos. Shmuler added to the performance by singing the high-pitched verses at the beginning of the song, receiving great appreciation from the audience. Once again, the group deviated from their traditional semicircle formation in favor of having the members sit down on the floor to give off a more candid and relaxed demeanor.
Ram Doraswamy (IV), John Robertson, and Alex Kaplan starred in the Guardians of the Galaxy medley, a combination of three songs from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Comprised of Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child,” and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” the medley not only transitioned between the three songs throughout, but included physical transitions with the Buttondowns. Each song featured different configurations and actions, providing viewers with a clear sense of when the songs switched between each other.
The next song was “Slow Dancing In a Burning Room” by John Mayer and was sung by soloists Henry Wood (V), Ore Shote (V), and Charlie Malone with the Buttondowns in a straight line facing the audience.
Lastly, Baynes and Wang capped off an unforgettable performance with Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower.” As his final solo and song in front of the entire high school, Wang remarked positively on his experience with “Sunflower.” “I loved [Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse] so Sunflower was a great song to end on… I really enjoyed singing something that puts me in a different mood and takes me to different places.”
What was unique about this year’s assembly was the presence of choreography. Compared to previous years where the group stood in a static semicircle, the Buttondowns enthralled the crowd with their movement, adding another dimension to the performance. When asked about his overall experience in the Buttondowns, Wang said that, “It’s been interesting. Freshmen year was amazing but for the last two years, we got lost in the movie so much that we kind of forgot about the singing. After last year, I decided that we’re going to focus on the singing because it’s a Buttondowns assembly and that’s the core of the group.” Wang was thankful for Dr. Moore for his unwavering support and advice and also thanked the rest of the seniors, Malone, Robertson, Yu, Dispenza, and Bugliari. He was especially grateful for Malone who arranged all of the songs and did “so much work behind the scenes. He deserves as much credit as me and without him, I don’t think the concert would even be close to how it sounds right now.”
The assembly was hugely appreciated by the Upper School as evidenced by the thunderous applause and cheering throughout the entire event. James ended by saying, “I’ve tried to bring the Buttondowns back to their roots and I sincerely appreciate everybody that’s been there for me.”
The high temperatures of the final days of September thankfully began to subside by Saturday, October 5 on this event-packed day. By 8:30 a.m., the Basking Ridge campus was swarming with parents of Middle and Upper school students for Pingry’s annual Back to School Day, where they sat for ten-minute versions of their children’s classes. There, parents could learn about the content of their children’s courses while also getting to know the teacher. Parents who were new to Pingry also had the opportunity to tour the campus.
Following their simulated school day, parents joined others in the Pingry community for a bountiful fall lunch. The spread included barbecue, Italian food, and cider, but the dessert was particularly exquisite. To gear up for the upcoming autumn season, guests dined on apple cobbler, pumpkin spice mousse, and apple cider doughnuts. Another tent offered spirited goodies, such as car stickers, t-shirts, and blue-beaded necklaces in preparation for the upcoming sports games. Visitors were able to participate in other activities as well, such as checking out the Pingry Credit Union booth or having a chance to meet acclaimed world traveller Denis Belliveau.
Throughout the afternoon, Pingry’s sports teams competed against a slew of other New Jersey high school teams, with each game starting approximately half an hour after the last began. At 2 p.m., girls’ varsity soccer kicked off the sequence, defeating Livingston 5-1. The co-ed varsity water polo team, played next, winning their match against Saint Peter’s Prep 9-6. Varsity football was also victorious against Montclair Kimberley Academy. Girls’ varsity field hockey was unfortunately defeated by Bridgewater Raritan, losing 0-2. The second water polo game, this time with Pingry’s co-ed junior varsity team, also won 9-6. The last two matches by the boys’ soccer team ended in stunning victories; at about 4 pm, the boys’ junior varsity soccer team prevented Princeton Day from scoring a single goal, winning 9-0. Boys’ varsity soccer did the same, beating Princeton Day with a score of 6-0.
“[The girls’ varsity soccer players] are a formidable team,” says Alison Lee (VI). “Their finesse and teamwork is absolutely astonishing, so it is no wonder that they won the game.”
As the sun fell, Pingry students began to gear up for the Homecoming dance. The theme, “Storm Area 51”, had decisively won when proposed in a vote to the student body. It was based on a popular Internet meme: supposedly, if enough people raided the US Air Force facility, the government would not be able to stop all participants from freeing whatever secrets, particularly aliens, kept there. Student raiders were appropriately dressed in glamorous, alien-themed attire.
“I really liked the Area 51 theme because of how uniquely relevant it is to 2019,” says Anjali Kapoor (VI). She states that students would be able to look back at this particular dance and “remember how this was the year that millions of people signed up to storm Area 51 in search of aliens.” Alison Lee agrees: “yes, outer space has been done before, but I think what was unique about this year was that we took a current event as our theme… Honestly, I feel like it might even be the best theme that we’ve had so far because of its uniqueness to our time.”
During morning meeting on September 23rd, Pingry’s Taiko Drumming Club performed “Dokokara,” a composition written by the principal of the LA Taiko Institute in the 2010s.
Three years ago, Pingry’s former headmaster suggested that Mr. Leone should host a workshop about taiko drumming. Twelve students and faculty attended. A few months later, Pingry’s newly established taiko group put on their first performance at the Taste of Pingry event, and Pingry Taiko Drumming became an official club. Since then, Taiko has performed at several school-wide events, including: A Taste of Pingry, the Lunar New Year Assembly, Night of Noise, and more.
Mr. Leone was interviewed after the morning meeting performance on September 23rd, and below are excerpts of that conversation.
How did you discover and how long have you been involved with Taiko?
“I have been playing for about ten years. I got introduced to Taiko through a global music class. I was a music minor so one of the requirements was to take some music electives. Because we had to do a field study, the professor told us about a Japanese Taiko drumming group in Philadelphia. I was blown away. About a week later, I saw them again and someone at TCNJ told me that they were thinking of starting a Taiko group. I never thought I’d hear from them again, but I did! At the first practice, I was terrible! Three sessions turned into five, which turned into eight, and we had our first performance. I wrote a piece for the group because the Asian American Association had a cultural show in the spring where we debuted. From there TCNJ Taiko was born and is still going today. They’re on their twelfth year there!”
How do you select a piece for the club to perform?
“I try and find things that are open source or pieces that are copyleft. Copyleft means that it’s open to use, but whatever you produce has to be released copyleft. This is a little tricky for us because there’s a lot of disclosure and consent. I also try and find pieces that are fun to play and watch! ‘Dokokara’ is a challenging piece, but some of our members need a good challenge. The piece should be accessible for any Taiko members that are relatively new.”
What is the process for preparing a Taiko performance?
“Learning the piece and getting everyone comfortable is important. I believe very strongly in making sure that everyone is confident with what they’re doing before they go on stage. I try to fit in as much practice time as possible and encourage students to practice on their own. Members have asked to rehearse outside of regular practice, which is easy since we can set up a drum in a practice room. We have to make sure that practices are low pressure. Some of the performances can feel high pressure, but only if you let it. Performing in front of the whole school is one of the bigger audiences I’ve performed for. The Pingry community is supportive and energetic, so I feel zero pressure.”
For Pingry, convocation welcomes a new student body and ushers in a new year of thought, achievement, and education, along with the celebration of the Honor Code that is held in such high esteem.
Convocation opened with the signing of the Honor Code, written by Pingry students in 1926. The signing of the Honor Code reminds the community about the promises they made to be honorable and contribute “to the larger community of the world,” as the Honor Code says. When all members of the Pingry community sign the Honor Code, the school becomes a more tightly-knit community that is bound by a single contract.
During Convocation, a number of speeches were given to formally begin the 2019-2020 school year. Mr. Miller Bugliari ‘52, Head Coach of the Boys’ Varsity Soccer Team and Special Assistant to the Headmaster, is distinguished for 60 years as a faculty member. He began his time at Pingry as a biology teacher in 1959. Student Body President, Brian Li (VI); Board of Trustees Chair, Mr. Jeffrey Edwards ‘78, P ‘12, P ‘14, P ‘18; and Head of School, Mr. Matt Levinson were among the speakers at Convocation. Emily Sanchez (VI), Honor Board Chair, spoke of the Honor Code’s use as an identifier for every student and faculty member in Pingry. “Everybody is able to grow into themselves and not be afraid to take the necessary risks,” she says. Similar messages of acceptance and growing from failure were shared by speakers throughout the ceremony.
Hopefully, as the year gets underway, Convocation will remind students, faculty, and staff to always fulfill the Honor Code and simply slow down. In the words of Mr. Levinson, “Take a moment to hit the brakes on whatever you are doing… [and] think about your classmates and your role in the community.”
This year’s annual PSPA Friday Night Lights took place on September 27, as hundreds of students, families, and faculty from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools came together to support the Big Blue’s football team.
The evening began with the community gathered around the tent to enjoy pizza, pasta, and mozzarella sticks while keeping warm with hot chocolate and apple cider. Along with the food and drinks, teddy bears of a variety of colors were handed out to everyone.
Although the team lost 34-0 to Long Island Lutheran, the energy from the stands was unbeatable. “Despite the loss, I really enjoyed FNL, and the enthusiasm of the crowd was great,” Katherine Xie (IV) said. Form VI students were especially energized, cheering on their fellow seniors with large cardboard cutouts of the players. They also started chants for the crowd to follow.
Big Blue may have lost this game, but the spirit from the community was never diminished.