On Stupid Mistakes and Stubborn Conviction

On Stupid Mistakes and Stubborn Conviction

By Noah Bergam (VI)

A gentle chorus of crackling leaves caught my attention on a midday walk. It was a curious, contradictory sound, a fractal hum of tiny collisions. I walked across the curb, took three steps into the edge of the icy forest, and looked for the culprit in the autumn detritus. Nothing. I tried to blink away the quarantine eye strain. Still nothing, yet the hum intensified. When I turned back to the street, I saw the pavement dancing with miniscule ice pellets, white crystals popping in and out of solid existence. 

I smiled. The clouds caught me by surprise with their absurdity. I wanted revenge. A childish urge brought me back to the curb, in search of a sizable piece of hail. Drivers passed me by with confused looks as I patiently combed the cold asphalt for something worthy. Searching, searching––jackpot!

I showed it to my mother. It was a beautiful crystal, about a centimeter in diameter, chiseled like a true polyhedron. It was incredible how slow it was melting. Come to think of it, it didn’t really melt at all.

This isn’t ice, she told me. It’s road salt.

It took her about five seconds to notice the discrepancy. Meanwhile, I held the crystal for about five minutes in my glove, with the firm belief that it was ice.

Nature: 2. Noah: 0. In this dramatic turn of events, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. I wanted to laugh it off, but I also felt a dire need to understand the mental glitch which led me to this moment. I felt a tinge of that self-correcting hysteria that every Pingry student knows so well: the pain of the stupid mistake. The arithmetic error, the glaring typo, the misread question. In the craft of perfection, from 1600s to 36s to A+s, stupid mistakes must be rooted out ruthlessly. They cannot be treated as inevitable, even as every stupid mistake inevitably stems from the same essential quality: stubborn conviction. 

Of course, when it comes to career paths like airplane pilots and police officers, the mindset of perfectionism is not just admirable but societally necessary. However, in the context of academics and pedagogy, when ideas and curiosity are at stake rather than people’s lives, I think it’s important to lighten up on our approach to stupid mistakes. It’s healthier for students to expect to incur stupid mistakes in their educational careers, to value original conviction more than painstaking perfection. Of course, the way most curricula are structured––at Pingry and beyond––this is not a reasonable expectation. Test-taking is a fundamentally perfectionist pursuit, designed to help us strangle our stupid mistakes and fit our thinking to the model laid out in front of us. If we want to encourage students to think for themselves and adopt strong opinions with a healthy mindset, we ought to transition to more research-oriented, discussion-based models. Critical essays in particular ought to extend beyond English class. I’d like to see more math students reading and writing research rather than spitting back formulas––perhaps one of them might come across the Hairy Ball Theorem, which I think offers us a particularly nice illustration of this entire discussion. The theorem states that a sphere covered with hair cannot be entirely combed down; that a planet with wind must have a point on its surface where the air is not moving. So too is any person with an opinion going to have tufts and wrinkles in the fabric of their reasoning. It’s up to them to seek out those logical inconsistencies, to actively smoothen them out while understanding that the topology of ideas is never perfect.

Stubborn conviction is a fundamental part of our humanity and our intellectual legacies as scholars. It’s what gives us the passion to voice political opinions and invest time into civil discourse. It’s what gives us the courage to propose new theorems and theories. It’s what imbues a dreary January hail storm with an air of youthful adventure.

Stop Calling Things Interesting

By Noah Bergam (VI)

George Orwell once wrote that our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

I wish Orwell could have seen Twitter. 

But look––this isn’t a rant about social media per se, or even political discourse. I want to talk about “slovenly” language specifically as it relates to the learning experience. The word of the day is “interesting,” a word used and abused so often inside the classroom that it’s become a default response, an easy out to intellectually discourse.

If we want to challenge ourselves as learners, we ought to ponder: what does “interesting” really mean? How long does the comment at hand capture the imagination? Does it trigger new thoughts and connections? 

Maybe you had a genuine intellectual dopamine rush. You’ve dug deep, and you’ve found that there’s really no justification except an appreciation for the underlying beauty of a Faulkner passage or a clever computer algorithm. That’s okay. To an extent, it’s necessary. We all ought to stop and smell the roses every once in a while, especially in fast-paced, lecture-heavy STEM courses. But when it comes to the humanities, where student insight reigns supreme, we should be more mindful of our language. 

After all, we don’t write book reviews in English class. We write critical essays, make evidence-based arguments in our writing––and we should expect no different from our verbal discussions. The core issue with “interesting” is that it effectively cuts out the need for justification, turning commentary into a passive, antiquarian pursuit. 

As we saw earlier, Orwell voiced his concerns about the feedback loop between words and thoughts. But while Orwell speaks of language that is “foolish,” I’m more concerned with that which is vacuous. We have a word at our disposal that can mask critical thought and make the classroom far more comfortable than it ought to be. In the drain of hybrid learning, we have every incentive to use this word to patch up complications, misunderstandings, turning discussions into strings of weak non-sequiturs. Whether you are a teacher or a student, I implore you to be cautious. “Interesting” makes Zoom learning more remote than it has to be.

And no, “fascinating” is not better. Maybe we could hear “scintillating” a little more often, but ultimately, all these one-word substitutions reach the same dead end. There’s no easy answer to the linguistic dilemma at hand. It takes a community-wide consciousness to limit our use of the i-word. If you hear it, ask for follow-up. If you use it, provide some. 

Keep in mind your agency over language. If you want a classroom that’s more than just “interesting,” it starts with you.

Skimming the Pages

By Noah Bergam (VI)

I get a lot of snail mail these days. Almost each letter falls into one of two categories: college advertisements or campaign literature from the local Malinowski vs. Kean election. 

College season and election season. What a fun combination. One moment, I’m skimming through my second copy of UChicago’s “The Life of the Mind,” and the next, I’m bouncing between Toms, comparing the “Dangerous Pelosi Liberal” to the Pingry grad who is purportedly “bought off by the healthcare industry.” But really, my investigation is more cursory than thorough. Smooth pictures, flashy text, the ephemeral feel of fresh ink––then it’s off to the pile, and I return to my college essays to spend hours tweaking the prose of a single paragraph.

Marketing yourself and your content is a draining process. I think we all know it. Every little detail seems to matter so much as we craft applications, performances, newspaper layout––and yet, when we absorb the content of others, we naturally skim and simplify, reducing hours of someone’s painstaking work into a fleeting glance. 

To an extent, such behavior is warranted. The Internet, and, by extension, the world, inundates us with enough content and worries to last each of us literally thousands of lifetimes. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely staying afloat in the great ocean of information. I feel like my laptop, operating on eight measly megabytes of marginal storage. One more Zoom call, one more Chrome tab, and I’ll crash. 

I suspect this is a common apprehension among our student community. We’re all overworked, keeping tabs on a thousand different endeavours in and outside the classroom. All the while, we’re trained to chase leadership and become the best at whatever we do––but we’re not all that disposed towards appreciating the things that others do, whether it’s trying out a peer’s club, or reading a student publication, or cheering on a friend at a sports game. 

We can all fancy ourselves to be stars in our own respective realms, but ultimately, we’re bound to be part of the audience more often than we are to be on stage, and it would probably benefit our school culture to take that concept to heart a little more often. We ought to truly consider who we are as audience members, as readers, fans, and listeners. Is your experience in this community just a cursory flip through fancy pages, or is it something deeper, more connected and appreciative? 

Instead of immediately recycling the letters, I decided to keep them in a pile for a little while longer. It stings a bit to let them go so fast, because I know someone, somewhere in the universe, worked hard on these magnificent missives. They deserve a little respect.

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. 

The Coronavirus Endgame: What’s Next?

The Coronavirus Endgame: What’s Next?

By Noah Bergam (V)

The first night my dad came home from treating COVID-19 patients at Newark Beth-Israel Hospital, I asked him what the situation looked like.

His immediate response: “No one knows anything.”

Ground zero, according to him, was a welter of confusion. In the midst of a growing influx of cases and a narrowing supply of masks and ventilators, it made sense: no one working there had seen or been prepared for this kind of situation before.

The situation at the hospital has since improved, but confusion has continued to sweep the entire population as we realize the power of our quarantine, and the fact that, if we break it, we risk restarting a vicious battle on the front lines. 

We have a long road ahead of us, and we’re all looking forward to the day when we can walk away from this pandemic. But when will that day be? How do we reach it? And how do we make sure this never happens again?

These are the core questions I seek to address in this investigation. 

Beating COVID-19

To truly put down the virus at this point, we have to reach a status called herd immunity.

Herd immunity occurs when a significant majority of the population (about 70%) have been exposed to the virus, developed antibodies, and reached a point where they are no longer contagious. This creates a situation where those who cannot survive the virus (i.e. the immunocompromised) are surrounded by a “herd” who can act as a buffer from outbreaks. Life can then go on as normal.

Herd immunity can either happen naturally or artificially (i.e. through a vaccine). According to the WHO, “there is not enough evidence” to suggest that surviving COVID-19 will naturally grant long-lasting immunity. But even with that assumption, the death rates we have seen so far suggest that it might take well into 2021 and over half a million American deaths before we reach that point, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

And then there is a vaccine––a scalable treatment that can give someone a “dumbed down” version of the virus and allow their immune system to develop the necessary antibodies to protect themselves. If we develop a vaccine, it can accelerate us to herd immunity with much more certainty than the natural route.


The vaccine time-table we have been hearing from government officials, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, is 12 to 18 months, which would have us waiting through mid-2021 … but there’s no guarantee that we will remotely follow this timeline, or that we will even be able to develop one. And if we do, we will have to develop a much stronger global supply chain to satisfy an exceptional demand.

In any case, we have a long road ahead of us. But that doesn’t mean we won’t progress. Reopening the economy can happen in steps; Governor Murphy has outlined a six-part plan that includes gradual reopening of specific businesses, as well as significant expansion of contact tracing and testing. 

Beating Future Outbreaks

The position we find ourselves in reflects what I like to call the Fundamental Theorem of Public Health: the fact that ad hoc treatment is a more expensive and more painful alternative to prevention. 

Keyword is prevention. How do we prevent a virus from wreaking this kind of havoc in the years to come?

To get answers, I talked to my sister Scarlett Bergam, a candidate for a Master’s Degree in Public Health with a concentration in Global Infectious Disease at Brown University. 

One of the main things she stressed was quicker action. When asked what contributed most to the situation at hand, Scarlett pointed to a lack of testing and the ramifications thereafter. “While this was not completely in our control, it led to many people infecting others without knowing. To combat the inevitability of not knowing who was infected, we should have shut down our economy much sooner.“

It’s important to understand that testing alone is not enough––those who test positive need to immediately be isolated from the general population, as well as those who they came into contact with in the meantime. Hence, contact tracing: a tool that, if used on a wide enough scale, can turn a virus’ growth rate upside down.

According to Scarlett, “This would be incredibly efficient if people consented to it. However, ethically, there is always a fear of giving up one’s data.” She acknowledged the fact that most contact tracing would probably have to include GPS information, and that tracking of people’s locations could discourage signups (mandatory contact tracing, of course, would invoke some hefty constitutional issues). 

However, she expressed some faith that a partnership between local government and the private tech industry could maximize both the effectiveness and the appeal of contact tracing. (Additionally, I found in my own research some clever methods of contact tracing that wouldn’t impede privacy.) 

In terms of what we need to do to make these systems a reality, Bergam stated that “policy definitely has the biggest impact—new laws and funding allocation have the power to save mass amounts of lives, much more efficiently than any one doctor can.” Ultimately, making these kinds of long-term investments can save a lot of money and life down the line, and if there’s one good thing that COVID-19 has given us, it’s the amount of incentive we now have to follow through.


It’s incredibly scary to not know when life will go back to normal. 

We can rest assured that one day it will. But in order to reach that day, we need solutions, widespread cooperation, and, perhaps most importantly, knowledge. “No one knows anything” is a scary prospect in the hospital but also in the general population––we need to understand the science and the policy surrounding this pandemic. We cannot afford to fall for misinformation, political understatements, or the illusion of blissful ignorance. 

We are living in a time of historical proportions, with historical mistakes that will be studied for decades and centuries to come. 

So let’s be clear on our situation, and the solutions at hand. Let’s face this world head on and come back to our changed world, not defeated by this present suffering, but empowered by the future in our hands. 

Pingry Students Protest Racial Injustice, Ask School to do the Same

Pingry Students Protest Racial Injustice, Ask School to do the Same

By Noah Bergam (V) & Meghan Durkin (V)

As the growth rate of the coronavirus begins to flatline, Americans grow tired of a virus that has ravaged this nation for far longer – the racially charged murder of innocent black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, by a systematically flawed criminal justice system.

Since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, thousands have taken to the streets across the country in frustration. These protests have called for murder charges against the policemen who killed Floyd, as well as concrete legislative reform to end these homicides. The former request was fulfilled on June 3, when the Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced a second-degree murder charge (upgraded from third-degree) for Derek Chauvin, who asphyxiated Floyd by kneeling on his neck for over 8 minutes, as well as aiding and abetting charges for the three former policemen who allowed Chauvin to do so. In terms of broader reforms, protesters are calling for divestment from police forces, an end to the Qualified Immunity (which make it extremely difficult for officers to be found guilty), and a ban on choke and knee holds.

Within the Pingry community, many students and alumni have joined in on the activism. Most have been helping spread awareness on allyship and petitions via social media, while others took part in peaceful protests in their communities. 

The protests across the country are evidence of a desire and pressing need for change. While most of these protests have remained peaceful, some have turned violent, with police provoking protesters and protesters taking part in arson and vandalism. In the case of the former, it is disturbingly unclear how police are being disciplined for their brutality, especially against peaceful demonstrators. In the case of the latter, there has been confusion over who has been inciting the violence, and debate surrounding the acceptable limits to what protesters should do. Some cite the destruction of private property alone as reason enough to condemn the rioting, while others see the rioting as a tantamount reaction to decades of oppression and police violence.

Pingry’s Discourse

In the wake of the Floyd shooting, Student Body President Nolan Baynes wanted to see allyship and action from the school’s administration, so on May 28 he emailed Pingry’s top administrators, including Headmaster Matt Levinson, asking Pingry to speak up. 

After some back and forth, including further student emails which pressed the school to take more direct action, administrators set up a community-wide Zoom meeting on June 3 to initiate more dialogue about the issue.

During the meeting, which was attended by over 300 students and faculty, participants had an opportunity to voice their opinions and frustrations in hopes of improving Pingry’s future responses and actions against racial injustice. Students were able to offer suggestions to the faculty and the administration, while teachers reflected on “action steps” they could take to better facilitate discussion around race in their classroom and beyond. 

On Friday, June 5, the Pingry Allyship Collective (a newly formed coalition of all the affinity groups, student unions, SDLC, and CASE) sent a letter to administrators requesting more transparency between students and faculty involved in diversity and inclusion (inset at bottom left).

Words from a Pingry Protester

Giles Burnett (IV), who took part in peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Somerset, NJ, on May 31, provided a statement on why he chose to protest:

 I’ll tell you what my mom told me. ‘Watch your tone around strangers, don’t wear your hoodie in public, never question or talk back to an officer, turn down your music in the car, don’t bike/drive through that neighborhood, you better be home before dark, take your hands out your pocket, walk with a purpose and don’t linger, you don’t get any second chances in this world.’ Or, I can tell you what America told me. ‘Cross the street or clutch your purse when you see me, follow me in the store, slow your car down when you see me, slow down your cop car when you see me, ask me if I’m lost or in the wrong store, ask me where I got that $20 from, ask me if I play football or basketball, ask me if you can say the n-word.’ That is my everyday life, I march so my black brothers and sisters don’t have to answer those questions. I march so innocent black men and women aren’t killed in the streets. I march to fight the systemic racism that plagues our country. This past week has been one of the most painful and exhausting weeks of my life. I’ve cried, reflected, laughed and everything in between. I’ve been able to channel these emotions into action and change. However, there is no change with only 14% of the nation speaking up. We need allies and we need unity. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Stay safe.

The Record’s Statement

We wholly condemn the police brutality present in this country, as well as the silence that has allowed it to viciously persist. As a publication, we stand for improvements in Pingry’s discourse surrounding race relations. We encourage writers of all identities to tackle these difficult subjects, and we are open to civil discussions around the presence of racial injustices in our School, our nation, and our world.  

Hi Everybody,

I am sure you have seen on the news and
through social media that the murders of
Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George
Floyd have resulted in mass outrage throughout
the country. This is not the first time this will
happen, and I doubt it will be the last. Many
members of our Pingry community have felt the
need to advocate upon social media discussing
possible protests, sending out petitions, and
even speaking their own emotions. As a school,
during times of crisis, this definitively being
one of them, we have been able to address
issues that are affecting students head-on. To be
direct, in the fall, when commenting upon the
suicide of nearby students, the administration
was very prompt to address the matter, and all
hands were focused upon it. It is odd that even
with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, I was the
only person upon campus to speak out formally.
There seems to be some lack of adult input in
these situations, and it’s isolating to the students
whom it affects daily. From my perspective, the
daily micro-aggressions and events at this school
go silenced and unnoticed, especially from the
As a middle school student, I would feel as
though I was alone fighting a fight that would
never be resolved, and here we are in 2020
dealing with the same issue. Except now, I’m a
senior with a legitimate position in our school.
As a Student Body President, an active advocate
in our community, and most importantly, a
Black boy, I’m asking you to speak out on
it. Show solidarity with the people who have
been affected by systemic racism for over 400
years who attend your school. If you don’t, I,
along with other students in your building, will
continue to fight the fight that has yet to be
resolved in this country. As adults, you have a
platform just like I do, and I hope you find a way
to advocate for people who look like me and not
just turn a blind eye and become shocked when
the next murder occurs.
Black tears fall upon deaf white ears.


Nolan Baynes II

May 28 Letter from Nolan Baynes II (V) to Pingry

We are proud to be Pingrians; we wish
to discuss diversity-related issues in Pingry
because we want this community to become
a better, more inclusive place. We started
diversity work in Pingry because we either
were displeased with the lack of representation
in our school or believed that the existing
representation is both superficial and trivialized
by the students and the staff. However, the
goal of PAC is not to point fingers or merely
complain about the past wrongs we have
observed. Instead, we wish to progress in
collaboration with the administration and
contribute to the commendable endeavors of
our school. In order to do this, however, certain
methods of communication and action must be
reformed; one of our main concerns is the lack
of collaboration and/or transparency between
faculty leaders who make diversity-related
decisions and the students who feel the result of
these decisions (or lack thereof). As a result, we
hope that the administration takes our ideas and
perspectives seriously.

Excerpt of June 5 Letter from Pingry Allyship Collective to Pingry Administrators

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.

Mr. LaValette to Leave Pingry After 41 Years

Mr. LaValette to Leave Pingry After 41 Years

By Noah Bergam (V)

After 41 years at Pingry, beloved Upper School German teacher and former Head of the World Languages Department Norman LaValette is retiring this year. Mr. LaValette (often referred to by students as “Herr LaV” or simply “LaV”) is known for his unorthodox but effective teaching methods, which, as his students can attest to, involve countless mantras, exquisite vocabulary, speed dialogue, and sometimes even jumping on tables.

LaValette is a born teacher, but the way he ended up choosing German and Pingry requires a bit of background. 

In terms of the former, the story starts back when he was in 7th grade, when he had the choice at his public school to learn either Latin or German. He liked both languages; Latin piqued his interest in toy soldier collection, while German had interesting connections with his native Dutch. He chose Latin, only to receive his schedule and find it had German on it. Apparently there were not enough signups to fill up a Latin class. “The rest is history;” he studied German through high school, college, and grad school.

When LaVallette entered the teaching world, Pingry was not his debut job. After four years teaching at three separate high schools, LaValette stumbled upon Pingry by a recommendation from a friend. After interviewing for the job, LaV recalled he was “duly allured,” taken aback by “the reverence for scholarship, for ideas” among both students and teachers. Once again, the rest is history. 

LaV taught German during a time when the Berlin Wall was thought to be indestructible. He recalled taking students to the country on exchange trips in the late 80s and early 90s––on one trip in specific, his students traded US dollars for medals and belts from Russian soldiers in East Berlin. He recalled thinking: “This is wild.”

Herr LaValette has run Harkness discussions in German since the 1980s, back before it was cool for even high school English classes. He recalled one specific discussion that devolved into fisticuffs––a discussion where he jumped in and ultimately took an accidental punch to the jaw from one of his students. If anything, it was a testament to his sheer dedication to his students, and, of course, the relevance of his class discussions: as LaV put it, “German can push people’s buttons!”

According to German teacher Karsten Niehues, “[LaV] is a living legend. Over the years, more than 1,000 teachers have participated in his workshops and learned from his wisdom. While LaV has a student-centered approach to teaching, he also believes in the value of teachers with strong personalities.” Indeed, LaV’s pedagogy has made huge impacts on the teachers around him. Fellow German teacher Igor Jasinski stated, “Watching [LaV] teach has helped me become a better teacher, as it makes me want to bring to my classes some of that intensity and sense of urgency that is the hallmark of Norm’s teaching style.” Colleague and former German teacher Ann Dickerson said, “He is an innovative, energetic, passionate educator who has never become complacent or cynical about teaching, and comes to school every day as eager to grow and to learn as if he were just starting out.”

This is evident in his own words. When asked what teaching has taught him, LaV responded, “If you’re an ambitious person, if you start a year with a goal, inexorably what’s going to happen, especially if you’re a teacher, is you aren’t going to reach all of them. You’re not ever as good as you think you are. But here’s the cool thing about teaching: most teachers I know, they will get back on the horse, and set up new goals, new ambitions, strive to do what they couldn’t do the year before.”

The first mantra LaV taught me back in sixth grade German was Aller Anfang ist schwer: every beginning is difficult. So too is every ending, especially to a career this amazing. Herr LaV, you will be greatly missed. 

Fractals Math Problem

Fractals Math Problem

Fractals are self-similar. The Sierpinski Triangle is an interesting fractal pattern. You can build one like this:

  • 1. Start with an “upright” equilateral triangle (as seen in stage zero)
  • 2. Place an upside-down triangle in the center of any upright triangle
  • 3. Repeat Step 2 infinitely 

Write a recursive formula that can model how many similar triangles you can count in the figure in a given stage. The figure above will be helpful in finding the pattern.

Extra Challenge: Turn that recursive formula into an explicit formula (i.e. find S(n), where n is the “stage” and S(n) is the number of triangles)

Click for Solutions!

S(0) = 1

S(n) = 3S(n-1) + 2

Base case is 1 because there is only 1 triangle in Stage 0.

Look at the jump from stage 0 to 1. When you add the white triangle, you essentially have 3 smaller versions of Stage 0, along with the central triangle and the entire triangle. That’s 3*1+1+1. 

Stage 1 to 2 follows the same pattern. 3(4) + 1 + 1.

Generalize the pattern to obtain your recursive step, S(n) = 3S(n-1) + 2.

In order to make an explicit formula, try expanding the recursive step. 

S(n) = 3S(n-1) + 2

Replace S(n-1)

S(n) = 3( 3S(n-2) + 2 ) + 2

Replace S(n-2)

S(n) = 3( 3( 3S(n-3) + 2) + 2 ) + 2

Simplify to make the pattern more clear.

S(n) = 3^3 * S(n-3) + 18 + 6  + 2

If you keep on replacing k times you find the pattern:

S(n) = 3^k * S(n-k) + 2 + 6 + 18 + …  2*3k-1

We can get rid of S(n-k) by using our base case of S(0). When k=n, S(n-k) is 0. Thus…

S(n) = 3^n * S(0) + 2 + 6 + 18 + …  2*3n-1

Final Answer:

S(n) =3^n + ( 2+6 + 18 + … 2*3^(n-1) )

Or more formally, using sigma notation:

Epidemiology Math Problems

Epidemiology Math Problems

In these confusing times there’s a certain sense of power that comes with understanding, or at least trying to understand, the dynamics of disease spread and epidemiology. I certainly felt that as I’ve looked into the mathematics disease modeling over the course of this quarantine––a field that is absolutely fascinating, empowering, and daunting all at once. I recommend checking out Julian Lee’s article on his original disease modeling application, which describes the effects of visiting friends in a quarantine (his application is a randomized agent-based model as opposed to the more top-down mathematical models you’ll see here).

In this article, I present three epidemiology thinking problems, in ascending orders of difficulty, meant to put you in the position of the disease modeler. Have fun!

Fig: A graphical representation of an SIR (Susceptible-Infected-Recovered) Disease Model. The green curve is the curve that our social distancing efforts are “flattening.” This is the classic, top-down disease modeling approach

1) In epidemiology, R0 (“the basic reproductive number” or “r-naught”) is defined as the maximum number of new cases expected per infected person. The R0 of COVID-19 has been estimated to be 2.28 (Zhang, et al). An infected individual is expected to cause ß new cases per day. This is essentially the “birth rate.” Meanwhile, δ is the expected proportion of cases dying on a given day. This is essentially the “death rate.” Describe R0 in terms of ß and δ.

2) Does R0 tend to decrease, increase, or remain the same as a virus grows in an isolated population? Why or why not?

3) Consider the following differential equation to describe the spread of COVID-19, where ß and δ have the same values defined in problem 1. 

This is essentially a fancy mathematical way of saying that the rate at which the infection spreads is dependent on the number of people infected as well as the difference between the virus’ birth and death rates. In what ways does this model oversimplify real-life disease spread?

(Problems inspired by Rob J. de Boer’s Modeling Population Dynamics: a Graphical Approach, available here: http://theory.bio.uu.nl/rdb/books/mpd.pdf)

Click for Solutions!

1) R0 = ß/δ  (1/δ is the mean number of days someone with the virus is expected to live.)

2) R0 decreases; as an infection grows, there will be more infected individuals around a given infected person, meaning that there are fewer people to infect. 

3) There are a lot of answers to this question, which highlights the limitations of this top-down mathematical modeling. Here are a few. 

  • The ß value should not apply only to the infected population, but also to the healthy susceptible population. 
  • This model does not take into account the recovery rate.
  • The virus’ birth rate will change, not only depending on the number of people with COVID but also depending on how well the population responds (social distancing, hand-washing, etc)
  • The death rate will change based on what treatments are available.