Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Memory of Mr. Farnham (my High School teacher)

Written by Ms. Berman

My high school Advanced Biology teacher, Mr. Farnham, has died.  It has been over three decades since I have sat in his classroom, anger seething throughout my being.  When I have shared the stories of his unusual teaching practices with my own high school Science students, I am convinced that they think I am fabricating tales.  I couldn't create better stories if I tried. 

I learned very little Biology that year.  In fact, usually I dreaded going to the class.  The odor of his room filled with rodents, his eerie facial expressions, and a never-ending list of tasks on the chalkboard each day added to my rising frustration.  I was placed in the front row all year.  The students from the third row and back openly cheated their way through the course.  Yet, it wasn't until this moment, 36 years later, when I read of Mr. Farnham's passing that I realized what a powerful impact this man has made on my life.  Although his methods were atypical, one could truly say inane, he was teaching us daily life lessons.  At the time I thought that perhaps he viewed us as lab rats in the maze of life for the sake of his own amusement.  Now I realize that he was doing it for us.  His class was about survival.  More important, it was about questioning the "system." 

What are the purpose of tests and grades?  He made this clear the day he told us to take out a sheet of paper for a true/false exam.  "Okay, he said, "now start the exam."  "But you haven't given it to us," we replied. "Write your own questions.  Then number your answer sheet from 1-20 and answer them."  "What?" screamed a chorus of high-achieving students from Pacific Palisades.  Kids were freaking out.  But we obediently did what we were told because that is what students did in our generation.  After he collected our answer sheets, he proceeded to pull out the answer "key" and grade our papers. 

I understood at the time, but more acutely now, the ridiculousness of true/false exams, and of most exams, in general.  But we are a test-driven nation and so I comply.  There is a part of me that will always know when it is more important to stop teaching and rebel against the institution.  To take stock in the human spirit as being of greater importance than the standards, tests, and grades that are so heavily emphasized in the educational system today.  It may not be realistic to take that route this week, finals week, but the time will come when Mr. Farnham will pop into my head and I will remember the unique high school teacher from my sophomore year who valued life lessons as well as academics.  Thank you, Mr. Farnham.  You gave me a gift without my knowing it.  Trust that I am carrying on your legacy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dare to Dream: A Tribute to MLK

Written by Tony Brown, former I.S. parent
He had a dream. His dream was that little white boys and little white girls would one day sit down beside little black boys and little black girls and reside together in a peaceful, harmonious society. This was imperative at a time in America’s recent past when racial injustice combined with Jim Crow laws made it extremely difficult for black Americans to know in their hearts exactly what the words written in the U.S. Constitution, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal’ really meant and find out once and for all that that eloquent phrase really did apply to them too. When America’s founders spoke of ‘self evident’ truths they actually were invoking the long tradition of natural law which holds that there is a ‘higher law’ of right and wrong. It was their desire that this country not be founded on solely political will, but moral reasoning accessible to all. Moral reasoning is essential to the dream becoming reality. Only when asleep could this black man dare dream that racial equality would actually occur because when awake the reality played out oftentimes was man’s inhumanity to man. For instance, it was commonplace in the deep South that a black person was taught to never look a White man or woman directly in the eyes, or when a black person encountered a White person on the sidewalk the black person was mandated to step into the street to allow the White male or female to pass by. Why would He want to be awakened to a life like this? Tis much better to dream that slave owners and slaves would sit down in brotherhood because dreaming was the only way the slave could find a peaceful existence that excluded him/her while awake. Only while dreaming could he dare believe that in Mississippi – the state where three civil rights workers, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered attempting to register blacks to vote – could ever possibly be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. Only when one has drank a little too much wine and is in a deep sleep would he dare dream that his four children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Yet there is hope! He asked that freedom be allowed to ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire to the curvaceous slopes of California via Stone Mountain in Georgia and Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. When he awoke he knew that moral reasoning amongst the multitude of folks that comprise this mighty nation is the only way the bell’s clapper would announce the election of one Barack Hussein Obama 48 short years after his slumber. 
MsB: We must all dare ourselves to dream! 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making an Impact

Written by Ms. Berman

Chris Young the Rapper (c/o 2007) wrote a rap for I.S. students, to be distributed at the end of the Fall semester 2011 as a reward in recognition of student success in my honors and IB Science classes.  The following poem is my way of saying "thank you" to him for his unerring dedication to the I.S. community:

Grandma, though crippled, had a vision that day you selflessly made a decision
to come read to her the Bible, here I admit there can be no denial.
I didn’t think that you would show, with brother Hugo sober in tow
wearing slacks and button down shirts, not expecting praise or perks.
We shared breakfast at the table, Grandma told her fav family fable
about her life back in the day, then assured you it's gonna be okay.
She saw right through your troubled eyes which was really no big surprise.
Grandma had amazing perception; I dared not out smart her with deception.
Long after you left she was still staring, off into space not really caring
that I was waiting to see what she thought of these young men for whom I had fought.
Although I knew she was reflecting, Grandma's words weren’t what I was expecting:
that boy, she pointed where you had been sitting, will be famous one day; I am not kidding.
He has something special within, but his deepness thus far has made his life dim.
He’ll grow and bring wisdom to the world once his emotional being is unfurled.
And now Grandma lives up in the sky, but her words I still hear and I sigh
in awe that such an aged woman could identify true depth in this human
at the early age of sixteen when he was just beginning to define his being.
But now Chris you’re following this prophecy, it is more like your reality,
changing lives by sharing how you feel, sending messages so troubled souls can heal.
If there’s one thing I know for a fact, it's that you, Chris Young, are making an impact
on the thoughts and minds of the stranded, continue to give to the empty-handed.
And thank you Grandma for always believing in the goodness of mankind in achieving
the most important goal one could desire: to believe in and try to aspire
to teach people they have a choice, and show them how to express their voice.
If there’s one thing I know for a fact, it's that you, Chris Young, are making an impact.  

Dance with Tolerance

Written by Jacqueline Emathinger
 c/o 2010

Nervous habits, like creepy crawly bugs you find on your sleeping bag when you go camping. 
When I’m nervous my hands shake and I pull on my ear.  I bite my lip and I rock from my heels to my toes.  I’m nervous now.  So nervous that my fingers keep hitting the wrong key and I have to take a break from typing so that my hands can simmer down.  I’m nervous because I’m thinking about who I haven’t yet had the chance to be. 
There are friends of mine whose parents never taught them about drinking, drugs, or sex, or encouraged questions about religion and foreign affairs.  But I’m a different kind of sheltered.  My older sister, taller, self-assured, romantic in her own way, is the person my parents encouraged me to become.  While they encouraged her to do the IB Diploma, they questioned my ability to pass regular courses.
The cocoon they created for me was not one made to protect me while I changed and grew.  Rather it suffocated my ability to do so.  Like food, they forced their ideas and views down my throat, pressuring me to become mirror images of themselves.  After eight years of private school, they sent me to public high school.  And overwhelmed I became, unaccustomed to the world where black was not a threat, but merely a color.  A world where love was fluid.  Only in eighth grade was such a world hinted at when my teacher introduced the idea of tolerance, an idea that struck me hard, like a hammer, but still danced in the air as if taunting the world with its idealism.  I will admit that at first I latched on to the word, the syllables waltzing on my tongue, and then later tangoing in my mind.  And yet I could not break the Catholicism and conservatism my parents had woven like silk into a cocoon.
Before I could realize, I had set up a two front war: fighting against my parents who protected the south where they had planted their seeds of religion and nationalism, and combating against my past to free the northern front: my future.  Where my military strategy lacked, the ideology that formed the base for my mission stood strong.  My father called my faith in humanity “naïve and premature,” yet it was humanity which horrified me so, and left me wounded, my fears oozing under the makeshift bandages I tried to create.  On November 4th, 2008, Proposition 8 was passed, and I encouraged my tears, as if the blur and haze they caused could allow me to understand the world from a perspective that was unable to see the importance of human rights.  While the world seemed to be spinning on an orbit built upon democracy and freedom, I stood still; dumbstruck. 
Soon my anguish turned to stone.  When my tears had dried, and the fog in my mind cleared, I was able to focus.  And I fought.  Not the two front war that I had believed in for so long, this new war had no strategy.  It was not a fight for me, it was a fight for the women next to me on the bus holding hands and crying.   It was a fight for my friend who had called me that night, screaming in-between sobs.  It was a fight for equality.  When you turn 18 you can sign yourself up to be a soldier.  I was sixteen and a soldier in combat not yet defined.  How this civil rights movement differs from those in our past, I may never understand. 
But I am determined to see the boundaries built around love struck down.  I am determined to fight, however many days, weeks, months, years.  I am determined to be a soldier my whole life.  I am determined to emerge from my cocoon and believe in humanity.
I am determined to dance with tolerance.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Written by Rebecca Chhay
c/o 2012
Every day in life, we’re presented with choices. Right now you have the choice of continuing to read this blog post, or moving onto something else. This morning, you had a choice of whether or not to press the snooze button or to wake up. Life is a reflection of choices.
Some of these choices are not in our hands. For example, no one is able to choose whether or not he or she is born.  After that, however, there are a lot of things in our control. One topic that is related to choices has already been discussed on this blog: making a difference.
Generally, people take this to mean a positive difference. You can make a difference by doing the simplest things; for example, letting the bus driver know that there’s someone running to catch the bus. You can also make a difference by not doing anything. The bus will drive away; you’ll likely never see the person who was running to catch the bus again.
In this situation, there is a choice. The choice is whether or not you let the bus driver know to wait another 30 or so seconds. There is no choice as to whether or not you made a difference. In this situation, however, the difference is small and it can be counted in minutes. If you chose not to let the bus driver know to wait the extra 30 seconds, the person who was running to catch the bus will wait a little. No harm done; but what if this weren’t a matter of minutes?  
In my seventh grade year at Roosevelt, I went to school one day and it appeared as if a lot of my teachers had colds and had decided to cluster around the entrance to the library to share tissues. During first period, we learned that our Vice Principal Tracee Parsons had gotten into a car accident after leaving school and died almost instantly. She had been making calls to the parents concerning the behavior of their children before leaving school. If one less person had acted out in class, if she had one less phone call to make, if she had gotten out five minutes earlier… I don’t know. I don’t know what would have happened.
I don’t know which students Ms. Parsons called, and even if I did, I wouldn’t blame them. How could they have known that the difference wouldn’t be measured in minutes? They didn’t know what the stakes were. Do you ever know what the stakes are?
All you can do is make a choice. You will always make a difference.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Different Perspective

Written by Tage Eriksen
c/o 2010

IB Diploma, high SAT scores, GPAs over 4.0, Extended Essay, extra curriculars, the list goes on and on. These things are all stressed so much in high school because the standards to get into the "top colleges" continue to grow. And of course teachers and staff members want you to get into the best college possible and succeed there. But I believe there is a major flaw in the mindset of today. This system has been set up so Linguistic Intelligence and Logical-Mathematical Intelligence are deemed most valuable. But what about the student who may not be the strongest in these two types of intelligence, but is gifted in art, music, or dance? It doesn't seem fair.
And I know that the college essay and letters of recommendation are supposed to be the chance for aspects other that grades to be explored. But I don't think it's enough.
I just wish students would realize that college isn't the only answer. I'm not saying to drop what you’re doing in high school, because everything you learn in high school will apply to you in "real life" even if you aren’t aware of it. Being one of the very few students from my class who decided not to attend college, I would like it to be known that I do not regret my decision one bit.
I now live in New York City and dance with the Manhattan Youth Ballet Company. I dance seven days a week and love every minute of it. I hate seeing people put what they are really passionate about on the back-burner because society expects them to attend college first. And I'm sorry, but college is not necessary for all professions. However this does not mean high school should be taken any less seriously. Using myself as an example, being a dancer there is always the possibility of a career-ending injury, so if necessary I have to be ready to go to college. However, college can wait, and until then, I will be doing what I love.
The moral of the story is to do what you are passionate about, not what you are pressured into doing. Embrace those other levels of intelligence!
Ms. Berman's response:  I have to admit that at times it was difficult to encourage Tage to follow her dream.  As a teacher of Science and an observer of her potential, I wanted her to go to college and major in Biology or Chemistry.  As her mentor, I was forced to make Tage the priority and separate out what was in her best interest versus mine.  I do believe, however, that there will be a time when she returns to the world of academia and thoroughly enjoys the experience... it just will be her own adventure, not the way in which society defines the typical college experience.