June 8, 2017: Words matter–use them wisely

June 8, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Congratulations Belmont High Class of 2017.  As you cross the stage to accept your diploma, family, friends and community members all look on with justifiable pride.  You represent not only our today, but offer us our tomorrow.  And while it looks like our tomorrow is in pretty good hands, we need some help from you.

Today’s world poses some problems that I’d ask you to help us all work on as you move forward.  One of the biggest problems is that we frequently seem to forget today that words matter.  The old childhood rhyme is just plain wrong when it asserts that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now I concede, as a person with training in both law and journalism, I pay particular attention to words. I won an Iowa supreme court case once because the state legislature used the word “that” where it should have instead used the word “this.” Nonetheless, for everyone, words do matter.

Some words get over-used today.  For example, I fear we may have become too casual with the word “hate.”   I, personally, often proclaim that I “hate” the Yankees, the Jets and the Jayhawks.  Hate, however, is a strong word, capturing a strong emotion.  We cheapen its meaning by making its use too casual. When we become desensitized to the word’s true meaning, it becomes too easy to overlook expressions of disapproval (or even simple discomfort) through proclaimed “hate” in language, or through practiced “hate” in behavior.  Be wary if you find the word “hate” popping up in your vocabulary too frequently.

The word “them” gets over-used as well.  “Them” (as in “not us”) connotes a focus on that which makes someone different.  One problem with its use today is that the word too frequently focuses exclusively on a single attribute of a person (or group of people).  A presentation last year here in Belmont, for example, concerned “Muslims in America.”  One speaker eloquently questioned how a person might become a “them” based solely on differences in religion, even though the commonalities arising from being a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a neighbor might be far more substantial. Finding yourself with lots of “thems” in your life may merit some reflection on whether you are allowing yourself to experience the entirety of individuals you meet.

When I was in college, comedian George Carlin had a popular routine about “seven words you can never say on TV.” Carlin used humor to make the point that words are just words; they are harmless unto themselves. But words are rarely “just words.”  And they almost never stand unto themselves. Words almost always carry a context: expectations, judgments, emotions, history. Their use conveys that context. Please, be aware of the full context you are conveying in the words you use.

The world seems recently to have become a less civil society. Your conscientious use of words in the future can help reverse that trend. To do so, whether you move from high school to college, or to some other life pursuit, you should strive to be constantly self-aware of your day-to-day, person-to-person impact on the world.  One of those impacts is through your awareness that no matter the setting –work or play, on-line or in-person, public or private– what you say, and how you say it, makes a difference.

In short, as you move on after graduation, I ask that you consciously strive to use words wisely.  Words matter.

Class of 2017, as an entire community, we smile and feel a rush of pride upon your graduation.  Congratulations on your accomplishments. Godspeed on your life journey.

October 6, 2016: BHS protest honors father’s WWII service

October 6, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Last week, Belmont High principal Dan Richards issued the following public announcement:

“This past week at Belmont High School, a group of about twenty students peacefully organized their voices to support the national protest of ‘Black Lives Matter.’  On Friday. . .the students wore black to school and some students chose to write ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their arms. The students’ intentions were to bring awareness to the topic and to continue the conversation our nation is having. The students successfully brought attention to the topic in a peaceful and respectful manner by having dialogues with students, faculty, staff, and administrators without any disruption to the school day.”

Principal Richards stated: “In addition to the events during the school day, approximately twelve of our athletes chose to support our students’ voice at the evening football game by mirroring what some professional athletes have decided to do by kneeling during the national anthem. The athletes who chose to kneel in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement did so in an organized, respectful manner. The athletes who chose not to kneel decided to support the students kneeling by standing next to them, placing their left hand on their shoulder and their right hand over their hearts. . .This was also done in a peaceful and respectful manner.”

I attended junior high and high school in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Viet Nam War years.  Particularly as a former Des Moines resident, I appreciated the efforts of our BHS students.  How are those two things related?

John and Mary Beth Tinker were Des Moines students who wore black arm bands to school to protest the Viet Nam War.  School officials, who had been told this was going to happen, suspended both of them. The Tinkers’ schools were the same schools that my brothers and I attended.

The ensuing court case challenging the suspension of the Tinker kids ultimately made its way to the US Supreme Court.  The Court, in famous language applicable yet today, pronounced that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…”

The Court found that rather than trying to prevent “a material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline,” the suspension handed out by the Des Moines schools was used to prevent the “discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

My father fought in World War II.  My father was forever scarred by his service in Northern Africa and in France during WWII.  Nonetheless, I fervently believe that the actions of our Belmont High students honored, and didn’t dishonor, the memory of his long (and painful) military service.  Indeed, those BHS actions exemplified the very reason my father served. He fought to preserve the fundamental right to pursue the precise activities that the Tinker kids did, as did our Belmont High students fifty years later.

Principal Richards concluded his announcement last week, stating: “Allowing students to express themselves while respecting the views of others is one of the hallmarks of Belmont High School. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement continues to be a topic of passionate conversation across our nation and in our schools. I am extremely proud of the manner in which our students organized and conducted themselves this past week.”

Principal Richards, I could not agree with you more.  I offer my congratulations, my respect, and my admiration both to our BHS students who sought to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter issue, and to our Belmont school officials who sought to facilitate that discussion rather than trying to shut it down or squelch it.

June 9, 2016:Class of 2016: Pursuit of higher education

Belmont Citizen-Herald: June 16, 2016

Congratulations Belmont High class of 2016.  You’ve had a great high school career and, now, it’s time to move on to “higher education.”  What exactly does that mean?

I had lunch not long ago with the son of a friend (let me call him “Jason”).  Jason recently had graduated from college and he was worried because a job wasn’t waiting for him at the doorstep. He was questioning whether he had marketable skills to sell to an employer.  What do I have to offer, Jason asked me.

This question was raised by a person who, during the middle of his college years, decided to move to Bangkok, Thailand for a year.  On his own. Not part of a program.  Not affiliated with an institution.  Not living with friends or family. No formal training in the Thai language.

Let’s set aside your classroom education, I urged him, and look at what higher education you received.  That Thai trip was not simply an adventure.  How did you grocery shop in this new country? Where did you bank? How did you pick up the language? How did you meet friends, find your way around the city, or do any of the other activities of daily living?  I couldn’t think of skills more sought-after by an employer than those exhibited by this Thai trip: problem-solving, initiative, communication.

Jason’s experience directly relates to you as a recent BHS graduate. For most of you, higher education means attending a four year college.  Be it in engineering, social sciences, literature, or the hard sciences, the next four years will be devoted to class time with increasing specialization as you move through your collegiate career.

But, like Jason, much of your education will occur outside the classroom.  You will meet new people with different backgrounds. You will negotiate roommate “issues.” You will decide when to seek academic help and when not. You will manage your own health, your own time, your own finances.  You will organize who you play with and who you study with.

My daughter just graduated from college.  Five years in school. A couple of academic degrees.  Yet, I will forever believe that perhaps her most significant college education came not from the classroom, but from her years of participation in her university’s Dance Marathon, a student run charity that raises money each year for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Through her work with the Dance Marathon executive board, she lived the experience of setting goals, both long-term and short. She mobilized resources toward achieving those goals; planned and coordinated group endeavors; mediated internal organizational disputes; celebrated successes and weathered disappointments. She had to decide how to allocate scarce resources, including both organization money and her own time.  Does that sound like a typical employment setting? Yes, indeed.

Class of 2016, as you move forward in your educational journey, a huge part of your higher education will come not from your classrooms, but from your experiences. But beware. Amongst the considerable wisdom flowing from baseball players over the years, former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Vernon Law once opined that, “experience is a hard  teacher. She gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.”  I encourage you not only to be open to the tests, but to be cognizant of the lessons.

Class of 2016, your community could not be prouder of you as a Belmont High graduate.  Your Belmont education has prepared you well for the journey ahead, wherever that might lead.  Your friends, family, neighbors, indeed the entire community, wish for you not merely success and happiness, but wish for you to live an interesting and fulfilling life.

May 26, 2016: Meeting kids’ needs through high school options

Belmont Citizen-Herald: May 26, 2016

Belmont High School is moving toward the end of another spectacularly successful school year.  Academic accomplishment remains high, with graduating seniors headed toward four-year colleges.  The theatre program hit a home run with the presentation of The Laramie Project.  Athletics excelled, with the girls basketball team enthralling fans with their deep tournament run.  Music, community service, after-school clubs, even new coding classes to advance technology education.  Belmont High offers something for everyone, right?

Well, maybe not quite.

I had conversations recently with two Belmont educators about the advantages of the high school options that Belmont offers within our community.  The question I posed was not in the negative (what does Belmont High not do well), but rather in the positive (what advantages does the community receive from having more than one high school). Both educators agreed that Belmont was well-served by having these options.

Dan Richards, principal of Belmont High School, noted that education provided by public high schools involves a reflection not only of the community, but of society as a whole.  One societal norm to be reflected today, Richards said, is the expectation that things be customized. “One can go on the internet and customize jackets and shoes for individual tastes. That expectation now extends to public education as well.”

Belmont High can, to a point, teach to differentiating learners, Richards said.  One difference between Belmont and other towns, he said, is that Belmont’s public schools don’t simply talk about that as an abstract principle, but “actively embrace that notion” to guide what is done “inside the bricks” (i.e., within the school walls).  The problem, he said, is that despite best efforts, Belmont High cannot “fabricate all environments for students to thrive in.” In that sense, Belmont High cannot completely meet society’s expectations. Accordingly, having different schools that provide different education environments can only do good for the community.

Providing an opportunity for an alternative high school experience is what Belmont’s Waldorf High School offers.  According to Waldorf High Director Mara White, while many Belmont residents are not even aware of the small independent school tucked away on Lexington Ave., WHS graduated its first class in 2000 and moved to Belmont in 2004.

White speaks the same language as BHS principal Richards.  “It is evident,” she says, “that one system cannot serve the needs of every single student.  A student might thrive in one place and not in the other. A student who does very well at BHS might not flourish at Waldorf” and vice versa.

The objective of Waldorf High School is the same as any high school education. “We seek,” White says, “to help students develop the intellectual capacity to think critically and to maneuver in society and with each other.”  Belmont High and Waldorf seek to “teach the same skill sets to students,” White emphasizes.

The size of the Waldorf is the “most obvious difference” between the two schools, White says. “Whether it is sports or music or drama, Waldorf provides the opportunity to participate. You may not be the best soccer player, but you  can still experience being part of a team and engaging in competition.”  In addition, “students do not receive an individualized education program, but the school attends to individualized needs.”

Obviously, Belmont High and Waldorf High are not the only two high schools serving Belmont residents. They do, however, illustrate an important lesson. As we approach the completion of another school year, additional celebration is merited by the fact that Belmont supports a variety of local opportunities to provide a successful education to our kids, whatever their needs.  Not all communities can say that.

August 20, 2015: Community Gardening at Belmont High

August 20, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

There has been fresh produce at Belmont’s Food Pantry in recent weeks.  One of the local suppliers of that fresh food has been the Belmont High Garden and Food Justice Club.

Under the leadership of 2015 BHS graduate Olivia Cronin, a group of Belmont High students has learned both the agriculture and administrative side of growing local food.  According to Cronin, the students first sought permission to create a BHS garden in the Fall of 2013.  BHS principal Dan Richards outlined what the students needed to do to pursue their idea: develop a statement of purpose supported by an implementation work-plan; work with school staff to identify an appropriate location; demonstrate significant and stable student interest; and enlist the support of a sponsoring community organization.

“It wasn’t easy,” Cronin said. By the spring of 2014, however, the BHS club, working with the Belmont Food Collaborative and school facilities director Fred Domenici, was building beds and planting seedlings. Ongoing financial support for the club is provided by the Food Collaborative.

One purpose of the Collaborative, according to local leader Suzanne Johannet, is to support local growing.  For example, she says, the Food Collaborative was awarded a grant by the Whole Kids Foundation to fund the construction of the new fence and the blueberry plants for the BHS garden.  Work with the BHS students included discussions about what fencing to choose, based on functionality, appearance and cost.  “When the plants start producing,” Johannet says, “the fresh fruit will be a welcome addition to the Food Pantry.” Nonetheless, she continues, the students will also remember all the “business” discussions that preceded that result.

Cronin, who is off to McGill University this fall to study environmental science, said the BHS garden is an outgrowth of the Community Growing Project sponsored by the Belmont Food Collaborative.  Another garden that is part of the Community Growing Project, Cronin said, is maintained by Beth El Temple next to its parking lot.

In this sense, Cronin says, the BHS garden is far more than a student project.  “The garden is a good way to show how easy it is for individuals to take little steps that collectively have big impacts.”  Cronin believes that “small scale community gardening” is one way to promote community self-sufficiency.  Through educational events such as this year’s Hunger Banquet at the high school, the BHS club seeks to spread the word about the benefits of community gardening. Long term, Cronin says she hopes the BHS garden will eventually lead the way to introducing locally-grown food into Belmont’s school cafeterias.

Cronin lights up as she talks about the crew of BHS students who “water and weed” each week.  Harvesting is tied to when the Food Pantry is open, four days a month.  The responsibility, however, is ongoing.  Cronin points out that the garden is not a project that can receive student attention only when they choose to do so, or when they are not “too busy” doing something else.

For her work, Cronin received awards this spring both from Belmont High and from the Belmont Food Collaborative.  She shrugs off the recognition.  The focus, she says, should instead be on the fact that the BHS club is actually demonstrating that the food we eat need not be shipped in at great environmental and economic expense.

She’s right, of course.  The real legacy Cronin and her BHS student colleagues leave the Belmont community is the fact that the BHS Garden and Food Justice Club will continue to plant, grow, harvest and deliver tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, bush beans, broccoli and other vegetables and fruit for use in our local community.

June 11, 2015: NSA is not the only one watching

June 11, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Congratulations Belmont High Class of 2015.

As you complete your journey through Belmont’s education system, you should understand that community members –even those who don’t have kids in the high school—have been noticing you this year.

Yes, you can act like teenagers. The condition of your room at home is between you and your parents. But, discarding empty plastic bottles and candy wrappers on the grounds of the school is. . .well. . .unseemly. Those trash barrels serve a purpose.

By and large, though, we’ve liked what we’ve seen.

Both the boys and girls soccer teams.  Oh so close on both fronts, even though each ultimately ended the season with a loss.  Luke Gallaher, Peter Berens and Ben Lazenby for the boys, joined by Katrina Rokosz and others for the girls, are senior soccer players who should be holding their heads high this year.

This year’s musical production of Anything Goes was universally acclaimed by all who saw it.  While the voice of Zoe Miner is truly magical, two more memories from that production will remain for years: the jazz of the choreography (who taught you how to tap dance like that?), and the energy that flowed from the dancers to the audience due to the sheer joy they were exhibiting on stage.

The best high school saxophone player in the state. As Casey Stengel would say, you can look it up.  Congratulations Rowan Wolf.  And the jazz ensemble (all seniors but the trombone player), whether playing in the BHS Little Theatre or at the Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge.  Charlie Smith on keyboards, Mary Yeh on bass, Max Davidowitz on percussion.  You’ve set a high standard for future BHS jazz musicians. Well done.

A semi-final finish in the statewide High School Quiz Show competition.  Math, chemistry, Greek mythology, philosophy, and a host of arcane questions.  To know the material is one thing; to know it and be able to conjure it up and get it out in an instant. . .impressive doesn’t even begin to capture it.

This year’s over-ride election.  The point is not even that you helped the over-ride to prevail.  Through the participation of a substantial group of BHS students (under the leadership of Daniel Vernick, amongst others), you demonstrated that you understand that you bear some responsibility for what happens in this town.  Showing that you learned the lessons of your civics classes –that issues such as the over-ride are decided by a collective “us,” not a third-party “them”– was tremendous.

The BHS student section at a football game last fall.  Not performers, not athletes, but students acting as students.  The BHS student section was chanting a chant that. . .yup. . .it probably should not have been yelling.  But when Coach Kumin heard it and made clear through gestures that he wanted it stopped, you did.  No cat-calls. No subsequent re-start of the chant.  You showed a nice level of respect.

One message I hope to convey to you today is that people, who you wouldn’t expect, watch you.  They pay attention to you.  They notice what you do (and don’t do).

Sometimes you want that (the girls winning BHS its first track championship in nearly 40 years were certainly happy that people noticed), but other times it just happens.  You may not notice or realize it.  Whether you respect your football coach; serve ice cream at Ranc’s or donuts at Ohlins; or collect Food Pantry donations on Belmont Serves Day, you’ve left an impression.

BHS Class of 2015.  Your friends and family are not the only ones who are proud of you.

April 16, 2015: Time to ditch “Lady Marauders”

April 16, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

During this year’s “March Madness” college basketball tournament, I read the book “The Whistleblower,” the story of big-time college basketball as seen through the eyes of a long-time referee. I then thought it would be fun to attempt to follow the refereeing techniques discussed in the book by rewatching some Belmont High girls basketball games from this year’s exciting season.

Much to my dismay, I found the Belmont Media Center’s reference to on-line films of the “Lady Marauder’s” 2015 tournament games.  So, what bothered me?

On further looking, I found additional references, in various places (not just BMC), to the “Lady Marauders” for the BHS varsity teams for field hockey and soccer (and to the “Lady Maraiders” given the combined Belmont/Watertown girl’s hockey team).

It’s time to ditch the “Lady Marauder” nickname for Belmont High’s girls sports.

I realize that some folks might believe that worrying about the nickname for the local high school sports teams is somewhat less important than worrying about whether the fork is laid on the table in the proper position to the knife and spoon.  I’ve seen that said.

I disagree.  Words matter.  When we see a female attorney in today’s world, we don’t say “lady lawyer.”  Nor would we distinguish a “lady doctor” from a “doctor.”  We should accord our student-athletes the same respect.

Whether I was rooting this year for Belmont’s talented guard Carly Christofori, or yelling as senior Linda Herlihy gathered yet another rebound underneath the basket, or following speedy Sophia Eschenbach-Smith break free up the basketball court against the press, I wasn’t watching “lady athletes.” I was watching athletes.

Sports participation is a strong contributor to gender equity.  According to the 2008 United Nations study on “Sport and Gender,” sports participation, particularly for early adolescents, helps empower young women by improving self-esteem.  In language applicable to our high school students, the U.N. reported that “self-esteem is essential to mental health and well-being (low self-esteem can be a contributing factor to health risk behaviours such as drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, suicide, [and] early and unsafe sexual activity” amongst other things.

Distinguishing Belmont’s “lady” high school sports teams from our other BHS sports teams runs counter to this goal in both the short- and long-term.

“As a central element of group identity, [a] team name represents more than a label,” found two College of Education professors at Penn State University.  Reporting on “The Gendered Language of Sports Teams Names and Logos,” the PSU study continued “although the practical purpose of a team name may be to provide no more lexical content than a street sign, culture, context, and common use of language embeds a range of possible meanings and interpretations.”

“[T]eam names are indicative of the existing rules present in society,” the PSU professors said. “[N]ame labels, despite intent, are latently responsible for. . .reinforcing gender stratification prevalent in society and in sport.”

“Reinforcing gender stratification.”  When we think it’s okay to distinguish between the “Lady Marauders” and the (real) Marauders, in other words, it becomes all too much easier to make the further leap that “science and technology is for boys, but not for girls.”

Belmont High sports teams, male and female, henceforth should uniformly be called the Marauders.  To speak otherwise carries social implications far beyond the mere nickname for our local high school.

As a matter of formal public policy, collectively as a community, and individually as parents and fans, Belmont should discard the nickname “Lady Marauders” as a relic of a by-gone era.  The label does a dis-service to the young women of our community.