Showing Up: The Courage of the COVID Class of 2021

At last year’s Grade 8 Graduation, I referred to them as the “Coronavirus Class of 2020,” assuming that a year later we would return to the regularly phrased “Class of 2021”.  Like every other of my assumptions during the pandemic, that one, too, was incorrect, and here we are at the graduation for the Coronavirus Class of 2021.  This time I hope, but don’t assume, a return to normalcy next year.  But next year is next year, and tonight we focus our attention on this remarkable group of graduates and the extraordinary journey – particularly of late – they have taken to reach this milestone.

As the year, with its months-long pivot to distance learning, has been winding down, I find myself reflecting more and more on Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, which has been re-popularized in recent years through the work of Brené Brown.  The big idea is that what really counts in life is not outcomes, but the courage to get “in the arena”.  That what matters is not whether you are successful, but that you are willing to engage, to get your hands dirty, to commit to big ideas and bigger ideals, that you get back up when you fall and – ultimately – that you strive to live a life of meaning.  The shorthand way of describing this is to say that what really matters is showing up.  And if there was ever a class who has shown up over the last year and a half of pandemic learning, it is this Class of 2021.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners who have shown up and shown out…

Parenting Matters

Last year, I stood in awe at the perseverance of parents with everything that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning.  Well, not only are all of those things still true and then some a year later, but what I have come to realize even more broadly is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting children’s willingness to get in the arena.

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their way out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who show up and opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this virtual room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journeys.  Years like these two sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices and those sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.

The Vulnerability of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during these last two years.  In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown identifies “vulnerability” as one of the superpowers that allows folk to show up.  Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of others is a strength, not a weakness, and I actually believe it goes a long way towards explaining what our teachers and our school has been able to accomplish.  When you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?  Vulnerability is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  Vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  Vulnerability is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and validates the value of vulnerability.

The Courage of Graduates

It takes courage to get into the arena for any of us under normal circumstances.  With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up – getting into the arena – is a genuine act of courage.  But when showing up means sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated capstone experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring your courage to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities.  You bring it to your varying Jewish commitments, and you bring it to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And sure, some of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  These last two years, however, were of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  It is here, too, where you have shown your courage and your character.  You have stuck together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential.  You have come into the arena each and every day and there is no greater testament to your courage than that.

Our OJCS “North Stars” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

  • “Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.
  • “Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.
  • “We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.
  • “We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do (these) great deeds and be inspired to learn more.
  • “We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous but required.
  • “We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.

The Grit to Graduate: My Charge to the Coronavirus Class of 2020

Over a decade ago, academic and psychologist Angela Duckworth released her first paper on the notion of grit and its application to education.  In both her TED Talk and her book, Duckworth defines grit as “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” that is a key ingredient for high achievement, not only in school, but in life.  If there was ever an adjective that described this year it would be “grit”.  And if there was ever a class who could successfully, not only survive, but thrive in a school year complicated by COVID, it would be this (first) Coronavirus Class of 2020.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners in grit and resilience…

The Perseverance of Parents

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who persevered to opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journey.  A year like this one sharpens both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices, those sacrifices and proves the power of perseverance.

The Passion of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during this most unusual of school years.  When I think of all the reasons why our school was able to so successfully transition to distance learning for the last third of the school year, I would place their passion at the top of the list.  “Passion” marks the spot where teachers move from good to great and where teaching moves from occupation to calling.  Passion for students means that relationships become prioritized and through relationships the magic of learning is amplified.  Passion for learning means lifelong learning and through lifelong learning comes new and innovative practices, pedagogies and platforms.  Passion for community means choosing to work and stay in a school that may not have all the bells and whistles, but does have all the heart and soul, and through community we become family.  Passion is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and proves the power of passion.

The Grit of Graduates

“A combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” really makes an apt description of the OJCS Class of 2020.  That “singularly important goal” is different for each one of you and it has changed and grown as you have changed and grown.  But what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring these unique qualities of passion and perseverance to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring them to your academic challenges and you bring them to your extracurricular opportunities.  You bring them to your varying Jewish commitments and you bring them to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And all of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  This year, however, was of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many of the capstone experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  But it is here, too, where you have shown your grit and your character.  You have hung together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential, and, thus proves the promise of grit.

Our OJCS “North Star” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

“Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.

“Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.

“We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.

“We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do great deeds and be inspired to learn more.

“We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous, but required.

“We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.

The Courage to Finish: My Charge to the Class of 2019

We had an amazing graduation last night at the Ottawa Jewish Community School – and I am not just saying that because I had a child in the class!   I was so proud of our students, our families, our school and our community.  It was really something special.  And, yes, I did say last week that I was kinda done with the weekly blogging for the summer.  And, yes, it does feel like I have delivered a speech a day these last few weeks.  And, yes, it runs the risk of being overly self-serving to say that a number of people asked if I could post my speech.

But they did.

And so I will (paraphrased because not everything translates into writing).

“There are many heroes in the story of a Jewish day school journey…

There are the teachers who put in untold hours of love and talent not only to nourish your brains, but your souls as well.  Our teachers are not just here to inspire a love of learning.  Our teachers recognize that our students are, in fact, our most important subject matter.  There is very little we can ever do to show our proper appreciation for our teachers, but we can directly prove the adage it takes a village and show our proper respect.  I’d like to ask every teacher who taught any of our graduates in any capacity over their years to rise…

 

There are the students who come to school each and every day (or at least many days) ready to learn and eager to lead.  And we have and will rightfully spend most of our time tonight celebrating you each…

 

But for me, tonight, I want to spend a little time celebrating who I think may be the most important heroes of the story, and that…is our parents.  And I think the adjective that best describes these heroes is “courage”.

Courage to Choose

In today’s world, we are all, in a sense, Jews by choice.  Choosing to be Jewish is counter-cultural by definition; choosing to attend Jewish day school is almost revolutionary.  We all chose Jewish day school for different reasons: some of us are alumni of Jewish day schools (including this one!), others were seeking the comfort of the family environment, some had a desire for personalized attention, others had a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, there were some who simply went where everyone else was going.  But each parent with their own unique constellation of reasons had the courage to choose Jewish day school.

Courage to Sacrifice

You have each sacrificed in many ways to be here this evening.  For many, it has been a financial sacrifice.  Jewish day school is not yet as affordable as we may wish it to be, and there are those in this room who have forgone both luxuries and necessities to be here.

You have all sacrificed your most precious gift – time.  Between the normal schlepping and carpools, you have volunteered at events and at PTA and in innumerable ways big and small.

Courage to Finish

In talking with the kids in New York [on our Grad Trip], I realized that for many of them – and you – I am the fourth head of school you have had on this journey; five if you count Mr. Friedman twice.  Each person, I am sure, had their own ideas of what makes a Jewish day school excellent and, I am sure, those ideas may not have always aligned.

With each new administration you had to choose and choose again, and for whatever complicated set of reasons you chose to come, you chose to stay and that, too, is a profile in courage.

The largest class I have ever graduated was 23 and the smallest was, but 4, but what I can tell you with 100% certainty is that not one parent on graduation night ever regretted the decision to finish.  And looking around this room tonight – and as one myself – I am confident that this remains true.

You have already given us the greatest gift we can have – the sacred and holy task of educating your child – let me give you the only gift tonight that I can, a brief gift of time.  To take just a brief minute or two not to document this experience, but to be in this liminal moment in our children’s lives.  I’d like to invite the graduates to rise and face your parents…

 

Returning to our graduates, my prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars.  I pray that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

“Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.

“Ruach” – be joyful.  School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments.  We know you had many moments of joy at OJCS and know that you have many more moments of joy ahead of you in the years to come.

“We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.

“We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place.  Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do great deeds and be inspired to learn more.

“We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone.  Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous, but required.

“We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish.  One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 Graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight…

 

You each are blessed more than you realize.  My blessing for you is that you never be content to merely count your blessings, but that you always be someone who makes their blessings count.”