Head of School’s and Student Speaker’s Commencement Remarks Reprinted Here

July 03, 2014

Head of School, Debbie Zlotowitz and MMFS student, Bella Schaefer addressed the Class of 2014 at MMFS’s first commencement on June 10, 2014. Debbie’s and Bella’s remarks are reprinted below.

Graduates, families, friends, and staff had the privilege of listening to legendary civil rights activist, Julian Bond deliver the commencement speech. He congratulated seniors on their success, and he encouraged them to continue the legacy of civil rights activists, whose hard work years ago ensured their right to an appropriate education today.

Upper Division Director, Kirk Smothers also addressed graduates. He told them how much he appreciated the risk that they and their parents took when they joined the new upper school, and he congratulated them on the role they played in making the upper school a reality.

The following is an excerpt from Kirk’s remarks.

“When I look back at our last four years together, I am so grateful. Together, we have done something that everyone hoped for, but that not everyone believed we could do. We have not just created a high school; we have created an extraordinary high school. This Upper Division is your legacy. Every class, every club, every sports team, every theater production, and every retreat will carry your signature. As students with learning disabilities, you may have a harder time learning in a classroom than most of your peers, but you have courage and heart that have been tested. You have already accomplished far more than any high school graduate could be expected to accomplish. You have created a home for students that is ready to live on for generations and to serve thousands after you.”

* * *

Debbie Zlotowitz’ Remarks

I recently came across a letter written to us in 1987 from an old friend of our namesake, Mary McDowell. Mary McDowell, as you may remember, was a Quaker educator deeply committed both to teaching New York City’s students and to peace. She was a woman of such passion that she was willing to lose her job for what she believed in. When she refused to sign a loyalty oath in support of World War I because it conflicted with her values, she was put on trial before a special Board of Education committee, charged with ‘conduct unbecoming to a teacher,’ and dismissed from her position. She was later reinstated and spent the rest of her life teaching and advocating for peace.

The letter I found was written to us in the early days of the school, and I’d like to read some of it to you today. “Dear Vincent Longobardi,” it begins (Vincent Longobardi was the first clerk of the Board of Trustees, husband of the school’s beloved friend and trustee Violet Longobardi, and grandfather of present Board member Rebecca Givan). The letter continues, and I quote, “Thank you for your explicitly detailed account of the work and help given by the Mary McDowell School. I remember Mary personally and can understand her caring about what you are doing. She was a good teacher, and a vigorous proponent of the Friendly ideal of a peaceful world. As a youngster at Brooklyn Friends School, I remember that she quite frequently got up in Meeting…with what seemed to me like a tirade against us being in the war. It produced mixed feelings in the Meeting—we children grew weary often under her forceful admonitions, and I know quite well that a number of the adult members of the meeting felt that she was not really as patriotic as she should be!! Yet I admired her persistence and her courage, and continue to do so. Perhaps it may help some of the children, who have a need for extra perseverance at the school, to know how courageous and persistent she had to be and was!” (end quote)

Seniors, your actions and ideals truly reflect the values that Mary held so dear. You too had to be courageous and persistent, and were. You rose to the challenges that life presented you and soared. Your intelligence, your curiosity, your integrity, and your grace have inspired every one of us. You have become everything we hoped our graduates would be and more.

I thank you and your parents for trusting us with your high school education. We had never done this before, and yet you turned yourselves over to us willingly. You trusted us to challenge, nurture, and inspire you. You trusted us to develop a curriculum that motivated and excited you, and prepared you for what lies ahead. You trusted us to find you teachers and administrators who would fire your imagination and teach you to dream big. You trusted us to instill in you the values so essential to a Quaker education that we hope will guide you in the choices you make. And finally, you trusted us to give you the tools with which to build a happy and purposeful life. You have done your part. I hope and sincerely believe that we have done ours.

Three of you are what we call “lifers”—that is, you’ve been with us since you were five years old. Luke Lifson, Karina Rubin, and Kate Sinsheimer, you’ve spent your entire school lives with us. You’ve grown up with us, as we have with you. How terrific, too, that your very first teachers, Heather Burchyns and Bill Borman, are still here, Heather as our Director of Admissions and Bill as our elementary school Block, Art, and Science teacher. They’re both in the audience right now proudly watching you graduate. It brings me such pleasure that the five of you have come full circle together.

I got to know some of you as nervous elementary school students entering the Bergen Street building for the first time, and more of you as 6th graders when I taught you Spanish. And then as 8th graders when we traveled to Costa Rica together. And then more of you came into our first 9th grade class. I remember the twenty-one of you settling in on the third floor of the middle school building. I traveled again with you that year to Italy, Austria, and Germany. And then the thrill we felt as you moved into your own beautiful, newly-renovated high school building. And then the joy you felt every time another student came into the 10th and 11th grade. And finally this year, watching and sharing in your excitement as your acceptances kept coming and coming. I’m proud of you, I’m proud of your parents, and I’m proud of us.

As we say farewell, I leave you with this: hold on to your passions. Let them be your guide and they will take you where you need to go. The world needs your passion, just like the world needed both Mary McDowell’s passion, and Julian Bond’s passion. Be the kind of pioneer in your life that you were here, and use the courage and persistence with which you have been gifted. With great faith and love, I wish you all the best in the future.

* * *

Bella Schaefer’s Remarks

Good afternoon teachers, family, friends, and Class of 2014. Today is not only important because we are moving onto a new stage in our life, it’s important because today is the day we remember how we got here. How we’ve pushed through everything life has thrown at us in these 4 years together.

For a moment I want you to imagine a sandwich shop. I want you to experience a memory I’ve had, because I think it connects greatly to each and everyone of us graduating here today.

Standing on line in the shop, is a young deaf boy. He’s around our age, signing confidently to the cashier. The cashier however, is looking back and forth between the boy and other employees for help. After the cashier realizes he has no idea what the deaf boy is signing, the cashiers and workers start laughing at him. But the deaf boy continues to sign and the workers fumble around with the bread and cheese, cracking jokes here and there.

All of us here are fortunate enough to go to a school that supports our talents and creativity even though we all have learning disabilities. We are never put down, never told we can’t succeed at something in our community at Mary McDowell.

On the other hand, in life outside of this community, there are people like the cashiers at the sandwich shop who laugh at you instead of recognizing your worth as an individual. This is where everything we have learned comes in.

Some of us have struggled with communicating ideas out loud, reading, writing, math. Some of us have prayed for the stamina to complete that last homework assignment. Some have lived life everyday knowing they’ve had intelligent ideas to share, but couldn’t express them verbally. Like the deaf boy, we have all coped with challenges everyday, and it make us so much stronger than you could ever imagine.

Our struggles in life are what makes us able to:
-stay that extra hour after a long day of school to pursue our passion as a stage manager,
OR
-solve a rubix cube faster than anyone I know
-captivate a whole audience with your stand up comedy
OR
draw a piece of artwork that you’re proud to hang on your wall.
MAYBE
overcoming difficulties is what makes us able to jump a foot higher than the player next to you in basketball for a rebound; even though you’re a foot shorter than his actual height.

When I saw the deaf boy being laughed at by people that couldn’t understand him, I saw some of us in him. He was just ordering a sandwich like everybody else; and we’re just trying to succeed in life, like everybody else. Maybe that’s why I was motivated to go up to him and see if he needed help. Because I’ve been brought up in a community for the last 4 years that would do the same for me.

When you’re in an environment like that for a while, ya know, it kinda rubs off on you.
So, using American Sign Language I asked him what type of cheese and meat he wanted on the sandwich. When his sandwich was ready, he gracefully gestured towards me, lifting his right hand away from his chin; signaling the sign THANK-YOU.

While I was helping him, I saw the customers’ faces behind us, the cashier, the other worker, all wearing the same expression on their faces. They were confused. They didn’t understand. For a minute they must have felt what we’ve felt all these years: maybe a sense of uncertainty, confusion, but in the end seeing the beauty of it all.

I think who we all are today will help us in the future as we go off our separate ways, just as they have helped us succeed here. I don’t think we’ll ever forget our memories together, because no matter how much you wanna push the thought aside, we’ve all impacted each others lives in different ways.

So I want to thank you all our teachers, and family for your dedication to us,
it paid off, we’re graduating! Congratulations Class of 2014, we did it!

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