A warm greeting to all my fellow PDS Panthers! But a special welcome to the freshmen class of 2021. Do you all remember just how much excitement, anxiety, hope and fear we felt (ALL at the same time!) when we were freshmen? In fact, coming to the Upper School probably feels much like moving to a new country or perhaps moving away to college, or as it was in my case, both. You see, after having spent the better part of a decade attending an international school in Seoul, South Korea, I embarked upon a frightful journey, 10,000 miles away from the familiar comforts of home to a strange Gothic wonderland in North Carolina… “What exactly was a blue devil supposed to be anyways?” I wondered. Still, I thought I had this “American” thing down: after all, I had watched enough American television (shows like Friends, MacGyver, Seinfeld, The Simpsons…) to know all there was to know about life on this side of the Pacific….right?
I remember the time I ordered my first American steak: how eager I was, how proud I was that I knew precisely what to do in situations such as these. I had even done some extra research to figure out what a porterhouse steak was. I had to, after all. I wasn’t just eating with my brand new college friends. That cute girl from chemistry class was going to be there too.
Finally, the moment had arrived. We were in the campus version of a fine dining establishment, and the waitress turned to me and asked, “Sir, how would you like your steak prepared?” I grinned profusely because I knew JUST how to answer that question. “Medium well, please!” I responded in a very self-satisfied tone.
But then came that fatal follow-up question: “What side orders would you like with that, sir?” which would have been fine, except that MY waitress didn’t say it quite in those words. Instead, she merely asked, “What sides, sir?”
“What sides?!?!?...um…. BOTH!” I retorted. I thought to myself, “Why would I want my steak cooked only on one side?”
Somewhat confused, she replied, “Well, we do have five sides that you can choose from, sir.”
“How does a steak have five sides?!?!?!?” I asked. And then a tremendously awkward moment of silence ensued, followed by a series of perplexed looks, followed by uproarious laughter from everyone at the table, including the cute girl from chemistry class, whom, by the way, I never got the nerve to speak to again. And no amount of MacGyver’s resourcefulness could help me out of this entanglement.
Suffice it to say, it was a rough first week at school. I mean….Who knew that you weren’t supposed to hail down taxi cabs that were dropping off kids at the bus stop? Or that I would constantly get bombarded with that same annoying comment over and over again…. “You’re from Korea? Wow, you speak English really well!” After the TENth time, I would respond [somewhat facetiously], “You know, you speak English really well too!!!”
When I asked one of my Caucasian hall mates whether they wanted to attend an “Asian Student Association” meeting with me, I admit that I was shocked when he replied, “Why would I ever want to do that!?!??” In retrospect, my astonishment was jarring only because I came from an international school mostly comprised of Asian Americans and was actually used to being in the majority. Honestly, every student body president, homecoming queen and team captain I could remember had been an Asian. Suddenly, here in college, my comfort bubble was beginning to burst, and it began to seep in that not everybody here wanted to be like me. In fact, I began to think that most of mainstream America actually saw me as kind of… well, different.
And yes, it didn’t feel safe to be different, to feel like I didn’t quite belong. But this is not an uncommon experience. In fact, I’ve taught at a high school where all kids felt tremendous pressure to assimilate into very specific but often very generic categories. And if you didn’t quite fit into one of those typical groups, you might find yourself feeling isolation or loneliness. I remember meeting a current PDS student once long ago when she was studying for the SSAT in the eighth grade. She didn’t fit into any category I had ever seen: a magical combination of spunky chattiness, a jock-ish passion for the pitch and a proclivity for wearing ties. When she told me she was applying to the boarding school where I taught, I worried whether she would find a niche there. And to no fault of her own, I imagined that this wonderful, spirited young woman could possibly confront a fair number of social barriers there.
But this is where I think PDS strays from the norm of so many private schools. Don’t get me wrong: I do see the cliques here at PDS. And I do not have any illusions that all of them somehow get along swimmingly. Still, when I finally got to PDS, the very first thing that stood out to me was how Princeton Day School seemed to be a safe place, where one is permitted to be just a little bit different. And sure enough, I find my beautiful young friend has indeed found her place here. Furthermore, now in my second year at PDS, I am convinced that, at this school, you’re more than just allowed to be an odd duck like me, you are in fact encouraged to express your identity creatively through a multitude of outlets. Our halls are a safe haven, where soccer studs can excel in chemistry, where drama enthusiasts can love coding, where passionate environmentalists can write poetry. Moreover, at Princeton Day School, Panthers, both young and old, feel safe to explore the limits of their religious convictions, the boundaries of their racial definitions and even the expectations of gender norms. So while you are here, PDS panthers, for this very brief moment in your life, I implore you to consider yourself lucky. Because out there beyond these walls, it will not always feel safe to express what really ought to be one of your most prized possessions: your individuality.
Nevertheless, is it really enough just to feel safe?
It is true that your teachers have taken great measures to ensure you, our young Panther scholars, are learning in a secure environment, are empowered with a growth mindset, and are encouraged to take chances and strive towards new limits, even if it means an occasional failure to meet expectations.
And yet, truth be told, feeling safe hardly means that you feel intricately connected to your classmates. Last year, when senior Ziad Ahmed beseeched each and every one of us to converse with him one on one, I believe he was simply expressing the deep yearning that we all have for authentic community. And although Ziad most likely remains a controversial figure to some of you, I will bring to you his own words of what he gleaned from the multitude of conversations he had with all of you.
“These 237 conversations were the best 237 moments of my life because I got to see a glimpse of what my life can look like if I burst my bubble, so here’s to a lifetime of doing just that. I hope you’ll join me in doing so because in the words of Dan Gottlieb, "We could start a movement."
One of the most powerful moments I experienced last year at PDS happened when another courageous senior chose to share about how alcoholism, though it often afflicts the ones we love, ought not to define them. I immediately felt connected to her, for my mother too is a recovering alcoholic. And perhaps like some of you, I did grow up in a broken home, with domestic abuse and constant verbal assaults. My saga is a recognizable journey of sadness, loss, joy, anguish, love, forgiveness, and redemption, the exact elements that make us all partakers of this crazy ride we call life.
It has been said that the shortest distance between two people is a story. I might elaborate to say the farthest distance we can travel in the shortest amount of time is simply the telling of our own story. For by hearing one another’s real narrative, we will gain a deeper insight into our shared humanity. And during tumultuous times like these, when it often seems like the very fabric of our shared democracy is being torn asunder, I think it is more important than ever to hear our own multitude of stories that make each of us so unique and yet make every one of us so familiar. And as we listen, in my humble opinion, we will begin to realize the kind of authentic community that collectively and individually will co-write a single PDS story, the kind of unified community that will be equipped to address the most important challenges of our time.
PDS will forever be that place that provides opportunities of a lifetime every day. But more than taking advantage of individual opportunities, as our mission states, we also need to be “prepared to act knowledgeably (together), to lead thoughtfully (together), to share generously (together), and to contribute meaningfully (together).” And to do so, I think we must begin to share our stories with one another.
Princeton Day School, will you join me in an effort to engage in this type of conversation? I am ready to listen. Are you?
About the Author
Middle School & Upper School Science Department Chair