January 30, 2018
Dear Shipley Families,
The past month has been an incredibly busy and thought-provoking one in so many different ways. First, I want you to know how appreciative I am of the generous e-mails and messages I received about my announcement that I am retiring at the end of next year. I have much more I would like to share in gratitude, and I will plan to do so in another letter soon! As I noted in my announcement letter, I have long felt that I am the luckiest Head of School anywhere, and I believe that Shipley’s commitment to excellence and its celebration of our students as individuals has helped to create an incredible sense of community.
On a less personal note, I was floored during our Upper School Spirit Week—where our students showed a level of organization and involvement that was incredibly impressive—and by Swamp Night, which drew hundreds of students, parents, and colleagues to enjoy dinner together and a host of activities, including varsity basketball games for our girls’ and boys’ teams. It was definitely an exciting night, as we saw junior Anna Camden score her 1,000 career point and senior Sam Sessoms break the school record for points in a game with 55 – congrats to both!
However, the most remarkable event this month was our All-School Assembly. The assembly’s theme was courage, and its focus was a celebration of Black History Month (view the Assembly here
). I was amazed by virtually everything that happened. Others in the room felt the same way: countless teachers and students said to me afterward that in all their years here, it was the most extraordinary assembly they had attended. Josh Berberian, a 20-year veteran at Shipley and one of the most gifted educators with whom I have ever worked, spoke for a lot of people when he said:
The recent All-School Assembly was one of the most meaningful, intellectually engaging, and moving assemblies that I have attended in over twenty years. The student speakers articulated the challenges and rewards of being a member of a diverse community in a manner that reflected both courage and grace. The theme of all the speeches was cohesive and integrated, and each individual student delivered his/her message in his/her own voice in a way that radiated authenticity. It was terrific.
This assembly developed after last year’s February assembly didn’t meet our community’s standards, as we did not appropriately celebrate Black History Month. Our students dedicated themselves to leading the planning efforts and put themselves forward in a new, vital, and creative way. With the help of Marin Kobb, Mindy Hong, Phil Brown, Harley Givler, and other colleagues, our students put together a program that spoke to our country’s history, celebrated the present, and created great hope about the future – both for our community and the world-at-large.
The assembly began with our All-School President, Owen Verzella, talking about his thoughts on a range of issues. Owen shared a powerful photo of Rev. Martin Luther King pulling a burnt cross from his yard while his son watched. With the photo above him, Owen reflected:
Although we have made significant progress in regards to easing racism, we are not there yet, and as a nation, we need to do better. With no doubt, our nation and our world is a better place due to MLK’s courageous acts. Imagine for one minute what our world would be like without his contributions to society. Because of how impactful MLK was and is, it is important that he is not only remembered during Black History Month, but throughout all our history, as he is one of the most influential figures of all time. The strength and bravery that MLK possessed is something that we should all try to emulate, and as a result of his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, I am still hopeful for our future. (Read Owen’s full remarks.
Then, Gabby Kassu, one of our incredibly talented seniors, and the whole cast from our Upper School musical Hairspray set the tone for what was to follow with their powerful rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which received a resounding round of applause.
Gabby’s performance opened the door for two of our fourth graders—Rohail Ahmad and Ava Becker—to educate all of us about Jackie Robinson and Harriet Tubman, whom they had studied as third graders the previous year. They were followed by Kaitlyn O’Malley and Peyton Turner, both from our eighth grade, who shared passionate reflections on the work and accomplishments of Mildred Dixon, who was a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem and a longtime companion of composer and musician Duke Ellington, and Zora Neale Hurston, who was an American novelist and short story writer known for her contributions to African-American literature.
Colin Lawler and the jazz ensemble pushed us to the next level with a powerful description of jazz history and their playing of “Work Song.” Colin shared with us that off the heels of the Harlem Renaissance came Julian and Nat Adderley, musician brothers born in the South. On a trip to New York City in 1955, the brothers were invited to play in Oscar Pettiford’s band. There, Nat wrote “Work Song,” remembering songs he heard in the South. Chain gangs sang work songs to break up the tedious work of breaking rocks and also to help keep a rhythm. The jazz ensemble did a great job integrating music history into the assembly and brought the house down with the performance.
Then, three seniors presented perhaps the most powerful part of the assembly. Sam Sessoms, LaBria Wilson, and Ashleigh Gundy demonstrated an incredible level of courage and confidence when they spoke of their experiences at Shipley and in life. Sam, who came to us as a new ninth grader, spoke of courage and noted that before he arrived at Shipley he had rarely, if ever, interacted with anyone who was not African American. As he said:
First of all, what is courage? In my opinion, doing things that may scare you and take you out of your normal element is courage. And that is what I did four years ago… I went from the majority to the minority very quickly when I started as a Freshman at Shipley… My whole world was different and I was afraid of it.
I didn’t think I could survive after my first couple of weeks at Shipley. But I stayed with it, no matter how uncomfortable I was or afraid to do anything about it. I clearly got through it, as I am looking back at my experience as a senior at this school…
I just want to say to my classmates and even the younger kids here today, never be afraid to try new things because you never know what it will bring you. Always be courageous. I say this because courage is what allows me to be in this position and standing up here with a good friend and my first friend I ever made of a different race than me, and that is Owen Verzella, my guy. Courage put me in the position to receive a full scholarship to play basketball at Binghamton University. Courage made me the proud black young man I am today. Courage is me. (Read Sam’s full remarks.
As Sam spoke, he provided a whole different perspective on his life to those of us who have known him in his time here (you can read his complete remarks here). Well renowned for his basketball prowess, he is also one of the most extraordinary people to step foot on our campus. He has grown a great deal during his time here and has helped us to do the same.
Following Sam’s powerful remarks, LaBria Wilson shared a piece of Shipley history and introduced us to her sponsor and mentor – one of our own graduates, June Baldwin (Class of 1968). June was one of our first graduates of color. She went on to graduate from Stanford University and then Harvard Law School and has made a career in the entertainment business. June was our graduation speaker in 2003 and has become a dear friend, someone I admire and respect beyond words. She does what she can to push us and other institutions forward so that we can better understand and meet the needs of our students. I am hoping we will get her to address our students when she returns for her 50th reunion this spring.
LaBria reminded us that it was in 1962 that Shipley’s Board of Trustees adopted a non-discrimination policy that would allow June and other African American students to attend Shipley. June and the members of her Class of 1968 took it upon themselves to support two members of this year’s senior class during their high school years; LaBria and the other student are remarkably appreciative of the support. Both students are incredibly bright, talented, and committed individuals. They have done extraordinarily well here and will find their own ways to make a difference in years to come. (Read LaBria’s full remarks.
Ashleigh, who has been here since Pre-K, brought the themes of the assembly together in a powerful way when she shared with us a piece she had written entitled, “Unapologetically Black.” She explained that it was the result of a classroom assignment asking students to write an autobiographical poem in the style of Allen Ginsberg’s well-renowned poem, “How.” I encourage you to read Ashley’s full poem – it is incredibly topical and powerful. It tells a story we all need to know. Here are just a couple of lines from it:
Will I have to worry about my nine-year-old brother when he will no longer be considered as adorable and sweet?
Who when he reaches a certain height, he too will be considered a threat, finally living the life that millions of African American boys live now, fearing walking down the streets in their own skin because a black life does not matter as much as a white one. (Read Ashleigh’s poem.
As Sam, LaBria, and Ashleigh shared their experiences, they talked about the challenges they faced to get where they are, the support they received from so many, and the hope that they and we can all push things to a new level. This part of the assembly culminated when Jasmine Powell, also one of our lifers who is a senior, took the time to introduce and explain the Black National Anthem: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” She said of the song:
In addition to the song’s soothing yet powerful melody, “Lift Every Voice” is comprised of thought-provoking lines of poetry. As we study and reflect upon Black History Month, I think it is important to acknowledge the power embedded in this art form throughout the centuries. Our words have a timeless power… (Read Jasmine’s full remarks.
Originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, it was put to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. The words, as Jasmine indicates, are forceful, thought-provoking, and important for Americans as the country strives to be more inclusive and for Shipley as we continue to work towards being the most supportive community we can:
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory won.
We sang the song for the first time at Shipley, recognizing the importance of both celebrating Black History Month and creating context to consider all differences – not just those around race, religion, socioeconomic background or gender, but also any other identifier that separates us into majority and minority groups. It’s a song that’s both realistic and hopeful.
When I had the privilege to close out the assembly, I found myself in tears as I thought back to the years of struggle in this country, especially for African-Americans. The assembly reinforced for me what I said in last month’s letter (and what Owen said to start the assembly): That we have made progress, and yet we need to work together to do much more. We need, as all of our students involved in the assembly demonstrated, to be comfortable dealing with the uncomfortable, to acknowledge both our strengths and our concerns, to listen to others, and to do it together. We must be willing to share our own stories and listen to, accept, and celebrate others’ stories. Ignorance is not an acceptable reason to misidentify people’s race, religion, or background or to draw assumptions about them because they carry specific characteristics as part of their identity. Knowing each other without making assumptions is something that our kids have shown us that we can do. Not surprisingly, they have set the tone for a future here at Shipley that will be second to none.
Head of School
This is definitely a great day. For anyone who remembers at last year’s all school assembly in April when we proposed to Dr. Piltch that we have 5 instead of 4 all school assemblies, our proposal was approved, as this is our 3rd assembly as a community, and I am excited to say that we will have 2 more. I am honored to be speaking to all of you today, but to be honest, I don’t have a ton of jokes for you today. I know, I’m sorry, but my goal for today is not to make you laugh, but to inspire all of you.
One thing that I really want to share with you all is this picture on Twitter of Martin Luther King Jr. pulling a burnt cross from his lawn while his son is present. The cross was put on his lawn by the Ku Klux Klan, shortly after King and his family moved into their new home in Atlanta. If you take a close look at the picture, you see a nicely-dressed, and poised 31 year-old man with his son, who most likely has no idea what is going on. This picture has had a lasting effect on me, but the comments thread really struck me. I want everyone to think about this quote for a minute: “Over 50 years ago we had such great hopes for the future. Now we can only hope there is a future”. Another comment on the picture reads “Still a dream”. Although we have made significant progress in regards to easing racism, we are not there yet, and as a nation, we need to do better. With no doubt, our nation and our world is a better place due to MLK’s courageous acts. Imagine for one minute what our world would be like without his contributions to society. Because of how impactful MLK was and is, it is important that he is not only remembered during Black History Month, but throughout all our history, as he is one of the most influential figures of all time. The strength and bravery that MLK possessed is something that we should all try to emulate, and as a result of his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 23, 1963, I am still hopeful for our future. Thank you.
Good Morning everyone, my name is Samuel Sessoms and I am a Senior here at Shipley. I’m up here today, to talk about courage. Now, I’m pretty sure everyone in this room comes from a different walk of life and has their own definition of courage. I know this because we all are different.
First of all, what is courage? In my opinion, doing things that may scare you and take you out of your normal element is courage. And that is what I did 4 years ago. I was born and raised inside of West Philadelphia, in a small neighborhood 5 minutes away from the Philadelphia Zoo. It was a neighborhood full of African Americans, there was never any other person of a different race than me living in my neighborhood that I’ve seen. I was a part of the majority in my neighborhood. I had been a part of this majority my whole life. My classmates, coaches, teammates and so on were all African Americans. The only time I actually interacted with another racial or ethnic group was at the doctors or in school with my teacher. So I always felt comfortable being myself because I was always surrounded by people who looked like me. 4 years ago, that completely changed; I went from the majority to the minority very quickly when I started as a Freshman at Shipley. Suddenly, I was at a point in my life where I was maybe 1 out of the only 3 black students in a class. I did not know how to deal with things, I felt uncomfortable every morning walking into school. My freshmen year, I would spend every night tryna find a outfit that wasn’t too black or too “hood” and it was hard. Not only did I have to face that, but I didn’t even know how to talk to my classmates and it was very uncomfortable at first. Coming to Shipley was the first time that I had a classmates who were not Black. My whole world was different and I was afraid of it. I didn’t think I could survive after my first couple of weeks at Shipley. But I stayed with it, no matter how uncomfortable I was or afraid to do anything about it. I clearly got through it, as as I am looking back at my experience as a senior at this school. My courage is what got me here today and is the reason my life is the way it is. Courage put me in the position to meet new people with different experiences in their lives and allowed me to open my eyes to understanding others. Courage is what allows to be in this position and standing up here with a good friend and my first friend I ever made of a different race than me, and that is Owen Verzella, my guy. Courage put me in the position to receive a full scholarship to play basketball at Binghamton University. Courage made me the proud black young man I am today. Courage is me.
Hello friends, my name is LaBria Wilson and I am a senior. I am here to introduce to you an incredible woman who I am proud to call my mentor and my sponsor both inside and outside of the Shipley school. As a freshman coming into Shipley, I had no clue of what to expect. A week prior to my freshman orientation, I was greeted by a woman by the named of June Baldwin. I stood in front of her as she introduced herself in pure amazement. June had been one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Shipley school when it was an all girls private school. In that moment, I saw her strength and the courage it took for her to attend a predominantly white institution in the 60s. I conducted further research on her following our introduction and I discovered much about the Shipley we all know and love today and the Shipley that June knew and loved. In 1954, Shipley, Baldwin and Agnes Irwin joined together to discuss the possibility of accepting “Negro applicants” and faculty into their community. In 1962, Shipley’s board of directors approved a non-discriminatory policy that would allow for both June and the African American girls and boys that were to come after her to advance their education. This policy gave June Baldwin the opportunity to elevate herself without judgment of the pigmentation of her skin. Just as the Shipley school granted June Baldwin the opportunity to advance herself in a predominantly white institution, June has granted me with the same opportunity. June Baldwin graduated the Shipley School in 1968, and went on attend Stanford University where she graduated with her Bachelors in psychology. She then attended Harvard Law School in 1975, and she received her Juris Doctorate degree. Baldwin served as clerk for the jurist Luther Swygert on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Illinois. She then moved to Los Angeles where she was hired as an executive for NBC where she handled business transactions amongst many other things. June Baldwin had become NBC’s first African American to enter the executive ranks of the entertainment industry. Through the abundance of June’s success, she acknowledges where it all started. The Shipley School. Even years later, she seeks to guide young African American girls on their own journey’s to success. June Baldwin and her class of 68’ searched to aid two African American girls coming in as freshman, and luckily they chose me and my friend Giavanna Goodwin. These women knew nothing about us, except for the fact that we needed assistance. June and the class of 68’ has financially supported my education and even today, June serves as a mentor to me, and many girls like me. On this day, and everyday, I honor June Baldwin for her grace, pride and courage as she excels through life with courage for the deed and grace for the doing.
I saw the best minds of my generation living up to their fullest potential with unwavering work ethic and determination, Seeking the American dream, not giving in to the many stereotypes that are often used to characterize them, Whether trendy private school kids or urban hip hop loving souls, both judged by their appearance and treated accordingly, Who were misjudged and left standing with both hands in the air, only to be seen as the ultimate threat with a bag of skittles and a soda because of the melanin their skin holds, Who were shot without hesitation at the age of 12 years for playing with a toy gun in a public park, Who were not asked questions nor given the benefit of the doubt but held in a chokehold for 20 seconds, 11 pleas for breath, last words being “I can’t breathe,” Who are remembered by the names of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and whose lives are now celebrated across the world through protests and fights because that seems to be the only way black voices are heard, Will I have to worry about my 9 year old brother when he will no longer be considered as adorable and sweet? Who when he reaches a certain height, he too will be considered a threat, finally living the life that millions of African American boys live now, fearing walking down the streets in their own skin because a black life does not matter as much as a white one, Are they supposed to live up to what society wants them to be? Most can’t get past their many young or old, tall or short, big or skinny black bodies to see who they really are underneath the color of their skin, Who were misjudged as an “urban city kid” even though their entire lives have been spent in suburbia, Yet, who conform to the racist stereotypes: disrespectful, obnoxious, combative, argumentative Who wear a mask made of fear that does not come off until another black life is taken away by those who are misjudging and ignorant, Who believe they are ignorant because they were born with it, yet ignorance is not the mother of racism, but the daughter, as it is taught and learned in the home and fed to the daughter or son on a silver spoon, Who feel that they have to conform to what society tells them is appealing and expected, but do not realize they are dragging themselves to the level of the oppressors, Who are strong willed but whose strong voices and vivacious attitudes are perceived as boisterous and distasteful, Are they to accept the many boundaries that Martin Luther King fought to overcome? Segregation, Hate, Injustice, Who gave a speech to raise awareness about major civil rights activities and efforts, emphasizing and encouraging the significance of non violent protest and resistance, Who provided leadership and dedication to his fellow African American brothers and sisters, so they can attend school and receive the same education as a white person, Who work hard in the classroom and put their best effort forward, giving 100%; however, are undermined by those who merely skim the surface, yet receive unlimited amounts of acknowledgement and gratitude, Who are determined, but mistakenly perceived as uneducated and inferior to the ones misjudging, Who attend an HBCU to be around beautiful black people just like themselves, and feel comfortable in a setting that is made up of intelligent diverse minds, Who put themselves around people who want them to strive for the very best, not settle for the most expected, Who feel that they have to conform to what society tells them is appealing and conventional, but do not realize that they are hurting themselves in the end, Are they supposed to live up to the image society puts in their heads? Rappers, drug dealers and high school dropouts, or love themselves and their various complexities, Who are scared to love themselves because they fear they are looked down on based on the darkness or lightness of their skin, Who don’t want to celebrate their many different skin shades, but go to sleep every night dreaming that when morning comes they will wake up a little bit lighter than they were the night before, Who don’t appreciate their precious skin; the smoothness, roughness, lightness, darkness and uniqueness it holds, Who are stared at because of wearing braids or bantu knots, and bear the feeling of shame, but who have risen above the misjudged, Who have expressed their creativity and individuality to the world based upon the incentive they gained from past generations, And why must they rise above and make something of themselves? Why must they finish college and earn a degree? Why must they show their happiness and the mental strength they gained from the many setbacks they overcame? They are those who have grown out of the stereotypes that society labeled them with, Those who are unapologetically black.
Voice and Sing (Connect to African American Museum trip with quotes on the walls or images. Tie national anthem protesting as form of courage. James Weldon Johnson wrote it as a poem, his brother John Rosamond John put it into a song)
Many of you may not be familiar with the next musical selection that we will hear, but I am delighted to introduce and explain the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. The song originated in 1900 as a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson was a principle at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville Florida. He wrote the song to introduce Booker T. Washington who was visiting the school. 500 children at the school performed the poem for Washington’s arrival. Five years later, John Johnson, James Weldon Johnson’s brother, set the poem to music and created the song which we know today. The song is sung on various occasions. At Howard, a historically black university, the song is sung at every sporting event following the American national anthem because of its importance to the black community.
In addition to the song’s soothing yet powerful melody, Lift Every Voice is comprised of thought-provoking lines of poetry. As we study and reflect upon Black History Month, I think it is important to acknowledge the power embedded in this art form throughout the centuries. Our words have a timeless power. Because of this, one of my favorite parts of the National Museum of African American History is all of the quotes that are engraved on the walls. One of my favorites is by Maya Angelou, who was an amazing poet herself. The quote is “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and hope of the slave.” As a black person living in America, I think about her words often. As you listen to the song that is about to be sung, I ask that you truly reflect on this Angelou quote and the lyrics of the song itself.