9 March 2012
15 Adar 5772 (Shushan Purim)
Two different events highlighted this week at Gann: the presentations by Stephen Wallace, former Chairman and CEO of S.A.D.D. (Students Against Destructive Decisions), and our annual Purim celebration. In different ways, both events emphasized the choices students make and their contributions to our community.
We invited Stephen Wallace to Gann in large part because of the passion and advocacy of one student and her parents who know him personally. The author of The Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs and Sex – What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling, Wallace spoke to parents Tuesday night about the importance of mentoring and communicating openly and honestly with our children. He affirmed one of the most important pieces of data that we know from the Teen Risk Behavior Survey—students who have a trusting and communicative relationship with at least one adult in their lives report less risky behavior than those who do not. He also reinforced one of the core principles of Gann’s educational philosophy—all students need to be and feel seen and supported by teachers, coaches, or administrators who genuinely know them and who are invested in their personal learning, growth, and well-being.
In Wednesday’s Limud Clali, Wallace spoke to our students about some of the scary trends in teenage culture. He told the story of the founding of S.A.D.D. after several students from our neighboring town, Wayland, were killed in drunken driving accidents in 1981. “Everywhere I go,” he said, “I meet people who feel powerless to make a change, to make safe choices, choices that are counter to the culture of drinking and other risky behaviors that are so prominent in teenagers’ lives today. However,” he suggested, “when you take the time to think about what and who you care about, it can lead you to actions that will benefit your school, your community, and your friends.” Wallace brought a positive message of choices, change, and contribution, one that I think resonates with high school students who want to be valued for the positive choices they do make rather than lectured about the negative choices they might make.
On a different note, yesterday we celebrated Purim as a school community with tefillot and megillah readings, student and faculty shpiels and performances, and a festive communal seudah (meal). We fulfilled one of the mitzvot of Purim that explicitly addresses contribution and giving back by collecting Matanot L’Evyonim (gifts to the poor) and ultimately donating over $1,000 to Yad Chesed, a local organization run by a Gann alumni parent that provides short-term support to local Jews in need.
I am proud of our contribution to Yad Chesed, but when I think about choices, contribution, and community, I was impressed by two other aspects of our Purim celebration. The first was how many students dressed up and the positive spirit and energy they brought to the day. It can be so easy for high school students to be cynical about so many things, yet what defined our students’ participation yesterday was anything but. One student I spoke with afterwards commented that, even though he wasn’t looking forward to Purim, he said that he “kind of enjoyed it and was glad I came.” As they so often are, our students were open and authentic, positive, funny, and fun. They dressed up, took pictures, and cheered for and laughed with their teachers and friends. They contributed to making the day meaningful and memorable.
I was most impressed with the students’ skits, shpiels, and performances. Over the past several years, we have talked extensively with them about the choices they make around the annual Purim shpiel. Because it can be difficult for students (or anyone for that matter) to have a nuanced grasp of positive, humorous satire, they have sometimes attempted to be funny at the expense of community, using cheap and offensive humor rather than positive satire and wit. However, thanks to the thoughtful guidance of faculty advisors and the participation and contributions of so many students, yesterday marked a new educational and comedic high for our student shpiels. Through dance, song, skits, and movies, students from every grade helped us to laugh at ourselves in positive ways and to be authentic and real with each other, all important aspects of Purim that strengthen community.
As our Purim celebration affirmed, our students are witty and intelligent, and creative and fun. They are also caring and compassionate contributors to our community. Especially in light of Stephen Wallace’s presentations, we should appreciate just how special they are!
Shushan Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker