8 May 2009
14 Iyar 5769
Last night, I received the following enthusiastic email from our Ninth Grade Dean:
“Yesterday, during our community service day, the ninth grade did the second part of a three part activity on bystander/upstander behavior. I have been consulting with Facing History and Ourselves about the activity . . . The gist of the activity was for each advisor group to choose an upstander – someone who stands up in the face of wrongdoing and injustice and tries to make a difference. The facilitator writes the name of the upstander in the center and the group brainstorms personality traits of the person, such as passionate, fierce, caring, etc. Then each person journals about which of these characteristics they have and when they have used them.
The great moment came when I realized that among posters that said Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, MLK Jr. was the name of one of our senior girls (who has advocated strongly and publicly for a particular cause all year). This was such a profound testimony to Gann at its best, that ninth graders look up to a twelfth grade activist and consider her in this company of upstanders.”
So many aspects of this email capture our aspirations as a school: the enthusiasm with which the Dean shared it with me, indicating how passionate he is about his students’ learning and character development; the upstander activity itself, linked to a community service day, which together teach our students about values, responsibility and community by engaging their heads, hearts and hands; and, perhaps most powerfully, the inclusion of a Gann student on a ninth grade list of famous historical upstanders. Our ninth graders seem to understand that they do not have to look only outside their community to find exemplary models who, in the words of our mission statement, “make lasting contributions . . . to the world.” In fact, our students lead, inspire, and transmit Gann’s values to one another.
To me, one of the reasons why this Facing History concept of upstander behavior is so relevant to high school students, and to ninth grade in particular, is that this is a time in their lives when they have significantly more freedom and independence than ever before. As I shared with our incoming ninth grade class last Friday, high school is a different world from middle school; with more freedom comes tremendous opportunity and choice, as well as responsibility. This is also one of the themes of Sefirat HaOmer (the Counting of the Omer), the 49 day period between Passover, our time of freedom and redemption, and Shavuot, our receiving or renewed commitment to Torah at Mount Sinai. On Passover, we affirm and celebrate what many of us do not appreciate fully or often enough – that we are free to think, to choose, to act. Then, we have 49 days to ask ourselves the same questions that we hope our students and our children ask themselves: What am I going to do with this freedom? Who are my role models for the kind of person I want to be? Am I going to stand by or stand up?
In 20 days we will stand at Sinai with the opportunity to reaffirm our relationships with God, Torah, Judaism, our community. Who do we want to be when we get there?
Rabbi Marc Baker