2011 Convocation Address

September 22, 2011


by Pam Bonanno
September 18, 2011

This past summer, on July 18th to be precise, sitting in my New York City apartment, I was contemplating the remaining days of summer.  After travelling in China for three weeks with 10 amazing colleagues, I was astonished at how long it took me to re-acclimate to East Coast time.  No longer was I bouncing out of bed at 3 in the morning only to find the darkness. I opened my Deerfield email that morning to be greeted by Jessica Pleasant, Mrs. Morsman’s assistant.  She had a simple question. How long was my Convocation speech? What Convocation speech?, I asked myself horrified.  It didn’t take me more than a minute to realize what had just happened and exactly how I got myself into this situation.  So I wrote back to Ms. Pleasant thanking her for the opportunity to speak, but I graciously declined her offer. The second sentence of my response said,” If that doesn’t work, the answer is easy, short.”

Today we assemble in this Memorial Building to mark the official opening of the school year. This Convocation brings together our community to welcome its newest members, to congratulate our award winners, and to listen to the hopes and dreams of a student leader, our Head of School, and one humble mathematics instructor as we begin this year together.

I have experienced many “beginnings.”  Given that I have indicated that this speech will be short, I will not start with my first day of elementary school, but I could. I do remember that day vividly, even though it was a good number of years ago. The “beginnings” in my life that I can recall, with specific detail as if they were yesterday, were the ones that were the most challenging.  I have little memory of a multitude of beginnings that proceeded smoothly.

The three experiences I would like to share with you today come under the headings of teacher, parent, and student.  My teacher experience began before I graduated from college. I was a mathematics major in college, no surprise here, with a minor in secondary education.  In my senior year, student teaching was a requirement. My first assignment to a public junior high school in the South Bronx was complicated by a bitter teacher strike that fall of 1968. After two weeks we were moved to Catholic schools in the same neighborhood.  Not many days went by when my professor presented me with a third option. She asked if I would consider teaching two math classes in a school in Yonkers.  A teacher had become ill and the school could not find a replacement for two of her classes. This was not another student teacher position; this was flying solo. I suspect my professor saw my hesitation, but asked if I would meet with their principle the following morning to learn more about the school and my responsibilities.  My “interview” consisted of walking into the principal’s office, introducing myself and being handed two textbooks. She looked at her watch and said that I was right on time as my first class was waiting for me. I suppose she walked me to the classroom; that I do not remember. But I can see today, as I see you sitting before me now, 40 pairs of eyes looking at me as I walked into the room. It was an Algebra 2 class, and the next class was Geometry. After my second class concluded, I was again greeted by the principal, but this time she handed me the daily schedule. “See you tomorrow,” she said. How could I possibly do the job of teaching mathematics to 80 students when I had only taught perhaps 5 math classes up to that point?  Somehow I took a leap of faith and spent the next 7 months with those students.  It was a team effort; 2 teams of  41 in the classroom learning at the same time. These students knew that I was determined that they would learn Algebra and Geometry and experience learning as fun, though sometimes exhausting.  They forgave my lack of experience. I am confident that I learned more that year from my students than they learned from me.

Let’s jump ahead 20 years. Now it is an early September day in 1988. I am  driving in a car headed north to Concord New Hampshire.  My then 14 year old daughter Clarissa was beginning her freshman year at St. Paul’s. I knew this day would come, as she had been bugging me for years about attending boarding school. She would say that she had lived in boarding schools all her life, why couldn’t she attend one?  Deerfield was an all boys’ school in 1979 when Mr. Bonanno and I made the decision to leave Kimball Union Academy to teach here.  I knew that it was inevitable that Clarissa would not attend Deerfield. But the Board of Trustees in their infinite wisdom had made the decision to reopen the doors to girls entering in 1989. Couldn’t Clarissa wait one year to attend Deerfield? No. She wanted the full boarding experience. We had to leave Mr. Bonanno home that day; the car was full. Clarissa was quiet for the first half hour of our two hour drive up the winding country roads of Route 10, then onto Route 9 in New Hampshire. But I saw her deep in thought.  “I suspect that I will be the only admissions mistake,” she finally blurted out!  I quickly realized that I had an hour and a half to address these insecurities. Of course I would say that she was wrong, but I knew that alone would not change her perception.  When I told her years earlier that she had written an amazing poem for homework, she shrugged off that comment by saying that she expected praise from me because I was her mother.  Before I had a chance to respond to this first statement, Clarissa said in a voice indicating real fear, “I hope that I do not have to change who I am in order to be accepted.” The remainder of that car ride is a blur, but she did spend the next four years at St. Paul’s. Parents indeed live the boarding school experience along with their child, even at a time when there was only one phone for 40 girls in her dormitory. While she learned how to thrive in this educational community, I learned from her how to be a better parent and advisor of students who share those common concerns and insecurities.

Another beginning, another day in early September, this time we will add 14 more years.  Mr. Bonanno and I drove south to New York City. And I am again emptying the car and heading into a dormitory. Well, it actually is not a dormitory, but an apartment complex for married students. Yes, this time I am the student. I was on sabbatical from Deerfield, attempting to earn a master’s degree in one year.  I am the one with butterflies. I was about to embark on a different journey, sitting in front of the teacher rather than behind a desk.  I already had jumped over one hurdle the prior year, standardized tests. For graduate students, it is the GRE’s. They are just like the SAT’s but are computer based. You get your score immediately.  My students asked me why I was nervous; I should do especially well in the quantitative reasoning, was their thinking. What I was thinking was how I would feel if I didn’t receive a strong score. Luck was on my side and I jumped over hurdle number one. My son, Jonathan, a graduate of Deerfield’s class of 1991, gave me his words of wisdom before my first class. He said, “Mom, you know the key to success in school is to make every teacher your friend.” I suspect we did teach him something important at Deerfield. But here I am moving into an apartment I have never seen, living on my own. There was another car being unloaded at the same time by another couple. We introduced ourselves and I found that John was to be a classmate of mine in the same Klingenstein program for Private School Leadership, so we exchanged apartment numbers and chatted for a few more minutes about our previous schools. He had just finished his first master’s degree at Harvard.  My stomach hit the concrete sidewalk on W 122nd Street.  How was I going to compete with him in the same classroom? What I didn’t know until the end of the year when we spoke about our first impressions of each other was that he was intimidated by me.  He said that he had asked what I taught at Deerfield and whether I had any administrative experience. I must have answered mathematics, and I was one of Deerfield’s Assistant Headmasters.  This struck terror in John as he had years of schooling but no administrative experience. I had not remembered any part of this exchange. How often do we make assumptions only to find out later how untrue they were?  How many hours do we spend in needless anxiety? My year at Teacher’s College was exhilarating. I will give you one of my educational experiences. Marketing for non-profits was one of my second semester classes taught at Columbia’s Business school. Since I had jumped into teaching thirty years earlier with no experience, I was teamed up, with three other classmates, to offer New York City’s Board of Education a marketing plan for the inauguration of their Leadership Academy, a training program for aspiring school principals. After all, I had completed two or three marketing classes when we were given the assignment to develop a marketing plan for any non-profit organization. The 100+ hours developing our plan and the two hour presentation to members of the Board of Education was nothing compared to the intense questions that flowed from Robert E. Knowling, the then CEO of the Leadership Academy for two additional hours. He knew that we were all experienced private school teachers. He also knew that for a few hours each week members of our program interned in a number of public schools in Manhattan. Mr. Knowling began the discussion with one question: “Can you define those programs that make private schools successful which should be adopted by public schools?” The CEO of the Leadership Academy realized our real value to the future principals of New York City’s public schools was not in our marketing plan, but in our answers to his question. That project was for one class out of a total of 10 classes I took that year. I was either at my desk, in class, or working on group projects with my classmates for 12+ hours a day, seven days a week.  I had told scores of Deerfield students to take risks and not back away from a challenge. I am glad that I listened to my own message as it was my most rewarding year as a student in a classroom.

We are at the beginning of another school year, another September. You have opportunities in front of you. You will walk with amazing classmates, talented faculty and dedicated staff.  What will be the contents of your story?

  • Will you celebrate resilience in overcoming obstacles?
  • Will you be persist in the pursuit of knowledge?
  • Will you be kind?
  • Will you realize the importance of self reliance?
  • Will you express gratitude for the role of others in your life?
  • Will you strive for positive citizenship in the local and global communities to which you belong?
  • And most importantly, will you make integrity your central virtue?

Wisdom is a tapestry woven from many strands. A purposeful and fulfilling life will contain many, if not most, of these strands.  Go forth and construct a great story.