Students were political canvassers, escape room artists, physicists, fashionistas, inventors, thought leaders, collaborators, activists, change agents, and boat builders, among many other identities, during Project Week 2019.
Interestingly, if you were to ask Nate’s classmates, they would say he is first and foremost an athlete at Pingry—a three-sport athlete, to be exact (football, basketball, and baseball). “But that’s what’s special about Pingry; everyone has many different identities here.” He rattles off the English classes and teachers he has had over the last three years—faculty, he says, with whom he has felt most connected. “I had Dr. Cottingham for English 9, and will have her again my senior year for Magical Realism and World Lit. I love to visit her office and just shoot the breeze,” he says. “I might end up writing my college essay on a multimedia project I did for Mrs. Grant in English 10. And last year I had Mr. Lear for Ethical Dilemma, which forced me to think outside the box, both in the classroom and while writing essays. That was a really interesting, thought-provoking class.”
Nate had considered playing baseball in college, but feels that academics are more important to him. “I might walk on a team, but I want to focus on my studies,” he remarks. “I don’t think I would have had this mindset if I hadn’t come to Pingry. I don’t think I would have been able to pursue all of my many different interests. The experience here is like nothing else.”
Winter season: Basketball team—again, to try something new. Spring season: Carson, a lacrosse player since Grade 3, proudly makes the Middle School Girls’ A Team, the only sixth grader that year to do so.
Her passion for sport, she says, is partly attributable to her sister, Avery ’19, who is captain of the 2018-19 Girls’ Varsity Field Hockey Team, and her brother, Tripp ’21, who was part of Big Blue’s varsity lacrosse lineup as a freshman. But Carson is quick to point out what benefits she sees for herself: “Sports helped me in the transition from the Lower School to the Middle School—being on teams is a great way to meet other students. And it’s great in the Middle School now to have the freedom to pick what sport we want to play.”
Next year, she’s considering a return to her beloved field hockey in the fall, perhaps giving squash a try in the winter, and, of course, keeping up with the lacrosse team in the spring. Thinking ahead to her athletic career in the Upper School, what are her goals? “It would be great to make varsity field hockey and lacrosse as a freshman, but I know that’s really hard,” she says. “I just want to make an impact on whatever team I play on.”
Make no mistake, Ms. Mahida, who also teaches Grade 9 English, still cherishes her time in the classroom. During her first year with freshmen, she recalls feeling thrilled by how much they grew between September and June. “When I read their final exams I got emotional thinking of who they had become at the end of year,” she recalls. “Holy cow! In two hours you just wrote an essay on Othello that we only took three weeks to cover. I was so proud of them.”
English is a second language for Ms. Mahida’s Korean mother, and, having grown up in rural Oklahoma, her father didn’t finish college. During a childhood spent in South Carolina, she witnessed them struggle to fully express themselves. Now, she harnesses the memory so that her own “kids” won’t have to struggle with self-expression. “I really love being an English teacher because being able to write and express yourself gives you freedom that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” she says. “I want my students to feel free. Effective self-expression is a tool they can use to advance whatever cause they choose to be a part of."
Andrew appreciated their candor. And, as a Pingry lifer, he sees parallels to his school experience. “What has made my time at Pingry so rewarding is learning that it’s not always going to be easy. You have to put in the work to get the rewards. It’s figuring out how to apply the tools you’re learning—how to write a five-paragraph essay that’s better than the last one you wrote. Or how to write one that no one else has written,” he says, by way of example. “Everything here is so worth the effort.”
He admits that the college application process is a similar give and take. “The grill is turned up your senior year, but the College Counseling Office is very good at not being overbearing and making the process horrible,” he jokes. “Mrs. Finegan [his college counselor] underscores that it’s not the end of the world—it’s just a big part."
How will Andrew think about Pingry 30 years from now? “I will feel proud to have been a part of this class,” he says. “Maybe I’m saying that because I was elected by all of them! But, I really do enjoy the company of all my friends and classmates, and I’m excited to see what we all do in the future.”
In art class, his preferred mediums are paper (“Sketching cartoon characters makes me feel more relaxed”) and clay, and he fondly recalls the clay tile project that Lower School art teachers Lindsay Baydin and Russell Christian assigned in Grade 5. “We were given a clay tile and had to create something on it from an artifact of our ancient roots. My family is from Mexico, so I carved an ancient sun god on it. I painted it yellow, with a black background.”
He also vividly recalls a visit by contemporary American sculptor and visual/conceptual artist Willie Cole, and the collaborative “water bottle” project he launched with Pingry students. “It was so interesting to see what you can make out of these empty plastic water bottles. We strung them together with metal wire and made our own little people,” he says. “I liked his style of art the most. How many artists use plastic water bottles!”
So, when he’s not playing soccer or baseball or throwing the ball around in his backyard with his two younger brothers, Santiago '29 and Jordi '31, Diego may be found sketching. What does he enjoy most about making art? “You can’t do art wrong. It can be bad, but you can’t really do it wrong.”
Solape, a Big Blue basketball player and track & field athlete, is also wise to the bigger picture. It’s a mindset, she says, that her college counselor, Sue Kinney, who also happens to be her advisor, has helped to cultivate. “I’m always panicking, but Mrs. Kinney has this calming effect on me, like a mom. Sometimes I go in to her office just to say hello because I haven’t seen her in a week. The college application process has a big impact on your life. Where do I see myself for the next four years?! But she has helped me to know that I shouldn’t get too stressed.”
Also helpful, she says, are two annual events hosted by Pingry’s College Counseling Department and designed specifically for juniors. The first, a Case Study Night, has mock student/parent admission committees meet with actual college admission representatives to learn the inside scoop. The second, a College Jumpstart day shortly after the end of junior year, brings eight college admission representatives to campus to chat with students. “That was a huge help,” recalls Solape. “I got to understand what they’re thinking, I got a view on what to do and what not to do in the admission process. For example, don’t be a ‘try hard’—just be yourself and do what interests you.” It’s advice, one might argue, that Solape has already taken to heart.
“I’ve been teaching for over 40 years and I’ve never seen a Kindergartner tackle a 1,500-piece puzzle,” said Mrs. Previti. “They begged us to let them do puzzles instead of go out for recess. They were like ants!” (As a point of comparison, she adds, 100- to 200-piece puzzles are more the norm for this age.) Every day after lunch, during activity time, the boys worked, calmly, cooperatively. First they sorted the pieces into containers by color, each student took a color, and they got to work assembling the borders. The brain-bending interior soon followed. At one point, without uttering a word, Colton and Max switched places so they could better access their parts of the puzzle. Pieces were readily exchanged, as needed. Arguments never broke out. When a comrade expressed interest in joining the group, he was quickly absorbed, and made a “puzzlemaster-in-training.”
A longtime puzzler herself, Mrs. Previti related easily to her students’ passion. When her grandson received a holographic puzzle as a gift and found it too challenging, she spent days staying up past midnight to finish it, and surprise him.
Each year brings a new crop of Kindergartners with new interests and infatuations. Mrs. Previti won’t soon forget her Puzzlemasters. “It all started with a single puzzle, but it evolved into an enrichment class,” she mused. “It was just an activity, and then it became so much more.”
As a freshman, he joined the cross country team. When he decided to try track his sophomore year, competing in the 3200-meter (2 miles) run, he was pretty sure his strong suit was as a distance runner, and that’s just what he focused on. Until, that is, Boys’ Varsity Cross Country and Track Coach Matt Horesta had him try the 800, a grueling, nearly all-out sprint for half a mile. Coach Horesta’s instincts were right. His junior year, Justin placed third in the event in the state group meet (he was seeded seventh), qualifying for the New Jersey Meet of Champions, and catching the eye of college coaches. By his senior year, he clinched second at the state group championship in a meet-record time, and qualified for the prestigious Emerging Elite 800-meter run at New Balance Nationals, where he ran 1:54.66, the second-fastest time in Pingry’s history.
“That was a big moment for me,” he recalls, four years later. “Coach Horesta definitely helped me to develop in an event I hadn’t before considered. I began talking with college coaches, and the door really opened for me in terms of being able to compete on a collegiate level.” (He is also quick to credit his other Pingry track & field coaches and mentors: Tom Cladek, Mark Sepkowski, and Gerry Vanasse.)
The accolades piled up from there. As a freshman at Williams, he was a member of their 4x800 NESCAC Championship team, a team that went on, the following week, to win Division III New England’s. His achievements earned him First Team All-NESCAC and All-New England honors. And that was just his freshman year.
Looking back at his Pingry athletic experiences, however, the big meets and big honors aren’t what stand out for him. “The days leading up to an important race—talking to Coach about my goals—were almost more memorable than the race itself,” he says. “That’s when the training is done, you know you’ve put in all the hard work, and Coach Horesta was always confident that I could succeed. He taught us that it’s not a question of whether you can, but whether you will.”
And when Justin is home during college breaks, he meets with Coach Horesta and his old teammates for dinner, just to talk, once again.
“It was just so much fun,” she recalls. “Being part of that play really helped me to adjust to the school and it took me out of my shell—now I’m definitely the loudest in my class! That experience solidified how much I enjoy acting and singing.”
Kat, as her friends call her, went on to play Martha in The Secret Garden in Grade 8, and, by her junior year, she auditioned for—and was accepted into—Pingry’s female a cappella group, the Balladeers. Since her first foray into acting as a Pingry Middle Schooler, she has been involved in two productions a year, and once she hit the Upper School, she began stage managing the Middle School musical as well. “It’s fun to inspire the younger kids,” she says.
Thanks to an Honors Bio class she took her sophomore year, Kat—also a science lover—is confident that she has identified a fitting career path, as an oncologist. “The same skills I learn through drama—relaxing, connecting with the audience and with my fellow performers—are also so important for doctors. I think I may have found the perfect way to combine the things that I love!”
So, after college, he headed West, where he earned a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona while serving as editor-in-chief of their literary review. He then worked for a year at Johnson & Johnson, where he served as Quality & Compliance Communications Specialist. In 2015, Pingry’s Office of Institutional Advancement was looking for a writer to help wordsmith its many communications, from donor impact stories to Campaign appeals. He landed the job, and delighted in working in an educational environment. Not a year later, when the Middle School was looking to fill a vacancy, the “front lines,” as Headmaster Nat Conard has called it, beckoned. In the fall of 2016, he had his own classroom, as a Grade 6 and Form I English teacher.
“When I transitioned from Advancement to teaching, it was an opportunity to go from writing about Pingry's best qualities—its emphasis on community, inquiry, and collaboration—to actually rolling up my sleeves and doing the work of engaging students,” he says. He was on the front lines indeed, and he was loving it.
Now a Form I Team Leader, overseeing Form I programming and faculty, what does he enjoy most about being a Pingry teacher?
“Pingry provides not only an education—any school can do that—but also a space for teaching students how to be stewards of that education,” he replies. “It’s not just, ‘Here are the tools to succeed in the world,’ but also, 'How are you going to brandish those tools to better your community?' As an English teacher, you get to push students to step outside themselves and imagine the lived experience of others. You get to remind them, and yourself, that before we are students and teachers, we are world citizens and human beings.”
It’s that same collaborative, interdisciplinary focus that allows her to engage her Kindergarten class in STEAM projects (STEAM projects are routine in later grades, but she wants to see them trickle down to her youngsters as well). As an example, using the book, Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, she brainstormed with her kids how they could “save” a snowball; that is, prevent it from melting. After detailed discussion, experimenting, and prototype-building, the class presented their findings at an all-school meeting. “It really took a village,” remarked Mrs. Udeshi. “The art teachers, the tech teachers, and the Kindergarten team were all involved, and to see kids who were non-readers at the beginning of the year competently read and present their work to the entire school was really remarkable.”
These types of creative, cross-disciplinary projects are what excite her, and keep her passionate about her work. “We, as Pingry teachers, get to choose what we think is best practice. We are constantly questioning, bouncing ideas off each other. It’s truly a talented group of faculty.”
During an “open house classroom” for prospective families recently, a parent asked, "Would you still teach if you won the lottery?" Without hesitation, she answered yes.
During his senior year at Pingry, he was tapped to perform as Keith Urban’s keyboardist during the American Country Music Awards. Just after graduation, he joined guitar virtuoso Steve Vai on an international concert tour that took him to Australia, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Thailand, all before he turned 19. And, during his sophomore year at USC’s Thornton School of Music, where he has been taught by music masters Patrice Rushen, Smokey Robinson, and John Fogerty, he appeared as a student musician on two episodes of the hit show Glee.
A classically trained pianist since the first grade, Michael’s attention turned to the keyboard during his freshman year at Pingry. It didn’t take him long to scout out a local mentor, who happened to be Billy Joel’s band member. By some standards, he has already lived a lifetime of success since his Pingry graduation, but that hasn’t clouded his high school memories.
“Mr. McAnally [Middle and Upper School music teacher and Director of the Jazz Band] played a big part in fostering my overall curiosity, introducing me to new kinds of music and playing that I hadn’t yet explored,” he says. “I remember jazz band my freshman year he introduced us to Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett. We had to play a couple of pieces by Pat—I remember Five-Five-Seven being particularly challenging. But it was a lot of fun.”
Music education aside, Michael also recalls the impact of Mrs. Grant’s creative writing class his junior year, where he dove into various forms of written art, including short stories and poetry. “It was a very eye-opening and inspirational class,” he remembers. “Lyrics play an enormous role in music, and that class really got me thinking about the ways in which people communicate and how emotion is conveyed. It opened the door for me in terms of my ability to write lyrics.”
With plans to graduate a semester early in order to join another world tour, his music career is really just beginning.
His advice for Pingry students? “Work hard at what you’re doing but don’t be afraid to take in everything, even classes that don’t seem immediately relevant to your interests. There’s just so much to learn.”
He wanted to wrap up a project on conflict dialogue that he was working on for Dana Sherman’s writing class (banter with his older brother Daniel ’22 provided ideal fodder). Then there was an expository essay on character traits that he was ready to dive into, also for Mrs. Sherman’s class. When those assignments were complete, he could settle in to Jon Krakauer’s 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air, the gripping account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster. He had begun the 400-page book three days earlier, and only 150 pages remained.
Thomas, who began Pingry as a fourth-grade student, has always enjoyed reading and writing. But, he admits, if it weren’t for Mrs. Sherman’s writing class—a new offering in the Lower School, and part of the students’ comprehensive language arts curriculum—he probably wouldn’t write on his own.
It also helps that Pingry teachers collaborate, with intention. So, when Dr. Pearlman began reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH with Thomas’s class and discussing the concept of character traits, Mrs. Sherman segued into a related creative writing assignment, asking Thomas and his classmates to describe, in detail, a character of their own imagining.
“Every year, with every teacher, my writing improves,” he remarks. “Every teacher is different, and I learn so much.”