Taking the lead on AAPI celebrations this month, Middle School students demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
He remembers, in particular, a lesson in Grade 4 on first-point perspective. "You draw a horizon line and a dot in the center and make everything connect to that dot," he explains. In colored pencil and marker, he drew mountains, buildings, and a sunset awash in reds, yellows, and oranges. When Mr. Christian observed that the perspective of two of his buildings was off, he studiously reformed his lines. Problem solved.
Nathan has also enjoyed learning how to make pottery. In Grade 3, as part of an interdisciplinary unit on state culture and history, he used clay to create Michigan's state flower, the apple blossom. His summer art assignment, as a rising fifth grader: inspired by the book, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, he sketched some of his favorite Michelangelo statues.
"I like learning new things, like a new technique for how to draw or paint. I also like that Mrs. Baydin and Mr. Christian give you the basic instructions of what to do, and then you can make it however you want, however you envision it."
A member of the New Jersey Youth Choir since the second grade, she has practiced once a week with the group for six years. And she has gotten to perform at an array of impressive venues, including Disney World, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall. Not bad for a once-timid singer who says she used to tremble when faced with solos (although, in Grade 5, she managed to make it through a starring role in Pingry's Alice in Wonderland Jr. just beautifully).
She credits the rich offerings of the Music Department, including the Middle School Chorus, led by music teacher and mentor, Mr. Winston, and several vocal concerts a year. "There are so many opportunities to be a part of music at Pingry," she says. Though she doesn't consider herself an actor, and prefers choral groups to musicals and plays, she appreciates that Mr. Winston singled her out in the Middle School Choir and encouraged her to try out for solos, not to mention for the NJMEA Honor Choir.
As a freshman, in addition to her work with the Balladeers, she now moves up to the high school chorus of the New Jersey Youth Choir, and may get a chance to perform with them at the White House, where her hands may—or may not—be trembling, just a bit.
Inspired by his father, also a cellist, Caleb began playing in the Lower School band in Grade 3. It was his first experience playing in a group, and he was hooked, he recalls. He went on to perform in the Middle School orchestra, and now, as a rising freshman, looks forward to collaborating with Upper School cellists and playing in the high school orchestra. One of his favorite musical initiatives at Pingry: a few years ago, he teamed up with two friends, both violinists, to create the Ace Trio; they still perform at parties and community service events.
Caleb gives thanks to his Pingry teachers, including instrumental music teacher Mr. McAnally and Upper and Middle School strings instructor Vera Izano, who have mentored him and helped him to apply to several outside orchestras—the New Jersey Youth Symphony (he reached its highest level last year) as well as the Regional and All-State orchestras of the New Jersey Music Educators Association—all of which he considers an extension of Pingry's music program.
"I want to make the All-Easterns eventually [the National Association for Music Education All-Eastern Ensemble]. And there's a chamber orchestra within the New Jersey Youth Symphony. I want to make that, too. That's the highest level—only four people in the entire state make it." Oh, and he wants to make first chair in Pingry's Upper School orchestra, too.
Brandon also keenly appreciates that no two pieces of pottery ever turn out the same. Two pieces of clay, applied with the same glaze, will inevitably look different when they exit the reduction kiln. Oxygen, the heat thrown by the fire, and time all work their distinctive magic, he explains. The #1 wrestler on Pingry’s varsity team—who earned a top-12 ranking in the state last year—Brandon is quick to point out parallels to the sport he is so ardent about.
“For me, it’s all about pursuing my passions however they manifest themselves,” he says. “In claymaking, you can try to make a single bowl five or six different ways over the course of two months and none seem to work. And then that seventh time, it works! There are just so many different factors. With wrestling, you can try the same move or the same defense 10 different ways before you find the one that works. In both, you have to experiment with different techniques and keep trying.”
It is the lesson of that magic formula, unique to every piece of pottery, every wrestler, and, Brandon says, every Pingry student, that he will take with him to college, no matter his pursuit of the arts. “Every student at Pingry has the opportunity to express themselves in their own way, and find what they’re meant to do.”
“One of the things that amazes me about Pingry is the school’s dedication to drama. Kids have the chance to be a part of something so professional from such an early age,” they add. “The productions are truly high quality, from the lighting booth to the staging to the sets. [Former set designer and visual arts teacher] Mrs. Asch used to work on Broadway! The experience of something so real continues to be crucial in my development at Pingry.”
In the Upper School, wanting to continue their dedication to drama, Cal served as a stage manager for the Middle School’s spring musical. “Even from behind the scenes, seeing something you put so much effort into come to fruition, and watching fellow students grow and improve, it’s so satisfying. You think, ‘Yes! We did it, and we did it together!’”
Looking ahead to their remaining high school career at Pingry, Cal plans to be a fixture in the drama department, whether on the stage or behind the scenes, while continuing to explore other interests. From a challenging Grade 9 drama class with Mrs. Romankow, which earned them the Drama 1 Award, to all the performance opportunities that await, they don't want to miss a chance to grow and learn, both as a performer and as a student. “Drama touches different parts of you and your life, and enhances them. I have learned to become a better listener, writer, and presenter, among other things. My self-confidence has increased tenfold, and I’ve gotten better at working with others collaboratively. The skills I’ve honed, the lessons I’ve learned, how far I’ve come? I’ll never forget them.”
At Pingry, Ariel’s inspiration comes in a different form. For example, sketching with a graphite pencil are the medium and tool most comfortable to her, but in Art Fundamentals last year, Mrs. Mack-Watkins challenged her to try something different. “We were assigned a project in which we had to recreate a small portion of an artist’s painting, but we had to select a work that focused on the concept of color theory, and we had to use acrylics,” she explains. “I chose a little piece of red robe from The Death of Germanicus. I really enjoyed it because with graphite, you’re only working with one color; you’re not mixing. But with acrylics, you have to be careful to get not only the right color but the right shade. The project really forced me out of my comfort zone.”
Also a source of influence is Mr. Sullivan, Ariel’s former Middle School advisor. He was always very encouraging of her work, and some of her “messing around” drawings can still be found on his classroom walls. “I can only see my mistakes, but having someone else look at your work and say that it’s good fills you with a sense of pride,” she says. “I started to actually be proud.”
When it comes to her future, post-Pingry endeavors, Ariel, who also loves biology and the sciences, is considering following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a dentist. “She has always told me that dentistry is a form of art because you’re helping to perfect someone’s smile. I love drawing portraits, so I think it might be a good fit.”
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.”
Since that first show, he has performed in (or behind the scenes of) 14 productions, 11 of which have been at Pingry. His freshman year, he won the Drama 1 Monologue Award. He is already plotting his Independent Senior Project (a two-person musical), which is still three years away, and dreams of his culminating, senior-year Drama IV performance.
Aside from the sheer joy he feels when he’s on stage, Josh says Pingry’s tradition of welcoming special needs children to attend dress rehearsal before opening day performances is a real highlight. In fact, he recalls one such performance, after which a young boy asked to meet him in person, as “one of the best moments in my life. . . Here was a small child actually wanting to meet me, even though I was just an eighth grader.”
Off-stage, English is Josh's favorite class. He credits his former teacher, Dr. Reid Cottingham, with fostering his love of reading, writing, articulating, and engaging in healthy debate, like when his freshman-year English class read and acted out parts of Othello. All of these skills, he notices, translate into his acting. “I used to be so shy, but now I’m a lot more confident. People are different when they’re in their happy places.”
The following year, he landed the role of television-obsessed Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (“I enjoy video games, so it was a natural part for me,” Ram jokes). As a sixth grader, he played Francis Flute in Midsummer Night’s Dream, a role that required him to also portray Thisbe, a female, in the play within the play that takes place. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, do I really have to do this? But everyone was very supportive, and it was really fun.”
As a seventh grader, he transformed himself into The Tempest’s Caliban, “a misunderstood demon child,” as Ram characterizes him. Indeed, every year since his first show in the third grade, he has performed in a Pingry musical or play. Not a bad repertoire for a young thespian, whose self-drive and work ethic are evident. “You really have to work for something if you want to get it,” he says.
Ram, who sang in the Middle School boys’ chorus, credits his teacher, Pingry’s Music Department Chair, Dr. Andrew Moore, with teaching him a lot—and with allowing him and his fellow choir members to have a good deal of fun. As an Upper Schooler now, he hopes to become a Buttondown himself (his brother is a senior, making the prospect of performing together exciting).
What does he love most about acting? “The fact that you can do it with others. I love that you’re on stage with so many other people, combining your talents, and making friends along the way.”
Ajuné has been drawing since preschool, and fully intends to continue to pursue visual arts through the Upper School. Like many Pingry students, she is multi-faceted, however. Her other main interest: chemistry.
Middle School art teacher Jane Kunzman is one of Ajuné’s greatest admirers and promoters, agreeing to her creative mandala project even though it didn’t meet the assignment’s exact requirements. In turn, Ajuné often shares even her private sketches with her teacher. “Mrs. Kunzman always keeps an open mind about our ideas and lets us bend the rules a bit,” she says. “She encourages me to follow my ideas, suggesting that maybe the result will turn out to be better than what I originally imagined.”
“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!”
“They are intricately connected. All actors should be able to dance, and all dancers should be able to act,” she says. “In musical theater, if you feel strongly about something, you speak it as a monologue. If you feel more strongly about it, you start singing, but if you feel so passionately about it that speaking and singing can’t contain it, then you dance—it’s a more heightened form of expressing emotion.”
Ms. Wheeler’s drama and dance courses cover multiple age groups, giving her tremendous satisfaction as she watches students grow and mature through the drama curriculum. For the Middle School, she teaches Drama 6 (Character and Movement, in which students learn to watch, react to, and take cues from one another), Drama 7 (Devised Theater, her creation, in which students create their own stage pieces, build ensembles through trust, and study Aristotle’s six elements of a play*), and Dance Rhythms. In the Upper School, she leads Movement for Actors (to get students “out of their heads” and “into their bodies” to focus on the present) and Introduction to Dance.
When guiding students about stepping into their roles, Ms. Wheeler prompts them to consider the characters’ feelings, attitudes, and life circumstances. “You’re bringing a character to life, so you have to know what motivates them. How is the character the same as and different from you? You have to connect with a character—you can’t play someone who you don’t ultimately have sympathy for or care about.” And if the character is a bad guy? “Even bad guys have motivations. With them, you can do things on stage that you can’t do in real life, so students can go big, explore, and not get in trouble—they should look like they’re having fun playing the bad guy!”
Ms. Wheeler acknowledges the inherent challenges in much of her work—the impact of technology on a discipline that requires human interaction; continually developing her knowledge of dance—but perhaps the most visible is choreography. “I want students to do as much choreography as possible so they own it, but it’s challenging to get it ‘right.’ It has to come from a moment and help tell the story. Just like they’re speaking for a reason, they’re moving for a reason.”
* Aristotle’s six elements of a play: plot, character, theme, language, rhythm, and spectacle