Reflecting on Leadership, Scholarship, Service and Character
The many voices that make up our school speak to our varied experiences and united ideals. At the National Honor Society and Cum Laude Society assembly, four students spoke about the core tenets of NHS: leadership, scholarship, service and character. Mentored by Upper School English Teacher and Severn Oratorical Society Advisor Dr. Jackie Baugh, Chase O'Malley ‘22, Mori Sokoloff ‘21, Aislinn Murray ‘21, and Robert Isper ‘21 spoke about their growth as members of our school community and as individuals finding their way in the world.
This year's assembly was held on Zoom while the Upper School tuned in remotely from home and from their advisory rooms. Presenting individually for a camera lens rather than for the entire student body, the speakers were able to remove their masks to deliver their speeches with the expression and passion they had practiced all summer.
Chase O'Malley '22, Student Council Vice President, explored the dual nature of leadership presented in Severn's motto, "The wisdom to follow. The courage to lead." He began with an anecdote from his experience as an Eagle Scout, noting that the relationship between leading by example and offering support to that leadership is core to the strength of the organization. He then reflected on seeing student leadership in action on Unity Day. Excerpted and edited from his speech:
"On my first Unity day, what surprised me the most was how clearly our school tagline stood out. Each student running a workshop had the courage to lead, not just to speak to their peers, but to stand for an issue they felt was worthy of their time. Zarah Meek is just one of many great examples of this courage to lead.
After attending a conference on human rights in February of 2018, Zarah met a man who had been on death row for 20 years before being proven innocent. After discussing his experience with her, Zarah developed her mission to help tackle criminal injustice in America. And it was this personal mission, fueled by her newfound perspective, that gave her the courage to lead during Unity Day.
Now the 'courage to lead' is obvious. But more subtle yet arguably more profound is the 'wisdom to follow.' This idea has always perplexed me, and I’ll admit in writing this speech I had to really think about what this part of our tagline meant for our school. But when I thought back on Unity Day, what continued to stand out were not only the leaders of the workshops, such as Zarah, Mori Sokoloff, and Abijah Pennant, putting themselves out there to spread their messages, but also, the students who took something from those workshops. Those who went to a workshop, and actually had the wisdom to identify a cause that was worthwhile and contribute their own solutions — give their own perspectives — they were the ones who may have been exhibiting leadership that day the most. Because the wisdom to follow doesn’t entail merely doing what leaders tell you to do. Rather, it’s the choice to actively contribute to the leadership and missions of others.
It’s this dynamic of both the courage to lead but also the wisdom to follow that helps promote the strong leadership we pride ourselves on. And so, as we navigate the unprecedented structure of this school year, let's take a minute to consider the tagline we see every day when logging onto mySevern. The tagline which also flies outside of the rotunda in the compelling fall breeze. Let’s ask ourselves if we have both the courage to lead and the wisdom to follow."
Mori Sokoloff '21, prefect and member of the Cum Laude Society, took the audience along a metaphorical trip on the "long and winding road" to scholarship incorporating song lyrics as a sort of playlist throughout. She began with the earliest years of elementary school, describing the wide-eyed curiosity that is a foundational stop on this journey. She then invited the audience to accompany her through middle school and beyond. Excerpted and edited from her speech:
"Entering the freeway of middle school, we begin to transform our curiosity into expertise. I can even pinpoint a project where we excelled on our own topics: History Day. I can say with confidence that we all became our own research experts. Robert Isper was an expert on the Civil War, Alina Valencia was an expert on equal pay, Grant Cowell was an expert on the Shirtwaist Triangle Factory Fire, Amy Sobocinski was an expert on women suffrage, and I was an expert on the life of Frederick Douglass. These examples demonstrate our middle school ability to research and become experts with new information. Becoming an expert in an area of study stems from our curiosity.
'Are we there yet?' No, but we now have the navigational system to guide our long trip towards scholarship.
On this next leg of the trip, we are going to take a pit stop to recognize the teachers in the Severn community who serve as mentors on the road towards scholarship. Yes, I am actually comparing the Severn faculty to a pit crew: highly trained, specialized, task oriented, efficient.
I want to highlight one teacher in particular who constantly helps students in the Severn community advance on the road towards scholarship. In the words of Roger Miller, this teacher serves as 'King of the road.' Well maybe in this case, the queen of the road, Dr. Martin. Like her teaching colleagues, she constantly holds high academic expectations of others, shows a high degree of passion towards rising scholars, and makes herself available for extra help. From my advisory time with her, it is apparent that she always pushes her students in the direction of scholastic success. This constant reminder ensures students are going in the right direction as they pass this pit stop on the road towards scholarship.
'Are we there yet?' No, however, we are finally on the verge of true scholarship. The journey towards scholarship does not end here at Severn, rather later on down the road. Some of us will reach the final destination of scholarship before others. This school year, let’s, in the words of Ray Charles, 'Hit the road jack.'"
Aislinn Murray '21, prefect, Student Council Secretary, and member of the Community Service Committee, began her speech with two personal anecdotes. The first was her mother's willingness to help an elderly woman find her car even though doing so would make her late getting home. The second was a stranger's willingness to help her and her mother replace their windshield wipers as they stood stranded during an intense downpour. She used these examples to emphasize the value of being "of service" to others throughout your life. Excerpted and edited from her speech:
"My mother and father raised me and my three siblings from a very young age that in order to live a full life we must live a life of service. Now to be of service is a bit different than the service we may be thinking of. The service I am talking about is not military service, not food service, and not customer service. Nor is it the type of service that is well-known to all of us here at Severn, community service. I am not here to talk about a particular type of service, I am here to talk about being of service. Being of service is something that is extremely achievable in this day and age and during this specific time period we are all living in. Now, I will admit, I didn't always know what my parents meant when they said I should be of service, but as I have matured, it is something I try to live by every single day.
Being of service does not have to include the large gestures we might be thinking about. We do not have to quit our jobs or donate all of our savings. Being of service is not only about what we do, but also about how we do it, with selflessness, with intention, with compassion, with engagement, with grit, and with anonymity. Being of service is a life philosophy, a mindset. Being of service runs the gamut.
Being of service is as simple as anonymously rolling our neighbors’ garbage cans in, or as major as saving someone who is drowning.
Being of service is as simple as a helping someone at the beach when their umbrella is blowing away, or as major as providing food and shelter for the homeless.
Being of service is as simple as helping someone at Wegmans, or as major as giving someone CPR.
Being of service is as simple as putting on someone’s windshield wipers or as complex as donating our organs.
Being of service applies to all of us. Although in this unpredictable time, we might not be able to do community service, there is nothing stopping us from being of service."
Robert Isper '21, prefect and President of the Red Cross Club, shared stories that exemplify different aspects of character from self-control to courage. He began his speech with a memory from childhood. His friends wanted to remove the caps from someone's tires and he decided against it, listening to a familiar voice in his head . . . his father saying, "Baba don't do it." He spoke about a classmate who refused to cheat on an exam even though she had the opportunity to do so and likely get away with it. He went on to share a more personal example from his relationship with his father. Excerpted and edited from his speech:
" If anyone asked me to name one person who demonstrates character the most, I would 100% say my dad, but back in July, I was totally lost. It was around the time Dr. Baugh asked me to write this speech. She asked the simplest question, 'Why your dad?' That question rattled in my head for days, but I couldn’t come up with a moment where my dad showed character. Knowing my dad and his kind heart, I know he did a lot of helping others, but I couldn't recall any of it. I asked my dad to finally get an answer to her question. I hoped that he would come up with a great story that would make my speech 10 times better, but instead, he said, 'I don't remember.'
I was stuck and the only solution was my family’s group chat. 'Give me an example where my dad showed the most character.' They all responded with great examples, but they were still not strong enough. Later that day my sister, Barbara, opened my door and said, 'I think dad coming to the U.S. shows a lot of courage, which is one of his strong elements of character.'
Courage — by coming to a whole different country after spending 45 years of his life in Syria. Leaving behind his relatives, friends, life, and the flower shop, which he called his oldest son, was not an easy decision. Seeing my dad say goodbye to his shop that he had for almost 30 years was one of the most emotional moments, but his reason for all of that was to give me and my sister a chance to have a better future and opportunity in life. That was the turning point of my life. That small moment changed my future for the better.
After finishing my speech, I confronted my dad saying, 'Why didn't you give me a small moment where you showed character back in July?' He said, 'Character doesn’t shine, it is internal.'
The difference between someone with a good character and someone else is that one moment of courage that separates them from the others. I was one moment away from taking the tire pressure caps off, my friend was one moment away from cheating on her test, and my dad was one moment away from not making all of his sacrifices. Next time, watch for that small moment where we have an opportunity to develop our character and always remember, 'Baba, don’t do it.'"
National Honor Society and Cum Laude
Severn was proud to induct 77 students into the Jonah Halsted Chapter of the National Honor Society and the 10 students into the Severn School chapter of the Cum Laude Society this year. Our annual assembly is a chance for families, teachers and peers to recognize student achievement and reflect on our shared commitment to character, scholarship, leadership and service in the many forms they take.