Jennifer Swift ’88 addresses the Class of 2011
Hello, I am Jennifer Swift, Paideia class of 1988, Paideia parent, and for the last 17 years, a teacher in our junior high. It is my honor to be the first to welcome you, the class of 2011, to being alumni of the Paideia School. I am especially happy to see the 13 of you whom I taught as seventh and eighth graders, looking and smelling a whole lot better than you did back then. As of Saturday, there will be 2,265 Paideia alumni living in 23 countries around the world. Although you will likely join your predecessors in spreading across the globe in the next few years, I am here to remind you to keep Paideia as a part of your lives.
Last Monday night, I found myself in one of the worst situations imaginable for me: a phone-a-thon, a Paideia alumni phone-a-thon. Now, let me first explain a few things about myself: I can’t stand making small talk with strangers, and I hate asking people for anything, especially money. The list of things I would rather do than call people and ask for money includes: emptying the kitty litter, picking individual aphids off of my husband’s tomato plants, and chaperoning a junior high dance. When I listen to NPR during their fund-raising drives, I always wonder who those suckers are that they get to answer the phones and ring the little bells.
So why on earth did I voluntarily walk into this seventh circle of hell? The answer is because of all Paideia has done for me. I went through the most difficult years of my life in high school: my parents divorced, my mother came out; I was sidelined from sports when I blew out my knee, I was diagnosed with diabetes – and, perhaps most dramatically, my boyfriend kept breaking up with me. I will never forget Sharon Radford approaching me in the commons the day after one of our breakups. She didn’t pry and she didn’t lecture; she didn’t tell me that I would laugh about it one day or to focus on my studies. She just quietly said, “Remind me to tell you about the time my high school boyfriend broke up with me.” In just a few words, she managed to tell me, “I know this matters, I know it hurts, and I also know you’ll get through it.” There were countless events like that for me in the 13 years I spent as a student at Paideia: teachers taking me out to lunch, pulling me aside after class, giving me extra help with math, cheering for me at games. The other day, I was discussing with colleagues how difficult it is for a Paideia student to fail – as soon as things start to go wrong, the learning specialist descends upon them, the counselor, the teachers. There’s so much help available, it almost makes teenaged rebellion difficult to pull off.
As a teacher, Paideia has allowed me to make connections with extraordinary children and their families. From the class of 2011 I still remember our Friday lunch meeting of the class perfectionists, the feud between Karl and Amelia, Elaine showing off her new baby brother, Caroline’s quiet kindness, George’s love of a good argument, and the phase where Isaak developed the ability to slip 4 swear words into the sentence, “pass me the piece of paper.” I remember thinking about what an amazing group you were and how sad – and how proud – it made me to send you on to the high school.
As a parent, Paideia has given my own daughter the sort of love that I can’t imagine her receiving anywhere else. David Millians never fails to tell me that Clara is “funniest thing this side of Little 5 Points”, Tony Carter promised me when she was 8 that any future boy friends would have to get by him, and she still sings the songs she learned from José. In a way, what we expect from our schools is completely unrealistic. We want our kids to be challenged but confident, to learn and have fun, to simultaneously respect and enjoy their teachers, to appreciate the arts, see the beauty of math, know what’s happening in the world around them, learn compassion, and to prepare them for every possible dip and turn that life could throw their way. Yet, year after year, Paideia has done this for my daughter, for my family, and for me.
Now, just in case you don’t understand the connection between what Paideia has done for me and why I would participate in a phone-a-thon, perhaps this story will help. A few years ago, a friend of mine purchased a new couch. Now she had waited years to buy a couch and spent months picking out just the right shape and fabric. The day it was delivered, she sat down on this new beauty, contentedly holding her recently-potty-trained son by her side. And, then, her son began to pee, all over her lap, but more importantly, all over her beautiful, new couch. Immediately, she rushed to the phone to call the manager of the furniture store. They had developed quite a relationship during her months of obsessing over the perfect couch. “Jeff,” she yelled desperately, “my son just peed on my new couch. What can I do? How can I get it out?” By this point, she was just shy of hysteria and quickly headed over the line. Holding her breath, she awaited his answer, but all she heard was a long chuckle from the other end of phone. “Oh, honey,” he said, “whatever you do, just be nice to him. One day you’ll be the one peeing on his couch.”
So it’s simple really – our parents change our diapers, and one day we grow up and change theirs; others do for us, and we return the favor. Paideia has cared for you, taken pride in you, and one day soon, I hope you will give something back.
So all this amounts to why, even though I was fighting doom and desperation, I sat down in the 1341 building and picked up the phone to ask strangers for money – and, really, once you start to bring some in, it’s actually fun. You start to think about the books this money will buy, books that in the hands of great teachers can change the course of a life; the technology it provides; and the scholarship funds that bring in amazing students who might not otherwise be able to attend the school. All of these are reasons that I not only participate in phone-a-thons but chaperone junior high dances, show up for Officer Friendly, and even agree to speak before hundreds of people I don’t know. It’s the reason 22 alums now work at our school and 29 have their own children here, why alums agree to teach short term classes, be members of the Alumni Council, and – yes – give money to the school.
So on behalf of all the people who have taught you and loved you here, I am asking you to find ways to support and stay connected to Paideia, even as you take your leave. Many have told us that they feel they need an invitation to return to campus. Well, let this be it: You are the reason why we teach: we take pride in each of your accomplishments and always hope for your happiness. We want to hear what you are doing; we want to know what you become; we want you to come back to the campus and see what we’ve become. Paideia has been a part of you for much of your life, and you will always be a part of us - today, tomorrow, and even when we’re old and need our diapers changed.
Congratulations to the class of 2011.