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Understanding our Past and Building our Future: Packer in Action 2022

After nearly two years of pandemic-affected school life, we wanted to make Packer in Action 2022 all about reflecting and rebuilding. Activities, events and projects across all grades focused on how we can strengthen our connections with one another, while acknowledging and learning more about our school’s 177-year history. How does our history influence and inform our present? We combed through old yearbooks, welcomed alumni visitors to share their memories, visited historic corners of campus (like the Packer Tower, above), held student-led workshops and worked on a school-wide multi-media art project. 

An annual event that engages every Packer student in every grade, Packer in Action is conceived and organized by the Diversity and Equity Team: Director of Diversity and Equity Semeka Smith-Williams; Upper School Diversity Coordinator Carla Kelly; Lower School Diversity Coordinator  Nick Sardar; and Preschool Diversity Coordinator Sarah Elkhayat.  

Beloved former Librarian thrills Fourth Graders with a surprise visit

Legendary Packer Librarian Chris Rush returned to campus from retirement, with a warm welcome from the Packer Community, to present “Packer History with Chris Rush (and support from Ken Rush).” 

Her presentation featured a more intimate history of Packer, with portraits and archival photographs of lesser-known Packer alumni from years past (a portrait of Alonzo Crittenden, first Head of School; an old photograph of Harriet and William Packer’s Italianate mansion in Brooklyn Heights; a portrait of a young William Packer). Students were audibly amazed by archival depictions of Packer’s hallways, Chapel, and Garden, and how they differed from the current day. 

One student enthusiastically noted, “I was paying attention, and I noticed that the lamps in the hallway are the same.” The class erupted in surprised acknowledgement. 

“Well, we have electricity now!” Chris affirmed. 

A familiar alumna takes a walk down memory lane with the Third Graders

To inspire reflection about Packer’s considerable history and how it relates to our present, Preschool and Lower School students were visited by alumni who shared old yearbook pictures and stories of how life was different (and the same) in years past.

Above, School Nurse Sabrina Hellman shows some Third Graders (3C) what their counterparts looked like in her own Packer class in 1983.  

Also in the Lower School...

After seeing a classic yearbook shot of a Packer PE class from the 1920s, these Third Graders struck their own version of the pose. Although the costumes have changed, typical Pelican poise remains. 

Today’s “Culture of Shame” and What to Do About It

Writer and podcaster Dylan Marron gave riveting presentations to the Middle and Upper Schools about polarization and hate speech on the Internet. 

Creator of the popular podcast, “Conversations with People Who Hate Me,” he shared what he has learned after five years of attempting to understand why people are compelled to disparage and threaten strangers on the basis of perceived differences in their beliefs. 

He aired clips from his podcasts, including one segment in which an intransigent guest repeatedly insisted that rape survivor Emma Sulkowicz of Columbia University was “a liar,” actually softened his stance a few months later and apologized on air. 

Dylan also addressed “cancel culture” — which he refers to as a “culture of shame” — and said that he feels that everyone is deserving of understanding. However, he added, “empathy is not endorsement.”

“Every single one of my guests has jumped at the opportunity to define themselves, to paint themselves as a unique human being. They want to be seen as the individuals they are. This reminds me of a snowflake, which the Urban Dictionary defines as ‘someone who thinks they are unique and special, but really they are not.’” 

He smiled, concluding: “We are all snowflakes.” 

What it Means to be a True “Community of Care”

As they begin to think about Ninth Grade, our Eighth Graders took part in a conversation about accountability facilitated by health teacher Ashleigh Petillo. 

In small groups, the students read the “Community of Care Declarations” from the Upper School Student Handbook — statements about the importance of belonging and healthy relationships — and envisioned a community characterized by the opposite statements.

One group responded: “Toxicity, arguments, disagreement, no support, no spaces to feel heard, no mindfulness initiatives, no inclusiveness, no extracurriculars, no X-Block, and no community norms!”

Luke ’24 (above, right) and Julian ’22, two visitors from the Upper School’s Student-Faculty Justice Committee (SFJC), then described how SFJC has adopted restorative justice procedures to contribute to this community of care. 

They presented a fictional disciplinary case and circulated among the Eighth Graders to hear how they would approach it. 

They then described how SFJC approaches such cases. 

“We don't just focus on what the person did. We also focus on them as a human being, on what's going on with them that led them to do this,” said Julian. “We talk a lot about how the person has to repair their relationship with their community… And to some extent, it's also on the community to welcome back this person with open arms once they've made amends.”

Acclaimed photographer and Packer alum walks Uppers Schoolers through his career path

In a student-led workshop called “Art as a Revolutionary Force,” Eric Lee ’11 spoke about his career as a photographer against the backdrop of his exhibition “Finding Our Place,” currently on display in the Shen Gallery. 

The show follows a narrative from the 2020 BLM protests, eerie Covid-19 cityscapes, to protests against anti-Asian hate, and finally a series of intimate photographs of Asian families’ home lives. It also maps Lee’s own career trajectory, beginning as an amatuer photographer, posting his street life protest images on Instagram, gaining attention from major publications and eventually becoming a sought-after professional photographer. 

The workshop presenters Azalea Chesse ’23, Danny Bergman ’23 and Lucas Clark ’23 led a question-and-answer session. 

One student sparked a conversation about ethics in photojournalism and the concept of “parachuting,” wherein foreign journalists fly into parts of the world they have little affiliation with and take work away from better-informed local photographers. 

When asked if he ever feels like he could be doing more, he reflected: “Photography is my form of resistance.” 

In all, upper School students led 14 different workshops for their peers, including “Creating a Faith Community Across Religious Differences” and “What do we Owe? Inheriting the Legacy of Colonialism.” 

Sexuality and Gender at Packer

During an Upper School workshop entitled “From GSA to Spectrum and What We Need Now” led by Stella Lapidus ’22 and Hannah Youngwood ’22, students addressed gender identity and sexuality at Packer and the history of related Affinity Spaces in years past. 

Some students observed that the school community seems to be more comfortable talking about sexuality than gender identity, recalling a yearbook from 2003 in which the GSA was called the Gay, Bisexual Straight Alliance, with no mention of gender in the title. (Students don’t have to be out to attend the GSA, whereas in Spectrum, the assumption is that members are openly part of the LGBTQ community.)  

Asked why they thought it took so long for the GSA to be founded, especially considering like LGBTQ activism in New York, one student remarked, “It was probably really hard to accumulate a group of people and create this type of community, especially at that time, before gay marriage was even fully legal. Finding a group of people that were willing to participate in something like this was hard, let alone having people that were out.” 

An anonymous poll surveyed participants’ level of comfort in expressing their gender and sexuality at school today. After group reflection, a student remarked, “Something I saw that was interesting was there was a huge variety of comfortability… And I don't know if that's like just the space or it represents half as a whole, but I think that that is important to acknowledge.”


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