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Honoring Two Legends: Mairéad O’Grady and Mike Michelson

Editor’s note: the following are excerpts from SEGL Head of School Noah Bopp’s remarks about Mairéad O’Grady and Mike Michelson at the Spring 2019 Closing Ceremony.  After seven years at SEGL in DC, O’Grady will lead SEGL’s South Africa campus.  Michelson is retiring after 38 years of teaching (five at SEGL).

In the education world, seven years of work in one location often earns a sabbatical, but beginning this summer Mairéad O’Grady will take a different kind of journey as head of our new campus in Johannesburg, South Africa.

On the first academic day of her first fall, I peeked inside her French classroom.  How would a 24 year-old introduce herself to a group of intellectually voracious 16 year-olds?  The answer: pouring tea, handing out madeleines, and projecting Proust.  I knew I would never need to visit her class again: she was a natural.

And she was no one-trick Eurocentric pony: she sculpts curriculum around francophone West Africa, reading literature and then visiting countless embassies with students to interact directly with officials about language, culture, and post-colonial legacies.

How polished is her French?  When we invited the Guinean ambassador to speak before hundreds at our Family/Homecoming Weekend, he had her serve as his translator.  The subject—Ebola—required complicated technical language and knowledge of local customs.  She was so good that the Embassy called her the next time the ambassador’s regular translator was absent.

She also leads our admissions and financial aid program, which, if I may say so, is the envy of the semester school world.  This achievement requires visionary goal-setting, meticulous organization, and sparkling customer service.  Her development efforts have raised $5 million for the school.  She manages our advising program, matching students with teachers expertly and training her peers on complex mentoring challenges. Our board unanimously elected her Secretary of our nonprofit corporation, trusting her to attend every confidential trustee meeting.  And for seven years no one has worked more closely with, or managed better, our often-mercurial school founder.

Most important, she has immersed herself in a school that holds a commitment to young people at its core. She approaches her work as a calling, which means it is consistently selfless and frequently after-hours.  She is a frequent source of comfort for graduates in various stages of quarter-life crisis; she has co-led summer service expeditions abroad; in short, she is making a substantial contribution to our country’s future.

A few years ago, I wrote the following in a recommendation: If I were choosing an ideal faculty from the dozens of amazing teachers I have hired, it would be hard not to make her my first choice.  Earlier this year, that hypothetical became real when I built our South Africa faculty.  Of course, she was the first choice.

When we announced she was leaving to lead SEGL in South Africa, graduates and parents immediately expressed a desire to honor her first seven SEGL years.  Over the past few weeks, scores of community members (including representatives from each of her 14 semesters here) have contributed to a secret project, dubbed “Operation Senegal” after the tattoo on her instep.  Operation Senegal is actually a scholarship fund in her name that will benefit students at both our DC and South Africa locations.  I’m honored to announce that the fund, which will bear her name, has already raised well over $50,000.  I’m particularly proud of that number because we raised this amount without her help!  Indeed, it’s the most we’ve raised without her in over seven years.

Because the amount is so generous and her value to our school has been lasting, we’ve decided that this $50,000, and any subsequent gifts to her fund, will become part of our permanent scholarship endowment.  This means that in perpetuity, at least one incoming SEGL student each year will receive scholarship assistance in her name.  It is a small way of signaling her profound effect on our school.

To donate to the Mairéad O’Grady Endowed Scholarship Fundplease click here

Our final faculty speaker is not only ending a five-year tour at SEGL, but a legendary 48-year teaching career. At SEGL, Mike Michelson not only served as math teacher and Dean of Faculty, but also as our heart. He possesses a singular ability to inspire gently, with wise humor, good questions, and a little shoulder shake. He is our faculty’s most important mentor, helping young teachers balance their lives, educate with love, and navigate a demanding head of school. His impact on our students was even greater.

With this in mind, I recently asked Spring 2018 graduate Julia King to offer a few thoughts about his legacy. Here’s what she wrote:

While I can’t speak for most of the students that Mike Michelson has taught over his 48-year career–everyone from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to that kid who broke his collarbone during Mike’s very first lesson–I can talk about the profound impact that he had on me and the Spring 2018 semester. My classmates describe him as “the most caring and patient man on the planet,” someone who demonstrates “constant generosity, positive energy, hard work, and great care with everything he does and everyone he meets.” And I couldn’t agree more. I feel so grateful to have had Mike as an advisor, and as my greatest role model both during my semester at SEGL and afterwards. Over frequent ice cream trips and constant laughter, I learned that Mike has more wisdom in him than probably all the people I’ve ever met combined. I learned never to take things too seriously: after all, during boring meetings Mike listens to baseball games in his magical hearing aids. I learned about the power of vulnerability from the way the Mike tells his stories, no matter how painful or difficult, not because he likes the sound of his own voice, but because he wants to prevent others from making mistakes that he did. Finally, and probably most important, I learned about love. I’m not talking about love for another person (although I did learn a lot about that from Mike and Donna, an absolute power couple) but instead a radical form of love that knows no limits. Mike showed me how to love myself, and in turn how to love others in a way I never knew existed. I like to think that Mike learned a little from me, like the difference between the emoji that is laughing so hard it’s crying and the emoji that is crying because it’s so sad and the danger of using the two interchangeably, but there is no doubt in my mind that Mike taught me, and every single other student he’s had, far more than he could ever know and far more than we ever bargained for. And for that, thousands of us and the world are forever indebted to him.

There is another reason I’ve asked Julia to say a few words. As many of you know, we recently purchased and began to renovate our Capitol Hill residence after a successful $3 million capital campaign. One of the most important remaining renovation projects is the creation of a large first floor community commons. A space for students and faculty to gather for collaborative study, for fellowship, for morning meetings, speaker visits, study hall extra help sessions, case study film screenings, and weekend activities. A space that, in many ways, will serve as SEGL’s heart. Renovations are set to begin this summer. Earlier this year Julia’s family made a very generous leadership gift to help close our capital campaign. The gift came with one request, which I have happily and humbly granted. Our new residential commons, our school’s new heart, will be forever named the Michael Michelson Commons. I can think of no better tribute for the man who is our heart.

To donate to the Michael Michelson Commons, please click here.  For more information, please contact Noah Bopp at noah.bopp@schoolforethics.org.

Jul 9, 2019

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