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The Odyssey and the Homecoming

We returned from the October Long Weekend in time to begin two fantastic new SEGL traditions: Homecoming Weekend and the Ethics and Leadership class Odyssey. The first tradition brought nearly half of our first year graduates back to DC (many more attended our “virtual reunion”), along with dozens of parents, board members, faculty, and friends. The second tradition brought a new level of reflection and practical leadership skills into our curriculum.

SEGL’s first Homecoming Weekend was a terrific success. SEGL Fall 2009 parent and Trustee Alison Cowan penned this summary:

Greetings from Washington and SEGL’s first of many annual reunions!

A mind-blowing 15 of last year’s 32 graduates made it to the festivities: Lauren Paige Aiken, Valentina Perez, Nell Andersson, Shanna Ballesteros, Cooper McLane, Pete Olsson, Markus Batchelor, Phoebe Bodurtha and Nicholas Szuch from the fall group. Isabel Miller, Audrey Greene, Nitika Daga, Lesley Wellener, Emily Heller, and Trevor Quick from the spring contingent.

Between them, and the 16 newest go-getters, parents, friends, trustees, and assorted FON’s (=Friends of Noah), the school was a beehive of activity all weekend. And it definitely was the place to be Saturday night, as evidenced by the appearance of several special guests at the Saturday night gala. How cool is that?

No doubt you already know this, but it bears repeating: you should all be proud of the SEGL students in your lives. They are an amazing bunch. Each one is an exceptionally capable and broad-shouldered individual. Yet, each is also an enthusiastic team player, respectful of the diverse views and kaleidoscopic talents of the people in their lives. The day’s keynote speaker, Egil “Bud” Krogh, said this of them: They have the “capacity to visualize, and the talent to put their ideas into effect.” I would add, they also are each other’s biggest fans.

Seeing them back together, reconnecting at the place they love and making new bonds with the 16 students who now call it home has been an exhilarating experience. So I hope you will not mind my sharing with those of you who could not make it to Washington some snapshots of the last two days.

Friday evening, we were welcomed to Washington by Abigail Wiebenson, an educator of educators who graciously opened her art-filled home and treated us to a divine dinner, topped off with Susan Riecken’s home-made ginger snaps. After the requisite “OHMYGODS” were exchanged, the kids sang “Happy Birthday” to Lesley Wellener and high-tailed it to the roof garden to enjoy the views. Then, off to “Good Stuff” for, yes, more food.

One group of seven graduates repaired to a nearby hotel, where there was no griping from the girls or from the guys about having too many people in their respective rooms. Just like old times, right?

Saturday gave us lots to think about.

It’s okay to dream big.

Thus spoke Isabel Miller, a spring 2010 graduate who was part of a panel of former students discussing their social ventures. Isabel is the founder of the Foundation for Assistance and Development of the Americas, which seeks to assist Central America through project-based donations, micro-loans, and volunteering efforts in partnership with local organizations.

Joining her on the panel was Markus Batchelor, the founder of Teenocracy, an organization that strives to illuminate the workings of government and politics to Washington, D.C. youth (Learn more at http://www.teenocracy.net); Nicholas Szuch, the self-described “My-Way-or-the-Highway” impresario behind The Spice of Life, an operator of interactive cooking lessons that showcase the cultures and customs of our global community, (more on the mission statement here at http://www.spiceoflifeonline.org); and Phoebe Bodurtha, the founder of Vocal for Change, an a capella group for inner-city students in New Haven. (Check out their moving performance of “Killing Me Softly” at http://vocalforchange.wordpress.com.)

These lessons are not just yours.

What Matthew Krogh told his father, Egil “Bud” Krogh, to convince him to lay aside the legal career that he had fought hard to recoup, so that he could devote his time to speaking out about his experience as one of Nixon’s “plumbers.”

Fortunately, father listened to son. After three hours of hearing Bud’s riveting tale of how he tumbled from a heady job in the White House to a work-detail in a federal prison, I must say the legal profession’s loss has been our gain.

He had everyone in stitches with his account of the day he had to roll out the red carpet for “The King.” No, not the King of Jordan. The other King — Elvis Presley — who ran circles around Nixon and his bedazzled White House team, eliciting a presidential promise to secure the singer a federal narcotics badge and a fistful of swag for the people on his bodyguards’ Christmas lists.

Just as priceless was Bud’s tale of the day he failed to think hard about the political repercussions of letting a government official recommend shaving the allowable percentage of fat in hot dogs. The ensuing uproar from meat producers nearly cost Bud his job, even as it boxed Nixon into having to issue a populist pledge that “We have to look after the hot dog.”

Bud also had everyone near tears recounting how he made the bad decisions that sent him to prison and condemned him to be an indelible part of the Watergate story, walking through the moral frailties that can sneak up on an otherwise outstanding, good-hearted person. “You know you’ve messed up badly when your mistakes are not just in books but in museums,’’ he said, describing how surreal it is to walk into the Museum of Natural History and see a display of the office cabinets that his aides had broken into in their ham-handed attempt to retrieve psychiatric records from one of Nixon’s political enemies.

Though Bud had little children at the time who were alert enough to know that daddy was facing up to ten years in prison, he shared with us this remarkable utterance:

“I knew from friends that the President wanted to pardon me,’’ he said. “Fortunately, I was not pardoned.”

By then, he said, he had ceased caring what his mentors or what Nixon might think of him after his public mea culpa. Owning up to his misdeeds, he said, was all that mattered.

In prison, he discovered a community that looked after each other, not all that different from the one that embraced him when he climbed Mount Everest with an international crew. There was the inmate who patiently clued him in to the rules of the road behind bars. The inmate who risked reprimand for putting hardboiled eggs in Bud’s locker on the nights that Bud’s work detail kept him from dinner. And the inmate who reassuringly offered him a job on the outside: stealing stereos.

Looking back at his time in the White House, Bud reflected on another lesson learned. In his first days on the job, he carried out a presidential directive to cut crime in the District of Columbia by ordering Walter Washington, the Commissioner running the city before home rule, over the phone to “cut the crime and call us when you’ve done it.” Chagrined that his naïve efforts failed to show results, Bud eventually called Commissioner Washington back and asked “how he and the White House could help” in the fight against crime.

“Now, that’s the right question,” Bud quoted the Commissioner as replying.

Are you going to eat that chocolate?”

This is probably Noah’s favorite challenge to newcomers at SEGL.

Handing out chocolate kisses to everyone in the room on Saturday, he knavishly asked us to hold off eating them until he could fill us in on a few facts about the chocolate industry.

He said that much of America’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans that are harvested in the Ivory Coast – harvested by child workers who are unpaid and do not have the freedom to quit.

Knowing that, he said, who here intends to eat the chocolate?

Cooper McLane, gamely kicked off the debate, arguing that refraining from eating chocolate that had already been bought was a hollow gesture.

Zoe Grimaldi, wanted to impose taxes on American producers that failed to reduce their dependence on tainted chocolate within a reasonable timeframe.

Emily Heller’s mom Carol suggested that a SEGL student might want to pursue a social venture that would heighten awareness about the underlying problem of child slavery. She envisioned a public service ad that juxtaposed a photo of children trick-or-treating here in the United States with one of child slaves in the Ivory Coast. The tagline would be “What kind of chocolate are you giving out this Halloween?”

The best line of all belonged to Trevor Quick, who waggishly said, “I’d argue that Noah is supporting child slavery because he does this all the time.”

The one thing the entire group could agree on was that it was time to head down 18th Street for a free chocolate tasting that Robbie Ross had thoughtfully arranged.

Some important news. At the gala, the school’s chairman of the board, Matteson Ellis announced that an anonymous donor had pledged to match up to $20,000 in donations that the school obtains in the coming days to defray the cost of a new development director. The school has someone highly talented in mind, a real game-changer we were told if the money can be raised. By night’s end, $14,000 in additional gifts were pledged towards the match, and an additional $3,000 was raised for scholarships by the auction. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, Matt told the group that Noah had finally come around to the widespread practice of referring to the school in a clipped manner that rhymes with “eagle,’’ rather than the more staccato,“Es” “Ee” “Gee” “El.”

Which means, of course, that SEGL students can heretofore be known as “SEGLets,” pronounced in a way to rhyme with “eaglets.”

So, little SEGLets, flap your wings and fly. And keep us posted. We want to hear all about your exciting adventures.

With memories of the past fresh in their heads, this semester then created one of its own new traditions: The SEGL Odyssey.

The Odyssey is a bridge between the first and last sections of the Ethics and Leadership course. Once the students have a basic background in international events, leadership skills, and ethical thinking models, we send them on a personal journey in order to encourage independent reflection and action, and to practice some of their newly-gained knowledge and skills. This provides a confidence-building set of experiences that enables them to approach their capstone projects (the final section of the course) more effectively.

The students began this journey on Monday by filling out a short questionnaire that asked them questions about their history and passions. On Wednesday, each student followed a personalized three-part itinerary (created by faculty members), traveling “solo” from morning until late afternoon and answering journal questions along the way. Almost all of the stops were inside the Smithsonian network (ask an SEGL student to share her or his stops!). The Quaker-style meeting that followed this day of exploration was powerful and promising.

The next stage of the Odyssey asked students to select a topic of personal interest and schedule individual meetings with DC-based experts. The students chose topics including ways to abolish child marriage around the world, international girls education, gay rights, abortion, and immigration. Students scheduled meetings on the Hill, at think tanks, and at local and international NGOs. The meetings took place this past Wednesday. Many students expressed a new-found confidence in our Friday culminating discussion. Learning how to make a phone call without getting flustered, or how to ask questions that elicit the answers you need, or how to walk the halls of Congress without feeling out of place are all simple but essential leadership skills.

It is also worth noting that we have switched from Arabic to Chinese in our Arabic and Chinese course. Megan Xiaoping Linzer, a native of China and acclaimed teacher at Thomas Jefferson high school in Virginia, is guiding the students on a weekly exploration of the language and culture of China. The last session included a fascinating discussion of the Chinese education system.

Two items to look for very soon: first, a slide show from our Homecoming Weekend; second, news from our Corn Maze adventure this weekend; and third, the topic of the students’ Capstone Policy Document (which students will research and author in the coming weeks).

Oct 30, 2010

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