Advice to the Class of 2018

Distinguished alumni offer words of support and guidance to our graduating class

Tom Tucker, Class of 1966


Be curious, adventurous, and tenacious

The three legs of the triad for a fulfilling educational experience are, to my mind, curiosity, a willingness to try something brand new and possibly outside your comfort zone, and to tackle head on those subjects that intrigue you but don’t come easy.

My experience at Marlboro College, a very small liberal arts college (about 125 students) perched on a hill between Brattleboro and Wilmington, Vermont, had those opportunities in abundance. In my first week of French I, my teacher, Edmund Brelsford, asked (en français) whether anyone would be interested in earning a little money helping him make harpsichords, a craft he pursued in his fascination with instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. “Hmm,” I thought for about 20 seconds, and then said, “Oui, monsieur!” Little did I realize that this would be a watershed moment for me, but it surely was.

A year later a designer/artist/craftsman named Gib Taylor came to teach at the college, and encouraged me to build a classical guitar. At the end of my junior year, I proposed a Senior Plan of building three different types of stringed instruments with Gib and Edmund as my advisors, mentors, and close friends. That Senior Plan, in a multitude of ways, became my living, my passion, and a continual and exciting challenge personally and in my role as a teacher in the Catlin Gabel woodshop.

The world is a multifaceted place. The more we learn, the more we discover how much more there is to learn. Be curious, adventurous, and tenacious, and gather a wide variety of tools for your journey. You never know where it will lead. Who knows, you might end up being a teacher and leading others along their path.

Tom Tucker was a wood shop teacher at Catlin Gabel for 37 years (1978-2015). He is father to Ethan ’07 and Sam ’10, and married to former Catlin Gabel music teacher Laura Frizzell.

Lee Weinstein, Class of 1977


Lead An Intentional Life

Recently, my wife and I took a vacation with our daughter and her girlfriend, both 20 years of age. During the trip, we asked them to take part in an exercise: Write on the left side of a large piece of butcher paper the current year. Go online to Livingto100.com to calculate their life expectancies. Write their years of death at the far right side of the paper.

Stepping back, her girlfriend exclaimed, “That’s all the time I have?”

Life goes by fast. One day you’re fresh out of school, the next day you’re onto your third job, having your first child, or suddenly attending your 35th high school reunion. Where did the time go?

A lot of people want to take life as it comes each day. They don’t plan; they just want to “live life.” Many can’t—or won’t—plan beyond the next 24 hours. That may be out of necessity, philosophy or lifestyle. But living your life passively may not add up to a life well-lived. In fact, you may realize that life has passed you by and moved on without you.

DHM Research in Portland last year found that 67 percent of Americans don’t have a written, intentional life plan—a strategic road map to realize their hopes and dreams. My wife and I invented a life planning process we’ve now used for 20 years to realize our life goals. We hang it in our home and have a calendar reminder to look at it every month to be sure we’re on plan.

You’ve been given a remarkable gift: You are the culmination of millions of years of evolution, have the ability to think and feel and, now, a Catlin Gabel diploma. The average lifespan in America is 78.74 years, so you have a long life ahead of you.

As your life progresses, ask yourself: Am I living a life intended and getting done what I want to get done? Am I using my time wisely? This will help you make the most of your time on this planet!

Lee Weinstein is President of Weinstein PR and author of Write, Open, Act: An Intentional Life Planning Workbook (available at writeopenact.com).

Zoë Carpenter, Class of 2007

This endless business of figuring

Dear Class of 2018,

I’m writing to you from a Super 8 Motel beside a freeway in West Virginia. My room is brightly-lit and smells like bleach—better than the room I’d first been given, which reeked of piss and old cigarettes.

Despite what you might think, I’m not at this motel because I’ve made a mistake, or because I’m being punished for something. One might say that I’m here because I’ve been successful: I’m a journalist, with an office across the street from the Supreme Court of the United States. I’m here to report a story, which is my favorite part of the job.

Given the current state of my lodging I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you advice. But I’ll tell you something that I’ve discovered recently about being an adult: There is no threshold over which everything becomes settled, and the path through the rest of your life obvious. I regret to inform you that you may never “figure it out.”

The good news is that this endless business of figuring—that’s really what life is—is not just a series of bad motels. It can also be surprising and delightful. For instance: the waitressing gig I expected to be a sort of purgatory while I decided what to do with my college degree turned out to be one of my favorite jobs, and more useful to me now than many of my proper internships. I learned to make people feel happy and cared for, and by the time I moved on I’d stopped thinking of myself as socially awkward. Tomorrow when I go out to report, it will be just a bit easier to talk to strangers.

After the restaurant job I moved to New York. I spent my first night there in an apartment that was empty except for a mattress I’d bought with my tips. I was still waiting for my bedding to arrive in the mail, so I slept under a rabbit fur coat that my mother found at a thrift store. It felt terribly romantic, to set out to be a writer that way. In the end, I hated New York. But I don’t regret my time there. Instead, what I remember is the feeling of that first night beneath the rabbit coat, watching the new lights come on, wondering what it would all look like the next day.

Sincerely,

Zoë

Zoë Carpenter is an award-winning journalist living in Washington D.C. Currently she is an editor at The Nation, and contributes occasionally to Rolling Stone.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson ’93

The head of the Urban League of Portland talks about keeping her perspective in Washington, D.C., returning to Catlin Gabel as a Trustee, and why it’s best to stop when the President is walking by

Interview by Ken DuBois

You came to Catlin Gabel for high school and graduated when you were sixteen. How did you know, as a pre-teen, that this was the right school for you?

I visited Catlin Gabel along with a number of other schools, and it was the one that interested me the most. I was good at school, but grades didn’t mean anything to me. At Catlin Gabel, they didn’t have grades, so I liked that idea. It was a small school but you had access to a lot of different kinds of activities. If something interesting you, you could have a club of one at Catlin Gabel, and you could have a faculty adviser who would advise that club, which doesn’t happen at other schools. That was why I chose Catlin Gabel: anything that you could dream of, you could create.

But at the time I was getting ready for high school, I wasn’t really excited about school in general. My sophomore year of high school at Catlin Gabel, I told my parents I want to graduate, just get my GED and go to college. I was ready to just keep it moving. I had a lot of interests. I was in a lot of activities.

 

What were some of the activities that were important to you at the time?

In high school the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X was coming out, and Lloyd Center Cinemas refused to show it because they were scared of black people coming to the movies in droves, learning some history, and being angry. And we, as freshman and sophomores, said, “That’s outrageous.” I was an NAACP youth member at the time, and we organized–wrote letters and made phone calls, showed up at City Hall, got some adults involved. And as a student at Catlin I could tell my teachers, “Hey, listen, I’ll be downtown today working on this.” Either they would say, “Okay, that’s great, write a paper about it,” or they’d say, “Okay that’s great, tell us about it when you get back.” So I didn’t have to worry about, you know, you have to be at fifth period. That wasn’t the way Catlin Gabel is. And we won. Lloyd Center end up showing Malcolm X and they gave us free tickets that we then got to give away to students all across the city. So Catlin Gabel sort of allowed my activism, and didn’t get in the way of it, because our rules are just different.

 

With your experience and education you have a lot of career options, but you’ve chosen public service. When did you decide that responsible action was going to be your focus?

Well, I knew that I wanted to help people, and I went to law school because I want to be a lawyer for people who couldn’t afford a lawyer. But when I decided to work in the public interest, in service and in other ways, rather than practicing law, was after 9/11. Patriotism was being renewed everywhere and certainly, being in D.C., I was in the heart of a lot of that sentiment. I was born to a captain in the army, my mom, and have many other members of the military in my family. So the first thing I thought was, “I’m going to go be a Marine.” And my mother said, “You know, that’s an idea, see if you can think of any others.” My mom, she’s a Jedi. And I did. I looked up one day and saw the U.S. Capitol as I was driving away from court, and I said, “Oh, I can serve my country right there.” And that’s when I decided that I would work as a staffer in Congress.

 

Working in politics must be gratifying when you win, and see results and help people, but difficult when things don’t go your way. How did you stay motivated?

It’s the same with the job I have now, quite frankly. Even on my best days I can’t help everyone who needs to be helped. Working in politics you don’t win on all the issues that you know with all of your heart that you should be winning on. And even if you do win you know it’s not a big enough victory to help all the people who need your help. Being passionate about the underlying issue is important. Knowing that the people that you are able to help matter makes all the difference on the days when you’re not successful.

When I worked in in the Senate, we were working to pass the Affordable Care Act, now known as Obamacare, and it was during a set of snowstorms in D.C. I literally walked from my apartment three miles to my office a couple of days in the snow because transit was shut down, and we were working in my office just days before Christmas. And the goal was to get this thing passed before Christmas or it was never going to happen. The Majority Leader at the time, he wasn’t going to let anyone leave until we got the vote to the floor. I brought clothes with me so I could sleep in my office. And we did it, but we didn’t win on everything. We fought hard to make sure mental health coverage was in the Affordable Care Act, and there were people were fighting against us. There were some things we won on and other things we didn’t win. But overall it was a victory for millions of people. So I think that keeping that perspective makes all the difference.

 

You had some big wins when you worked for the White House as well. Would you share an Obama story?

When I worked for the White House, I worked in global trade, and on one occasion we were victorious in a case over China. They had been cheating on trade and we sued them and won, and we won big. It was a big deal. And the president held a press conference in the Rose Garden, and my boss, who was the U.S. Trade Rep at the time, was with him, and I’m there as well. We were going to be doing press all day about his. It’s not very often that the president is reading my words or talking about something that I had worked on. And when the press conference is over, I went to get my boss because I need to get him three blocks away to the next press event at the studio. And then the president walks out, he’s coming from the East Wing, and I was like “Oh, it’s the president, we better move.” My boss says, “No, I think when the president’s coming you have to stop and let him pass.” “No, that’s not a thing. You only do that if it’s the motor pool. Let’s go, we have to be there on air live in seventeen minutes.” He said, “No, I think we have to stop.” So we stopped. Now, this is ridiculous of course, because I should’ve wanted to, but I was focused on my job. We stop, the president stops, and he introduces himself, which is hilarious. I introduce myself likewise, again, and he’s talking about what I’m working on that day, he’s talking about this victory in China, he’s talking about the press event that we’re about to do, he’s talking about the substance of our victory. And we talked for just a few minutes, but it was very cool because he knew what I was working on and took the time to engage and discuss it with me. And my boss laughed at me and said, “You see, I told you you’ve got to stop when the president is walking by.”

 

Last year, you accepted Tim Bazemore’s invitation to join the Catlin Gabel Board of Trustees—an enormous commitment of time and energy. Why was it important to you to give back in this way?

I did have a good experience here and there’s some things I’d like to give back to current students and families.

There’s a good concentration of Catlin Gabel alums working in a field similar to mine, working in social responsibility, working nonprofit. I go to some of these trainings, I run into Catlin Gabel people and it’s weird, because there’s not that many of us out there in the world, and yet we’re doing this do-gooder stuff. That’s something special that we really have to be proud of. We’ve got a secret sauce.

 

Gus Van Sant ’71

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker reminisces about art under the tennis court, and the making of his very first film—on the Catlin Gabel campus

Interview by Ken DuBois

What kind of experience did you have at Catlin Gabel?

It was a good experience for me, since I had come from a public school where it was not as personal. And I found at Catlin, since it was so small, I was under a lot more supervision, and it helped me a lot. Dave Corkran was the main influence scholastically for me at that time, beside the art department, which was a main place for me to work. I was an arts kid for sure. And I spent a lot of the time there in the art department, which at that time was under the tennis court.

Did you pursue interests in film­making, photography, painting, or creative writing?

I did photography, painted, and in my senior year, along with Eric Edwards, made a 16mm film starring Evie and Nick Weitzer. The real writing mostly was happening in Corkran’s history class for me—historical projects. One was we took a title and investigated whatever was being said in the title. My title was “Travelers’ First Reactions to the Northwest Woods.” For this I found diaries at the Oregon His­torical Society, and writing by John Muir, and my objective was to keep in mind the promise of the title, “travelers” and “first reactions”—were they travelling into the Northwest, and are these the very first reactions? We did write in Alan Greiner’s English class too.

Was there a community of artists at Catlin Gabel–students and teachers working together?

In the art department, there were a num­ber of people that I was working with: Tom Carr, Dave Jenkins, Anne Storrs, Janet Gray, Eric Edwards, and Jon Prince.

Who were the teachers who encouraged or inspired you?

Kim Hartzell and Susan Sowles were very supportive art teachers for me at Catlin. They were so helpful, and they encouraged a lot of hard work. In 1971, in the year­book, we were able to actually print pages in it, and that was fostered by the yearbook community and Anne Storrs.

Are there lessons you learned at a young age—about creativity and self-expression—that you still apply to your work today?

Yes, a lot of things were coming about then. I made my first dramatic film as my Senior Project. Up until then I had mostly been making experimental 8mm films. This was the one with Nick and Evie, and during this project Eric Edwards and I learned all the steps that one would take to make a 16mm black and white film from the original rolls to workprint, sound mixing, A and B reels, and making a print. Which is still a way to make a film in 16mm today, if you can find the film. But I know there is a cinema department now at Catlin, so I made my very first project at Catlin and kept going from there.

Are there teachers or students from your youth that you think about often, whose influence you feel on a regular basis?

I usually remember the community of Catlin, of which there was a lot of talk then, and perhaps now as well, about how the Catlin community was feeling to us as students. And it was the time of Manvel Schauffler, who was a beloved headmaster at the time, but there was some problem, I think, with the adult politics at the school, which we were kept away from. There was a draft then, and if we weren’t planning to go to college we may go to Vietnam. There were some amazing characters there at the time, such as Dan Bump, a quantum theorist, I think. Dan would make his way down to the art department because some­times art intersected with math, which was his thing, so I remember him holding his head and being amazed by some math problem that we had no idea about.

All students mentioned are Class of '71 except Nick Weitzer '74, Tom Carr '73, Anne Storrs '72, and Dan Bump '70.


Christopher Keyes '92

The Outside editor on Type Two Fun at Catlin Gabel, and why he still wants to identify every plant he sees

Interview by Ken DuBoisWere you interested in outdoor adventures while at Catlin Gabel?

Yes. Catlin is really where I grew my love for the outdoors. The head of the Middle School at the time, Roy Parker, took my friend and me up Mt. Hood—I think it was between eighth grade and ninth grade— and that was a seminal experience for me. I thought it was the most incredible, fun, exciting, slightly dangerous thing that I’d ever done, and I wanted more of that.

That was before we had an Outdoor Education Program.

There was a little bit of an outdoor program, it was just sort of nascent at the time. There was another teacher, Wendy May, who did a lot of outdoor education trips, and I also did an eight-day trip in the Goat Rocks Wilderness with Robin Schauffler. I think that was in eighth grade. That was another incredible experience for me.

Eights days in the wilderness—that’s a major trip.

Oh, absolutely. I had never carried a backpack and travelled that way before. I still have vivid, vivid memories of a lightening storm, experiencing that in a tent with another friend of mine, and vivid memories of all the organization that went into that. It was an eye-opening experience for me. It was something I knew nothing about.

Did you do the Cape Arago trip?

Yes, as a senior. I was one of the counselors.

So you were learning what it means to be truly miserable.

Absolutely. Yeah, the common expression at the magazine now is “Type Two Fun.” That means you’re miserable at the time, but you look back on it very fondly. That kind of characterizes almost all adventure sports.

You went on to study environmental science policy at Duke. Was that an interest you developed at Catlin Gabel?

That was absolutely at Catlin, and that was one hundred percent Dave Corkran. He just had an incredible passion for environmentalism, and would tell the most engaging stories about growing up and seeing old growth forests that had been destroyed in his lifetime. And encouraging all of us to be better stewards of the land. He had an elective my senior year, environmental studies, and that was probably my favorite class at Catlin. He was just an incredibly engaging teacher and very inspiring.

You were combining those studies with actual outdoor experience.

One of my favorite things about that class was that we would go into the forest between the Lower School and the soccer field. And we had to learn to identify all the plants in there. I loved that. To this day I like to be able to know about my surroundings because of that. I don’t like to go on a hike and not know what the plants and animals are around there. I like to be able to name that stuff.

Are you trying to express some of those early influences through your magazine?

Without question. With Outside the whole goal of the publication is to inspire people to live a more active lifestyle, and experience an adventurous lifestyle. And the readership we attract is fundamentally going to be pretty receptive to that message of environmentalism and wanting to protect those places. So it’s definitely a sort of advocacy journalism that we practice, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily reaching the audience that really needs to hear it.

It’s an enormous audience in any case. With the print and digital versions of Outside combined, you may have as many as seven million readers. Is that correct?

Yeah. You’re scaring me.

Kevin Esvelt ’00

The pioneering evolutionary engineer reflects on Pongi’s sludge experiment, Corkran’s “Relevant” stamp, the importance of confessing your ignorance

Interview by Ken DuBois

What were some of your early impressions of Catlin Gabel when you first arrived in Middle School?

The Middle School was brand new and the campus beautiful. The Barn was…fragrant, but seemed rustically apropros. As an introvert, I found the small student body appealing.

Did you arrive at Catlin Gabel with a strong interest in the natural sciences, or did that develop in your pre-teen and teenage years?

I was fortunate enough to visit the Galapagos the year before arriving at Catlin. Having read some Darwin, I already knew I wanted to work with genetics and evolution.

Were you introduced to environmental science at Catlin Gabel? Was that an interest that developed through certain classes or experiences?

No, though science with David Ellenberg and Carol Ponganis was certainly fun! The latter's “Sludge” experiment may have led me to eventually major in chemistry as an undergrad, although most of the credit for that goes to Susan Brookhart in Upper School advanced chemistry. She taught me more of science than I learned in any other two years, and happily fielded all sorts of questions outside of class – in fact, I first learned about transposons, which is a form of gene drive (although not the kind I now work with), by interrogating Susan about an article I'd read and didn't understand.

Were there teachers who recognized your strengths and areas of interest, and helped you to pursue those interests?

Strengths can and will be pursued independently with little encouragement. I think we most need help developing skills and internalizing understandings that don't come naturally. Writing is the single most important skill of a scientist, which is where Catlin excels, to the point where I can't single out one teacher who was particularly responsible; they all contributed. Other lessons do stand out. Dave Corkran was the single greatest positive influence of all my time at Catlin. First, he taught us not to care too much about grades – since he legendarily hadn't given an A since 1972 or thereabouts, I quickly learned that it wasn't a big deal. Rather, it was the balance between rigor and creativity, between generating coherent framework of knowledge and venturing beyond it to information that stubbornly resisted cohering. I was always a florid writer, and Dave taught me the importance of being concise. My essays were always liberally covered with imprints of his famous “Relevance” stamp in red ink. Each essay danced the fine line between adequately addressing the given thesis topic and twisting it into something more fun; every class was a test of how far the intended topic could be creatively diverted to something I thought more interesting. These were games which could only be won by convincing him that it was so. Dave was fully aware of this, and I think not only enjoyed the contest, but managed to teach me lessons in this decidedly nontraditional manner.

Dave also advised the track team. At regionals one year, I fell on the last hurdle of the 300m semifinal and skinned my knee quite deeply, but still qualified for the finals of that event and the earlier 110m. The next day, the wound had already scabbed over and I couldn't bend the knee. Just trying was intensely painful. I went to the meet assuming I couldn't run. And Dave said to me, as closely as I can recall, “If you don't run, no one will care but you, and you will soon forget. But if you run, you'll learn that present pain is only temporary, while the satisfaction of pushing through lasts a lifetime. And you'll carry the memory with you, empowering you, every day of your life.” Needless to say, I ran, and he was right.

At what point did you begin to see the potential impact that a research scientist could make in the world?

As a fan of Darwin, it's hard to escape.

Did Catlin Gabel help you to develop the skills you use now as a public educator – the ability to make cohesive arguments, share ideas, and persuade?

The single greatest gift I received from Catlin was the ability to write. Clear, concise, compelling language is more important than any other skill. Somewhat surprisingly, that is particularly true for a scientist.

Any additional memories of Catlin Gabel you’d like to share?

Lots of people don't have fond memories of high school. I do. Sure, there was frustration and heartache, but also inspiration and romance and friendships that have lasted decades.

Why is it important to you that research scientists become more transparent and democratic in their work, sharing not only results, but the stages of trial and error along the way?

I could say, “no taxation without representation,” and mean it. We're now developing technologies that will impact people at least as profoundly as any act of a duly elected legislature. On the public dime, no less. To do so behind closed doors, denying people a voice in decisions that will affect them, would be a betrayal of some of our highest values.

I could say, “I've had nearly every privilege, it's my responsibility to give back, and this is one way that I can.”

I could say, “we need new technologies.” Civilization isn't sustainable; we cannot stop inventing lest we fall and lose all of our progress. The current system is extraordinarily inefficient: we don't communicate the things that fail, causing others to waste time pursuing dead ends. We don't tell others what we're doing, meaning we needlessly duplicate one another's work rather than cooperating or competing on an informed basis. It's incredibly frustrating to be trapped within the confines of a research ecosystem that was never rationally designed and barely adapted to past conditions, let alone the modern era when communication costs literally nothing.

I could say, “science isn't much fun when you're constantly paranoid that you're wasting your time because someone else is trying to do the exactly the same thing.”

And I could say, “we need others to check our work, because no individual or group of specialists can reliably anticipate the consequences of their research.” Right now, there are few such safeguards in place. Just as I want others to check my work, I'd rather the same was true for other researchers.

There are many, many more reasons, but there's one that's become more poignant of late. It's that I have children whom I love dearly, and I want them to have a future. Helping reform science, which might improve the odds by as much as 10%, is likely the greatest gift I can possibly give.

In addition to your research, you have taken on the work of explaining and defending your ideas to the general public – telling the story of science. Does the role of public educator have it challenges, or rewards?

The role of the scientist is visionary, for science is our most reliable means for generating accurate predictions of the future. The role of the engineer is creator, for new technologies generate new possibilities. Working together, we can create visions of potential futures. But neither ability renders us wise, which is why a rather broader section of society has to choose.

Have you always believed that scientific research should be democratic and open? Were there influences or experiences that helped you move in this direction?

As I'm sure every one of my former teachers at Catlin could tell you, I've always struggled with humility. Yet there's nothing that teaches it quite like wasting two years of your life in graduate school pursuing a blind alley in research because you failed to accurately identify the simplest possible system. A still better lesson: design a theoretical technology that you believe will do everything you want, set it aside for a time, then come back only to realize that far from doing what you want, it would be actively dangerous. That happened to me last year designing a variation of a gene drive system. And I'm supposed to understand those. In short, no one can do this alone. We all make mistakes, and we can't always afford mistakes. The scientific method, insofar as it exists at all, is all about ensuring that others will always be rewarded for proving you wrong. To any current Catlin student anything at all like I was, listen carefully: allowing others to assume you know the answer, rather than confessing your ignorance, can indeed cultivate your reputation. But the cost is continued ignorance, and it's too high a price. Arrogance makes you weak. We need you. Swallow your pride, and ask others to explain.

Is there a trend toward democracy in scientific research? If so, in what ways is it becoming more democratic?

We're making progress towards openness, which is a prerequisite. More and more scientists post “preprints” of journal articles before peer-review, enabling more rapid assessment of advances as well as informal peer review. Clinical trials now require pre-registration, and a similar movement is gathering strength in psychology as a response to the replication crisis in that field. But in technology development, there aren't so many hopeful signs; it's just so remunerative that capitalistic incentives get in the way. With gene drive, we have a hope of changing the system.

When you told The New Yorker that you wanted to learn how to rewrite genes “to make some extremely useful and interesting things,” you make gene drive research sound really cool. Does it feel cool to you?

Being a professional scientist and engineer is much like getting paid to be a kid forever. “Here, have some amazing technological toys; go do something fun and hopefully useful!” Of course, it's also a tremendous responsibility. Bottom line: we should always hold ourselves morally responsible for all the consequences of our work.