SYlvia Miller OPC '15 Commencement Address

First, I would like to promise my family and friends that I am not here today to talk about the “Ban the Bottle Campaign,” which seeks to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles. I won’t even tell you that’s it’s tap water in a bottle with a high price tag, or that it’s bad for the environment. Instead, I will speak about being active, rather than passive, and standing up, rather than sitting down in the face of adversity. Let it be known that I recognize the irony: as I talk about action and you sit passively listening to me.

Over the course of my eleven years at Penn Charter, I’ve sat through lectures about how to control my urge to speak by raising my hand, how to mix the primary colors into secondary colors, the importance of turning in my homework on time, even if my printer is broken and American Idol was on the night before, how to write a memoir as an eighth grader with almost nothing exciting to say, how to avoid Odysseus’s hubris, and how to create a cardboard car that makes its way over a track. I’ve also learned many random terms in my Spanish classes from “abuchear” which means to heckle at a sporting event, to “calor agobiante,” an overwhelming heat. I accepted that this knowledge would have an academic purpose, but little else.

The summer after tenth grade, I traveled to Argentina with ten of my classmates to visit our sister school, Martin Buber, in Buenos Aires. My Spanish was weak, but I was determined to speak as much as possible, so when on a field trip, where we were all sweating on a boat, one of the teachers lamented that it was very warm, and I responded “Sí, un calor agobiante,” yes, an overwhelming heat! The teacher laughed and nodded her head in agreement. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking about my time at Penn Charter. I prefer to live in the moment rather than to wallow in the sentiment, but for some reason the word “calor agobiante” kept crossing my mind. I kept coming back to this one random term that I learned in tenth grade Spanish class, as I reflected on my time at Penn Charter, and so I did what every single English teacher would tell me to do: I wrote a five paragraph essay, with a strong thesis, topic sentences, and a killer conclusion, following the GOAT rubric, for grammar, organization, analysis and textual support. I’m just kidding, as a third trimester senior; I only got through the brainstorming phase.

I think “an overwhelming heat” is a great way to describe the passion, excitement and innovation that our teachers and the administration have shared with my classmates and me during our time at Penn Charter. There’s also an overwhelming heat that compels us to make change and impact our school.  

Our school has such a passionate student body that a group of students worked to bring Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey to speak to us several weeks ago. Because of the work of dedicated students and faculty, my classmates and I were able to engage in a thoughtful dialogue about police shootings, safety and policies with one of the most powerful men in Philadelphia. It’s this same passion that pushed a group of my classmates to create a Facebook group in the eighth grade to publish our eighth grade graduation dresses, to prevent the very real-world threat of two girls wearing the same dress. We have used this Facebook group up to our graduation today, and every time someone posts her dress, she only receives compliments and reassuring encouragement that the peach tones will look great on her. Whether our student body is working to create an open dialogue with the police commissioner or making sure two girls aren’t twins at prom, we are dedicated and passionate to our cause.

Several weeks ago during Color Day, as a senior class, we led the underclassmen in a friendly and competitive competition. Our team captains helped rally the crowds and inspire even the youngest competitors in one of our school’s oldest traditions. We used this same spirit last week on our Senior Class rafting trip, when we used buckets and water “devices” to splash other rafts with water and engage in a friendly pirate-fueled competition. Even the teachers who chaperoned the trip got involved in the water festivities. Whether we are engaging in old traditions like Color Day or newer ones like the Senior Rafting Trip, our class, and even our teachers, love to have a good time and get involved.

Penn Charter gives students the skills and necessary tools to pursue their interests and connect with topics that are important to them. As a result, the wide range of interests in our grade has led to the creation of both the Wednesday Weekly and to Nailuj the Great, two invaluable components to the artistic community. The Green Club and the Global Awareness Club push students to discuss important issues like environmental sustainability and major global conflicts such as the water crisis in the Middle East. After school, the Grill Squad teaches seniors to take grilling meat and selling candy to the next level. There is nothing too small or too big to be passionate about as a Penn Charter student, and the passions of a Penn Charter student grow through the application of our diverse interests.

Penn Charter students play on sports teams, perform in plays, and excel in academic settings. A typical Penn Charter student might serenade another on the Senior Stairs with song, dance and baked goods as a "promposal," then go on to make Dr.Comiskey laugh in the hallway, and later on, wait in line for a chicken, cheese, chipotle, bacon flatbread, play in the dodgeball tournament after school and then perform a heartfelt rap that night at Showcase. In between all of these events, the student even finds time to live tweet, and to upload everything to their Snap Story, just to make sure everyone knows exactly what he did that day.

Penn Charter inspires passion through application. While some classes may seem irrelevant to the real world, each class provides students with skills that they are able to apply to their everyday life. Some concepts may never relate back to nonacademic settings, but the critical-thinking skills we have developed when attempting to argue with our teachers about the lesson plan or complain about how many pages we had to read in English class will. We have learned to debate our own opinions and points, even if our appeal for less homework will always be rejected, always without fail.

I have never felt limited in my time at Penn Charter because if there was something that I wanted to do, I knew there would always be an avenue to pursue that interest. This year alone, I had the opportunity to enroll in courses like “Foreign Policy in the 21st Century,” “Racism, Sexism and other ‘Isms' in film,”and the “Natural History of the Wisshickon.” I was able to learn about issues in diplomacy, racism in cinema, and Wissahickon Schist, a rock that lines the trails of the Wissaickon and faces many of our buildings on campus. These classes were the first direct connection I saw between my Penn Charter education and my future in “the real world.”

The culture at this school encourages students to do our best, take risks and try new things. And this preparation has given us the ability to invent, to innovate, to make changes, to reach out to communities in need and work for the greater good, because that’s what we’ve been instructed and inspired to do during our time at Penn Charter.

Whether you have attended Penn Charter for thirteen years, five years, or even two, I know you have “un calor agobiante” inside of you. That “overwhelming heat” that encourages you to act when others might not be inspired or to try something new when others doubt your idea. The heat is there because our school has taught us how to be passionate, how to be opinionated, and how to overcome challenges that we no doubt will face when we walk off this patio today, past our security blanket of the Wissahickon Schist walls and red doors into the real world, armed with our all of the lessons that seemed completely useless, but promise somehow, to allow us to resolve and overcome challenges in our lives. Thank you classmates, faculty and thank you, Penn Charter.

Penn Charter

A Friends School for Girls and Boys, Pre-K to 12

3000 West School House Lane Philadelphia, PA 19144 215.844.3460
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