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The Black & White (B&W) is an open forum for student views from Walt Whitman High School, 7100 Whittier Blvd., Bethesda, MD, 20817. The Black & White’s website is www.theblackandwhite.net.
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LETTER FROM THE EDITORS
We all experience that moment — the one where the obstacles seem insurmountable and there appears to be no way forward. At that moment, you’re faced with a difficult decision: whether to persist or admit defeat. While the easy road would be to quit trying, it's rarely the path many Whitman students take.
Here in our school, we have students reaching for success in various fields. But, we all know that their accomplishments didn’t come without struggle.
One writer explored the academic rigor of a naval base internship. Another detailed his struggles with identity as a male ballet dancer. Not only did his journey lend itself to personal growth, but it led to success as well — he is
starring in this year’s production of "The Nutcracker" at the Maryland Youth Ballet.
Some of the greatest obstacles are internal; a summer of meditation led to increased peace of mind for one writer, allowing her to connect with her spirituality.
While some journeys were taxing, the outcomes were worth the struggle. Some writers delved into the touching journeys of aspiring performers: one group of Whitman alums’ ongoing road to fame as a band and a current student’s success as a young actress.
Adversity also exists in the world of performing arts at large. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest work even opened up the conversation for women and persons of color
among others to express the hardships in their communities.
These endeavors all culminate to one theme: perseverance. We documented these stories to showcase different paths of endurance in hopes of inspiring others.
As always, we’d like to thank our irreplaceable advisor, Ryan Derenberger, our diligent writers, driven editors and creative production team. We encourage this same determination in all of our readers, too.Your editors Best,
6Alum band Freddy Gang finds their rhythm
FREDDY GANG ILLUNIMATES THE STAGE FREDDY GANG ILLUNIMATES THE STAGE
Pop and punk music fills the rooms of a small, secluded cabin in Fredrick, Maryland. Only the band is there. Lively guitar chords create the melody while three boys jam out to their new album. Resonant bass notes ground each song while several mellifluous choruses electrify the house. Multiple harmonies, reminiscent of 70s rock, orchestrate into the songs’ upbeat roots.
From the nerves of performing original songs in front of a crowd for the first time to excitedly jamming out in front of a group of strangers, Freddy Gang has grown from a small local band to one on the rise. Freddy Gang’s current lineup — Eli Blanks (’21), Gideon Helf (’21), Joe Kaplan (’21) and Josh Lieberman (’21) — once could only dream of playing on a large, lit-up stage with music blasting behind them and crowds of fans. However, this past summer in New York City, that unexpected dream came true — an extreme shift from their first performance at the Brookmont Art Festival one year prior.
While in high school, Blanks, Helf and Kaplan gathered with other musicians to perform student-led concerts, whether it be in small Whitman Coffee House performances or expansive Talent Show ones.
Blanks, Helf and Kaplan first conceptualized “Freddy Gang” in April 2020 — Helf as
the songwriter, guitarist and drummer, Blanks as the lead singer and Kaplan as the bass player. Helf challenged himself to write a song a day during quarantine and the new band spent days taking notes on each of them in order to decide which ones they would implement in their repertoire.
After sifting through all of Helf’s songs, Freddy Gang practiced performing their nine favorites in Joe’s backyard. Rehearsing for weeks, the three boys began searching for a place to record their first album. Joe proposed recording in the basement of a cabin — similar to how Big Pink, his favorite band, recorded their first album. Fueled by inspiration, the Gang found a secluded cabin in Frederick, Maryland and packed their car with borrowed equipment from their parents’ friends. Once there, they carefully plugged in the borrowed equipment and got to work.
Over the course of a week, the group isolated themselves in the makeshift studio, staggering out of bed each morning and only taking breaks from their music to eat.
“It was just an experience that we all look back on so fondly and I definitely want to do it again if we did another album,” Kaplan said.
Not everything went smoothly though. Once the group sent the recorded songs to a producer, they realized they’d made a mistake: the main mic they’d used had picked up the drums and little else, therefore the music they’d recorded wasn’t usable.
Interestingly enough, Big Pink had made the same error. Still determined to succeed, the boys got back to work in Helf’s basement to re-record their album.
“I think everyone in the band would agree that if we released the music made in the cabin, it would have not been very good,” Kaplan said. “We were still getting a hold of what it meant to be in the band. By being forced to work on it further we gained a lot of our experience.”
After five months of working two to three times a week, they picked an affordable producer to finally submit nine songs to compile together into an album. The grueling process
was a learning experience and a chance for the band to try new ideas, Blanks said.
Since Helf couldn’t simultaneously play the guitar and drums live, the band needed to find another drummer. Luckily, their high school friend Josh Lieberman (’20) decided to take a gap year, so when he reached out to the band after coming home from college in Sept. 2020, it was perfect timing.
When the band started to reflect on the sound of the album, they felt like their producer had shaped the initial mixes too much, Blanks said, and the rest sounded too edited.
In hopes of finding a better sound for their album, Freddy Gang decided to look for a new producer. They started searching for the producer who worked on some of their favorite songs from the band Ben Folds Five, but upon the realization that he cost $20,000 to book, they had to continue their search elsewhere. Through a guitar teacher, the Gang luckily found local producer Mark Williams.
In his studio, Williams began to oversee production. Together, they recorded the song “Perfect Gurl,” one of their singles. It was special for the band to record that song, especially with Josh there, because it was an entirely new experience for them, they said.
“It was really cool and probably one of the most memorable experiences of my life,” Lieberman said. “It felt surreal, to be in a legit studio, recording a song that I knew was gonna go out on all the platforms that I listened to.”
One song at a time, Freddy Gang recorded their music, perfecting the vocals and adjusting the instruments as needed, allowing them to be creative with each track. Upon finishing a song to their ears, they would impatiently wait for Williams’ mixes. Collaborating , Freddy Gang was able to critique and revise during the whole process. In March 2021, their self-titled album was ready for release.
Freddy Gang released their first single — “Go Away My Love” — on May 14, 2021, which remains their most popular song with around 5,000 streams on Spotify.
“I’ve always remembered how blown away I was,” Lieberman said. “The difference
from the first time hearing it to the final time hearing it just really came together so much and it’s one of those songs that really hits you hard, I feel it’s so genuine, and everything about it was very beautiful.”
Before releasing their entire album, they released two other singles at once, “Perfect Gurl” and “Where the City Rests Its Eyes” — they couldn’t decide which was stronger. As they started promoting their new album through Instagram and flyers, students were brought back to in-person school after a year online. It was exciting and validating for the band to see their peers in the halls who would come up to them saying things like, “You’re in a band, that’s so cool,” Blanks said.
What the group didn’t know was that releasing an album came with unique difficulties. Helf’s dad helped them set up a limited liability company, a hybrid between a partnership and a corporation for Freddy Gang in case they had to sign contracts with venues. Freddy Gang finally released the full album on June 5, 2020.
“It was the product of a lot of hard work, learning and collaborating,” Blanks said. It felt great to hear from friends and family that our music was in rotation at their house and that our music was being understood and enjoyed.”
For students looking to start their own band, Blanks recommends starting by trying out for the Whitman Talent Show and learning how to play with other musicians in a group, he said.
“Just having a creative outlet is really important,” Tom, Helf’s father said. “Doing something with your friends, being able to communicate your vision for a song and working together to have it come out is just an invaluable experience.”
Tom exposed Helf to music at a young age. From constantly playing music throughout the house to bringing Helf to his band’s concerts and rehearsals for a feel for the music community, Helf never lacked exposure. In kindergarten, after school, Helf would extensively practice on the drum kit in his basement, leading him to songwriting and an early passion for playing the drums. In fourth grade, he joined Bach to Rock — a local music school — performing in its band. Even in elementary school, Helf imagined creating his own band one day, so he began sketching hypothetical bands. He named one of his sketches “Freddy Gang,” so the boys thought it was perfect, they said.
“Gideon I feel is the heart and soul of the band,” Blanks said. “It was his childhood dream so we had to call ourselves that.”
In fifth grade, Helf switched to guitar and continued to play in the Bach to Rock band through eighth grade.
Helf’s earliest songs focused on random events or objects that interested him. Throughout elementary and middle school, he began basing his songs on personal experiences, but it wasn’t until quarantine that he became inspired to write a song every day.
“It’s an important part of art to express yourself based on experiences you’ve had and
emotions you felt because it’s more authentic that way,” Helf said.
Over the past two summers, Freddy Gang has performed their album at sites ranging from the Bannockburn Clubhouse to “Pianos” in New York City. Their favorite venue to play at so far is Hank Dietale’s Tavern, a small, intimate pub in Rockville Pike where they played their first show. Tom got Freddy Gang their gig at Hank Dietale’s Tavern and still helps them
previous shows because they played for an audience full of college friends and strangers.
“It was an audience of people that mostly didn’t know us, so I think that really pumped us up and lit a fire under our action,” Kaplan said. “It was exhilarating playing for a whole new group of people in a different city.”
One guy at the concert was extremely enthusiastic about their music and came up to them afterward praising their performance which was a really unique and rewarding experience, Blanks said.
The four band members plan to continue playing in the future. However, nothing beats the Whitman auditorium stage, and Blanks wishes Freddy Gang was able to play there, he said.
Since they all go to different colleges, it’s difficult for them to find time, if any, to practice together. Instead, each member practices their respective parts alone and then comes together during school breaks to practice their new pieces.
“The new stuff we’re recording is going to be on a whole other level because we have a better understanding of how texture works,” Helf said. “I think one thing we didn’t really realize at the start was you can really add a lot to a song without making it dizzy.”
navigate the music industry. The members of Freddy Gang often ask him questions involving how to book venues, a complicated process, Blanks said, and everyone in a band’s circle must be a good friend and collaborator if the band is going to succeed.
Coordination is key. When performing, each band member must stay in sync and ensure no one person is flashy or taking over the stage, Helf said.
“It’s great playing with these guys and when we came back this summer something just clicked, ” Blanks said. “It was the best feeling ever to play with them.”
Since going to NYU, Helf was able to book a bar called “Pianos” for the band to play at. Performing at the bar was different from
On Dec. 7, Freddy Gang released their new single, “Elevator Effort.”
“All of our secret hopes are that we blow up overnight and that we can abandon our respective career choices and then be big shots touring around,” Blanks said. “We do the second album and then hopefully get to meet up again when we’re older.”
“ALL OF OUR SECRET HOPES IS THAT WE BLOW UP OVERNIGHT AND THAT WE CAN ABANDON OUR RESPECTIVE CAREER CHOICES AND THEN BE BIG SHOTS TOURING AROUND”
Beneath the surface. ..
Interning with the U.S. Navyby KATE RODRIGUEZ
On August 8, 2022, Junior Maya Cheriathundam peered over the edge of the David A. Taylor Model Basin, ready to witness the result of a summer of hard work. As she stared out at the gaping body of water before her, Cheriathundam’s sense of achievement eclipsed her anxiety as a smile crept onto her face. Though she anticipated a rapidly beating heart and sweaty palms, all Cheriathundam felt was an overwhelming sense of achievement. She was testing her design in a facility intended for official military prototypes — watching as a crane deposited weights into the kayak she had helped to design and build, hoping it would prove sturdy.
As a 500-pound weight was placed in the boat, an outrigger — a beam projecting from the kayak designed to stabilize it — snapped. The kayak tipped dangerously to one side before eventually capsizing. Although Cheriathundam and her team were sad to see the test come to an end, the results were anything but disappointing, Cheriathundam said. Their handmade kayak had held 400 pounds, nearly doubling the 220-pound capacity of a traditional kayak.
The test results showcased Cheriathundam’s dedication as an intern at the Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program. Cheriathundam worked from June to August on her kayak, reporting to the Carderock Division of the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center five times a week for eight hours per day.
The SEAP seeks to provide high school students with opportunities to develop STEM skills in a professional setting. Charlotte George, the STEM Outreach Program Director for the Carderock Naval Center, spoke on the specific steps taken by the program to simulate working conditions.
“We try to get not only the technical side experience, but to give that real world experience of being in an office and working in a team and having to communicate ideas to different types of audiences,” George said. “That is often overlooked and really important when you think of engineering as part of a group fulltime thing.”
Inspired by her mother’s work as an engineer in the U.S. Navy, Cheriathundam applied to the internship during her sophomore year. She was initially intimidated at the prospect of entering such a prestigious institution, and
she was worried as to whether she would feel a sense of belonging there, she said.
“I thought I was going to be surrounded by a bunch of smarties who were too smart for this, and that I would be thrown into doing all this work that I haven’t even been introduced to,” Cheriathundam said. “But they were so helpful there. I got there and they explained so much, and they eased me into the work I was doing, which was very helpful.”
Most students chose to pursue the navy internship due to their shared interest in engineering. The expertise of their mentors, coupled with access to professional-level laboratories and facilities, made it an incredible opportunity for those considering a career in the field, Cheriathundam said.
The interns had autonomy over their schedules, with periodic check-ins by adult staff to direct their work and help them succeed. Work days began with a program-wide assembly in the Rapid Innovation Center to review progress on the students’ respective projects exploring various topics in engineering and computer science fields. For the remainder of the day, interns were left to their own devices with guidance provided by the mentors in the program.
While learning professional-level design skills from engineers who served in the U.S. Navy was a major draw of the internship, the naval employees weren’t the only ones who could offer important lessons. Many interns also learned from each other, creating a safe and collaborative space.
“It wasn’t like sitting in a normal classroom, where some people don’t care about what they’re learning,” Cheriathundam said. “Everyone was interested, everyone was passionate about what they were doing.”
At the beginning of the internship, Cheriathundam’s mentor tasked her team of three with creating a “conveyance” — a mode of transportation — using solely unconventional materials. The interns were also asked to do this without the assistance of power tools to emulate the experience of building a boat as stranded marines. Challenged to pair creativity with practical engineering skills, the challenge forced Cheriathundam and her teammates to seek out new ideas and designs. Ultimately, Cheriathundam’s mentor intended to apply the interns’ models in the creation of emergency survival kits for marines.
The first step towards this final objective was brainstorming, a process that proved surprising, Cheriathundam said.
“Our mentor actually made us watch ‘Castaway’ because it’s the same type of situation,” she said. “He was joking about how it’s practically fun, what we do here, how it’s sometimes just messing around. But that’s how you figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
As their preliminary design began to take shape, Cheriathundam and her teammates deliberated what materials to use to construct their conveyance, which would mimic a kayak. Creativity was a vital skill for this, Cheriathundam said. After exploring multiple ideas, the team decided to build the frame with PVC piping and cover the structure in plastic wrap to secure it from leaks.
As the boat construction progressed, the building constraints became more and more problematic. Since the interns could not use traditional construction methods and materials, they struggled to find reasonable means of securing the boat’s various pieces together. Ultimately, the team chose zip ties as the sturdiest way to assemble the conveyance.
Using zip ties required the team to drill holes that could be looped through each piece of the boat. It was a labor-intensive process, as they had to hand drill thousands of holes through rigid PVC piping, Cheriathundam said.
Bryan Tomer, a senior at Robinson Secondary School and an intern in the program, admired Cheriathundam’s resilience throughout the process.
“She had to drill holes by hand,” Tomer said. “She did this in the rain and thunder until we got called inside, and then in the 95 degree heat. She was a trooper through all of this.”
Though the group finally figured out how to piece their kayak together, the further they got into the construction, the more they began to doubt the durability of their original design.
The team revisited the planning stage and began supplementing the existing PVC piping with wooden beams to aid the structural integrity. Additionally, they saw that the zip ties were too loose to hold the boat together. To secure them, the team used polyurethane foam, a buoyant foam designed to expand to fit small crevices, to fill in the spaces left between the zip ties.
The ability to adapt a plan throughout the
construction process turned out to be a crucial skill, Cheriathundam said.
Cheriathundam and her team took a few steps to improve their boat’s floating capability. First, they filled the interior with the same polyurethane foam. Then, they cocooned the kayak in a layer of nylon fabric and plastic wrap to protect it from leaks.
With these modifications, the team decided that the boat was ready for its final test in the David A. Taylor Model Basin. The basin, located on the same property as the Carderock Naval Division, is where the U.S. Navy tests designs for professional seacrafts and submarines. Due to the costs associated with using the basin, Cheriathundam’s team could only afford one official test of their boat.
The morning of their scheduled test, the team realized there was a problem with their boat: it didn’t possess sufficient balancing structures and wouldn’t stay upright when placed in the water. Fighting a severe time crunch, the group outfitted the boat with two outriggers from spare PVC piping and wooden planks.
“All the boat weight was going to lean on these outriggers,” Cheriathundum said. “I was really concerned about how we would support all this weight. We knew we could do it, we knew we could figure it out, but we had few materials left in that time.”
Designed to float alongside the vessel, the outriggers stabilized the kayak on the water. With this addition, the team felt more confident about their test, Cheriathundam said.
As the team gathered to watch the test, Cheriathundam felt a compelling sense of community. Standing beside the basin were mentors and interns who had contributed their expertise to the design process. Seeing all of these people assembled for her and her team felt like a full-circle moment, Cheriathundam said.
“It was just a big celebration — it was really heartwarming to see everyone there to support us,” she said.
When put to the test, the boat held almost double the weight a standard kayak could before finally snapping under pressure.
If given more time and resources, Cheriathundam believes the team could have constructed an even more resilient boat, she said. Still, she was thrilled with the results and hopes to re-explore the project when she returns as an intern next summer.
After completing her final project, Cheriathundam took the time to reflect on her experiences at the internship. She realized that she learned lessons extending beyond engineering at the SEAP.
“It was really cool to be independent and able to work on your own,” Cheriathundam said. “It felt like I wasn’t always being watched, like I truly worked there. But I also had people around to support me.”
This sense of adulthood created an environment that facilitated creativity and free-thinking, Cheriathundam said. Having nearly free reign of the Naval Division’s grounds and resources allowed the exploration of new inter-
ests and the enhancement of existing ones.
Cheriathundam plans to return to the internship next summer and wishes to continue engineering beyond that. Overall, the experience allowed Cheriathundam to broaden her horizons and opened her eyes to the inner workings of the U.S. Navy, she said.
“When people think of the military, or the navy, or whenever my mom shows her military ID, I feel like people have this picture of her being out on the battlefield,” Cheriathundam said. “They don’t realize the thousands and thousands of people who assist with this process. There’s so many engineers behind it all, and it was incredible to see that.” ■
TRACKED for MCPS practices inhibit success of students.by NATALIE EASLEY graphic by GABY HODOR
As a nine-year-old girl sits cross-legged on the rainbow rug of her fourth-grade classroom, she notices a teacher pulling her fellow classmates out of the room. One by one, her peers are extracted until roughly half of the class remains — the other half gets placed into an advanced class while she is left behind.
This traditional practice, known as “tracking,” remains common in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and across the country. The grouping method aims to provide students with tailor-fit instruction that
is appropriate and responsive to their needs, whether that be an accelerated or on-level curriculum. However, early tracking can have lasting implications despite the positive intentions of adjusting lessons to fit students’ needs. This model of education ultimately fosters a harmful learning environment, disproportionally limiting the opportunities of on-level students and diminishing their interest in learning.
Students are initially tracked in second grade when MCPS carries out a broad-based screening of all children. Students are re-
screened in later elementary grades and identified for accelerated classes on a local school level in grades six through eight. In grades nine through 12, students can take Honors and Advanced Placement classes based on prerequisites met, previous grades, student interest, teacher recommendations and other appropriate measures.
Since school systems declare a student’s abilities early, maneuvering them into more advanced tracks later in their academic career becomes increasingly difficult, with only a few formalized opportunities to retest, like the transition from middle to high school.
In 2019, a Black and White feature story revealed not only that MCPS underutilizes secondary education tracking in our local school cluster, but that Pyle Middle School specifically mistracked students of color in math — compared to white peers of similar test scores — as the students all graduated and moved into ninth grade at Whitman.
Similar hidden bias later appeared in MCPS’ antiracist audit this year, in which the family members and staff mentioned the prevalence of tracking from an early age, and the lack of proportionate placement of students who are African American and Hispanic on advanced tracks.
Some MCPS high schools including Whitman have already begun to untether this practice, but only in select subjects and classes. While these strides are necessary to lessen the ramifications of tracking, it’s still imperative to address the root of the problem.
At Carderock Springs Elementary School, staff and resource specialists work together to decide which track an elementary school student should be placed in, said fifth grade teacher Katie Sims. MCPS requires that they examine a variety of data ranging from standardized testing results to teacher observations in order to determine a student's track.
Preventing student advancement into higher programs keeps their learning stagnant, not only limiting their potential but also reducing their motivation. There is little incentive for students to hold themselves to high standards when — despite their best efforts — the track their second-grade teachers chose for them will remain for the rest of their education.
As a former Bannockburn student, junior Brooke Parry’s second grade assessment placed her in the on-level math track in elementary school. Parry felt angry knowing she had the ability to be in the higher-level class, she said. By the time she reached middle school, her math courses proved to be too easy.
“I could have gone a completely different route if I was in accelerated math,” Parry said. “I feel like I missed out on what could have been a much more challenging, much more fulfilling math experience.”
Tracking creates a vying school culture early in a student’s career, prioritizing competition rather than collaboration in the classroom and forcing students to compare their performance to others’.
In fourth grade, Carderock Springs Elementary School categorized current junior Alex Shavitz into the advanced track by switching her into “compacted math,” a class that combines the fourth and fifth grade curriculums. The fast-paced education cultivated an unhealthy outlook on math that would last for the rest of her years in MCPS, Shavitz said.
“I’ve always felt like I had to be better at math,” Shavitz said. “I’m very competitive with people about math, more than I am with any other subjects, and I think this starts at a young age.”
Facilitating comparison between students in classes of varying difficulty at such a young age tends to leave non-accelerated students feeling inferior. As a result, a self-fulfilling prophecy goes into effect: a student experiences lower self esteem, causing them to tumble down their predicted path of reduced academic achievement.
For accelerated students, when curriculums raise expectations the opposite frequently occurs: students rise to the occasion.
“I’ve seen that in the past [with] a student who previously thought they were below grade level,” said former Carderock Springs teacher James Le. “Then, I see something different in the student. I put them in the ‘higher group’ and they feel so much more confident and more willing to take risks.”
This concept is supported scientifically, too. Research in the 1960s, conducted by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal, found that
the students who teachers expected more from had a higher likelihood of succeeding in their academic careers.
Still, advocates of tracking argue that this model of education effectively addresses students’ varying needs. They argue that tracking allows educators to challenge advanced students and devote more attention and resources to students who need help.
“We do it so that we can enrich students that need it, support students that need it and then continue the curriculum as needed based on their abilities,” Sims said.
There are a multitude of learning approaches that create a positive classroom environment while benefiting students of all abilities. With a world of options for creative teaching now online, including from free sites, the pathways to leaving tracking behind have never been clearer. Cooperative learning — structuring classes around small groups — encourages students to work together to improve everyone’s learning. A student who fully understands the content will be able to solidify their knowledge by explaining what they know, while a student who is struggling will have the opportunity to ask questions and hear material explained from a new perspective. A plethora of activities exist to bring that kind of learning into every classroom.
“Students work well together when they have different abilities and they can make good role models for each other,” Sims said. “Every student is so unique.”
Flexible grouping, a fluid educational method with frequently changing groups based on student readiness, is another approach. This strategy aids students with collaborative skills and provides them with an opportunity to interact with a variety of peers.
Innovating and implementing different models of education that reinforce a positive learning environment will greatly benefit all students. Removing static and early tracking from MCPS schools would uplift adolescents instead of fostering a comparative and toxic educational atmosphere. It’s time for MCPS to make this change to prosper learning early and continuously. ■
Boysdance too: Boysdance too:
My experience as a male ballet dancer ��y
Jacob Cowan is starring in this year's production of "The Nutcracker" at the Maryland Youth Ballet.
The faint sound of pointe shoes echoes through a narrow walkway as I begin to ascend a set of stairs. With each step, the soft tapping crescendos into a storm. At the top, I take a right, passing a wall peppered with photos of famous dancers, choreographers and directors. I turn left, passing a bulletin board of castings, rehearsal schedules and showtime updates. One more left turn to go. My mind desperately tries to calm itself down, but doubtful thoughts start to seep in. With no time left to spare and my mind shaking off the last drops of doubt, I turn to face the dance studio.
For six years, I’ve danced at Maryland Youth Ballet and earned incredible opportunities. I’ve landed lead roles in my studio’s productions, worked with worldclass choreographers and even performed in a professional production at the Kennedy Center. But those opportunities didn’t fall into my lap — they required limitless dedication and sacrifice.
What started as a three-hour weekly obligation where I learned the basic positions and steps, quickly snowballed into a 25-hour weekly commitment. Two classes
became three, three became four and four became five. Hour-anda-half classes turned into two-hour classes, and hour-long rehearsals grew to four hours. Despite the grueling work, I continued to crave the feeling of soaring through the air. I loved my reflection, and I even used to think I was the next Mikhail Baryshnikov — arguably the greatest male dancer of all time who revolutionized the art of ballet. Ballet was addicting for me. Every lift, every turn, every leap fed my insatiable hunger for perfection.
I’ve realized perfection is impossible, but ballet remains just as intoxicating now as it was when I started six years ago — though as the saying goes, beauty is pain, and there is no statement more applicable to ballet than this one.
Meticulous critiques of my dancing prepared me for the increased expectations in each level of training, but no amount of time in the studio could prepare me for the supposed insults I would face. Assumptions that I was “gay” and “girly” solely for dancing became the norm. My middle school classmates would often snicker behind my back, believing ballet to be anything but masculine. I knew
the comments were rooted in ignorance and childishness, as expected from middle schoolers, but the words hurt regardless.
As the comments continued, the dancefloors I once adored transformed into inescapable pits of uncertainty surrounding my masculinity. While my dancing abilities soared, my thoughts began to slip. With every leap and turn, I questioned everything. Was I “gay” for being there? Should I have stuck with a “manlier” sport? Was I less of a man for dancing? Every question I posed and every doubt I held only fueled the confusion that pained me so deeply.
Despite the comments, my dancing continued to improve. Within five years, I progressed to the pre-professional level and earned a spot in my studio’s company, dancing principal roles and performing upwards of five times per year.
The words “gay” and “girly” unsurprisingly continue to follow me, but I understand now that those juvenile claims are part of a larger pattern of people denying other men’s masculinity to assert their own.
After years of explaining to confused faces that I dance ballet, I’ve realized that a lot of people may be uncomfortable with the idea of a male in a majority-female discipline and will seize that discomfort as an opportunity to judge.
People ask if I joined ballet solely to be in a class full of girls. Others try to explain to me that I’m “just as manly” as football players and professional boxers since they dance ballet as part of their training. The occasional person will even tell me that it’s “brave” of me to dance as if I’m sacrificing my masculinity every time I step on a stage. I’m not brave, and I’m not a boxer. I’m just a ballet dancer, and that’s enough to respect my masculinity.
I’d be lying if I said there aren’t inherent benefits to being a guy in ballet. Due to the lack of male dancers, I get a lot of undeserved attention from teachers. Consequently, dancing is a less competitive sport for me than it is for my female counterparts. I statistically have a better chance of receiving a lead role than they do. That’s just a consequence of a sexist system, but the system is a two-sided coin.
Those same statistics that land me lead roles also dictate that I can’t afford to underperform. The pressure to consistently meet expectations — ones I don’t set for myself — is crushing. I’m responsible not only for my success but for the success of the girls around me, and that’s a stress I feel every time I step onto the dance floor.
But ballet, for all of its flaws, has shaped who I am — and there is nothing I am more grateful for. Nothing disciplines me like forcing myself to show up at the studio for three and a half hours on a Friday. Nothing satisfies me like the curtains closing on the last of 10 consecutive Nutcracker shows. Nothing shows me the value of the present like performing one last time with my closest friends. And nothing teaches me pain like a two-minute solo does.
In truth, I don’t think the sexism surrounding ballet will ever go away — but I can’t give up on it. No matter how many insults I hear or how intense the pressure gets, I have to push myself. I have to shoulder that weight, because despite all of the sexism, deprecation and sacrifices, the beauty of ballet will always be worth it to me.
“ ”masculinity.graphics by EVA SOLA-SOLE
I’m not brave, and I’m not a boxer. I’m just a ballet dancer, and that’s enough to respect my masculinity.
My Summer Meditatingby AVA FAGHANI
Let’s stop hustle culture.
Like clockwork every day of my sophomore year, I woke up, rolled out of bed, got ready and immediately delved into a school day full of rigorous work followed by hours of dance practice and studying. More than usual, I came to crave the release of the weekend and everything that came with it — alone time, relaxation and quality sleep.
However, when the weekends finally arrived and I had the opportunity to experience the calm I desired, all I felt was the need to occupy my mind. The idea of staying present and simply breathing was unfathomable, and spending five minutes alone with my racing mind was petrifying. I could never just pause.
Throughout the following summer I suffered from recurring nightmares. Since I was constantly overthinking during the day, my subconscious mind blended with my anxieties at night, translating into awful scenes. While showering, my mind ran through a million thoughts in just fifteen minutes.
Growing up, I was exposed to a variety of cultures. My family has always valued Tibetan Buddhism and other Eastern disciplines and cultures, praising values like mindfulness and meditation. My dad also owns a martial arts dojo that teaches students a strong sense of self-control. Over the years I largely disregarded these values, but last summer I decided I needed to return to meditation in a feat of desperation for a better mindset.
Now, it would be unfair to say that I just started. As a young child, I attended martial arts camps where mornings began with a 45-minute silent aaa ameditation. Although meditating had always helped me in the past, when I made the decision to return to the practice after a six-year break, it was a terrifying prospect.
In mid-June, I woke up one morning and challenged myself to close my eyes for five minutes and try to focus on my breathing instead of my thoughts. Within the first thirty seconds, my mind wandered to ideas such as homecoming and hopes of becoming tan over the summer. As a person, I felt embarrassed that I was capable of doing chemistry stoichiometry equations in school with ease, yet just sitting in solitude for a few minutes was a challenge. Many tangents later, the frustrating five minutes were up. Feeling only slightly better, I anticipated the long journey I
had ahead if I planned to tame my running mind.
I kept practicing for five minutes almost every day and slowly began to add time. I realized that meditating didn’t require the perfect position or timing. Even in public, I would find myself closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing after a stressful event. Five minutes eventually became 30, and 30 became an hour.
The notion of meditating for an entire hour is a hard concept for most people to grasp. No music, no movement, no persistent thoughts. I now look forward to going downstairs each day, lighting incense and just breathing. I feel every inch of my body and become aware of the present moment — noticing and inventorying if my stomach hurts, or what thoughts and feelings my brain naturally concentrates on.
As my meditation sessions grew longer and more frequent, I noticed differences in not only my mind but my physical body as well throughout the day. I was more soft-spoken in conversations and my stomach felt more settled and comfortable than ever. Out of curiosity, I looked up if there were any correlations between physical health and meditation; to my surprise, there were countless studies proving the tangible benefits.
Nervous system regulation, blood vessel tension and reduced memory loss are just a few examples of things you can gain by simply closing your eyes and focusing on your breath. It really is the ultimate care for your mind and body.
So why isn’t meditation more popular among Whtiman students and their families?
Two words: “hustle culture.” The term may be old, but our spotlight on it is long overdue.
The concept of health and success in western countries like the United States heavily relies on constant productivity — work to make more money to achieve higher and higher titles, or in other words, hustle
As a student, I can vouch firsthand that it feels like the ultimate path to success at Whitman is to reach maximum productivity every minute of the day.
I’m not encouraging laziness. I love being productive and working hard to achieve my goals. But, I’m not the only teen who often reaches the point where the prospect of doing nothing is petrifying and anxiety-producing.
For thousands of years, many other cultures have implemented meditation to encourage people to slow down and gain power over their minds. India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Tibet, China, Australia and many other countries use it as a regiment in daily life to truly relax and breathe. We need to break our western cultural habits and start noticing the beautiful reality that productivity is subjective; its definition changes depending upon the country. Dedicating a few minutes or even an hour a day to better your mental well being is productive.
Though I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to common Buddhist meditative practices practically my entire life, this is not the case for the majority of students. I’ve found that most reject and laugh at the concept of meditation. As a teenager once trapped in Whitman’s fast-moving mentality, I urge everyone to consider taking a step back and opening your minds to concepts from other parts of the world. Push back on hustle culture and reach into yourself instead, because you’d be surprised at the ways it can change your life. ■graphic by GABY HODOR
P O L T I c S HI T Iby DANI KLEIN
About 65% of Whitman students are interested in politics. Students gave a variety of explanations as to whether or not they care about politics and current events. Sophomore Sofia Lazarus believes it’s people’s duty to care about politics when they have the power to create change, she said.
“Even for legislation that doesn't affect me directly, the impact politics has on people across the US is massive,” Lazarus said. “I think politics can be used to make people’s quality of life so much better.”
However, other students like Freshman Amelia Garrett didn’t feel educated or involved enough in current events to care deeply about them, Garrett said.
“I'm not one of those people that gets super involved with the news,” Garrett said. “I care about what's going on but I just don’t really get into it like I know many others do.”
Joe Biden’s presidency comes at a crucial time in American politics as the U.S. democracy recovers from the attempted insurrection in 2021.
As students form opinions on his progress in office, many believe that Biden isn’t actually America’s ideal leader; rather, they believe he was elected in opposition to Trump’s administration.
“I think many people would say they settled for Biden,” sophomore Marion Lambert said, “but I do think that it’s still a relief to know that he’s the one that has the power in this country and not Trump.”
If you could vote in the this year's midterms, would you?
Would you call yourself someone who cares about politics?
When selecting the trait they look for the most in a political candidate, most students pointed to a candidate’s views on a specific issue as the most important factor for their election into public office.
“If I vote for someone, it’s going to be because they want to pass something or do some-
thing I support,” Lazarus said.
Sincerity in an age of biased and conflicting media content, as well as communication between political parties and other countries, came up as students’ second and third priorities.
Although over 15 issues received votes for the most pressing issue in politics today, climate change, gun control, abortion and inflation stood out, with climate change as the top choice by a slight margin.
“It’s not just one country being impacted by climate change, this is our one planet that we all live on together, that’s important,” Gontkovic said.
Gun Violence was the second most selected response, an issue that’s especially prevalent to high school students because of the frequency of school shootings around the country.
“I, like my friends and classmates, want to feel safe when we're learning in school,” Garrett said. “It would just feel a lot better to go to school in a safe place.”
The student body also emphasized the urgency of economic issues, acknowledging the danger of increasing inflation and unemployment. Junior Ian Chen believes that stabilizing the economy needs to be taken care o before other issues, he said.
“If the economy isn’t functioning, if we don’t have jobs, if we have our cash suddenly depleting in value, how are we going to work
on any of these other issues?” Chen said.
Due to the fast pace of social media and the news, political culture constantly changes its priorities and it can be hard to keep one issue at the forefront, said Lambert said.
“The most pressing issue in politics changes every single day,” Lambert said. “Politics media coverage changes so often, it’s impossible to choose just one issue to care about.” ■
MCPS FINDS NEW WAYS TACKLE LOW ATTENDANCE RATESBY JASPER LESTER
Tim walks through the doors of Whitman at 7:45 a.m. — welcomed by a lobby crowded with anxious, bustling students. Taking a spot in the line of students, he waits to sign in and enter the building. On his way to his first period, Tim clutches the infamous blue slip of shame — the “unexcused tardy.” Although he is frustrated, Tim knows he is not the only student in Montgomery County Public Schools who arrived late to their high school this morning to little sympathy.graphic by MARY RODRIGUEZ
After the 2021-2022 school year when unexcused absences reached unprecedented heights, MCPS reemphasized its short but clear attendance policy at the start of the 2022-2023 school year: three unexcused tardies equate to one unexcused absence, and five unexcused absences result in the “danger of receiving a failing grade” in the given class.
Those rules have always been MCPS’ official policy, but over the pandemic, the administrations at many MCPS schools — including Whitman — had stopped regularly enforcing them.
Attendance rates continue to vary greatly depending on the high school, falling between 85.9% to >95% depending on the school. In the 2018-2019 school year, the last academic year pre-pandemic, the lowest attendance rate for any high school was 86.8%.
According to a Sept. 8 report, more than 37,000 MCPS students, or 23.26%, were chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year. A student is deemed “chronically absent” if they miss 10% or more days in a school year, regardless of the reason for absence.
While the policy enforcement has become more lax as the school year creeps forward, generally, at a hard cutoff at 7:45 a.m., administrators close the doors and funnel students in through the main entrance to undergo a full check-in. Previously, in those first minutes of school, it was teachers who were responsible with marking students tardy once they arrived to class.
During the first week of school, administrators toured math classes to talk to students about the policy and enforcement. The visits informed students of new disciplinary action if they are consistently late or do not show up to class.
“I have heard that after the administrators came into our classes and told us how they were really going to be enforcing the absences and tardies policy, a lot of people were scared,” senior Julia Wood said. “I was like ‘Oh dang, I have to make sure I am where I need to be on time.’”
In his messaging to students and parents, Whitman Principal Dr. Robby Dodd has emphasized that there are compulsory attendance laws at the state level which each school must meet.
Administrators want to re-establish “healthy boundaries and expectations around students’ attendance,” Dodd said. “Our goal is not to be draconian or punitive — it's to ensure that kids are engaged in school consistently by being here and being on time.”
Whitman High School’s attendance secretary, Felicia Serpan, began in the position this school year. She didn’t expect every student to
be on time every day, but said the current attendance rates need to return to normal.
“It’s getting worse rather than better,” Serpan said.
Researchers find that student’s being present and on time to school has a significant impactful on their success. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students who drop out of high school tend to exhibit detrimental behavior, including apathy for school work and poor academic performance at far higher rates than other high school students’.
Whitman’s crackdown on attendance teaches students that in college and the professional world, being constantly late is unacceptable, Serpan said.
“If you had a job, and you are late three times, they may fire you,” she said. “When you go to college, I can’t tell you how many professors lock the door.”
Elsewhere in the county, Watkins Mill attendance secretary Betty Alberti said that her school has always had a lot of tardy and absent students, so COVID reinforced more than changed the attendance rates. So far, she doesn’t think that the new strict enforcement of the attendance policy this year has made much of an impact at Watkins Mill, and Alberti cites parent availability and involvement as the biggest factor in attendance rates.
MCPS schools with lower attendance rates tend to have more persons of color and free and reduced meals “FARMS” students in their population, as well as students whose families are food and job insecure.
Wood believes that some of the issues with student attendance can be specifically traced back to the end of the 2020-2021 school year when MCPS had hybrid schooling, she said.
“When you could do classes from home or in-person, people got in that mindset where it was kind of optional,” Wood said. “Coming back from that, it was a hard adjustment.”
Junior Abby Tummonds believes the new protocol makes students even tardier than they already were. According to a Black & White survey this fall, 86% of students who reported being late at least once said that they missed more of their first period class than they otherwise would have with past years’ policies.
“There are people who are trying to be on time but are just one minute late,” Tummonds said. “It punishes those kids as much as if you are slacking off.”
Additionally, some factors that contribute to tardiness like weather occurrences or traffic are beyond students’ control. Rainy days are an example of something that could make a student late to school when they would have been on time otherwize, Wood said.
“I feel like that should be accounted for
and the fact that people are trying to get to school on time but sometimes they can’t do anything about it,” Wood said.
Dodd acknowledges that attendance can reflect issues that the administration isn’t even aware of and need to be addressed on a caseby-case basis, including ones pertaining to mental health.
“It’s only one symptom,” Dodd said of absenteeism. “It shows us that we need to dig deeper and find out what might be affecting the student that they can’t be in school consistently or on time consistently.”
Bethesda Chevy-Chase attendance secretary Avila has not seen much of an impact of the new policy enforcement so far this year, however, he thinks that once the school year progresses that will change, they said.
Attendance warning letters outlining students’ risks were planned to be sent to parents and guardians during October, Avila said. “I do expect that as the school year goes along when those attendance letters begin to be sent out and the parents see them, and also after the first report cards when parents start seeing the attendance information on those, I expect that that’s when the policies will have more of an impact.”
Board of Education Member Lynne Harris would like to see absence data as the school year moves forward so that the Board can make any appropriate decisions if there is a significant uptick in absences in the future, adjusting policy responsively.
“The policy management committee is taking a fresh look at the attendance policy,” Harris said. “That is getting more to a little bit of clarity, but also specifying more directly things about excused absences and making clear that civic action and mental wellness are excused absences.”
Still, Dodd believes that some causes are immediately fixable.
“It was to create a sense of urgency. You maybe have to leave a little earlier or not go to Starbucks,” Dodd said. “By and large, our students are always really responsive to our expectations, and our parents are too.”
Some students don’t take their absences seriously. They purposefully write illegibly, use fake names, or make excuses, hoping to get their absence or tardy excused.
“I can’t mark them tardy, which is better than being absent,” Serpan said about those students. “I don’t think they get it because they put something funny like ‘lol’ and think they’re funny, but it's actually a laugh on them,” she said. “They just got another absence.” ■
A passion for service:
Lindsey Buss sets off on an impactful career in community outreachby Josefina Masjuan
Lindsey Buss was at a crossroads. The volunteer group that was supposed to meet him had just canceled — there was no one to drive the van and distribute the food. He made a split-second decision, adjusted his schedule and grabbed the keys himself.
As president of Martha’s Table, a community-led non-profit organization dedicated to supporting families and communities in the Washington D.C. area, Buss often had to think of solutions quickly. He made frequent stops throughout that night, explaining the delays to lines of people waiting — he was distributing the food solo.
To his surprise, several people in line stepped out and asked how they could help, quickly transitioning from recipients to volunteers. These strangers are among the many amazing people Buss has met and continues to keep in touch with while volunteering, he said.
“Sometimes they're someone that is super wealthy or they’re someone from the other side of the world,” Buss said. “That’s the piece I always remember about Martha’s Table: people we would serve would also volunteer with us.”
As a child, Buss’ own family was always in motion. His parents worked internationally on different projects as parts of community development teams. Buss was surrounded by service work since he was young and lived in impoverished communities throughout his childhood, he said.
“I think it very much got baked into who I am and what I wanted to do in terms of understanding the inequities in our world,” Buss said. “I am very much interested in using my effort to address and support those inequalities and others.”
In the mid 70s, Buss and his family lived in rural Mississippi, where he and his sister were the only white kids at their school. Buss had previously lived in Brussels, Belgium, where he was the strongest math student in his class, he said. Soon enrolled in his Mississippi district’s public school, Buss observed the inequities in support and resources allocated towards the predominantly black schools. After a year, Buss moved to a new district in Texas and went
from being at the top of his class to needing to catch up.
“It always made me realize, you know, if I had spent 12 years in that education system, I wouldn’t have been able to go on to the academic success I did,” Buss said.
Buss was an active volunteer during his teenage years. Once he enrolled in college, he tutored students and assisted at senior centers. Buss went on to attend The University of Texas Law School and became the president of Texas Law Fellowships, an organization that helps students spend their summers working in public service. Buss attended law school with the intention of pursuing public interest law, where he would work for underprivileged people who lack effective representation in the legal system.
“As I was trying to decide what to do after undergrad, I knew I wanted to serve others,” Buss said. “I thought legal training was the best way I could do that.”
Soon after beginning his public interest law career at a firm in D.C., Buss realized he could help even more directly by leaving the courtroom for more hands-on work, he said. Through some of his pro-bono work, Buss discovered a particular interest in work related to homelessness and youth living in low-income communities. One of his contacts suggested that he speak with someone from Martha’s Table, and at the end of what he thought was an informational interview, the organization offered Buss a job.
In 1993, Buss moved to the DMV area and began to work for Martha’s Table as a fundraiser coordinator. The support the community-led organization offers ranges from food to education and job opportunities. The aim is always towards learning, health and family.
After Buss’ first three years at Martha’s Table, the president and CEO of 17 years retired. The Board of Directors asked Buss to take over temporarily while they looked for a replacement, though they eventually selected Buss after asking him to apply for the permanent position. Hired as president, Buss began to work on the subtleties that make the organi-
zation tick, the coordination of staff payments, volunteer training and the maintenance of facilities.
The sustainability and stability of facilities and programs is important for all nonprofits, Buss said, because they’re responsible for raising all the money that they spend.
“You’ve got this natural conflict that one of the best things to be effective is to be stable,” Buss said, “but so much about the business models of nonprofits is inherently unstable.”
It’s for that reason that being a reliable volunteer is so important, he said. Nonprofits like Martha’s Table aim to be a constructive partner and help those they are serving build stability in their lives, and volunteers are essential to support that. Those who participate in service need to make sure to treat the organization with respect in terms of reliability and dependability, Buss explained. When it comes to volunteering as a whole, whether it be a one-time experience or a months-long commitment, finding something to connect with, such as an organization’s mission, staff or even other volunteers, is an important part of exploring the variety of service experiences out there, Buss said.
“So many people connect with the organization to express their values and support others,” Buss said. “Being there allows so many people through volunteerism to do wonderful work.”
In his spare time, Buss assists other nonprofits such as Centro Especializado en Desórdenes Alimentarios, an organization that finances health and education projects in Argentina. Liana Montero, the president of CEDA, has collaborated with him on both sides of public service. This past May, the organization hosted a project where two students from an underprivileged area in Argentina came to explore D.C., with Buss contributing by connecting the students with members of the World Bank digitally — an institution Buss also came to work for.
On a separate occasion, Buss helped the organization on the administrative side by leading a training session where the CEDA board members learned about the many components
that make a nonprofit successful. The training involved three components, Montero said: judicial and financial responsibilities, how to reach out and gather more members and the importance of connecting to the work on a personal level.
“I’ve been working in this organization for years, and at first I didn’t know much about volunteering and how to run a nonprofit,” Montero said. “He’s a great help, and he’s a person that if I have any questions at all or if I want to work out a strategy related to the responsibilities of the board, I know I can reach out to.”
After nine years as CEO at Martha’s Table, Buss decided to explore new opportunities to serve the D.C. community.
“I was interested in another side of public service which is to support organizations and how they go about getting that type of support,” he said. “It was an opportunity to mobilize volunteers as well as guiding and supporting.”
When a group of volunteers from the World Bank came to Martha’s Table they shared that they were about to have an open position to run community outreach.
In 2012 Buss joined the World Bank where he currently holds a position leading their Community Outreach program as Senior External Officer. Buss’ team develops systems to help groups at the World Bank learn how to volunteer in the community and introduces them to nonprofits working to decrease poverty in D.C. There are four consistent team members, though that number increases to hundreds of people during campaigns.
Starting on Nov. 1 each year, Buss’ team runs an annual fundraising campaign, with this year’s effort garnering over 400 volunteers from the World Bank. Volunteering has become important to Buss’ family as well. Alexa Buss, his daughter, is currently in high school and has been participating in projects alongside her dad since she was seven. For her, volunteering is a way to serve her community while fostering deeper connections with others, Alexa said.
“It can be really eye-opening but also a powerful experience for people to realize that they can have an impact on so many people’s lives, even just themselves as a high schooler,” Alexa said.
For those looking to get into volunteering, Buss’ advice is to just get started. Oftentimes there are opportunities that line up with a hobby or interest, and there are many ways to contribute without any previous experience, he said.
“The best things I’ve ever done in my life,” Buss said, “I’ve done with other people.” ■
FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: The ribbon-cutting for two new vehicles for the Capital Area Food Bank. BUSS with the OBAMAS at a Martha's Table event. The ribbon-cutting of a sonogram clinic funded by the World Bank with MAYOR BOWSER. Photos courtesy of LINDSEY BUSS.
Senior Vivian Poe was only 10 years old when she fell in love with acting. While sitting with her parents in the audience of “The Secret Garden” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Poe watched as actors performed compelling dances and recited emotional lines. Poe was unable to look away. It wasn’t the plot or the costumes that kept Poe entranced though — it was the young lead actress. The thespian acted with such grace that Poe couldn’t comprehend how they could be the same age.
What Poe did know, however, was that she had found her calling.
“As soon as the performance ended, Vivian pulled me aside and told me that she could see herself on that stage,” Poe’s mother Kay said. “She would learn to act, sing, dance — she just had to do all of it. She was so excited to share her passion with us.”
Though Poe had acted before at kids’ summer camps and school programs, it was the young actress’ desire to improve that inspired her to start devoting most of her free time to acting, singing and ballet lessons. Five years later, Poe has left her mark on nationally-renowned stages, along with acting in short films and participating in multiple Whitman Drama productions.
At 10 years old, Poe took on her first
professional role, acting as the friendly teacup Chip in an Imagination Stage production of “Beauty and the Beast.” Poe’s participation in the show involved an intense time commitment — from memorizing lines the summer prior to the performance to attending rehearsals from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Poe had a month-long absence from school.
“Vivian’s the one that ultimately decides what roles she wants to take on,” Kay said. “She’s the one that regulates her schedule and accommodates her school work with her rehearsals and line memorization. We, as parents, just deal with the logistical aspect and make sure she’s able to pursue her passion.”
In the following professional productions that Poe booked, her time was spread out more efficiently. In contrast to the intense time commitment of “Beauty and the Beast,” Poe’s role in the Kennedy Center production of “The Music Man” only required her to attend rehearsals four days a week.
When she auditioned for the musical, her résumé was packed with professional acting experiences such as the lead in both the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Olney Theatre Center’s production of “Annie.” Her booking agent found the role and arranged an audition, which included a dance call and her performance of a song of her choice in front of the au-
ditors. Poe successfully secured a spot on the cast list.
“You win some, you lose some, and I thought I was going to lose this one, and I didn’t,” Poe said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
At 13 years old, Poe played Gracie Shinn in “The Music Man,” the young daughter of the mayor and the largest child role with five scripted lines.
“Vivian has always been an incredibly dedicated actress,” Poe’s father Scott said. “Even when she was younger, her passion for performing has always shone on stage.”
During rehearsals, Poe worked alongside well-known professional actors Jessie Mueller, Norm Lewis and Rosie O’Donnell, who had all just finished performing on Broadway. Poe appreciated the high-level status of the production; it gave her the opportunity to receive feedback from accomplished directors, she said.
Despite this gratitude, performing on a more established stage rather than at a school production proved challenging. Poe faced pressure while working under the gaze of accomplished directors who paid her as much attention as the rest of the cast. The general rule for professional productions is that all actors — no matter how many lines they have — receive the same overwhelming expectations and attention, Poe said.
“Knowing that we were going to be reviewed for every performance by critics made me feel as though I was being keenly observed under a microscope,” Poe said.
Poe has also dominated the Whitman Drama scene, playing one of the lead characters, Olive, in the recent musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, and the role of Fail sister Jenny June in the recent play, “Failure: A Love Story”.
Junior Maia Bester, one of two assistant directors in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” has worked alongside Poe since their freshman year when the two acted together in the 2019 Whitman Drama musical production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Bester appreciated Poe’s aptitude for singing, dancing and acting, she said.
“She’s just so talented in all three aspects of musical theater,” Bester said. “It’s been awesome to watch her grow as a performer since freshman year because she has really come into her own.”
Poe takes every rehearsal seriously. Her professionalism is evident, and she learns her lines and blocking cues extremely quickly, Bester said.
“I always try to go above and beyond to beat my last performance,” Poe said.
Poe has not only acted in stage productions but short films, too. She has always been interested in film, and after seeing the casting call for short films on the app “Backstage”, her on-screen career began. Poe sent her headshot and resume to short film companies, ultimately landing herself auditions and, subsequently, callbacks.
At 14 years old, she played the main character Abbie in a short coming-of-age film called “Tell
During a live show, the viewers in the back row must be able to pick up on every emotion the actors emit, so body language and gestures are dramatized, Poe said. Acting in a film, on the other hand, involves a more natural and minimalistic form of movement due to the camera’s ability to capture small motions, Poe’s preferred style. The rehearsal schedule is also drastically different, she said.
“Plays and musical rehearsals typically go on for months, giving you the time to form bonds with fellow cast members,” Poe said. “While for film, you just show up to set, meet everyone, block athe scene, and shoot it all on the same day.”
The Jersey City’s Brightside Tavern Film Festival nominated “The Mountains Call Me Home,” for four awards, including best student film, best student director, best actor and best actress. When hearing the news that she was nominated for best actress in a student film, Poe’s jaw dropped, she said.
“I was in first period when I looked at my phone and got a text from my dad that I had gotten nominated,” she said. “I was really excited and overjoyed, but of course it was 7:45 a.m so I just kind of shoved my phone away and took out my folder.”
In the future, Poe hopes to major in acting in college and become a professional film actress.
“I know I have a lot of passion and work ethic to get me to where I want to be,” Poe said. “It’s only a matter of perseverance and time.” ■
“Vivian has always been an incredibly dedicated actress, her passion for performing has always shone on stage.”POE acts as Annie in "Annie," the musical at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2017. Photo courtesy of VIVIAN POE. POE acts in "Popsicle Juice," a short film with Saturn Hex Media (2022). Photo courtesy of VIVIAN POE.
CULTURE ON THE WALLS: murals in D.C.
by SCARLET MANN
Agroup of D.C residents and tourists gather at the corner of 8th and Kennedy Street as a tour guide leads them through an old sidestreet. The group is unsure of what they are supposed to be looking for until they turn a corner and emerge at a jaw-dropping wall, adorned with vivid birds and flowers.
Community ventures associated with street art in D.C. are becoming common, but the most vibrant and prevalent is MuralsDC, a project started in 2007 by the D.C. Department of Public Works and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities with the mission to
enhance the beauty of the city. Since its conception, MuralsDC has worked with 66 artists from around the world to paint 152 murals in 72 neighborhoods, and these numbers continue to grow every month.
MuralsDC has transformed abandoned buildings and graffiti-filled alleyways into meaningful works of creativity and art. Now, going for a stroll around a D.C. neighborhood provides instant exposure to diverse talent and passion that the public can appreciate.
Jason Bowers, a D.C. mural curator and tour guide, leads both tourists and locals through the streets of the city to admire murals that often go unnoticed. As a curator, Bowers helps to manage the city’s street art, finding opportunities for both international and local artists to make D.C. a center for creativity and collaboration. The murals add beauty and allure to every neighborhood in the capital, Bowers said.
“D.C. is a real city with food and culture and art, and I think what’s been happening in the last decade is it’s coming into its own as a really cultural place,” Bowers said. “People should come here to see the art.”
Many of the murals embed social and political issues that reveal overlooked history into their design. The artists have been able to spread their ideas while making viewers’ lives a little more beautiful.
“I think [the murals] are serving their own purpose of adding vibrancy to a space that might change the mood of how somebody exists in that space,” artist Rose Jaffe said. “Sometimes, my messages in the murals are very obvious, and other times they’re maybe more subtle, but I do think there is some type of inherent messaging in all of them.”
Jaffe, a former B-CC student, is an artist who works with MuralsDC to paint a number of murals all across the city. Jaffe’s past murals include a tribute to birth control access by highlighting IUDs for the National Women’s Law Center, one next to Howard Theater that celebrates the jazz musicians of D.C. and a striking portrait of Ruth-Bader Ginsburg.
A common theme among many of the murals is D.C.’s fight for statehood. The Capital possesses the responsibilities and regulations other states have, without the privileges and rights the Constitution guarantees for states.
Street art serves as an outlet for many frustrated residents as well as an effective campaign — taxation without representation being one of the most prevalent issues they address.
This year, MuralsDC is celebrating 15 years of spreading beauty and messages throughout the city. To commemorate the milestone, artists painted 10 new murals in an alley between the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the H Street Country Club, which is part of the small, lively neighborhood of H Street Corridor. The colorful collection of artworks feature salutes to instruments, pandas and D.C. statehood. Images blossom, like a long-haired woman leaning out of her apartment window playing saxophone, wind rushing by and a tiger prowling past elephants at the National Zoo.
“We take care of the buildings and we paint something nice on them, or something on the sidewalk,” Rose Jaffe said. “It shows that we care about our spaces, which I think is an improvement over possibly neglected communities.”
Murals bring everyone together — artists, developers, kids, parents and any person who walks by them — because they encourage collaboration with a community of authentic residents who want to see positive changes in their city.
To make a mural as impactful as possible, artists research the customs and lifestyle of every neighborhood in D.C. to make sure their mural will accurately reflect the history and culture of the area. Many artists will speak with people living in the prospective neighborhood to gain an understanding of what the residents themselves are interested in seeing.
Artist Sydney Buffalow has been painting murals for 15 years. Buffalow sees murals as the voice of a community and their form of expression, she said, so she works hard to get to know the neighborhood and find out what the people want to see on their walls. Buffalow painted a colorful mural at Shaw Skatepark in 2017, with a clear vision in mind.
Buffalow brought in two local graffiti artists to create a mural on the floor of the park. To allow other graffiti artists to tag the area, she created a mural for local kids and adults to maintain space for their own creative expression.“I wound up just creating fields of color,” Buffalow said. “I knew that graffiti was part of this culture as well, and I wanted to lay a palette, almost a canvas for them. So if they did tag and spray paint, it had a nice polished aesthetic.”
Artist Kate Deciccio was born and raised in D.C. She combines her passion for equality and mental health with her love of art to create meaningful displays of culture throughout the city.
“I loved painting in the alley between
the Howard Theater and Right Proper Brewery,” Deciccio said. “We got to interact with both the people who were attending events at the theater and the people who sleep in the lot behind.”
Neighborhoods often work together to brainstorm an idea for an artist, anyone or anything significant to their community, and often citizens will even help in the painting process. When everyone is involved, it makes the art incredibly personal and is a true expression of the area’s heritage, artists said. “If there is a community-led effort around a mural, they can really help to tell a story that is larger than life or is celebrating something important,” Jaffe said. “I think those are really powerful messages and stories that can be told.”
D.C.’s murals have increased what city officials and members of the community call “positive foot traffic.”
With more people coming to look at the art, they also stop in local coffee shops or small boutiques around the neighborhood. Depending on the location of the mural, the shops and attractions close by gain business.“I like listening to people talk about a mural, not knowing it's me who painted it,” Jaffee said. “It's also fun to walk by and remember the process of how it all came together.”
However, along with increasing the revenue of small businesses the increased number of murals in all areas of D.C. have also been a significant factor in the gentrification, or remodeling for the sake of attracting wealthier residents, of many neighborhoods. Often, developers paint murals with the idea of enhancing neighborhoods — going hand in hand with buying new, attractive stores to replace older, authentic and established ones.
Despite this, the clearly positive effects the murals have are unmistakable, Dececcio said. They support people and make them feel seen. The process is inclusive and transformational for neighborhoods, she said. Places that were often avoided are now beautiful locations to walk through or stop by.
Putting history on the walls of one of the most important cities in the world, Bowers said, brings people together with something just about everyone can appreciate: art.
“There is something that makes people want to create this type of art,” Buffalow said. “Outside of what people expect D.C. to be, there are real, everyday people here that are making these murals happen.” ■
A LEGACY OF CHIEVEMENT A
Whitman Alumni reflect on culture of high performance.by KATE RODRIGUEZ
When writing her 2006 national bestselling book, “The Overachievers,” Whitman alum Alexandra Robbins (‘94) shadowed eight Whitman students in their day-to-day lives. She aimed to portray the extensive and underreported lengths high school students go to when applying to top universities.
Whitman’s “overachiever culture” establishes a frame for “The Overachievers” and remains a trademark of Whitman’s social climate today. Robbins detailed the lives of high-performing students against the backdrop of an environment and community that pressures them to perform at the highest level possible.
Julia Oliansky (’05) and Sam (’05) are two of the main students the narrative follows. Each is considered an “overachiever” in their own right, and they’ve taken time to reflect on their experiences at Whitman since they graduated.
Oliansky was labeled “The Superstar” in the book and was portrayed as high school royalty — smart, popular and athletic. Packaged together in an application, Oliansky became an appealing candidate for top colleges.
Oliansky attended Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution. However, the school’s prestige ultimately had little impact on the quality of her education, she said.
After finishing her undergraduate degree, Oliansky decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Design at the School of Visual Arts.
Now Oliansky works as a consultant and strategist, emphasizing environmental connection and preservation. This work allows her to employ her creative and analytical sides in addition to tying in her lifelong love of the outdoors.
Oliansky became a mother in 2022, and she has no desire to push her daughter to attend an Ivy League school, she said. Drawing on her own experience, Oliansky has found more positive ways to channel the desire for her daughter, and her potential future children, to succeed.
“I would love to put more emphasis on helping them discover their passions and develop their kind of skills and what they love to do, versus any cookie-cutter path,” Oliansky said.
On the other hand, Sam (’05) was “The Teacher’s Pet” according to Robbins. He seemed to fit into the overachiever mold perfectly. He had straight A’s, played varsity tennis, served as an editor for The Black & White and interned at the Supreme Court.
Sam no longer believes that anyone should aim to be an “overachiever,” he said. Instead, he suggests that students create an individualized standard of achievement for themselves. He agreed to speak with The Black and White under anonymity.
After the intense college application season chronicled in the novel, Sam attended Middlebury College — a small liberal arts college in Vermont. There, Sam increasingly found merit within himself rather than measuring his success against that of others, a habit he had gravitated towards in high school, he said.
“It was a very different kind of competition because it became about competing solely with yourself and your expectations,” Sam said. “In some respects I succeeded, and in others, I learned some hard lessons.”
Sam now dabbles in multiple fields, taking on jobs that call on his wide skill set. Instead of focusing on a specific profession throughout college, he prioritized learning for the sake of learning and allowed himself to pursue a non-traditional hybrid career path, Sam said.
“I knew that studying hard things and learning how to work both hard and effectively would set me up for a lifetime of interesting choices,” he said. “I’m not sure I made any conscious choices that led to today, but I knew that by building a muscle for always learning I’d end up okay.”
As another season of college preparation and application unfolds, Whitman’s current overachievers continue to navigate their college search. On the surface, junior Diya Bhattacharjee appears to be the right subject for a new chapter in the book: a stellar student, dedicated athlete and competitive debater. However, she brings a uniquely non-college-oriented mindset to the table. Although college acceptance remains a consideration for her, she doesn’t allow it to dictate her high school experience, she said.
Bhattacharjee is every bit as hardworking and motivated as her predecessors were — and in many ways still are — but she carries a more realistic perspective hardened by the uncertainty of today’s college admissions rates and brightened by the possibilities.
For Bhattacharjee, education is a door to a world full of information.
“I think that there’s a lot that exists in this world and a lot that there is to know,” Bhattacharjee said. “I don’t see why you would limit yourself to only knowing a certain amount when you can do more, which is what higher education provides. You get a better breadth and depth of knowledge.”
According to Middlebury’s common data set for students in 2005, the acceptance rate was 23%. For the college class of 2025, however, who began college in Fall 2021, the acceptance rate fell to 13%.
Similarly, in Oliansky’s application cycle, the acceptance rate at Dartmouth was 17%. Now, for the class of 2025, the Dartmouth acceptance rate has decreased to 6%.
Even the most outstanding applicants cannot assume that their spot at any institution is guaranteed. When faced with this truth, students are forced to find perspective, reevaluating their reasons for pursuing college urges students to discover what education truly means to them, Bhattacharjee said.
In the face of these daunting statistics, Oliansky and Sam each had the same advice to offer today’s Whitman students: first and foremost, listen to yourself.
“Trust your gut,” Sam said. “You are the one that you need to hold yourself accountable to at the end of the day. So make sure that your voice is the loudest in your head, and you’ll figure it out.”
THE OVERACHIEVERS THE OVERACHIEVERSgraphic by GABY HODOR
Are new projects "bad"...
target audience?by MADDIE KALTMAN
Robert Downey Jr. Scarlet Johanson. Chris Evans. Their signatures scrawl from left to right as fans dry tear-filled eyes. The rolling of emotion-filled credits after “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) marked the end of an era for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The epic finale drew to a close “The Infinity Saga” — Marvel’s first 23 films under their own studio banner, encapsulating three phases and dozens of shared character arcs.
After the retirement of at least a few of those beloved heroes, Phase 4 immediately began, taking on the challenging task of introducing a new generation of diverse characters. Now, three years later, Phase 4 is concluding with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which hit theaters on Nov. 11.
Marvel fans pick apart every project on social media, and Phase 4 has been no different. But, the material’s poor reception was new, with fans hailing down criticisms on nearly all aspects of the MCU’s latest installments. In one discussion board, the computer generated imagery is what was going downhill, and in others, the corny writing and jokes. For some, the recycled plotlines were too much. The most dominant criticism: Marvel has become too “woke.”
While the Infinity Saga featured aspirational characters such as Iron Man, Captain America and Hulk as well as countless groundbreaking moments, the lack of diversity and female representation was difficult to ignore. Marvel took notice, course correcting in Phase 4 — but not everyone agreed with this decision.
Instead of throwing all recent Marvel projects under the bus, fans should be more appreciative of the new lineup of heroes in this phase — characters who had all long existed in comic books prior to their recent appearances. Not only can fans of all demographics enjoy the unique characters and plotlines that Phase 4 brings to the table, but minorities can finally see themselves on the screen.
Out of the first 23 MCU movies, “Black Panther” was the only one to feature a nonwhite lead. In Phase 4, for the first time, the concept of racism enters as a central plot point — a complex topic that should have granted fans’ wishes, who often challenge Marvel to
create rather than recycle. On the Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” two of Captain America’s closest friends — Sam Wilson and James “Bucky” Barnes — navigate life after the death of Steve Rogers’ “Captain America.” Following the wishes of Rogers, Sam Wilson — known as “The Falcon” — takes on the mantle of Captain America.
Unfortunately, not everyone is supportive of a black man filling the role. Despite the hate the series received on social media about being too political, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” reflects the conflicts of the real world, including the ownership of American identity.
Marking a new era, the company finds itself catering to a larger audience of all ages and cultures. “Eternals” (2021) introduced fans to a diverse group of male and female superheroes from a variety of races and ethnicities with breathtaking, international cinematography to match. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021) blends ancient Chinese culture with the modern world to create a visually stunning and action-packed film.
Sequel films like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022), did bring familiar characters back to the big screen, but always while introducing new ones as well.
In “Multiverse,” the powerful teen America Chavez — a Latina superhero — made her debut.
Additionally, the series “Moon Knight” presents the first Jewish superhero in the MCU, and “Ms. Marvel” also adds to the diversity by featuring a teenage girl who juggles life in a Pakistani-American home with her newfound ancestral superpowers.
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“Ms. Marvel” in particular does a beautiful job of portraying the culture of Pakistan, something that is rarely portrayed in large franchises.
“They’re not just throwing in a character and being like ‘Oh, by the way, she’s Pakistani,’” said Whitman teacher Joan Cline. “I learned a lot more about Partition and the history between India, and I was motivated to go read more about it.”
For years, male characters have dominated the MCU. The “big three” of the franchise — Iron Man, Captain America and Thor — all fit into the “strong male” archetype: proud, brave and masculine. While Phases 1-3 did feature female characters, they either received
little character development like Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif, were sexualized like Scarlett Johnansson’s Black Widow or were mostly only love interests to the main hero, as Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp was to Ant-Man. This December, Johannson herself noted on a podcast that her character at first had been “underdeveloped and over-sexualized.”
The lone heroine who didn’t fall victim to this pattern was Captain Marvel, who received endless hate on social media for being “arrogant” and “cocky” — the same traits that fans love about Tony Stark.
Phase 4 has begun to end these tired stereotypes — in Captain Marvel and beyond — by skipping the sexualization and focusing on developing female characters into strong role models. The complexity of Wanda Maximoff’s character arc in the Disney+ series “Wandavision” sharply contrasted the poor development of other heroines in the MCU. As a series rather than a movie, the plotlines have time to focus on a second main, female character as well — Agatha Harkness.
Another dynamic character, Kate Bishop, emerged as a powerful and complex female lead in the series “Hawkeye.” Her witty personality and trying journey struck a chord with many female teens, including junior Anna Quinn.
“It was really refreshing to see a young girl who is still trying to figure out who she is as a superhero,” Quinn said. “Kate Bishop just seemed like a naturally powerful character who was strong, had her own different story and also happened to be a woman.”
Yelena Belova, the sister of Black Widow, and Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. Marvel, made their debut appearances in “Black Widow” and the Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel,” respectively. Similar to Kate Bishop, Yelena and Kamala are both exploring their place in the world — a struggle many teen fans can relate to.
As a teenage girl and MCU fan, seeing strong, skilled women with intricate personalities and complex storylines is both exciting and inspiring. While the writing may not be perfect, it’s nice to see women sharing the superhero spotlight nonetheless.
The final Phase 4 installment, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” was a celebration of the African and ancient Mayan cultures as well as a tribute to the life of Chadwick Boseman — the late actor who played T’Challa in the first Black Panther movie. The film brings fans back to the glorious country of Wakanda amid the death of its king, whose legacy is carried on through the powerful women in his life.
T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, assumes the role of the Black Panther, and the Dora Milaje, a revered group of female warriors, shine by her side. Riri Williams, also known as Ironheart, was introduced to the MCU as well. This heartfelt and empowering film was packed with both female leadership and cultural diversity without taking away from the action or plot, closing out Phase 4 on a high note for many fans.
Some critics question why representation and diversity are important, arguing that Marvel Studios should produce superhero movies and shows, not films with political agendas. Fans across social media complained that Disney, who owns Marvel Studios, is trying to force representation and social ideologies into their projects at the expense of plot, character development and writing.
Marvel Studios had always catered to a small audience: white men. When you are a part of the already-represented demographic, it can be easy to forget that others are not receiving the same amount of representation. Women and people of color are not overtaking the MCU; Phase 4 films are just depicting a more accurate reflection of real-world demographics — finally.
As for Marvel becoming too “woke,” is the type of change implied by the term in Marvel’s case such a bad thing? Marvel’s earliest movies featured plenty of sexist and racist tropes. Tony Stark was best known for his unnecessarily misogynistic one-liners despite him being the head of the franchise and a widely-supported role model. His subplots too often resort to tired “damsel in distress” storylines.
While Phase 4’s approach to addressing these issues may have been explicit, these changes show the MCU is aware of the struggles people are concerned about. Even so, these flawed scenes are still ultimately rare over the course of Phase 4. Besides “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” and “She-Hulk,” the majority of recent projects that included women and minorities did not blatantly address social issues such as sexism and racism. Marvel Studios is a popular company with an extraordinary influence over its viewers, so their attempts to advocate for social justice should be received with open minds, whether they’re brief or continuous.
As Phase 4 comes to a close, it’s difficult to deny that it has been a rocky terrain of highs and lows for MCU fans. However, hyper-focusing on the past rather than simply enjoying the newest installments overlooks the strides that Marvel has taken in building out its stories while employing more representation. Instead of scrutinizing Phase 4’s flaws, zoom out and take in the big, beautiful landscape that is the unfolding Multiverse Saga. ■
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