I was asked recently, as an alumna, whether I would be willing to participate in a survey about my time at Avery Coonley. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard.
Just yesterday I was telling another parent how amazed I am that I got to sing and receive such incredible music instruction at ACS. I have enrolled my kids in a chorus through a local church music program because they don't get that at their school and I know what an influence Mrs. Nelson, my ACS music teacher, had on me. Now they are singing “The Rainbow Connection” for their spring concert, which I remember was one of my favorite songs in chorus. We love to paint and move to all kinds of music, like “Night on Bald Mountain,” one of Mrs. Nelson's staples around Halloween, and I taught them to read music using her "around the world" game. I also tell them stories about Mr. Smith's shadow puppets from Bali, and developing photographs in the lab in the art room. I knew how important math, science, and writing were to academic success; despite that, or maybe because of it, my arts education at ACS had a deeply meaningful – even spiritual – significance for me. Whole parts of my being would not have been nurtured without it, and I would have had so little exposure to languages through which to communicate with the world around me.
Speaking of languages, because of the school's early language instruction I won a trip to Paris after high school. There I fed the insatiable curiosity for travel and other cultures that began in Mmes Reininga, Mole, and Van Buren’s French classes, and also learned to accept that I'm the tiniest fish in the world's grand ocean. I became fluent in French there and, years later, lived briefly in Zambia helping refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and translating for them in resettlement programs. I dedicated a decade of my legal career to serving African women who experienced domestic violence, FGM, and forced marriage, being one of the few French-fluent, free, trauma-informed immigration attorneys in New York. Clients always asked with surprise how I came to know French and could interview them seamlessly and respectfully during their moments of need. It was ACS.
I often think about Mrs. Kerhulas and how she cut me a lot of slack for writing some serious swear words into a short story that was supposed to be a riff on The Grapes of Wrath. Even though my adolescent rage about race and gender roles, and feeling like I didn't and would never fit in, were deep and growing, I felt like she could see that I was still a good kid with potential. I felt accepted.
I will also never forget the time that Mrs. Lenhardt selected me to be one of two team leaders in our archaeological dig. When I tell my kids – who are 6 and 8 – about that project, they have said “wow, is that how you knew you wanted to be a leader?” It was certainly the first time I ever thought that as an Indian girl, I could be. Last week I testified before Congress about the need for our government to continue to protect immigrant survivors of violence, and while some of the committee members tried to rattle me, I stuck to my guns. I have every right to be in those halls, shaking things up, and I know that because of the confidence I gained from that experience in 5th grade.
When I have faced tough times, my mother has reminded me that Mrs. Grussing once told her during a parent-teacher conference that I was a one-in-a-million kid. I don't know if she said that to all parents - she was so loving and generous that I'm sure she did. But for decades, her words have given my family reason to believe in me – and for me to believe in myself – whether celebrating small wins or pulling through difficult times.
My parents, siblings, and I now live in four different states, but we still come together around the dinner table and compare our stories of learning, traditions, and relationships at ACS. Not surprisingly, our grades and test scores never come up.
I know the academic rigor is unique, and I don't discount that. But what comes to me in flashes of warmth and reassurance are the softer things, the things that are harder to measure, the moments of support and kindness and care for children as whole beings. That is special, and is very hard to find anywhere else. I have looked for it for my own kids, and though I'm doing my best to give them what I can, I wish they could have my ACS.
~ Archi Pyati, ‘90