Category Archives: Staples HS

Drew Cohen Skates Through Life

Drew Cohen appreciated people who are unappreciated.

There are few folks less appreciated than ice hockey referees. For the past 6 years, he’s been one himself.

Remarkably, Drew is just a high school junior.

He plays alto sax in Staples’ jazz band, and gives music lessons to Bridgeport students. But it’s on the ice where his true passion lies. And that’s where he’s made his biggest mark so far.

From age 7 to 14 Drew played hockey in the Greater Bridgeport Junior Hockey League. But even as an 8-year-old he watched the officials. He saw how they skated, made calls and interacted with players and coaches.

“I wanted to get to know them, even if they didn’t want to know me,” Drew says.

USA Hockey logoAt 11, he earned his first certification from USA Hockey. The exam was online. He didn’t have to prove he could skate.

Now — several tests later — he’s a member of the Hockey Referees Association of Connecticut. Though USA Hockey recommends not officiating your own age or higher, he has whistled a collegiate women’s pre-season game.

“I always like things to be fair,” Drew says. “As a referee, you have to be fair. By being fair, you can make the game better.” He’s a strong advocate of mutual respect between players, coaches and officials, and tries to develop that without yelling.

Refereeing is a big responsibility. “You have to act like an adult, and be professional. A 16-year-old can be lazy in some parts of life. But you can’t do that on the ice. You have to make judgments, make calls, and sell them — whether you’re right or wrong.”

Drew Cohen

Drew Cohen

Among Drew’s challenges: explaining calls to coaches and players. Asserting himself when things get personal. Controlling a game when it threatens to get out of hand. Earning respect from colleagues who are 2 or 3 times his age.

It doesn’t always work. Drew shakes his head as he recalls a game in Shelton. A coach would not stop yelling at him.

“I froze,” Drew says. “My partner — across the rink — screamed at the coach. I didn’t have the courage to stand up to someone much older.” He pauses. “This season I will, though.”

He explains the key qualities of a good referee: consistency in calls, confidence and communication (verbal and non-verbal). Of course, a hockey official must also skate well. And he has to really, really know the rules.

Every year, Drew heads to Canada for a referee camp. A number of National Hockey League officials are there. He has gotten to know many of them. He emails them with questions, and after a recent preseason game in Bridgeport an NHL ref gave him a game puck.

The hockey referee fraternity is “like a family,” Drew says. “It goes from the NHL down to me. We all look out for each other. We know everyone puts up with a lot of stuff.”

Drew Cohen gets ready for action.

Drew Cohen gets ready for action.

When he calls a game well, Drew feels a sense of satisfaction. His confidence grows — and not just on the ice.

“Most of the times when you’re young, you’re not in a position of power. You can’t affect things,” he says. “Doing this makes the rest of life seem easy.”

Yet Drew knows that — even before a game begins — people have judged him by his age and size. “Sometimes I’ve been reffing longer than my 24-year-old partner. I just have to accept that I’ll be judged. If I get a complex about it, I’ll be refereeing for someone, and not for the game.”

The best compliment he gets is rare, but meaningful: “We didn’t even notice you out there.”

The money is good. Last season, Drew earned more than $2,000. This year he’s aiming for $3,000.

His goal is to be an NCAA Division I official within 10 years. At one point, that seemed far off. Now — working at the highest level possible for his age — he thinks he can do it.

So what advice does he have for anyone else thinking of becoming a hockey referee?

“Don’t try to prove yourself,” he says. “Just be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Staples High School: Old And New

Staples High School is an ultra-modern school. Built less than 10 years ago, it works very well in the 21st century.

But Staples is also 128 years old. It started out on Riverside Avenue in 1884. Over 70 years later — in 1958 — it moved to North Avenue. Those 9 separate units were eventually merged into 1, in 1981.

Our high school has stood the test of time well. The original lintel now serves as the main sign at the entrance. Trees planted nearly 60 years ago flourish. And — set back from the road — the new building will stand for decades to come.

Staples High School lintel

Staples HS - autumn

Arjun Dhindsa: Black Belt Busts Boards

Not long ago, while teaching materials study in his applied engineering class at Staples High School, instructor Humphrey Wong tried to break a board.

Arjun Dhindsa told Dr. Wong the board was curved the wrong way.

If students had been allowed to take a whack, Arjun would have stepped right up. He’d have given an impressive demonstration.

This summer, the Staples junior won a gold medal at the national tae kwan do black belt championship in San Jose. He shattered 30 boards in 2 minutes, earning the most points for style, accuracy and difficulty of breaks.

Arjun Dhindsa

Arjun Dhindsa

Arjun’s road to the board-breaking title began in 3rd grade, at Kings Highway Elementary School. A friend was taking classes at World Champion Tae Kwan Do, near the train station. Arjun thought that was pretty cool.

In the years since, he became a 2nd degree black belt (and is working on his 3rd).

Tae kwan do has changed his life, Arjun says. He’s learned to “respect everything,” which in turn has made him a better person.

“The core values are courtesy, respect, integrity, self-control and perseverance,” Arjun explains. “That drives me now.”

When he was younger, Arjun was targeted by bullies. Tae kwan do gave him confidence in who he was, and that he could stand up to anyone. However, that does not mean he busts up bullies as easily as he breaks boards.

His martial art should not be used against other people “unless absolutely necessary,” Arjun says. The point of the activity is “to make yourself better.”

Arjun Dhindsa shatters boards one way...

Arjun Dhindsa shatters boards one way…

Getting to nationals required 2 types of discipline: mental and physical. He trained constantly on technique, and developed his core, legs and arms. “If a normal, super-strong person tried this, it would be tough,” Arjun says in the same way you or I would talk about the ability to walk to the planet Zork.

The black belt competitor also prepared himself psychologically to break 4 boards — each an inch thick — at once.

“It’s important to visualize yourself doing it,” notes Arjun. “Otherwise it can be daunting and scary.”

In San Jose, Arjun broke boards with his palm, elbow, a punch and a triple front kick.

He knew if he “decimated” them, he’d have a good shot at the title.

...and another.

…and another.

The feeling after successfully breaking boards is “exhilarating.” The pain goes away soon. Arjun’s hand was swollen — he even went for X-rays — but it was fine.

Winning a gold medal at a national tae kwan do competition made Arjun proud. It also reinforced his desire to work even harder in the future. He wants to repeat as champion next year.

Not many Staples students know about Arjun’s U.S. title, though. “I’m not the type of person to talk about it,” he says.

Dr. Wong may not even know. After all, school rules did not allow his black belt pupil to show the class how to break boards like they were twigs.

Though that would have made for a very interesting science class demonstration indeed.

 

 

 

John Dodig Lauded By Lambda

Fifteen years ago, Fairfield High School principal John Dodig made a life-changing decision.

“I decided I’d no longer hide who I am,” he says. “At the same time, I knew I wanted to be known not as ‘the gay principal,’ but as a principal who cares about all kids, and happens to be gay.”

That decision, he says, allowed him to create a school environment in which he hopes every student feels comfortable in his or her own skin. “Many — if not most — people carry scars from high school or middle school forever,” Dodig says. “I don’t think that has to be the case.”

John Dodig

John Dodig

Dodig retired from Fairfield High in 2003. Soon, he was named interim principal of Staples. He liked the staff, students, parents and Westport community so much, he applied for the permanent position. The Board of Education did not interview anyone else.

In 11 years at the helm, Dodig has directed much of his attention to what he calls “the affective domain.” Staples has always had high academic standards. Concentrating on the social and emotional aspects components of the school, he says, allows everyone to create an environment in which all teenagers feel welcome. And that, he notes, helps them perform at their best academically.

Dodig’s work has drawn praise from fellow administrators, staff members, students and parents. Now it’s gotten the attention of Lambda Legal. On Sunday, October 26 (12 p.m., Mitchells of Westport), the human rights organization’s Connecticut chapter will honor the principal for his impact on thousands of students, over his 45-year career as an educator.

“John leads by example and strength of character,” says Staples graduate Adam Stolpen, who nominated Dodig for the award.

At Staples, Dodig has created a warm, supportive environment in many ways. At nearly every faculty meeting, he stresses the importance that teaching “chemistry, US history or whatever” is not all that matters. “Each of us has to support, care and love everyone else,” he says.

John Dodig -- principal and proud Staples supporter.

John Dodig — principal and proud Staples supporter.

He is a ubiquitous presence, standing in the front hallway as students begin the day and in the cafeteria during the 3 lunch waves. He knows most students by name. He congratulates them on their athletic, artistic, academic or extracurricular achievements. They, in turn, approach him to mention an interesting class discussion, suggest a possible improvement in school life, or congratulate him on his recent marriage.

For a school of 1900 students, the incidence of name-calling is low. Many students “have bought into the message that in this high school, you should be free to be who you are,” Dodig says.

Not all do, of course. But those who don’t “know that it’s socially inappropriate to put someone down for who they are.

“Our culture  is visible every moment school is in session,” Dodig says. “It starts at the top. If a principal is mean or nasty, that trickles down to everyone. If the message is to help kids navigate high school with as few scars as possible, that trickles down too.”

At graduation, many students ask to pose for photos with their principal. In 2013, John Dodig stood with departing senior August Laska.

At graduation, many students ask to pose for photos with their principal. In 2013, John Dodig stood with departing senior August Laska.

Dodig is proud of the many small ways his message trickles down. On the 1st day of school this year, for example, he addressed all 4 classes separately about Staples’ culture. He followed with an email to parents, suggesting they talk with their kids to see how that message was received.

One parent responded with a story about her sophomore son. He didn’t think he could make it to the end of his cross country run, but an upperclassman stopped, asked what was wrong, and finished the course with him.

The next day, the mother said, her son saw a freshman in the same situation. This time the sophomore was the one who stopped, talked, and ran with his teammate to the end.

Dodig is proud too of the many emails he’s received from parents, saying that at Staples their child felt empowered to come out as gay.

Lambda LegalThat makes his Lambda Legal award particularly important. The decision he made 15 years ago has paid off in countless ways, for thousands of students. Dodig has impacted them, and they in turn have impacted many others.

Even those who — unlike everyone at Staples — have no idea who John Dodig is, and what he stands for.

(Click on the Lambda Legal website for tickets to Dodig’s award ceremony.)

Jamie Graves Is A Sommelier, For Goodness’ Sake

This story is for anyone who drinks sake at Sakura. Or worries whether their unconventional kid will do okay in life.

Or — for teenagers and 20somethings — if you yourself wonder where your path may lead.

At Staples, Jamie Graves played bass in the jazz band and skied on the boys team. He graduated from Oberlin in 2002 with a major in modern history, a minor in East Asian studies, and no idea what to do next.

Jamie Graves

Jamie Graves

He got a job teaching English in a Japanese elementary school. When his year was up, Jamie found an entry-level position as a cook in a Western-style restaurant outside Tokyo.

For the next 3 years he studied cooking in several restaurants, learning how to make soba noodles. He also passed high-level written and oral Japanese exams.

Jamie moved to New York in 2007, to be a freelance translator and writer. To make ends meet he worked at Kajitsu, a high-end restaurant. Inspired by the chef, he realized he could make that his career.

He was asked to be an opening manager at David Bouley’s Brushstroke, a prestigious Tribeca restaurant that was a showcase for Japanese tasting menus. He was responsible for daily operations, hiring and training staff, and translating.

Brushstroke’s sommeliers were tremendously knowledgeable about both wine and sake, and Jamie was an avid pupil. He learned how to taste, describe, store and serve sake.

sakamaiHe’s now general manager and sommelier of Sakamai, a creative place with one of the biggest and most interesting sake menus in New York (along with a small, curated wine list).

As a sommelier, he guides diners through wine and sake lists toward something right for their budget.

A good sommelier, Jamie says, is “empathetic, a great reader of people, can translate what someone is saying into what they actually what, and knows when to push for something unusual and when to play it safe.”

Jamie is certainly a good — if not great — sommelier.

When he learned that the Japan-based Sake Service Institute was sponsoring its 4th World Sake Sommelier Competition, he entered.

He didn’t expect much. But Jamie won the New York regional competition, earning a trip to Tokyo for the semis and finals. He visited a few sake breweries, then prepared for the event on September 19.

Of the 25 semifinalists, 20 were from Japan. Jamie was one of 3 Americans.

The press was out in force for the sake sommelier competition.

The press was out in force for the sake sommelier competition. Jamie is at the podium.

For the semis he was given 10 minutes to taste and evaluate 4 types of sake, and 4 of shochu (a Japanese spirit like a mild vodka). He examined a food menu, then stepped into a service situation to advise a couple ordering dinner on pairing and drink suggestions.

Then came a 5-minute oral presentation on explaining and promoting sake. Jamie spoke in Japanese.

The next day, he was announced as one of 10 finalists — the only American to advance.

The final took place in front of 150 spectators, plus journalists from national papers and magazine. Each contestant tasted a glass of sake without knowing about it; they had to identify aroma, color, taste and style, and declare ideal food pairings and possible maker.

That was followed by another mock service with a couple ordering dinner, and a 1-minute summation speech. All that took less than 10 minutes.

Jamie did not win. But he was 1 of 3 finalists named “Tokubetsu-sho” (honorable mention). The judges particularly liked his food pairing speech.

Jamie Graves, proud American at the sake sommelier competition.

Jamie Graves, proud American at the sake sommelier competition.

So how does all this tie back to Westport, and not knowing in high school what your life will be like?

“I’ve always thought that several teachers at Staples, including Karl Decker and Dave Scrofani, were some of the best I’ve ever had,” Jamie says.

“They constantly challenged me to be curious and not settle for easy answers. They also showed me how to be self-disciplined, and truly understand a subject inside and out. That’s helped me in studying Japanese, and learning wine and sake, both of which came outside an academic environment.”

Jamie also appreciates that his time at Staples was “absolutely suffused with music, playing in jazz band and informally with other students. It really taught me how to listen, and gave me an ear for the rhythms of speaking Japanese.”

So, parents and teenagers: Don’t worry about an unclear career path. Enjoy today, and drink in all that’s around you.

Preferably with sake.

 

No, Staples Students Probably Have Not Read “The Brothers Karamazov”

Leon Botstein is the subject of an intriguing profile in the current New Yorker.

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein

The president of Bard College has instituted a new admissions procedure. Described by one faculty member as “a classic Leon gesture” — meaning “idealistic, expeditiously enacted, showmanly, and absolutely earnest in spirit,” it gives high school students a choice.

They can submit test scores, GPAs and teacher recommendations, like applicants to every other school. Or they can write 4 very rigorous essays (10,000 words total) on subjects like Kantian ethics, economic inequality and prion disorders. Bard professors grade them; students with an average of B+ or better are automatically admitted.

It’s audacious. It’s Bard. And it’s not the 1st time Botstein has courted controversy over college admissions.

In 1985 — just a few months before Gene Maeroff of the New York Times named Staples one of the 46 outstanding high schools in the country — Harper’s magazine ran a 2-page spread of an actual transcript. It belonged to a female student at “a typical affluent suburban Connecticut school, regarded as among America’s finest.”

Staples sealThe transcript was accompanied by withering commentary from Botstein — already 10 years into his presidency of Bard. Staples was not mentioned by name, but among the activities listed for the unnamed student – called, perhaps not coincidentally, “S” — was Inklings. Botstein declined to say whether the transcript was from Staples, but he noted disingenuously that Inklings was a common name for school publications.

The transcript was selected at random from applications to Bard submitted over the years, Botstein said. His commentary focused on what he called the lack of thorough preparation high school graduates receive. “High school curriculums aren’t rigorous and focused enough,” Dr. Botstein claimed, citing the student transcript with “only” 2 years of biology, 1 of chemistry and none of physics. In addition, she took “only” one year of US history as a sophomore, and studied modern European history, and India and Southeast Asia, for a half year each.

A Staples' student took Functions, and many other diverse classes at Staples. That was not rigorous enough, though, for Dr. Botstein.

A Staples’ student took Functions, and many other diverse classes at Staples. That was not rigorous enough, though, for Dr. Botstein.

Though the transcript showed a wealth of difficult classes — Advanced Placement English, Creative Writing Seminar, French 5 Speakers, French Advanced Reading, Functions B and Theater 3, along with all those science and social studies classes — Botstein criticized “S” for not filling her day with “4 or 5 demanding courses.”

And although the student received a 600 on the SAT verbal, Botstein said that above-average scores did not indicate an ability to read critically or write clearly. He belittled her score of 60-plus on the Test of Standard Written English – the highest possible – by noting that she received it only once.

He added that although the high school she attended was a member of a regional association, its accreditation was no defense against bad teaching, poor curricula or inadequate facilities.

Botstein postulated that although the student would probably be admitted to one of America’s many reasonably competitive colleges, she would enter with an education deficient in many basic areas.

Based on a Staples student's transcript, Leon Botstein condemned her for (probably) not reading "The Brothers Karamazov" in high school.

Based on a Staples student’s transcript, Leon Botstein condemned her for (probably) not reading “The Brothers Karamazov” in high school.

“It is likely that ‘S’ does not know what is in the Constitution, knows nothing about economics, can tell you little about the theory and practice of capitalism, socialism or communism, cannot grasp the science and technology germane to medicine or defense, has never read The Republic, the Koran or The Brothers Karamazov. It is also reasonable to assume that hers has been a passive education by textbooks, workbooks and multiple-choice tests, in oversize classes and from teachers better versed in pedagogy than in their respective disciplines. And this is one of the country’s best high schools.”

In an interview with the Westport News, he added: “I have enormous respect for (Staples).”

The reaction on campus was primarily eye-rolling and head-shaking. If the state of high school education was so bad, students and staff wondered, why would Botstein have such respect for a school like Staples? And, if students – or, let’s say, presidents — at a highly regarded college such as Bard made leaps of assumption about, let’s say, high school pedagogy and class size based solely on the names of courses on a transcript, what did that say about their own capacity for critical, independent thinking?

Guidance counselors predicted a dip in Staples applications to Bard.

Isaac Stein Sets The Criterion

With his University of Chicago classes starting much later than most other schools’ — this week — Isaac Stein might have spent the last month Snapchatting or sleeping in.

The 2012 Staples grad did neither. Instead, he sparked a journalistic renaissance in a Bridgeport high school.

Writing was always Isaac’s passion. As a senior writer and web editor-in-chief for the Staples school newspaper, Inklings, he fought student disenfranchisement, and crusaded for change on many fronts.

One memorable story exposed Matsu Sushi’s policy of tacking tips onto teenagers’ bills — without telling them ahead of time.

At Chicago, Isaac became news editor of The MaroonThis summer, back home, he worked at the Minuteman. Looking at public schools’ website, he noticed Central High School’s excellent online archives. One issue, from the 1990s, featured front-page stories on a Laotian student’s immigration issues and the AIDS Quilt exhibit.

But, Isaac learned, the Criterion had been defunct since 2001, when Central’s journalism class was cut.

Central High School in Bridgeport.

Central High School in Bridgeport.

Isaac is a firm believer in the power of high school journalism to give students a voice, and foster social justice. He met Central principal Eric Graf, who put him in touch with English department co-chair Joe Jeffery.

When school started, Isaac visited English classrooms (including that of Westporter Andy McConnell). He preached his vision of a new Criterion. 

Almost immediately, 30 teenagers showed up at twice-weekly meetings. Isaac taught them the basics. They took it from there.

The online paper — www.bptcriterion.com — has featured an op-ed piece on Ferguson, sexism and the appropriation of the word “ghetto.” It’s a lively, provocative paper. Isaac gives all the credit to the students — most of whom are just a couple of years younger than he.

Isaac Stein (left) and J.P. Rossi, Criterion's editor-in-chief.

Isaac Stein (left) and J.P. Rossi, Criterion’s editor-in-chief.

Isaac has been impressed with their talent, enthusiasm, and level of respect. He also bristles at stereotypes.

“Before I went in, people said, ‘Don’t go there. They’re a bunch of animals,'” he says.

“That’s not-so-veiled racism. And it’s very disturbing.”

Isaac loves his students’ creativity and intelligence, and the “raw people power” he sees. He’s disturbed at the obstacles they face. But he’s amazed, for example, that there is no centralized email system, making communication difficult.

When Isaac played basketball at Staples, he and his teammates had to pass through metal detectors at Central. That was the only contact he had with the school.

Now, he knows, students wait 40 minutes before class every day at those metal detectors. “That’s 3 1/2 hours a week of dead weight, lost time,” he says. “Staples has 12 doors, and everyone walks right through. I never thought about that.”

His young writers are already working on a news story and op-ed piece about that issue.

It will run without Isaac, however. He’s finally back at Chicago, ready to start classes.

But — hundreds of miles away — his legacy lives on. An editor-in chief has been chosen for the Criterion. A permanent advisor has been named.

And funds have been promised for the next 2 years.

 

 

 

 

Lia’s “Ices”

Lia Ices just got a nice shout-out from Entertainment Weekly.

On her 3rd album — called “Ices” — the singer-songwriter “still sounds like that art-school girl you had a crush on,” EW wrote.

“But her songs have gotten fuller and lusher. [The album's] warm wash of ethereal vocals and electronics belies its chilly title.”

Lia Ices

Lia Ices

Lia Ices is the stage name of Leah Kessel. She’s a former Staples Player who acted in “Runaways” and “Heidi Chronicles,” before leaving for private school and NYU (where she earned a degree in experimental theater in 2007).

Her influences include Iggy Azalea, the Cocteau Twins and — this will resonate with older “06880” readers — Steely Dan.

According to Elle magazine, she splits time between the Hudson Valley (where she records) and Sonoma, California (where she lives with her winemaker boyfriend).

“I can be super reclusive and hermetic, and then I can be in California and host dinner parties and drink wine,” she says.

The track below — “Higher” — is “a chirpy schoolyard melody spliced with a killer guitar riff,” Elle says. It’s her 1st radio single.

Let’s hope “Ices” turns hot as hell.

 

Governor Malloy’s Visit To Staples On Monday NOT A No-Brainer

Governor Dannel Malloy will be in the Staples High School fieldhouse next Monday (September 29) at 1 p.m.

He’ll sign a bill passed by the legislature earlier this year regarding concussion treatment and education in youth sports. A group of Westport mothers spearheaded the effort.

Here comes the governor.

Here comes the governor.

 

Help Pours In For Vera Mercer

On August 27, Vera Mercer was a passenger in a car. A friend from childhood — Gwendolyn Buskie — was driving Vera to Bridgeport Hospital for a C-section.

On I-95 in New Haven, they were struck by a tractor trailer, and pushed into the back of another truck. Gwendolyn was killed. Vera — a 1991 graduate of Staples High School — sustained major injuries to her brain and other internal organs.

She survived 3 surgeries that day. One was an emergency delivery of 7 pound, 4 ounce Camryn Faith.

Nearly a month later, Vera remains in the ICU. She is improving, but faces a long road to recovery. She still cannot speak.

Vera Mercer

Vera Mercer

Vera’s mother lives with the family. She suffers from dementia and other ailments requiring round-the-clock supervision. Vera had been her primary caretaker.

Vera’s friends — including many Staples classmates — are raising funds for Vera, via GoFundMe. They’ll help pay rent and utilities, and child and daycare for her 11-year-old son Christian and newborn Camryn (who has yet to meet her mother).

In the 1st 2 days since the fund started, over $7,000 was raised. Staples’ Class of ’91 is helping pass the word.

“06880” is proud to do the same.

(For more information, and to donate money to Vera Mercer, click GoFundMe.com.)