What do you recall about your first day at FS?
My first impressions of Friends were during my interview in 1994. I was attending the Middle School Meeting for Worship on a warm spring day. Upon entering the Meeting House, I can remember the sweet smell of wood emanating from the benches and floor. Back then, we did not have any cushions and the students were expected to sit in silence for 10-15 minutes. I recall being impressed by how still the middle school students were during worship and looked around to see if anyone was as fidgety as I was. I was sitting directly across from Pam Wood, the Head of the Middle School at that time. She was the one in charge of my interview. I felt more antsy than any of the students. Dressed in a suit on a warm day in the Meeting House did not help calm my nerves as my forehand began to bead up with sweat. I did not have anything to wipe off my perspiration, and I kept wondering if Pam was taking note of this. Fortunately, I did get the job and have been at Friends ever since.
Who is your favorite teacher of all time?
This is a difficult question for me to answer. I have had many wonderful teachers throughout my education, but I would say that the one teacher who truly ignited my interest in learning and teaching Spanish was my middle school Spanish teacher, Señora Amdur. She was an interesting mix of dramatic, demanding, and quirky, but commanded tremendous respect from her students. She often spoke to us about the importance of knowing another language and traveling to other cultures outside the United States in order to develop a better understanding of one another. Later in life, I came across a quote by Mark Twain about how traveling can combat intolerance and racism,* and I often wondered if she was inspired by his quote or if it was her personal experience of traveling that lead her to a similar conclusion.
What has been the most memorable experience of your FS career?
I have had many wonderful experiences here at Friends, but the most memorable and life-changing experience for me happened through teaching Irina Hon (‘13). Irina was enrolled in my Spanish class a couple of years after my mother had died, and little did I know how Irina would change the way in which I would perceive the world.
Growing up, I only had one parent—my mom. And like anyone who comes from a single-parent home already knows, that parent serves as both your mom and dad. My mom raised my brother, sister and me by herself, often working double shifts as a nurse. We were well-cared for and as we matured, we often marveled at how she was able to do everything single-handedly. That’s the unique power of love—it compels you to go beyond what’s possible. A few years before I met Irina, my mom developed a rare cancer and only lived a few months after her diagnosis. When my mom died, the whole meaning of life radically changed for me; I started questioning certain beliefs at that time. Close friends and family kept telling us that she would always be there looking out for us, but I found myself becoming more skeptical of this idea because, in my mind, there could be no concrete way to prove this connection.
Irina was enrolled in my Spanish class a few years after my mother had died. Irina came to Friends as a new seventh-grade student, having recently arrived from Uzbekistan. She was a superb student and a kind person. She was always smiling, spoke with a squeaky voice at times, and endeared herself to her classmates and teachers. Whenever she scored less than perfect on quizzes and tests, Irina was disappointed and would complain to her fellow classmates who took no sympathy at her receiving a 95%.
Irina was diagnosed with brain cancer the summer before ninth grade. Despite her illness, she soldiered on and made an effort to show up for Spanish class whenever she could. By April of that year, she was too fragile to attend classes. School soon ended for the summer, and I was not in contact with her during the break.
I went to Spain that summer to take a photography course and later joined my sister to travel through the northern part of the country. On the eve of my sister’s arrival to Madrid, I went to a dinner party and returned to my hotel much later than I had anticipated. With only a few hours of sleep before I had to pick up my sister, I went to bed stressed, knowing I would have to rush to the airport to pick up my sister with only a few hours of sleep. That night, I had a dream in which Irina appeared and said in her squeaky voice, “Hola, Señor Shin. What are you doing?” She looked healthy like the first time I had met her as a seventh-grader, and not the frail Irina we had come to know. Baffled at how she got into my head at that moment, I awoke completely frightened by this dream and could not sleep afterwards.
My sister and I traveled through Spain, and I returned to New York in late August. When checking my school email account for the first time that summer, I learned that, to my regret, Irina had passed. With mouth agape and goosebumps dotting my body, I stared motionless, transfixed by the date of the email—July 18—the date my sister arrived in Spain, the same day in which Irina appeared in my dream. How could this possibly happen? One can argue that Irina’s passing and her appearance in my dream were just a coincidence. For me, however, this experience has completely altered the way I view life. It made me realize that similar to the physical and emotional ties we make with one another, there are spiritual connections we forge with each other. No matter the state or dimension we find ourselves to be, I believe we are truly interconnected with one another.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I remember Richard Eldridge, the former Head of School, asked me the same question at my first interview. I was young and envisioned myself more on the West Coast despite my East Coast upbringing. I replied, “not here,” and remember him chuckling at my response. Now that I have been at Friends for over 26 years, I cannot imagine myself anywhere else. Friends Seminary is home to me.
* From Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”