Monday, May 21, 2012

Isabel's speech to the Nick Berg Foundation

My daughter, Isabel Bauerlein, gave this 15-minute speech to the Nick Berg Foundation yesterday at the Days Hotel in West Chester, Pa. She was the initial recipient of the Nick Berg Scholarship when she graduated from Henderson High School in 2006. The award is given annually to students who who show high character and have interest and ability in music and/or science, two academic areas Nick Berg himself excelled at while attending Henderson. 

Emelia Del Grosso, a senior at Henderson who will be attending James Madison University to major in music in Sepetember, received the 2012 Nick Berg Scholarship yesterday at the Nick Berg Memorial Brunch. The text below is Isabel's speech to the Nick Berg Foundation. I hope you find it as inspirational as I did. I am very proud to Isabel's father. Readers who may want to contribute to the award in the future can reach its president, Luke Lorenz, at the Nick Berg Initiative, Inc. 

In Ray Bradbury’s futuristic short story “The Sound of Thunder,” the main character, Eckels, travels back to prehistoric times to hunt. When Eckels come face to face with a dinosaur, he freezes. He freaks. He cannot pull the trigger. He turns off the path and tears through the jungle, diving head first back into the time machine.

When Eckels returns to the present time, he opens the door to a world completely changed. Different language, different buildings, different government. Eckels looks down at his shoes and sees, embedded in the mud, one green and gold and completely dead butterfly. He falls to the floor in crisis, trying to wrap his head  around how the death of one butterfly could change the balance of time, setting off a chain of events like unstoppable dominos.

Small, seemingly insignificant events ripple through time and change the course of our lives. This happens every day. Steve Jobs, in his famous Stanford University commencement speech, talked about how you can only find these inciting events looking back retrospectively on your life. For Jobs, an inconsequential  calligraphy class he audited after dropping out of college, later became the inspiration to
include beautiful and creative fonts on Apple computers. He said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you have to connect them looking back.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous child psychologist, was working in D.C. in the late 1950s. On a rainy evening, he passed two women who were holding signs, protesting the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR. Though unfamiliar with the topic, he was inspired by their dedication, and this brief encounter led him to investigate the issue further. He later became one of the leaders in the nuclear disarmament movement. His involvement gave more legitimacy to the cause and helped bring the the issue to the forefront of the American political consciousness. Now, years later, President Obama has established a treaty to cut back both countries’ nuclear arsenals by one third. You never know what moment will become the spark that ignites a movement.

I got into the teaching profession because I wanted to make a real difference. I wanted to tackle all injustice and inequality and incite real change. I saw how teaching a kid to read could open up infinite doors of possibility in their life. What I didn’t know about teaching, was that you never really get to see your hard work pay off until years later. It was pretty jarring to come to the realization that, right now, I am merely planting seeds. Those seeds will grow in time, but it could take years to see how a connection I made with a student or a lesson that stuck might manifest later. I am overly idealistic, but not a particularly patient person. I want to visibly see them being propelled into success. The most I get is a shrug, an eye roll, a vacant, glassy stare from my students.

I am currently in my first year teaching. I ran into my grad professor after the first few months of starting, and he asked me how my year was going. I described it as “being in the trenches.” I literally feel like I am in the front lines of a battle. Sometimes, I feel like a Roman gladiator, getting ready to face a lion. The days I come out victorious are few and far between. Usually the lion eats me alive.

I teach 7th grade reading and English in a rural middle school outside of Nashville, Tennessee. When I tell people I am a middle school teacher, I get one of three reactions: “oh, bless your heart,” “what were you thinking?!”, or “wow, that’s brave.”  Everyone says the first year is the hardest. Everyone says it gets better. I’ve decided that, statistically speaking, it must get better than this, otherwise there would be no second year teachers and the entire public education system would fall apart. It’s hard to feel like you are making much of an impact at all on hormonal, amped up 12 and 13 year olds. One student could not control his flatulence and showed no embarrassment at letting it rip in the middle of my lessons. Another asked me if I talked so fast because I was a Yankee. Another accidentally kicked another student in the groin. Ooops!?

Hollywood got it totally wrong. I am still waiting for my "Stand and Deliver" moment, and no one has called me “Captain, My Captain” yet. I have to remind myself that some impacts start small and resonate later in bigger ways. I am hoping, with fingers crossed, that some ounce of a love of reading, some droplet of appreciation for writing, some piece of a lesson on treating others with respect, some dash of curiosity will sit with my students and manifest later. I have faith this will happen, because I know that I have been impacted by several teachers in ways that may have seemed small to begin with.

Mrs. Gilland was my third grade teacher. She was a tiny, jolly woman who always wore cotton gloves because she was horribly allergic to chalk, dust, paper, and most airborne things. Before we opened a book, we would gather around her piano and belt out everything from “America the Beautiful” to “Let it Be.” She planted the idea that I was a musician. I loved watching her little gloved fingers work the keys. I could feel the music in my whole body and I was uninhibited when I sang in that class. I went on in 4th
grade to select trumpet as my instrument and band became a central part of my identity.

Later in high school, I went on perform in district and regional band and I marched five seasons with Henderson’s marching band. I followed in my brother’s footsteps and marched four years in the Bluecoats Drum and Bugle Corps. Mrs. Gilland planted the seed of music. Over the years, it was nourished in such a way that I’ve played French horn in every city I’ve ever moved to as an adult. It is easy, looking back, to connect the dots and see how Mrs. Gilland set me on a life path that would be filled with musical adventures around the world.

Mr.Umile was my AP English teacher. I knew he was going to be different than any other teacher when I first stepped into his class junior year. Mr.Umile was young, he proclaimed he knew Bam Margara from high school, he played bass in a band, and was listed on IMDB as having acted in low budget indi movies. He made being an English nerd look cool. He pulled out a guitar and sang vocabulary to us. We read "Catcher in the Rye" and he lamented, “man, I wish I could go back and read it again at your age. You’ll
never connect to it as much as you will right now.” He valued our insights despite our age, and he talked to us like adults. He infused each lesson with humor and creativity, art and music. One day we would dig into Bob Dylan lyrics and then the next, we would dissect a T.S. Eliot poem. I learned that my voice did matter and that my opinion was important. I went on to study English Education because of that class and now I find myself in front of 135 students acting part thespian, part comedian, part musician, part drill sergeant, part motivational speaker.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and down about this first year teaching. But, when I actually take a deep breath and look around, I am surrounded by inspiring people every single day. I have several great coworkers that are pretty wonderful role models. At Shafter Middle School, I teach with a man named Ryan Williams. He teaches Science and runs the track program. The kids call him simply, “Coach.” He is a master at catching kids who would normally cause problems in the classroom and builds relationships with them instead. If I didn’t know that Ryan was a 7th grade Science teacher, I would have thought for sure that he was a rock star. Kids swarm around him, bask in his presence, try harder, care more, study hard to win his approval and praise. All of his students dress up in formal attire to take his midterm and final exam. These apathetic 7th graders who care more about their hair and their cell phone, actually get excited for science class.

Ryan, an incredibly fit 29 year old, just came down with stage four melanoma thatm metastasized as a tumor in his back. It has been shocking to see what the chemo has done to his body. His commitment and drive and enthusiasm during his treatment melts my first year teaching woes into near insignificance. I have never seen someone work so hard to get back to work. He would come right from chemo treatments to school,
sometimes stealing a quick nap at his desk when the kids went to lunch. His commitment to being a positive force in the kids‘ lives is unwavering. His impact with the kids and his coworkers is monumental, and there is no telling how far and wide his presence will reach.

It’s not just the teachers, but the staff that is pretty great. Our janitors make a mere $7.50 an hour. Many work two jobs. They work harder than anyone else in the school. They show up before the sun rises and stay far past the darkening of the evening sky. They clean up the messes of 12 and 13 year olds without complaint. They polish the floors and empty the trash cans. They take pride in their work. This year, Sumner County was millions of dollars over budget. Of all costs to cut, they proposed to outsource the janitorial positions. I was inspired by the overwhelming outcry of outrage, among students, teachers, and administration. “How can you outsource family?” one teacher wrote. The janitors were left hanging in limbo for months, not knowing if their benefits would be cut, if they would be without jobs after the April 17th ruling. I am incredibly inspired that my coworkers stood up and spoke out on their behalf. The opposition was so loud that Sumner Country decided to find other places to cut costs.

Sometimes in the chaos and shuffle of the day, it is easy to forget that I am teaching children who have tremendous responsibilities outside of this school. 70 percent of my students are on free and reduced lunch. For a lot of students, Shafer gives them the only two meals they will get that day. One student has five siblings. Her mom works the night shift and is asleep when she gets home from school. She rushes home after school to hurry up and get her homework done before her siblings get off the bus. She plays with them and makes them dinner, and waits for her grand mom to come over at 7 p.m. to stay with them through the night. She is a straight A student and she is a vigilant attendant at the after school literature magazine I help run. She is sweet and kind and optimistic about her future. Her drive as a 12 year old takes my breath away.

I feel lucky to have grown up with a mom who instilled a sense of independence and self reliance within myself. When she told me that I could do anything I could putm my mind to, I believed her. I’m not sure if she regrets this, or is proud of this trait, as it has given me the desire and the ability to just pick up and leave the country at random. I went to Australia for a study abroad program and after graduating from college, I spent a year in China. The spicy schiwan noodles, the towering skycrapers in Shanghai, the busy streets, the tiered pagodas. Big things stick out and still do, but the smaller details can only be recalled when I pull out my photo albums. What does stick out in my memory, without any photo album crutch, are the interactions I had with incredible people around the world. People stand out in your mind in ways that architecture or
landscapes can’t.

You don’t need a picture to remember Nick Berg. He is a man whose intelligence and compassion graced the world in resonating ways. After reading all of the anecdotes on the Nickberg website, it is obvious that this man reached out and affected many people. So many people look back on interactions with him and connect the dots to how he changed their life. People like Katie Werner, who knew him as a camp counselor when she attended a short science summer camp as a kid, recalled that his love for science was absolutely contagious. She went on to take Physics in high school because of her introduction to Bergology years prior. Over and over again, friends and acquaintances describe the pleasure of knowing him as, “unforgettable,” “influential,” “life changing.”

People who have crossed paths with Nick mention little events as memorable. It’s the science summer camp, or a drive with a friend from college back home for winter break, or a casual conversation in a dorm room, or a memory from high school marching band that stick out. These moments set our lives in motion in undetectable ways. Much later, we can look back and connect the dots. With a little distance, we can
see just how much of an impact those fleeting moments made. Just like Dr. Spock’s brief encounter with a sidewalk protestor, brief encounters with Nick Berg resounded in large ways for everyone who met him.

I regret that I was never able to meet Nick in person. However, winning this scholarship in 2005 as a high school senior linked me to him forever. It gave me the opportunity to learn about his life, his family, his friends, his vast contributions. I am honored to have my name tied to a guy who was so compassionate and driven and philanthropic. I feel a good sort of pressure to live a life that embodies these traits.

I am honored to be here to help continue the scholarship in Nick’s name. I am so happy to see the love and support in this room and the pledge to continue doing good in his name. Nick’s presence continues to send out positive waves of influence. Carli Shillingford, Nick’s friend from high school may have said it best in her anecdote. She said, “sometimes people come into our life, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same. I can safely say for many of us, that we will never be the same after having the gift of knowing Nick Berg.”


  1. What an inspirational speech by such an amazing young person. This reminds me to keep working hard as you never know whose life you will impact in a positive way. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Your daughter is a remarkable young woman. I was present for her speech -- my daughter is the 2012 recipient of the Nick Berg scholarship. Like Nick, your daughter is a wonderful role model. Her speech was insightful, moving, beautifully written. And her presentation was phenominal...such poise! Isabel is certainly a wonderful role model for Emilia, her students, and others who have the good fortune to know her.

  3. Chuck you have reason to be proud. Found myself envious at the clear train of thought and the clarity of her words.
    Great job.

  4. I was there to hear her speech Chuck. She did an incredible job, one would have thought she were a professional speaker! Our best wishes for her future which surely seems bright!

  5. Hello Chuck, my name is Donald. I work in Nicaragua, and I was the person in charge of "training" Isabel for her work here in the Peace Corps. I have had the pleasure of learning first-hand that the pride you feel for your daughter is well justified: she is one of our strongest volunteers, having a solid background in teaching that reassures not only her fellow volunteers, but also her Nicaraguan work partners. She is insightful and dedicated, and we are very lucky to have her here, supporting Nicaraguan English teachers. Congratulations to you and your family, Chuck, for having Isabel... and for supporting her in the work that she does here.

    Donald Ugarte
    Training Specialist
    Peace Corps Nicaragua

  6. This is a well written speech, impressive, intuitive and especially reflective. I wrote a poem "School is a Zoo" about my first year of teaching. My mentor/coworker who remains a close friend to to this day, was the one person who help me make it through the beginning trenches. I too wondered how an established profession was still so difficult to master in the first year. Year three you find your zone and then you are definitely hooked on learning for others and yourself, for life. Teachers are always on the front lines of the trenches. And the best teachers stay teachers; we didn't get into the profession to manage schools. I retired after twenty-six years from teaching in public schools. In the back of my mind I plan to have my own preschool when my own children have children, but after all my "children" from school I'm not sure I'll ever be a Grandmother, and I'm OK with that. I may start a preschool anyway. So plant seeds and know that you have helped to connect dots for others every day. Maybe one day you'll have an offspring as awesome as you are. Stay strong, call your family and friends to stay renewed in the face of adversity, and smile anyway. (Katie Adams's Mom, she sent me this link.)