Meet Commonwealth Students: Jo '23

Having previously been homeschooled, Jo '23 wasn't sold on the idea of going to a high school. They knew they wanted an intellectually rigorous curriculum, but they loved the freedom homeschooling afforded, and they had a close-knit group of friends. Then they visited Commonwealth for an admissions event—and from those first moments surrounded by books and cerebral conversation in the library, there was no turning back.

Now Jo has found a new niche—well, perhaps several niches—as they delve into ceramics and jazz, brain-twisting math and storied histories, with equal relish. Keep reading to get to know them better. 

Related: Explore our academic offerings.

Getting to Know You

What's bringing you joy right now? 

My cats, Artemis and Apollo. They're adorable. They definitely bring me joy. And I've been loving my art classes. Last spring, I really missed getting to be in the studios. I'm taking photography and ceramics this year, and it's so much fun.

What is your favorite book (or a book you've re-read)?

Oh, no! Don't ask me that! I love literature. I can probably give my favorite fiction authors: C.J. Archer and Sarah J. Maas. They write fantasy mostly, on the guilty-pleasure side of fiction. 

In terms of nonfiction, I really love first-hand historical commentary. One book I've read multiple times is Shocking the Conscience. It's about one of the few African American journalists [Simeon Booker] to venture into the deep South during the 1950s and 1960s. He did a lot of the first-hand reporting that helped kindle the Civil Rights movement and brought it to mainstream media.

Outside the arts, what was/is your favorite class at Commonwealth?

I've always been a history nerd. I love stories, and to me history is just a bunch of interconnected stories about how we got to where the world is right now. 

In Medieval History this year, one of the summer reading books was Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, about a very powerful prince who gets exiled from his homeland and has to fight his way back to reclaiming his rightful throne. We, as a Western centralized society, don't really read stories from Africa. Most African cultures have oral histories, so even though some of those stories have been around for thousands of years, we don't think of them as classics. But it's awesome to be able to read these stories.

Before Ancient History last year, I'd never had a history course that went so far back in time where there are real primary sources to read and analyze. The first time Ms. (Audrey) Budding pulled out a primary source, I was like, "Wow, we can read what ancient kings wrote on a piece of granite." I really loved that. 

And I think we do a really good job in our history course of not only learning the facts, but also trying to conceptualize stuff and put things into context. A thing I love about Commonwealth teachers is that they go meta—"this is what I'm teaching you, plus this is how to think about what I'm teaching you." We not only read Hemingway, but we ask what does Hemingway teach us about writing? 

What are your favorite comfort foods?

Oh man! I love my mother's chicken and rice soup, with a bit of lemon juice. Definitely cookies as well. Lebkuchen, a German cookie like ginger-bread, is a favorite of mine. I help my grandmother make them every year for the holidays. 

Pen or pencil? 

Depends on the situation! Pencil is my go-to though because erasing is my number one hobby. Pens are for special occasions, like fancy annotation or drawing. 

Life as a Commonwealth Student (and Beyond)

Why did you choose Commonwealth?

Prior to Commonwealth, I was homeschooled, and I was initially pretty resistant to the idea of going to high school. I had a group of friends. I really loved homeschooling, loved the freedom. 

But I was not being challenged academically, not having fulfilling discussions about the coursework. Then I walked into Commonwealth and I heard: "Come have hard academic classes. Come do lots of fun arts. Talk with your peers and with teachers about the stuff you enjoy learning about." 

I was like, "Oh, this is one hundred percent where I'm supposed to be."

What was the application process like? 

The way [Commonwealth's admissions team] handles the application process is great. Going into it, you're a little stressed, because it's an academically rigorous school. You're wondering, am I going to be smart enough, be good enough to get in? 

Then they have you write something for a forty-minute period: "We don't care what it is—we just want to see that you have ideas." That was a really good way for an academically challenging school to see past the opportunities people haven't gotten up to that point and see their potential.

You're heavily involved in Commonwealth arts; can you elaborate on that experience?

Freshman year, I took Beginning Photography and Jazz Band, and I managed to also get some experience in printmaking and ceramics—it's amazing what you can do when you ask nicely! 

This year, I'm taking Advanced Photography, Jazz Band, and Beginning Ceramics. I love it. We have the best arts teachers. They're so knowledgeable and incredibly funny. They're willing to teach you everything they know and help you learn things they don't know. It's a continuous learning process for everyone in all of our studios, and that's absolutely phenomenal. 

We have a darkroom [at school], so I've been doing film photography, and that's something I've never done before. Ceramics also has a real learning curve. I finally made my first bowl that is not perfectly lopsided. In basically all the arts, it doesn't matter what you create; you will learn something from everything you do, and I think that's a really important perspective to have.

In terms of performance arts, I'm in Jazz Band, and there's something about an hour-and-a-half rehearsal every Tuesday afternoon that just brings people together, you know? And, of course, our teacher, Mr. White, really loves jazz and telling us about the music. This year, because we are virtual, we've been doing a lot of listening and watching old recordings, like Cab Calloway.

I also do a lot of music outside of the school. I study privately with a teacher, and I'm also in a high school group through Berklee College of Music. I play folk music, and there's just a great folk community around Boston. My primary instrument is violin, my secondary instrument is guitar, my tertiary instrument is my keyboard, and I also sing. Basically any instrument I can get my hands on, I want to learn.

What has the hybrid learning experience been like?

It's every teacher taking a lesson plan they've perfected over the last five, ten, twenty years of teaching a class and completely up-ending it, figuring out "how do we do that when half the kids are on a Zoom call?" I think it's a testament to how awesome our teachers are, how much they genuinely care about their classes, in all of the work that they've put in.

But it's been weird, especially for arts. Every week I bring home a slab of clay. And now everything is through Google Classroom. So it's been an adjustment. But I think people have been doing a great job generally.

I have to shout out to my friends for their constant support. Last year we always sat at the same lunch table, and when we went remote, everyone who had ever sat there met virtually. There were actually more of us than actually fit at the table. It was just a way to stay in touch and stay connected. 

What extracurricular activities are you involved in?

I am one of four people co-running our school's GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance), so we shoulder the responsibility, which is really nice. Teamwork, folks! We pick and strategize totally different conversations to have every week. It has been really fun.

I am also the resident sound engineer for the Commonwealth theater program. 

How has Commonwealth compared to your expectations?

Before coming here, I never had a friend who knew more math than I did. Now, my friends are split about fifty-fifty between people taking higher level math courses and people taking the same or lower level math courses than me. And it's great. I have friends who are doing Theoretical Calculus homework, and I'm like, I have no idea what you're talking about, but it sounds cool. And that's exactly what I wanted.

I've always wanted to be in a place where I'm continuously being challenged not only by my teachers but also by my peers, and that's what I've gotten. Everyone is genuinely interested in learning, even if it's not their favorite subject. And that's just so cool. 

It's such a great learning environment, because everyone actually likes learning and teaching, and then you, by proxy, get excited about stuff that your friends are getting excited about. And so then everyone's just excited. That's great.

Intrigued by the ceramics, art, and photography studios Jo mentions? Explore them all on our virtual tour. (Hint: two are on the top floor!)