Learning from the Past to Better Our Future

Assembly at Commonwealth School is a rare opportunity for students to learn from special guests who bring an exceptional range of expertise, wisdom, and personal experiences. This school year has already been especially remarkable, as students and staff have been privileged to hear an impressive slate of speakers who could provide insight into the fraught times in which we are living. 

This fall, Commonwealth was honored to welcome Roy DeBerry ’66 and Anna Ornstein as they shared their personal accounts of surviving the Jim Crow South and the Holocaust, respectively. Complementing their visits, Saida Grundy, a professor at Boston University, and Mark Ludwig, the Director of the Terezín Music Foundation, also spoke to students, providing broader context to these periods of history. 

True to the founding of the school, which aims to educate engaged and responsible citizens, these speakers gave students the necessary historical framework and posed critical questions necessary to tackle complex issues and lead us into the future—a future with expanded rights and inclusion for all people in a protected and prospering democracy. 

From the Civil Rights Era to Black Lives Matter

Boston University Professor Saida Grundy left the Commonwealth audience with an important message: “Being too young to vote is not a barrier to being politicized.” 

This theme is no more evident than in the life of alumnus Roy DeBerry, Class of 1966, who spoke to students at assembly a week prior to Grundy’s visit. Born in rural Mississippi during the height of the Civil Rights movement, DeBerry’s life was full of political action before he turned 18 and moved to Boston for his senior year at Commonwealth. He spent his time working to get people in his community registered to vote and assisting civil rights workers who were new to town. At one point, he was jailed for two weeks for picketing and protesting. 

Mr. DeBerry offered up his personal account of life in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and provided lessons to inform contemporary movements. It was profound for him to have grown up in a segregated system and see it change over the course of ten years. His parents could not register to vote, while voting as a Black person was unthinkable in his grandparents’ lifetime. 

He emphasized the power of a community working together and the indomitable human spirit sustaining people during long Civil Rights battles. Qualities key to winning these fights? Leadership, sacrifice, desire for education, love for America, forgiveness, and hard work, DeBerry said.

One week later, Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Boston University Saida Grundy came to Commonwealth to provide students with more historical and social context of engaged citizenship. 

Ms. Grundy, like Mr. DeBerry, laid bare questions such as what it means to be involved and participate in our democracy, and, more importantly, who is denied that right and why. 

She explained how citizenship can mean different things, and how legal citizenship does not always translate to social citizenship. For example, one could be legally registered to vote and have political rights on paper but could be shut out from the polls via various methods of voter suppression, leaving one’s voice unrepresented in the political sphere. 

It is here that Ms. Grundy made the key connection between what students heard about in Mr. DeBerry’s presentation and what they are experiencing in the world today: civil rights was about formal citizenship; Black Lives Matter is about social citizenship. 

“What you’re seeing happening now has a long, long history,” she said. “The struggles you’re seeing now aren’t new, aren’t trends.”

Mr. DeBerry agreed on the importance of remembering the past: “This fight to bring about a more beloved community and a democratic republic that’s real for all people is still compelling. There are lessons which can inform your movements in 2020 and beyond.” 

Fighting for Survival in Concentration Camps

“The better informed about the past, the better you will be able to lead the challenges of the future,” Anna Ornstein told her audience of rapt Commonwealth students, faculty, and staff. Ignoring the lessons of the past, she went on, endangers us all.  

A survivor of the Holocaust, Ms. Ornstein spoke unflinchingly about some of the horrors she witnessed. She recounted being a Jewish teenager in Hungary and later Germany during World War II. After many years of house arrest for her father and forced labor for her brother, her family was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944 following the Nazi occupation of Hungary. 

Hearing this direct account was a humbling and awe-inspiring privilege.

Ms. Ornstein, today a celebrated psychoanalyst and author with over one hundred publications to her name, answered student and faculty questions, including describing how her experiences in the camp shaped her views on the field of psychology, forgiveness, and contemporary politics.

Ms. Ornstein was introduced to Commonwealth by Mark Ludwig, who spoke at his own assembly a week later. Mr. Ludwig is a Violist Emeritus with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the director of the Terezin Music Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the musical legacy of the artists imprisoned in Terezín (Theresienstadt), a World War II Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. 

He began what would become an impassioned reminder of the power of the arts (already near and dear to the hearts of all Commonwealthers) by asking students to imagine what they would do if they were at Terezin: What would they bring? What bunk level would they choose? What do they think squeezing 150 residents into a space the size of the school’s Cafegymnatorium would look and sound and feel like? 

Even in the dehumanizing conditions of the camps, art was made, Mr. Ludwig explained—even if that meant modifying suitcases into a fully formed drum set or cutting up a cello into small pieces, smuggling it in an overcoat, and gluing it back together inside the camp.  

Art and music in Terezin provided prisoners with distraction, comfort, and a means of documenting their unthinkable circumstances, like sketches of the inside of the bunks or a haunting melody with a secret message. 

“You need the human connection,” Mr. Ludwig said. “And art is so vital to being connected.” 

View upcoming Commonwealth assemblies.

Read about another fall assembly on the history and culture of Indigenous Peoples.