Eliza Schleifstein '89

March 2019
BREARLEY TAUGHT ME TO ADVOCATE FOR WHAT I BELIEVE IN. I am always the one who stands up, isn’t afraid to say what I think, advocates for my beliefs regardless of what the popular opinion may be and does it regardless of what the backlash is. Recently, I did it in my own small town in New Jersey at a Board of Education meeting where what I was saying was completely unpopular and I knew the room was against me before I even walked in the door. I have always wondered why I don’t think twice before doing it nor regret it. The answer is very simple: My Brearley education and the teachers we had as role models. Brearley taught us not to be dainty women, but to be strong thinkers with opinions who were not afraid to speak them, and speak them we did. When divesting Brearley’s investments in companies doing business in South Africa was important to us, we sang “Bread and Roses,” taught to us by the feisty Ms. Leonard, and staged a protest in the lobby of 610. When some of us wanted to take our feelings about this to the streets, we convinced members of the History Department to take us to a rally (with parent-signed permission slips, of course). We were taught to speak up for what we believed in, but if we were going to do it, it had to be face-to-face and we had to own up to our words. If we had a complaint, we were expected to walk into Mrs. Halpert’s, the Middle or Upper School offices and have respectful discussion about it. 

I believe that is where the phrase I often repeat to my girls comes from: “You can be angry as an adult, you can tell an adult, including me and your teachers, that you’re angry, but you have to do it with respect for their position.” It was a very different time from now when these dialogues often take place on social media and people can hide from human contact. Speaking your mind, standing up for your beliefs and not being afraid to do it no matter the venue in just as long as you can look the person in the eye is what we all have had ingrained in us. We were told to never be afraid to do anything as long as we could justify our actions. This is probably why I can still picture Miss Conant standing on the corner of 83rd and East End, arms crossed and tapping her foot as my entire senior class walked up from the crosstown bus. Why was she there? We were all 45 minutes late to school because we had something important to do-—take our class photo for the yearbook on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. We were not taking that photo until every single person arrived. For some of us like me, it was going to be the only “late” we had in 13 years, but we were proud of it and walked by Miss Conant like nothing was out of the ordinary, because we knew we had waited for every classmate and stuck to our decision to do just that. As my beloved Madame Kostka used to say when I was afraid to take a chance translating something from Latin to English or interpreting some passage from Ovid because it was completely different from what my classmates had said, “Eliza, think with your head, not with your feet.” I can still hear her thick European accent saying it, but the meaning did not come to me until I was adult: Don’t run from a challenge, embrace it, and as long as you can justify it, don’t be afraid to go against popular opinion.
That is probably the most important lesson I learned at Brearley.