Summer Stories

Summer Stories
Summer Stories
By Sacha Zimmerman

Each year, rising juniors and seniors at the Upper School face the age-old choice: What should I do this summer? Some need to save for college, others want to explore potential careers, some are driven by a cause. For the five students featured on the following pages, last summer offered opportunities to help children, learn new skills, pursue big dreams, and literally to soar to new heights.

At the Movies

Sometimes, all it takes is one class to spark a life’s ambition. For McKenzie Manley ’24, that class was taught by Lely Constantinople. “She helped me realize that I really enjoy photography and film,” says Manley. “The entirety of my sophomore year, we were studying different artists and their impact on the world. I realized that I wanted to do something like that, too.”

Manley began to look at art and film with a more critical eye. She recognized the emotional weight that shows like HBO’s Euphoria had on her, and Manley decided she also wanted to “make that impact on someone.” Some research and an application led her to the UCLA Film and Television Summer Institute, an intensive two-week production workshop designed for high school juniors and seniors.

“On a daily basis, it was: Go to class, have a couple of lectures, then we’d do some hands-on work,” Manley says. The goal of the program is for the students to work on two different original films in two different roles, such as cinematographer, director, writer editor, or producer. “The first week, we learned about filmmakers, their decisions, and cinematography,” she says. “Then, we were producing and making our own films. We started making shot lists and got really intense with how we wanted each shot to look and the way it’s set up.” Once the vision for the movie was created, it was time to film.

For one project, Manley acted as the cinematographer on a film another student in the program wrote—a mockumentary that Manley describes as The Office meets the reality show Too Hot to Handle. The film featured professional actors from UCLA. But while the director worked with the actors, Manley concentrated on the visuals: “I was really focusing on the shot list, the image of the film, and how we wanted it to be portrayed.” Finally, the group turned to editing—“a lot of editing”— before wrapping up their projects.

When not at UCLA this summer, Manley volunteered at Jill’s House, a nonprofit in Vienna, Virginia, that provides short-term respite care for families raising kids with intellectual disabilities. Parents get a day or two to recharge, and their kids get a camp-like atmosphere with fun activities tailored to their abilities. “It helps children with learning and development disabilities whose needs can’t be met at traditional summer camps,” says Manley. “A lot of them are nonverbal, and it’s really hard to connect when you can’t communicate well. And because it’s hard to connect, it’s so much more meaningful when you do. But just seeing them happy and thriving in a place that was made for them—because the world isn’t—is special.”

For Manley, connecting with the kids at Jill’s House and connecting with her fellow students at UCLA were the best parts of her summer. “I met all kinds of new people from all over,” she says of her friends at UCLA. “Everyone has their different perspectives and experiences, and we were all working really hard together for two straight weeks, so we built some pretty close bonds.”

At the end of her two weeks at UCLA, Manley’s parents came to an official screening for the students’ films—an event that encapsulated “the entire learning experience,” Manley says. “Going from an idea to the preproduction stages, to the production stage, to the shooting day, then editing, and then finally watching it.” With a photography class at Sidwell Friends as a kind of analog inspiration, Manley went on to learn cutting-edge film techniques and ultimately produced her own film. “I’m so happy that I took Ms. Constantinople’s class,” Manley says. “She exposed me to a whole new world.”

“I think sometimes people don’t want to try new things because they’re scared of the outcome or that they might not be immediately good at it,” Manley says. “But everyone has something they can add or share. If you put yourself out there and try new things, it might turn out really nicely.”

La Vie en Francais

The saying good things come to those who wait is something Bobbie Pesner ’23 well understands. Last spring, as she contemplated the end of her School Year Abroad experience in the Brittany region of northwest France, Pesner decided she wasn’t done with her French immersion experience. Taking the initiative, she coldcalled the spokesperson at the French Embassy in Washington to inquire about a summer internship. And then the wait began as she lived out the school year with her host family in Rennes, Brittany’s largest city.

“Between having my classes in French and my host family speaking only in French, I picked up the language really, really fast,” says Pesner, who has enjoyed a linguistic journey few can match. She grew up learning Hebrew at Jewish Day School, taking a little Mandarin Chinese in an after-school program, and then joining a Spanish class when she started at Sidwell Friends in 6th grade. It was at the end of that 6th grade year, when teachers from the School’s French and Latin departments came to speak to students about their new language options in 7th grade, that Pesner considered French. “I had not made up my mind about any language at all,” she recalls. “I just remember talking to one of the 7th and 8th grade French teachers, and I just loved her. She explained how the curriculum is involved with learning about French culture, and she totally just convinced me to start taking French.”

Four years of French later, she was living in France. But when the year was wrapping up, she still hadn’t heard back from the embassy in DC, and summer was fast approaching. “I was really, really interested in pursuing the French that I picked up and taking it back home and doing something with it,” says Pesner. “I just wanted to keep up my language ability.” So, she took a job in Bethesda at Fresh Baguette, a bakery that prides itself on both French technique and special French equipment. “Fresh Baguette has a lot of French customers,” Pesner says. “I didn’t really know this community existed in DC before taking this job. We live in such an international city.”

Meanwhile, Pesner’s request to intern at the French Embassy finally worked its way through the bureaucracy there. The embassy spokesperson, Pascal Confavreux, offered her an internship in the communications department doing social-media outreach. “I interviewed with them in French,” says Pesner. After getting her security clearance, she finally started work in August. With just a few weeks before the start of school at Sidwell Friends, it wasn’t a long internship, but it was an incredible experience. “I learned a lot, and I was speaking French every day,” she says.

Pesner’s favorite embassy memories include being able to have authentic French moments with her coworkers. “The culture there was inviting and very culturally French,” she says. “The food was super good, and lunch time was very long. I was eating with other people who worked in the embassy and so I got to learn about people’s lives.” Ultimately, Confavreux asked her to consider applying for one of the college internships at the embassy next summer. Longer term, Pesner hopes to make French part of her higher-education plan— maybe a French major, maybe another year abroad.

Happy Camper

Sidwell Summer, run by the School’s Auxiliary Programs department, provides incredible camp choices every year. There’s woodworking, debate, STEM skills, a Summer Equity and Justice Institute, arts, fashion, and a lot of sports. This past summer, Sidwell Summer offered more than 60 different summer programs and hosted more than 1,700 campers from around the Capital region, across the country, and even around the world. But most campers will agree, it’s the counselors who really make each summer a blast.

“Sidwell Summer prides itself on a great staff,” says Elizabeth Mayer, the director of Summer Programs at Sidwell Friends. “You see it first thing in the morning during carpool, in the middle of the day in the classroom or on the field, and at the end of the day when campers are still having fun in Extended Day.”

For counselor Chali Taylor ’23, working for Sidwell Summer is a family tradition. His older brother, Chilamo Taylor ’20, spent several years entertaining campers himself before recommending Chali for the job. “My brother had a super good relationship with everyone around him,” says Chali Taylor. “I saw what camp was like. I saw that he was working with kids and coming on campus every day, and everything is super accessible. So, then I got into it as well.”

Taylor has now spent the last two summers helping campers nail down their tennis skills and “just keeping it fun and entertaining.” That’s something he excels at. “Chali’s personality is perfect for camp—he is fun!” says Mayer. “He would be on the court playing with campers and be having a good time right alongside them. Chali’s comfort with Sidwell as he engages with campers helps guide parents and helps them interact with other staff.”

That comfort with the campus translated into comfort with the campers. “My favorite part about being a counselor was engaging with the kids,” says Taylor. “Just talking to them and letting them go on and on about whatever they were doing over the summer and interacting with them. I especially liked being able to work with kids from all different ages this summer.” One group stood out, however. “The youngest age was the best one,” he says. “I found they actually listened more than the older kids!”

Taylor’s favorite memory from this past summer was a small moment. “This one girl got her glasses broken—someone had accidentally snapped them—and I promised I’d get her another pair,” he says. “I went to the Sidwell Summer office and got them.” The Auxillary Programs department has all kinds of Sidwell Friends merch—including brand-new Star Fox sunglasses. “She loved them,” says Chali. “It was the happiest thing I’ve ever seen! She ran around playing all day long. That was the best.”

Mayer isn’t surprised. “A great camp counselor can think quickly on their feet, likes to have fun, and is willing to try new things,” she says. “No two days at camp are the same and we need staff like Chali, who can adapt and enjoy what each day brings!”

The camp schedule also gave Taylor some flexibility. Before and after the summer term, he was able to make several college visits. (He’ll be saving most of the money he earned this summer for college.) But before college, there’s still another summer. “I would love to come back as a counselor,” Taylor says, “and I hope the kids would love to have me back.”

Taking Flight

“I have always liked heights and I also always wanted to see the world,” says Chris Ballinger ’23. “That’s what pilots do.” And it is what Ballinger really wanted to do this summer. Now he is Sidwell Friends’ very own 17-year-old licensed pilot and one of the youngest Black pilots in the nation.

He started by applying to a three-week program with the Aim High Fly Academy. But the people at Aim High, perhaps sensing Ballinger’s seriousness of purpose, actually referred him to a more rigorous program: the Air Force Junior ROTC Flight Academy, a selective, tuition-free, eight-week program held at universities around the country. Intended to inspire high schoolers toward aviation careers, the ROTC scholarship is a partnership between the aerospace industry and the Air Force meant to address the national pilot shortage. The next thing he knew, Ballinger was accepted out of thousands of applicants as a cadet and was on his way to Walla Walla University in Washington state.

As soon as he was on the ground, Ballinger was right back up in the air. In order to get the flight hours necessary for his license, the new cadet would practice and take instruction six full days a week for two months. Prior to arriving, Ballinger’s experience in the cockpit consisted of some flights in small planes with someone else at the controls. Now he was preparing for a solo flight and his certification.

“Being able to fly every single day, week after week, was probably my favorite part of the summer,” Ballinger says. “I was able to fly six out of seven days. It was amazing being in that environment, where I was able to wake up and have my whole life, my whole world be about flying. I wasn’t worried about much else besides getting my job done and becoming a pilot.”

Ballinger says the only time he was ever a little frightened was his first time behind the controls. “You do get that first initial fear—I’m up in the air piloting a plane!—but it didn’t last long for me, because I felt so comfortable,” he says. Perhaps even more comfortable than in a car, because the program gave him so much knowledge about the plane itself and how the systems work. “When I’m driving, I don’t know every single thing about the car,” he says. “But with the plane, the more you know about it, the more comfortable you feel. That helps you prevent any accidents from happening and learn how to help yourself in case of an emergency.”

His ultimate moment was the solo flight. He prepared by creating his own flight plan, which routed him to another airport. “I didn’t have anyone else to rely on,” he says. “I had to put my skills to the test.”

By the end of the eight weeks, Ballinger passed all of the tests and requirements—55 hours of airtime—to get his single-engine license. It’s a small step toward the minimum 1,500 hours needed to qualify for a commercial license, but—no surprise—Ballenger is unphased. He intends to get a lot of that flight time in during college, where he plans on pursuing military aviation—he hopes at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Climate Change, a Drama

Elson Bankoff ’23 is a leader in the grassroots environmental-justice movement Fridays for Future, and she is the co-editor-in-chief of Ecosystemic, an international student-run journal. In her sophomore year, Bankoff started researching climate legislation—and why Congress routinely shuts it down. That’s also when she started writing: “I wanted to do something with the theme of passivity,” she says, “and if the bells would ring”— that is, if society would sound the alarm on a looming crisis it had mostly neglected. “I used my own experience growing up in DC and having been around all these insane levels of politicization of this crisis.”

Bankoff’s writing evolved along with her coursework at Sidwell Friends. “I was reading Pride and Prejudice and Macbeth,” she says. “Then we had a poetry unit on Romanticism. Everything I was reading in the classroom was influencing what I was writing about.” But the curricular influence didn’t stop in the English Department. “In Latin American history, we were learning about systems of power and exploitation,” she says. “The themes and the discussions we had in those classes allowed for the sense of critical thinking that helped me develop the plot, the characters, and my language.”

Things took a turn when Bankoff asked a Fridays for Future friend named Anna, a young Brooklyn activist, to read Bankoff’s finished play, If The Bells Would Ring, a two-act political drama. The reaction was immediate: “We are producing this,” Anna announced. That was last spring.

From that point on, Bankoff knew what she would be doing over the summer. Soon she and Anna were cold-calling hundreds of theaters throughout the Northeast. They advertised for actors on “It was just two of us—16 and 17—doing this out of our rooms,” recalls Bankoff. At one point, Bankoff decided that meeting strangers over Zoom required an adult presence. Another connection at Fridays for Future introduced her to a producer, someone who had organized events for climate organizations and who had produced several TED Talks. That’s when the project got technical. They had to find sound and lighting designers, cast actors, make everyone a contract, and get insurance. On her 18th birthday, Bankoff even started an LLC to protect the production legally. The play’s new producer also pointed them to The Tank, an off-off-Broadway venue that acts as a kind of creative incubator and is free to use except for a stipend the theater takes out of box office revenue. 

Soon the play had a tribe of people behind it—including those with budget, production, costume, web, and marketing experience—most of whom pitched in for free. The group applied for grants and received $7,000 from Fridays for Future USA and Fridays for Future NYC. They also earned grants from New York Youth Climate Leaders (NY²CL), the Broadway Green Alliance, and Ecosystemic. “Our budget started growing,” says Bankoff, “and we decided from day one that we were going to try and pay the actors as much as possible” after covering all the required costs.

Opening night was September 16 during Climate Week NYC. Bankoff was not only the play’s author, but its director as well. Zachary Harvat, the School’s English Department interim chair, and a large group of Sidwell Friends students took a bus to New York for the premiere. “I’m just so grateful that I’m in a community where, if you do something really cool, your friends and teachers are going to be so, so supportive of it,” says Bankoff. The play, which featured a professional Broadway actor in the lead, ran for three nights. The actors even got paid. “It was really unlike anything I’ve ever done,” says Bankoff. “Every single person there wanted to be there and was passionate about the project.”

For Bankoff, the force animating every aspect of the play is not the performing arts; it is first and foremost the climate crisis. “I keep learning these new skills while also being able to connect it back to the broader movement,” says Bankoff. She notes that public policy, which she plans to study in college, and governing can make change at a powerful scale—but they aren’t the only ways. “You can write, you can tell stories, you can do journalism like we do at Ecosystemic, you can organize protests with Fridays for Future,” says Bankoff. “There are so many different mediums and so many things you can do—it’s amazing.” And, if you are Elson Bankoff, you can do them all.

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