Leading Outside the Box


Image courtesy of schoolchest.org

Noah Meyerhoff, Staff Writer

A coveted capstone for extracurriculars at Deerfield High School, or any high school, is the opportunity to lead a club, sport, or activity, usually in your senior year. Underclassmen look up to their leaders, their captains, their presidents, and some of them eventually take on their roles. This year at DHS, dozens of seniors assumed the mantle of leadership in a markedly different environment — they led in quarantine. Student Council president Rachel Nieder and Boys’ Swimming captain Ben Shapiro had to think outside the box as both of their activities were greatly impacted by the pandemic.

When these leaders found out they had gotten their positions, they didn’t know the full scope of the tasks ahead of them. Rachel Nieder, for example, found out that she had been elected president of the Student Council on the very last day of in-person school in March 2020. It immediately interrupted the club’s operations. “It was just such a whirlwind in that time,” recalled Nieder, “We definitely took a little bit of a break.” 

Further, uncertainty around how long the pandemic would last, or at least how long it would keep school closed plagued these leaders. Even through the summer, at the start of this school year, no one could know exactly how athletics would be affected. Swimming, as well as other sports, would eventually be barred from in-person meetings for several weeks, but when Ben Shapiro was chosen to be one of the team’s captains, he didn’t expect anything so drastic. Thinking back on the year, he said, “I knew that it was going to be different but I was not expecting the season to be cut in half, again.” 

The changes could be especially shocking for these seniors who had been aspiring to their roles since they were freshmen. They formed expectations of what it would be like and saw their own leaders as role models. Nieder reminisced about the 2017–2018 school year, recounting, “I really have always wanted to help lead since I started on [Student Council] my freshman year, when one of the presidents was my gym leader, Jessica Kaplan. I became close with her. I looked up to her a lot.” 

Shapiro described his own experience that year, saying, “Being a freshman, I always wanted to be a leader on the team. I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to be a captain. When you look at captains, you’re always, like, ‘Oh my god, they’re perfect.’ That’s how they present themselves.” Their expectations and their mental image of leadership was quickly challenged when they got the job.

Both the regular responsibility for captains and the hurdle of quarantine really turned these leaders’ preconceived notions on their head. For Shapiro, this meant realizing the dedication that his predecessors had exercised to maintain that perfect image. “Being a captain, obviously you’re not perfect, but you have to present yourself as such. You have to show all the underclassmen maximum work ethic and maximum discipline even when you don’t really want to or you’re not feeling great.” he explained, “You need to demonstrate a ‘next level’ of dedication to the sport even when you don’t really have the ability to do so.” Captaining the swim team is very physically demanding, which is something that Shapiro came to understand as he persevered this year. These ordinary responsibilities for leaders were only half of the battle. 

On Student Council, the pandemic presented a whole new level of challenges and difficulties. Nieder not only presided over all of Student Council’s biggest undertakings, as any president would, but also had to lead the effort to adapt them for COVID-19 safety. “School Chest was something we were a little bit nervous about. It’s always been a big community thing and the concern is always: ‘how many people can we get there,’” she said, “Of course, the pandemic threw that all out with having capacity limits. Especially it being in November, when things were getting worse. I was definitely having to do a lot of problem solving.” 

It is safely assumed that leaders in the past commonly had to deal with certain club crises inwardly. Both Nieder and Shapiro agree that there have always been problems and solutions that one would never even notice from an outside perspective because captains put on a smiling, confident face. Still, there is no doubt that the problem presented by the coronavirus was one of the most difficult that leaders have ever had to face.

Nevertheless, clubs, sports, and activities adapted. They came up with creative and innovative solutions and worked around this great obstacle. Besides meeting on Zoom, some major aspects of the clubs changed. One hallmark of the year for Student Council is the ‘Freshman Project.’ Usually, said Nieder, “The freshmen organize something — it can be for anything. It’s very open ended but they typically run something.” Last year, though, the newly elected president Nieder saw the freshmen choose a different approach. Right when quarantine was most intense, March and April of 2020, they looked at the heart of what Student Council is all about: serving the community. They decided on an online fundraiser for COVID-19 relief and raised more than $1000 on GoFundMe in only a few weeks’ time. 

Athletics made large adjustments, too. DHS boys’ swimming altered their entire conditioning strategy. “Normally, the first half of the swim season is conditioning, just breaking you down, getting as much yardage in as you can, building up your endurance capacity,” Shapiro explained, “This year we did more of a hybrid. We’d train really hard, but we’d also do a lot of stretching and a lot of loosening up the muscles.” This change, partly due to the circumstances, ended up paying off, especially for junior varsity. In the 2020–2021 Season, they set multiple conference records in junior varsity. 

Necessarily, these changes meant that some things were left behind. In their senior year, the leaders missed out on some of the most meaningful parts of their activities. Part of this comes from not being able to be with the people they have grown close to over the years. “At times I was definitely frustrated, especially in terms of School Chest. Having been the co-chair of that, that was an experience that has meant a lot to me. So much of it is getting to physically be at those events,” divulged Nieder, “Getting to physically be there, with the people you’ve worked with, is something that’s really special that I do wish that I would have had this year.” 

Bonding moments, whether on Student Council or on the swim team are crucial. It hurts when they are gone, as Shapiro lamented, “We had less meets. We had less practices. We didn’t have mornings. We didn’t have brunches. We had a lot fewer social events. That’s really disappointing.” Even though these experiences were missed, the fact that these activities still offered as much as they did demonstrates real success in the leaders’ effort toward “making lemonade.”

Finally, because of their leadership this year, these seniors learned valuable lessons. For Shapiro, “COVID taught us that as long as we put our work ethic and spirit first, we can overcome any disadvantage that comes up.” He will graduate with well-founded optimism about the power of determination. For Nieder, “What being a leader really is, and hopefully, what I was successful at, is that when things happen to you that are out of your control, you just have to roll with the punches and put all of your energy and focus into ‘what do we do now?’” She has gained an impressive resilience to challenge. Every activity leader learned from and was changed by their experience this year but — even more so — they changed DHS.