Slurping Dried Yak Cheese with Leslie Cushner

Originally published on The Pillar, November 2012

by Haley Zovickian ’13

If you are ever cruising down 680 in the morning on the way to Danville, keep an eye out for a woman driving her car with one hand on her heart and the other on the steering wheel repeating, “May all sentient beings be happy and enjoy the roots of happiness.”

That would be Leslie Cushner, Athenian’s bubbly, Tibetan-speaking new addition to the Humanities Department. If you are in one of Cushner’s classes—Freshmen Literature, Explorations of Justice, or Modern Classics—you know that the “may all sentient beings be happy” chanting is not only completely normal, but also really charming; it is all part of Cushner’s love and kindness practice. That Cushner takes time out of her day to actually promote compassion, in fact, encapsulates her entire persona.

Born and raised on the East Coast, Cushner is the type of person whom you want to have a heart-to-heart with. She is an outspoken, but never pushy, vegetarian; she has a passion for dead languages and speaks Tibetan (“I like translating dead languages,” Cushner explains, “because you get to play with it a little before you have to write it down. In order to be good at spoken languages, you have to be able to send things very quickly from your brain to your mouth, and that’s very hard for me.”)

Cushner tries to take a trip every other summer to India; last time she went, she taught English to children whom she dubs “little monks.” As someone fascinated by religion but not extremely religious herself, Cushner used to try to understand spirituality objectively. When she saw the Dalai Lama during one excursion to India, however, that changed. “I cried when he first was really close to me, and then I just started laughing…there was this type of uncontrollable joy. It was sort of this ecstatic experience,” says Cushner. “I realized that as much as I had been trying to understand religion as an intellectual pursuit, that there were parts of religion that I had never experienced like that. And so now I just try to be open and to learn as much as I can. When I’m allowed, I love participating in religious rituals, because I find all of them really meaningful.”

Sounds a little like experiential learning, no?

Cushner loves new experiences. She has traveled to the mountains of Tibet and slurped dried yak cheese (“It’s an acquired taste,” she admits). She pursues hobbies that bring her joy—dancing, singing, arts and crafts—even though she may not be good at all of them: “I had this friend in college that played the trombone, and he stopped playing for awhile because he thought he wasn’t getting any better—and I just thought, Lalala, I would just play the trombone and have a great time, even though it would sound awful!” Cushner is quirky in the best sense of the word: she is unrelentingly herself and never apologizes for it.

Unsurprisingly, Cushner is extremely approachable—just ask her about any Wes Anderson movie—but do not be fooled: she is never afraid of tackling controversial topics in class, especially around ones issues of morality. “I grew up in a really privileged environment,” says Cushner. “I went to private school my whole life; so I feel like social justice issues are not necessarily at the forefronts of our minds all the time when we live in such a sheltered community. I feel as though we have a certain obligation towards social justice, and I feel like (we should continue to) challenge the bubble and safety that we live in.

“And I feel to a certain extent that because we live in this safe, nurturing environment, that there are things we think we believe but that actually, when push comes to shove, maybe we wouldn’t necessarily believe,” states Cushner. “So I think we should test out what we think are our moral systems and try to get a deeper understanding of our own morality. I wonder if it’s possible to live your life in a way where we live in accordance with things we believe in, and that (those ideals) aren’t just things you try on sometimes.”

A worthy deliberation, to be sure.

Cushner has lived in California for three years now, and though her knitting has suffered due to a perceived lack of need for big sweaters on the West Coast (don’t worry; I tried to argue that our winters do get relatively foggy), we hope that she stays here for a long time.


The Beat Goes On…Athenian Students Get Into the Rhythm of South Africa

Originally published on The Pillar, November 2012

by Sarah Newsham ’15

If I stop playing for a minute, I can feel the beat pulsing through me, the collective beat of 400 drums playing in time together, 400 pairs of hands slapping down on the plastic drums, and 400 voices yelling the melody back at full volume. My hands are red and painful from the frenzied, repetitive drumming, but the noise and stimulation makes it easy for me to ignore them. I can barely distinguish the sound of my drum from the sound of the drums around me and the crisp, syncopated beats coming to me from the stage through the speakers around me.

* * *

My fellow drummers are delegates of the 2012 Round Square Conference in South Africa. We were not given any explanation about what we were about to do, we were just told to all get a drum and sit down. It is about 8:00 p.m. and we are at an outdoor theater about 45 minutes away from Penryn College, the school hosting the conference. We had smoky BBQ chicken for dinner as we listened to Penryn students perform in small groups.

There is a drumming group that has come bearing drums for us to play. They get no introduction, but just get up on stage and begin playing. The six guys in jeans and t-shirts on stage are all smiling really big and look like they completely enjoy what they do for a living. There is no pressure for us because no matter how loudly or how out of sync we play, we will be drowned out by the collective noise and the steady beat of those on stage. The energy is amazing. People who back in their respective countries would be the cool, laid-back kids are really into it.

A few of the students from Penryn are dancing in the middle of the amphitheater. As our hands become tender and raw from drumming, more and more people get up to join them. Along with my new friend from Thailand, Minnie, who was born in the year of the mouse and named after Minnie Mouse, I join the throngs of people dancing. I have never danced to simply a drum beat before, but it was easier than I would have expected. I didn’t care how silly I looked, because I had never seen or met most of these people before and they would probably not remember me. Even if they did, I didn’t really care because I was enjoying myself so much.

Big circles of people form and someone leads a dance move or movement that everyone else follows. It is the kind of thing that would seem really stupid by yourself, but when you are doing it with several dozen other people it is entrancing. Circles break up and form new circles as leaders emerge. Every now and then the lead drummer sings out a phrase and everyone yells it back. Maybe it is in Zulu or something, but it sounds like gibberish to me, and even more like gibberish when 400 teenagers from different countries yell it back.

When I was in middle school, as a community building day we had someone come to our school with 150 drums of various sizes and types. This is how I remember it: the whole middle school sat in the main hall in a big circle on chairs that had been set up in neat rows. No one was allowed to touch an instrument for the first half hour or so while we talked about (or rather were talked at) respecting each other by playing only when we were supposed to. We were told that a drum circle would help us build our community and bring us closer together. The drummer who had come to teach us clearly explained what we would be doing. Then we finally got to play, certain groups at a time playing exactly what he told us to. Other sections were gradually added in a very organized, structured way, and after each activity we stopped and discussed what we had noticed and learned about playing with others.

My hands at the end of that day were exactly the same color as they had been that morning. I remember feeling frustrated that during the community building day, we had spent so little time drumming and so much time talking about drumming.

* * *

When the time for the final piece comes, the drummer with the microphone starts singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” the South African National Anthem. The plurality of students at this conference is from Penryn or other schools in South Africa, and many of the students start singing at the top of their lungs. I can feel their pride in their country and history, and for the first time I feel I am beginning to understand African culture. Mark had suggested we try to learn as much as we could of the national anthem before we left, and I am glad that I am able to stumble through the first verse (there are five different languages represented in their national anthem). I know no one can hear me and none of the other students would care, but after two weeks of witnessing foreign views of Americans, I feel happy that I made an effort to learn something about this country. As I head off to the bathroom in an attempt to beat the rush following the performance, I try to imprint my brain with the feeling of this night; the feeling of being absolutely and totally one with a group of 400 people, all completely different from me, but in that moment completely unified.

Read more about the trip here:

Photos from South Africa

South Africa: A Soup Kitchen, a Skull, and a Dance Party

Greetings from South Africa!


Africa photo from

7th Annual Darfur Benefit Show

By Lori Vanderveen ’13

For nearly a decade, the Darfur region of Sudan has suffered from persistent genocidal violence and government oppression. The conflict between Darfuri rebel groups and the Sudanese government proxy fighters has left an estimated 300,000 dead and nearly 2 million people displaced in refugee camps.

For seven years, Athenian students in the Holocaust seminar have produced and hosted an event called the Darfur Benefit Show to raise awareness and money for victims of Darfur’s genocide. What began as a tear-filled night with survivor’s testimonies has evolved into a performing tradition, showcasing Athenian’s talent from all grades and sending the school into a Darfur T-shirt hysteria. The cause has become very close to the Athenian heart.

Many people would say that the time to help Darfur has passed: with the 2011 peace agreement, the conflict is officially over. Are Athenian’s benefit shows now irrelevant?

Sadly, Darfuris still need global support. Although the conflict is officially over, fighting continues in the region and millions are left suffering in refugee camps. The threat of violence has not subsided: this past August, 25,000 people were forced to flee a refugee camp in the midst of more fighting. The situation between the Sudanese government and Darfur is deteriorating, and the 2011 agreement may soon add to the list of numerous other broken peace agreements from the last 10 years.

The seventh annual Darfur Benefit Show and Silent Auction is coming up—on Thursday, November 29th at 6:30 pm. This year, the silent auction’s inventory boasts a weekend getaway to Lake Tahoe and Warriors tickets. Performing talent comes from all grades.

Proceeds will go to Darfur Peace and Development, a non-profit run by Darfuris in the U.S. DPDO focuses on long-term relief solutions for Darfur. Among their projects is the Schools Program, which aims to increase the availability of education in Darfur. Many children have lost several years of schooling due to the conflict, and DPDO is working to build schools in refugee camps and even a rare high school in North Darfur’s capital, El Fasher.

Donations will also support DPDO’s Women’s Program, which helps many widowed Darfuri women who struggle to provide for their families in the wake of the conflict. The women’s center provides much-needed medical care, loans for starting careers, and psychological support for the many women who have suffered rape. DPDO has also been actively involved in the peace process that resulted in 2011’s agreement between Sudan and the rebel groups. They are continuing to work with both sides to facilitate diplomacy to end violence in the region and Athenian is proud to support their efforts and draw attention to the continued conflict in Darfur.

Charriot Races, Olives, and Poleis

The 7th grade celebrated Greek history and culture today with Panathanea Day in the Middle School.  Grouped by Greek city-states, or poleis (plural of polis), students competed in Greek Olympics, performed original plays, cooked Greek food, and collected olives from the olive trees.  They have been preparing for this day in their art, history, and English classes.  In art, they made chitons (the Greek version of a toga) and altars based on their polis’ characteristics.  They have also been crafting and practicing their plays for several weeks.  Throughout the day, the students were challenged to work with their fellow city-state members, exhibit good citizenship and sportsmanship during the Olympics, and appreciate the multifaceted aspect of ancient Greek society.

The olives the students are picking will be pressed to make Athenian olive oil!  If you’d like to help pick the rest of the olives for this harvest, join other olive pickers tomorrow, Saturday, November 9, 2012 from 12pm-2pm.

Science Teacher is National Frisbee Champ

Alicia Dantzker, Athenian’s newest biology teacher, is a national-level competitive Ultimate player. Alicia started playing Ultimate in college for Stanford and has played in competitive adult leagues ever since. Alicia is currently part of a Bay Area team called Fury, which has won the national prize seven years in a row! This year’s championship was in Sarasota, Florida, and Alicia helped her team win the championship with her speed, defense, and amazing lay-outs. Congratulations, Alicia!

UltiPhotos: Women's Final Fury vs. Riot -- All Photos --  2012 Club Champs &emdash; usau_women_final-53-58

UltiPhotos: Women's Final Fury vs. Riot -- All Photos --  2012 Club Champs &emdash; Sunday Women's Finals -- 2012 Club Championships

UltiPhotos: Women's Final Fury vs. Riot -- All Photos --  2012 Club Champs &emdash; Women's Final - Fury vs. Riot - 2012 USA Ultimate Club Championships

UltiPhotos: Women's Final Fury vs. Riot -- All Photos --  2012 Club Champs &emdash; usau_women_final-38-25

Photos from


Mock Election Results

Read about the mock election here.

Dear Community,

Thank you to everyone who came out to support the sophomore US History classes by participating in Tuesday’s Athenian Mock Election.

Your votes have been counted and the results are in! Here they are:

President & Vice President: Barack Obama & Joe Biden

If you would like to see how Athenian’s results compare to the state of California, you can check out this link.

The election included grades 6-12, as well as faculty and staff, so we thought you would be interested in seeing a breakdown of voter turn-out by grade level and among faculty and staff:

6th Grade:         36%
7th Grade:         40%
8th Grade:         68%
9th Grade:         65%
10th Grade:       84%
11th Grade:        54%
12th Grade:       57%
Faculty/Staff:   40%

Congratulations sophomores for your high voter turn-out, and we would also like to thank the 8th and 9th grades for coming out in record numbers!

Thank you again for your support of democracy and the sophomore class!

April and Stephanie, U.S. Studies Teachers

Cross Country Ends Season as League Champs

Congratulations to the Cross Country Team!

Men’s Varsity League Champions (2nd year in row)
Men’s JV League Champions (1st time in school history!)

Women’s Varsity 2nd place
Women’s JV 2nd Place

Individual Champions
Women’s Varsity: Laney Inamine
Men’s Varsity: Tanner Shaw
Men’s JV: David Weinmann

Recap of the League Championship Meet

by Phillip Hadley, Coach

Four titles were on the line this record breaking (nearly) hot afternoon at Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland, in the BCL East League Championships.  Three of those  four titles were earned by our runners: Tanner Shaw (’13) repeated as league champion as he led the boys’ varsity team to a second straight league title in defeating second place CPS, 32-56; Laney Inamine (’14) set Athenian history as she became our first league champion from the girls’ side.  In a fine display of dominance, Inamine crushed the competition as she led from start to finish and only increased her lead as the race continued.

Shaw re-wrote league history this afternoon as his winning time of 14:41 not only eclipsed his championship effort from last year of 15:00, but he also ran the 5th fastest time ever on this 2.6 mile course which dates back to 1995.

Those also contributing points to the varsity victory were Cameron Taylor (’13), 3rd place; Charlie Thimesch (’13), 4th place; Gabe Elliott (’13), 5th place; Alex Ball (’14), 19th place.  Freshman Eric Strand and senior Ryan Zlock rounded out our top 7.  Shaw, Taylor, Thimesch and Elliott all earned First Team All-League Honors for their speedy legs today.

For our girls’ team, they also rewrote the Athenian history books as they shattered our best league championship score 84-46.  Those also scoring points today were freshmen Annalise Inamine and Rebecca Elliott; Melise Knowles (’14) and freshman Jillian Freeborn.   Haley Carter (’15) and Emily Golding (’14) came across the line just two seconds apart.  Along with Laney, Annalise and Rebecca were named First Team All-League and Melise was issued Second Team All-League honors.

History was not only made by our varsity runners as the junior varsity boys’ team showed that they have a bright future as they dominated the JV race, led by junior David Weinmann as he had his best race of the season in winning the gold.  This marks the first time that an Athenian has won the JV league championship race, and the first time we have won the JV team title.  Joining David in scoring victory were freshmen Anthony Ottati, Matthew Chabala, senior David Kerns and sophomore Nick Morales; juniors Will Brown and Krishna Peri rounded up the top 7.  It is notable that of the top 9 spots in the JV race, 8 of them went to Athenian.

Of those competing at Joaquin Miller Park again, the following runners improved their personal best on this course (mm:ss): seniors Cameron Taylor (00:21) and Charlie Thimesch (00:15) juniors Alexander Ball (2:05), Tzofi Klinghoffer (1:23), Krishna Peri (00:37), Tanner Shaw (00:19), David Weinmann (00:30), William Brown (00:45), Emily Golding (00:50); sophomores Laney Inamine (1:57), Nick Morales (1:43).

For those top 9 boys and 9 girls going forward to the NCS Championships meet on November 17, and hopefully to the State Championships on November 24, they have several more workouts to attend.  The remainder of the team is welcome to train with us, but is under no obligation to do so.

Thank you to those parents that brought food and drink, but I apologize for not knowing exactly who those generous people are.

Mock Election

The sophomore U.S. Studies classes are holding a mock election today.  They will share the results and compare them to national results in the next week.

French Students Meet Director of Oscar-Nominated Swiss Film

Three French classes (the advanced courses) went to an event sponsored by the Cultural Services of the French Consulate for Bay Area high school students and organized by the San Francisco Film Society’s Youth Education Program. We saw the film “Sister” directed by Ursula Meier, and the film will be shown at the Oscars this year. We were very fortunate that the director of the film was present and answered questions that students had about the film (most of them in French). Her comments were insightful and definitely led to a better understanding of this rather complex film. The director, Ursula Meier, is in the front of the picture, slightly to the left. –Elisabeth, French Teacher

Ballot Measure Summary: California Propositions 33-37

Athenian Mock Election 2012

Voter Guide

Prepared by Stephanie and April’s 10th grade U.S. Studies classes

BALLOT MEASURE SUMMARY: Propositions 33-37

Proposition 33

Auto insurance companies.  Prices based on driver’s history of insurance coverage.  Initiative statute.


Changes current law to allow insurance companies to set prices based on whether the driver previously carried auto insurance with any insurance company. Allows proportional discount for drivers with some prior coverage. Allows increased cost for drivers without history of continuous coverage. Fiscal Impact: Probably no significant fiscal effect on state insurance premium tax revenues.

 What Your Vote Means


A YES vote on this measure means: Insurance companies could offer new customers a discount on automobile insurance premiums based on the number of years in the previous five years that the customer was insured.


A NO vote on this measure means: Insurers could continue to provide discounts to their long-term automobile insurance customers, but would continue to be prohibited from providing a discount to new customers switching from other insurers.

Proposition 34

Death penalty.  Initiative statute.


Repeals death penalty and replaces it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Applies retroactively to existing death sentences. Directs $100 million to law enforcement agencies for investigations of homicide and rape cases. Fiscal Impact: Ongoing state and county criminal justice savings of about $130 million annually within a few years, which could vary by tens of millions of dollars. One-time state costs of $100 million for local law enforcement grants.

What Your Vote Means


A YES vote on this measure means: No offenders could be sentenced to death under state law. Offenders who are currently under a sentence of death would be resentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The state would provide a total of $100 million in grants to local law enforcement agencies over the next four years.


A NO vote on this measure means: Certain offenders convicted for murder could continue to be sentenced to death. The status of offenders currently under a sentence of death would not change. The state would not be required to provide local law enforcement agencies with additional grant funding.

Proposition 35

Human trafficking.  Penalties.  Initiative statute.


Increases prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions. Requires convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders. Requires registered sex offenders to disclose Internet activities and identities. Fiscal Impact: Costs of a few million dollars annually to state and local governments for addressing human trafficking offenses. Potential increased annual fine revenue of a similar amount, dedicated primarily for human trafficking victims.

What Your Vote Means


A YES vote on this measure means: Longer prison sentences and larger fines for committing human trafficking crimes.


A NO vote on this measure means: Existing criminal penalties for human trafficking would stay in effect.

Proposition 36

Three strikes law.  Repeat felony offenders.  Penalties.  Initiative statute.


Revises law to impose life sentence only when new felony conviction is serious or violent. May authorize re-sentencing if third strike conviction was not serious or violent. Fiscal Impact: Ongoing state correctional savings of around $70 million annually, with even greater savings (up to $90 million) over the next couple of decades. These savings could vary significantly depending on future state actions.

What Your Vote Means


A YES vote on this measure means: Some criminal offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who commit certain nonserious, non-violent felonies would be sentenced to shorter terms in state prison. In addition, some offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who are currently serving life sentences for many nonserious, non-violent felony convictions could be resentenced to shorter prison terms.


A NO vote on this measure means: Offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who commit any new felony could continue to receive life sentences. In addition, offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who are currently serving life sentences for nonserious, non-violent felonies would continue to serve the remainder of their life sentences.

Proposition 37

Genetically engineered foods.  Labeling.  Initiative statute.



Requires labeling of food sold to consumers made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. Prohibits marketing such food, or other processed food, as “natural.” Provides exemptions. Fiscal Impact: Increased annual state costs from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $1 million to regulate the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Additional, but likely not significant, governmental costs to address violations under the measure.

What Your Vote Means


A YES vote on this measure means: Genetically engineered foods sold in California would have to be specifically labeled as being genetically engineered.


A NO vote on this measure means: Genetically engineered foods sold in California would continue not to have specific labeling requirements.

Learn More:

KQED’s Proposition Guide