Sharon Parnes ’63


Remarks from Chris Williamson

Dr. Sharon Parnes, Class of 1963, has been a pediatric neurologist for many years, improving the lives of children and their families as she helps us understand how our brains work and can heal. That is what a “neurologist” does, and pediatric means she works with children your age and a bit older. She will talk with us about that in a few minutes, and I suspect you will have some questions for her.

An alumna (woman) or alumnus (man) is Latin for someone who has graduated from a particular school. Mr. Collings’ students can explain the declensions. We have a number of alumni (the plural) at Applewild, people who attended here the way you do today, who then graduated and are making a difference in our world. How many of you remember earlier Laverack Family Alumni Award recipients like Dr. Andy Wexler (Operation Smile), Rev. Ian Douglas (whose love of learning came from Applewild and sense of community responsibility from flooding the hockey rink) and Margaret Williams (who told us about global warming and showed us polar bear photos). Our first alumni started school here in 1957 and graduated in 1960. I call students who attended in the 1950’s and 1960’s Applewild’s “Pioneers” because they were part of starting the school. Dr. Parnes is one such Pioneer, in more ways than one. It is a pleasure today to be welcoming back to campus a few of you Pioneers who were our first alumni.

Many of you have already met Persis Laverack, wife of our first Head of School William Laverack. She was also an Applewild Pioneer. She walked into Crocker House the spring before it was even a school, carrying her baby son, when the house did not have any school furniture in it. She went on to be instrumental in the development of Applewild. Thank you for being with us. The service provided by the Laveracks, Bill and Persis, is why we have the “Laverack Room” in Crocker House, and it is in honor of the Laverack family’s foundational contributions to Applewild that we are proud to present this alumni award. Thanks also to alumni and friends of Sharon who are back to celebrate with her, along with her husband Brien.

Students, are you ready to use your brains? What reunion is this for the Class of 1963? What year will it be when the Class of 2014 has your 50th? (2064) That’s essentially 100 years, past present and future, represented in this room – an interesting and somewhat daunting fact to those of us up in the front! What grade is the Class of 2020? (2nd grade) When will the Class of 2020’s 50th be? (2070) Be sure you all come back to Applewild often, and especially for your 50th !

So Dr. Parnes is an alumna, back at Applewild for her 50th reunion, and being honored with the Laverack Family Alumni Award. We recognize her first for her outstanding work as a pediatric neurologist, because we at Applewild care a great deal about helping children lead healthy and productive lives. You have devoted your life to that, Sharon.

We also honor you for a reason that may make you uncomfortable. When Sharon graduated from Applewild in 1963, or Bennington in 1970, there were not very many women doctors. Women might be teachers, nurses, or social workers, like your mother, but this was a time when women did not naturally think they could aspire to be medical specialists, supreme court justices, secretaries of state, or even president. In fact, for many years one of the brain teasers I would pose to students about a doctor walking into an emergency room and saying “I can’t operate. That’s my son,” was puzzling precisely because the assumption was that doctors were all men. Students today, Sharon, seldom find this brain teaser puzzling, and that is in part because you have been a pioneer in your profession. I spoke to fourth graders the other day about the personal stories that make up history, and your story is one of them. You have in your self-effacing way acted as a beacon for women physicians and helped times change. You might not call yourself a feminist nor want to be credited with having been a trail blazer, but you are a perfect reminder of how change happens incrementally, when individuals take on the challenge on a personal level of acting on their beliefs.

Dr. Parnes wanted to fully engage all of her abilities, and that led her from an undergraduate degree at Bennington to being one of only six women in her class at Dartmouth Medical School. She still remembers how surprised professors were when she and others asked to actually see patients as part of their early medical training. Originally interested in pediatrics, it was on such a visit that Dr. Parnes became fascinated by how the brain works.

I would like to claim that Dr. Parnes owes all of her interest in medicine to Applewild and teachers such as Jarvis Hunt, but her friends and classmates tell me that her father was a doctor, so perhaps we need to share some responsibility with your dad and your mom, who’s example of pursuing a career undoubtedly was part of your family story.

As important as Dr. Parnes has been in the lives of her patients and as a role model for women, she has left an indelible impression on those who know her well, and that is the third reason for her recognition today. An early Laverack Family Alumni Award winner, Patsy Simonds Taylor, Class of 1965, wrote me that “Sharon was in my cousin Jill’s class and therefore I admired her for being older and (presumably) wiser in my eyes. She was one of the very smart ones in that class.”  By the way, Sharon, Patsy has landed safely in Turkey and emailed me, “It snowed as I got off the plane and I heard the call to prayer outside the Blue Mosque last night.” She regrets that she cannot be with you.

Michael Schechtman, Class of 1961, recalls that you and your family lived across the street from him, and “you did the car pool thing from Applewild to Leominster many an afternoon.” He wonders if you have perfected your lay-up on the basketball court. And he sends best regards from the mountains of Montana. So does Dave Shea, John Chittick from Virginia, Brookie Chandler McCollogh from Maine and Deb Goldman from Florida.

John Simonds, Class of 1966, has let me know from California that both Sharon and her brother Herschel, also ’66 and with us this morning, were “really smart” but you were always self-effacing and understated about it. John encourages me to offer you a pun. The best I can do is suggest that it is obvious that — Neurology “REflex” well on you. . . .

I will close by relying gratefully on your classmate Mitzi Ware, also with us today, who has written eloquently about your influence. As you students listen, think about when you first came to Applewild, or about a friend who has recently joined your class. Mitzi recalls that you came to Applewild in seventh grade.  It was 1960, a big election going on (Kennedy from Massachusetts was running against Vice President Nixon), and she recalls, “You were a Democrat, highly unusual in our vociferously Republican class, and you held your minority status well.”  Mitzi was “intrigued with this new quiet girl, who appeared to always be thinking about and evaluating things, due to an expression of concentration and slightly narrowing her eyes, often when she was thinking hard. After awhile she became less quiet, and her pithy sense of humor became quite evident.  She was very amusing, and raised the level of our middle school humor admirably. Sharon was very smart. She did well academically in history and science, and then walked away also with the Susan Winthrop award for Creative Writing.” [That, by the way, was an early indication of the many pulls on your life that you have felt as you have pursued singing, Spanish and other interests while supporting family and always caring for your patients.]

Mitzi continues:

“What was most revolutionary for me about Sharon was that she upended my conception of girls’ ability at the sport of softball.  She was simply an amazing softball player.  She was pitcher for the Greens — and the Whites, well they never had a chance against this one.  She threw effortlessly and fast.  She was great up at bat.  She threw sidearm, which I remember perfectly.

A graceful performance, effortlessly repeated, on a small playing field at Applewild, is a small metaphor for the graceful performance Dr. Sharon Parnes lives every day with the grueling demands of her work.  She has navigated such an incredible career with tremendous skill, humility, indefatigable energy, and love.”

Remarks at Laverack Award Ceremony – December 13, 2013

My friend and classmate Mitzi Ware and I often refer to Applewild as the “warm and fuzzy school”. Reading about
Applewild’s core values, I wasn’t able to find warm and fuzzy literally, but I was able to find respectful, compassionate, cooperative, communicative and collaborative; and taken together, it all means warm and fuzzy. And that is very much how I experienced this school.

Reading down the list of Applewild’s core values was interesting. The list hadn’t been listed when I was a student here, but I recognized that the school supported those values then. One was civic-mindedness. I arrived at Applewild in seventh grade in the fall of 1960 interested in politics and current events. Within a few months of arrival my classmate John Chittick and I were engaged in a presidential debate in front of the whole school: Kennedy vs. Nixon. Maybe you have read, as I have, that the greatest fear of Americans is public speaking! And there I was, the new kid in school, speaking in front of everyone! Applewild encouraged us to pay attention to current events and think critically about them. In public! That was a way of developing a sense of ourselves as citizens. Both John and I have been politically active throughout our lives, and it began here.

What made the debate an even more frightening experience was that the school was very Republican at that time, and I was virtually born a Democrat. My classmate Jessica Waugh and our beloved English teacher Mr. West and I were the only Democrats in the whole school. There was even a Young Republican club, and all my friends were in it. This set up another situation where one of Applewild’s core values, responsibility, had to be dealt with. What a decision I had to make – to join, be with friends, but be a Democrat in the Young Republican club, or not to join and be left out of their fun activities, like meeting former president Herbert Hoover. (Really.)  I wasn’t sure what to do. What would you have done if you had that choice – to join a club with your friends even if the club did things you didn’t believe in, or be left out? I asked the club’s adult advisor, and she said, “Sharon, that’s a decision you are going to have to make yourself.” I felt like a giant boulder with a big R on it, for responsibility, had just come down on my shoulders, because that was new for me – I had always had help in making decisions before.  But she was right. Taking responsibility is very hard, but you learn a lot, including about yourself. I joined the club, but soon left because it felt dishonest. There were other ways to be with my friends.

It isn’t listed in the core values, but I believe that Applewild teachers saw each of us as an individual, with strengths and weaknesses, and supported our strengths and helped us deal with our weaknesses. When I came here I loved sports. The year before, at George St. School in Leominster, I had written a petition asking for the girls to have our own basketball hoop on our side of the recess playground.  It was signed by all the girls. I presented it to the sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Follansbee, who crumpled it up and tossed it in the wastebasket. At Applewild, my love of sports was encouraged and was right in line with some of Applewild’s core values of fairness and cooperation, and at that time many girls were not really encouraged to get involved in sports. Creative writing and art – I loved it all, illustrating the literary magazine and drawing comic strips in class. After Applewild, I had a hard time in high school, and Mr. Laverack wrote me an encouraging letter about getting back on my feet. He believed I could, and it helped.  I did get back on my feet, but it took a year. Thank you, Mr. Laverack!

That is what I see as a school’s job: to see each student as an individual and to bring out that individual’s potential – intellectual, emotional, physical and moral. That is what Applewild is doing for each of you. I know that some schools aim to turn students into a certain type of product, not taking into account who each student is as an individual. I know because I have been to so many schools: high school, college, medical school, pediatric residency, neurology residency and fellowship. Some schools want to produce only leaders. But what if you only want to quietly pursue your craft, and let’s say it’s managing forest growth? Who are you going to lead – the trees?  I’ve worked in departments where the head of the department was brilliant, but deeply introverted and too shy to talk to anyone. So we need to know ourselves and what we can do, and what we’re good at. It can be hard for us to figure this out on our own. Our teachers can help us with that.

What does a person do who finds everything interesting? We need to narrow things down. There is history, because history is the study of everything. I studied history in college. But what will I do, after studying the history of everything?  Medicine was in my background, as my father had been a doctor and when my brother and I were little, we lived above his office and I used to go down to the office after hours and look at the medical books, with their fascinating and scary pictures. I wanted the kind of work that would be endlessly fascinating and in which I could help people, and so I became a pediatric neurologist, a kind of doctor who tries to understand how the brain works and try to help kids with illnesses that affect their brains.

I hear that you’ve read a book about fantastic elastic brains, so you know something about brains. I am going to ask you a few questions about brains, just so I won’t have to do all the talking here.

  • What color is the brain?
  • True or false:  When you touch a brain it feels like jello.
  • True or false:  When you touch a brain, the brain can feel it.
  • True or false:  At birth we have all the nerve cells we will ever have.
  • The brain and the mind are the same – true or false?
  • What are the differences between a brain and a computer?

Some of the most common reasons that kids come to see a pediatric neurologist are seizures, tics, and ADHD. Do any of you know anyone who has ever had a seizure? To explain what a seizure is, I’ll need to explain a little about how the brain works. The brain is made of billions of tiny building blocks, called cells, and each of them generates a tiny amount of electricity. The electricity generated by one cell can’t do much, but there is strength in numbers and strength in unity, so when a good-sized group of cells all fire off a lot of electricity at once, something happens: I raise my arm, I tilt my head, I speak, I think. When this happens but not on purpose – too much electricity is fired at once – that can be a seizure. My arm begins to shake, or my leg, or my head turns to one side, or I could fall. It happens and we can’t control it, we may not even be aware it is happening. Fortunately most seizures are short, lasting about a minute or two on

average, and stop on their own. And fortunately, there are a lot of medicines that can stop seizures, so that people who have had them don’t have them anymore and can do things like play hockey in the NHL and become chief justice of the United States – chief justice Roberts takes medicine for seizures, and so do about 1 out of every 100 Americans.

Seizures have also taught us a lot about how the brain works. Using wires that can pick up electric currents, we can often tell where in the brain a seizure is coming from. If a seizure makes me raise my right arm, and these wires called EEG leads say that the extra electricity is here (left side – Powerpoint), then we know that that area controls my right arm, whether the right arm movements are on purpose or are part of a seizure. If it’s on purpose, this is what happens: If I am going to reach for and eat an apple, first I see the apple (here), which signals (here) that it looks good to eat, then that area signals the SMA (here) to plan, in a split second how I’m going to get the apple – we unconsciously imagine the movement we need to make before we actually move – which signals this area (here) to reach for the apple. Down here, the brain stem signals us to chew and swallow, then we’re done with the apple. So all these brain cells work together as a team, or a network, to help us do what we want to do, whether it’s eat apples, learn Spanish, or play basketball.

Sometimes brain cells don’t work as a team in the same way.  Instead, they try to control other brain cells. This is what happens in ADHD and tics. Do you know kids who have ADHD or tics?  What do you think causes them to do that?  This area here, the basal ganglia, can do anything and everything and that’s what their nerve cells want to do: say whatever they feel, move any way they want, any time they want. This area here, in front – the frontal lobes – controls the basal ganglia and makes sure that we don’t do anything and everything at once. The frontal lobes help us decided what we want and need and go about getting it one step at a time. In ADHD and tics, these relationships are off.  Kids say what they are feeling at any moment, then think “Oh-oh, did I really just say that?”  It just comes out. It’s the same with tics, which are quick jerky movements that kids don’t do on purpose – they just come out. In both situations, the frontal lobes that should calm things down and make sure that our movements and what we say are goal-directed and under our control – aren’t doing that.  Both ADHD and tics can be successfully treated, usually with medicine.

I’ve been asked to talk about ways you can keep your brains healthy. You won’t be surprised by these:

  • Get a good night’s sleep. Without good sleep, you won’t be able to think as well, learn as well, or to remember what you wanted to do. You won’t be able to tell what people are feeling by looking at their faces –you won’t be able to tell who’s mad at you and who wants to be friends with you. If you do martial arts, you won’t win because you’ll be weaker.  If you are in pain, you’ll hurt more. Many of you will gain weight.
  • Your brain needs more nutrition than any other part of your body. Have some carbs for breakfast – you’ll do better in school.
  • Keep your head safe. You can recover from concussions, but it gets harder and harder the more you have. Some kids develop post-concussive syndrome, which means lots of headaches, sleeping during the day and staying awake at night, dropping out of school, feeling dizzy, and acting cranky – for weeks or months. It’s probably from stretching the fibers – the cables, or wires, that connect brain cells to each other.
  • Exercise. It protects your brain from depression, migraine headaches, and wearing out from old age.
  • Use your brain. When we learn things, our brain cells physically change – but only if we repeat what we have learned, over and over. If we stop repeating what we have learned, eventually we don’t know it any more. That’s why we say, “Use it or lose it.” That’s why your teachers give you homework!

This warm and fuzzy school will get you to do all of those things.

It has been a great honor to be able to be here today and chat about Applewild and the brain with you, and it’s been fun for me to hear what you have to say.”