Take a freshman day student from Cranbury, N.J. and a former college professor from Hoboken, N.J., sit them down in Adirondack chairs on Armellino Quad, and it’s surprising how many Peddie firsts — and personal discoveries — they have in common after nearly a year in our community.
She greeted him with a high-five; they know each other well from having worked together on the Freshman Musical. And he’s casual and comfortable waving to Kaye residents who call out a hello as they pass. It’s spring, and Mia Huang ’22 and new drama teacher Mark Cirnigliaro have had a few months to acclimate to life at a tight-knit boarding and day school. At first, it was a culture shock.
"Can I do it? ... What am I doing?"
Mark: What was your first day like at Peddie?
Mia: I remember crying in the car because I was so nervous. Because I prepped myself over the summer by watching all the possible chick flicks about high school. I got really, really scared. I thought I was going to, like, get shoved into a garbage can.
Mark (laughing): You thought you were going to get shoved into a garbage can?
Mia: I didn’t know! I didn’t know what to expect. And so I was really nervous.
Mark: What movies did you watch?
Mia: “Mean Girls.” And “Heathers.”
Mark: [leans forward] And “Heathers?”
Mia: And “Clueless.”
Mark: Has high school turned out to be remotely close to “Heathers” or “Mean Girls?”
Mia: No, I like it. It’s a lot more chill.
Mark: My first teaching day, I think I was just nervous, like you, because I’ve never taught this level before. So it was like, “Can I do it?” and “What am I doing?” and “Is how I’m teaching gonna work?” That kind of stuff. And with the Freshman Musical in particular — where I met you — that is a very intense, short time period with a group of students that I don’t know at all. And there’s a lot of you guys (laughs).
Mia: Yeah. I felt that way, too. That was totally crazy. Because I’ve never done anything like that before. But then I pulled up the email that said I was cast as Peter Pan. I didn’t know what to do for a few minutes.
Mark: Surprise! You’re Peter Pan!
Mia: It was crazy. But it was really fun. And before I was really shy. But I feel like that helped me gain a lot of confidence.
Mark: Really? You were great.
Mia: Because I’ve never done that before!
Mark: Well, you wouldn’t have known it. I was an adjunct professor at a community college before Peddie. I was dealing with adults versus dealing with 33 13-year-olds, some of whom were not interested in being in “Peter Pan.” But then, I think, (they) came around by the end. I felt everybody had a very good experience. I think the challenge for me as a first-time high-school-level teacher, is, “How do I make the work fun and interesting while also educating with a standard in place?” Whereas, that’s something I didn’t have to worry about so much at the collegiate level; I could just do the work in a more strict form.
"Before Peddie, I was so shy."
Mia: I knew that this was a crazy good school and everything, but I expected it to be really competitive. But when I actually got here, it wasn’t like that. It was very calm and everyone was nice.
Mark: So you were expecting it to be more cutthroat?
Mark: Yeah, I don’t get that vibe here, either. I was expecting kind of an enclosed, kind of stodgy, place. This is not like that at all.
Mia: I didn’t even think that I would come here at first, because we always used to drive by here and see all the brick buildings and be like, “Oh, that’s Peddie. That’s the nice school.” (Mark laughs) And so in middle school and eighth grade, my dad was like, “Why don’t we just try — try to apply?” (She laughs) And I was like, “Sure, that would be fun.” And so I did it, and I made it. And now I’m here.
Mark: I think it took me a while to get used to being around students 24/7. In my other teaching experience, you teach your class and then you go home. You don’t see students outside of class. I had a connection with my students, but it was built over the work that we did in class. And here I feel like it was strange to eat with students. It was weird the first time I saw students in Target.
Mia: Oh, yeah.
Mark: But I think that’s good, because I think it helps — and you can tell me if this works — it helps students see faculty as people and not as, like, the enemy. And I think it helps faculty see students holistically as well, and be more invested in the person, and not only the grade.
Mia: I get that. Before Peddie, I was so shy. I didn’t really step out of my comfort zone a lot. And when I came to Peddie I was like, “I’m in high school — I can reinvent myself. I should try to audition for something.” And I did. And it was really fun! And I feel like that helped me gain a lot of confidence. And now I’m not really afraid to be who I am in front of an audience. ‘Cause now I can act or sing in front of people without — my voice used to shake a lot. My voice used to shake because I was so scared. But now I’m fine.
Mark: Knowing you from the Freshman Musical, and then your work in the Declamation Contest, and then the fact of that mural – it feels like you’re putting yourself out there all the time.
Mia: So there was this diversity mural contest that I actually won (laughs). It was during the second week of school, and I guess I was very eager the first week of school; I went crazy.
I was just kind of observing everything. And so I based the people on the mural off of someone I met from a different place or a different culture. People that I saw around, people that I knew of. And yeah. People liked it, I guess.
Mark: Peddie feels intimate in a supportive way, like a family kind of way, for me. But at the same time, because there’s such a wide array of students from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, and because the administration encourages us to deal with the students on a human level, I think that stops it from being a closed circuit. It allows for growth, it allows for change. When I was told I was going to teach Theater Foundations and what was normally done there, I immediately responded to that with, “I want to change this.”
Not drastically, but I wanted to implement some change right off the bat, and being met with a yes. Like, “Go ahead.” I think that’s encouraging and we’ve done some things in that class now that have spurred me to want to do other larger projects that I want to try to implement, even starting next year, if possible. Do you have any experience like that as a student?
Mia: Well … I haven’t really tried yet. I guess I could – to do something that’s facilitated.
Editor: If you guys were to go back to August of 2018, just about to walk on this campus, what would you give yourselves a heads-up about?
Mia: I would tell myself to calm down and just chill out, and not cry out of pure nervousness, because it’s fine and it won’t be as scary as it seems.
Mark: I would second all of that to myself, because everything’s going to be fine. It’s going to be a lot of work, but you’ll make it through. I’ve just never been a part of an institution like this. So I think the whole thing is sort of a constant surprise. Almost universally in a good way. I think a lot is asked of the faculty and the students here, and while it sounds like both Mia and I have managed that – I don’t want to put words in your mouth – though we’ve managed that over the course of this first year, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t overwhelming at some points. And that’s never a great feeling. But that’s also the rigor that this institution demands of its faculty and its students to maintain its culture.