A producer, an actor, a philanthropist, a firefighter and a psychiatrist/author assembled for a panel at the Scarsdale Public Library on Nov. 19. The string connecting these five people is Scarsdale, and the fact that they were all back in town for the 30th anniversary of the Class of 1992.
Speaking were Howard Gertler, Peter Grosz, Adriana Souza, Peter Yaverbaum and Jacob Appel. Class of ’92 alumni Allison Weinberg organized and moderated the panel, which was attended by around 30 people. Several of the alumni in the audience brought their own children to the event, many of whom are now in high school themselves.
With careers ranging from firefighting to Hollywood producing, the panelists reflected on the different paths they’ve taken, as well as the common threads that forever bind them with their former classmates.
Gertler is an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated film producer. His most recent film, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” is currently playing in theaters and has received numerous accolades and award nominations. Gertler’s prior productions include “How to Survive a Plague,” “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” and “Shortbus.” His films have earned many awards, such as the Sundance Audience Award, the Gotham, the Spirit and the Golden Lion.
One of his earlier ventures in media was for Maroon, the Scarsdale High School newspaper.
When the panel discussed teachers that made an impact on them, Gertler referenced Chris Douglass, who advised the student newspaper.
“Now looking back thinking [about] a bunch of teenagers running a newspaper for him, it must have been like managing ‘The Muppet Show,’” he said. “Somehow it sort of came together.”
Gertler studied public policy in college, but chose to pursue his real passion after graduation.
“I knew I wanted to work in film, and I was able to get a job in a production office …,” he said. “I didn't go to film school, I learned through my jobs.”
It was through the job at the production office that Gertler was able to take his first steps toward his career as a producer.
“On my second film, I was working for a producer, and I remember I just walked into their office after the film had wrapped and I was like, ‘The scripts aren't being read. They're not being logged, no one's taking these meetings. Someone around here needs to do that.’ And they're like, ‘Okay, why don't you do that?’”
Early on Gertler felt he needed to take a chance on his passion.
“It was like living on rice and beans for the first years, you know, being in New York, but I felt if I didn't try it then, or at that moment, I may never try it,” he said. “So let me, before I decide to do something else. Let me see if I'm gonna fail at this first or succeed.”
When asked which of his films is his favorite, Gertler answered, “I love all my children.”
He elaborated on the parental connection he feels toward his projects.
“When you're a producer, you are like a parent in some way. And you're protective of your kids, and you want people to like your kids.”
His most recent documentary, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” recently premiered in Venice, and follows activist and artist Nan Goldin, and her efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the opioid epidemic.
“This was, you know, an artist who went into institutions and demanded change and put her career and reputation, and in some ways her life, on the line. She didn't know she was going to succeed. She didn't even know if she would be heard,” he said. “And not only for her to have been heard, but for her group to have accomplished those goals. And for people in these audiences to really appreciate that had been … really special. So it's moments like that.”
In an industry where rejection and failure is commonplace, Gertler offers advice on how to shake it off and keep moving forward.
“[Rejection and failure] is built into it. Most of the things I develop don't get made. That’s the nature of it,” he said. “I certainly worked on projects that have gotten terrible reviews. That happens and you tried your best. You're like, ‘OK, I'll either make it better or different next time, or maybe that one thing was not for everyone.’ And that's also OK.”
Even when a project doesn’t live up to one’s expectations of success, Gertler’s advice is to “just enjoy the premiere.”
Grosz is an Emmy Award-winning television writer and actor. He has been a writer for “The Colbert Report” and “The Late Show with Seth Meyers.” As an actor, he played a recurring role on “Veep” as well as the straight man in a long-running series of Sonic commercials.
During his time at Northwestern University, Grosz found himself at a hub for those interested in comedy.
“I went to Northwestern, not realizing that Second City, which is like the home of so many great comedians and improv comedians, was in Chicago,” he said. “So I kind of lucked into the fact that I was near that place.”
His close proximity to comedy clubs in college helped him get a foothold on his career, which related to his advice for others seeking to make it in creative fields.
“Go to the place where people are doing the thing you want to do. If you live in Nebraska, and you're like, I want to be a comedian and do stand-up in New York City, you're never really going to do it,” he said. “I put myself where I was supposed to be, I think, and then I just kept trying, trying, trying and trying and would move forward, and then back and forward again. And ultimately, you look back and [you] have actually moved quite a bit forward.”
Grosz reflected on how progress feels differently as it’s occurring, but in hindsight, everything falls into place with time.
“[A friend and I were] saying it all feels so random when it's happening. Then when you look back … actually it's a straight line. It just feels like it's sagging all over the place, because it's not where you think you're supposed to be going,” he said. “But the last 30 years or whatever, it does tell a certain story of your life. And I might have a giant hiccup in the middle … but it is still there. That's still a narrative. It is one narrative of many parts.”
Similarly to Gertler, Grosz discussed how rejection and failure is a common experience among creatives. He emphasized the importance of having a thick skin, while also being able to see where critics are coming from.
“Feeling bad about feeling bad is one of the biggest wastes of time … So I try not to feel bad about the lack of success about something or a specific failure; at this point, my skin is quite thick as far as rejection and failure,” he said. “But you can always learn a lesson about something … because you need an audience to succeed. You have to be able to take feedback, even if people are just speaking with dollars or, or without words [but] with views or hits. So it's twofold. You have to be honest with yourself about things that you can change and then also tune out the layer of failure that's sort of just baked into the process.”
He continued, “There's always going to be failure and rejection. And if we all just were living … at the crest of the wave, there wouldn't be a wave. That's the whole point. You have to live in all of it.”
Following a long career in the corporate world, Souza recently turned her focus toward building a foundation to support underprivileged youth in Zambia by providing them with financial support, as well as access to athletic equipment, apparel, season tennis coaches and a training program. She has also dedicated much of her time to helping communities, whether locally or far away. Souza is an EMT with the Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corps and, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped administer vaccinations to thousands of New Yorkers. She has manned crisis and suicide hotlines and spent time working in homeless shelters, residential homes and outpatient mental health facilities. Souza also advocates for animal rescue and moving dogs from fighting rings into foster homes.
When asked for a Scarsdale teacher who had a positive impact on her, Souza mentioned former social studies teacher Rashid Silvera.
“What an enthusiastic, dynamic, warm man who met every student where they were. Whether you're at the top of the class or the bottom, he was so inclusive. Modified his lesson plans to meet everybody where they're at,” she said. “He was really inspiring in the way that he dealt with people and he's attended every single reunion. It's important for him to stay connected to his kids.”
She also reflected on her experience as a “Brewster Roady,” and gave advice to her rebellious high school self.
“[The Brewster Roady] philosophy, our mission statement, was to do as little as possible …,” she said. “My advice would be settle down. You're a smart girl. Apply yourself. Your grades are important. There's always going to be time for socializing.”
After graduating from college, Souza faced uncertainty in regard to her future.
“As adults, you have to be comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity. I went to college and was just happy to graduate,” she said. “I didn't have a set vision for myself. I fell into these jobs that certainly worked out well for me, but I was never quite passionate about the fields I was in, but it kind of led me in directions.”
The course of one’s journey is not always under one’s control, as Souza explained.
“Where I'm at is as a direct result of adversity that I've faced and trauma and things that happen along the way … I had a traumatic brain injury 10 years ago that sidelined me. My career was gone. I dropped out of grad school, and I was rehabbing for years, just to learn to talk, to remember things. It was a rough time in my life, but because of it I learned to not be frustrated by comparing who I once was [as a] highly achieving, highly capable person who could do all these things and do it well, to someone who really struggled to just pack the kids’ lunches.
Furthermore, Souza said the adversity she faced led her to finding what was really important to her.
“Because of those experiences, I've discovered passion. I've spent enough time in an ambulance. Maybe I should give back now. Or I've worked with tons of underprivileged communities. Let me do something more and take it to another level.”
For her advice to younger people, she referenced a quote by Michael Jordan. “You're going to miss 100% of the opportunities you don’t take. So if you don't go for it, you're never going to get it — and expect rejection,” she said. “I tell my kids this all the time. Go for it and keep going for it and shake it off. Who cares? If you're too scared to put yourself outside [of your] comfort zone or to be rejected, nothing's going to work for you. Go for it, and be prepared to be rejected a ton, but then it's going to work.”
Yaverbaum originally went to medical school to be a doctor, but changed career paths when he decided to sign on with the New York City Fire Department. He has been a firefighter in lower Manhattan for the past 15 years, and is currently awaiting promotion to lieutenant.
A Scarsdale teacher who stood out to him is former math teacher Robert Arrigo.
“I have a lot of good memories of … Robert Arrigo. I think [he] was a favorite of a lot of ours,” he said. “The man was a genius. Everyone who knows him would agree to that.”
When asked about the scariest experience as a firefighter, he explained a shaky moment on a ladder, six stories high.
“It was early in my career, and I was looking to prove myself to my captain … We were on the roof of a six-story tenement in lower Manhattan. For whatever reason, I volunteered to go over the fire escape down the backside of a building … at 3 in the morning.”
Despite the captain telling Yaverbaum there was another way out that took longer, Yaverbaum reassured him that he would be fine.
“So from the roof, I climbed over what's called the gooseneck. It's this metal ladder that's been there for 150 years, because the buildings are all old. And as I start climbing over this thing into darkness … I start realizing this ladder is 150 years old, and it was put on by somebody and never checked, and the bolts are shaky … At that moment, I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ That stayed with me as something that seemed like an unnecessary risk that I probably shouldn't have taken.”
Despite that early experience, Yaverbaum describes his career with giddiness.
“It's a great group of people that I work with, and we get to do some fun things,” he said, “Basically, I'm a kid who didn't grow up. I get to drive a truck in Lower Manhattan with a red light on it.”
As the panelists were asked for advice they’d give younger people, Yaverbaum reaffirmed Grosz’s point on going to places where like-minded people go.
“The whole tangential opportunities thing is huge, and putting yourself in the place where the people do [what] you want to do is huge,” he said. “Everything was because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and just happened to be talking to the right person, or spent my Saturday with the people who then ended up becoming my mentors.”
He emphasized how life takes spontaneous twists and turns, but these surprises often work out for the better.
His advice to young people is “do the things that you love” even though that may not be where you're going to end up.
“Someone in the room is going to provide some other opportunity, and then that's going to lead to something,” he said. “Then you'll do that because you love that, and you'll keep steering this crazy course. But eventually, you'll get somewhere [and] you'll love it. And it may or may not be the thing you thought it was going to be.”
Appel wears many hats. He is currently a professor of psychiatry and medical education at Mount Sinai. He serves as director of ethics education in psychiatry, medical director of the mental health clinic and the East Harlem Health Outreach Program, and assistant director of the Academy for Medicine and Humanities. He is also the author of a large body of work, which includes five novels, 10 short story collections and a compilation of dilemmas in medical ethics.
Throughout the panel, Appel and Grosz joked about their longstanding conflict over who won the speech contest in middle school. Another moment that Appel remembers fondly is when he threw a flagpole out of a teacher’s window.
Upon graduating from Scarsdale High School, Appel went on to receive 10 degrees, which includes seven master’s degrees, a Juris Doctor, a Doctor of Medicine and a Ph.D.
When asked which out of all of the work he’s done has been the most rewarding, Appel described his experience doing evaluations for asylum seekers.
“[It’s for] people who have been tortured abroad,” he explained. “I evaluate them in order for them to be able to stay … they come to a human rights program either at Mount Sinai or elsewhere. There’s a desperate shortage of psychiatric providers. If you have a provider evaluate you and endorse you, you have an 89% success rate [of being granted asylum]. If you don’t, you have a 13% rate, so it makes a difference.”
As a result of his wide array of accomplishments in many different fields, Appel is the subject of “Jacob,” a 2019 documentary directed by Jon Stahl, who is also a SHS Class of 1992 alumni.
“John is a great guy I had not heard from in 20 years, literally. And he emails me and says, ‘I want to make a documentary out of you.’ I thought maybe he’d gone mad,” Appel said. “I figured maybe John's parents would see this, my parents would see it. Millions of people have apparently seen this.”
The film received the Best Documentary Feature at the Greenpoint Film Festival, among other accolades. Despite the film’s success, Appel has not seen it.
“I told John beforehand, I wouldn't see it. I still haven't. As curious as I am as a person who wants to go to their own funeral … You don't want to know what the people you care about think about you,” he said. “I've heard it's a very good movie. And, John, careerwise, has done very well from it, so I'm very thrilled about that, but I probably will watch it in retirement.”
Although he has achieved great success in several fields, Appel says he has received 21,000 rejection letters. One that stood out to him was from “The Paris Review.”
“George Clinton of ‘The Paris Review.’ He called me … and he says, ‘You sent us a story about … bird watching.’ And I said, ‘Yes. Did you like it?’ And he said, ‘No, we didn't like it at all. But I think it's really wonderful that people your age are into bird watching.’”
Even so, he doesn’t let rejection deter him from trying.
“I think the trick is to be relentless.”