Harry Hjardemaal ’85 Teaches Appreciation of Diversity Through His Personal Story

Upper School Multicultural Day began with a keynote speech from Mr. Harry Hjardemaal ’85, who came to Norfolk Academy as a Haitian immigrant and found a nurturing learning community that launched him to Harvard University, Harvard Law School, and leadership of several Wall Street hedge funds.

More than that, he found a home, where he could follow his interests wherever they led him—playing cello in the All-State Orchestra, serving as captain of the tennis team, and performing in a one-man show created through the school’s drama program. “Norfolk Academy is the place that made me who I am,” he said.

Mr. Hjardemaal’s speech was followed by three breakout sessions presented by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC), a Richmond-based nonprofit that works with communities, businesses, and schools to combat prejudice. The focus of this year’s Multicultural Day was gender identity, sexual orientation, and fighting sexism. The events of the day were organized by the UNITID Club in the Upper School, which focuses on education about all types of diversity in society.

Ethan Rosenblum ’18, who considers Hjardemaal to be his uncle, introduced Hjardemaal as “someone who taught me and my family the true meaning of acceptance. He has fought against racism and prejudice his whole life.” When Hjardemaal was in high school, his mother, who had brought him to the United States as a young boy, died as a result of cancer; Hjardemaal briefly stayed with teachers’ families on campus, and he eventually came to stay with Ethan’s grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. Fred and Barbara Rosenblum, who immediately made Hjardemaal part of their family.

Mrs. Rosenblum, who attended the speech, said she absolutely considers Hjardemaal to be her son, right along with her three other children, Susan, Michael ’88, and Ethan’s father, Richard ’84. She said that she didn’t have any qualms in dealing with the startled looks that she received around Tidewater when she introduced him that way back in the 1980s, when country clubs were segregated and interracial families were rare.

In keeping with this year’s theme The Year of Listening, Mr. Hjardemaal asked students to “listen wholeheartedly,”  noting that the thoughts and opinions are “coming from one of your very own.”

While Mr. Hjardemaal was one of a very small number of black students at Norfolk Academy, he never felt isolated or treated with prejudice by his peers. He credited the warm and expansive educational environment created by then-headmaster John Tucker, whom he described as “worldly, gracious, and inviting.” In addition, his own perspective shaped his treatment, he said. “Yes, there were cliques, but I never subscribed to group talk or group think,” he said. “I had a gift to see everyone uniquely.”  
For those who see themselves as victimized or pushed to the margins, Hjardemaal offered “tough love,” as he called his advice: “The more you see yourself as victimized, the more you will be seen that way. Improve your own self-belief until you have that irrational self-confidence. Start believing in yourself today!”

He also had a sharp rebuke for those who consider themselves to be atop the social heap, living contentedly within their own bubble in the upper echelon. “You are living in a tiny pond. If you don’t learn humility quickly, your arrogance and intolerance will leave you a limited person,” he said. “Take the opportunity at school here to reach out and see how appreciating their differences from you will put you on a more productive path.”

After his speech, students rotated in three groups, as speakers from the VCIC presented on the day’s topics. In Johnson Theater, Mr. Alex Cena, Outreach Programs Coordinator, led students through an exercise in gender identity. They were asked to stand up if they agreed with or experienced certain statements. These ranged from, “Stand up if you like sports” and “Stand up if you like fashion” to more serious ones, such as “Stand up if you have ever covered or hid your feelings” and “Stand up if you ever had to change your plans because of your gender.”

Participants seemed to be surprised by some of the results, especially the number of students (nearly all of them within the group) who stood in response to the statement of covering or hiding their feelings. “It can be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to participate because it’s a great message,” said Robert Frazier ’19 at the conclusion of the session. “You feel less vulnerable in a group setting because you don’t feel singled out.”

Ms. Jessica Hawthorne, Director of Programs for VCIC, introduced the topic of sexual orientation. She said that it was her goal to “complicate the story” by defining the levels of sexual orientation and educating individuals, because “it is not as simple as society tells us it is.”

Students were asked to record a personal timeline documenting key moments in sexual awareness, such as the age “you learned there were multiple sexual orientations” and “when you witnessed the media’s depiction of sexual orientations.” Students shared answers with a person sitting next to them. A majority of the students had a similar age range within their answers, although there were differences.

“The timeline surprised me,” said Scarlett Baughman ’19. “I moved here from Manhattan last year, so I came from a different background where I experienced more groups of people with different orientations from an early age. It explained a lot about what I have seen up to this point, why students act and react in certain ways. It’s because they might have been educated at a different age.”

In the third session, students discussed sexism with Marcos Martinez, Educational Programs Coordinator at VCIC. After a thoughtful discussion on what is expected of them and how society judges them based on their genders, Mr. Martinez left the students with this final piece of advice: “Never feel like your presence is not enough.”