Jim Marini receives Friend of the Exchange Award


Chinese language teacher Star Lew translates for former principal Jim Marini and former Jingshan School principal Lu Yan Fan, calling in from Beijing, China. (Photo courtesy of Ming Lu).

Emma Brignall

Former North principal James Marini received the annual Friend of the Exchange Award Tuesday, Oct. 18, to honor his significant contributions to the Newton North-Beijing Jingshan School Exchange Program.

The exchange program between Newton North and the Jingshan School in Beijing is the longest running secondary school exchange trip between the US and China. Every year, the Friend of the Exchange Award ceremony celebrates a key figure from the exchange, and this year it also included a tribute to Claire and Richard Kanter, the founders of the exchange, who passed away last year.

The ceremony opened with a conversation between Marini and former principal of the Jingshan School Lu Yan Fan, with Chinese language teacher Star Lew translating.

The language barrier did not restrain their humor. Marini recounted when he first met Fan. Marini said he spoke so quickly that he felt terrible for the translator after, and went to Fan to ask for his forgiveness. “I should have gone to my priest,” he said humorously. “But being in China, I went to Mr. Fan.”

School Committee representative Toby Romer presented the award to Marini, citing his tremendous support for the program. Marini spent nine of his 28 years as an educator in Newton Public Schools as the principal of Newton North (1990-1999) and one year as interim superintendent (2009-2010). Most recently, he served as interim superintendent for Brookline Public Schools. 

During his time as principal, Marini welcomed exchange students for the first time in North’s history. He helped students access everything from lunches to extracurricular activities and introduced teachers to his colleagues and local dignitaries.

Marini said the program emphasized the importance of friendship for him. 

“You see right clean through to the humanity that rests in all of us,” he said. “I feel privileged to be a part of Newton and a part of this program.”

The ceremony also honored the memory of the Kanters. Claire Kanter was a special education teacher at North. While on a business trip to China in 1979, the two met Fang Bihui, an English teacher from the Jingshan School. They worked with Fang for several years to arrange an exchange trip. In 1985, Newton welcomed the first group of three students and three teachers from Beijing. The next fall, Newton sent its own group of students and teachers, cementing a tradition that continued for almost 40 years.

The Kanters’ son, Geoffrey, presented a scrapbook that belonged to his parents with photos from their first exchange trip to China and recounted stories about them. He then explained that his mother loved to sing the song “It’s a Small World.” He added, “And that’s what she’d do tonight, if she were here.”

In honor of the Kanters, attendees and Marini sang “It’s a Small World,” interspersed with lyrics in both English and Mandarin about friendship across borders.

The exchange program has been canceled for four years. However, current principal of the Jingshan School Peter Qiu said that although the pandemic has halted the exchange, it has not ended the friendship between the two schools. He hopes that in 2024, the 40th anniversary of the program, he will be able to lead the exchange himself.

Bigelow special education teacher Heather Dragsbaek added, “The flame was lit long ago by Claire Kanter and we’re going to keep it burning.”