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TOMS RIVER — Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa urged Toms River high school students Monday to "think for yourself, and be skeptical of what you read on social media, because it is meant to manipulate you."
"The battle for our minds -- and this is a battle for your minds -- is waged and won, not by helping you think," said Ressa, 58, speaking to an audience of students, family members, classmates and teachers in the auditorium of Toms River High School North, the school she graduated from in 1982. "It's won by manipulating your emotions. The anger and hate is literally shaping who we will become as a people. It's pumping toxic sludge for us. So, if you feel angry, or you feel like you hate another group, step back, take a deep breath, this thing literally rewires your brain."
Ressa's remarks were the keynote of a ceremony dedicating the school's auditorium in her honor. A blue plaque proclaiming the newly renovated space the "Maria Ressa Auditorium" now hangs over the main entrance. Students from high schools East and South also attended the ceremony.
Ressa received the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her work as an independent journalist in the Philippines. She has spent years writing about political violence and terrorism and previously served as CNN's lead investigative reporter in Asia.
In recent years, she has also focused her work on the proliferation of misinformation on social media, which she said Monday poses a threat to democracy.
"I'm very sorry that in many ways, my generation, our generation, has failed, and we are handing you a broken world," Ressa told the students. "...Which means you have to be stronger, and smarter, than we are, right?" She said current high school students will face challenges ranging from the country's deeply partisan politics to the impacts of climate change.
'Every choice you make will determine who you are'
Ressa said that while high school rivals in athletics or academics at Toms River's three schools are still able to talk to each other and share common experiences, "When we do politics nowadays, it's like families are being split apart. It's like the spectator sport went into gladiator violence. It's very strange and it's not sustainable."
To fight this, she urged students to look for meaning in their lives. "Meaning isn't something someone gives you. It's built on every little choice you make," Ressa said.
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"Remember every choice you make will determine who you are," she added. "...Where you spend your time determines what you'll accomplish, what you become good at, what you learn."
She urged students to "be skeptical of what you read on social media. It is meant to manipulate you." Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr., who was recently elected president in the Phillippines; Ressa said he was "helped by disinformation, lies on social media."
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In 1986 Marcos' father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., and his mother, Imelda, were forced to leave the Phillippines after a campaign of civil resistance ended Marcos Sr.'s 20-year dictatorship, Ressa noted.
Ressa was born in Manila; her family left the country amid social and political upheaval in 1973 when she was 10 years old, settling in Toms River.
Her parents, Hermelina and Peter, came to Toms River, even though they both commuted nearly two hours each way to work in New York every day, because of the quality of the schools here, Ressa said.
On Monday they sat in the front row and admitted that watching Ressa speak at her old high school was a moving experience.
"It's been emotional," Peter Ressa said of their visit to Toms River. Hermelina Ressa said she was touched by the loud ovation her daughter received when she was introduced by Superintendent Mike Citta.
When she first came to the township, Ressa said she could barely speak English. During her first year at Silver Bay Elementary School, she said she hardly spoke a word in class.
But Ressa said she found teachers who nurtured her and pushed her, urging her to take advanced placement classes. She also found friends who made the self-professed "nerd" feel like she was part of a larger community; on Monday, one of them, her high school friend Shelley Bromberg, talked about bonding with Ressa over their shared love of music and theater.
"How do you describe a person like Maria?" Bromberg sang to the tune of "Maria" from the musical "The Sound of Music," as she began her description of Ressa's time at North.
Bromberg and High School North Principal Ed Keller pointed out that Ressa was not just an academic star at the high school, but she also played basketball and softball, was class president for three years, and took part in orchestra, chorus and theater.
Voted “most likely to succeed" as a senior, she has credited Toms River North orchestra director Don Spaulding as a mentor who "opened the world to me." Spaulding played with Ressa and other students in "The TR Express," a country-western group. In 2018, she returned to North from the Philippines to play the violin at a memorial concert for the orchestra director.
Lessons she learned
"It's only fitting that...on this stage, where her voice was helped to be developed, is named over here," Superintendent Citta said.
Ressa said she learned some important lessons while studying acting.
"Our humanity, what we have in common. Those are some of the things I learned in acting class," Ressa told the students.
Bromberg remembered Ressa performing on the North stage, singing Kansas' "Dust in the Wind," and then begging Spaulding to allow her to perform Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," a 1979 hit that includes several searing violin parts.
On Monday, "Grill Cheese," a five-piece band of North students: Romel Cruz, Mason DeFeis, Matt Venezaiano, Michael Ryan and Dylan Walkowitz, under the direction of Jon Grill, played a rousing version of the Charlie Daniels song as a surprise for Ressa. She sat in the front row next to her parents, smiling and clapping along.
The dedication ceremony began with "The Star-Spangled Banner," performed by the Toms River High School North Master Chorus. North senior John Claude Yambao then sang the Filipino national anthem; Ressa, standing on the stage to the right of Yambao, sang along.
"It meant a lot to me," Yambao said of performing the Filipino anthem. "I really wanted it to be in the program since she is from the Philippines."
Describing Ressa, Principal Keller said, "really in my opinion, she is the epitome of what we try to do as educators."
"Thank you for being such an amazing example of what Toms River schools can produce," Toms River Regional Board of Education President Jennifer Howe said. She said students should be inspired by Ressa's experience.
During her visit to Toms River, Ressa was also inducted into the school district's Hall of Fame at a dinner May 21.
Monday marked Ressa's second visit to High School North this year; in February, she stopped by her alma mater to greet students and engage in a spirted question-and-answer session in the school's media center. Ressa was in the U.S. that month to receive the Woodrow Wilson Award from Princeton University, where she attended college.
This time, Ressa didn't take questions from the students because of time constraints but she urged them to contact her on Twitter (@mariaressa) if they have anything they want to ask.
The award, given on the university's Alumni Day, is Princeton's highest honor for alumni.
Ressa spent nearly 20 years covering Southeast Asia as an investigative reporter for CNN, where her reporting included coverage of terrorist networks. In 2012, in the Philippines, she and three other journalists formed The Rappler, an online news website known for its critical coverage of the government.
That was not the first major honor for Ressa. She was included in Time magazine's Person of the Year 2018 as one of 11 journalists from around the world combating fake news.
In 2020 she was arrested for and convicted of "cyberlibel," a move that was widely condemned by human-rights groups. She faces up to six years in prison and must receive permission from the court to leave the country. Her father said this visit was only approved about an hour before Ressa was scheduled to go to the airport.Ressa was nominated for the Nobel Prize by Norwegian labor leader Jonas Gahr Støre.
"In recent years, Ressa has been harassed, persecuted and arrested numerous times — due to her coverage of corruption," Støre said. "Ressa has for years lived with death threats and harassment on social media. She is thus both a symbol and a representative of thousands of journalists around the world.”
Classmate Norma DeNoia remembered first meeting Ressa when the two of them competed for class president freshman year.
"On this stage, we gave our speeches," said DeNoia, of Seaside Park, who formerly served as director of elementary curriculum in Toms River schools. Ressa defeated DeNoia in the election, but the two became friends, taking many classes together.
She described Ressa as "kind, smart and talented," and said she has continued to follow her old friend's career and admires her "commitment to truth and freedom."
Ressa's AP English teacher, Mary Thornborough, who taught her as a sophomore, gave her former student a bracelet with a quote from Shakespeare.
"Warning: when you come back to your high school 40 years later, and meet your AP English teacher, she will quiz you," Ressa said. "Mrs. Thornborough impacted almost all of us. She gave me this little bracelet, Though she be but little, she be fierce.' "
Ressa asked the students if any of them knew which play the quote was from. After several wrong guesses (and at least one correct one), she gave out the answer: "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"She was just overly bright," Thornborough said of Ressa. "She was always at the top of her class."
And she admitted something about the quote on that bracelet: "I looked it up," she laughed.
Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She's also passionate about the Shore's storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Toms River NJ auditorium named for Nobel Peace Prize winner