Intersections: A Group So Persistent

September 19, 2016 by Bill Ivey

“No. We’re not going to restart.” Much as I value resilience, and much as I value student voice, I couldn’t imagine what they were thinking. A group of 14 middle schoolers, on their annual bonding overnight trip to Camp Becket, were trying to get across a 20-foot “lava river” using only six rubber dots about 10” in diameter. They were only allowed to step on the dots. If any of the dots were left untouched, even for a moment, they melted away (meaning Edie, the Camp Becket staff person supervising the group, took it back). They had gotten maybe nine people over but had just lost their fourth dot, meaning they were down to only two. How could they ever get five middle schoolers across a 20-foot lava river with only two safety dots?!?!

Edie calmly asked them what they planned to do. One of them asked if they could throw the dots. I said I thought they had to maintain human contact with the dots, but she pointed out they couldn’t melt if they weren’t actually touching the river. Edie said they could try it, and as we watched to see what happened next, she and I quietly agreed that we both loved their spirit.

The next thing we knew, one of them had figured out how to scooch her dot, inch by inch, across the lava river. She was leaning forward to hold it in case her feet accidentally lost contact with it, and her progress was painstaking. But steady. And when she reached the far edge and all the middle schoolers burst into cheers, I whispered to Edie, “They just might do it.” “They might,” she said. “I’ve never seen a group so persistent.”

The next step was to figure out how to get the dot to the next student. One of the kids took out her hair tie and wrapped it around the (we’ll say blue) dot so it formed a sort of loose cylinder. She then reared back and football-threw it toward the girl standing on the other (we’ll say purple) dot, who caught it, to another round of cheers. “Don’t lose my hair tie!” shouted the first girl, and the second slipped it over her wrist. As she prepared to put the blue dot down and step onto it, another kid put her foot on the purple dot so they wouldn’t lose it. And kid #2 scooched the blue dot all the way across, to more wild cheering.

And so it went until the last kid made it across, and the cheering was deafening. Edie and I were grinning from ear to ear.

Every year we go to Camp Becket, there are wonderful moments of celebration - sometimes framed with moments of frustration, sometimes even arising out of those moments. Their staff, with whom I am so grateful to work on these trips, are amazingly skilled at figuring out just how hard to push, when to toughen the challenge, when to drop a hint. But at root, their instinct is always to have faith in and trust the kids.

So much is written these days about how kids have no resilience, they can't handle failure, they don't take risks. I'm not sure it's quite as generalized a truth as many adults would have you believe. Of course, you don't want kids taking the kinds of risks that actually endanger themselves. But otherwise? Because, when kids are allowed to follow their own instincts, to try their own ideas and see where they lead, and to think up other ideas if the first ones don't work out so well, they learn so much more than when we clear a path for them and try to lead them along it. After all, what lesson would they have learned if Edie (and I) had made them give up and restart?

Certainly nothing remotely as valuable as the lesson they did learn.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: Middle School, Education, Resilience, Intersections, Collaboration, Best self