Doves adorn the staircase to the middle school, twirling gently in the air currents, still exuding the active hope for peace expressed by the students who made them and arranged them. At the top of the staircase sits a totem pole, made by the class of 2019 back when they were seventh graders, expressing who they were at the time and thus, in many ways, who they are now. I walk into the middle school lobby, where soon enough kids will start to flood in, flopping on the chair and couch, half sitting on each other’s laps as they chatter about any- and everything that crosses their minds. I walk into my room, past the Black Lives Matter, Girl Power, and LGBT Safe space signs on the door, and arrange the blue beanbags in a half circle. Soon, kids will half-walk, half-run into the room and either drop their backpacks on their beanbag of choice, whirl, and return to the lobby, or drop down to relax and hang out with their friends as they arrive.
“Is it time for class?” one of them will eventually call out, and I’ll glance at my laptop and say, “almost.” Usually, “almost” means “close enough,” and soon I am checking to see if anyone wants to share their writing. Today, two do, and I perform my “random number based on what time it currently is” ritual to determine who goes first. There is applause after the reading, and when the second reader finishes, one girl leans forward and says, “Okay, so for a moment I forgot you were reading your independent writing and I thought you were reading a real book.” Two or three other students agree as the first student continues on to say, “That was amazing.”
Shortly after, I begin reading a real book, currently Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, the “morning/afternoon reading” that is also part of our daily ritual. They periodically jump in with astonished cries, or cheers, or a flurry of semi-random and/or stunningly insightful predictions and inferences, or a probing question or observation that connects the book to their everyday lives. They understand that there are so many more important things than what you look like, and that focusing on surface beauty alone makes you a not particularly deep person - while also acknowledging that everyone has the right to look the way they want to, it’s… just… how can you always be sure that what you think you want is what you really want?
Eventually, we reach a section or chapter break and the final threads of the discussion are allowed to dangle, waiting for the next day’s reading. We go over upcoming deadlines for different projects they have going, maybe have a book chat, maybe do a group activity. Then someone might ask if we’re going to do relaxation and I check and decide today we can lie down for a few minutes. We start with three slow, deep breaths, and then progressively tighten and relax each arm, each leg, and our stomach muscles, ending with “Scrunch up your face... and relax… Now tighten everything!... (...) and relax. (...) (...).” I let the peaceful relaxed feeling last for a bit, and then say, “Happy choice time!” as they sit up, reach for their backpacks, and pull out their iPads, ready to continue their independent writing, or wrap up research for a Focus Question essay before starting to write, or just curl up with something to read. I circulate among them to see what they’re doing and what support they might need, and then do some of my own schoolwork, ready to jump up the moment one of them calls me over for more help.
Time passes, and with a touch of regret, I notice class is about to end. When it does, I call out, “Thanks, Humanities. Have a good day!” and they variously jump up and throw everything they’ve removed from their backpack back in, or stretch and slowly start to sit up and break the spell, or look at me in mute appeal that class maybe could last just a *little* longer, please? On their way out, one after another, they say, “Bye, Bill Thanks!”
Maybe my next commitment is service, working alongside them at the Food Bank, the Community Action Food Pantry, or the Dakin Humane Society. Just before dinner, I’ll head down to Bonnie’s House and set up microphones, tune instruments, and check the sound, so we can get right to work as each succeeding rock band bursts into the room with a big smile and a cheery “Hi!” (waving a hand instead if I am covering a part in the group currently rehearsing). They, too, will eventually leave the room with a series of “Bye, thanks!” and I will put on some music as I pick everything back up and put it away, eventually and with a touch of wistfulness turning out the lights and walking over to my car to drive home.
Yesterday morning, I was flying down to Washington, DC to meet my wife. My seatmate started to talk to me on the final approach into Dulles, and upon learning my job, observed, “Well, good for you. Not many people can do it.” “Oh,” I said, “my kids make it easy.” I started in on a story, her eyes widened, and she started to smile and nod. “They sound wonderful,” she said. “They are,” I said.