In light of my recent post on North Branch School, here's the letter to the editor I wrote to Middlebury Magazine back in Spring 2010 (just before we graduated our first-ever six-year Seniors). Enjoy!
To the editors:
I very much enjoyed reading the description of North Branch School and its dynamic head teacher, Tal Birdsey in the article “School Building” (Spring 2010). In his quest to create “a house where wisdom would flourish,” where “mistakes [could] become part of the discussion,” where students were acutely aware that “the only thing of lasting value was what they created in the liminal zone between who they were and who they were becoming?”, Mr. Birdsey is clearly meeting his fundamentally important goals. I would love to visit his school some day.
I wonder, though, what my own students might say about Xander Manshel's characterization of middle school as “a terrifying place,” reviled by students and endured by parents, we can only hope to forget. I wonder if they feel “the singular truth of the middle school experience [is that] it, like, sucks.” I would never discount anyone's personal experience, but as someone who really loves middle school kids and who has endured at least one too many comments along the lines of “Well, God bless you. I wouldn't survive five minutes,” I can only sigh and say, “Here we go again.”
I'll grant you that the epitome of despondence is a middle school student who realizes she has deeply hurt her friend's feelings and there's no way she can take back what she just said. I'll also grant you that the frustration at hearing over and over (unnecessarily, I might add) “Wait until you're older” inevitably, and justifiably, boils over from time to time. But middle school kids are also extraordinarily resilient – at a time in life where a week ago seems like years and a month from now impossibly far in the future, it is relatively easy to recover overnight, especially if a caring person helps you find a way to handle the inevitable rough spots in life. In middle school, there is always hope for the future, what 7th grade teacher Stephen Stroud once called “a sense of the possible.”
That hope for the future and sense of the possible help bring out the extraordinarily caring side of middle school students. In my school, every student goes off campus twice a month to perform community service, and it is moving to see the tenderness and love they bring even to jobs like changing kitty litter pans. Except perhaps on the first warm spring day of the year, they are generally happy to climb in the car, often laughing and talking and singing all along the way, secure in the knowledge that they are performing a valuable and appreciated service. And outside observers who expect the worst of middle school girls are often stunned at, in the words of a camp counselor last fall, “how well they take care of each other.”
Middle school students bring a boundless energy, not just to service projects but also to most anything they set their minds to. My students design their own units, and the questions come so fast and furious that the issue becomes not what will they want to learn, but rather how best to combine and focus on a selection of those questions. The smallest of details can provoke the deepest of discussions, students' words falling all over each other as they rush to discuss why some people feel they're better than others and what can be done about it, or how one student's family farm compares to the industrialized farms of the documentary “Food, Inc.,” or how it is possible to learn from and grow through conflict. No one has to tell them to learn. Indeed, I attempt to direct them at my own peril!
These students love and have genuine pride in their middle school. Even when caught up in complaints, often about the dress code, at least one voice will usually interject, “Don't get us wrong. We love the middle school.” At an all-school meeting earlier this week, the entire middle school walked up together to make a joint announcement. I was clueless as to what they were going to do. They began by explaining that they had had a really great year and that they wanted to take the time to acknowledge two special teachers. They had taken the time to write out extended citations, and they presented hand-made certificates, each signed by most every student. All this had been done in secret and at their own initiative. What a wonderful, touching moment.So, my heart goes out to Mr. Manshel on the horrific experience he must have had in middle school, and my gratitude goes out to Mr. Birdsey for creating a warm, safe place for middle school students to fully explore who they are and the world of which they are a part. With all the highs and lows young adolescence can bring, and all the joys that can come from growing up feeling loved and supported, all middle schoolers deserve a place like North Branch School.