Monthly Archives: May 2013

Not Long Enough

Spearth Day was born of a series of compromises, but has become one of the key dates in the waning weeks of our school year. Many years ago, the students asked for a special day to celebrate the mailman who played such an important role in their lives (today’s students, for whom email is old-fashioned and texting is routine, would probably find this odd). We called it “M and M Day” for “Mail Man Day,” and besides presenting him with a card and gifts when he finally showed, we played an all-school game of Capture the Flag and found other ways to celebrate. Over time, M and M Day evolved and became more organized – for one thing, the tradition of the talent show was begun. Meanwhile, earlier in the spring, Earth Day remained a day off for service – cleaning up local parks and rivers, clearing trails, and so on. The two days were eventually combined into one, and the name “Spearth Day” comes from “Spring-Earth Day.” We spend the morning doing various service projects on- and off-campus, have the Talent Show after lunch, follow that with games and booths organized by classes and clubs, dedicate the yearbook and pass out copies, and end with a barbecue. This year, for a special treat, there will be a dance performance by the Senior IB dancers.

Excitement always run high right before Spearth Day, especially when Wednesday immediately precedes it as that is our half-day of classes. The 7th graders spent Morning Meeting somewhat nervously tying up the few remaining loose ends in the preparation for their booth while the 8th graders set up a coverage schedule and worked hard to ensure they would have everything they needed. Early morning notes on the white board suggested the Community Service Club had done much the same the night before.

Sports are winding down (another reason for excitement as this is a major marker the year is actually starting to come to a close), and so Sophie and Clara, two of the 7th graders, were available and eager to accompany me to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. They laughed and sang and talked all the way there, assuring me they had to be the loudest group I’d ever taken (they weren’t far wrong, actually!). There wasn’t much to do on site, but they were cheerful and positive even when just folding laundry, and took the time to make friends with some of the cats. The ride back was just about as high energy as the ride out.

When we returned at 5:30, the school was sheltering in the basement as a tornado warning had been issued. So when the Wednesday night group of the Middle School Rock Bands showed up 20-25 minutes late for rehearsal (dinner had opened half an hour late and hey, they had to eat!), energy was even higher than usual – if possible! – for a Spearth Day Eve.

For the Spearth Day Talent Show, the group is performing “Microphone” by Martha, a second-year 8th grader. The song has rather whimsical lyrics (sample “Microphone, / You have a big head. / You have a cord. / And it is long.”) and a melody to match. At our first rehearsal of the song, I suggested a series of chords to which everyone agreed, and Aliana (who had played drums before during this year) taught Subin (who hadn’t) an appropriately whimsical drum part (Meredith on bass, Molly sharing vocals with Martha, and Ellie on marimba round out the group; Aliana is covering the piano part). The song is a little bit short, so at our previous rehearsal, we had rearranged it so the final chorus was repeated three times – once with instruments, once a cappella, and once more with instruments.

We ran the song twice – the second time because I had forgotten to time it, just to be on the safe side as we are limited to three minutes (lots of acts in this Talent Show!) before sailing into “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, which we are doing next Thursday for the annual Middle School Music Performance. It is a beautiful piece with subtly shifting block chords in the piano anchored by a relatively straightforward backbeat. Subin was drumming again, Martha had shifted to the marimba, and though I normally play bass on this piece, I had to cover Molly’s piano part since her team was late back from a game. Somehow, Ellie, Aliana, and Martha had contrived to cover Meredith’s vocal since her Team Night had begun way late due to the tornado warning and so was going way late. Still, even with me faking the chord shifts that Molly alone knew by heart, and even with one less voice on the harmonies (which the girls themselves wrote), the song sounded gorgeous and as it sunk in that I had only two more nights with this group before they were done for the year, tears sprang to my eyes which I tried (successfully) to cover up because the girls were having so much fun.

In the 1991 remake of “Father of the Bride,” Steve Martin in the title role tells his daughter on the night before her wedding, “Well, that’s the thing about life, is the surprises, the little things that sneak up on you and grab hold of you.” (IMDb) I know tonight is only the first of many such moments we’ll experience over the next two and a half weeks. It’s a way to mark how much these kids come to mean to us, and to each other. Of course, even those who are graduating and moving on will live on in my memory and in my heart. And they will have good company there, kids both past and future.

And meanwhile, I will savor every moment of the rest of the year. I know how lucky I am. And I am determined not to take it for granted. As, I am quite sure, are they.

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Filed under Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

A Moment of Peace

132 – Kristin. 134 – Kim and Francie. 136 – Donna and Jenny. 138 – Amanda and Hillary. And so on.

Those were some of the kids on my first corridor, way back in 1985. Of course, those kids would be in their mid-40s now, much closer to my age than to the age of the kids currently living there. But the memories are still fresh. For example, the time there came an unmistakable meow from one of those rooms as I was doing check-in at the beginning of study hall. A little investigation uncovered – you have perhaps guessed – a cat, its container covered by a tapestry so I wouldn’t see. Suddenly, several kids from the corridor were all in the room, begging me to let them keep it. It had been lonely, lost, wandering around. It needed a home. It needed love. I asked where they had found this poor, lost, homeless cat. The parking lot in Friendly’s, the old one on Federal Street. The one, I pointed out, smack in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. I convinced the kids, not without a fair amount of effort, that the cat might actually have a home and that those people might be worried. I drove it down to Friendly’s and, waiting for an opportune moment so no one would see me and think I was abandoning it, released it, hopefully indeed back to its home.

rachelcourtneydorm_72dpiI moved off that corridor in 1988 to a bigger apartment (actually, not very much smaller than my current house), by request taking what by then was the 9th grade corridor with me to “the Extension” over the library. I stayed there for most of the remainder of my 12 years of houseparenting. Four years later, I would be in France attending a friend’s wedding on the first weekend of the year when I first learned of the unique character of that particular corridor. “Bill, you wouldn’t believe it. They all shaved their heads on the first night.” my friend and co-houseparent told me over the phone. A slight exaggeration – they had merely shaved the lower half of the back of their heads, and not quite all of them. But the moment was a foreshadowing. This would be the year that Lilah would absolutely refuse to sleep in room 65 for a solid week, assuring me one of her relatives had confirmed malevolent paranormal activity in the room. The year where I learned I would have say “good night” last of all to Kerry, who found a way almost every single night of the year to engage me in challenging something about the school – except for the night where she taught me the “A Pizza Hut. A Pizza Hut. Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut…” song. The ritual turned out to be her way of calming down at the end of the day so she could fall asleep. And of course – she could laugh about it as a Senior, by then an RA on her old corridor – Mary Ellen, several nights a week, knocking on my door about half an hour after lights-out. “Bill. I can’t sleep.”

Yesterday in housemeeting, I made the following announcement during the “Weekend Activities” portion of the morning: “I’m going to be on duty on middle school corridor. Since this is the first time I’ve been on weekend duty… this century, please feel free to offer suggestions for what you’d like to do.” I had done some coverage on middle school corridor during the last week of school, hanging out during Vespers and Farewell to Seniors before we found ways to help the kids create strong enough connections to the older kids that they began – successfully – demanding to attend these formerly Upper School events. But this would indeed be my first weekend on duty as a resident since 1999, when my family and I temporarily abandoned our house for a year to live in Ferdon.

Similarly, last night was my first on-duty night during a normal school night in quite some time. It proved to be easy, fun, and “relatively smooth” as I wrote repeatedly in my Duty Notes for the night. Around 7:30 p.m. up in Jesser, where we are holding study hall during the two-week-long period of Quiet Hours due to IB testing, several people said, “Oh, we need to talk to you after Study Hall.” Feeling the old familiar sense of uncertain anticipation, I nodded yes, and everyone quieted down quickly – occasional bursts of conversation and laughter from the Humanities classroom notwithstanding (“Every time!” one girl lamented. “Every time, you catch me!”). A little after 9:00 p.m., back on the corridor (Middle School Study Hall only lasts 90 minutes, reflecting the lesser amount of homework they get and their developmental needs), a group of approximately 11 students (they waited patiently while I punched all their names into my phone to make a list) surrounded me as I sat at the duty table. “Okay,” I said turning around to face as many of them as possible, “What do you want?”

It turned out that what they wanted was for me to drive them up to Cardigan Mountain School on Saturday. For the second straight year, Cardigan had invited us on a harbour cruise in Boston to celebrate the end of their year, and the girls wanted to be able to see the boys who had thus entered their lives once more before Cardigan graduated, Saturday being “Eaglebrook Day” when the two rival schools would have multiple games in multiple sports. They knew it was one hour and 41 minutes door to door, they knew the game schedule, they knew I would have to find coverage to staff the dorm in my absence, and in general, especially considering how badly they must have wanted it, they presented their proposal calmly and thoughtfully and in great detail. I explained what would have to fall into place for me to be able to do this, promised to write the necessary emails setting the process in motion, and promised to let them know when I knew for sure if it could work out.

At 10:00 p.m., Susan, a Rock Band student of mine and one of the RAs in the Middle School, joined me in walking the length of the corridors telling everyone “good night” and ensuring their lights were out. This was always one of my favourite rituals as a houseparent, and not at all because it signalled the impending end of my active duty for the night, but more because it was a chance to connect, to read the moods of everyone on the corridor, to provide a little touch of home. “Good night. Sleep well. See you in the morning!”

I had determined to hang out an extra half hour, just to be sure things remained calm and nothing bubbled up suddenly. Whatever her reasons, Susan sat next to me by the duty table, talking in Chinese to somebody – her mom? – and, her face split by a wide smile, showing me a picture she’d just been sent of her dog running outside outside all happy it was spring and it was warm. Later, I would ask her if she’d read the excellent article by Nafisatou, a four-year-Senior, in our latest Alumnae Bulletin. She hadn’t, but she began talking about Nafisatou’s journey toward one of the hardest colleges to get into, “harder than Harvard” she said, eyes wide. And then her attention turned to her own college search and her worries and misgivings. What is there, I thought to myself, about the quietness of a corridor that brings out these moments? Although no one else was visible, we were surrounded, I was acutely aware, by several dozen people, with many more elsewhere in the building. Often, I think back on my houseparenting days, and that comforting sense of being connected to so many people even when most of them may have fallen asleep. I did my best to reassure Susan that everyone finds their place, and let her know most Juniors feel the way she does at around this stage in the college process. I walked her through how she would start to find what college would be a good fit for her. This time next year, I assured her, you’ll know where you’re going.

10:30 p.m. rolled around. I hit “Send” (well, technically “Envoyer”) on my phone to send out my Duty Notes, bid Susan good night, and walked downstairs and through the drizzle out to my car, looking back up at the dark windows where my students slept. Tomorrow, the familiar ritual of a Wednesday. But for now, a moment of peace.

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Filed under Alumnae, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

How Far We’ve Come

I was arriving a little later for school than I usually do, but I was nonetheless pretty sure it wasn’t typical for a large group of students to be walking down the driveway. Maybe something special was going on at the barn? Or perhaps a science class was doing a lab by the pond? Suddenly, it hit me – it was our very first group of IB diploma candidates, walking down to Sally and Hank’s house to take the first-ever IB exam in our school’s history. I smiled and waved encouragingly, trying to make eye contact with as many students as possible, and wondered to myself at how so many truly significant moments appear so normal at the same time.

Two days later, I was taking my first turn invigilating an exam (it’s worth noting that, like many people in our school, I didn’t even know the verb “invigilate” until this May). Whether I was projecting my own nervousness onto the students, remembering recent Upper School Rock Band rehearsals when diploma candidates were processing their feelings of apprehension since they were the first-ever students at our school to take the tests, or accurately observing how the students in front of me felt, it seemed there was a tentativeness to the room, a sense that one was doing one’s best without knowing for sure if that best would actually be good enough. Though invigilation, as I later commented to our Academic Dean Alex Bogel, is barely more interesting than watching paint dry (his response: “Oh, it’s brutal.”), the fact that I cared so much about the students and wanted the best for them got me through. I’m sure Alex had a similar experience.

Four days ago as I write this (on Thursday, May 16), I took my second turn at invigilation, a Spanish exam. This time was totally different. For one thing, I was starting an exam rather than going through the multiple procedures required at the end of an exam as I had the previous time. But far more important, these students were pumped. “Let’s do this thing!” yelled one student, raising her fist as others added, “Yeah!” “We’re fluent!” It seemed clear that after several weeks of taking exams, the students were well settled into the process. However tentative and nervous they were at the start, and whatever nerves still remained deep down, they appeared to have acquired additional confidence in themselves, enough additional confidence to not only feel it but also to express it.

I’m sure when the results come in, whether by envelope or email, some of the candidates will pause briefly and close their eyes, perhaps turning their face up to the heavens, before opening the message and finding out exactly how they did. And I suspect some of the teachers will share their nervousness. But whatever those results, right now, it’s clear that we all have done our jobs well. These students think clearly and deeply, can draw on extensive knowledge banks, and are able to make sophisticated connections. They have reason to be proud of themselves, as we are of them.

Just three more days of testing to go. And then…

let the wild rumpus begin!

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Filed under Graduation, International Baccalaureate, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School