Tag Archives: Bill Ivey

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

… Like We’re People

Every August, my hometown hosts one of the great 10K races in New England, the Bridge of Flowers Classic. Hundreds of runners, from local kids to world-class elite racers, line up on the Iron Bridge while seemingly half the town lines up to watch them or goes to take their stations to volunteer and help out. On several oocasions, Greg Snedeker (our jazz and classical music teacher) and friends set up out on the course to provide musical support. It’s always fun and festive, and a wonderful way to spend the morning.

One such morning, I saw Dana Parker, the Youth Minister from my church during my teenage years (and, for fans of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle by Madeline Blais, the kind and supportive Dean of Students mentioned in the book) walking down the Iron Bridge to find a spot to cheer on his wife. Thinking I could not pass up this chance to tell him something I’d wanted to say for over 20 years, I ran past dozens of other spectators, skipping and side-stepping around and out of the way of people so I could keep moving and keep him in sight. I finally caught up and said “Dana,” loudly enough to be sure he heard but not so loudly to attract attention, and he turned around. “Bill,” he said, that familiar slow, warm smile spreading over his face. After we caught up up on our lives for a few minutes, I said, “Well, I just needed to tell you that I’ve been trying my whole life to do for kids what you did for us. You treated us like people, and it meant the world.”

He tilted his head and another familiar expression came over his face as he said, “Well, you were people.”

About a week ago, my Humanities 7 students were talking before class started, and they brought up the fact that a number of teachers are moving on this year. One of them, Hank Mixsell, is wrapping up a long and successful career in which he made a positive difference in the lives of countless students; others, such as Kayla Burke, Michele Berdela, and Mandi Repoli, are at the other end of long and successful careers etc. and are moving to be with fiancés and significant others or because they’ve wrapped up their internships here. The kids have connected to every one, and at an age where so much in their own lives may seem to be changing and unstable, changes in teachers can be scary. They talked back and forth about ideas for what they hoped for in new teachers next year, and in the end asked me with heartbreaking earnestness, “Please, just find us a teacher who will love us.” I assured them that the one inviolable principle I hold in hiring new teachers is they they know, understand, and genuinely like middle school kids, and they looked at least somewhat relieved.

I mentioned this moment on the ISED-L listserv, and several people very kindly wrote in to say how wonderful our school sounded and how lucky those kids were.

That was the theme of many conversations during our recent Spring Family Weekend, and the dominant sentiment behind many of the student-led conferences I witnessed Saturday morning. One teacher asked me how my morning had gone, and I said, “Well, I spent the whole morning just sitting and listening to kids talk about how much they had learned this year and what they wanted to keep working on while their parents looked on and smiled. So I’d say it was a pretty good morning.” There were the usual tear-inducing moments when the depth of learning, connection, and self-awareness the kids were showing so simply and matter-of-factly left me feeling overwhelmed.

One of the things these kids talk about openly, and with far more insight and nuance than many people would expect, is the notion that they are still growing up. It is at once a comforting reassurance that they are normal, an uncomfortable reminder that they do still have some growing up yet to do, and ultimately a simple fact of their existence. This is just one of the many ways I can relate to them. I don’t mean just through remembering my own teenage years, though goodness knows I do and I had my share of moments of immaturity. No, I mean the concept that however mature I may be now, I am less mature than I will be. I’m sure if I live to be 100, I’ll look back at something my 95-year-old self did and just shake my head. It’s part of the human condition.

And in our joint humanity, my students and I, we all simply go forward and do our best, with the confidence that comes from genuine respect and deep connections. It’s almost…

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

Nails in the Coffin?

As many of you may know, and to no one’s surprise who follows women’s basketball, Brittney Griner, a 6’8” Senior from Baylor, was the first player to be chosen in the 2013 WNBA draft and will play for the Phoenix Mercury. With only three rounds and only 12 teams drafting, very few players are invited to attend in person, but of course Ms. Griner was there, all smiles, in a white tuxedo.

Two days later, during the course of an interview with “Sports Illustrated,” Ms. Griner was asked why she felt sexuality was no big deal in women’s sports. She responded, “I really couldn’t give an answer on why that’s so different. Being one that’s out, it’s just being who you are.” Asked if making the decision to come out had been difficult, she said, “It really wasn’t too difficult, I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all.” Though the interview received a fair amount of attention on social media, it received attention more for the low-key “no big deal” feeling to the moment than for the news itself. As Wesley Morris said in his article “Brittney Griner and the Quiet Queering of Professional Sports,” “Maybe it was amazing for its utter whateverness.”

Mr. Morris continued to point out that Ms. Griner had painted her fingernails “a shade of orange that might have been awkward had she been picked up by, say, the Atlanta Dream instead of the Mercury.” To him, the combination of the nail polish and the tux emphasized that Ms. Griner was not playing dress-up but was simply expressing who she is. In his eyes, this is simply the confirmation of a quiet revolution, what he calls “the small but increasing genderlessness in professional sports.” He continues to affirm that “This younger generation of gay athletes — accustomed to degrees of cultural, social, and legal inclusion — better knows the relative personal normalcy of being gay than the crisis and melodrama of telling the world you’ve been living a lie. More and more straight ones have gay friends, classmates, cousins, siblings, and parents.”

The discussion may get a bit tricky when you consider that sexuality and gender aren’t the same thing, though of course, for most people, they are related. And of course, fashion is only significant to the extent that a person deliberately chooses their appearance to reflect their true authentic selves. But Mr. Morris’s fundamental hypothesis – that while we might have been expecting the closet to be smashed open in men’s sports, perhaps the revolution may have already been quietly going on for a while as shown by a certain breaking of gender-based fashion rules – is intriguing. Certainly, if the world of men’s professional sports can embrace gay people wholly and unequivocally, that has the potential to create a major shift in public opinion – one which has also, it must be acknowledged, already been taking place slowly but surely for some time.

And maybe women’s sports are indeed showing the way.

The Humanities 7 class, at one point last Fall, was considering holding a “Come as you are” day. They abandoned the idea for two principal reasons. One, that several people were concerned it might not be taken seriously and become just another excuse to wear sweatpants. Two, that several people were confused as to why anyone wouldn’t “come as you are” in the first place. Their honesty and self-confidence were both refreshing. For Brittney Griner, too, it seems, every day is a “Come as you are” day. Maybe those orange fingernails are helping close the lid on homophobia. Maybe transphobia will meet the same fate soon after.

And maybe my students and their generation will help nail the lid shut.

Once and for all.

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Filed under Athletics, Gender, In the Classroom, On Athletics, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Echoes of Silence

In the echoing silence, I thought I could hear closet doors that had opened a crack softly but quickly shutting again. We were at a faculty professional development session on supporting lesbian and bisexual students, and an earnest young houseparent had just explained to the facilitator that we didn’t have any issues around sexuality among the faculty and staff because no one was gay. Seriously? I thought to myself. How could we even know? Just because no one has dared come out?

We did find a way to end up having a productive session that day, and by the end of the year, the first two students I can remember from my first 12 years at this school had indeed found the courage to come out as lesbian. This was during the years when graduating Seniors offered a present to the Head of School, and following the theme set for that school year, the Class of 1997 each offered Patrick Collins their own “Book of You” as a way to remember their individual voice at the school. In a gesture that showed how far we had come in less than a year, one of those students offered Mr. Collins The Joy of Lesbian Sex.

Seven years later, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, Lisa Ganci, our bookstore manager, and her then-partner were the second couple in line at the Northampton Town Hall waiting to get their marriage license at the stroke of midnight. She shared the overwhelming joy of that moment with the school during Housemeeting, speaking movingly about how lucky she felt to work here in a place where she could feel completely safe and supported.

Seven years after that, one of the Seniors came out to the school in another housemeeting, announcing that he was transgender, explaining what name he was using and what pronouns should be used. We faculty had prepared for that moment, with our Mission and Diversity Statements as a guide, and following that housemeeting met in advisory groups to process the announcement. My own group of seventh and eighth graders took the news completely in stride, perhaps in part because three of their families already knew transgender people who had come out. One of my students asked if we were still a girls school, and I said yes, we were still a girls school – with one boy.

Time and time again, I read that one major contributing factor to the sea change in attitude in this country toward homosexuality has been the increasing numbers of people coming out. Suddenly, from the perspective of heterosexuals anyway, gay people weren’t this strange “other”; they were your neighbour, your uncle, your sister. They were people who led perfectly ordinary lives but who happened to be inclined to fall in love with other people of their own gender.

There remains some confusion about bisexuals, and even more confusion about transgender people. If the existence of gay people challenges the notion that men invariably fall in love with women and women invariably fall in love with men, at least the notion of “invariably fall in love with a specific gender” remains in place. Bisexual people and transsexuals further challenge that binary concept of gender, and of course other transgender people just blow it apart. I often read that, as more and more bisexual and transgender people begin to come out, people will increasingly be able to understand the normalcy of these ways of being, and they will be increasingly accepted in society for exactly who they are.

This is why it’s worth taking some time each year as we observe the Day of Silence to think about how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go, and how we get there. The more we break the silence about the full range of genders and sexualities, the easier it will be for people throughout that range to simply be their true authentic selves in public as well as in private.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a long road ahead of us. Thomas Beatie, a trans man who first gained fame during his pregnancy, recently had an appeal to divorce turned down because his marriage was not recognized by his home state. A gay person was handcuffed and forcibly removed from the hospital bedside of his dying partner. Smith College did not review an application from a trans woman because some of the documents she submitted defined her as male; in that context, note that the crazy quilt of laws in this country mean that some people are considered to be different genders in different states. Furthermore, some marriages that are legal in one state may not be recognized in another, and some marriages that are legal in one state may continue to be recognized in another… until one or both people in the couple take a particular action.

To be clear, I’m not arguing about specific religious attitudes toward LBGT people; each religion of course has the right to define their own values, and I fully respect that. Some religions embrace and support LGBT people, others consider it a sin and love and respect them anyway, and then there’s the Westboro Baptist Church. As for me, I fully support anyone who loves and respects all human beings, and I fully resist anyone who refuses to do so.

And that means speaking out into the silence. I regret to this day that I did not react to that earnest young houseparent’s remark, understanding that she no doubt meant well, but specifically working to create a context where those closet doors might open back up a little. I am relieved that they did, and proud of our school for the progress we have made over the last 16 years.

It used to be that, in speaking of puberty, we would say “Oh, she’ll be getting interested in boys,” and most girls would expect that would happen. We’re getting to the point when most people realize that outcome is the most likely – but not certain; as I’ve written before, fully a third of our students reported in a survey given by Life Skills 8 students that they “weren’t sure yet” of their sexuality. I sense, too, that students are aware that it is possible that another student will come out as transgender during their time here. In all cases, I sense various levels of confusion around what all possible genders and sexualities mean but also a sincere desire to work through that confusion in order to be able to accept everyone who is a part of our community.

With all that, though, I am well aware that every single member of the community has their own perceptions of the climate of our school, and they may not match. Do echoes of silence remain here and if so, what can we do to fill that silence? And how will this play out for our students once they’ve graduated?

This, then, is the ongoing work we must think of not only on this Day of Silence, but also throughout the year.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Once You Get to Know Them

It was Monday, April 15, 2013. Tax Day. Patriot’s Day. And a normal school day at Stoneleigh-Burnham. During Morning Announcements in my Humanities 7 class, the notion came up that Patriots’ Day was a day off for most residents of Massachusetts and Maine and, after some good-natured grumbling, the students got down to work. Out of a class of 10, seven students wanted to read from their independent writing, and the entire class listened carefully and patiently to over an hour’s worth of readings, bringing insight and empathy to their comments and suggestions. The rest of the period continued in the same vein, and later on my French 2 students would be similarly willing to work to understand at a deep level how you distinguish when to use the imparfait and when to use the passé composé instead.

Following this class, I went to Reception to meet the students who were travelling with me to volunteer at the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. As we loaded up the car, one of the girls mentioned there had been some sort of an explosion in Boston and, thinking of the Boston Marathon and my cousins who were running in it and my brother who often is involved with it, I lent them my phone when one of theirs died so they could look up what happened. They stuck to the facts, which were still sketchy at the time – two explosions, some injuries – and we moved on to talk about other things.

Unfortunately, no one was at the animal shelter when we got there; they must have assumed we would have Patriots’ Day off like most other schools. The kids remained cheerful, I told them on the bright side from my perspective I enjoyed spending time with them on the car ride, and we headed back to the school. Talk turned to the song “Accidental Racist” and the controversy surrounding it, and once again the girls turned to their phones to pull up information that would get them facts. From what they could tell, the song didn’t seem so bad. Focusing on lyrics like “I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book / I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air,” they felt that that the singers, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, really wanted to look past surface appearances and get to know each other better. From the few lyrics I had heard, I agreed. (By the way, “Why ‘Accidental Racist’ is Actually Just Racist” in “the Atlantic” gives a superb analysis; I wish I’d read it, or listened to the song, before the car ride.)

There was nothing accidental about the racism I was to encounter that evening when I got home and caught up on the horrific events in Boston and people’s reactions through my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Beneath the torrent of facts, thoughts, and prayers ran a disturbing undercurrent; Logan James, who runs the Twitter account “Yes, You’re Racist” was working overtime retweeting deeply offensive remarks about President Obama, Black people and Arabs. At one point, Mr. James paused to comment: “Currently experiencing one of the highest rates of racist tweets about President Obama I’ve seen since the election #StayClassyAmerica” A little later on, Elon James White, who runs the program “This Week in Blackness,” signed on to Twitter. Clearly deeply angry, he began to retweet his own selection of deeply offensive and racist sentiments. At several points, people commented on their despair for the future of the country, as for example one person who wrote: “not sure if I should laugh, ignore or argue. The young seem a lost cause.”

A lost cause? Not the kids I know. Heaven knows there are vicious racists out there among young people as well as among the adults they are most likely emulating. But the kids I know believe what’s on the surface doesn’t matter, that you have to learn to get past initial impressions and truly get to know people, that racism is wrong, that sexism is wrong, that (to paraphrase Ferris Bueller) ism’s in general are not good. They care for and respect each other, and bring a dignity to their interactions.

They’re the kind of kids who can’t begin to understand why someone would set two bombs to go off in a location where they might kill an eight-year-old boy and injure a two-year-old, and the kind of kids who can’t begin to understand how a conversation about a horrific tragedy could disintegrate so quickly into petty partisan politics, reckless racist remarks, and the complete dismissal of an entire generation.

So while I understand why people might want to give up on young people, I beg to differ. Indeed, in one of my catch phrases, “They’re really nice, once you get to know them.” I wish more people could. They might be able to go to sleep with some degree of hopefulness and optimism even after a day like today.

And now that this is written, I shall too.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education