Having had shoulder surgery recently, I was away from school for a couple of weeks. On my first day back to the Lower School I ran into Ella who was celebrating her seventh birthday and had the following exchange. Noting the contraption in which my arm was constrained, Ella asked how I broke my arm. When I replied that I didn’t break my arm, but had gotten a brand new shoulder, she looked at me rather puzzled.
“You know,” I said, “they took out my old shoulder and gave me a new one.” No longer looking puzzled, merely disturbed, Ella observed, “Kevin, that is sad and that is gross.”
As they say, “out of the mouth of babes.”
What I loved most about the exchange wasn’t just Ella’s perspicacity; it was the absolute ease with which she chatted with me. We work to instill many qualities of mind and character in our students; chief among them are self-confidence, lucidity, and autonomy.
Those are the qualities that allowed one sixth grader some years back to observe rather laconically in a class I was teaching, “Well, Kevin, I know the point you are trying to make, but if you had us read to the end of the page and asked about the character’s personality rather than stopping where you did, I am not sure you would be able to make the point.” Now in another school, such an exchange might be seen as a mark of impertinence. At GDS, though, those are the moments we live for as teachers. Walt Whitman observed as much a long time ago when he declared,
I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
The boy I love, the same becomes a man not through derived power, but in his own right
As hard as it can be for us as parents and teachers, our job is to bring our children to the point where they can fly free; we hope they look back; we hope that they know the nest will always be available to them no matter how briefly they feel the need to return; but the job is not to make them miniature versions of ourselves.
To not let them take risks and fail, to take over their science project or edit their essay with the intensity of a New York Times copy editor, is to tell them, overtly or covertly, that we don’t have faith in them, that without us they can’t stand on their own. Even when the child struggles, when the grade they receive on a test or paper doesn’t meet our standards or more importantly, their own stated goals, the proper response still has to be, “What do you think you might have done differently to get the better grade? What changes in your approach might be available?” It is not to do it for them. Our end has to be to help them become independent, self-directed learners and individuals. We want them to know and be able to speak their own minds; that is their right and our obligation.
When they are five we want them to have opinions. At twelve, it’s high time for them to know the difference between an opinion and an informed judgment; but we do want them to know their own minds and we want them to speak them. It’s not a free-for-all and not everything goes. In the long run, though, they can only learn the limits when they have pushed up against them. They will experience bumps and bruises along the way and be better for it. Children are more resilient than we often give them credit for.
Perhaps, because there were nine of us, and perhaps because her own brothers were notorious bad boys who grew up to be judges, doctors, and college presidents, my mother believed strongly in allowing us to fail, to get into and out of scrapes on our own. As she said, more than once to my father, “Harry, they probably won’t get killed.” I always thought that was a pretty low bar; now, though, as a father and grandfather, I am more and more convinced of the wisdom of her approach.
As we head into summer, I want to thank our parents for trusting us with their most precious possession, their children. To have some small part in the rearing of them is a blessing and a gift.