Living Into Possibility: When School is the Real World

Last week, Lower School principal Kimberly Beck and I met with two 5th grade students. Maddie and Avery had made an appointment days before, and when they sat at the conference table in my office, it was evident that they had given considerable thought to preparing for the meeting. They opened up a laptop which had their talking points. They placed on the table three full pages of student signatures which they had gathered in support of their proposal. And they delivered a careful and compelling oral presentation in which they cited statistics, quoted experts, and appealed to Kimberly’s and my sense of justice.

Maddy and Avery had partnered around one of the great justice issues of our time: requiring students to go to school the day after Halloween. They shared testimony for why this issue demanded attention. (“Kids are way too tired from staying up late” and “Can you imagine how sore your students will be after having to ring all of those doorbells?”) On behalf of their classmates and the entire Lower School, they asked us to envision a brighter future, one in which young Hoppers would be granted the freedom on November 1 to sleep in and count their candy while still in pajamas.

The fleeting passions of our students, be they gathering signatures for a petition, editing a yearbook, or launching a school store, can easily be dismissed as childhood whimsy. And yet for those paying attention, it is not hard to make a connection between these school day experiments and adult vocations. I was reminded of this repeatedly over the past week.

On Tuesday, while reading up on the World Series, I noticed the byline of the Washington Post’s sportswriter, Jesse Dougherty. A dozen years ago, Jesse was my Middle School student at Abington Friends School, where he was obsessed with Philadelphia sports, writing about them for the middle school journal.

On Wednesday, Jonathan Safran Foer ’95 visited the High School, where he gave a lunchtime talk sponsored by the Environmental Club. The topic of Jonathan’s visit was his most recent book, We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Jonathan became a part-time vegetarian as a GDS 4th grader and honed his skills as both a writer and environmental activist throughout his GDS tenure.

On Saturday at GDS’s Country Market Day, I ran into Julia Blount ’08, Middle School history teacher and coordinator of Middle School community engagement. Julia shared with me some of her favorite childhood Country Market Day memories, from the cakewalk to the crafts fair. In fact, as a Middle School student, Julia originated the Haunted House, which remains a Country Market Day favorite some fifteen years later. Remarkably, Julia is one of three alumnae named Julia currently teaching at GDS, along with 4th grade teacher Julia Tomasko ’05 and High School English teacher Julia Fisher ’09.

Just today associate head of school Kevin Barr cut short a meeting with me to have lunch with Molly Roberts ’12. While in High School, Molly served as editor of the Augur Bit, the GDS newspaper. She is now an opinion writer for the Washington Post and the second youngest member of the Post’s Editorial Board in the paper’s history.

And so we return to Maddie and Avery. While this particular social action was not entirely successful, (I told the girls that they would need three sheets of parent signatures for their request to be reconsidered), the 5th graders did manage to extract from Kimberly a promise of no homework or tests on Friday. Perhaps more importantly, 30 years hence, when Avery is director of corporate relations for Mars, Inc. and Maddie is serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, they will be able to trace their professional launch back to their 5th grade advocacy campaign.

At GDS we take our students seriously, showing them that their voices, deeds, and ideas matter. Nearly 75 years of experience has taught us that by honoring the contributions of children, we are setting the stage for them to learn joyfully and to evolve into confident, competent, committed changemakers.


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