Friday, June 10, 2011

This Is What It Means To Be Well-Educated

I missed most of our school day playing in the new outdoor classroom yesterday in order to attend my daughter Josephine's 8th grade graduation ceremony.

I don't tend to have a particularly high tolerance for pomp and circumstance, even when it's on my own or a loved one's behalf, but I must say that this event was thoroughly enjoyable. It hit all the right notes as far as nostalgia and hopes for the future go, but stayed largely focused on the present and this great group of kids, most of whom have been going to school together since kindergarten.

I was the proudest of papas, of course, when Josephine took the microphone and nailed Rihanna's version of "Love The Way You Lie," but there were many other moments when I felt my throat tighten and the tears well up.

I too have known many of these kids since they were 5. Jaan and Josephine have been going to school together since they were 2 and our families still spend holidays together. When Caleb with his recent mane of rock star hair laid down his Rush guitar solo, I could only see the little boy who got his legs tangled up with his chair while working on his math problems. As each of these 60 or so young women and men stepped up to receive her or his certificate, they were shadowed for me by a memory of the child they once were.

The Bush school is known for its performing arts and where other schools might give undue attention to their athletes, there is a tendency here for the musicians to receive the extra accolades, so it was both edifying and touching to learn about the large and small artistic, athletic, social, civic and other triumphs of all the students yesterday. There was no mention of traditional academics. Rather, the talk was of bravery, risk taking, epiphanies, kindness, and laughter.

When Paloma took to the podium to speak, it wasn't of grades or tests or the future (all of which are as bright as they can be for her). Instead she told the story of how she had learned over the past 9 years to not be so afraid of making mistakes, to step beyond her comfort zone, to find her own voice, and how she was committed to doing whatever she can to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the international slave trade, the subject of her independent study project this year. What remarkable insights to have as she steps into high school.

When I returned to preschool after the ceremony, I stood outside the fence for a few minutes listening to the children play. Just listening. There was no talk of grades or tests or academics: just laughter and shouting and crying. When I peeked over the fence I saw Lachlan take a tumble down our new sand hill. Audrey was trying to get her sticky-wheeled Hot Wheel to roll down the rain gutters placed on a slope for that purpose. Down by the art table a couple 2-year-olds were "negotiating" over a prized dinosaur as an adult tried to moderate.

At the end of the day, these are, of course, the important things in preschool: falling down and getting back up, experimenting with new things, learning to get along with the other people. And hopefully, we continue to do those things throughout our lives, while developing along the way the capacity for honest self-reflection, kindness, and the understanding that the reason we are here is to do whatever we can to reduce the suffering and increase the joy.

I thought about this while walking my dogs yesterday evening in downtown Seattle. A car accelerated through an intersection, and as it did a book that had been left on the roof by the driver blew open, scattering papers, followed by the book itself. It was a busy intersection, so I finished crossing to the other side, then stopped, realizing that I really should go back and gather what I could. When I turned around I found there were already 4 people out in the middle of the mean city streets, collecting those papers. By the time the driver had parked and joined the scene, all that was left for him to do was thank those strangers.

This is what it means to be well-educated.

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Jeanne Zuech said...

Lovely storytelling, as usual, with the lens of reflection that only Teacher Tom can bring :) Thank you.

FREJA said...

HI! I must say your blog is a great inspiration. I found the adress in a swedish professional journal. =)

Greetz from a studying pre-school teacher in Sweden!

Squiggly Rainbow said...

Definately. We have moved across our State to send our children to a school similar to your daughters. If only the greater good felt the same way! Thanks Tom.

Siobhan said...

How old is your daughter? I have been curious for a while as to the structure of school in the US. I live in Victoria Australia. Here, kindergarten is preschool, at age 4-5, primary starts with Prep at age 5-6, and is 7 years, to year 6. At 12ish, kids move on to high school, for years 7-12. They do a two-year structured certificate course in years 11-12 - called VCE - which qualifies them for university or other higher ed. So they graduate from school around 17-18, years old. At 18, they also get to drink alcohol, drive and vote, so it is a big year.

Teacher Tom said...

@Siobhan . . . Josephine is 14. In our state, preschool goes until 5, and is entirely optional. What we call elementary school is kindergarten-5th grade (5-11 years old). Middle school is 11-14 years old, then high school is 14-18.

Driving comes at 16, voting comes at 18, but to drink you have to wait until 21.

Deborah said...

I love it Tom!