A school is… (Verse 14: The Finale)

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A school must always be a set of undiscovered possibilities in the realm of the human spirit and a community devoted to their exploration and realization.

We’ve come to the end of the exercise here, perhaps fittingly as I watch the Rhode Island shoreline rush by en route to the National Association of Independent School Annual Conference, a gathering of the clans featuring enough blue blazers, camel’s hair, and tweed—along with inspiring presentations and contacts with old friends—to keep us sated for another year.

As I suppose most of us who work in schools do from time to time, I’ve been known to imagine what I might want to do out in what our private sector siblings and friends chide us about as being the “real world.” What sort of work would I be fitted for and would want to do? Some days collecting tolls on the Mass Turnpike seems as though it might be refreshing, or perhaps selling something really expensive, on commission.

And then I remember something really wonderful, perhaps the most wonderful thing of all, about working in an independent school, something that, whenever it happens, reminds me why this is what I need to be doing, at least for now.

The wonderful thing, and I every now and then I find a colleague who admits to sharing this belief, is being wrong. In particular, being wrong about a kid.

Little Joey can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag—until the day he turns in an essay that makes you gasp for the insights and the strong, sure voice it displays. Sullen Lulu is so self-absorbed that you grumble to yourself about the values with which she must have been raised—until on the bus ride back from the field trip she starts talking about the work she did at the animal shelter near her vacation home last summer and you realize it’s not about the vacation. The 15th player on your soccer team squibs in the winning goal; the pouty hulk with his hood up all the time is just big and clumsy and worries about his Down Syndrome younger brother; the basketball star mentions that he likes reading Hunter S. Thompson; the girl with even less fashion sense than you have (so you think) creates stunning costumes for the winter musical—in which a small, shy sophomore you’ve only vaguely noticed reveals a powerful baritone that fills the auditorium.

These experiences are reminders that making assumptions is a terrible thing; we rely too heavily on our experience and judgment and wisdom at our peril. But more importantly, being wrong is an object lesson in what good schools do best: allow what lies within each student to bubble up, to come to fruition, to stake a claim on some special space that is theirs (even for a moment) and theirs alone. Most often we have an inkling or more of what is coming, but there is almost nothing more delightful, more inspiring, than when we completely miss something, either because the child has carefully hidden it or, more often, because the child is as shocked and delighted as we are when the moment, what the house-and-garden shows call the “reveal,” arrives.

I’ve grumped here and there already about schools where there is a stated or strongly implied ideal, the perfect incarnation of what the school wants its students, who arrive apparently as imperfect versions, to become. I think that such schools, no matter how laudable their ideal, are missing the most exciting part of the great and wonderful experiment that they could be conducting—the opportunity to experience and take full and unadulterated pleasure in the truly unforeseen, to glory in those moments when a child becomes fully and in the best way possible himself or herself.

We are engaged in an endless experiment, to see whether our students, in our schools, can not just endure but also triumph over all the obstacles, important and petty, personal and societal, that childhood and adolescence throw in their way as they move, sometimes wriggling, sometimes streaking like lightning, toward adulthood and those lives of “usefulness and purpose”—and above all of meaning—that we want for them.

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