Perhaps inevitably, I’ve spent an awful lot of time over the past two months with this class, beginning with teaching a couple of fiction lessons, culminating most recently in a field trip and carpools to various events. I was supposed to help teach these adolescents how to write pretend lives, but instead they reminded me how to live.
This refresher course on loving, laughing, learning, and letting go has come at a good time for me, so I thought I’d pass it along. Here you go – life lessons brought to you by the Davis Waldorf School eighth grade.
1. Be yourself (Unless you can speak in a bad British accent; then do that. Always)—Adolescents are magpies or sheep, mimics driven by imitation and peer pressure, right? What if I showed you a group of teenagers who know that they come in all shapes and sizes, who know that one person’s quirk is also that person’s strength, who wear brightly colored skinny jeans, or vests and ties, who push the corners and seams of the dress code to find their own style? What if I showed you teenaged boys waltzing together or holding hands with giant grins? What if I showed you a quiet girl doing a Cockney accent in the back of a minivan on the way to a ball?
2. If plan A won’t work, move to plan B, or, ditch the plan and grab a sled. On the second morning of the snow trip, the planned sculpture contest unraveled as the perfect snow packing conditions of the day before shifted into crumbly powder. The kids barely paused. The teams of three flowed apart, grabbed shovels and began to “build snow caves.” When this plan proved improbable due to a lack of snow depth and the aforementioned crumbling factor, the cave diggers became toboggan run designers. When the run turned out to be more of a toboggan crawl, they shrugged, grabbed sleds, and headed up the mountain.
3. Take the shot that counts. From basketball to music, from tests to plays, these kids know that the score isn’t counted in practice, rehearsal, or study period. They may miss a layup or free-throw in practice with a shrug or a grin, flub lines or goof off during dress rehearsal, but when it’s game time, they’ll make the 3-pointer or go down trying, and they’ll be encore-worthy perfect when the curtain goes up.
4. Acknowledge the awkwardness. A couple of weekends ago, we held a “fiction party” for the 8th grade at my house. Even as I was buying pizza and chips, I had the maternal jitters. “Do you think they’ll have fun, or is this just stupid,” I asked Caitlin more than once. I worried that the kids would feel obligated to come, and that it would be a wasted Sunday afternoon for them. Sure enough, as they arrived, our tiny kitchen filled with hovering teenagers. My mind spun circles generating “fix-it” plans, but my internal writer said, “This is a fiction party; let’s see how the scene plays out.”
Finally, one girl gave a nervous giggle. “Well, this is awkward.”
As anyone who knows this class could have predicted, this was the cue for everyone to laugh and grab pizza and soda. Before long, the mood had shifted from freaky ‘what are we all doing here anyway’ awkwardness to a party. (See below.)
5. Life is a party. If it isn’t, you’re probably doing it wrong. I’ve yet to see a work day, school day, game, or event that this class didn’t turn into a party. They spend a lot of time together; they know each other’s quirks; and every gathering is really just an excuse to enjoy that bond. I’m reasonably certain you could line them up at the DMV and after about ten minutes, the lobby would look like a dance club.
6. You don’t always have to like each other, but families support one another. This class isn’t a class. They are a family. Like siblings, they bicker and badger, but they always, always have each other’s backs. One weekend, the boys and girls basketball teams had games in close time proximity. Many of the girls showed up early to support the boys, and the boys stuck around to cheer and advise the girls. It was as though an entire coaching squad had manifested in one section of the bleachers. No matter how annoying they find each other’s quirks, they cheered every play by every player.
During the final day of the basketball tournament, the girls battled for third place and lost. They had given it everything they had – one girl even playing with a fever – but it wasn’t enough. These are 13 and 14 year old girls. They could have sulked, gone home to cry, and no one would have blamed them. Instead, two hours later, the loudest voices from the stands came from those girls, chanting in unison and cheering their male classmates to the tournament championship.
7. Sometimes common sense is overrated. You don’t know it won’t work unless you try. Every adult standing on the hill cringed. It was like one of those nightmares that happen in slow motion. You know how it will end, but you can’t move fast enough to stop it.
Two boys, one snow tube, one hill. What could go wrong? Well, nothing, unless, the boys in question decide that the best way down the hill is not the middle of the run; after all, that’s already been done, but rather along the edge of the hill, right where it tips into trees, bushes, and a mild precipice. Yeah, that should work.
The run ended as any of the adults could have predicted. I had just enough time to think, “At least we made them wear helmets” before the tube slid off the edge and two rather surprised teens became tangled in the bare branches of a tree.
This sort of experimentation may not seem like a great life lesson – or even conducive to long life – but I’ve watched those same boys transform cans of spray paint, an old bedstead, a saw, and raw energy into props for a spooky Halloween garden. Hang around them long enough and you will hear “What if we…” It’s hard not to wonder what could happen in the world if more people said those words and then followed through.
8. Be a surprise. They only think they know you. We all carry our own surprises and inconsistencies, yet we cling to the notion that we “know” those close to us. Watching this class, though, I’ve seen: the least athletic kid go for and make a layup in basketball; one of the most pop-culture-engaged kids express the most conservative views; quiet girls belt out songs that would make your average American Idol contestant green with envy; and my practical daughter don an evil grin along with a party dress, while wondering if she can confuse the boys.
9. Stand up for what you believe. No one else is going to do it for you. Civics is embedded in the 8th grade curriculum, and this class has taken the lessons to heart. Their teacher commented to me that he’s been able to get through more material with them in previous years, but this year they want to debate and discuss everything – and he’s glad to see them do it.
During the “fiction party” at our house, I imitated a fly on the wall, tucked behind a bookcase, while they discussed the occupation of one of the characters in the show we were screening. (She’s a high-level courtesan.) I weighed the merits of jumping in with some pompous adult wisdom, but decided to watch the debate unfold. Several of the kids were morally shocked, others argued that there was nothing wrong with her profession within the social context of the series, and a couple of mildly misogynistic comments were shot down as quickly as they appeared.
In the end, my input wouldn’t have mattered. It didn’t matter who was right or wrong; what mattered is that they could work out how to express and defend their opinions against the toughest audience in the world – their peers.
10. You’re going to have to say goodbye. Spend as much time together as possible. The last times are piling up. They’ve had their last snow trip together as a class; the curtain has come down on their last play; they’ve played their last basketball games together as teams. There are still plenty of landmarks, big and small, to come over the next few months, but time is rolling them inexorably toward June. These kids are tight, but after graduation, it won’t be the same. They’ll move on to different Junior High and High School campuses for ninth grade. They’ll form new bonds of friendship and conflict. Time and distance will float them gradually apart.
Faced with separation, adults often prepare emotionally for the inevitable by clinging to the past, or, more commonly, by distancing ourselves in advance. We seem sometimes to view wholehearted involvement in ephemeral relationships as a wasted investment.
This class of 2013 has shown something different in this last half of their final year together. They are facing the end in their own way, with class, style, and a sense that they are “all in.”
The gym was being mopped, clusters of parents stood chatting while younger siblings practiced dribbling and half-hearted shots at a hoop far above their heads. The trophy had been awarded, medals ringed the necks of the boys’ team, and the players hugged, mugged for photos, laughed, passed the trophy around, and basked – girls and boys alike – in being part of school history. The boys won it, but for the girls, it seemed like their victory, too – the first championship trophy earned by a team from the school.
Finally, a weary voice raised above the buzz. We turned to see the senior referee with the microphone. “We need to clear out the gym.”
It was time to go home.