In June we celebrate each student moving up to the next grade, with a special emphasis on the eighth graders. As they finish the “grammar school” part of their educations, they have much to look forward to, and a tremendous bank of skills and experiences to draw from after completing the middle school program. Here are my remarks from that morning, retooled a little bit to fit a blog post.
It is well worth the pause to reflect about the care that families took in choosing a Poughkeepsie Day School education for their children. Our school was founded within the time that the progressive ideas of John Dewey were taking hold. Dewey believed in education as the foundation of participative democracy. He emphasized that students learned best through an education that provided experiences, and where the conditions were constructed such that students participated in learning– rather than an environment where students were considered passive receivers of content and information.
The number of ways that the class of 2020 participated in middle school are numerous. Some things I’ll remember about this class: camaraderie, music — and that our trip to DC had a particular cache because of the popular musical, Hamilton. As everyone knows now, especially since I write this well after the Tony’s, the musical Hamilton has taken the Broadway world by storm.
It has also taken some of the MS faculty by storm. I became interested in the show after Karl spent every spare minute on the DC trip writing a rap for the students, just to see if he could do it. He was inspired by the soundtrack. It easily won my ear over, and I’ve been listening to at least a few minutes of the show, every day since April. Both Karl and I are reading the Ron Chernow biography, (he’s on chapter 20, I’m on chapter 16, Jake read it long ago. We are still working on converting Malorie, Emma and Shirley.)
So, I link some ideas about the class of 2020’s high school future to this particular work of art. These are much more inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda than by Chernow’s biography, and I am going to be skirting around the juicy bits, so let’s not worry too much about exact historical fact.
Write like you’re running out of time
This is not an invitation to procrastination. Rather, it is the advice that it is always easier to have more words and trim, than have too few words. Words let people know what you think. This makes writing hard, but it is also the reason why the people who command the words, command the ideas, Hamilton’s work on The Federalist Papers are going to be referred to for as long as our country stands. We know what he thought because he wrote it down. So, be bold and write.
History has its eye on you
Hamilton lived in an age where honor and reputation were exceedingly important. In fact, they were a matter of life and death in many cases, his own included. Imagine what he might think of this digital age, where in seconds, someone can write something that is available to everyone– and never be able to take it back. We know that Eliza burned her letters to protect her privacy– but this is not an option for anything that has been digitally written.
Always think of not just the immediate audience, but the potential audience as being vast in your own time, and lasting into the future. So, while you are writing like you’re running out of time, anything you write (texts included), needs to reflect well on you. Your generation is going to need to define what civility means in digital writing– not all of adults, even in the public eye have grasped this yet, and I don’t think history will consider their writing to be honorable. But each of you has a chance to start fresh. Make your code of conduct strong.
Take a break
I said I was going to leave out the juicy bits, and I will. Hamilton had a reputation of being an incredibly hard worker, and in the Hamilton show, this becomes a downfall. He doesn’t take a break to spend time with his family, and then a break more or less takes him instead. The lesson here is that everyone needs breaks– and your mind and body are going to take them whether you make the decision or not. So, take charge of your own attention and make the breaks meaningful and helpful. When you have lots of school work, switch between subjects to get a fresh start. Don’t condemn yourself to only working while seated. Don’t let interruptions from devices make your school work take longer than your teachers intended. When you have school work under control, spend time outside, find a way to sweat and play hard, practice music or do something else with your hands. Spend face to face time with other people. Take a break, and make it be something that uses parts of your mind and body that school work may not always tap into.
If you feel your darkest hour has come, see if you can do something for others
For this last bit, we turn to Eliza Hamilton for inspiration. She lost a son and her husband; her daughter went insane, and with no source of income, she also lost her home for a period of time. And yet, she is remembered for her works on the behalf of others. She helped found an orphanage, and served as its directress for 27 years. Today it is called Graham Windam and serves 4000 children in various ways. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator and the actor who plays Hamilton, and Philipa Soo, who plays Eliza in the show, have both become benefactors of Graham Windam. Eliza also took homeless children into her own home. She raised funds for the Washington Monument, and she compiled her husband’s papers in order to write his biography with one of her surviving sons. She lived well into her nineties– almost up to the Civil War. She does not seem to have spent much time feeling sorry for herself or hiding away.
Every year, we see students in high school (and college and beyond) figure out who they can care for. When you’ve been given a fine education, it does make you realize that many people have less than you do. Our school was founded as a Progressive school, and one of the key experiences of your education here is that we work to educate you to your own potential, and also to be able to go out into society and make the world better. We want you to know that you can do that, and that you can begin even while you are still a student.
Last of all–
As you move up to high school, please remember us in middle school. I often say that teaching MS is like having someone take the book away from you when you’ve read only the first half. We love knowing how you are doing in high school, and we love hearing about how the next phases of your educations connect to the years you were here with us. Congratulations on all that you’ve learned and accomplished.
We will welcome the new 6-8 grade classes in a few more weeks. We will look forward to seeing the class of 2020 back too, as high schoolers.