Some years back I was the parent of two elementary aged school kids and simultaneously taught in the K-2 OA program at Park Side School. I loved my days. I was in my element as a mom in a family with young kids. I was also passionate as the first public school teacher that many families would encounter. I hugged those children on their first day as mom left or I hugged mom as she cried and her kindergartner grew up in an instant. I lived kids all day. I celebrated with them as they mastered their ABC's and read their first chapter book. I spent happy hours planning engaging math lessons, exciting science stuff, fun PE games and so cool art! The best part was creating a community. We - kids, parents, and teachers - studied and played together, wrote each other notes and drew pictures for each other. We got frustrated with each other and with ourselves.. Sometimes we stomped our foot and sometimes we held each other as we cried tears of grief or fear. It was a safe world where we all, kids and adults, learned from each other and took care of each other.
After close to ten years of primary teaching, I was given an opportunity to return to an earlier double passion of mine: the adolescent and school counseling. Earlier in life I had been a teacher and counselor in a middle school and now I was going back to that role at Brook Haven School. I had doubts about this role of school counselor because it meant that I would no longer have my sweet Room 28 world. Instead of interacting with 20 families every day, I would now be interacting with over 500 families daily. How was I doing to feel connected to all these people? How could I possibly create community here?
Guess what? I didn't have to create it. It was already there. At BHS, I found a caring and fun group of adults who all enjoyed the middle school kid. These adults liked laughing with 12 year olds. They liked seeing the potential in an 11 year old and then watching that child mature into a confident high school student. These adults sometimes behaved like silly middle school kids themselves, playing practical jokes on each other or singing in rock bands together. And, most importantly, they wanted a safe community in which the kids could learn, grow, and find their adolescent selves. Gradually, I came to see that the community was here and I needed to find my place in it.
About ten years later, I am still thriving at Brook Haven. My son and daughter have grown up and left their dad and me cleaning our own quiet home. I spend my days in the company of about 320 kids and their families now. BHS has expanded its grade levels to include about 25 4th and 5th graders in the REACH program and they have added dimension to our BHS world. The highlight of my day is often lunchtime. I am out on the yard every day and always head to the 4/5 yard first. I love checking in with the youngest of our students just because they give me my little kid fix. They are so outright affectionate and joyful. Next I tour over to where many of our 8th graders eat. I love that part too because they always intrigue me. What are they wearing today? Who is visiting with whom? Who seems isolated or upset today? How is the kid whose grandmother is in the hospital? Did that girl pass her science test? Lots of greetings and brief check ins happen in that walk through their chosen lunch spot. Next I walk on to where my 6th and 7th graders eat lunch. Typically I find lots of goofiness there and plenty of silly questions (Can we get hair straighteners in the bathroom ,JT?) and I notice the same things that caught my eye in the earlier walk arounds. The rest of lunch I continue to move, greeting every child by name (how better to demonstrate that I care about who they are?), poking my head into the girls' bathroom (everything okay in here?) and generally assuring myself that all kids on campus are safe. Sometimes a student will confide in me about a problem they are having or a friend about whom they are worried. They know I will follow up. They know I care about their world. They know they can trust me with their secrets. They trust me to help them navigate middle school and I take their trust seriously. I believe I almost always deliver.
Middle school can be a tough time for kids and for parents. Everything is changing for everyone and it’s tough to make friends with all those changes. Middle school students sometimes seem as open, joyful, and young as the little kid 4th graders. At other times, their fresh perspective and relatively new eyes reveal wisdom that jaded adults have long left behind. Just as in the adult world, you will find an occasional bully but steps are taken to both prevent or stop such behaviors when they are reported. Middle schoolers need community as much as they did as kindergartners. They need friends to talk to, peers to reflect back their world to them, a culture to call their own, and trusted adults to watch out for them. That sounds a whole lot like what I find at BHS.