The two Germans in the pool were shouting and swatting their inflatable ball at each other. Maybe thirteen, the casual observer might have taken them for Diegueño students, except that they kept yelling “Schlagen hassen!”
My son, who isn’t yet a great swimmer and doesn’t know a word of German, jumped in and began to play. At six his sense of camaraderie and possibility are unlimited. And the boys let him join in. Glücklich, I thought to myself. How very cool.
…and how can we foster this kind of inclusion on campus?
Sitting by the swimming pool in Marin County, so close to Mt. Tam I could almost hear the talking apes, the concept of atmosphere came to mind. This atmosphere that encouraged a novice swimmer and non-Deutschmann to join a game he didn’t know with strangers he’d never met was one where laughter and play (in any language) was fantastic. How, I wondered, could it be recreated at my school?
Middle school can be a place where students can begin to feel less welcome than they did in elementary school. Without mindful choices on the part of the adults at the school cliques can form, students can feel excluded, and shoulders can turn cold. My time by the pool encouraged me, however, that given the right expectations and freed from the Lord of the Flies style social pressure that can spring up in the vacuum of unengaged adults, students can be encouraged (and allow themselves) to take chances, dive in, and welcome each other into the game.
To create this atmosphere takes our whole community, from the teachers who build trust every day during class to the administrators and ASB leaders who must set high standards for kindness. Parents, whose lifelong guidance helps create the students we teach, are partners in this enterprise. And we all must believe and expect that the 7th and 8th graders can be as kind to each other as these Germans were to my son.
My daughter had different Germans. Her Teutonic knights underscored one of the challenges of this work, and its importance. Not long after we’d all dried off from swimming, I walked into the hotel room and found my nine year old watching the World Cup final. I know my eyes widened a bit; sure she loves to play soccer, but this was the first time I’d seen her take a personal interest in something not geared toward kids. I know watching soccer is a long way from putting on eyeliner or enjoying French cinema, but it was a strong reminder to me of one of the challenges (and rewards) parents of middle schoolers face every day: the kids are growing up.
It’s as they do that the importance of our community building work becomes so very clear. The habits of kindness that we nurture now are the foundation of who our students will become. By that I don’t mean what they’ll do (hotelier or professional soccer star), but whether or not they’ll be the kind of person who raises her teenage sons to let a six year old join them in schlagen hassen .