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From the Middle School Dean: Believing in Kindness

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Is there anyone alive who remembers their Middle School years with fondness? I’m afraid the answer to that question is not many. Even I, the woman who loves her work with Middle School students, remembers reaching Upper School at my independent school in New York City and thinking “Phew, I never have to go back there again.”  “There” was Middle School and the distance was but one floor in the nine story building that constituted my school campus on the edge of Central Park. I smile at the obvious irony, for I am most certainly back in Middle School.  That memory, however, meaningfully informs every conversation I have with Middle School students in distress or even in a bit of trouble.

I have reflected back on that memory often, trying to recall what was at the heart of my relief around growing up and out of Middle School. I have concluded with some certainty that kindness, or the lack thereof, was a good part of it. Since becoming Middle School Dean, I have looked for ways to incorporate kindness into our ongoing discussions in Homeroom and Assembly time. In fact, “Kindness and Community” are our anchor words this year as we focus on our theme of “A Responsible Life”.

Much has been written in recent years about whether or not kindness can be taught and if so how on earth do you do it?  Happily, there is much to suggest in research and in life experience that there is an inherent human capacity or inclination toward kindness. Our bent toward kindness, however, can be overshadowed it seems when things become too stressful, too uncertain or too complicated.

Lest you have forgotten, Middle School years are complicated. They are years of exponential physical, emotional and intellectual growth. They are also the years when young adolescents begin the incremental process of individuation and independence.  Additionally, they are years fraught with the ever distilling questions of who they are and what they want to become. Overarching it all is the need to find their place, their tribe, their true blue friends. Every day I see how hard it is to be a true blue friend while experiencing an unrelenting need to be accepted and included by everyone. The competing needs to fit in, find yourself and be accepted by your classmates can often lead to hurt feelings, social drama and seemingly inevitable moments of unkindness.

Over a number of weeks this term in Middle School assembly, we have heard faculty and students reflect on how they have experienced kindness in their lives. These personal accounts have been both simple and profound. They have moved audience and speaker to tears as they have shared truthful accounts of how a seemingly simple kindness has impacted them. For some, the stories stretched back several years, for others the acts of kindness were fresh and equally moving. Their stories touched a chord that now binds us in all the ways that make us human.

Next term, a group of Middle School students on our Community Builders Committee will help lead and further a kindness movement that we hope will inspire acts of kindness across the grades and across our campus. I believe that Middle School students can lead their peers in ways that can make kindness more common in our community.  As always, there will be adults of influence standing by their side, giving guidance and cheering them on. Kindness, for all the reasons mentioned above, may always be a struggle in Middle School. But, it is a struggle worthy of our best efforts.