I was in rural Vermont visiting my wife’s family last February. During our first weekend back there, I had the opportunity to work closely with my 13-year-old niece Mary for five hours or so on a frigid Sunday morning. That experience has resulted in some real reflection for me as to what engenders a real, deep-seated, sense of power and confidence in kids.
My wife’s sister and her husband are fine arts painters who love the culture, aesthetic and affordability of life in rural Vermont. They have managed to carve out a life for themselves and their children while continuing to make art. This is no small accomplishment in this day and age, and a lot of creativity has gone into making their life work for everyone in the family.
Mary loves horses. Riding is her true, and abiding passion. This particular fascination of my niece’s did not fit within the delicate financial balance negotiated by her family. Through some careful research, my sister-in-law found a work trade program at one of the local barns. The stabling of a horse and use of the facilities could be earned by agreeing to clean the horse barn and mucking out the stalls every weekend. My niece readily agreed to the trade.
As we all sat around the Saturday night dinner table planning the next day’s activities, my niece mentioned that she had to clean the barn Sunday morning and would not be able to join us until the afternoon. Curious, I volunteered to help her out. In the interest of finishing in a timely fashion, her mom said that she would pitch in as well.
We arrived at the barn a little before 7am on Sunday morning. The thin, wintertime sun was fighting its way through the trees. The thermometer inside the sliding wooden door said 6 degrees. My sister-in-law turned to Mary and said, “OK, tell us what to do.” She assigned her mom and me the more mundane, and frankly safer, tasks. We raked stalls, filled water troughs and spread new hay inside the barn.
My niece, in the meantime, went about getting those enormous horses out of their stalls and into the frozen pasture. At this point, it is relevant to mention that Mary is distinctly small for her age. She also comes across as shy. What really struck me, aside from her willingness to get up at 6am to work hard for 4 or 5 hours on a frigid Sunday morning, was the unselfconscious confidence with which she accomplished her share of the work. She strode into the stalls and pushed the horses where she needed to push them. She grabbed them authoritatively by the bridles and led them in pairs, arms stretched high over her head, out of the barn. The horses sensed the complete command with which they were being handled.
Watching Mary go about her business, I felt like a got a glimpse of the real essence of her. I saw her tenacity and her passion for what she was doing. I saw the complete lack of hesitation and the comfort with which she instructed her mother and me about our share of the work. I saw her investment in doing a good job and her love for the horses. She did not seem to need or want our praise. She knew what she was doing was important and the reward for her was quite tangible. If she did a poor job, the horses would suffer and she could lose the arrangement that was allowing her to ride.
Over the course of the 27 years that I have worked in education, I have had similar insights watching students engage in things that they are both passionate about and know are important. Sometimes, that level of engagement is in a vibrant and engaging classroom experience.
At least as often, I have witnessed it outside of that context. I have seen it in concerts, athletic events, plays, art shows, film festivals, robotics competitions and science fairs. I have seen it in the eyes of kids working a weekend job, where I showed up to eat. Or in students who worked hard to save for and rebuild a car. I have seen it in students showing their work, be it a piece of writing or a computer program. I have also seen it countless times in thoughtfully constructed service experiences.
The context for me is less relevant than the power that kids embody in those situations. When I witness that level of intense engagement, I am inevitably struck by how often we underestimate our students. Perhaps that propensity is due to the fact that we are called upon to measure kids by criteria that are too narrowly defined, or by metrics defined by organizations more interested in sorting than empowering young people.
Dramatic and musical performances often provide the opportunity for us to see the real power in our students. Watching a well-done student production, we lose our perception of the actors as kids. They inhabit another reality and can do so sufficiently convincingly as to temporarily change our perception of them. When the lights come up, “reality” is restored, but a glimpse of the students’ actual capacity has shown through.
That was my sense with Mary in the horse barn. I was afforded a glimpse of the actual power that is within her. She is blessed to have had the experience of that power herself. It seems to me that acquainting students with their own power and providing them opportunities for passionate engagement should be at the forefront of what we are trying to accomplish in schools.