Intention is the difference

Engineers, my mother always said, engage. She spent her career making life-saving medicine for a drug company that resold it at 300 times the cost of creation. Her work drove up the cost of healthcare, perpetuating a system that was unaffordable and inequitable. Scientists hide behind magnifying glasses, she told me. An engineer, on the other hand, redesigns the system, whether it’s through technology, research, or policy. He or she would use the very processes that the Riverside School teaches to restructure the healthcare industry and distribute said life-saving medication. Engineers examine the world closely, critically. They find problems and yearn to fix them. They want to create. They want to design.

The Riverside School trains engineers for humanity. Whether its students decide to pursue science or politics or law or the humanities, they will always think like engineers.

I sat in on the 7th grade class that designed backpacks for their partners based on data collected from questionnaires. What amazed me in the classroom was not only their unending enthusiasm but also their refusal to give in to brutal questioning. Engineers are not afraid to be told they are wrong [as the teacher did: “Your backpack is flawed. What is the flaw?”] because being wrong isn’t a failure. It’s a step in the design process that your students have internalized and that many Andover students still fail to fully grasp. [I can calculate the center of mass of a bridge, but what use is it really?

Perhaps most remarkable about Riverside was its true dedication to being a private school with a public purpose, a descriptor with which Andover says it identifies. In reality, I have never seen “non sibi” brought into an Andover classroom no matter how often it is written in department mission statements. Riverside teachers were knowledgeable, comfortable and clearly eager to have students think about and tackle global issues.

“Just because you have food and water and your parents buy you brand [name] things, nothing bothers you? What bothers you? Tell me.”

Andover teachers would never dare to ask the question. We can talk about inequity in 18th century America and in British literature, but we never take it a step further. And this I heard in a seventh grade classroom. Seventh grade. I can’t help but reflect on what my own early education failed to teach me.

I spent the first seven years of my academic career at a school that was, structurally, much like the Riverside School. A small host of teachers watched me and my 24 other classmates grow up. We had a cross-grade buddy system (one of my fondest memories from that place) and twice a week sharing assemblies. When I left, I cried because my new school didn’t have the beautiful class windows and natural light that my elementary school and Riverside have in common. In short, I grew up in an intentional space—somewhere that was built and organized for learning. I know now that physical structure and organization is not enough.

Despite its superficial commonalities, Riverside is fundamentally different from my old school because it is an intentional space with intention. To be clear, I find the Riverside campus beautiful. Every inch of space is used and filled, whether it’s the kiva wedged next to the swimming pool or the parking lot that doubles as a volleyball court and a testing ground for science-class “bombs” (thank you, Anikhet). Beyond that, however, I love the energy of the community. The way your students interrupt each other. The way their words tumble over each other is evidence that Riverside instills an urgency in its students to share what they have learned, to push and question each other, and to collaborate.

Intention is the difference. My old school prided itself on “friendship, fun and learning.” Learning took the lowest priority both on the banner and in the classroom. Riverside knows better. Riverside puts learning [Feel-Imagine-Do-Share] first and knows that friendship and fun will come.