“It’s hard for them to understand”

Before the 15 Phillips Academy kids in the Riverside presentation room heard this comment from our teacher, we were attentive and engaged. But afterwards, indignant and discreet glances cascaded into anger, frustration, and distraction. We were offended. We didn’t like being told there was something we couldn’t grasp. We felt like our intelligence had been diminished and with it our very worth. At Andover, we place the ultimate value of a person in their competence and intelligence. We insult and laugh at those who make comments in class discussions which we deem to be unintelligent, obsolete, or generally useless to the furthering of our personal understanding. A person’s value to the Andover community is weighed in extracurriculars and honors grades. We are furious when an Andover athlete is recruited to a so-called top college. Their hard work and dedication is irrelevant, because we deem their activities to be useless and entirely free of any intellectual component. I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve heard a student described as “not a great person, but so smart. He/She really deserves to be here.”

Whether or not it was hard for me to understand is irrelevant in the face of the reflection process that Ms. Tousignant’s comment provoked in me. It was a process I am not accustomed to participating in at Andover. After the presentation, several of us sat a table during lunch and discussed the radically different value systems of our school versus the Riverside school. Once we got going we almost couldn’t stop. Every example of worth being competence at Andover flooded our minds, and we threw every one of them into the air around us until they hung there, heavy like the humid Mumbai air, and suffocated us.

By stark contrast, the Riverside school valued honesty, passion, openness, and reflection. I had the opportunity to visit a seventh grade classroom where the students had been asked to design backpacks for their partners. As they presented their designs every one in the room, teacher and student alike, voiced their honest and open critique/compliment on the work. They discussed each other’s designs with an earnest desire for collective improvement. The teacher guided and prodded them in different directions, but did not push the students towards any conclusion. The journey was theirs to make, and the destination was theirs to arrive at. Every individual in the room was an active part of the process. It wasn’t a competition between students; it was a collaboration. Everyone’s contributions to the process were valuable. Everyone was valuable.

I think, at least in part, that this stems from the selection process and the fact that many, if not most, of the students were educated at Riverside for their entire lives. Thus, the pedagogy has been indoctrinated in most of them from a very young age. As much as I appreciate the model and truly hope that it can be incorporated into my school and other schools across the country. It seems to me that it may only work for schools that begin at a young age and carry through the entire pre-college educational experience. I’m not sure how the idea that every child is a potential Riverside child can be applied to an institution like Andover. I’m not sure how to implement a selection process that would perpetuate the truth that every child has the potential to succeed academically. And I’m not sure whether a school so steeped in tradition can undergo such a radical change in its pedagogy.