“Boyhood” and “Being Mortal”: Agency, Agency, Agency

I spent my winter break with a 2-year old whose mantra, as you might imagine, was “I do it myself!” Her areas of expertise: steps and doors. I quickly learned that if I tried to open the door, she would shriek. If I let her do it, she would try and try until she got it. I had to be patient, but she stopped shrieking as I learned to be patient and give her time and space to perfect her craft.

I’ve just finished Atul Gawande’s thoughtful and significant book, Being Mortal. In it, he reflects on our reluctance to acknowledge, much less embrace, the notion that our bodies will, in fact diminish, and we will, one day, face the end of our lives. He examines not only death, but quality of life and care for the elderly, and the ways in which we restrict autonomy and remove agency in the name of safety or to extend life—but at a cost. As we see in his example of the institutionalized diabetic who is forbidden dessert—who could, if she lived on her own, choose to indulge now and then.

He investigates and reflects on what becomes important to people as they approach their final years:

The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. …. We have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of [professionals] believe their job is not to confine people’s choices, in the name of safety, but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life. (Gawande 141)

Consider applying that excerpt to schooling, as in: “The battle of [learning; finding one’s passion, voice, interests] is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from … who you want to be. …. We have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of [educators] believe their job is not to confine [students’] choice… but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life.”

Lest you consider connecting end-of-life issues with early-life issues a bit of a stretch, consider Richard Linklater’s recent film, Boyhood. It was an unusual artistic venture—he began the fictional tale in 2002 when the actor playing the main character, Mason, was 6 years old and returned to film the next segment each year until his senior year and high school graduation in 2013.

We watch the character and the actor grow up over the span of two hours. Artistically, it was extraordinary, but beyond that, what leapt out to me, and felt so very true, was the way that every adult in the film with the exception of two—his mother and one teacher (in a brief encounter toward the end of his high school career) talked at him.

Mason was lectured to endlessly by nearly every adult in his life. He was a smart, artistic, quiet, reflective boy, but with the exception of his mother, you would not have known that by the interactions he had with adults. His father, his step father, his teachers, all spent their time with him telling him how life is, how he should act, how he should be, how to succeed, how insufficient he is, what a failure he will be, etc.

This was Mason’s interaction with his school photography teacher, Mr. Turlington:

I’m worried about you, Mason.

[laughs] Why is that?

I’ll tell you why: The images you’re turning in, they’re cool. You’re looking at things in a really unique way. Got a lot of natural talent.


Yeah, but that and 50 cents will just get you a cup of coffee in this old world. I’ve met a LOT of talented people over the years. How many of them made it professionally without discipline, commitment and really good work ethic?


I can tell ya. I can count it on two fingers. [Makes A-ok hand gesture] Zero. It’s not gonna happen for you, Mason. The world is too competitive. There are too many talented people who are willing to work hard; and a buttload of morons who are untalented, who are more than willing to surpass you.

The interaction does not even make complete sense—unless you are accustomed to the logic of school, where learning and exploration are, too often, not the goal. Certainly goals and outcomes typically do not include self-discovery, and the development of one’s own vision, voice and passions. Discipline, delayed gratification, the subversion of one’s desires—in the interest of “what’s good for you”—is much more commonly the goal.

Interestingly, Mason’s mother listens and respects her son’s integrity, even in the opening scenes, when he is only 7. They are driving home from school:

Your teacher said you’re behind on your homework assignments.

No, I did them, they were just sitting in my backpack.

So, why didn’t you turn them in?

She never asked for them.

Well, honey, she’s not supposed to ask for them. It’s your job to give them to her once you’ve finished.


She also said you destroyed her pencil sharpener.

No I didn’t.

Then what did you put in it instead of pencils?


Why were you putting rocks in the pencil sharpener?

Because I needed them for my arrowhead collection.

Who among us is patient and kind enough to continue to question and listen that long?


Remarks to Upper School 9-22-2014

Good morning. I am….  Some of you have seen me in your classrooms–if you’re not new, you may have seen me in your classes last year; any number of you may have noticed me in your classes this year.

As Dean of Faculty, I work with the teachers here to continually reflect on and improve our curriculum. To that end, this year, as you know, we have changed a few things. A couple of them are pretty significant things: We have changed time in terms of the schedule–and space. The new Walker classrooms are designed for more interactive, collaborative and flexible learning. My Hilltop, you might say, is a change to our virtual meeting spaces.

Two weeks into the year, you’re probably getting used to these changes. We have

Longer periods:

Schools have a long tradition of holding 40-50 minute classes. That’s because that is the perfect amount of time if the point if education is to transmit information. It’s just long enough to say hello, take attendance, check and collect homework, deliver the next lesson, and assign the next round of homework. Why did we make them longer?

To allow each of you to go deeper in your activities in classes. More time allows for some of the most essential elements of learning to take place–active listening, dialogue, practice and application. In the new schedule, there is more time for questioning, discussion, seminars, getting feedback on your work—and practicing giving others feedback on their work. You have opportunities to apply new concepts while your teacher is there to answer questions, engage in discussion, and often to learn with you–for when we are grappling with genuine questions, we are all learners.

And the cooperative/collaborative learning period is new.

Cooperative/Collaborative Learning Period:

Those of you who are not new are used to a period we used to call “extra help.” In this new model, if you need “extra help” you can get it during the collaborative/cooperative learning period. But let’s analyze that phrase—“extra help”— for a minute. Both words imply that you need to be “fixed.” The term implies that there are those who “got it” right away, and then there are those who need “help.” Even worse, you don’t just need help, you need “extra” help. But somehow enough of us needed extra help that we held it for the whole school four times each week!   That’s because it’s not really extra or help. It’s just learning. Learning is a process. It’s messy, and it looks different for every person. And it is much more complex than showing up once to be taught, and if that didn’t work or wasn’t enough, showing up an “extra” time for the teacher to fix you.

Learning requires brain-play.

Sometimes you have a question for the teacher. Sometimes you just need to talk it through again or think it through for yourself—getting confirmation from your peers or from your teacher.

Sometimes you can work with your peers, or do some research.

There are many ways you can answer your questions, deepen your learning, and extend your knowledge.

Extra help (and it’s even more dire companion “mandatory extra help“) implies that there was one way. That you go to your teacher for “help.”   Sometimes we do need to be rescued, but often we can help ourselves. That what the cooperative/collaborative period is for–for you to be in charge of your own learning. You know—usually better than anyone else–what you need. Sometimes you need a boost –so when something is radically new or particularly difficult, you might seek extra help. You may reach a point where you are asked to get mandatory extra help from your teacher. In those cases you should set up an appointment with your teacher. That can happen during CCP. But most of the time, no one knows better than you what you need.

Why I keep popping into your classrooms.

As the Dean of Faculty, I collaborate with our teachers to continually develop curriculum. Teaching is really only a more sophisticated form of learning, and both teaching and learning are processes. We are, as individuals and as a group, continually getting better at both. Here at WA, we ask you to be in ongoing dialogue with each other and with your teachers, and the teachers are in ongoing dialogue with each other and with their administrators, the deans, the counselors. We are all here for one reason: to support teachers and students in their teaching and learning. So you will see me, Mrs. Peterleitner, new faculty, veteran faculty, all coming in and out of classrooms to observe the learning so we can remain in dialogue with each other around how kids learn best and how we can all continue to learn.

And of course, we are eager always to remain in dialogue with you about what is working and what is not. I’m on the 2nd floor of Walker, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, your feedback, and your ideas.   We are a school—teaching and learning is our whole identity and reason to exist. So we should all be engaged in dialogue–with our peers, with our friends, with our mentors–about how people learn.