It's Sunday on Memorial Day weekend and I am in the basement correcting eighth-grade history papers. My family is urging me to take a little time off to go to the beach, but I am stuck in a net of my own design. It was I who set the paper’s deadline for the Thursday before the long weekend, so students could have them back with ample time to prepare final drafts. As I read the papers and offer my feedback, I gradually get into “the groove.”
A wonderful thing about eighth-grade term papers is the variety of topics. This year’s crop is no exception: the Tuskegee syphilis study, the March on Washington, the lynching of German-American Robert Praeger, Japanese- American internment camps, the Scopes trial, Griswold v. Connecticut, Gideon v. Wainwright, Loving v. Virginia, The 19th Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education. With the breadth of their interests and passions, my students teach me through their writing. If I have a reputation as someone with a wide set of interests and knowledge, it is usually credited to the “gift of gab” associated with my Irish heritage. But it is really because of my students. If someone asked me, “Why do you know so much about so many things?” I would answer, “I have had an excellent middle school education!”
For my Irish grand-uncles, teaching was a path toward the American dream that offered a measure of stature and identity. My mother is a retired high school art teacher. I recall her passion for her job and her knack for stimulating and channeling the creative voices of her students. “Destiny” aside, one of the reasons I became a teacher was because I witnessed how her students inspired her as an educator and artist.
Since Kindergarten, my own “charm” and “potential” always threatened to outweigh my “output.” But I was blessed, or lucky, to have teachers who kept me on track and went beyond the strict scope of their professional responsibility to nurture me as a person. Next to my parents, they are the people I have most to thank. I remember my classrooms as safe learning spaces that accommodated whimsy, from one-man Greek plays to hour-long debates in sixth grade. I hear echoes of Foote School in those memories.
While I don’t perform Hercules in a bedspread toga anymore, I am in my habitat at Foote. As I stumble inevitably toward being an eccentric old teacher who sings in the hallway, I am drawn into the creative chaos of the Middle School. I have never forgotten how unformed I was at that age, and I love to remind parents about how dynamic these years are: to wake-up one morning and find yourself able to do something you could not do the day before, or to grow two inches taller before you have the chance to buy jeans that are two inches longer. It is exciting to see children latch on to analytical and abstract thinking during the middle school years, even if it can be difficult to stomach the sometimes-bitter fruit of this growth: teenage opinions.
My students have broadened my mind but they have also deepened my heart. I have been changed by their capacity for wonder and openness. Their young lives are fundamentally more challenging and complicated than mine was at their age, and they give me hope in a world that seems so uncertain at this moment. Maybe next time you are confronted with a conundrum, you can ask yourself, “What would a Foote middle schooler do?”
Liam Considine is Assistant Head of Middle School and Director of Secondary School Placement, and he teaches eighth grade U.S. History. He started at Foote in 1997. This article originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Foote Prints magazine.