Beginning with Intention
If these two days are a bellwether, we are in for an incredible year. The middle school is humming with energy; in and out of classrooms middle schoolers are smiling, engaged, happy to be here and - as I mentioned in our first middle school meeting this morning - eager to pitch in. There have been so many moments of kindness already. It’s not what our culture typically expects of this age, but it’s been my experience that given the opportunity, middle schoolers like to do good. And be in charge. Both at once is ideal. I’ve seen middle schoolers giving directions, passing out supplies, sharing the last chocolate milk, introducing the new students, inviting bystanders into a basketball game. I was happy to see everyone anyway, but these moments make me proud.
I often tell people that what I love most about middle schoolers is how constantly and thoroughly they reinvent themselves. It is in some ways a volatile age, and those of us who have chosen to work with middle schoolers have embraced that. We love that they are in-process. The availability of a clean slate is a necessary salve to the sting of the failed experiments. The fact that they can dust themselves off after something embarrassing and try again as the ‘new me’ is what saves them. This fresh-start quality is especially palpable in the first week of school.
On the other side of this landscape of identity formation, though, is the question of what not to let go. What do our middle schoolers want to hold on to and not shed, not evolve away from? What do they stand by and stand for? This is the age of experimentation but also of deciding what is non-negotiable. It is an age of routine-building, habit-making, and commitment-keeping. Our job as adults is, paradoxically, to give them freedom to change and the encouragement to stand by their values and commitments. We, the adults, model this for them and sometimes insist on it.
This morning I asked the middle schoolers what it meant to do something intentionally and we agreed it means to do something on purpose. If we want to cultivate the best parts of ourselves, I told them, it takes discipline and intention. I asked each one of them to consider a quality they aspire to and set an intention to cultivate that good habit all week long. I will check in again at our next Thursday meeting.
As we begin the journey of the new school year together, I invite all of us - the community of adults - to consider how to leverage the power of habit. What will we do to help these middle schoolers experience and practice standing by their values in ways large and small? What routines will help them build stamina for hard work? What weekly rituals will we create and insist on? How can we help them build up a non-negotiable core underneath the swirl of adolescent uncertainty? One of my intentions is to keep this idea at the forefront by talking about it with middle schoolers.
Welcome to the new year!