As adults we tend to think that we are the only ones capable of making profound decisions. In reality, decisions are being made by children as young as ten, eleven and twelve that profoundly influence their adult lives. Let me introduce you to Louis and Darwin.
When he came to the Paraclete in the fifth grade, Louis prided himself on being street-wise. He soon befriended a group of less sophisticated boys who lived on the same block in their housing development – but never knew each other because they went to different schools. Everything was going smoothly until Louis began not showing up at the Academy. His mother was worried that she was losing him to the streets. He was hanging out with a group of older boys who thought basketball much more important than school work.
Our principal told Louis that he had a choice: he could either come when he was expected or not come at all. He could not just drop in at his convenience. He was sent home to think about it and let us know. When our principal called two weeks later and asked Louis what he had decided, there was a long silence. Finally, Louis very quietly said, “If you really want me, I want to come back.” At the age of 11, Louis made what was probably the most profound decision of his life. He returned and entered an excellent charter school in the seventh grade. That first year he came back for homework help but by eighth grade he was on his way. When Louis stopped by to visit, I asked him how was school. He answered, “I am on the honor roll and on the basketball team.” That pretty much says it all.
Darwin was a small fourth grade boy when he got up the courage to ring our door bell one day. When I opened the door, there was Darwin, who told me he wanted to come to the Paraclete. His brother had been a Paraclete student, and went on to Nativity, Roxbury Latin and was about to enter Tufts I explained to Darwin that we did not take fourth graders – he would have to wait until fifth. He explained to me very quietly that he would be good and work hard. I explained that the classes might be too hard. He considered this, and asked if he could just come to do his home work; he would not bother anyone. He might need a little help but not much. How could we say no? His decision to take it upon himself to ask for early admission to the Paraclete and his success once there made an impression when the time came to apply for private schools. He is now successfully following in his brother’s footsteps. Incidentally, Darwin’s decision was one of the factors that lead us to think seriously about admitting fourth grade students.
We often do not realize the importance of this in-between age. Yet, it is the age when children start thinking of themselves as individuals – separate from their families – and they start thinking what kind of person they want to be. This is not the same as the question they are frequently asked by adults: what do you want to do when you grow up? The questions they ask themselves and the decisions they make are about what kind of person they want to be – and what sort of things they want to do – now.
As we reflect on these stories and other like them, we realize the importance of recognizing that students are making important decisions, and that our job is to help them make thoughtful choices. While we have high expectations for behavior, we realize that to be effective, we should emphasize decision making – not simply following the rules.