In my “Summer Reading for Parents” blog post last spring, I was looking forward to some time to read on family vacations while my nephews and nieces, cousins to my sons Harrison and Huck, spent time together. The cousins – all seven of them – came through for me. They gave me far more than free time for reading. (Okay, I will admit I largely used the time for mountain biking.) The older cousins reminded me of one of Mount Tamalpais School’s greatest strengths – the relationships between younger and older students.
Huck, at three and a half years old, hiked nearly six miles across wildflower covered ridges and snowfields because he was holding his cousin Orion’s hand. Harrison, water-cautious, sat on a tree-stump in the middle of a lake because his cousin Isa had just done it and was encouraging him. Both boys smiled broadly for a family portrait because Alistair, Loewy, and Clara were doing funny dances behind the photographer. All the cousins encouraged our boys to try new things while also comforting them when they were nervous or had a skinned knee.
I see the same thing happen at Mount Tamalpais School on a regular basis. Throughout the year last year, an 8th grader walked a Kindergarten student to his classroom each morning. During the middle school service learning presentations last spring, I saw the “Wow, that is so cool!” look from a number of younger students as they learned where and how our middle school students served the greater community. Our older students are also quick to soothe the tears of a younger student who, like Huck on many a hike, scraped a knee while playing. Vacation is better with older cousins just as school is better with older students.
At two points this summer our boys were able to be the older ones. In Chicago, they “taught” our friends’ two-year-old daughter Cora how to play baseball and made their one-year-old son Milo laugh. In Seattle, they were eager to help Levin, nearly one, learn to walk. In both cities we saw our boys rise to the occasion. They demonstrated a higher level of responsibility and care than we had ever seen before and were kinder to each other as well. Both boys loved this new “big” role and now regularly ask about all three younger friends.
This too happens at MTS. During the interview process for this job, I was struck by the youth and kindness of the oldest MTS students. Every week since then, I have seen countless examples of how our oldest students rise to the responsibility of leadership. Yes, this happens in the formal “buddy bear” events. More regularly, though, this happens on the playground, in the halls, and after school. And, like with my boys, the older MTS students are kinder and more responsible both with the younger students and with each other, because of these close connections.
While many schools try to foster such a rich level of community interconnection, I have yet to see any do it as well as MTS. I believe this is due to three things. First, we are a small school. We share one recess period, can easily hold all-school assemblies, and are able to truly know everyone in the community. Second, we are a departmentalized school. This allows our teachers to know and meaningfully interact with students over multiple years. It also means that all of our students are regularly moving around campus, seeing each other. Finally, we are a flat school. Yes, physical geography matters. It is being on one level, coupled with our departmentalized program, that allows for the organic connection between young and old to happen. Whatever the cause, the end result – motivated and eager younger students with kind, responsible mentors – is an unreplicable hallmark of MTS.
As summer comes to a close my boys and I regularly look back through our vacation photos. We are reminded of how great our cousins are. I am reminded of how special MTS is. I am also reminded to schedule another vacation with cousins ASAP!