On Thursday evening, October 18, 2012, The Field School hosted the first of two “Elements of Education” forums as part of celebrating its 40th anniversary. This panel discussion focused on the ideas in the book The Element by Sir Ken Robinson. The panel was moderated by Chris Osmond, a professor of education at Appalachian State University in North Carolina—who taught Spanish, English, Theater, and Music at Field from 1993-1999.
Also on the panel was Helen Steinberg, mother of Arielle Steinberg ’98, and a specialist on students with learning differences. In addition, the panel boasted the presence of Chris Willcox ’06, who is an artist and television producer, working with Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel on current research in the human brain.
We asked Chris, Helen, and Chris each to reflect on returning to The Field School after some time away.
I do not remember the first time I walked into a Field classroom, not clearly. But I sure remember the vibe of the main lobby on Wyoming Street: loud kids with bright eyes and frayed, sagging pants who hung on each other like stadium blankets, teachers who seemed to move through the hall to their own theme songs (Tait Colberg’s was “Dynamo Hum;” Craig Farmer’s was “The Boys Are back in Town;” Claire Calvin’s was “I Saw the Sign.” Perhaps I was the only one who heard them). I could tell from the beginning that this was a place where different kinds of work happened, and that the kind of energy I wanted to bring into teaching would be welcomed here. Most of all, I remember wanting, desperately, to get a chance to do it. I could not have imagined a place like this had I not seen it. I could not imagine what it would be like to teach here. But I wanted to find out very, very badly.
That’s pretty much how it went down for me. I remember fighting traffic down 16th street on dazzling fall mornings, trying combinations of class ideas out in my head until I screeched into the treacherous car pile-up behind the Old Building ready to announce “Will, I know what we’re going to do today.” I remember cross country runs drafting on Dale and Will McFadden and Will Lang and Michael “the Gurminator” Gurman, sailing between the pedestrians on Connecticut Avenue like young gods. I remember holing up in the Carriage House during Work Internship and on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings pulling together this play or that one, this song or that one, endless hours lost in the no-time and no-space of raw, real creation, coming back to the world to walk to Embassy Market for Doritos and Diet Pepsi before plunging in again. The stunned applause of an audience amazed to see us pull off Little Shop of Horrors or the break in “500 Miles High,” or the swordplay in Moon Over Buffalo or the set change in My Fair Lady. Danielle and Adam and Michelle and Sean and Hannah and Cory and Johanna and Emre and Oscar and Blair and Patti and Lauren and Brandon and always, always, always, Michael Tyner. The yearbooks are over there on the shelf, but I don’t need them to remember your names and hear your voices again. I will never, never forget you.
To go back to Field is to go back to the spring that fed the best ideas I’ve ever had: Teaching is a vocation – a civic duty of almost unimaginable importance, and at the same time something you can do every day and still love to do. Difference and discord is beautiful and vital and a sign of life. Working for a long time at something means it becomes part of you and you of it. Beauty matters. Precision matters. Giving a damn matters. Telling the truth about what it is like for you matters.
As I prepare North Carolina public school teachers now, I am almost embarrassed to cop to the richness of the environment where I cut my teaching teeth:
- I was never dissuaded from pursuing an idea of what we might do.
- No one ever told me that “wouldn’t work here.”
- My strengths were lavishly recognized, and my weaknesses were welcomed and forgiven and nurtured into new strengths.
- I saw each of my students as individuals, and was encouraged to help them be whatever they were on their way to being.
I was the luckiest teacher in the world.
“Keeping Field Field” was the most important consideration when the decision was made to move The Field School from Wyoming Avenue to Foxhall Road. Founder Elizabeth Ely, the Board of Trustees, students, teachers, and parents were obsessed with the idea that this unique educational institution needed to maintain its initial mission despite a move to arguably the most beautiful setting in Washington, D.C. Did we succeed in maintaining The Field School’s philosophy and mission?
Without a doubt, the answer is “yes.”
Having spent last Thursday night at The Field School, as a participant in the Elements of Education program, it was reassuring to meet current students and parents, as well as new and veteran teachers, and hear the same themes we talked about ten years ago. Field stands out among its friendly competitors because of its focus is on the student. Field does not make empty promises to students and families. Students get what they need without hesitation. Although the school has increased its population, class size remains small so that students can get individual attention.
And The Field School continues to admit students with different strengths and weaknesses and supports those with learning differences and ADHD. The Admissions office welcomes artists, athletes and academicians, understanding that having students with a variety of skills and interests sitting together in the classroom creates a much richer learning experience. It is understood that adolescence is a time of questioning and risk-taking, and both teachers and administrators are prepared to deal with students who may make mistakes, who can experiment with and explore their passions. Working in the ceramics studio on a daily basis or trying out a new sport allows students to stretch themselves in a way that is unique when compared with other schools. Field recognizes that the process is more important than the product—a test score or grade on a paper does not tell the whole story.
As I sat in the Cafritz house, I was surrounded by beauty both inside and out, a far cry from The Field School on Wyoming Avenue. Most importantly, I knew that through the stewardship of Dale, Will, Natalia and so many others, Field has indeed remained Field. In the final analysis, it’s the message and not the mortar that has changed the lives of so many students.
There’s a special awkward ambivalence about going back to high school. It’s a nostalgic familiarity of Well Here We Are Again tinged with all the retrospective unease that typically surrounds face-to-face reunions with persons from one’s adolescence. There are mild but ultimately deep-seeded expectations of redemptive rekindlings of formerly asymmetrical student-teacher relationships, and a vague hope of rediscovering something about yourself you had left behind in those since-forgotten hallways. No part of this feeling is alleviated when the occasion of your return is an afterschool presentation attended by your former teachers, principal, and, like every other high school event, your ever-doting mother. This familiar audience gives the whole thing an eerie aspect of temporal displacement, which only heightens the nostalgia, except this time on the stage instead of belting out another awkward teenage rendition of “Blue Bossa” or “Take Five” or whatever other middlebrow pre-1970’s jazz favorites the school band used to play, you’re sitting amongst a panel of austere PhDs telling parents and teachers about how to “educate the workers of the twenty-first century.” I guess high school always was a little surreal.
Like many other so-called creative people, I have mixed feelings about my secondary education. Granted, the Field School isn’t exactly known for jock-and-cheerleader social exclusion, but even in a place so thoroughly permeated by hardcore leftist open-mindedness there are features of adolescence awkwardness that leave you invariably feeling alienated. High school is that special time in which you figure out key aspects of your personality and natural disposition. It is a time in which you answer such key questions as Am I funny? Am I smart? Am I popular, or athletic, or attractive, or kind of not really any of those? And then, well . . ., then what? The method of discovery here is partially trial-by-fire, partially imitation of The Big Kids, and almost always doing whatever you can to avoid social ridicule. These methods typically cash out in ways too personally humiliating and professionally compromising to commit to writing of any kind, but the memory of the terrible clothing and even worse haircuts will forever reverberate through the halls of my alma mater. This said, the most dramatic part about going back to high school is the juxtaposition of your at least slightly resolved adult self meeting your totally unresolved adolescent self on its home turf, which is basically the same kind of experience as when Marty McFly’s girlfriend meets the future version of herself in Back to the Future Part II.
What makes the whole affair even weirder is when you’re coming back to school not just to satisfy the yearning of your own nostalgia but in order to be the alumni presence on a panel of qualified experts. According to one administrator I was the panel’s “prized wildcard,” which strikes me as one of the more flattering ways Field School administrators have described me. As a student I skirted expulsion a number of times, I was rude to my teachers, disruptive, and generally a pain to be around. That seven years later I would be invited to present to the community shows the sort of remarkable place that is The Field School. If the role of secondary education can be construed as fostering a safe environment in which students are allowed to take risks and make mistakes in order to carve out their own personal and intellectual path, then The Field School excels. The key to the school is and always has been to see the student not as an agent of youthful and recklessness behaviors or as a set of standardized scores, but as a unique individual with a specific potential. Rather than taking the easy path of creating a homogenized troupe of high-scoring well-behaved overachievers, Field aims to pull personhood out of the student in that necessarily messy and awkward form that growing up has to take. Of course, the goal has never been to end up with a fully formed and self-actualized eighteen year old by the end of the program, but to instill in the minds of the students what the rocky road of self-identity ends up being. The Field School’s approach to personhood, which, by the way, is the right one, is summarized well by the novelist Philip Roth: “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.”