I remember those very large classes in high school where anonymity was more common than notoriety. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my high school - it was large, noisy, and just plain fun. But it was so easy to cruise by being in the middle where most of us lived. No, I am not saying those of us in the middle were not capable of being superior students. Most of us were simply bursting with unrecognized talent and because we were not the very top students we were not separated out into our own classes, which is what they did back then. It was “tracking” in every sense of the word but no one told us so. We were allowed to happily muddle along, get decent grades, and enjoy the ride. We mastered the social piece of school, went to the football games, and found dates for the prom; but few of us had teachers that walked up to us and told us we could be better. Few teachers bothered to seek us out and challenge us to remove that cloak of mediocrity and take the risk of challenging our talents. The place was just too large and the teachers too busy teaching five classes a day, thirty-five students in a class.
I was fortunate in having a student government advisor, Mr. McHugh, who upon learning I was just elected student body president, called me into his office and set me straight about what were the expectations of being a student leader; and for the next year, he insisted I be the best student body president I could be and there was no straying from that path, as far as he was concerned. That was forty-two years ago and I have never forgotten that lesson. Of course, those who participated in sports, theater, orchestra, etc, had similar advisors or coaches that supported the talented but how many of those students in the middle even attempted to sign up for these activities? A majority? I don’t know.
I am now in a boarding school where it is impossible to be in the middle, i.e. impossible to hide in the middle of class hoping never to be challenged and that is the power of this wonderful piece of education. You just know there is a teacher or coach who might be sitting at your formal dinner table or managing your dormitory who is paying attention - and all teenagers really want is to have someone other than mom or dad to pay attention. That quirky kid who just wants to be whom he wants to be can feel comfortable in his/her own skin. That boy who always wanted to play football but knew upon arriving at his very large school that the odds stacked against an untested athlete were fairly long. That shy young girl who just wished she could be on stage but couldn’t summon up the nerve to attempt and audition.
I still remember fondly a new sophomore at my boarding school who showed up for theater auditions; open his mouth to sing and simply blew everyone away with his raw talent. Asked why he did not participate in theater at his previous school, a large local public school, he responded that he tried but it appeared all available slots were pre-ordained for the rising seniors and experienced thespians. Anthony went on to star in every production at our school; learned to sing in four languages; and is now studying opera at a very selective Midwest conservatory. It doesn’t only happen at boarding schools, of course, but there is no question in my mind that living in a community that encourages risk and challenges students to be all they can be can make the difference between muddling along in life and using one’s innate talents to live life.
There is no going home after school here. One goes to a chosen activity, e.g. sports, theater, music, art; but no one opts out. No one goes back to his or her dorm and sits in front of a computer game screen. Once a student knows they need to challenge themselves it is just remarkable what a teenager can do, and in many cases, they just amaze themselves. We recently had a young Harvard graduate return to our school to tell our girls that when she arrived at Webb she had never participated in sports…ever; but she had to choose a sport and fell in love with track. Five years later as a Harvard freshman she led her track team to a 4x100 relay Harvard record and later broke the school’s indoor long jump record. Then there was Amber who came to us with an interest in theater but I do not recall anything on her record at her previous large school that indicated any particular talent in theater. Everyone gets a chance at theater at our schools and, yes, the story repeats itself: she turns out to be a remarkable talent and heads to Stanford with a full scholarship.
It is time for us to celebrate every child and understand that every child has a talent. Many of whom sense it’s there but with no one to encourage them, it is soon lost in the haze of societal pressures to be like everyone else. That’s why I love this school and schools like it. My father once told me I could be anything or anybody I wanted to be and I listened; but it was Mr. McHugh who affirmed it over and over again and held my feet to the fire. I left the middle and never looked back and that’s the way it is at this school.
Leo Marshall is the Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at The Webb Schools.