So during the last 3 days of each school year, for the past 15 years, I do an assignment called The Courtesy Contract. Sometimes, students reach out to me years later to see what they had written during middle school and I get to search through these time capsule notebooks and find those names from long ago. Last week, I was contacted by a senior in high school who remembered this assignment and wanted to see his. He told me his name and the year I had him so I could easily go back in time and flip through the artifacts to find his.
What I found, but hadn’t remembered, was a document written by a sad young man, a middle schooler in a dark chapter of life, as so many are. It was heartbreaking. I remember this student as quiet to the point of concerning, and this assignment helped explain some of that isolation.
So I pulled the document from the massive 3-ring binder that housed those from his year, replaced it with a copy, and put the original in an envelope with a little note from me to the young man that he is now. My note hoped he had found happiness since 8th grade. It hoped that he found support for his sadness and that he now could see with a little hindsight who one feels in middle school does not need to define us.
With his permission, this was the response I received from his after he had picked up his envelope.
I took this exchange to briefly commiserate with him as well. You see, I also hated middle school as a student. It’s ironic, I know, but I also know it’s no coincidence that I have devoted much of my professional career to these grade levels. How he phrased it: “At that age, I never wanted to remember middle school…” really resonated with me. I focus on middle school because it’s a vital phase in our human development. I focus on middle school because I’m sure, in some level, it also forces me not to forget.
Along those lines, this student also recognized the power of reflection and of archiving ourselves. Sometimes we don’t think to do it ourselves, and we must rely on our schools to help us. Portfolios aren’t just for Open House, after all, they are meant to be looked at years down the line to remind us who we were as learners and as younger people. As he states,
I was so grateful for his response and his affirmation of the kinds of assignments I push students to do. You teach using different strategies with the awareness that it will help them in life, but with no expectation that they will link their skills to what happened during their time with you. I’m so grateful when past students reach out. It it fuel.
More importantly, however, it goes to prove something I tell middle school teachers all the time: these kids are all still Works in Progress (as we all are) and their books are not yet written.