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Commentary: It's not your grandfather's seventh grade

Jack Zaleski

POST MILLS, VT. — My triplet granddaughters started seventh grade a few days ago at Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vt., about 10 minutes from their home near the village of Post Mills. It's a beautiful school on a low hill — several very New England buildings around a grassed quadrangle, open to a spectacular view of the mountains of the Connecticut River Valley. Small enrollment: 339 students in grades seven through 12, and enough teachers to keep class sizes to about 10 students. The people here are resolute about education; school property taxes and tuitions prove their commitment. It pays off. The schools are good.

I was, however, bemused by preparations for transition from sixth grade to seventh grade. It seemed excessive, bordering on coddling, as if students lacked the smarts to negotiate a relatively small, new-school setting. It started with dozens of email directives and outrageously long and expensive lists of family-purchased school supplies; and wrapped up with parent meetings and student orientation-tours of the campus. I mean, c'mon. The kiddies were not going away to a strange college campus in a faraway land. They had moved from the nearby elementary school to the academy. A short walk.

(About "academy." It is common in New England for high schools to be called "academies," especially older schools. Thetford was established in 1819 as an independent school, and employs a public/private funding model; others are publicly funded. Most towns name schools the usual way. "Academy" carries a patina some folks here value.)

I know times have changed. Schools are more sensitive to the perceived needs (demands?) of students and parents. Maybe today's protocols are not as overdone as I think they are. But while helping the triplets' "transition," I recalled my first days in seventh grade at Washington Jr. High in New Britain, Ct. It was smooth, without trauma.

Carmine Geratona came by on his Schwinn three-speed, I hopped on the handlebars and we negotiated the mile down the steep streets from our neighborhood to the school. Quite a ride. Walked home, pushing Carmine's bike uphill all the way.

We found homerooms, got class schedules and that was it. Reconnected with friends, made new ones, complained about hot lunch, fed the rumor mill about that girl or this guy, and started to learn. A lot, because Washington's teachers were the best. We laughed at the science teacher who was old enough to have sailed on the Beagle with Darwin; the English teacher who flirted with the gym teacher; the music teacher who so loved music she'd tear up when playing Chopin on the piano; the creepy math teacher who wrote his seating chart by race and ethnicity. But they knew their subjects; they knew how to teach.

Sure, it's different for seventh graders today than it was for me and my friends. Ours was a simpler and safer time. Still, at the risk of coming off as clueless, I think we make it unnecessarily difficult for students when the system is so rigidly structured, so stultifyingly restrictive, so fearfully protective, they dare not think for themselves, let alone take risks that might enhance learning.

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