When I was 13 years old, I sent myself to the principal’s office. Well actually, it was the dean’s office at my small middle school in Delaware. I had something I wanted to say.
I was never what you’d call an outspoken kid. Actually, I was pretty darn shy most of the time, even though from toddlerhood to the age of 12, I attended a Montessori school. This is where I learned how to be independent. They encouraged me to think critically, share my opinions, and solve my own problems.
During my years at that school, it was common practice for students to engage in free play and make their own time management decisions during work periods. Teachers also gave us a lot of opportunities to discuss and defend our choices.
I remember being as young as five and explaining to my teacher why I chose to work in the stencil area as opposed to the book corner. Even though it was so long ago, I remember feeling heard and respected. My teacher not only listened to me explain my thought process, but she also respected my decision around how to use my time.
The independence stops here.
I feel like I was lucky to grow up under the impression that adults wanted to talk to me and even hear me speak my mind. My school taught us how to be independent. Although I was naturally shy, it gave me a sense of comfort and a source of confidence to know grownups took my point of view seriously. I didn’t know that would change once I left elementary school, though.
My middle school was small and independent, but it was just different. There were more specific rules and restrictions, and it didn’t take long for me to realize they looked at a kid’s point of view in a different way.
The biggest example of this came when I found I didn’t meet my new school’s athletic requirement, stating students must participate in at least two seasons of school-sponsored sports every year. Not only did I have no real desire to play volleyball or another sport with hand-eye coordination, but I was already getting plenty of exercise. At the time, I was dancing competitively at a local studio, and I was logging hours and hours of physical activity during after-school practice.
I wanted to stand up for myself, so I did what my elementary school teachers always told me to do. After school, I went to the office to bring up my issue with an adult. I figured we’d have a conversation and find a solution together.
Are you in trouble?
When I got to the dean’s office after school to schedule a meeting, his administrative assistant looked at me suspiciously.
“Who’s sending you?” she asked. “Is this meeting in regard to disciplinary action?”
I told her it wasn’t and tried to explain my stance about this unfair policy about school sports. Then I told her I'd love to talk to the dean about a possible exemption when he was free.
I thought this was a sensible explanation, but it only confused her.
“So, you’re arranging this meeting...for yourself?” she asked, as if to confirm and challenge my explanation simultaneously. Even as I nodded, growing tired of the increasing back-and-forth, she continued. “It’s just very rare for a student to make an appointment with the dean on their own. It isn’t really done.”
Nevertheless, I stood my ground and asked if he’d have time to chat the following day. Since it was clear I wasn’t going to leave until I got my meeting, she finally penciled me for half an hour during lunch. When I sat down with the dean, he was equally perplexed about my being there. But once I stated my case, he agreed to let me opt out of at least one sports season per year.
Teach kids how to be independent, and then let them.
Now I’m really glad I didn’t have to play soccer that spring, but the whole exchange made me feel like a little kid. I felt like someone who shouldn’t be taken seriously, let alone listened to.
For the assistant, it made more sense that I was there because I was in trouble. But the fact that going to the office was my decision alone threw her for a loop. It was an anomaly to have a student acting of their own volition and asking to speak with authority.
I know I’m not the only person who has felt this way as a kid, and I think it’s an important reminder to all adults that kids are capable of independent thought. It’s not weird for a kid to know what she wants. Adults need to make it a priority to listen.
Luckily, I went on to have plenty of positive, supportive relationships with faculty and staff members, who took the time to listen. And that one silly meeting from so many years ago has helped me realize something. Yes, it’s important to teach kids how to be independent and to advocate for themselves, but it’s just as important to back that message up with an open ear. It’s not enough to encourage independence — you also have to let kids put it into practice.