The blog of the Institute for Democratic Education in America now features an autobiographical post by John Dubie, a senior at the Big Picture South Burlington school in Vermont.
Dubie writes, "When I got to high school, I was a particularly snarky and jaded student. Every teacher I saw was an enemy and every classmate was a douche. I cut class and talked back to teachers. I was a bad kid. I was once again the Dishonor student." Then he learned about Big Picture South Burlington. He goes on, "The first day of Big Picture, I walked into the room feeling something I hadn’t felt for a really long time. I was nervous for school. I sat down and looked around. There were several different types of individuals around me, all extreme. There were well dressed and put together girls, hip nonconformists, computer whizzes, musicians, and more, yet none of them fit any real stereotype. Instead they were all unique individuals. One of the things that struck me most was that it didn’t feel like there were any cliques, just one group. It was nerve-racking and overwhelming. Where would I fit in? I remember thinking to myself 'John, what the f$@% did you get yourself into?'"
He tried to scam the system, as he had done in his regular school, but something strange happened: it didn't work. At BPL, when an adult asks you what you want to do with your life, they wait for you to develop a real answer. So he narrowed in on what he really loved: being funny. Having an audience. He realized he wanted to be a stand-up comedian.
Still, it took John awhile to turn his situation around. Even after he was enrolled at Big Picture, he struggled with depression. “When school started again I grabbed every opportunity to speak publicly about my experience in education and to advocate for Big Picture. I wanted other students to know about how it changed my life, and I wanted to let teachers know how best to support their students. Being involved in school reform helped lessen my depression more than anything, and quickly became another passion of mine.”
Still, he struggled. Even after this period, he became addicted to heroin. What happened then? He was in a system that didn’t give up on him. They valued him for the person he was, and who he wanted to become.
He’s now in his fifth year of high school. “Big Picture got me through depression and heroin addiction,” he concludes. “I am at home, working hard, and I have been substance free for months. I know that without the Program I would probably be dead. It is an environment that makes me feel safe, taught me how to be myself, what I wanted to do, and gave me a new family that I will cherish forever. There is no doubt in my mind that Big Picture saved my life.”
How? There is more than one way to care about a child. It is possible to care without valuing and respecting the individual within. Is it caring, when we say, “You aren’t fulfilling your potential!” Is it caring when we say, “You are so bright, you should be getting all As!”
Is it caring to talk without listening? Is it caring to try to fit kids into a mold they weren’t built to fit?
Or is it caring to ask a child who they are, what they want, what future they see, and then be quiet, listen attentively, and act on the answer?
Children’s learning CAN be built around who they are.