Back in my day, the unwritten advice for the first day of high school went something like this: When walking down the school’s hall, keep your head down and stay close to the lockers. Don’t travel midstream; that’s where the cool kids swim, and they need plenty of room to back slap and high five. Keep to the side, always to the side, and wipe that scared smile off your face unless you want your braces caught in a Farrah Fawcett hairdo.
Though I remember the rules, the details of my own first day of high school have been erased by time and lots of it. About the only thing I do remember, and the image is fuzzy, is the way the orange locker door swung wide and fast. The rest, I’m afraid, is a total blank.
But other memories of high school have surfaced of late. I suppose because my own son started his high school career last week, only instead of having to negotiate lockers and new faces, my son got sent to camp.
I circled bug spray on his list of things to bring and thought about how different my own high school experience might have been had that one item been allowed.
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My son attends Tacoma’s School of the Arts, or SOTA, and going to camp has been part of the school’s tradition since its inception in 2001. Because the SOTA campus is located in downtown Tacoma, SOTA holds its first three days of school at a camp near Olympia. There, friendships have a chance to take root and teachers and students bond over various activities during the day and student performances at night.
When the call came for parent chaperones, I shouted, “Of course, I’ll go to camp!” and then I whispered to my son that it’s a big camp and the chances of our paths crossing were slim, which thankfully for him, turned out to be true.
Community, Balance, Empathy and Thinking were the words printed on the backs of camp T-shirts, and they were the words mentioned over and over again at camp activities.
I kept waiting for someone to mention rules and regulations, but there was none of that; instead, emphasis was put on the culture at SOTA, the driving ethos of those four concepts.
At SOTA, the old paradigm of survival of the fittest/most popular has been replaced with a new system, one that encourages students to be themselves, take chances and make fruitful mistakes. Originality is what gets praised, not conformity, and all this has an ancillary benefit. I noticed the sharks and fishes of yesteryear’s halls have been replaced with, well, a garden might be the best metaphor, a place where students aren’t ranked or weeded out, but encouraged to grow in their own unique way.
If it sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid at SOTA camp, I actually did, but I also know the difference between a “trophy for everyone” model and a system that develops aptitudes for invention, design and problem-solving, a system that knows that sometimes the best ideas come from the kid in the corner who doesn’t like to talk a lot.
At SOTA, high expectations have not been sacrificed. Kids still have to take tests, write papers and study calculus, but they also have to dig deep and get creative. In a world where technologies calculate faster, and someone overseas does it cheaper, novelty and nuance are going to be the commodities needed from today’s generation. This kind of creativity can only come from a consistent practice of collaboration and taking risks; it’s certainly not cultivated by a stopwatch or a race to the top.
This is what SOTA knows, and this is what SOTA can teach.
In spite of the wasp sting and twisted knee, all stories for another time, I’m glad I went to SOTA camp. In a way, I got a high school do-over, even if it only lasted three days.
Karen Irwin of Tacoma teaches writing at Clover Park Technical College. Email her at irwinkd@ yahoo.com.