The desire of adolescents to be “normal” is well-documented. Many live in constant fear of being singled out, and there is constant pressure, both intrinsic and extrinsic, to go with the flow. That pressure manifests itself in a child’s style of dress, vocabulary, behavior toward others, attitude about school, and nearly every other aspect of his or her life. At pretty much every step of adolescence, children are faced with the option of doing what they *think* the normal thing is. Sometimes that “normal” choice matches what they truly believe; sometimes it does not. We cannot, however, downplay the power that adolescents’ sense of “normal” holds over them and what it makes them do and think.
As adults, it is important that we pause for a moment and help our kids think a bit about what they have determined to be normal. Even our oldest high school students have only been on this earth for 18 years. In those 18 years, their understanding of the world in which they live has been formed by a necessarily limited number of experiences. The choices they make, indeed the way they choose to interact with the world, is defined narrowly. Through technology, adolescents now have access to influences from all over the world. They are not limited in that way. What holds true, though, is that simply having access to those influences—even if those influences are all around them—means a great deal less than the personal, day to day interactions they have. Even in the internet age, normal is defined not just by what is around them, but more importantly by what they actually engage with.
I recently had a conversation with a high school parent who told me a story about her own experience in a large high school. As she looks back now, she laughs at how even though she was surrounded by thousands of other students, she kept to her small group of friends. They dressed the same, talked the same, and acted the same. Perhaps because of the sheer number of people around her, her friend group stayed small and she stuck to what was comfortable. Hers is a not uncommon story for those who attended large high schools, but it is also why she values our school so much: because of the authenticity of the interactions our students have with our entire community on a daily basis.
I often get asked why I value the size of our school and why I feel it provides a superior educational experience. I have two answers to that question, both of which relate to the parent’s story I just shared. My first answer is that I truly feel that our size is a direct reflection of the “real world” in which our students will need to operate when they finish their schooling. As I recently heard our Head of School Ben Hebebrand say, our students will most likely go on to work in an office or business setting with a relatively small number of people. They will have to forge meaningful relationships and work through differences of opinion with people they will see every day. They will not be able to hide in a sea of people; they will have to be themselves, and they will truly need to understand the people around them. The more adept they are at building relationships, overcoming differences, and recognizing perspectives, the more success they will have.
My second answer is that our program is, in large part, about helping students develop what may be the most important thing they will carry with them when they leave high school: a fully realized sense of self. This sort of self-realization can only come through meaningful relationships when students take the risk to think about what they really feel and own the fact that what they feel may, in fact, be different than the person next to them. They grow into themselves every time they contribute to a class discussion, knowing they will get feedback on their ideas. They learn how to interact productively every time they get annoyed with a friend but choose to work it out, knowing that they will not be able to avoid that person the next day at school. Our model is designed to foster that growth.
In the end, it is necessary to teach kids how to determine their own definition of normal. The most effective adults are balanced: they have convictions but are always interested in hearing other perspectives and learning from other people. Such consideration requires self-confidence and self-awareness. These are the adults we want our graduates to become.
Our students are prepared when they go to college not just because of the curriculum or the way that the IB program teaches them to think. Those are wonderful aspects of what we do and should not be overlooked, but I would argue that the main reason our students are prepared when they go to college is that they know themselves. Even if they have not fully realized themselves, they are well on their way. Our students cannot hide from the people around them, but more importantly, they cannot hide from themselves; they learn to determine their own normal. As someone in the business of helping kids prepare for what lies ahead, I can’t think of anything better.