Where the Shoe Fits
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what kind of kid The Dragon fits. Who does best here? And, selfishly, whom do I like to teach? I ought to know, shouldn’t I? The school was certainly my idea in the first place.
When people ask me what kind of student I’m looking for, my first impulse is to say a nice kid. The worst plague of adolescence, and probably of international politics too, is the bully, the selfish, insecure creep who wants to reify his or her own ego by crushing others’. Middle school comes at the worst moment, the dark night of puberty, when your body betrays you, your hormones run wild, your emotions have the whip hand, and you also have math homework and a curfew. Even in very small, supportive environments like The Dragon’s, these overcharged and insecure beings are eying each other nervously. Inexperienced in the judgement of character, relatively naïve about the projection of image, they struggle to assess each other other, their own social impact, the pecking order of the group. And then they engage in the struggle for place. If a student comes to us without the stirrings of empathy, the desire to be decent and kind, he or she can throw a whole class into turmoil. To be successful at collaborative learning, you have to want to collaborate, not put down.
My second thought is a Dragon student needs to be a reader. All right, my dyslexic friends, a bookworm, whether you devour books on tape or as a wave file or on a Kindle, or in my favourite old technology. Because the founder of The Dragon is a great and constant reader herself, because she loves books so much she even writes them, and because books are their own kind of museum, a museum of thought, books play a goodly role at The Dragon. Books and what’s in them are the foundation for two of our central tenets: you bring what you’ve found out to a discussion based class, and you want to know the best that’s been thought and said, to remember the soul’s history, Spender says.
So a Dragon student is a thinker. Although it has more than four letters, “think” is a good old Anglo-Saxon word, originally meaning “to cause something to seem or to appear to oneself.” A thinker, then, is an active being, a person who has both the power to think and is engaged in thinking. All too many students have already learned that the power to think gets you in trouble, and engaging is thinking is not something that you will do on the exam. Eager to please, they learn that the high achieving student displays information, and they have become terrified of engaging with ideas. What if the answer is wrong? A Dragon student needs to be fearless, ready to enter the scrum of understanding.
And then I think, a Dragon student is a creative soul. Creative is another great word, from the Latin, meaning “to bring into being, to make”. A creative student is originative, productive. It’s not about art necessarily or about volume. It’s about bringing something into reality, of yourself, your ideas, your hopes. I know this is a challenge, but you can’t participate in a true education through repetition, imitation, or regurgitation.
And then, selfishly, because a teacher has to have a good time too, I’m looking for a student with a sense of humour. I like to tease people, I like to be teased, it’s wonderful to be able to laugh instead of pull long faces and set punishments. I love the wits, the one-liners that let you stop in the middle of some earnest explication and see the possibility of delight. (All right, my Aspberger’s friends, I know you’ll have to think about that, but admit that you too like to play.)
The other things Dragon students have been described as seem less important to me. It’s true my students are no slouches. But the gifted label can be a burden to carry. Such strange expectations accompany it, as if it were undemocratic, unsporting somehow, to be smarter than average, while acceptable to be more athletic or better-looking than average. As if you needed to be taken down a peg or two. And while lots of successful Dragon students have tested gifted, lots of others don’t or can’t. What they all have, what they bring, are deeper gifts, the things they teach each other and us, their teachers, every day—about the courage to persist, the other ways to demonstrate knowledge of curriculum content, about trains.
I use “non-conformist” as shorthand sometimes, meaning they are individuals, and not afraid to be, which is not the same thing many people thing of as non-conformist. A lot of great Dragon students have been square pegs being hammered into round holes in more conventional schools, and yes their sense of costume is quite highly developed. But it’s not that most of them set out to be outrageous. It’s that they want to be true to themselves.
And besides compassion, empathy, I am looking for that other aspect of heart: courage. My best students have been risk takers, and the children of risk takers. There are many things wrong with the great world, not just the small world of middle-class western education. I am interested in those Young Persons who look around them with clear eyes, and see what is wrong with the world, who have the imagination to see how it could be better, the analytical strength to see how to bring about change, and above all the courage to tackle change. This kind of transformative courage begins with small changes, with changing yourself, and what you know. A good education will not make such changes in and of itself. It will not move the world. But a good education is a wonderful place to stand, for a nice, kind, book-loving, free-thinking, risk-taking, creative individualist with a sense of humour.
In case your English teacher didn’t make you memorise it, here is Stephen Spender’s poem.
I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.
 You might wonder, at this point, why I don’t then wish for a talker. The truth is, in discussion based, teacher-mentored, intimate classes, we have ways of making you talk.