“Just wait and see. I remember those words and how they chided me, when patient was the hardest thing to be.”

“These are days we’ll remember. Never before and never since, I promise, will the whole world be warm as this.”

– Natalie Merchant, “How You’ve Grown” and “These Are Days”

The walk from housemeeting to my office takes rather longer than normal, and I definitely do not run up the stairs two at a time. Earlier this morning, this uncharacteristic stiffness was puzzling me. I had run the previous evening, but not an excessive distance nor at an excessive speed. One of the students solved my dilemma for me when she asked in homeroom if I was a little stiff. Immediately I recalled the vision of her sprinting past multiple members of the opposing team to return the captured flag to her side of the field and claim victory (which she did twice in three matches!), and my own stiffness suddenly made sense to me.

Although the middle school is only six years old, that is half a lifetime for our youngest students. In that context, it is easy to create traditions that feel as if they are long-standing, and Founders’ Day is one of their favourites. This makes perfect sense in a world where young adolescents can sometimes feel (and not always without reason) as if people are always telling them what they can and can not do. Being able to earn more and more privileges as they get older is cold comfort, so when we give them a day entirely off from classes to plan more or less however they see fit, it is paradise to them.

It has become something of an annual ritual for Founders’ Day to be mentioned in an early MOCA meeting by a returning 8th grader, provoking the question from a first-year student, “What is Founders’ Day?” and an explanation that it is a day off from classes where we can do whatever we want and we get Dunkin’ Donuts and watch a movie and tie-dye t-shirts and have a barbecue and play games all afternoon and it’s really fun and it’s the best day of the year and you’ll love it. Every year, the torrent of words breaks over the new students leaving them shaking their heads, slightly breathless and confused but at the same time aware that something cool is going to happen and they get to be part of it.

Just as from year to year the middle school takes on a different collective personality built from the interactions of the individual students who make up the program, so too does Founders’ Day take on its own personality each year. When I picked up this year’s Dunkin’ Donuts order and they had kindly and helpfully written each student’s name on her drink or food order, I had the feeling this one was going to be special. I zipped back to the restaurant to leave them an extra big tip, then joined “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” already in progress, right at the scene where Ben Stein is blithely plowing through history class, “Anyone? Anyone? Something -d-o-o economics. Voodoo economics,” as students’ eyes glaze over and they doze in a puddle of their own drool. It’s fascinating to watch the movie with a roomful of kids some of whom clearly have never seen it before – the sharp intakes of breath when Ferris’s mom returns home to check on him, the relieved laughter when his ruse works on her, the cries of “No! Don’t do it!” when they leave the Ferrari in the parking garage – and immediately afterwards, several of them run up to me and ask, “Does she marry Ferris?”and one other student, overhearing, comments, “No. I’m marrying Ferris. Not the actor. He’s old and that would be disgusting. The real Ferris.”

While I was guiding students through the process of tie-dying their t-shirts (which are currently in my car waiting to be rinsed out, washed and dried tonight – one of the rituals of Founders’ Day being my spectacularly multicolored hands for several days afterwards), Mr. Deason got a cart full of food from the kitchen and took it to Bonnie’s House to set up the grill for hamburgers, garden burgers and chicken. The students also asked for several salads, and helped assemble the Caesar salad themselves. Dishing up the fruit salad, one student pointed to something soft and bright orange and asked “What’s that?” Told it was mango, her head dipped and her eyes widened in delighted surprise and she shouted, “No way!” But they had asked if mango would be possible… and it was!

After lunch, some of them fetched softball mitts and others lacrosse sticks, still others starting jamming on various instruments in Bonnie’s House as Mr. Deason periodically stuck his head in and sang along, and the rest sat on the grass and talked, among then a one-year exchange student and a very close friend of hers. Was there a little voice in the back of their heads reminding them that it is not too long before they return to very different worlds? I heard it, whether or not they did.

After the traditional all-school photo, the 7th graders spontaneously arranged themselves for their class picture while the 8th graders were being photographed. Then, two students explained Capture the Flag for those who didn’t know the game, we counted off, placed the flags (which were actually shin guards) in the circles by the lacrosse goals, and started playing. Immediately, Mr. Deason’s team started shouting out the names of random cities in Russia. Equally immediately, my team figured out that they had no real strategies and the shouting was meaningless. Caught up in cries of “Leningrad! I mean, St. Petersburg!” my team almost didn’t notice an opponent walking stealthily toward the woods. Almost.

Most years, after 30-45 minutes, some of the students begin to tire of the game, but this year they were so caught up in the excitement that we played for over an hour. As we picked up the shin guards and the cones and returned toward Bonnie’s House, the first thick drops of the thunderstorm that had been threatening us all day began to fall. The next activity of the day, fortunately, was eating ice cream, and by the time we were done, the sun had come out again and we could go back outside for more games before the end of the day, break and athletics.

At lunch today, Mr. Deason came up to me and asked how stiff I was – not whether I was stiff, I noticed, but how stiff. The stiffness, however, will pass. The memories will remain.

[pictures on the School’s Facebook page]

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