“Displace one note and there would be diminishment.” – Antonio Salieri, in “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer

It is the eve of the first Rock Band rehearsal of the year. With the direction for the group necessarily uncertain until we all actually gather in a room to discuss music selections, I often find myself reminiscing at this time of year about bands from years past. The first year of the group’s existence, they did a number of informal shows in the Red Room. For one of them, one of the lead singers had suggested we do the song “Love to Love You” by The Corrs. Remembering that night and wondering if I would still find it as beautiful now as I did then, listening to my students perform it with the lights down low and the audience relaxing in easy chairs and sofas or sitting on the floor, I downloaded it onto my phone and called it up. The wistfulness of the opening line, “I would love to love you like you do me,” somehow caught me by surprise and I was instantly one with the song, the dialogue between lead singer Andrea Corr and her sisters Caroline and Sharon with their brother Jim’s gently distorted guitar as punctuation leading to the gorgeous harmonies of the chorus with Andrea’s overdubbed tin whistle line winding in and out. Perhaps it wasn’t quite Mozart, but on the other hand it’s hard to imagine how the song could have been more beautifully arranged.

While such moments of perfection bring beauty to our lives, consistent perfection is of course illusory. And the more we focus outside ourselves and look to others for approval, the more difficult it becomes even to be satisfied. For middle school girls, the problem is especially acute as our society, both consciously and unconsciously, places enormous pressure on women to preserve and strengthen relationships, to “be nice” at all costs. As they struggle to define the women they are becoming, many girls bury their inner voice deep inside and, tragically, for some it never re-emerges.

Even in this early stage of the year, you can already get a sense of which girls are externally focused, and to what degree. From the simple and direct “I want to…” (which always makes me want to pump my fist “Yes!”) through “Is there a way I could…” to “Would it be okay…” and “Do you think it would be okay…” there is a continuum of strength of voice, and I have already heard the dreaded “Is this good?” more than once. Seeking advice and guidance, learning and growing by examining oneself as reflected in other people’s eyes, makes sense, especially for girls who so often learn best in relationships. However, when girls seek ultimate judgment outside themselves, they place their voices at risk.

Earlier today, I read an article by Alfie Kohn in the”Washington Post” blog “The Answer Sheet” by Valerie Strauss. He speaks of the “critical difference between intrinsic motivation, which refers to interest in the task itself, and extrinsic motivation, in which people’s actions are driven by an inducement outside of the task, a reward or punishment,” adding that “The key point is that extrinsic motivators tend to undermine intrinsic motivation.” One of the central goals of Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School is to minimize external motivators in order to maximize the development of internal motivation. Through student choice, reflection and self-assessment, as well as listening carefully and respectfully to what they are trying to tell us, we encourage students to listen to, value, express and develop their inner voice, to find their motivation from within rather than without. It is often delicate work, with continuously shifting priorities, best carried out not only in conversation with each student but also with the support of her parents.

Last year, one of the seventh graders was one of the smallest students I have ever taught. Though you could tell she had a strong sense of self deep within, as well as a gift for athletics, she was also soft-spoken, contributing relatively rarely to class discussion in the first few weeks of the year. Now a returning eighth grader, she radiates self-confidence. At the campfire on the Middle School Overnight, she unhesitatingly took the stage to join with her friends in the B.o.B. song “Airplanes pt.2,” rapping the verse “Now let’s pretend like I’m on the stage and when my beat drops everybody goes insane…” as a solo in between the beautifully sung choruses performed by the whole group while the spectators shouted “Yeah!” and yelled her name. Walking back to the lodge later on, I noticed an airplane in the night sky and imagined, as B.o.B. does in the chorus of his song, it was a shooting star.

Change one moment of that vignette and there would be diminishment. I’ve got my wish right now.

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