Let’s Get Real with Role Models

DAISY SAVAGE – HEAD OF UPPER SCHOOL: When I was growing up, I had to sneak off to a friend’s house to play Barbies because my mother did not think such dolls were proper role models for young girls. Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, Amelia Earhart, those were appropriate role models! At 8-years-old, I wasn’t thinking about that; I just wanted to play dolls.

Now, of course, as an educator and a parent, I have a slightly different perspective. I still think girls and boys should be able to play with dolls, but they should also be able to play with trucks and legos, build robots, seek election to high office, fly to the moon.

We expose children to all sorts of opportunities and tell them that all things are possible, but real live “role models” are also imperative.

We expose children to all sorts of opportunities and tell them that all things are possible, but real live “role models” are also imperative. Girls need a Sally Ride and boys a Jim Henson to understand that the future is available to them no matter their race, gender, or religion.

However, there is another important ingredient. Too often our role models in the headlines reach an almost action hero status; there is an illusion that they are special. How do we help children realistically see themselves in those big shoes? How will they rise to the occasion: how should they act, how should they prepare? What should they be doing now? And what will other people think of their efforts?

Too often, we tend to compartmentalize. If I fail a fraction test in 5th grade, I am “no good at math”. If I receive a “C” on an English paper in 6th, I can’t write; if I flub a line in drama in 7th, I can’t act; if I bomb a physics lab in 8th, I stink at science; and so on and so on. Thus, the student who dreams of space but “stinks at science” may never reach again for the stars… and that is a sad state of affairs.

At The Peck School, we emphasize effort and attitude above concrete achievement not to lessen the latter but to augment the former. Not every child develops at the same pace, physically, emotionally, or intellectually, and the more we learn about brain development, the more we can see how very important it is to keep the realm of possibility as wide as it can be for every child for as long as possible. So that’s one way we can prepare them to dream big and have a plan.

Students also need tangible role models in their midst. To achieve at the highest level, every day, they need to be aware of all the good that surrounds them and to see courage and character actively modeled by their peers and the adults around them.

Popular culture doesn’t necessarily promote the idea that being kind, working hard, and being smart are cool. Instead, it encourages a sense of victimization and an avoidance of accountability. It’s always someone else’s fault. So we need to combat this culture and raise responsible young people who take pride in their work and their community and responsibility for each other and their actions.

Our faculty wear many hats — like the students they teach, they defy categorization. They are singing francophiles, a capella historians, and youthful chemists, mathematically inclined field hockey coaches and soccer-playing Spanish & English teachers, calligraphers and bass players.

But it is not just what they do that defines them, it is how they comport themselves. Faculty greet the children by name with handshakes and smiles, ask about their outside interests, hold doors for them, and laugh with them. They also will not let a student off the hook: they hold every student to a higher level, expecting them to give their best every day. In exchange, faculty members do the same. They are unafraid to apologize when a homework assignment is misposted or an experiment goes awry. They are co-learners in the daily adventure of The Peck School. Our students watch us to see what we do when faced with failure, disappointment, and the unexpected, how we handle anger and stress, and they do not miss a trick.

More important than our adult presence, however, is the ever-present power of the peer. Peer pressure can be a positive force, and every day every student at Peck has the opportunity to bear witness to what their peers do for their community. They see the power a positive, open, and resilient attitude can have in their world.

Our youngest students are welcomed to school every day by the oldest, as the 8th graders — many of them big-footed 13-year-boys — donate their early morning time to setting the perfect tone for these kindergartners’ days. Our 8th graders stop to help visitors, greet the janitorial staff, work hard to help the kitchen staff clear the trays and tables. Every single one of them is on display, under the vigilant gaze of all the younger students. Who watch them constantly.

They watch them to seek their kindness and spirit of inclusion. Are they really nice, or just when a teacher is around? Will they help me? Do they know me? It’s powerful to be at the top and, more often than not, our heroes are unaware of our adulation. When I was in 6th grade, I was rescued from a classmate’s torment by an 8th grade boy named Ben, who one day turned around and said to my tormentor, “Hey, leave her alone.” I didn’t know Ben, and we didn’t suddenly become best friends, but I have never forgotten what he did. His awareness of me, and that small gesture, was all that it took to make a very lasting impression on me.

I have seen the same in the hallways at Peck. When a 5th grader drops a tray in the lunchroom and is immediately helped by ten students who reassure him, when an 8th grader doesn’t make the A team but overcomes her disappointment to lead her less experienced teammates, when a teacher apologizes for his mistake, the moment is taken in. It may not be a conscious “aha!” but the moment is taken in, and we begin to see that, yes, we do matter, our behavior does make a difference. That kind gesture, supportive word, smile, outstretched hand is all it takes to make an impression of this extremely impressionable and vulnerable audience.

That is the super power of character and courage that frees our children from the fear of failure and the constraints of convenient categorization. And that is what our students and faculty, everyone in our community, strive to model for each other every day, whether playing Barbies, building robots, or flying to the moon.

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