Our son Ben is finishing the second grade at Randolph, and one of the most memorable experiences for him this year was the butterfly unit that finished up on Wednesday morning. The students start with caterpillars barely two centimeters long, and carefully watch these little creatures grow in cups on their desks. Once the chrysalis forms, Mrs. Zeller moved them into the butterfly net, a cylinder-like tube where the children could monitor growth and development.
Finally, the butterflies emerge. Each has a name (Ben’s is “Texas”), and you can imagine the excitement as the children see the cycle of life come to fruition first-hand. And then a bitter-sweet moment: Mrs. Zeller encourages the children to say their “goodbyes” to the butterflies, and she unzips the top of the net and one by one they flutter into the air and make their way into the world.
The butterfly unit is not unlike what parents and teachers and coaches do over thirteen years to get our graduates ready for college and life. Periodically Randolph students morph into a new self as they make their way from one division to another. And by the time they graduate, they are ready and eager to get beyond the nets of school and home and greet the wider world of college life.
And that’s of course exciting and scary and sad for us as teachers and parents. My heart’s full of pride and happiness at how far our graduates have come and how poised they are for success in life. And it’s also sad to bid them farewell, as we’ve gotten attached over the years and we know that once they graduate, it will never (and should never) be the same. High school graduation is one of the few remaining rites of passage in our culture that marks a major change in life.
At Randolph we take great pride in having our graduates ready for college, and they most certainly are prepared for the academic challenges of a college curriculum. But more and more I’m anxious about the social and emotional readiness of all college freshman to thrive in higher education and in life.
My anxiety was affirmed last week when Sewanee’s Dean of Freshmen, Eric Hartman, visited Randolph to lead a PARENTS+ program for parents of our graduates. A few of us on the school side met with him after his presentation, and talked about what’s different today than when we went to college in the 1980s and 1990s. With clarity and conviction Eric reported that today’s college freshmen emote as much as they ever have, but they emote virtually through their computers and phones. More and more freshmen arrive on campus with less and less experience with face-to-face, human interaction in real time.
Social and emotional intelligence is critical to success in college and life, and the first challenge for most college students is dealing with a roommate. For many college freshmen, the responsibility to share limited space with someone they don’t know well is close to overwhelming, and part of that difficulty is driven by a decline in direct human interaction in the age of social media. Alumna Kat Keller, just finishing her first year at the University of North Carolina, told me last week that the second semester was easier because “I was better at meeting people.”
I find these kinds of cultural changes fascinating, and was intrigued by the recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” In addition to being academically prepared for college, we share with parents the responsibility to have our students socially and emotionally prepared for life without us. This is hard, since we’ve constructed very demanding and sometimes onerous schedules for their years in school. We all run the risk of becoming co-dependent on our busy schedules and constant access to our “friends” through social media.
But, unless you’re Davis Murray and you’re headed to West Point, college provides precious little structure. And every day a college freshman in her first semester reckons with how many people she doesn’t know. This can be very challenging, and is, in my estimation, the hardest adjustment for college life.
At Randolph, we intentionally address these kinds of challenges through our commitment to know, challenge, and love every child under our care. We want it to be difficult to fall through the cracks at Randolph. We deliberately set up social structures to force face-to-face interaction because we believe that if you have that skill when you leave Randolph, you’ll be more likely to succeed in college and life.
When the 6th grade goes to Tremont, there’s no access to cell phones for a reason. When graduating seniors tell me that the School’s about rich relationships through experiences in academics, the arts, and athletics, they’re reminding all of us that we’re social animals wired for community engagement. And when we deliberately develop a commitment to community learning next year, we’ll be reminded that those experiences are designed for our students to embrace opportunities to build relationships that leave us more comfortable with the world beyond us.