A Quarter-Step Behind…

The Pressured ChildThe Parent Imperfect does not have the energy he once had for evening meetings. More than a few people are happy about that. Last night, I very much wanted to sit home and vegetate after a stressful day at work, but something told me that I should accompany Liz in an evening pilgrimage to the nation’s oldest public school, so I did. My evenings on Ave. Louis Pasteur don’t always leave me in the best frame of mind, but this one did.

The Friends of the Keefe Library at Boston Latin School sponsored a talk by Michael Thompson, School Psychologist at Belmont Hill School and author of many books about the psychology of adolescent boys, most recently, The Pressured Child.

We arrived late, of course, and I was honestly shocked to see that one of the library’s main open spaces had been cleared and filled with chairs. Almost every one of the chairs (I counted something like 120 of them) was filled with a BLS parent. If the School Parent Council is able to attract one-sixth of that number for its monthly meetings, it is considered a great night. I know that many parents at BLS are concerned about the effect of the school experience on their child (or children), but it was an eye-opener for me that so many people would attend a meeting like this one.

I have to admit that I get a little cranky when someone starts right off talking to me about “independent” schools and public schools. If private schools didn’t depend on government in a million ways, I’d feel better about that language, but I got over it, in this case. He is, after all, an employee of a private school.

ThompsonThompson is an engaging speaker who obviously does a lot of this. He is very good at connecting the substance of his talk to a series of stories about his experience counseling boys in a school that isn’t so different from BLS, in terms of what it expects of its students. As a noted embellisher, myself, I was clear that Thompson’s stories had been gently massaged to serve a purpose, but that doesn’t bother me.

He wanted to get a roomful of parents to let go of our own needs and anxieties for a moment and try to see the BLS experience from the perspective of our sons and daughters. Thompson’s own perspective is informed by his clinical experience at Belmont Hill and other places, but it is also rooted in a practice of accompanying students through entire school days at many different types of schools. He asked who in the room had ever done such a thing and raised hands were conspicuously absent.

ExpectationsI can’t imagine doing such a thing, but the talk did push me to think about what it must be like for Vince to enter that building at 7:30AM, rush to his locker and then to his homeroom by 7:35 (to avoid “tardy detention”) and then begin the long march through seven periods of “drinking from a fire hose,” separated by four minutes of frenzied transit between classes (woe betide you if you arrive late to class!). Somewhere in the middle of all that, he gets 20 minutes to stuff a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a couple of cookies into his mouth before rushing off to the next class. In every one of these periods, a teacher will be expecting to be attentive to his/her rambling and enthusiastic about the material, and this will be just as true at R8 as it was at R1. And there are, of course, occasional study halls, but these, too, are moments of intense social control.

At a school such as BLS, according to Thompson, perhaps one-third of the students have a brain that is very-well suited to such an environment. Those are the “fast processors” whose parents were doing something else last night. Another third get along OK, but they are very aware that something is “not quite right” for them at the school. If they develop good friends and a supportive social environment at the school, they can be quite happy there (provided that they parents can adjust to the reality of the situation). And then there is the “other third” of students. They can be quite “bright” (they had to be to get into the place), but, for one reason or another, their brains are just not designed for the kind of environment in which they find themselves. Everyone at the school experiences stress, but this last group of people can really struggle in such environments. This strikes me as a good description of what I see at BLS.

This narrative definitely raised the tension level in the library. Thompson balanced this with many stories that allowed the assembled parents to shed stress through laughter. Through it all, he encouraged parents to “find another way to think about your child’s journey through school.”

For anyone who was looking for specific answers, he had few. The psychologist in him offered three things that he looks for when he speaks to a youth who seems to be struggling. These are connection, recognition and a growing sense of mastery. If he sees these things in the experience of the student, he is able to look beyond the specifics of the report card to sense that s/he is doing OK.

Vince’s insistence that he wants to stay at BLS comes from the strength of his connection to his friends and the fact that he gets some sort of recognition from them and (very occasionally) from his teachers and parents. This question of a “growing sense of mastery” is more difficult for me to discern in relation to my dear son.

Late in the talk, Thompson told a story of seeing a teacher taking a run with two high school girls. He started out at a pace that was too fast for the girls. They ran with him, but struggled to keep up. Before long, the girls slowed and finally started walking. After walking for a time, the girls started to run again and, before long, had returned to a pace that was comfortable for them. When they started running again, the teacher took up a spot, “running with them, a quarter step behind.” When the girls slowed down, so did the teacher. When they found energy to speed up, so did he, and, in this rhythm, they completed the run.

This is a story that you know is made up, but the point is one that stayed with me. Thompson is suggesting that thoughtful parents might follow the example of the running teacher in accompanying their children as they face the stress of schools like BLS.

The discussion got more real in the question and answer period. Parents (all women) put before Thompson their angst about the decision they are making right now about sending their child to BLS. Others talked about their own experiences with young people whose anxiety made it impossible for them to get up in the morning and go to school or whose attention issues left them struggling to keep their heads above water. In a setting very different from his office at Belmont Hill, Thompson showed why a wealthy private school would pay him what he asks to speak to its children and parents. The interactions also made me wonder who the people gathered in the library could talk to about their attempts to help sons and daughters through this “journey.”



Filed under Exam Schools

9 responses to “A Quarter-Step Behind…

  1. Thanks to those who have gently prodded the Parent Imperfect concerning this post.

    It is true that Michael Thompson spoke as if the policies and practices of the school are to be taken as a given, and we need to find better ways to help our children (and ourselves) cope. He was clear at the beginning of his talk that he is a psychologist, not a “school reformer.”

    But even as a psychologist and not a reformer, one expects that he is asked to speak into discussions of educational policy and practice at the Belmont Hill School. Since he sees firsthand that the practices of the school chew up a certain number of students, he probably makes recommendations on how to change school practices and culture in ways that would lessen the chewing without undermining the school’s educational mission. Since many people in the room are involved in just that sort of discussion about BLS, it would have been good to hear more about those recommendations.

  2. Kathy

    Thanks so much for summarizing Michael Thompson’s talk so well. It was one of the most supportive things I’ve been to at BLS in my year and a half as a parent there. I think a lot of us parents don’t feel there’s any way to discuss our kids’ welfare from a psychological point of view without it getting into rules and grades. I sent an email to the Parent Council and asked if there is a way to fund Dr. Thompson to come and talk at BLS every year. I think it would do many parents and hopefully, kids, a world of good.

  3. Thanks, Kathy. I would vote for annual visits from MT, as well,, but there also needs to be more chances for parents and students to talk (usually separately, I imagine) about what it means to struggle at the school. The existing support systems just don’t quite work, from my perspective.

  4. Kathy

    Yes, absolutely. I really am not sure what the guidance counselors do (with all due respect), but it seems to me that the needs being presented far outweigh what the gc’s have the time or capacity to deal with. I wish BLS had better links to therapists or mental health people that they could refer families out to who aren’t big names and take insurance!

    • I can’t disagree, but I insist that there is a lot that could be done to make the place less damaging to the psyche of young people without diluting the commitment to rigorous education in any way.


  5. Lynn

    Hmm. I have to say that as I’m about to sign a BLS acceptance letter for a seventh grader, this makes more nervous than hopeful. I’m coming in with this perspective: Kids that worked hard enough to gain acceptance to BLS should be supported and nurtured. Even if there needs to be a bell curve in a classroom full of bright students, they should not suffering trauma in exchange for their willingness to work hard. Can concerned parents organize around this issue to change the culture of the school to make it more nurturing and supportive? Can BLS administration accept that this is a concern?

    As for private vs. public, I went to an elite boarding school and although the workload may be comparable to BLS the school cultures are not. They are typically smaller and more supportive. Students need to discover their potential and self-worth in these years. Does a city exam school have to be such a pressure cooker? If so, we’re out of there after middle school. I’m plotting my exit strategy and I haven’t even gotten there yet.


    • Thanks, Lynn. I’m nervous, too, a second time. I think that the “business model” of the school requires that they accept kids with a range of capacities to deal with their culture. Because of the hype around “the best,” many parents (like this one) play along and send those children into a culture that we have doubts about. Many kids do fine (some really thrive), but some do not. I think that the school is aware of the need to nurture and everyone says that it’s “better than it used to be.” There is definitely support for kids, but institutions that are older than the country change very slowly. In general, I find that the expectations of the students really strain my idea of what is necessary or positive, but those expectations are exactly what others seek. Good luck! I look forward to meeting you and your daughter.

  6. Brooke

    Thank you for summarizing Dr. Michael Thompson’s talk at BLS. I am very grateful to those who prodded the Parent Imperfect to address Thompson’s stance on not being a “school reformer.” Dr. Thompson promotes the fact that he is a psychologist for Belmont Hill School, but it makes me wonder why he has never addressed some of the awful things that happened to boys at Belmont Hill in recent years? The boys didn’t do anything wrong; they were victims of bullying, cyberbullying, hazing and worse violations that went on unchecked. As parents, we should celebrate these boys–the victims–for their honor and courage to step forward and report such violations. We should also help boys who are afraid to tell what happened to them because of fear of retribution from the school.
    Instead, these boys are seemingly portrayed as not being a”good fit” for Belmont Hill. Shouldn’t Dr. Thompson be standing up to Belmont Hill; telling them that the school’s culture is problematic? When talented, high achieving boys all choose to leave Belmont Hill to attend great schools like Andover, Exeter, Groton, Middlesex, Nobles, Winchester High School, Belmont High School, etc., it is not a question of the school not being the “right fit” for a particular boy. I believe it reflects a breakdown in the school’s practices andpolicies, and sadly demonstrates an administration so arrogant that they refused to apologize and do the right thing for the victims.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful and provocative comment, Brooke. I’m honestly not as aware as I should be about what goes on inside schools like Belmont Hill. Yours sounds like the voice of experience to which I gladly defer. Your questions about Dr. Thompson’s work at Belmont Hill also seem quite consistent with his message at BLS. I did not find him to be advocating for change in the culture of BLS (or Belmont Hill) to address more effectively the psychological needs and diversity of its students. Instead, he seemed to be suggesting ways that parents might better understand their children (especially boys) and help them deal with what can be an oppressive environment for some. He seemed to be suggesting that he is fighting a quiet, internal battle for a different culture at Belmont Hill, but such methods of persuasion seldom change patterns of behavior with such deep roots in privilege and its reproduction. Students at BLS face problems rooted in this school’s own culture. They may be different than those at a small private school, but they are certainly no less firmly rooted and no less destructive to some of the boys (and girls) who live there.

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