Before the seniors headed off to the Kern River for their final outdoor education trip, we invited them to participate in exit interviews. These conversations are always fascinating as our students are passionate and reflective about what they have experienced at Poly. While the anecdotes vary, the themes remain the same—an almost universal appreciation for their teachers, a fierce loyalty to their friends, some lament about taking everything too seriously, wishing they had explored more when they were younger, and a readiness to move on. I’m awed by our students' ability to look back on their experiences and reflect with candor, humor, and grace. The thrill and the weight of developing independence impact us differently—parents, too. The stories they shared were vivid, sometimes wistful, although more often than not, unique and significant. As they should be.

My own memories of moving through school are mostly about architecture, the lack of walls in middle school (an educational innovation that didn’t last too long), and the crazy labyrinth of hallways in high school. New faces and opportunities also captured my attention, as did the intimidating gauntlet of the smoking hallway that this ninety-nine-pound, five-foot-three 9th grader tried to navigate daily. Classes were all tracked, PE was required, and the cafeteria was balkanized into the freaks, the geeks, the jocks, and those of us not sure who we were or wanted to be. Still, despite ups and downs, I loved school and would not change much if I could do it over again. It is also true that I didn’t grow up at a time or a place where much self-reflection was encouraged or adults asked us to share how we felt about our experiences. 

The pathways from kindergarten to 12th grade should reflect developmentally appropriate transitions, replete with opportunities and challenges. Our youngest students move from learning to read to reading to learn, which is on the surface a straightforward concept and in practice a life-changing skill. In middle school, having a locker is an opportunity for independence; remembering its combination or cleaning it out occasionally is often a challenge—at least for my son it was. As expectations rise, we may feel unprepared for these transitions and conflate our successes or failures as life-altering. With time and the guidance of our teachers, we embrace this familiar struggle and practice the resilience we need to move forward and gain the optimism we need to thrive.