If you surveyed heads of school from around the country about what they find satisfying in their jobs, I bet many would say watching how their students—now alumni—have grown up. Sometimes we focus on the physical differences that signify growing up—it’s hard not to mention the young college student at the reunion who is now a foot taller than when he graduated from high school.
But how do these heads of schools find themselves changed?
Three psychologists recently published a study, “The End of History Illusion,” in which they measured the personalities, values, and preferences of almost 20,000 people, teenagers through senior citizens. Their subjects—regardless of age—recognized how much they had changed over the years, yet they anticipated staying the same in the future. According to the study’s abstract, “People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”
In an article in The New York Times, one of the researchers, Harvard psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert, explains, “Middle-aged people—like me—often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”
I feel this way myself. All I have to do is look back at my senior page from my high school yearbook to remember how much I have (thankfully) grown up. But I also feel like who I am now—as an educator, parent, partner, and friend—is my genuine identity. It’s funny to think about looking back in 2023 and thinking about how much I will have changed from this moment in time.
So how does school fit in to constant change?
Part of that is obvious. Students are forever learning new concepts, developing new projects, and improving their skills. Teachers are incorporating the latest techniques and research in their fields.
And part of it is less obvious. Adolescence is a time when you think that certain things are going to be forever. High school seniors feel relatively more grown up and comfortable with who they are. And, in my opinion, thankfully, we will not all stay the same.
This is one of the reasons why experiential education is so important. Allowing students to have different experiences—from outings to sports teams to minicourses—reinforces the idea that you can branch out, try new things, and have multiple identities. It’s great for educators, too—they can also propose new ideas and try on their different selves. I like to advise students to be open to change and to allow themselves to be changed by experience. I know that we work very hard to help build their confidence so that the latter part of that advice is easier.
I’m not saying that some parts of our identities—our essential selves—aren’t immune to change. Some things do stay the same.
I am thinking about the alumni music concert that happened earlier this month. Ten former students—Orion Letizi ’90, Sky Nelson ’92, Chloe Dalby ’08, Becky Mimiaga ’05, Chase Baldocchi ’08, Yang West ’10, Sturdy Adams ’11, Bryn Bliska ’10, Andrew Hove ’11, and Matt Kerslake ’10—were invited to help us start the second semester off right by sharing their musical talents. (Current student August Larmer-DiFilippo ’13 filled in for Will Baldocchi ’09, who was sick, unfortunately.) Some of the alumni I knew personally, and some—particularly the older ones—I knew only by reputation. It was easy to see how some of the younger students had grown and changed while in college: they were more poised and showed a greater ease. I’m sure many of them have branched out into new instruments or techniques or bands.
The common denominator was their ability to come together—with minimal rehearsal—and make the performance happen. They had not lost that essential joy that we witness on the stage at every Marin Academy concert. I hope that at MA we instill an appetite for joining in and creating, and that that skill will remain throughout our students’ lives.