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In the Middle, Back to School

September brings us back to the business of school days and their accompanying mix of work and play. Boys are, at once, excited to be back among school buddies even if it does mean learning to manage the dreaded homework load that summer had made a distant memory. Middle school is a joyous time filled with energy and excitement. It is a time for challenge, triumph and even failure. As we head into the year, there are some things that I mentioned at Back to School Night that bear reiterating.

Middle schoolers are continually trying on new things as they undertake the main “job” of adolescence—establishing their identity. It is why our program is designed with such breadth and why, for instance, in Middle School, we require boys to try every art course we offer and yet leave some individual choice for athletics. We ask them all to speak publically at least once during the W.W. Fenn Speaking Contest (though certainly more happens in individual classrooms). We require that each be in a drama production and take a role onstage or in a production. We ask them to stretch intellectually with research, Socratic Seminars, personal writing, lab reports, mathematic experimentation etc. All the while, there is the “hidden” (or not-so-hidden) curriculum of our motto, Sua Sponte and our four core values: Honesty, Empathy, Respect and Courage. All of these things are in service to providing the palette from which the boys may paint their own identity.

These adventures and challenges will bring some measure of success and struggle into a boy’s experience. That is to be not only expected, but desired. Adolescents learn resilience when they make mistakes and have to find a way to right them. As Wendell Berry says, “When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” By Berry’s standards, adolescent boys’ minds are constantly “employed”.

We seek to work in partnership with families to guide their sons through this exciting time as they become young men. By choosing Fenn, they are called to a high standard. They are asked to dress differently than many of their peers; they are asked to work harder than many of their peers; they are asked to adhere to our core values in a community that places a great deal of trust in them to do so. And yet, we try to preserve the joy of boyhood—no easy task, all of this.

So I offer some concrete suggestions as we embark on the school year.

  • If your son comes home and is upset about something at school, please let his advisor or me know if you suspect it is something we can help with. 
  • In particular, if your son says, “…but don’t call the school.” Please…call the school. We can work with you to help him in whatever struggle he is finding himself.
  • Try not to overschedule your middle schooler. Balance really is the key. Neighborhood and town teams remain important for him to maintain connection with buddies, but boys have a very full day here at Fenn with an hour of athletics a day and considerable homework each night.
  • Experts tell us that all electronics should be off one hour before bedtime (supposedly also the case for adults) and adolescent boys should be getting between nine and ten hours of sleep a night.
  • Don’t be surprised if your son’s friendships begin to shift. This may be exciting for him or it may be painful and awkward for him as he grows apart from childhood friends. Assure him that new friendships will emerge as boys begin to develop their individual interests.
  • Encourage your son to take advantage of all of the opportunities offered at Fenn: run for Senate; participate in community service; be a cast member or a techie in the middle school play; play an instrument; and join the band, etc. A boy’s middle school years are an exciting and active time, and Fenn, working in partnership with you, hopes it provides the first step toward boys becoming the men they will be.
Posted by in Patricia McCarthy on Monday September, 23, 2013


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An Independent Day School
for Boys Grades 4-9

516 Monument Street, Concord, MA 01742

Tel: (978) 369-5800 Email:

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