The Having of Impossible Conversations

Sometimes we get to have an impossible conversation. They emerge without warning - a parent opening up about their inner life, say, or a child revealing an understanding that seems beyond their years. These moments are little clues about what is always possible yet only sometimes happens; a tantalizing category if ever there was one.

Yesterday, I got to have two impossible conversations with middle school students. It's reminded me that in many ways, the ability to have meaningful conversations is one of the most important (if hard to measure objectively) outcomes of a good education. 

I was touring a visitor through our middle school when we popped into a classroom and chose a student at random, a sixth grade girl, to begin chatting with. We asked her to share a memorable learning experience at school, and I was ready to hear her share a thoughtful answer about a fun recent project. She began describing a recently-completed project on body transformations and puberty, and then mentioned, without changing her tone of voice, that she decided to focus her project on the experience of getting her first menstrual period. Suddenly she had our full attention, with that sense of awe when someone turns an everyday conversation into something much more. She went on to share that for her final project she studied the female reproductive system, and as part of that created an art piece which contained letters from women in her family welcoming her to womanhood on the occasion of her first period. She spoke matter-of-factly about the whole thing, relating a ritual that was clearly deeply important to her, yet without a sense of awkwardness or of trying to shock anyone. 

As we walked away, my visitor could not believe that a sixth grade girl had just shared this story with an unknown visitor and the principal of her school. It was an impossible conversation. Impossible because so few places in our society embrace puberty and the messy transformations of adolescence. Impossible because middle school is not seen as a safe place to reveal your inner world so openly; in fact it may be seen as the least safe place. Yet now I know from direct experience that it is possible. Early adolescents can look at their own transformation with trust in the people around them, relating with openness and awe. 

The next impossible conversation happened about 30 seconds later. Continuing on the tour with my visitor, we entered a classroom where a debate about happiness was just beginning. Students had been studying concepts of happiness across different times and places, from Buddhist ideas, to ancient Greek, to modern psychology. They sat in a circle, 14 sixth and seventh graders around a table, and began a Socratic seminar on the topic. The teacher was present but did not say a single word once the conversation began. A student began by asking, is it true that it's necessary to suffer first in order to be happy? From there the conversation reached many of the essential paradoxes of the topic: is happiness just the absence of sadness? Can it ever be measured? Some students argued that the Buddhist eight-fold path, which they had just read about, was baloney, and that the cravings the Buddha warns about can actually be a positive force to grow, a healthy ambition. Others argued back. 

I use the word argue here, but it was a true conversation. There was exchange, there were references cited (the students were working on their skills of referring to the text when making points), there was respect throughout. Several times one of the more outspoken students noticed that a quieter student wanted to speak and immediately turned the floor over to them. I know that this may seem impossible, the reputation of middle schoolers being what it is. And certainly it only happened after a tremendous amount of practice. Yet there it was before my eyes - a group of 11 to 13 year olds having an intellectual, wise, engaged, respectful conversation, in a way that would challenge most groups of adults. Turns out it's quite possible after all. 

What is the human potential hinted at here? I believe these moments show us that our expectations are often too low for our kids. We often baby them, to their detriment. Instead, we can hold them to a very high standard of meaningful conversation, as long as we don't expect it to happen magically. It happens with modeling from adults and with a whole lot of practice. It's not about being introverted or extroverted; meaningful conversations happen with skills that can be taught, as the discussion on happiness demonstrated. Students reached that level of conversation after months of practice in how to respectfully disagree, how to monitor who is speaking a lot or a little, how to enter a conversation, how to reference data, how to be self-aware in conversation. These aren't accidental skills. Let's teach to this potential, in an environment of openness, showing that it's not only safe but encouraged to reveal more of ourselves. That's an impossibility that I'd like to see happen all the time.