Today’s Children Need Community More Than Ever

Today’s Children Need Community More Than Ever
Mike Schloat P'24 '26, Head of School

Reading has long been among my most treasured forms of relaxation and recuperation -- something I rarely had time to do last year and I look forward to returning to both personally and with my students in the year ahead. This past summer, I carved out time to return to my hard and soft-covered friends to help recharge my batteries, and among the most engaging books I read this summer, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun, stands apart. 
Recommended by a friend, the book was totally unknown to me when it arrived on my doorstep, and I purposefully preserved my ignorance by discarding the dust jacket so I would enter the narrative unaware of what lay ahead. (This was also a practical move, thanks to the Schloat family dog, Tom Brady, who likes to remove dust jackets off and destroy them as a demonstration of his displeasure at being left alone in the house.) 
The book centers around the experience of Klara, an “artificial friend” who is purchased to provide companionship to an adolescent girl. Ishiguro unfolds his tale in a not-too-distant future universe where affluent children are groomed for excellence in isolation, learning virtually on their “oblongs” (stand-ins for some approximation of iPads) and gathering with their peers rarely and, even then, only in order to practice networking skills as a path toward advancement. (They call these events “interaction meetings,” an aptly sterile and redundant description of the forced socialization these young people undergo.)
I spent roughly the first half of the novel getting my bearings, working through my own curiosities about artificial intelligence, and engrossed in Ishiguro’s hauntingly hypnotic narrative style. But after some time, another angle emerged: Everyone in the book is profoundly lonely, and most of the interactions between human beings are stilted, unsettling, and fraught with tension. Most striking is Ishiguro’s barren depiction of adolescence as an unforgiving and invasive march toward advancement--the children of the wealthy in his novel have been “lifted,” or genetically enhanced, to ensure they remain at the top of the class system and social pecking order--necessitating the existence of Klara and her fellow “artificial friends.” 
As I read about Klara and her human companion, Josie, I couldn’t help but wonder about the millions of schoolchildren around the world who have experienced the disorientation and isolation of a year and a half of living through a pandemic. Surely, the upending of schooling models and the constantly evolving warnings and guidance has left children feeling discombobulated simply from a practical standpoint. But I also wondered about some of the other structural factors in American education that can lead to the same sense of alienation and loneliness. Specifically, the decades-long shift toward prioritizing individual achievement over community-mindedness or the rising tide of specialization in one area rather than balance and well-roundedness. 
Add to that the loss of one of the great unifying forces in the lives of young people all over the world--the shared experience, for the vast majority of children, of attending school with their peers for roughly 12-14 years--and the students starting schools again this month are all facing an overwhelmingly disjointed, alienating landscape, one that, it must be said, is most challenging for those already disadvantaged by some other factor like poverty, discrimination, food insecurity, and the like.
Where does Bement figure into this conversation? I recently asked the Leadership Team to consider whether Bement is—or ought to be—a “place to be from” or a “place to be.” Do we envision Bement to be a school whose graduates are sought after because of some indelible set of qualities and characteristics that set them apart from their peers and are best inculcated at Bement? Or do we wish to be a school where each child can pursue their own unique passions and interests no matter how ephemeral they may be, no matter how they position them for advancement through their educational career and life? 
We mustn’t ignore either identity, of course--placement and excellence matter both from a practical standpoint and because many of our students count them as motivating factors, and no educational pursuit is meaningful, in my view, if it sacrifices the holistic health and happiness of the child.
To me, balancing these competing ideals is at the crux of what makes Bement special, particularly at this moment in time. My final reading of Klara and the Sun left me worried about all young people who are living through the COVID-19 pandemic--not to mention any number of other polarizing or alienating forces in their delicate lives--but also deeply grateful and proud to count myself a part of the Bement community today. 
I stepped back and thought of lower school recess last year--the image of dozens of young people tearing around the playground overjoyed to be able to be together, in person, and for at least a little while apart from the worries and fears of the fall of 2020. I found myself remembering the sights and sounds of upper school advisories returning to campus on Friday afternoons after playing wiffle ball or hiking together. And I recalled the epic game of “duck, duck goose” enjoyed by our boarding students and their dorm parents last June just before everyone scattered for the summer—a game that featured some of our most serious, oldest students reduced to giggling kids again by the sight of their dorm parents wildly chasing them around a circle on a perfect June evening. 
The nearly two hundred students who began the year together at Bement this week have all shared less together as a group of young people than any similar group in our recent past -- they come from all over the world, from an impossibly complex set of varied pandemic school and family circumstances, and they each possess a unique and deeply personal perspective on their life and this moment in time. What they do share is the prospect of a year together at our school, living and learning as a family, and the immeasurable gift of working with Bement’s talented faculty and staff so that they may grow and develop into better versions of themselves. These students and the countless others like them need schools like Bement very badly right now, and I am humbled to be a part of building one together with my colleagues and all of Bement’s families. I am looking forward to another terrific year, buoyed by the knowledge that of all the headwinds facing us in the final months of 2021, no one at Bement will face them alone. 

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