His Mind Holds Summer

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What’s a schoolboy thinking? In April, he’s looking forward to June, and in August, he’s remembering July.

It’s not that learning doesn’t interest him. He will ace any quiz you give him about baseball stats or football rosters or Star Wars or ham radio. The mind craves knowledge as the body craves food, Mason says, and he will root out morsels that appeal to him. So why, in the classroom, does the schoolboy refuse to eat?

I’m speaking broadly, of course. Many boys take to their lessons—some even take pride in them—and many who don’t are simply lazy or undisciplined. But the average young man, I think, views school in the same way as Robert Francis’s farm boy:

The lesson, the long lesson, has been summer.
His mind holds summer, as his skin holds sun.
For once the homework, all of it, was done.

In other words, school must be endured till summer comes, when the real learning begins.

What will make a young man care about school? I suggest three things: teamwork, responsibility, and challenge.

First, a boy thrives when he feels himself part of a team. He needs to measure himself against other boys and (especially) men, and he wants to be sure that his presence is needed. If it’s not, he will know, and he would rather be somewhere else. This is easy to see in sports, but less clear in the modern school, which is designed to measure individual progress. How does one make a boy feel like a school needs him?

In his book-length profile of Frank L. Boyden, the long-time headmaster of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, John McPhee says, “A new boy at Deerfield cannot have been there very long before the idea is impressed upon him that he is a part of something that won’t work unless he does his share.” Boyden was by all accounts a headmaster of exceptional quality who inspired devotion in students and faculty alike, but he didn’t have a secret recipe for success. When asked why his school was so successful, he said,

We just treat the boys as if we expect something of them, and we keep them busy. So many of our things simply exist. They’re not theory. They’re just living life. I expect most of our boys want to do things the way we want them done.


My philosophy—I can’t express it, really: I believe in boys. I believe in keeping them busy, and in the highest standards of scholarship. I believe in a very normal life.

“I believe in boys.” Deerfield students had many chances to experience Boyden’s trust firsthand: rather than hand out report cards, Boyden sat down with each student six times a year and told him where he stood academically. He also asked the boys about their classes and about their teachers, impressing upon them the idea that their thoughts mattered (even if, ultimately, Boyden disagreed). Boys that feel like part of a team are just as likely to get in trouble, behaviorally and academically, as though who feel like outcasts, but they are much more likely to likely to listen when they are called out. Between 1902 and 1966, when McPhee published his book, Boyden only expelled five students, and all five were let go because they showed no remorse for what they had done.

A boy may always feel the draw of summer, but if he can be convinced that his presence at school matters, he’ll find it easier to apply his energies to the task in front of him.

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