It made sense at the time. Interview a group of 6th graders towards the end of the school year and find out how their first year at Notre Dame went. There were several flaws in the plan, however. For one thing, I dropped by to conduct this hard-hitting bit of investigative journalism on a day that turned out to be Middle School Arts Day, an informal “fun” day when half the school travels to Hershey Park to participate in some sort of music festival, while those who remain behind come to school in shorts and t-shirts for a day of music, fun, and games. So there was no chance of visiting any structured classes to see how the girls had adjusted to the academic rigors of private school. Instead, as I roamed the hallways of the middle school that day I encountered a group of students sitting on the floor outside a classroom, gathered around middle school art teacher, Christian Leitch, in an impromptu story sharing session. As I turned the corner, I had to drop back – pressed against the doorway – to avoid a collision with language arts teacher, Sharon Moser who went flying by, video camera in hand, followed by a gaggle of gleeful girls, doing their best to keep up. In a couple of classrooms, several groups of teachers and students were in high spirits rehearsing musical numbers from Peter Pan in preparation for a mutual performance later in the day. It all looked like great fun but not what I originally had in mind. Still, I was there. And through the window I saw a group of 6th graders picnicking together in the Middle School garden on their lunch break. Just the people I wanted to talk to. Seemed a shame to waste the opportunity. So, I approached the girls and asked if I could join them. They graciously accepted and made room for me on the blanket. However, this, it turned out, was the other flaw in my plan. You see, it is impossible to interview a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds together. They all talk at the same time. And very excitedly. When you suggest perhaps it might be a good idea if they answer one at a time, they politely oblige. For about a millisecond. At least, this is the case in an informal setting. Outside the classroom. Dressed in shorts and t-shirts. On a beautiful day in May. Sitting on a picnic blanket eating peanut butter crackers and Skittles.
Nevertheless, we proceeded.
Me: So, today is a day about music. What kind of mu…
Maria: I love Justin Bieber!
Group: Collectively roll eyes. Moan.
Apparently Justin Bieber is so 2012.
Lauren: Justin Bieber was fine ’til he met L’il Wayne. Then, it was all downhill after that.
I have no idea what Lauren means by this or how she knows it, but she speaks with great authority, so I believe her. Plus, her best friend (in the whole world), Annelise, concurs, nodding vigorously in agreement while nibbling a piece of orange cheese from her Lunchables snack pack. Lauren and Annelise are very convincing in their analysis. I look at Maria to see how she is taking this assault on her idol. She sits cross-legged on the blanket, pulling at the grass in front of her, and shrugs. Maria doesn’t give a hoot. She is confident in her likes and dislikes. Good for her.
Back to the group.
Me: Will you all come back to Notre Dame next….
Group: Yes! We love Notre Dame!
Me: Tell me about your teachers. Are they…
Nathalie: Our teachers are the best. They really connect with you…
Annelise: There’s an ant on you, Gabby….
Gabby (confidentially, flicking the ant): There are kind of a lot of projects though…
Group: Wayyyy too many projects!
Maria: I had 9 in March!
Imani: Does anyone want the rest of my baloney?
Emma: It’s hard, but it teaches you to learn independently…
Me (Confused): Baloney?
Me: So then, you would say…
Imani (Remembering something important): I couldn’t hit the volleyball over the net when I first came here, but my coach just kept practicing with me and helping me. She really helped my confidence…
Imani: And now I can hit the ball over the net!
Maddie (Supportive): She can do that in a game!
Me (To Imani): Impressive!
Imani nods in agreement, demurely.
Me (to the group): Are all of you here friends?
Group: Yes!!! We love each other.
Various girls hug and high five. They are a diverse group. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian. Big, small. Thick glasses, no glasses. Chatty, quiet.
Me: Tell me more about what it was it like in the beginning? Did you…
Lauren (Shocked): I got so lost!
Annelise (Bemused): I kept going in circles…
Me: I see, and…
Imani (As it should be): In 5th grade we were the oldest in our school…
Emma (How did this happen!): But then this year we’re the youngest!
Gabby (Resigned to her own fate): Yeah. We’re basically at the bottom of the food chain again.
Me: True, but then next year…
Lauren: I mean, I had no idea where I was…
Back to Lauren and Annelise…
Annelise: …I just kept going and going in circles…
Lauren: …Then I ran into Annelise and I said, ‘Are you lost,too?’
Annelise: I said… ‘Kinda’…
Lauren (Telling it like is was): …You were lost…
Annelise (Coming clean): I was lost.
Lauren (Happy ending): And we’ve been best friends ever since!
Annelise: In the whole world.
Me: Anybody else, what… yes, you, what’s your name?
Me: Libby, yes, what were you going to…
Rachel (Livvie’s best friend. In the whole world): It’s Livvie.
Me: Right, Libby.
Rachel (More concerned than Livvie): Livvie! Liv-vie! 2 v’s, not 2 b’s!
Me: Livvie?…as in Olivia?
Me: I see. Thank you. Livvie-with-2 v’s-not-b’s, you were saying?
Livvie: I think the icebreaker came around Christmas time. We were all in Advisory…
Lauren: 6A is the bomb! Isn’t that right, Mrs. Cahill?
Mrs. Cahill (walking by): What?
Lauren: 6A is the bomb!
Mrs. Cahill (Walking by and 6A homeroom teacher): Yes! 6A is the bomb!
Livvie( Squinting at Mrs.Cahill, who is not her homeroom teacher, and then back at me): Anyway, we were all in advisory, working on different projects, and suddenly someone just started singing Christmas carols to herself…
Maddie: I love Christmas!
Nathalie: Me too!
Livvie: …And one by one, everyone started chiming in, ’til soon, everyone was singing while they were working! Spontaneously!
Maddie: I mean, I realllly love Christmas!
Livvie (In conclusion): That was when we all became friends.
Me: That’s a great story! Now…
Livvie(Or not): But the best was when we went on ‘Girls’ Night Out’ in January and we all had to write something nice about each other and Rachel wrote: ‘Livvie is a really good fried. She is always there for me.’
Peels of laughter.
Me: I don’t get it.
Livvie: She wrote really good ‘fried’! She meant friend but she left out the n!
More peels of laughter. The girls are now doubled over. It is quintessential 6th grade going on 7th grade humor. Rachel and Livvie paw at each other with mock affection.
Livvie: You’re my best fried in the whole world!
Rachel: You’re my best fried!
Annelise: There’s an ant on you, Nathalie…
Somebody: Can I borrow your lipgloss?…
Annelise: Now it’s in your hair…
OK. So it was not the deep-digging, hard-hitting, investigative session I had hoped for. But somehow, I think I got my answers anyway. After their first year, it is clear the 6th grade girls are well-adjusted and confident. They have learned and grown by leaps and bounds. They work hard and play hard. They love Notre Dame. They love their teachers. They love each other. And they can’t wait to return next year. What more is there to know?