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A Painful Exit

Mandy Callister

February 26, 2021

This week has been the most emotionally intense week since opening the school, not just as the Head of School but also as a mom. There are many vantage points from which to share what happened, but I will choose to go with the outside observer to capture the many facets of the experience.

The Backstory

At Acton, we allow the learners space and freedom to create their own studio agreements as well as choose how to hold one another accountable to them. There are other rules, called “guardrails” that we as the adults set in place to ensure the safety of the learners, both emotionally and physically. When a guardrail gets crossed, we give out a strike. After three strikes, the learner is asked to stay home for a day and return with a letter to the community authentically expressing remorse and a plan to move forward. They also ask the community if they will accept him or her back into the tribe. Each learner is afforded 9 strikes before being asked not to return to the school.

If a learner is getting nine strikes, Acton is clearly not a good fit for them. We counsel and support each learner after each strike. It is very rare for students to ever receive more than three strikes.

The first two learners to receive strikes this year were my two sons. Over the course of 6 months, they both accumulated six strikes. Eighty percent of them were brought on by each other as they weren’t able to separate their school relationship from home. I get it. They have both parents and each other in the same space. 

What was becoming evident was their blatant disrespect for the rules of the tribe and space when they weren’t convenient. It is a privilege to attend Acton and to be apart of the community. They were taking it for granted despite the clear warning that they will be asked to leave if they were unable to make the shift. Brian and I sat down with them one evening about a month ago and shared that we weren’t giving them nine strikes, because, at that point, we wouldn’t be able to accept them back. We all agreed that one more strike and they would be asked to leave for the rest of the year.

The Strike Heard Around the World

The day had been a typical day at Acton Academy. The sun was shining, the ice was melting, and the learners were all engaged and happy in their space. After eating lunch, they headed out for recess. Little did any of us know the intense afternoon that lied ahead.

As the learners poured in from the playground, it seemed like most other days when there was a conflict to be worked out after playing outside. A few learners shared that they had gotten hit by snowballs and were not happy about it. I asked them if there was anything they would like to bring up to the group and all three of them jumped up to fill out a Town Hall slip to err their grievances and find a solution at their weekly meeting.

While they were completing their slips, the two guides pulled me aside to share with me what they witnessed on the playground. A snowball fight had ensued as like most other days of recent. Despite community agreements and warnings from the guides, Ben chose to throw a snowball at one of the other learners’ faces resulting in a painful hit, red mark, and many tears. 

Ben is a star pitcher on his baseball team and has quite an arm. Regulating his strength and listening to people’s words have been two areas of challenge for him and have been behind many of his previous strikes. 

After the guides shared the story with me, I felt that the best course of action would be to let the learners decide if it was a strike. I called the upper elementary learners together for a Tribunal Court. This is where each person has the chance to take the stand and share their experience of the situation. Afterward, the entire tribe, less the accused, goes into the Bean Bag Room to deliberate and come to a unanimous decision.

All but one learner took the stand and the stories remained consistent with the exception of the snowball being thrown or dropped. As I sat there listening, I knew it was strike-worthy behavior. As the Head of School, I began to feel nervous that the learners wouldn’t award the strike because they liked Ben and looked to him as a leader. He had crossed the line again, and it wasn’t O.K. I saw the fear, pain, and regret in his face and it broke my heart as his mom. 

The group left to deliberate and return with a verdict. They were in there for about 15 minutes. During that time, my stomach was in knots. I knew what needed to be done. Could I trust the learners to make the right decision and protect their tribe? Maybe I shouldn’t have given them that power. This was clearly a strike. In just a few minutes, I might be telling my son that he was no longer welcome at the school we built for him. 

The door to the Bean Bag Room opened and each learner came out with their heads hanging low, sadness in their faces, and heaviness on their shoulders. “It’s a strike” whispered one of them to me as they walked by. We gathered back in a circle and I announced their decision. Ben immediately turned and sobbed, followed by his brother Henry, Brian, and me. The adventure and journey that our family had set forth upon was now leaving a key player behind. Our hearts were broken.

One by one, each learner broke down. You could see how difficult it was for each of them to make this decision. Henry had to abstain from voting because he knew what the strike meant for Ben. It took a tremendous amount of courage from each one of these Heroes to choose to protect the sanctity of the tribe over the feelings of a friend. Through the tears, Brian and I felt a deep sense of pride for the tribe in witnessing how far they had come in six months. 

We believe that everything happens for the highest good of all those involved. The intensity of this experience will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the foundation of this school in the most positive way. Through the darkness is where we see the brightest light. We are only a few days into this new reality, but the wisdom from this experience and the trust in the vision of our school continue to reveal the light pulling us through this vulnerable and raw moment in time.

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