It’s mid-September. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Mr. Sauer’s third floor classroom you can see the first flickers of fall color speckling the green canopy below. Class is over, and senior Peter Shaffer grabs his books, ready to move on to the next class.
"Shaffer," Mr. Sauer stops him. "I have something for you."
Kris Sauer, English teacher and assistant cross country coach, slips a white envelope into Peter’s hands. "I don’t know what’s in it," he says.
Peter looks at the envelope, confused. It’s a letter from former cross country and track teammate, Chris Schold, written four years earlier and filed away in Mr. Sauer’s cabinet for safe keeping. Today Chris studies economics at St. Olaf and is preparing for his upcoming position at Optum, but during these four years the letter made a trek from the rubble of the old building, to Mendota, and finally to Mr. Sauer’s new classroom.
"What is this about?" Peter wonders.
Peter Shaffer just before qualifying for State.
Later that evening, when Peter opens the letter at home, he understands. Mr. Sauer often gives his students the opportunity to write a letter to their future selves. Four years after they graduate, he mails those letters back to the students so they can see and remember the wishes they had for themselves on the cusp of leaving MA.
Chris Schold, however, chose not to write to himself, but to write to Peter, who was just in eighth grade at the time.
Now a senior, Peter opens the letter to find words of encouragement and an exhortation to continue forward in excellence. "I was surprised at how much he noticed about me in seventh and eighth grade, and that he thought to write to me about it," Peter shares, adding that he felt humbled to be on the receiving end of such a gesture.
For his part, Chris considered just doing the assignment and writing to himself, but, "I started to think about how this assignment could actually be used to bring greater good to the team."
Peter's positive attitude and willingness to "stick with it" when things got tough impressed Chris throughout their time in cross country. "I wanted to let him know that he was a great student and athlete and it was a pleasure to get to know him. It seemed like a good way to finish out the year and make an impact on someone else."
Chris’s decision exemplifies a key value that staff and faculty at MA hope to nurture throughout the community: Considering the needs and feelings of others, and how you can be part of making someone else's life better.
In a world where popular media and culture often glorify self promotion, faculty continually challenge students to consider how their actions and choices impact not only themselves but also those around them.
Each teacher has his or her own way of offering this challenge throughout the school year. If you step into fifth grade teacher Nichole De Haven’s class early in the year, you might catch her working on the Class Constitution with her students.
"How do you want others to treat you this year?" she asks her students. "What are your hopes for the ways others do or don't interact with you?"
The students brainstorm a list together that goes up on the whiteboard.
"Do you notice anything interesting about this list?" Ms. De Haven asks the group.
Inevitably students start to recognize that their peers hold similar hopes and values (kindness, truth telling, etc.) as themselves. This revelation plants seeds of empathy and nudges students to consider how their words or actions may impact their peers.
Fifth grader Katie Jane shares this realization: "It’s important to hear other people’s ideas and what they have to say. I don’t want someone to ignore me when I’m talking, so I should respect them when they are talking."
As they work through these values, the students develop a Class Constitution—a series of agreements they make for how they want to treat each other.
"It’s really helpful to have their wording, not just mine," says De Haven, noting that the process gives the students a sense of ownership. The class then agrees as a community to "uphold the Constitution" that they’ve created.
Random Acts of Kindness
Middle School Counselor Sarah Rothstein also works hard to reinforce the community values on campus. Herself a transplant to Minnehaha with experience in two public school districts, she shares that she’s witnessed firsthand the uniqueness of the Minnehaha culture.
"I’ve never worked in a school where for the most part kids tell you the truth, and when they make a mistake and they own it," she says.
Rothstein is quick to clarify that Middle School students at MA aren’t perfect, and they definitely aren’t immune to the many quirky friendship dramas and behavior issues adolescents are famous for, but, she says, "As a whole the kids here really want to do the right thing. Although they make mistakes, they own them; although they have friendship troubles, they want to work them out."
Wanting to reinforce the good she already saw happening as well as broaden students’ ideas about serving and loving others, Ms. Rothstein instituted the Random Acts of Kindness board. Each year she writes out cards that recommend ways to serve others or help others feel safe and included in school. Over the course of a number of weeks, students chose cards from the board and then report back on what they did.
Some examples include:
- "I let someone go in front of me in line."
- "I told someone that I was thankful for her because she always makes me laugh."
- "I helped babysit for my neighbors."
Serving Others With Our Bodies
Even in the more unexpected places, like physical education class, instructors work with students on developing an awareness of others.
On a blustery Wednesday morning in October, fourth graders from Jordan Fitch’s phy-ed class toted rakes as big as themselves into a yard just a few blocks from the school. After a brief prayer for their time together and the family who owned the home, the students got to work pushing leaves into piles and then bagging them up.
In all, students served six neighborhood families through raking this fall.
"I’ve been trying to teach our PE students that our bodies aren’t just here to serve our needs alone, but that we are called to serve God and serve others with this gift that we’ve been given," shares Mr. Fitch.
Students praying for the people whose yards they would be raking that day.
Before raking he shared this scripture to help set the tone:
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (Mathew 25:35-36)
While Fitch loves sports and loves the growth that comes from learning to be part of a team or to push oneself physically, underneath everything he wants students to connect their faith with all aspects of life.
"I would love students to see everything they do in PE as an opportunity to serve God and to honor Him," he says, reaffirming that a primary way we serve God is to serve others. "Raking was a unique experience to do that."
While these examples are just a few of the many ways faculty encourage students towards an awareness of and empathy for those around them, they typify an undergirding mindset seen in classrooms across campus.
Upper School Spanish instructor Anne Calvin notes, "Ultimately it’s about being the body of Christ. We call out the good in our students but we also name the things that are undesirable such as, 'that doesn’t have any place here.' The desire is to have an environment that is Christ-like, where the Holy Spirit is present. It’s not just a poster on the wall, but it’s rooted in something much deeper and more profound in how we view one another, that we do bear the image of God."