A Student and Her Exhibition: One Teacher’s Portrait

by Peggy Silva, Souhegan High School, Amherst, New Hampshire

Peggy Silva, an English teacher at Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire, followed several students’ experiences closely in the process of writing a book about this Essential school founded in 1992. Here she describes a student preparing for the Division One Exhibition Souhegan requires midway through the high school career, a rite of passage at which tenth-grade students present work at a roundtable before family, teachers, and friends.

Alyce slouched, smoked, gossiped, cut classes, and fought with her parents. She became annoyed when teachers recognized flashes of brilliance-when she wrote an exquisite line of poetry, or when she became Mayella Ewell in the courtroom scene of To Kill A Mockingbird. Alyce was locked in a power struggle with her parents that prevented her succeeding in high school. Dad was a college professor; what better way to stick it to him than to fail at academia?

“Helping Alyce to prepare for her Division One exhibition was almost impossible,” according to her adviser, John Dowd, who coached her through the preparation for this rite of passage. “When questioned about behavior or missing work, she became very upset and acted badly. It was hard to have a substantive conversation with her because she always walked away, but when I could get her attention, she could acknowledge the truth of what I said. The one saving grace is that we both knew that she would eventually have to sit across a table from me and her parents, and discuss her work. She hated that.”

“I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t like it at all,” Alyce responds. “I didn’t want to be in school. . . . Truthfully, no adviser would have made a difference to me, but I focused a lot of anger on John.”

The night before her Roundtable, Alyce says, “My mom, two friends and I were frantically pulling work together, and I could see that I had been a complete jerk. I had the work I needed-it pissed me off when I realized that, because I had spent so much time running away from it.

“It was tough. My mom was late, and it was awful waiting. I was so nervous. I was really freaking out because I knew it was going to be a lousy time. I couldn’t have done it without my peer advocate. She just kept calming me down. My letter to my Roundtable was good because I can write and express myself well, but mostly, I just wanted to get through. And, in the end, I did. I passed.” Alyce’s mother remembers vividly the days leading up to Alyce’s Division One Exhibition:

“Alyce was almost paralyzed by nerves as she tried to organize her work. I was struck by the way her friends responded-not that they had responded, but that she had asked for help. There was so much activity; the dining room table was covered, the kitchen was filled with Alyce’s stuff. Those days, she just kept saying over and over that she was not going to make it. But she did.

“I was blown away by her Roundtable. I didn’t fully appreciate what it meant to her to have to gather herself like that in front of teachers and parents and friends. This was so big. I was struck by how poised she was, despite her nerves.”

Alyce’s dad was also impressed by her friends’ participation at her Roundtable. “It was so effective to formalize the role of a student advocate,” he says.

Alyce impressed her Roundtable panel with her dignity and composure as she engaged in a difficult conversation about the choices she made throughout her high school experience. She laughs today as a friend calls her a soap opera, full of high drama and rolling eyes. She is also very honest in her assessment of herself. She credits John Dowd as “one of the major contributors of my entire experience. I feel terrible when I think about how mean I was to him, how unwilling I was to help myself, but he continued to pull for me. My guidance counselor is great, and my freshman English teacher has stuck with me for four years of my being crazy.

“The thing that frustrates me most is that I brought most of the bad stuff on myself. Anger almost destroyed me, and when I finally woke up at the start of my senior year, I told the Dean of Students that I recognized I wasn’t giving him much to go on. I want to get it done, however, I want to leave this school. . . . I did connect in a couple of science courses. I hated Conservation Biology at first, but Melissa finally threw me in the river, and I discovered that I loved the work and the science of living things.

“My parents and I don’t argue about school anymore. I learned that it’s going to make my parents feel better if I let them help me, and they learned it is going to make me feel better if they don’t help me too much.”

Alyce says that her “transcript looks like crap,” and that her future is hostage to choices she made in high school. She plans to go to a local branch of the state university to build her grade point average. She makes eye contact when she talks about life after high school. She seems to have finished fighting with herself.

The Division One Exhibition was a highpoint in a low year for Alyce, and her happy ending is still in progress. After a disastrous junior year, Alyce began to focus on her learning. Her senior project, according to her mother, is a highly personal topic. “She has decided to study nutrition because she has always had a nervous stomach. It seems to me that her choice of topic is a sign that she is trying to take charge of herself in a positive way, in order to know herself better.”