As the first chapter of A YEAR AT MISSION HILL plays across the internet, I am thinking back to the first time we walked into the school. The imposing building, meant to house a high school, spoke of earlier times, of desks in rigid rows. But within a minute of entering, a child had asked us if we needed any help. She did so with such a casual sense of ownership that we knew this school was kin to our own.
We had been invited to visit the school by its principal, Ayla Gavins, after she watched a rough-cut of AUGUST TO JUNE. Feedback from that rough-cut session included “Is there some way to incorporate into the film that this is possible beyond your rural community?” After a morning at Mission Hill, seeing so many resemblances in such a different setting, we decided to seek out photos of similar schools from all over the country, hoping that would do the trick.
But we realized as we started screening AUGUST TO JUNE that people needed to see more than just a few photos of urban schools. They wanted depth. We called Ayla and asked if anyone was making a movie about Mission Hill. Next thing we knew, we were.
Mission Hill folks have been under the microscope before. The adults and many of the students took our presence in stride. Once the youngest ones had a chance to try on our headphones and look through the camera, and the oldest ones understood they could tell us if they didn’t want to be filmed, we mainly faded into the background. But it’s one thing to film a single class close to home in a place you know well, and another to travel across the country every few months, to cover an entire school community. We were like kids in a candy shop—everything looked so inviting! Where should we focus? How could we capture the essence?
In Chapter One you hear Ayla say “What we are setting out to do is not rare, but that the environment supports what we do, that’s what seems to be rare, these days anyway.” After a week of watching the teachers help each other prepare for the start of school, we knew that presenting what contributes to a supportive environment would become a major theme. Besides showing children and teachers interacting, we would need to show the way adults talk to each other, the way the lines of authority merge. There was much more that we would discover as we continued, and that I look forward to sharing here as the weeks go by and new chapters appear.
The image that starts the series, of middle-schoolers rowing long boats in Boston Harbor, is one I am so glad we caught. I am captivated by this bouncy group on the cusp of full blown adolescence (who were sometimes as difficult to keep together as a herd of cats) working, if not always “as one,” with that spirit in mind. And I loved seeing their little boats heading in the opposite direction from a huge coast guard clipper, with them waving cheerfully, completely in their element in Boston Harbor. It is a good omen for all of us who would like to move the discussion about the role of public schools in our time away from talking about standardized testing and uniformity, and towards the goal John Dewey described one hundred years ago, of developing young people capable of “creative, reflective, responsible thought”.