This past weekend, I had an adventure. I raced on Saturday in the United States Association of Track & Field’s Masters Cross Country Championships race in Tallahassee, FL. I was part of a team from the Garden State Track Club, and the team was competing with others from around the country in the race. I planned on flying in Friday night, but my flight from Newark to Charlotte was delayed, and I missed my connection to Tallahassee. Even though I am only now getting my fitness back after an extended injury lay-off, I chose to enter the race so that our team was complete (five runners are required to complete a cross country team) and could score in the meet.
When I missed my connection, though my teammates encouraged me to fly back home and miss the race, I felt I needed to be there for the team. So, I rented a car and drove all night (I took a two-hour nap in a rest stop south of Macon, GA.) I arrived about an hour before the race and was able to run. Happily, our team won the race, and I was the fifth man.
As humans, one of our most important traits and needs is belonging. Feeling a part of a group, a team, or a community both forms interpersonal connections and deepens the desire to be further connected. In fact, there are also chemical reasons that belonging is important, as increased oxytocin is linked with a sense of belonging. For the ages we at EMS teach, this sense of belonging is perhaps even more important because it is during childhood - particularly in the later year of childhood from third through eighth grade - when children’s senses of identity are largely formed. That sense of identity, an essential part of maturation connected with puberty and with increased independence, grows healthiest when the individual has ample connections and points of belonging.
It is for this knowledge that we at EMS have designed our program to be broad and full of opportunities for students to find belonging. From morning meeting in our lower school classrooms to advisory in the middle school, students’ days begin in small groups designed to encourage cohesion and camaraderie. Then, the sheer range of options our students can choose at various points of their day further these opportunities for belonging. Middle school students at EMS, unlike their peers in many other schools, can play an instrument and sing in a chorus and act in a play and write for the school newspaper and play on a sports team and be on Student Council - all simultaneously. In addition to planting the seeds that may someday become lifelong passions, these activities provide several opportunities for students to feel more connected and more engaged with one another and with goals. Such belonging encourages healthy maturation, and we at EMS are very intentional in designing a program that is thoughtful of child development on several levels.
Sometime during the wee hours Saturday morning, somewhere in South Carolina or Georgia, knowing that what I was doing was irrational and yet having no doubts that it was the right decision, I reflected on the power of belonging we carry with us well beyond our formative years. That makes the experiences of belonging from those childhood years all the more important. After running the race and helping the team to a successful outcome, I felt even better about the whole ordeal, even if I am still recovering my sleep!