A Walk Down Memory Lane: What We Can Learn From Transfers Out of the Class of 2019

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A Walk Down Memory Lane: What We Can Learn From Transfers Out of the Class of 2019

The human pyramid is a fun and bonding tradition of freshmen orientation.

The human pyramid is a fun and bonding tradition of freshmen orientation.

The human pyramid is a fun and bonding tradition of freshmen orientation.

The human pyramid is a fun and bonding tradition of freshmen orientation.

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The beginning of every Marin Academy student’s experience starts the same way. In a human pyramid with nine other incoming freshmen. Each student, wide-eyed, feeling the same anxieties and hopes for the next four years, staring at the other ninety-nine kids in the room, most them strangers, wondering who is destined to be their friend. It’s a coming of age moment, and in their eyes, the beginning of the rest of their lives.


Now surrounded by kids who look as though they range from age twelve to twenty-four, these freshmen are once again at the bottom of the food chain. And while it may not be true, they feel as if they are the newest spectacle of the high school scene, bringing the pressure to reinvent themselves and play into the vicious game of popularity.


And while coming to a brand new school surrounded by fresh faces may be reliving for some, for many, adds a whole new dimension of stress, putting the pressure on incoming students to be their most likable selves, often times severing the student from their former self-perception. The stakes are high and they feel as though all eyes are on them, and at a school like MA, every student with grapples with the question of, “why am I here?” at some point or another.


And while they may question their abilities, no one is more certain of their place at MA than Trent Nutting, MA’s Director of Admissions. In his mind, each and every incoming student has a lifetime chock-full of identity shaping moments behind them, making them the perfect candidates for MA. After the former eighth graders finish pouring their heart, souls, and smarts into their applications, Nutting and the rest of the admissions team are in charge navigating the mountains of SSAT scores, GPAs, essays, and teacher recommendations to create, as Nutting describes, “the most interesting class possible”.


Every year, the MA admissions team reads through hundreds of applications to find students who “demonstrate an ability to work through a challenge”, who show “resilience and grit” while also maintaining a “community of deep and intentional diversity.” And while this task is daunting, and often a grueling process for everyone involved, the admissions team does it admirably well, boasting only a “1.3 percent attrition rate.”  Compare that to 5 percent NAIS national average and the MA admissions team definitely deserves an A.


But, as Nutting notes, “it’s not an exact science…you’re putting all those pieces together and doing your best guesswork…but it’s hard to predict because when you apply you’re like 13 years old.”  While the admissions team does their best to create a holistic application process, between interviews, test scores, written statements, among many, many other factors, adolescence is a complex time, and sometimes “life happens.” And for those 1.3 percent, it did.  


“I don’t think one high school can teach you how to be and how to think,” former MA student Michael Duncan proclaims after much thought. Duncan is wise beyond his age. It didn’t take the Class of 2019 very long to figure that out. In conversing with Duncan and listening to his eloquent and compassionate manner, any member of the class of 2019 can be taken back to memories of Duncan spitting out obscure facts and dates in Modern World History, gathering classmates around his desk to show his proofs to the infamous Geometry Honors Special Problems, and his skilled acting in the beloved mockumentary, “The Academy.” During his short stint at MA, it was clear that Duncan had left a large impact on those around him.


Though learning to carry on without Duncan was difficult for the class of 2019, they were soon overwhelmed with their new role as sophomores. However, for Duncan, the choice to leave MA for The Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut is a decision that he still wrestles with to this day: “I kind of had this dilemma. I was really happy at MA, things were going well for me, all my classes were interesting, but I also had this opportunity to jump into this unknown environment. And I can’t say that if I didn’t go that I would be losing a lot of opportunities and that kind of sucks. In the past three years, I’ve thought a lot about it.”


Duncan loved both the community and the potential opportunities, mentioning a particular interest in the MARC program. Although Duncan can’t quite figure out the tangible reasons for why he left MA, he points to this pressing teenage issue of identity as a large factor in informing his decision to attend boarding school in the fall of 2016: “I left because of nothing to do with MA. I think it was somewhat related to myself. Trying to figure who I defined myself as and who I wanted to be. I don’t know. It was a pressure I put on myself with the idea that boarding school and the opportunities that come with that are better or that if I do go I would be making the most of whatever I could do. ”


Visiting MA and bringing back old memories of his time at the school take a toll on Duncan, as he thinks about what could’ve been: “It was tough, emotionally, to realize that MA is a great school, a great place, with great people and I think I could’ve been really happy there.” Although Duncan misses MA, he sheds some optimism on his boarding school experience and finding that personal resolve he was initially seeking: “When it’s all said and done, boarding school was a great experience and I think I learned a lot from it. I wasn’t really about what I learned academically, but more about identity. Like who I am, how I approach learning, what it is that I like.”


Not quite knowing your place in the midst of so much newness,  is a sentiment MA senior Livie McLeod relates to.  McLeod, like Duncan and many others, spent her freshman year trying to find where she fit in at her new school.  However, unlike Duncan, McLeod decided to try her luck in the new environment and stay at MA.


Seated outside the annex, McLeod blocks the too bright sun as she shrugs and reflects on the past three years,  “I felt like the culture at MA was very one-sided…most of the kids come from similar backgrounds and like the same things.  They like the same music, they dress the same…I guess I just felt like I was different.” Her concerns towards the perceived monotony of the student body directly contrasts with the goals of the admissions team and McLeod isn’t the only person who lived this experience.


Smith fondly recounts memories of walking down to Moonlight Deli during lunch, taking a Hip-hop class with Nicole Klaymoon, and bantering with his classmates between classes with a chuckle. Smith always felt that MA was the right fit for him. He felt like belonged on campus, but with a competitive ski schedule that took up most of his time, Smith needed an environment that would balance academics with competitive skiing and found the transition to a boarding school quite easy.

Cameron Smith spends most of his time on the slopes- one of the primary motivators to his transfer


However, upon reflecting on his time at MA, Smith began to realize that there were some aspects of the school that just didn’t sit well with him. He always felt that he was different from the type of student that he claims MA molds: “The one thing that bothered me was that there’s a culture where everyone’s so politically and, and like everyone’s so aligned that if you speak differently or you wear stuff differently, people don’t like that,” Smith explains with some vigor.


Like Smith, Amer felt MA wasn’t a perfect place. When she first saw our text asking her for an interview, she wanted to ignore it, much like she chooses to ignore the memories from her two years at MA. “It’s hard cause I don’t like that version of me. I try to avoid discussing it with people and stuff like that at all costs, ‘cause like anything that reminds me of it, is just so frustrating.” She continues by admitting why she chose to accept the interview, “Forgiveness is key. I shouldn’t resent everything about my experience.”


Through her freshman and sophomore year, she constantly struggled with the immense amount of social anxiety that comes with starting any new school, especially one that holds their students to a very high standard. She recalls her own perception of herself when at MA: “ I felt like a complete fraud there… I felt like while I was there I thought I was just this token kid. I thought that was the only reason I was there…” Amer’s questions of who she was relative to MA is not uncommon among students. And while this is something that affects the majority of students at one point or another, Amer attributes this struggle to her “deteriorating mental health,” something that contributed heavily to her choice to transfer.


From MA, Amer went to Redwood hoping a public school education would better fit her, “I think the reason that I probably drifted towards public schools was because the entire time that I was at Marin Academy, and basically all of high school, my whole goal was to just disappear entirely.” While MA prides itself on “seeing” their students, Amer is a prime example of how these principles are not a fit for everyone.She recalls not fitting in and feeling pressure to be outgoing and make friends, just because everyone else was. “I would have these like different friend groups… and I wasn’t friends with any of them. I would just stay with them. It was a really weird situation. I wouldn’t hang out with people, I didn’t like to talk to people, but I was very talkative.”

Laila Amer (Left).The first discussions of freshmen orientation, were somewhat coerced but ultimately a valuable memory for all members of the class of ’19.


However, through her transfer process and the rest of her high school experience, Amer has been able to take a removed glance at Marin Academy and has come to realize that comparison to others is inevitable, and while it can be hugely detrimental, is also a necessary tool for navigating adolescence. “I think now, like looking back on my time, I see that I am just as capable as a lot of these people who I was constantly comparing myself to, which I think it was a really important place for me to get to like to understand that just because I was in this like headspace or I was having this hard time, it’s not definitive of who I am.” She acknowledges that every high schooler questions who they are and self confidence is hard to come by, especially when surrounded by your peers who are advertised as “outstanding” and “gifted.”


For Ava Cerciello, her time at Marin Academy served as a bump in the road to finding her individuality. Cerciello’s points to many different factors that led to her transfer from Marin Academy just one semester into freshman year: her parents’ separation, medical issues, commute. However what truly drove Cerciello to leave behind some of her closest friends was something that came from within, something she realized about the development of her individuality after much self-reflection. Ava recounts, “I just noticed that there needed to be a change because I wasn’t like, I wasn’t growing like my friends were, it just wasn’t the right.”

Ava Cerciello found herself not growing as quickly as peers during her freshmen year.


Cerciello couldn’t quite put her finger on why her individual growth was lacking in comparison to her peers at MA, but it was not until Cerciello set foot on Sonoma Academy’s campus as as second semester freshman where she was able to understand how MA fell short of her individual needs. Cerciello explains, “I don’t know, for me, the community at Sonoma Academy is just more close than at MA. I don’t necessarily know how or why. I think there are a lot of different kids that go to SA than MA’s just from like socioeconomic standpoint.”


Throughout her interview, Cerciello often prefaced her statements with the phrase, “I don’t know.” It was her way of touching upon the subjectivity and confusion that exists within the high school process. For some students MA is the perfect environment, a place where they can truly grow, make friends, and thrive academically. But for Cerciello and many others, MA is a place that heightens adolescent fears and anxieties, especially when classmates and peers are seemingly more advanced, put-together, or comfortable in their individualities.


Learning to reconcile these realities and perceptions of the MA community as simultaneously “dynamic” and “diverse” as Nutting describes it, and “one-sided” and “uniform” as some current and former students describe it, requires recognizing the limited scope of admissions and the challenges of adolescence.  These sentiments, however, do not represent a failure on the part of admissions or the school, they represent a need for space for students to tackle the academic and extracurricular opportunities this school has to offer while also offering space for reflection on personal identity.


Lynne Hansen, Marin Academy’s Dean of Students, does not sugarcoat the fact that MA may not be the right fit for students. Playing a large role in facilitating the transferring process, both in and out of MA, Hansen believes that there are three main driving factors of students leaving: family-related issues (such as divorce and moving homes), academic rigor, and social reasons. With an unapologetic shrug, Hansen explains, “We can’t make this school less challenging. But we can help them maybe think about ways that they can work smarter instead of just harder.”


Hansen is business as usual, hands remain neatly folded on her lap, as we probe her with some of the concerns former members of the Class of 2019 had with the school. The issues of conformity and diversity were brought up as potential reasons for why members of the Class of 2019 transferred. Our questions were met with a smile and a shrug. Hansen simply just doesn’t know what goes on in a student’s mind in terms of their social life and culture: “Sometimes kids transfer for social reasons. They just don’t feel like this school has the kind of diversity or the kinds of kids that they feel comfortable being friends with. Like, I don’t know what that means and I think there are a lot of different kinds of kids here, but for whatever reason, they just haven’t made the connection,” Hansen discusses.


Hansen has seen her fair share of students struggling to adjust to the MA’s academic rigor and community, but the lack of grace in their transition stems from a certain insecurity regarding teenagers and their identities. Between questioning their values and their academic worth, students end up inhibiting themselves. Hansen claims that the process of finding one’s identity is a challenge for a lot of high school students and echos Amer’s sentiment of how comparison is unavoidable: “Actually a lot of teenagers really, while they know that that’s something that they need to do, it’s not, it’s not necessarily a pleasant activity, right. To challenge yourself and to look at yourself in terms of the context of other people.”

From the first day of freshman year to the first day of senior year, the class of ’19 has grown into a community of compassionate young people.


Although MA’s curriculum prides itself on fostering the identities of its young scholars, Hansen recognizes that there are students who feel the need to disengage with the process of finding oneself, “And so it’s easy to say, I don’t really want to find my identity. I just want it to happen to me. I don’t want to have to question and look at other people to determine. I just wanted just kind of float through it and just let, why can’t I just be myself and not have to question if I really truly am the person I am.”


This idea of disengaging with oneself is not necessarily an MA issue rather an issue of adolescence and confusion. Some teens want to avoid self-reflections and Hansen speaks on behalf of the school when she says “That’s cool. You know, if that’s the way you want to determine your identity, then that’s your choice. I don’t want to force that on anyone.” MA works to give students a place to grow and search for themselves and encourages them to be proactive when it comes to starting that search. However, it’s up to the students to take the reigns and sometimes, their search will take them far from MA. Amer shares some wise words as she of what she has learned through her high school experience:  “Everything in the moment feels really weighted and like it’s the end of the world… but at the end of the day I realized that things are not permanent, they can change. I’m not defined by these moments.”


Initially we looked to the stories of the transfers out of the Class of 2019 to teach us about how our school and our community could grow, but rather, they serve as a reminder that finding who you are is no easy feat, but through experience we can learn to learn from mistakes and weed out the meaningful moments from the insignificant ones.