When I started working with Middle School Friends in an official capacity I immediately realized that the work was both exciting and exhausting. Spending Friday night and Saturday morning amongst 25+ middle schoolers means living life at a louder decibel level. Even when there is relative calm, like during worship sharing, the presence of so many people within a set area wears me down. I want to seek silence, and I want to be alone. But until this year, I didn’t think the middle schoolers themselves felt the same way.
During a feedback period that the middle schoolers run during our business meeting at the end of every gathering a seventh grader raised her hand. “What if we had some time just to be quiet and read a book or spend time away from the rest of the group?” she said. I was surprised when I saw many nodding heads and looks of approval. I added a 30 minute block of silent self/decompression time to the schedule for the next gathering.
During the interim period I worked to think of a set of rules for what constitutes silent self-time. What activities would be ok and not ok? Could one play with a ball? Take a nap? Go on one’s phone?
The question of technology felt especially interesting. Generally middle schoolers are asked to leave their phones in their bags unless they’re using them to listen to personal music to fall asleep or to play music for the group through our speaker system during free time periods. There is a culture of respect around the rule, and I very rarely see cellphones out at inappropriate times. I decided to allow cellphone use during silent self-time so that middle schoolers could read books play games on their phones. I see silent self-time as an opportunity to decompress from the intense group environment, especially for middle schoolers who identify as introverts. I think escaping to the fantasy world of a book or a game as similar means to the same end. I also think that allowing everyone to have an opportunity to make a phone call or text folks from the outside world for a short period of time during the gathering as a useful tool for folks to check in with the people that are important to them whom they might normally see or talk to during the weekend.
I decided that silent self-time consisted of everyone doing an individual activity while not making enough noise to disturb the people around them.
It has been extremely popular, and always receives high praise during gathering evaluations. At this point I have extended silent self-time to a 45 minute period during most gatherings, usually shortly after lunch. Some participants nap, some read a book, some get on their phones or play solitaire, others practice a skill, or walk around the meetinghouse quietly.
It hasn’t been perfect, at the last gathering we heard feedback that a group had gone down to the stream (with an adult chaperone) with the intention of having silent self-time by the water. When they got there, they were unable to contain their excitement in an individual activity and became a non-silent group. Their recommendation that groups not be allowed to wander to interesting places together during silent self-time was a reminder of how much value they place on the activity.