A Space that Valued Us

I went to a large, elite, suburban, and competitive public high school. While I excelled, the culture wasn’t “deliberate,” the way Kinhaven’s was. It didn’t feel okay to be as smart as I was, particularly as a girl, and jealousy and competition were excessive. In my class of four hundred I was an unknown – and I didn’t want to be known. I didn’t know my principal and had never seen her. (Some of us joked she didn’t exist outside of the disembodied voice on the intercom.) The school promoted a narrow vision of what it meant to be successful, and I hated it for that.

For the most part I lived for my summers. I knew I wasn’t Juilliard material, but it didn’t matter, because at Kinhaven I felt the opposite of what I’ve just described. I felt known and celebrated, but not at the expense of others. Yes, there were high standards, and you knew who the best musicians were, but it wasn’t competitive, it was more aspirational. I felt whole there, and I held on to that feeling all year long. I thought, “There is an alternative to this reality where I’m always being measured. It won’t always be the way it feels in our school.” We had found at Kinhaven a space that valued us. 

I loved music and I still do. But the culture around classical music in the Boston area, mirrored my high school experience. I was a medium fish in a large pond where many were intent on pursuing music careers. My relationship to music at Kinhaven was so much healthier. I felt skillful and accomplished, and I strived to make the best music I could with my peers. I was susceptible to internalizing the pressures to compete, and Kinhaven freed me from that. I practiced at Kinhaven, but because I cared, not because of pressure. I wanted my relation to music to stay as pure as possible, and Kinhaven gave me a window into what that could be. 

Kinhaven changed my life for the better in all kinds of ways. We ate, played sports, got sweaty, went barefoot, had messy hair, chose not to wear makeup, and were celebrated. It felt collectivist: the whole was better than the parts. It wasn’t about shining as first violin as much as the shining collective experience of making this music. In this sense, Kinhaven is utopian. It has those qualities – the collective culture, the sense of belonging, the idea that what we’re producing together is bigger than what any single one of us could do on our own – that capitalizes on all the assets each of us brought. 

All kids should experience something like Kinhaven in at least some domain of their lives.

Sarah Fine (violin, Sr ’98–’00) is a faculty member at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education and a lecturer at the University of California, San Diego. Her new book, co-authored with Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Jal Mehta, is “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.”

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