When Sophia Schaefer ’12, Fiona Bundy ’12, and Madison Fulcher-Melendy ’12 (pictured above, left to right) met in the kindergarten wing of the Campus School, they had no idea that their friendship would carry into college. Learning to finger paint and tie their shoes, the girls became swift companions: racing each other on scooters in gym class; learning to serve a volleyball; dancing together, at their sixth grade talent show, to a hip hop song that hinted of adolescence. Now seniors at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, MA, the girls’ bond holds strong. In a few months, each will begin their careers as collegiate lacrosse players, modeling leadership and excellence in a sport that has strengthened their identities as students, athletes, and friends.
As their teammates ran laps around the turf of Sawyer Field, I met with this SCCS trio to talk about the past and future. “We’re best friends outside of all of it,” Fiona shared with a smile. “We’ve had so many years together, and you can see it on the field. We always know where each other are, and there’s a connection that’s kind of indescribable.”
Preparing to enter Bowdoin College as midfielders, Sophia and Fiona will stick together while Madison, also a midfielder, will venture to Williams in the fall. The girls, who began their lacrosse careers on a Northampton recreational team while attending the Campus School, now captain WNS varsity lacrosse—a team that, under the guidance of Jen Fulcher (Middle School Head and a proud parent of Madison), ranks as one of the top prep school teams in New England, according to LaxPower.
Of their Campus School days, the girls recall being “so competitive and so into [gym class].” “We all liked going to school,” Sophia shared, to which Fiona added: “We loved to have that opportunity throughout the day to have fun and play sports.”
All three athletes cite Mr. Messinger, physical education teacher at SCCS, as having a formative influence on their careers. “He was always so supportive,” they recalled. Madison emphasized, “The teachers [at the Campus School] really supported us as people. They wanted to be there and were really invested in our educational and personal growth.”
Now in his thirty-third year at the Campus School, Scott Messinger remains an integral part of the Campus School community, offering unique perspective on the growth of alumni athletes. Sitting in his gymnasium office amidst hula-hoops and plastic lacrosse sticks, he spoke of the girls with pride, saying: “Above all, they were really good people. They showed compassion and empathy to everybody. There’s a saying that ‘small actions repeated overtime transforms people,’ and they played all the time… always [found] joy in unstructured play. They didn’t realize that they were practicing [important] skills, but that’s what they were doing.”
Pictured: Scott Messinger readies his class for soccer drills.
Today, Scott frames Fiona, Madison, and Sophia as examples for young students: “In class, they practiced hard. They were competitive, but they were fair. They always honored the game and made it a good game for everybody. I use their story for kids who are here, because when they were here they didn’t know this was going to happen. They showed signs… they each had their own style. Madison was more technical; Sophia was running people off of the ball, really tough; and Fiona was fast… she was a runner, and she still is. But who knew!”
One finds much resonance between these childhood stories and Jen Fulcher’s current descriptions of the girls’ skills: “Sophia is a talented offensive player and a terrific defender. She is great on ground balls—a real leader there. Madison and Fiona are both extremely dangerous with the ball, but they also create options for other teammates on the field. They are all positive leaders who lead by example… They bring their best selves every day, as people and athletes, and everyone [who] comes in contact with them are better for it. They’re humble and all about the team. They also have great senses of humor; they’re fun and goofy.”
In reflecting on success, however, it is equally important to think about process. “When they were here, we did a lot of direct skill work,” Scott said of the physical education curriculum. “They had fundamental movement. These kids could move; they were agile; and their physical literacy was good. They didn’t shy away from anything they couldn’t do; if they made a mistake, they thought, ‘I can do better than that.’ We put those skills into small games—thinking about what a skill is, how [one develops] a skill—and they were very good at reading environments. All invasion games have similar basic concepts: football, hockey, soccer, lacrosse… have the same basic concepts: running behind people’s backs, [learning] how to get open, how to pass, how to move forward, how to defend. The girls played so many different games that they had all of those [skills] in place. They could read the game and make quick decisions. It was time on task.”
Currently, Scott is researching the psychological side of sports, infusing into his curricular practices an emphasis on growth mindsets and healthful risk-taking—skills that Sophia, Fiona, and Madison have exhibited in the face of unpredictability on the field:
“One of my focuses is mindsets and self-talk. I’m researching brain development and mistakes with kids, how mistakes help your brain grow, and I piloted this program at the end of last year with sixth graders about how self-talk matters, trying to get them to understand that mistakes help them grow. I showed a quick video [to this year’s sixth graders] on brain development and mistakes, and it showed the neurons—how they light up, how you make connections, how myelination occurs. I have another video about fear, the amygdala, and how to overcome your fears; how, when you feel these feelings, you just have to dance with them… I want to get into peer-to-peer feedback, because it turns out, from the research that I’ve seen, what the kids tell each other is more important than what anybody else tells them.”
The second pillar of Scott’s research reflects psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development,” or ZPD— the notion that learning is optimized when we are on the cusp of our abilities, using what we know to boost us into new territories and growth. In kid lingo, Scott translates this idea by encouraging students to work on “the edge of [their] capabilities.” “I do a line, a continuum of competency,” he said:
“Here’s a beginner, and here’s an expert, and everybody is on this line—I don’t care who you are, you’re on it. The idea is that you want to move forward from wherever you are, so you have to find the edge of your comfort zone and capabilities and work there, and sometimes jump out of it. Sometimes jump back in, and stay there. But know where that edge is. I always say that whatever negative thing you’re telling yourself in your head, you have to add the word yet—‘Oh, I can’t do this… yet.’ And the kids are starting to figure out that, chances are, if somebody is better than you at something, it’s just because they have spent more time doing it. I want everybody to feel confident enough to stay physically active. I always tell them ‘just say yes,’ if somebody asks you to play, just say yes. These skills [help kids think about how] you deal with unpredictability. That’s something that Fiona, Madison, and Sophia were great at. They were very flexible.”
Coach Jen Fulcher spoke of the multifaceted responsibilities inherent in the student-athlete role, and Scott, too, considers the transference between athletics and academics. “Student comes first for a reason,” Sophia said, thinking, herself, about growth in and outside of the classroom. “It’s about striking a balance.” “The biggest [part] of both [academics and athletics],” Madison added, “is striving to be your own best, regardless of the other team or the other people in your class. [It’s about] constantly trying to better yourself, and I think that just translates so much into [one’s] work ethic and how [one] prepare[s] for challenges. Whether it’s a test or a game, there’s just so much overlap in the way [a student-athlete] prepare[s] for things.”
Vivid in these athletes’ discussion was the outline of a Dweckian growth mindset, an educational and psychological concept that is similarly undergirding community building at the Campus School (for more on growth mindsets, see our review of Rachel Simmons’ book here). In addition to videos on brain development, Scott shares a film with students that distills this idea into a fun metaphor: “A guy is talking about a tiger in a zoo and a tiger in the jungle,” Scott says. “I tell students: Be a jungle tiger; don’t be a zoo tiger. Jump out of your comfort zone.”
As the whistle blew at Williston and the girls’ readied themselves for practice, they culminated their reflections on the Campus School by sharing gratitude for the past. “It’s been a really special connection,” Madison said of her SCCS peers. “The community at [SCCS] is so supportive. Everyone wants the best for you. It’s hard to realize that until you can look back at it and realize that it was so instrumental in fostering growth.” Similarly, Fiona shared: “The people who I was being surrounded with were amazing, and I would not have pushed myself as hard as I [have] in academics or sports if I had not met such great friends from such an early age, and we all just grew up in this great learning environment where we wanted to be our best.”
We at the Campus School can’t wait to see where these jungle tigers go next!
Written by Brittany Collins