Previous pages: Kiran Patel ’21 writes in his journal near Shadow Lake. Left: Lori Veilleux and other Humanities I teachers ask students to draw from their own experiences in class. Right: Sydney May ’22 in annotating mode.
t’s day one of Humanities I, and religious studies and philosophy teacher Lori Veilleux is ready for class. She has arranged the tables in a big square with a blank journal at every place, like plates at a banquet. As her ninth-grade students file in, she greets them and tries to put them at ease. Many take their seats silently; a few high-five or hug one another. Cell phones get parked in a wooden bowl so everyone can concentrate. In three nearby classrooms, Veilleux’s fellow humanities teachers are doing much the same with their new students.
Half English class, half religious studies and philosophy, “Hum I,” as it’s known (pronounced Hume), was developed and introduced at NMH 25 years ago. Today, it’s a required course for ninth graders and is as fundamental to the curriculum as physics and algebra. It asks students to contemplate some of the biggest questions human beings can ponder: “Who am I?” “What is my place?” “What does it mean to be human?” and “How, then, shall I live?” The goal is to launch NMH’s youngest students on a voyage that begins with these essential questions and ends with young adults who’ve internalized the school’s mission to act with humanity and purpose. That’s a tall order for 14- and 15-year-olds, but in an often inhumane world, teaching the humanities — and fostering humanity — couldn’t be more necessary. The lessons of Hum I can stick with students long after they leave the classroom. Lars Andrews ’19 says his Hum I experience “remains the most valuable of my NMH career.” “In many ways, the core questions still guide my practice as a teacher, a person of faith, and a human being,” says Lewis Maday-Travis ’07, now a middle-school science and health teacher in Seattle. “Sometimes they pop into my head as I get ready for work, take a walk, or journal the way I learned to do in that class.” Maday-Travis vividly recalls his first day of Hum I. “All four teachers brought us together in a classroom, turned off the lights, and recited Mary Oliver’s poem ‘The Buddha’s Last Instruction.’ It starts: ‘Make of yourself a light’/said the Buddha/before he died.’ They set the stage for holding the classroom as sacred ground for exploring literature, poetry, religion, and our own stories.” But on day one, as ninth graders, the students don’t know they’re likely to remember this course for years. When Veilleux predicts, “You’ll make friends you’ll never forget” in her classoom, one student half stifles a smirk. Yet dozens of NMH senior orations and valedictory speeches reference Hum I’s four essential questions. As religious studies and philosophy teacher Pete
The Magazine of Northfield Mount Hermon