25 years of IPS: reflecting on a rock and roll middle school experience

‘At 25 years old, I find myself speaking about Island Pacific School often. I feel appreciative for all that the school was and continues to be’

On October 27, 2016, a metal gong woke me; it was 5 a.m. in Kerala, India and we were being summoned to the meditation hall. I rose out of bed, struggling my way into my sports-bra and walked down a moonlit path – I stopped to enjoy a cup of warm water and admired this early morning ritual that existed at the Ashram. In meditation, my mind drifted; I sat cross-legged on the cement floor and thought about the gong – I wondered why I liked it so much. I wondered what piece of this morning ritual made me feel so at ease.

As I sat down at the beginning of 2020 to write a piece for IPS, expressing my experience at the school, I didn’t know where to begin – the only words that continued to ripple through my head were “let’s go, let’s go, let’s rock and roll!” This was the phrase that echoed through the halls of the school at 8:45 a.m. each morning, gathering students, staff and faculty for morning stretch. To me, this phrase is the gong of IPS. Once summoned together, we would sit cross-legged, sharing two minutes of silence, followed by attendance and a brief stretch. We would then check-in, sometimes about what was going on for ourselves, sometimes about what was going on in the world around us. This process was something each of us honored together before embarking on each day. 

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In my third year of University, I went on exchange to Portugal. My brother and I decided this was a good opportunity to take a sibling trip to Morocco. We bought a drum, bartered in French, ate dinner with our hands in a local's home, and trekked through the Zagora desert on an accidental "romantic camel ride for two". Here is a picture of the latter. - Courtesy of Natalie Helm

It has been 10 years since I graduated from IPS (that went fast!) and 14 years since I walked into IPS on my very first day. On day one, I remember feeling mad at my parents for believing so strongly in IPS – for making the transition from public to private school a priority for myself and my brother. For this reason, I remember resisting IPS: the teachers, the hike up Garibaldi, the Kayak trip to Anvil Island, the push-ups when we said “like” or “um.” I remember missing my old friends and yearning for a high school experience like “everybody else.” With time, this resistance shifted into acceptance, and with more time, this acceptance shifted into gratefulness. Looking back now, it is clear to me that frustration and sadness were only a small piece of my feelings in my early days at IPS. Perhaps more importantly, I remember feeling accepted, and celebrated even, for exploring exactly who I was and wanted to be from that very first day. 

When I entered IPS, I was a timid 10-year-old girl who followed in the footsteps of her peers. When I left IPS, I was a strong 14-year-old-girl who had summited mountain tops, flown a plane, travelled to Quebec, built a shelter to sleep under with only a tarp and a rope, and become an expert on the impacts of divorce on youth by writing a mini-masters paper. By the end of my four years at the school, I learned how to be courageous, grew to understand the power of wisdom and believed in the importance of integrity.

In January 2020, I attended a six-day personal development course on Gabriola Island. Each morning, our leaders had us sit cross-legged, sharing two minutes of silence, followed by a brief check-in about ourselves or world events before we embarked on each day. This process, much like gathering for morning stretch at IPS, was familiar and comforting to me.

I cannot pretend that I know my journey at IPS changed my life for the better. I do not know that I wouldn’t have become a traveler, hiker, camper, crafter, or active learner had I gone to public school. I do not know that I wouldn’t have learned lessons of wisdom, courage and integrity from other people or places along the way. While I cannot prove how my life would have progressed, one way or another, I do know that I look back on my time at IPS with pride, gratefulness, and excitement. I believe that spending my middle years inside the four walls of IPS (okay, we spent a lot of time outside of the four walls too!) shaped me into who I am today.  

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Last December, I graduated from the University of Victoria. I studied history, diving into an array of subjects (from the Civil Rights Movement to the introduction of fish hatcheries and tree farming in the Pacific Northwest). I walked across the stage this past June, as my family cheered me on below –– goodbye, for now, school! - Courtesy of Natalie Helm

Now, at 25 years old, I find myself speaking about IPS often. I feel appreciative for all that the school was and continues to be – beyond what I am able to express here on paper. Most of all, however, I find myself consistently reminded (by waking to Indian gongs, reaching Himalayan summits, or attending workshops on Gabriola Island) that I walked into IPS a shy young girl and left feeling like a courageous woman.

I wish my experience at IPS on anyone who is open to it and even those who are not… ahem, yes, that includes you, 10-year-old Natalie… So if this is the sign you are looking for – then let’s go, let’s go, let’s rock and roll!

––Natalie Helm, Island Pacific School Graduate, Class of 2009

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