In 1985, at age 22, I was a first-year college student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. I had spent the four years since graduating from high school trying to figure out who I was, my high school having done such a poor job of helping me do that. Having been moved by my experience mentoring a young boy as part of the Big Brothers program, I felt a calling to make a career in education and chose Evergreen as a place to begin my more formal training.
One day, while at the public library near my apartment and as part of a search on child development, I found a paperback book called “Son-Rise.” The book tells the true story of how author Barry Neil Kaufman and his wife, Suzi, helped lead their son out of his autistic world. Reading the book changed the trajectory of my college experience.
At the next academic quarter, I shifted my academic focus at Evergreen to issues in special education. I began conducting independent study projects on topics such as dyslexia, brain injury, and cross-cultural special education practices. I began working with brain-injured children as part of my studies, earning college credit in the process.
The summer of 1986 I signed up for a program of study called “Children of the World.” One of the professors was a Navajo and during one meeting with him he said something that literally stopped me in my tracks. I had been reading about dyslexia and was trying to understand if dyslexia was a condition more about a child or more about the educational settings in which a child was placed.
Sharing a Navajo perspective, but phrased in modern terminology, my professor asked me, “Andy, have you ever stopped to think that dyslexia might be an advanced form of evolution, an advanced way of seeing things?” It was a radical thought for me at the time, an example of outside-the-box thinking that I’ve tried to employ since. Instead of viewing dyslexia as a “dis”-ability, as I had been doing, what if I treated the concept as providing some kind of advantage?
That got me thinking about our school system. Certainly, being dyslexic was not an advantage in a typical American school setting. But how much of this disadvantage came from the beliefs and attitudes of those people working with dyslexic children? Couldn’t teachers learn to accept students for who they were and instruct from their strengths?
My studies continued. Evergreen allowed me to do something I had never done before as a student – study what I wanted to study, when I wanted to study it. The idea of a school allowing this never occurred to me. Such uninterrupted immersion in something could only be done after the requirements were met, and usually after the school doors were closed. A spark that had all but been extinguished began to glow brighter as I welcomed each day with an armload of books, which one day included “Son-Rise,” which I began to re-read.
When I first read the book I was impressed by its clarity. Re-reading, what Kaufman wrote made even more sense to me, opened me up and allowed me to gain access to a part of myself that was waiting to emerge. I became more accepting of myself and others; in his writing I found words for things I had never been able to express. In short, the Kaufmans developed a therapy program for their autistic son based on a lifestyle of love, trust, and acceptance. The basic principle of their lifestyle was that people were always doing the best they could based on their current beliefs, that each of us is our own best expert.
In the spring of 1987, I accompanied a family with an 18-year-old autistic son named Eric to The Option Institute in Massachusetts, the institute founded by the Kaufmans to help others learn from their experience. We spent a week there learning from the staff how to create a home-based therapy program for Eric. Returning home, I began working with Eric several days a week, hoping to join him in his world as a way of communicating that I respected him for whom he was.
Working with Eric, I came to know myself better than I ever had. The principles of love, trust, and acceptance had a natural effect in other areas of my life. I began living in the present. Instead of doing things for some future reward, I ended each day knowing I had done exactly what I wanted to do. Another thing became clear to me – I settled on wanting to be a teacher.
I graduated from Evergreen in 1988 and in 1989 entered a graduate program in Human Development, the first year of which was a teacher certification program, through Pacific Oaks College. I completed both programs, earning both a teaching certificate and a Master’s degree. Because of my work with Eric and other children with unique needs, and my independent studies done at Evergreen, I carry Special Education endorsements on my teaching certificate.
I began teaching in 1990 and have always tried to bring what I learned from my study of the Kaufman’s philosophy to my interactions with students. The creation of Puget Sound Community School in 1994 was a clear attempt to create a school that allows students to take charge of their lives. I’ve now spent decades helping young people learn that while I may be a trained teacher, I’m not an expert on who they are. I want to help them to learn to identify their goals, however trivial they may seem to others, and plot courses to achieving them. I want them to trust themselves fully, to be happy with who they are.
I believe that happy people have a burning desire to grow and develop, reach out for new opportunities and challenges, and are an asset to the world. A.S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill, wrote, “All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness.” Imagine a world that puts as its priority the happiness of its citizenry.
So back in 1985 I read a book that dramatically changed the course of my life. It deals with such topics as love, trust and acceptance, topics that typically aren’t discussed in books on education, in most teacher training programs, or in most faculty rooms.
I challenge you to ponder why that is, and to think of the possibilities for schools and students if they were.