(I’m reviewing articles I’ve written for my professional website, narrowing them down to some favorites. Here’s the first, which focuses on a life lesson I received from a respected teacher and try to pass along to some of my students who I think might appreciate it.)
I’ve often told my students an allegory that was told to me by one of my most important teachers when I was a young adult, the story of two people walking at dawn one morning, the rising sun at their backs. One paused and turned to look at the beautiful sunrise, awed by its beauty. Wanting to share it, he tapped the shoulder of his friend, who turned to look and was equally awed.
I invite my students to stop and consider this story, to contemplate it for its meaning or meanings. One comes from recognizing the important role we have to help those in our lives be aware of meaningful things.
Related to that, however, is the truth that try as we might, we can never MAKE another person be aware of something. We may WANT to share things with others, but they still have to turn, literally and/or metaphorically, to see them. THEY have to do the physical and mental work.
If my students get to that understanding, I’m pleased.
As I’ve gotten older, interestingly, I’ve found what has become an even bigger lesson for me from this story. It’s that we all are being tapped on our shoulders all the time. Every second of every day, we are being offered the opportunity to see meaningful things.
Many of us wonder who or what does what I’m calling this shoulder-tapping. Call it Source, or Light, or Intelligence, or God, or some other name. For my purposes, though, putting a name to what taps us is not the most important thing.
What’s important is to recognize that we are being tapped and to practice focusing our attention. In other words, I have the responsibility to do the physical and mental work, to turn and look, so to speak.
As I’ve gained experience doing this, I’ve learned that there is discipline involved in the practice. Undisciplined, my attention is drawn to all sorts of things — negative news stories, certain uses of social media, drama from the sports world — each of which distracts me from what is actually meaningful.
I sometimes even fool myself into believing the distracting things are important.
Disciplined, I learn to see the difference between the distracting and the divine, between the pointless and the profound. In time, I find that I’ve started to internally filter out the things that distract me, which better enables me to gently focus on the divine and the profound.
In the book “The Power of Kindness,” author Piero Ferrucci talks about how human beings are able to “resonate” with other human beings.
I love this concept.
He tells us that the ability is with us from birth, but if it doesn’t develop sufficiently we are in trouble. Me, I think the ability can be cultivated at any time in our lives. It’s certainly easier when we are younger, before we’ve had years of not resonating or not resonating well. But the ability is always there inside us, waiting to be tapped. I think the means is through storytelling.
In other words, if you’re ever feeling out of sorts, alone, or untouched, try telling the story of something that has touched you.
A few years back, I developed a class for teenagers on the subject of empathy. I wasn’t at all sure how many students would be interested. And since the classes that get scheduled at Puget Sound Community School are determined by student interest, I honestly wasn’t sure if this class would make the cut. Typically, more than 75 classes are offered to the students for each of the school’s main three terms, and the maximum any student can attend is around 20.
When I pitched the empathy class, I told the story of visiting my newborn daughter Ella in Children’s Hospital one Saturday morning in early 1997, she having been admitted (along with my wife, Melinda) because of a possible case of meningitis.
Ella was only 2 weeks old.
The day before, we had taken her to the doctor because of a high fever and the doctor ordered us to the emergency room. There, Ella experienced a spinal tap, during which the nurse’s assistant passed out and Melinda had to step in and hold still the crying/screaming baby Ella while the doctor inserted a needle into her spinal cord to get a fluid sample. Fearing meningitis, the doctors hospitalized Ella and treated her as if she had the illness while the fluid was tested over a period of three days. Melinda stayed with Ella while I was at home with her older sister, Chloe, not quite 4 years-old.
So early that Saturday, with my mom having come to watch Chloe, I arrived at Children’s Hospital to be with Ella and Melinda. At that time of day, they have a special entrance for parents. I entered there and took the elevator to the Intensive Care Unit, where Ella was being watched.
Exiting the elevator, I encountered one of the most moving scenes of my life – a young boy playing with a remote control car. 8 o’clock, Saturday morning, playing like little boys all over the world, down the hospital hall came this pajama-clad boy directing his car, remote control in hand. Keeping up next to him was his father, pushing the IV cart, making sure it stayed attached to his little boy’s arm. It was so poignant that it took my breath away. A little boy just being a little boy on a Saturday morning. And a dad just being a dad, doing what he needed to do so his boy could play.
I told those stories to the students during my class pitch. Lots of students prioritized the class after that. It made it on the schedule.
I’m not sure if the class ever matched the stories that I think sold it, but it was a great class. The second week I brought in photographer Lynette Johnson as a guest speaker. Several years previously, when I first heard of her, she was trying to start a nonprofit organization.
To provide professional photographs to parents of their terminally ill children before they died. Yeah. Kind of hits you right there, doesn’t it?
Lynette succeeded in starting her nonprofit and has since been featured in People Magazine and on the TV show “Today.” She calls her nonprofit Soulumination and they’ve since expanded their services. They now take professional portraits, at no charge, of terminally ill parents so their children will have photos to help remember them.
Lynette told the students why she started the nonprofit, tearing up each time she told the story of one of the children she has photographed.
Two weeks after introducing the students to Lynette, I took them off campus to meet a couple in their 90’s who were living in the same retirement community as my parents. Both had lost their spouses and finding the other, they thought it made sense to share an apartment rather than pay for two. But the conservative retirement home wouldn’t allow this unless they married. So they got married. As it turns out, we learned the woman was at Pearl Harbor in 1941 when it was bombed.
What stories these two people had to tell a group of teenagers!
Feel the resonance? If so, did experiencing this resonance change how you were feeling? Pay attention to this.
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.