So many mentors have nurtured and sustained me—the gifted therapists, the systems thinkers and second order cyberneticians, the deep ecologists and naturalists, the school founders, the teens I have mentored who have become my peers in time, and the children who have trusted me and grace my life.
I know I’m not unusual in going through much of my early life feeling like an outsider on good days and feeling like a serious weirdo outcast on bad days. When I consider how and when this changed, I think of particular conversations as turning points and certain conversations as sustenance…
Conversations with my fierce, autodidact mother and my supersensitive, peacemaker father sustained me in my earliest years. I am grateful for their loving support. They had good priorities. They lived simply. They loved picnics in the mountains. They’d both lived through hell in their own ways prior to choosing each other as life partners.
I realize now, in retrospect, I had the good fortune that my parents moved with me from the West Coast to Cincinnati, Ohio, motivated by what they’d heard were “very good schools.” I was four at the time. For my mother, the standout feature of my elementary school was the “extraordinary art collection hanging on the walls throughout the school.” What stood out in my mind was the extraordinary cruelty exhibited by a few of my teachers toward a few of my classmates—always boys. Report cards with Cs in conduct and check marks for “lack of self-control” kept the A-student “talkative girls” (self included) a bit more subdued. I went through all of elementary school with this same group of exuberant peers who were too frequently suffering from extreme boredom and whose curiosity and creativity were severely constrained. In second grade, our teacher died midyear, and a few years later, one young friend died of cancer. An enormous absence of conversation hung in the air around these deaths, and we children were left on our own to make of it what we would. This context set me on a quest for alternative approaches to support young people in self-directed and collaborative learning, and life in general.
When I was nine, we moved to the last house on a dead-end street in a new subdivision of small, look-alike homes. Our house backed onto acres of undeveloped forest and meadows. The Woods. The woods fed my soul, offered refuge for my expanding spirit of independence, and at the same time, grew my sense of kinship with the natural world. Wandering deep into the woods, I knew I was alright. I didn’t have to contort myself there. I could trust my gut and follow my curiosity. I was remarkably fearless in the woods. I could just be.
Cincinnati was also home to IBM. When I was ten, I babysat for the neighbors’ three children, all under five. Their father worked at IBM, and my mother convinced him to take me to his workplace to introduce me to computers. We went on a weekend, so it was just my neighbor, me, and the mainframes—huge, noisy, intriguing machines. I had no idea at the time how this encounter would help to shape my life. But the introduction our neighbor facilitated planted a seed that took several years to germinate.
When I turned twelve, finally the “very good schools” scenario that prompted my parents’ cross-country move came somewhat true. I was accepted to Walnut Hills, a seventh through twelfth grade public college preparatory school that drew a diverse group of students from throughout the city. I’m especially grateful for Beth, who sat next to me in choir. She was a senior, and I was a seventh-grader. Our conversations, in the few minutes before our choir teacher had us all find the A note together, opened metaverses to me. I found a new kind of kinship in her mentoring and the characters in the books she handed me.
I think of Joel Wittstein, my ninth grade English teacher who later became Rabbi Wittstein. Mr. Wittstein met his class of fourteen-year-olds as the young adults we were, and he offered us intellectual and emotional challenges worthy of our effort. He gave us his respect, and we were elevated in conversations with him and each other. He nurtured my love of language and story, and he gave me a shimmering vision of how education could be.
Sometimes it was the conspicuous absence of conversations of substance that drove me to seek out companions of the heart and mind. I can thank my tenth grade English teacher for being the opposite of Mr. Wittstein. With her assistance, I found my own way to people thinking deeply about new models of education—George Leonard, who taught me to imagine the future, Herbert Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Paul Goodman, Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, and, of course, John Holt, to name just a few. They wrote. I read. They helped to shape my evolving inquiries. Outsider was not such a bad vantage point. Uncomfortable, yes. But outsiders can yield insights…and leadership.
Carol and Tom French Corbett founded The New School, a Montessori school in Cincinnati. For my last semester of college, I did an internship at the school, facilitated by a teacher from my high school who was by then a teacher at the school. Carol and Tom were more committed to dialogue than anyone I’d met to date. When my internship ended, I stayed on at the school, working with young people in a brand new middle school program.
I started my serious, lifelong apprenticeship and dedication to the art and science of conversation at The New School. The entire school ran on conversation—monthly meetings of the whole community of parents and teachers, who talked decisions through to consensus. A painful and frustrating process at times, certainly, but inspiring. And I sat daily in conversation circles with the children in the preschool. In this setting, I grew my skills of listening (literally, taking my first active listening course there), and I learned to speak my own piece. The community of the New School held space in which I began to feel safe to be myself in the company of other humans.
So many mentors have nurtured and sustained me—the gifted therapists, the systems thinkers and second order cyberneticians, the deep ecologists and naturalists, the school founders, the teens I have mentored who have become my peers in time, and the children who have trusted me and grace my life. The mentor relationship has been such a central force in my life, I’ve developed “Mentor Maps” to honor the distinct lineages of inspiration and influence, and I use this tool in my work with young people today.
I rarely feel like a lonely outcast in this decade of my life. I appreciate my outsiderness and my insiderness. I require strong and frequent doses of reflective solitude. I miss seeing friends and family as much as I would like to…I am grateful that I learned early in my life that my important relationships can transcend time and space. And when we can inhabit the same time and space for a spell, oh what a gift that is. I look forward to inhabiting this GHF Dialogue space with you.
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