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Becoming Is a Risk: Discoveries of a 2017 Life Leap

It was a grand experiment of a high school in Madison, Connecticut, that made me who I am. It was three buildings connected by pebbled paths and feathery evergreens, and a faculty’s belief that adolescents need academic and creative choice. We called our teachers by their first names. My freshman year English class met inside a geodesic dome. We would sit cross-legged on the carpet, propped up by big, orange nubby pillows and yellow bean bag chairs, discussing A Separate Peace. My favorite class my freshman year was “Dreams and the Literary Imagination.” We kept journals, and I’d wake up each morning and record my elliptical narratives, using a peacock blue Flair marker, still tucked beneath wool blankets in our drafty old house. I was like every other vulnerable teen that ever was, and nothing like others too.

I found the green journal the other night, and ran my middle-aged index finger over the raised, white embossed letters made by a 1970’s label machine:

The Dream Journal. My old dreams came ashore like shipwreck treasures and seaweed. The truth is, many of the dreams I recorded for that class I’ve never forgotten. The most resonant: I dreamt of finding all my silver bangle bracelets and in the toilet and fishing them out, one by one. Then and now, I interpret it as a symbol of tanking self worth, of trying to rescue what I valued. My confidence was low. I was fifteen, a freshman set adrift socially when my boyfriend dropped me for my best friend, my parents were separating. It was a long, Connecticut winter of grey snow and ice and chill inside and out.

And then a teacher saved me—or helped me to save myself, but more about that in a moment.

The Hammonasset School drew the children of New Yorker cartoonists, professors, painters, sculptors, potters and the like who were opting out of the public schools because they were inexplicably sinking in the 1970s. It also drew children from New Haven, giving them a lifeline out of urban schooling that was also horrendous. And as true of any private school, it was a place for adolescents who might have been struggling in the cookie cutter-ness of public schools. I imagine many of us were sensitive, artistic, maybe so shy friends were hard to make; maybe the victim of bullying, who knows.

We chose what we wanted to study, more like college students than high school students. There were no grades; narrative evaluations and teacher student conferences were the measures of progress. With large, open classrooms under one roof, came the double-edged sword of community and yet for socially conscious teens, there was no place to hide. You could be sitting in French class and literally stop thinking or talking if a cool kid walked by, jamming your brain. There were plenty of even bigger things the school didn’t get right, too. We smoked cigarettes in the courtyard with teachers between classes, some students got lost in all that freedom—and independent study in algebra was just plain harebrained 1970s pedagogy, but what the school got right is precisely what brought me to join the team here at Gravity Goldberg, LLC.

What Hammonasset got right, and what the Gravity Goldberg team gets right, is a simple, yet steely belief that if you get to know the learners well enough, and you give them choice, they have a better shot of finding their way to a good first path in life.

So, back to my being saved. Despite my low confidence, I chose to take Mark Johnson’s American history class in the fall of sophomore year. He was a revered teacher, and the “smarter”, popular students, including my older brother, seem to hover around him like an aura. He wore tweed jackets and corduroys just about each day, and he smoked a pipe. How quiet I must have been in his class in the beginning. I don’t recall it, but I remember where it all led. Mark saw potential in me that I was too unconfident to see. He drew me out in class

discussions. Like many teachers there, he led me and others out into the open fields of thought, history, art like the shaky-legged, tentative fawns of learners that we were. He taught me to question, and to dare to speak. And he did something that we now know is supported by research: he read me. He invested in the teacher-student relationship. He walked right up to the edge of where a teacher needs to be with a student. It wasn’t personal; it’s not that he or I talked of home or favorite movies. It was appropriately of school. In today’s parlance, the feeling in the air between us was, “I got your back.” In countless professional books that I’ve edited, I’ve nudged my authors to pay tribute to Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, or ZDP, that moment when a skilled mentor or instructor teaches into precisely what the student is ready to try. It’s a brilliant theory, and I believe in wholly, and yet I encourage us to tint it with more shades of human emotion, and to acknowledge that this zone includes the charged electrons of a learner becoming—and human connection.

My high school stirred in me a lifelong interest in education, in what makes it work, what impedes it, and in how to help teachers be their best selves and students be their best selves. After college I became an education editor who spotted teachers who were bringing something special to their students, and then helped them tell that story on the page so other teachers could aspire. I saw in Gravity Goldberg, Patty McGee, Pam Koutrakos that they had “enough” to be important professional book authors and thinkers in the field—because they had enough heart. Like Mark Johnson, they were about seeing each kid in a room, not a roomful of kids. I edited their books, and showed up at their book parties, smiling and proud at the change in their lives I had helped to bring about.

But in the spring of this year, I was bottoming out.

My dear father had died, my mother has Alzheimer’s, and I was totally burnt out from decades in publishing. My husband and daughter brought me joy and identity, but I was like a vulnerable adolescent, calm on the exterior but actually free-falling, and casting about for a sage elder.

I emailed Mark Johnson, who is now in his early eighties. We’d been in touch once through a Hammonasset Facebook group, so it wasn’t a totally cold call after 35 years. I told him I was hitting the wall, thinking about quitting my job to write fiction and find my way to something else. He wrote back, of course. And of course he encouraged me to listen to myself, to get back to my core self. He told me that in his own life, growth was greatest when he had risked the most. At 60, he’d moved from the East to Colorado, without much money or connection there, and now has a brand new happy life because he took that leap. His words gave me courage to leave the same grind of publishing to find a work life where I could apply my talents in a new way. One day soon after Mark’s email, I let Gravity know I’d like to join her team, and because she had always seen myself rather than seen me as merely a tool to her own goals, she immediately said, “let’s go.” I quit my publishing job. And here I am, using my skills to foster the team’s voice and publishing.

Here’s what I discovered post-2017 life leap: We are all at risk. We are at risk of becoming—or not becoming, throughout our lives. Mark, and the team I now work with, understand the tremendous power teachers have with the youth in their charge. That is, that at any given moment, a teacher must see how she is either going to open up or shut down a learner. Becoming is a risk—it’s as much of a risk as the risk of dropping out. A strong teacher looks for the readiness to become a greater self in the quietest students, or the flashiest. It’s like spotting darting minnows in a sunlit stream. And a strong teacher listens for it, keen as a conductor. But this attunement cannot occur unless the teacher engages in getting to know each student. The teacher must risk, to walk right up to that line and find the skinny yet expansive space between the inherent authority of any teacher and the learner’s core self. It’s in that space where the best choices are made, the best risks taken, the most growth occurs, because it’s the zone of human trust and human connection. Our students will discover and develop their core selves there, and begin the thrilling high-wire act that is life itself.

That’s where we all need to be.