Cairns #72 – Reading the Teacher

Cairns #72

End of the Long Nights – 2013

My mother died this month
She lived a life of smiles and grace up to the end at 95. If I had to tell only
one story about her, it would be this.

Both my mom and my dad were born and raised in the Midwest. She grew
up in the suburbs of Chicago; he grew up in an Iowa town. They met in
college in Iowa, got married, and had three children in Iowa; my brother, my
sister, and finally me. Back in 1951, when I was a year old, she divorced my
dad because he had a gambling addiction – expressed through the stock
market and futures markets. They had been living just a couple of hours
from Dad’s parents who were scandalized that she would divorce their son.
Divorce was just not done back then. What she did then amazes me to this

She decided that she had to move far away in order to make a fresh start.
Where should she go? She decided that the town she moved to had to have
two things: a college (for cultural enrichment) and mountains. She had
grown up in the Midwest and she had always longed to see mountains. She
needed to have mountains in her life. So she did whatever research she could
do in that long-before-the-internet age and somehow chose Walla Walla,
Washington, 2000 miles away. She had three children ages 1, 4, and 7 and
no car. But she found someone who needed a car driven to Portland, Oregon.
A friend of hers offered to help her with the trip. They drove pre-interstate
roads with three young kids to Walla Walla and there Mom started her new
life. Later, she and Dad remarried but he had to leave Iowa and his parents
behind and come to her. There, in a story almost as amazing, he built his
own business in a completely new territory.

I can’t imagine who I would have been if I had grown up in Iowa. I grew up
a westerner – in love with its rolling wheat fields, sagebrush deserts with
brown basalt rimrock, and pointed volcanic peaks. Walla Walla was an
idyllic place for a child. Routinely I would, without forethought, bicycle 10,
20 miles through the wheat country. Whitman College enriched our lives
with theater and lectures and other programs. And Mom always loved the
Blue Mountains. For much of her life, she would take a walk each morning
north of town on a dirt road that went through the wheat fields with the
mountains right ahead. We will spread her ashes on their slopes where Dad’s
ashes await hers.

Alysia added: She loved books and nourished in all her children and
grandchildren a passion for a good story. It is so fitting that she drew her last
breath as her first child read to her a story she had long ago read to him, the
chapter “The Open Road” from Wind in the Willows. Such a fitting tribute.

Sara’s Music
Two other emails accompany this Cairns. The subject line of the first is
Cairns: Her Songs Have Heft. The second is Cairns: Dancing to the Songs
Inside. Each email contains an attached song by Sara Hoxie.

I don’t do advertisements in Cairns and what follows is not an
advertisement—in the sense that I am not deriving financial gain from
sending these emails. I am sending these songs to you for three reasons.
1. Alysia and I really, really like her music. We both often comment on how
often we find the lyrics (not just the tunes) running gently in our minds. We
often surface from sleep accompanied by her music. This power has
continued for months; her songs have staying power. So I can easily pass on
her music to you as a gift, not as a pitch.
2. Sara Hoxie, the composer/artist of the attached songs, is a Chrysalis
teacher and I want to support her and help her music reach a wider audience.
Feel free to forward my emails with the attached songs to others.
3. In addition, some of you might appreciate much of her music as being
place-based. The first sample I send you (Trinity River Love Song) is an
example of this. Not only is it rooted in the Trinity River (about 60 miles
from here), the central imagery would tend to arise only in a composer who
has spent time by rivers.
If you like her music, you can go to
to order her CD.

Difference between scouting and leading
Scouts and leaders; both are followed by other people. Many people assume
that I, as administrator of Chrysalis, am the leader of the school. I don’t see
myself that way for two reasons. One is because we have organized
Chrysalis as a teacher-led school. Therefore, part of my job is to often
consciously hold back from assuming leadership so that the teachers, as a
group, practice and strengthen their governing power. But the second reason
is that psychologically, I’m not a leader. I love scouting; I don’t like leading.
Scouting is exploring new territory. A scout realizes that s/he will sometimes
hit deadends and have to double back. One might not even ever get to a
specific place. One is scouting. One has to be comfortable with false starts
and retreats. But in the course of scouting, the terrain is learned in a way that
will allow others to follow. In that way, a scout is followed.

A good leader is trusted to lead to goals. The less false starts and retreats, the
better. This competency inspires others to follow. The leader has a
responsibility to those following in his/her company. A scout’s only
responsibility is reporting accurately on the terrain s/he encountered. I am
much more comfortable with that. I have no problem making decisions for
myself, for starting enthusiastically down a path that might go nowhere,
because I like the act of roaming unknown territory. But having to double
back when people are following me—that I don’t like.

Reading the Teacher
In my algebra class, Daniel, a smart, newer student, expressed his frustration
that whenever he gave a tentative answer to an algebra problem, he could
not tell from my expression and follow-up question whether his answer was
wrong or right. That led to my wondering how much of his school learning
thus far had been spent on learning to read his teachers instead of learning to
grapple with the material itself. Which got me to thinking about the
difference between the two. And that led me back to Fort Wolters.

I was brought up in a conservative farm town where everyone put their hand
over their heart when the American flag passed by in a parade. The United
States in my childhood was the bastion of freedom and democracy, holder of
the moral high ground. When the Vietnam War heated up during my high
school years, I struggled with knowing what was right. I wanted America to
triumph but voices of dissent raised questions that I didn’t have the
background to understand. I read articles in Time magazine that explained
the reasons why we would win the war if we just stayed the course. The
evening news reported the body counts; there were always more of the
enemy killed than Americans.

I went to a liberal arts college where most students were against the war—
perhaps partly because it was the sixties and that’s what college students
were supposed to believe. But I still had that conservative farm town
foundation in me and I couldn’t really be against the war, not if there was a
chance we could somehow win it.

At the end of my freshman year, I hitchhiked home across the country. As I
was going across Texas, I met a guy who asked me if I wanted to spend the
night on an army base. I couldn’t quite believe I could spend the night on an
army base but I said sure. And I did. I went through the chow line and got
fed and I stayed in the barracks which was a series of small rooms with
about four soldiers per room. And there we talked – or rather, I mostly

Fort Wolters trained helicopter crews. Almost everyone there was either
going to Vietnam or was returning from Vietnam. The soldiers I listened to
had just come back. Just come back in the sense that they had hardly talked
to anyone stateside so they were, I presume, still strongly in the state of
mind that had, for them, evolved over there. Vietnam was great, said a
helicopter machine gunner. You’re flying along and you see a guy walking
along a road, you just blow him away. It was great, he said, with no
awareness of how his stories were blowing me away.

This memory came to mind as I reflected on Daniel’s comment. When I was
struggling to figure out Vietnam by reading Time magazine and noting the
daily body counts and listening to speeches of the president and his generals,
I had been “reading the teacher.” Those soldiers started bringing me in
contact with the “lesson” itself. There was no way we were going to win the
hearts of the Vietnamese, no matter what the president said, if their fathers
and grandfathers were shot from the air while walking down the road. Body
counts based on incidents like that would only lead reasoning into a fantasy.
We must focus on understanding the lesson itself, not grow dependent on
following the leading questions of “teachers.”

My scariest animal encounter
Once in Denali I rounded a blind corner and less than ten yards away, a
mother grizzly with three cubs were chowing down blueberries. After a
couple of seconds of shock on my part – and continued oblivious gulping on
their part – I continued on past. That was a shock – but it wasn’t my scariest
animal encounter. That’s reserved for another experience I had as a ranger
up in Denali.

A bit of backstory. I hitchhiked up to Alaska when I was 23, fell in love with
Denali National Park and the National Park Service and formed a life goal of
being a seasonal naturalist in Denali. One of the rangers was my idol; he
gave an incredible campfire talk. So, when, four years later, I finally
achieved that life goal, one of the things I wanted to accomplish was
delivering a campfire talk as worthy as his. I wanted it so much that I tried
too hard and really struggled through a diversity of mediocre talks. So I
spent a lot of that first summer gnawing on my campfire talk.

While hiking one day, I had this great idea. I wouldn’t have a campfire! I
would explain to the audience how this would be a way to celebrate being in
Alaska. It doesn’t get dark until mid-August so there is no need for a fire.
And the growing season is so short up here in the interior that trees don’t
grow fast or large. So we’re not going to have a fire.

I cheerfully announced this at the beginning of my next campfire talk—and
walked straight into a silent but incredibly palpable wall of hostility. BAM.
Nobody said anything, because nobody had to. The soundless rejection made
it impossible to continue. And then a piece of wood was lobbed from the
back and thudded beside the campfire ring. The abrupt transformation of a
friendly group of vacationers into a hostile, telepathically-united near-mob
cowed me. It also made me aware that fire is far, far more primal than we
think. You do not deprive us of fire. It is light. It protects us. It brings us
together into a circle and joins us together as a pack. You Shall Build A
Fire! Without its binding energy, you have no authority and this gathering
does not exist.

I meekly built a hasty fire.

A wonderful bumper sticker I saw
Midwives help people out.


Just learning how to play with all of this.

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