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A Place You Can Walk To


SullivanI’ve learned there is a great importance in finding nature close to home. A creek has patterns of light and variation in its course as the water makes its way over the rocks. There are deep pools that barely move where water spiders skate across the surface just above a branch of braided stones that tumble down and curve this way and that. Just the fact that a stream is not straight and flat, like so much of our civilized world—roads, lawns, sidewalks—is a thing of beauty.   When I sit by a creek I find myself reflective, feeling my connection to the life around me.  Children, and adults for that matter, need these quiet moments in nature so they can move out of themselves. There is a quality of profound importance when that nature is some place near enough to walk to again and again.

Having set shallow roots, like the cottonwood tree of my youth, I am no authority on home except that I have felt it, that kinship with place, when I was young: my hands making mud pies in the cool narrow path beside the pomegranate tree in my yard, my feet on the smooth stone steps leading down to a small orchard, my Greek father’s pride and joy, and digging holes for no reason except to dig a hole. But I do not know home, I admit it, not the way that some people do.  When I was twenty-one I went to Whitesburg, Kentucky, thoroughly a visitor, a flagrantly observant Californian who agreed to teach school for a semester, and from this experience I have gained a whole new understanding of what it means to have a home. I don’t mean a romanticized notion, my old Kentucky home and all that, for eastern Kentucky is a difficult place to live, poor beyond my imagination, and severe in spirit, but close in spirit as well. What I mean by home is a place that changes people according to the social norms and structure, a place of distinctive characteristics. With this recognition, I taught school, feeling much the way I have always felt as a teacher…with a great deal to learn.

I moved to Kentucky in 1979 to work as a “reading specialist” with a small group of upper elementary-aged students, “unmotivated yet adequately intelligent,” according to the principal, a friendly down-to-earth fellow named Paul Barnes.  The school was located five miles off the main road, just outside of Whitesburg (population 1,999 plus one grouch as the city limits sign read). I arrived midday on my 21st birthday as if I knew that this experience would mark my journey into adulthood. I was alone, with all my perceived necessities loaded into the 1976 Chevy I had just driven across the country.

I pulled into the address I was given for June Appal Recording Studio. There I met a woman I had arranged to meet named Kim and we went out for iced tea.  We sat across from each other in the sticky vinyl booth of the drug store diner, she with her kind eyes asking me about my trip, just another day, and I, suddenly a sobbing, pathetic puddle of emotions, admitting it was my birthday and I had no idea where I would live or how I would survive.  Now as I look back, I realize that may have been the only way I could come into Kentucky and be accepted to the degree that I was.  I came without, just like the people who settled in that region hundreds of years ago.


It took most of the afternoon of my first day at work for the wall to my new “classroom” to be installed.  In reality, my classroom was part of a trailer behind the school where remedial reading class was held. The principal sent a few school helpers out to the hardware store to get plywood, quite a shock, to Mrs. Banks, the teacher I shared the trailer with.  Mrs. Banks taught reading and grammar to a small group of students seated in two straight rows, now sandwiched more compactly due to my sudden encroachment. I’m sure she was not pleased, but I was learning that sharing is part and parcel of life in the mountains and she didn’t indicate that she minded.  Still I kept my distance from Mrs. Banks. She was a stern, frightening teacher who never smiled and basically behaved as if I didn’t exist. I felt like one of the students in her class might feel.

We managed to fit four chairs and a small table in my new classroom, and I wrote my name on the chalkboard.  In the summer I kept the door open despite the playground noise, and as the cold winter months approached, we all huddled around a space heater.

I had no more than three students with me at a time and a total of eleven throughout the day, six boys and five girls. Without any set curriculum, I visited the school library, a modest arrangement of books, and looked for high interest easy readers. None to be found.

I didn’t feel comfortable putting myself in the role of the know-it-all teacher right away so I started my lessons with conversations about what my students liked to do in their spare time. I knew the children were the most likely to share their lives with me without the suspicion that most adults had, especially mountain folks, possessing an indelible history of exploitation from “outsiders.” But I also needed a “curriculum” and what better way to start than with “what they already know.”  As is true for many kids, school was not the high point of their day.  Instead, they liked to go and explore the woods, hunt, fish, collect arrowheads, and sit by the creek.  This was especially true for the boys.  They had places close to home that they could walk to over and over. They possessed a depth of understanding of their place that became evident to me from the start.

Learning to read has a great deal to do with confidence and practice, and their stories seemed like the most engaging reading material to be uncovered.  One day we went fishing, two boys running ahead down the steep bank to the pond to see who would hold open the fence for me and another girl carrying bait in an old coffee can. I watched them fish and listened to their talk.  “This is the best hole. I wonder if we’ll catch Freckles today.” They laughed and informed me of his elusive character. Back in the classroom we wrote enthusiastically (well, at least I did) and then we had something to read. We compared stories and eventually started reading novels of similar theme. I compiled a collection of their stories, a mini Foxfire if you will, with a cover and some of the photographs I had taken of them when we were out together.

The great power of my work with the students in Kentucky, and what I took with me to my practice as a classroom teacher thereafter, was the sense of place that these students in particular felt and all children feel to some degree no matter where they live. They had special places to visit, ordinary day-to-day places. In his most recent book Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, David Sobel points out, “These places… allow children to feel comfortable in the landscape, connected to it, and eventually be committed to acting as stewards of it.”

SullivanWhen I was growing up in the foothills of Los Angeles, I too had places I could walk to.  They were not as rugged as the woods of Kentucky, but I found a quiet meadow to sit and revisit, a private spot I called my own.  This provided me with time to contemplate my life and to dream.  I considered who I was and who I could be and discovered a quiet inner voice. All children need this and many seek it out, but for some, especially city dwellers, the chance to experience the kind of quiet spaciousness of a wild landscape is unrealistic; they must start by simply getting their feet on the earth.

Writing books about place with children is something I have carried on through my teaching practice. Everywhere I’ve lived I have encouraged students to write about their place, from young poets in Santa Cruz, California, using the timeless models of Kenneth Koch’s Wishes Lies and Dreams and Rose, Where did You Get that Red?  to native children in New Mexico and Washington, as well as in my current job where my students write about life in their communities near the Puget Sound. 

Children long to know what makes them special.  Just as each child is unique, so too are the places where they live. Returning to a significant place, accessible and unremarkable, provides the time to remember we all live somewhere and by that I am unique.  This is not so much to ask, hardly an imposition, in a world that provides so much to notice.  

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