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The Stranger Who Was Yourself: What Wisdom Greater Than Curiosity


The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other's welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life. 
—Derek Walcott

Begin and Begin Again (Resumé)
However pragmatic and explainable they may appear, many of our life stories may be traced back to mythic origins. At least, that is the way the great storytellers from Homer on down have seen things. Here is the true story of what happens when two teachers on wildly different journeys (one of them being myself) eventually meet.

The First Teacher
His path to teaching was straightforward. As a small child, he was liked by teachers, mild mannered and compliant. He minored in education in college, and went on to receive teacher certification and a masters degree in education. From there it would be a steady advance. He taught at a New York City prep school, specializing in art history and world history, then moved to the suburbs and was tenured at a large, comprehensive public school. Next, pursuing a global perspective, he taught at a European international school, eventually apprenticing himself to the headmaster as an administrative trainee. At age 29, he was made the head of an international school, the youngest in the European Council of International Schools. Again parlaying experience, he selected the University of San Diego School of Education and spent five years earning their doctorate, his third degree, where he laid plans for an independent school start-up using the original brand, “learn by discovery.” As a next step, he began teaching at graduate schools of education and then, networking with education professors, founded an independent school. He employed the best principles from the USD School of Educational Leadership, the accreditation commission, and the California State Curriculum Frameworks. The school grew every year for a quarter century and evolved into a permanent campus of stature, yielding him honors, awards and worldwide friendships, including the University of San Diego’s alumni career achievement award.

I recite the accurate history but not the name of this committed teacher so that people may realize the methodical path towards career advancement in education any aspiring teacher might anticipate. Each step in such a career becomes the architecture for the next, as we build.

Ultimately he taught for over 30 years in schools large and small. He consulted and served as an accreditor for schools all over the world. These building blocks reveal a logical series of achievements, plotted out assiduously. But the global perspective and “learn by discovery” themes withstood every phase of school and career development.

Taking stock, he presented his resume to his school board: 30 years of persistent commitment to the education field, primarily working with adolescents. He had fared well, despite a few quiet pathologies picked up along the way: shingles, bradycardia, anxiety, and the like. A sabbatical was granted. In preparing, he transferred many of his duties and responsibilities to other offices, passed along hundreds of file folders, and at last turned the key in his office door, untethered and with no intention of returning predictably to a teacher’s desk the next week for the first time in three decades. With automobile mapping programs logged in and calendar marked off, he packed up a van, and headed south for 19 solid hours. Deep in the desert, at last, he would meet the person who would transform his life.

The Second Teacher
As a small child I was visited by a long series of night terrors, and it took me 50 years to see how this made a teacher out of me. The subject of the terrors was thus: I was inside a clear, glass box, which encased and entrapped me and yet, paradoxically, was infinite. This is, of course, impossible, however, paradox lives well in dreams. Over a period of a couple years, I awoke repeatedly to this same terror screaming and flushed, sometimes in a bathtub, as my parents attempted to bring me to consciousness, and eventually I learned something only dreams can teach us: the contents of my own subliminal thoughts. These terrible dreams figure significantly in my memories of being a child and of, later, exploring the human netherworld that became my subconscious mind.

My path to teaching was nonlinear, appearing different from every angle. I drifted through school fairly unconsciously, preferring to be out of doors. In college I did not plan on going into teaching and I have no recollection whatsoever of what caused me to sign up for a course in education or to eventually minor in the subject. I did not distinguish myself in those courses, though I did receive an A in my final one as a result of an offer the anti-Vietnam War professor made: if you showed up for the final you aced it.

During college I also signed on to the audio-visual department and they randomly pegged me to show the weekly slides to art history classes.

My first “permanent” fulltime job was in a fine, upper East Side Manhattan Prep School. That my prior job was fishing for lobster many miles off of George’s Bank in the North Atlantic was nowhere on my resume. When I arrived in New York City, I discovered that, although I had read little in college, I could accurately name and describe most of the contents of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I roamed those halls in wonder, astonished at my own recall of years of art history slide shows I had never even thought about. I was assigned the job of teaching art history.

Three weeks before concluding my second year in this school for the privileged, I literally shipped out to pursue a dream, sailing the great Atlantic on a topsail schooner. Fired from my teaching job upon my return, I quit the profession to become a writer and sculptor. “I can teach a thousand people that way,” I told my father.
Before long, however, a public school offered me a job, part time. I had forgotten I had even applied there. (Simultaneously, I received an offer to be an international appliance salesperson, however my mother lost the phone number of the person who inquired, so I accepted the public school job instead.) And so I became a teacher again.
I moved out near the school and soon found myself walking into a neighborhood bar. After winning a few rounds of pool, which irritated a small motorcycle gang, several thick and leathered bikers jumped me and pounded me into the floor. The next day I again wandered into the bar and asked for a job. I told others this job was to supplement my income, but I somehow knew it was my way of walking into fear. “Still not mellow?” my childhood friend Peter said to me, and even I wondered if I’d ever grow up. (I wouldn’t.)


It did not take long for me to feel boxed in at my new school. There were union reps, testing requirements, entrenched unwritten rules, and a preoccupation with the pension plan. Public regulations prevented me from taking my students anywhere, but I brought fascinating people into the class almost weekly—chefs, NGO reps, politicians, artists. Anything to merge the classroom with what seemed real.

My daily commute to the school was on long flat plains, and I developed a habit of imagining the clouds as Alps. I envisioned skiing high and free. I at last received a telegram from a headmaster I had written to in Bern, Switzerland, during my writing phase: “Dear Stuart,” the telegram said, “We have a sudden and unexpected opening to teach at the International School of Bern …” I was gone. My first season in Bern, I developed what I called “the off-piste ski group,” the goal of which was to ski freely out of bounds, on unmarked Alpine mountainsides.
There in Europe, teacher seemed to have an older, broader meaning, and I came into contact with other educators who, to my excitement, had actually started their own schools. That you could do this had never crossed my mind, but it tapped into something or other inside of me. For reasons I could not at the time explain, almost instantly, starting a school became my dream, like a pulse that beat inside me.
Visiting family in San Diego one summer, I woke up one morning and, with no plan or intention, drove to The University of San Diego. There I met an advisor who interviewed me. “I might start a school,” I told him. I made no applications elsewhere, and knew nothing whatsoever about the philosophy, reputation, or potential outcomes of this program. I completed the requisite paperwork and was admitted. Hence, I would leave Europe. On my very day of arrival back to America, I started in the doctoral program. I had swapped for the Alps the unfathomable lure of the Ocean.  

After five years, upon graduation, I had nothing beyond my diploma: no money, no plans, no business experience, and yet I sensed that this lack of everything was my greatest asset. Call it openness. I had been working at an independent school, and the grandfather of a student said to me, “There is a for rent sign outside the Rincon Plaza that I pass by every day. Why don’t you stop in there and see if you can rent your own classroom space?”

I stopped throwing out the incessant junk mail I was getting offering me credit cards, and replied to them until I had seven.  I was rich. I took my cards down to Target to purchase school supplies, filling up two shopping baskets, which I took back to the storefront, and began outfitting my two-room school.

Taking a break from screwing cheap furniture together, I sat out front my new school on the curbstone, well before I had even a single student, and felt a stirring that I could never have predicted. I had purchased an American flag on an impulse and, suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the largest picture I could think of: In America, once could freely start a school. Heart pulsing, I screwed the flag on to the front of the building, then went inside and booted up my computer. A blank page appeared, and that was to become the school. It was a Mac and one of the standard font sets included graphical icons from which the only conceivable, useable one was the globe, and I set this globe image into the header. Imperceptivity, unthinkingly, I hit the carriage return and observed myself typing, underneath the globe, the phrase “Learn by Discovery.”

I treasured those days of approaching work as a tabula rasa, an open world to create. Twenty years went by. There were few theories beyond chaos theory and Zen. And so it was that, after what felt like a lifetime, a bit exhausted, I proposed to my board a sabbatical characterized by only hints of requirements or agendas beyond the pursuit of open space.

Before I knew it, I was turning the key to my office door for the last time in six months, a little lost and, with utterly no intention or plan but open-mindedness. I set out driving 19 hours south of the border to a remote spot to spend 40 days and nights alone to surf and write and begin again.

I thought I would be alone. Then one day, I recalled my ancient terrors. “Have you ever felt in conflict with yourself?” questions John Kabot Zinn, and I knew I had been my whole life. At last, the teacher of record came face to face with the shadow teacher, and I was no longer alone. Years of conflict, drifting, avoidance, and self-lies were at last brought together with years of achievement. Together my two selves had tightly threaded together dreams and nightmares, and now they were unraveling: the nightmare trap of the infinite, glass box; shipping out of my first job to sail the wide Atlantic; visions of clouds like boundless, white Alps ... Skiing out of bounds like flying. The startling, unexpected allure come of an American flag. At last, unbounded, I understood that it was never a teaching career I had been pursuing, or any career. It was freedom.

For others who are willing, there are other unifying forces—maybe equality, maybe gratitude, maybe peace­—that warrant a lifetime search. Maybe these universals, if they exist, are all the same somehow.  But for me, it was freedom.

Emily Dickenson described the “impregnable fortress” we build around our hearts, “Me from Myself—to banish—.”  There are in each of us at least two selves. There is the compliant teacher living in harmony with social norms and telling students what they “need” to know and do, and there is the hidden self—avoidant, fearful, frozen, rebellious, subversive or conflicted. 90% of our decisions are made way down there, subconsciously. And after they are already made, we ascribe logic and public presentability to them, dividing us further from our own selves.

“Eat, Walcott encourages us. Once we invite the forces that guide us subconsciously to enter into our story of who we are, we have the opportunity for congruence, the real stuff of happiness and peacefulness.  “You will love again the stranger who was your self.”

Many cultures have acknowledged or revered this separation of selves: the trance-inducing Navajo Skinwalkers, African shaman, Greek soothsayer, Hawaiian kahuma peer clearly through the glass box.  Poets, psychologists, and priests often appear to have access to the subliminal mind or spirit.

At least in the west, getting to this place can feel risky, irrational, embarrassing, and foolish. Maybe sacrilegious. Most of us are fearful to access the shadow self because it reveals our vulnerability, lack of control, and dependence. We replace genuine curiosity with a set of presumptions, as our ego takes over. The word “should” creeps deeper into our daily vocabulary. Over time, we ignore the subconscious scripts that dictate to us how we define ourselves publicly until it is buried. Who we are is replaced by presumptions of who we should be. These presumptions are not always easy to let go of—we’ve spent years fine-tuning them. We don’t want to give up our great resume for a blank page. But then, like it or not, one day we become aware of how very scripted we are. We may or may not be looking for this. We may be driving, or reading, or walking, and this realization comes like a traveller. Perhaps we let him in.

To those who deny such scripting exists, we might ask:  How do you know it doesn’t? To those who claim teaching is a reliable set of expert skills, I wonder: When was the last time you experienced great teaching?

Congruence starts when we make intimate disclosures to ourselves: our fears and foibles. And then to others. We risk being honest and being known. We confront the rules of rank and status, willing to let them go. Through this vulnerability, the façade of independence collapses and the space for humility opens up. In this space, we better sense how infinitely we are bound with those around us.  We can at last make peace with how very interdependent we are, how reciprocal everything is. With others. With our shadow selves.

Our boundaries become permeable and our curiosity about those around us becomes humble and unhinged from our agendas and our public image. Our vulnerability may humiliate us, but it also awakens our hearts to help others in the most genuine way. The awakened teacher embraces the occasional chaos of not knowing where the lesson will end, feels unburdened by stogy old authority systems, and feels untethered by the geographical location of the school. From then on, our school is anywhere new thought, creativity, responsiveness, and innovation occurs among and between students and faculty. It is like the open computer screen to the writer, it smiles at fear, and it is free.

We will always confront, even in our own selves, the resume builder, the compliance driver, and the distant, self-absorbed professional, along with the wild fallacy that our help is more valuable to others than it is to our own selves. We recognize these ego-people in teaching, of course, and can sense their insincerity or conflict sometimes mildly, other times overtly, in their diagnostic approach to relationships with students. Of course, they are us.

The disconnect comes early in life, when we join the educational competition that honors high scores above genuine relationships, creativity, and peace of mind. Schooling can sever our minds from our souls, and as teachers we can spend our entire careers trying to re-attach them. We can spend our entire careers with our competing agendas unbeknownst to us. Once we meet ourselves, we can at least start trying to do just one thing at a time, what wise people have called “presence.” To be present for our students while simultaneously pursuing a required curriculum is to achieve a high level of integration that makes us:

            • More intuitive, and more trusting of our intuitions
            • More trusting of our students
            • More aware of coincidences, hunches and insights
            • More curious

And what wisdom is greater than curiosity? What greater teaching outcome than epiphany?

As training teachers we may come to see ourselves as our resumes. And what if we were our resumes? As young teachers establishing our new, professional roles, we begin hiding from our students just as we pretend that they are dependent upon our authority. We may need to do this for a time. We may need to lean on our resumes as we are developing the massive skill set teaching demands. But take heart, young teacher: this profession has the capacity for personal evolution like few others. Eventually, we may open up the door to a set of presumptions that look pretty much the opposite of those we entered the profession with, and we can discover a new definition of teaching: the study of the student. We shift our approach from didactic to Socratic. Acknowledging our dependence upon our students and fellow teachers reveals our deepening interest and curiosity about them.

Following our curiosity about how our students approach a topic or subject can become a fundamental and endless source of fascination. This, in turn, opens the door to authentic and more intimate relationships where students can become more curious about their teacher. In this same way, we can discover new definitions for community service and service learning: the study of the subject group. We can redefine school site leadership as: the study of our faculty. Reciprocity eventually becomes a way of life, and it starts with our simple, humble inquiry.

My greatest teachers never criticized my ideas, however bizarre they were—they only wanted to know more. Sufi teachers refer to this as “the wisdom of the idiots.” Over time, we have learned how little we know, and this is the beginning of compassion. We stop disguising our vulnerability and weakness, we sense that our view of the world is oblique and naive, and so we pursue our teaching and service as a way to access our own larger awareness and connection. The great teachers, it seems, are those willing to take off their armor and drop the role-play, at least from time to time. This is humility. This is the field where we at last meet our own selves in the most natural way in the world, so that we can meet our students.

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuart.

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