Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “teaching”

A 21st Century Visionary (Los Altos Town Crier, July 5, 2017)

StanfordAlaska37_ZachOratingdocOn my travels in June I met a modern-day visionary.  His name is Zachary Brown, he wears rumpled plaid shirts and jeans and hiking boots, and he is the co-founder, executive director, and so far the sole employee of the Inian Islands Institute, a center designed, according to his business card, to provide “Experiential living and learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska”.

Zack was brought up in Alaska, in a little town of 400 people at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park, and on the fourth side by Icy Strait.  Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane.  When, the residents of Gustavus s feel a need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they go to the Hobbit Hole.

The Hobbit Hole is a homestead nestled on an inlet of Icy Strait, originally a fishing camp, later expanded to accommodate the owner’s family, then the owner’s brother’s family.  One of the wives was a craftsperson, so a pottery studio was added.  A barn evolved into a workshop with a sleeping loft above.  The brothers entertained visitors from the Lower 48.  For a while it was known as the “Pot Hole.”  

As the brothers aged the old nickname lost its relevance, and it was Zack’s mother who suggested that the place be called “the Hobbit Hole.”  The name stuck.  The brothers built a guest house.  Their wives maintained a garden and a lawn.   Folks from Gustavus became used to holding special events there, or spending a weekend in one of the guest rooms.

Then while Zack was working on a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale.  The brothers were retiring.  And he had a vision. He could buy the property and set up a hands –on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy, locally grown food.   But how could he convince others – and himself – that this crazy idea could work?  Maybe he’d have to do something else crazy first.

 On the day he graduated with his PhD, Zack set out from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angles, Washington, camping each night.  In San Bruno he was almost arrested for vagrancy, but agreed to leave town and camp elwwhere.  Along the way he was offered many a ride, but turned them down, though he accepted the occasional offer of a cold beer instead.  When he got to Port Angeles 55 days and over 1000 miles later, he bought a kayak.

From Port Angeles, he paddled to Gustavus, another 900 miles. Along the way from Palo Alto, he had talked to hundreds of people about his vision for the Hobbit Hole.  Each time he told about it, the vision became a bit more real, a bit more doable.  And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.

Three years later, Zack and his partners have obtained two major foundation grants.  They hope to complete the contract for purchase of the Hobbit Hole in February of 2018.  Meanwhile the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps,  and work parties at the site.  They have also hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College, and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale and Stanford Travel. P1030646web

I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the  Hobbit Hole as one of the highlights of our trip.  It was a mostly sunny day, only a brief spatter of rain, as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zack’s trip veteran.  The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots, and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants.  Zack showed off the workshop, the pottery studio, the hydro-power station.  And he led us through the woods to a moss-crusted concrete pillar marking the deaths of two people, possibly a mother and son, possibly Tlingit.  The site was a Tlingit fishing camp long before Alaska had a name.

We were two thousand miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology.  It was amazing to be in a place and with people where life is dependent on a water wheel, a garden, and a storehouse deep in the ground which never warms up.  And exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.StanfordAlaska47_HobbitHoledoc

 

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A Piece of my Mind: Things My Mother Said to Me (Los Altos Town Crier – April 5, 2017)

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  “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

But also: [Of a small tear or a crooked seam on a dress].  “It’ll never show on a galloping horse”

 “What did Thumper say?” [It was actually Thumper’s mother in “Bambi” who said “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”]

“ If you ever say that word again I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap!”

 “I grew up in a house with no men -my widowed grandmother, my widowed Aunt Em and her daughter, my divorced mother, and me.  When I got married I didn’t know anything. I used to go in and watch your father shave. It was thrilling!” 

“Aunt Em always said: ‘Never ask a question that can be answered by a number.’”

“My grandmother and my Aunt Em had always done all the cooking.  I barely knew how to boil water.  Your father had to teach me how to cook. “

“Everything I knew about being married I learned from the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Everything your father knew about being married he learned from the Boy Scout Handbook.  Somehow we did all right.”

“Your father would take any job offer as an opportunity.  I never had any security – never!  until I got my first teaching job.  Mac never said no to an offer; I never said no to him – I was such a doormat.”

  [On the age gap between my younger siblings and me]” We had our family all set. One boy, one girl.  Then we moved to East Texas and there wasn’t much else to do.”

 “It’s not so much whether your child is ready to do something; it’s whether you’re ready to let him.”

 “I didn’t care so much about being the first to do something.  But I wanted to be the best. Well, actually, I liked being first too.”

“One of the worst things about being a widow is that you are not #1 with anyone anymore.”

“If you’re going to be famous, Allyson, don’t wait until it’s too late for me to enjoy it.”

 [About the visions which began appearing after cataract surgery] “I know they’re not real, but they’re a lot more interesting than my reality these days.”

 “Mac [dead 20 years earlier] comes and stands by the bed at night, but he never says anything to me.  Do you think he is angry with me?”

“Promise you won’t give up on me, Allyson.”

[As I was helping her walk from her chair in my living room to the dining room table] “They didn’t tell me it would be so long. “

                Me, thinking she meant the distance to her dinner:  “It’s the same distance it’s always been.”

                Mom: “No, I meant old age.”

[While living at  her home of 60 years with 24/7 care] “Shouldn’t there be a pill I could take now to get all this over with?”

[Near the end of her life and memory] “I was looking forward to moving, but I can’t decide between moving in with Aunt Em or with Mother.”

“Are you a patient here too, or are you one of the staff?”

“Am I going home tonight?”

My mother died in her own bed a week later. P1040062

A Student’s Success (Los Altos TOWN CRIER, March 2014)

I was watching a PBS documentary on the Old West – you know the type.  Lots of historic photographs, lots of historic documents, and some expert talking heads explaining it all with their names and credentials briefly headlined.

Suddenly I shouted in amazement.  An unusual name, familiar from my remote past, had flashed ont he screen.  Through the changes years had made I saw a familiar smile. “I know that guy!”

A quick Google search on the name turned up additional photographs confirming my recognition, an impressive list of awards for academic and journalistic excellence, and an email contact.  I fired off an email:

Subject: Wow!  My former student is a PBS pundit!

I was watching the PBS show on Butch Cassidy and saw you as a historical authority. There could not be two Ken Verdoia’s in the world!  And you look like yourself, only in 1967 you had no need to shave. I am so excited that my star 9th grade student in my student teaching year at MVHS has risen to eminence!

Maybe you remember me as the insecure Stanford intern who wore a fake hairpiece to make myself look older and taller.  I remember you in the freshman talent show lip-synching as Harvey Johnson looking for a prom date,

I’m  living in Los Altos and doing some writing for the local paper and my own entertainment. I see you are affiliated with the U of Utah (my parents’ alma mater, as it happens) I am so delighted to see what you have become!

Best of lives,

Allyson Johnson (formerly known to you as Miss Young)

The next morning I had this response in my inbox”

Allyson:

Through forty years in journalism, nearly thirty of those contributing to PBS, I have received many, many messages after a report or program. None as surprising and delightful as yours waiting for me this morning.

I am quite stunned that you would remember a student in such a manner. Particularly one so closely resembling wallpaper. But, yes, you do accurately cite the mime-like 14 year olds pushing their way through “Bye Bye Birdie” at Mountain View High School!

How wonderful for me…and what a thoughtful, inclusive gesture by you. Your memory is a generous gift that has started this day on a particularly happy note.

Next time you gather with friends, I hope you share this recollection. And, then, confidently inform them it was your insightful tutelage that launched a career!

All my very best wishes,
Ken Verdoia

In a later exchange of emails, Ken told me, “Every step along the way… elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate studies… there has been a kind and generous mentor who has made a difference.  Not ‘steering’ me, but demonstrating how courage, strength and ability are born of purposeful education.”

Since I was a girl I had always planned to be a teacher, but in the end I only taught high school English for seven years.  Teaching is a hard job, and I was not particularly gifted.  Still, I feel honoree to think that my blundering enthusiasm for good reading and good writing all those years ago might have earned me a small place among those who “made a difference.”

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