Surface and Stories


The process of getting to know another human being has two levels--surface and story--and first impressions take less than 30 seconds to form. 

In that first minute, consciously and unconsciously, we size each other up, scrutinizing appearance and style, body language and tone. Our brains fire synapses: “She looks like Aunt Sue.” “He’s the only elderly person in the room.” “I saw her last month at the basketball game.” Within a few minutes, our surface impressions give us the lay of the land, and when the Aunt-Sue-lookalike opens her mouth, we might assume that we know what kind of thing she will say.  

But then, if we listen long--and well--enough, we might be surprised. 


In early March, on a warm Friday night, I sat in a classroom and waited for the first “Community Institute for Education” to begin. I already knew a handful of the other participants, others were strangers. We said hello, smiled across the tables, and made our name-tags. 

I wondered what we would be learning in our first session--would we begin with a philosophy of civic engagement? Would we brainstorm educational issues to work on together, or would we talk about funding streams for public and private schools? A line from the Institute welcome letter rang in my head, “Figuring out where to start seems overwhelming when the problem seems so big.” I hoped to feel less overwhelmed at the end of the weekend--or at least by the end of the three-weekend Institute--but I couldn’t imagine how our facilitators could accomplish this. I looked around the room at a diverse group of parents, educators, concerned citizens. Where could we even begin?

We began with a blank piece of paper and these instructions--draw the road of your educational journey--and after a few moments of confused looks and clarifying questions, we settled in and began to remember.

I went to a small elementary school and a huge high school, so I drew a winding country road for K-6 that broadened into a superhighway when I was thirteen. Key moments like “Children’s Lit. Class” and “Governor’s School” were billboards along the way, and the college and grad school segments were followed by “Bridge Out” signs as neither course of education had led to the expected career. The more I drew, the more I remembered, and when I finally arrived at my experience of parenting elementary school students, I had run out of room.

This was no problem because I had also run out of time. “Now we’re going to share our drawings and our stories,” the facilitator announced, and a few of us blushed as we looked at our stick figure teachers. “Who wants to start?”

A brave soul raised her hand, and at this moment something shifted in the room, though we didn’t know it at the time. At this moment we moved from surface to story, and began our work together.

It is the surprises I remember.

A suburban woman whom I had unconsciously pegged ‘wealthy’ and ‘has it all together’ shared the emotional story of her child’s struggles with mental illness, a struggle that had begun when his father took him to a rifle range and he forgot a couple of bullets in his pocket. When they were found on the floor of the school coat room, he confessed “I think they might be mine,” setting off a chain of reaction that stretched from teacher to principal to superintendent to police. He was suspended, “as an example,” and the incident triggered a quick decline in his mental health. “He was a good kid, and was so embarrassed,” his mother remembered, “and after that, he was so isolated.” 

By this point in her story, she wasn’t the only one with tears in her eyes. 

A young father who was also a Doctor of Philosophy and a university professor (read: intimidating!) said there were three things that mattered to him in elementary and high school--friends, sports and music. “I certainly wasn’t there to learn,” he confessed, laughing. It hadn’t been until a college philosophy course that something sparked. “Something happened and suddenly I started loving it,” he remembered, “Suddenly I had access to parts of my mind that I never knew existed.” And just like that, in my own mind, the professor became a human being. 

Other surprises came from people whom I thought I knew well. My good friend, a young woman with two daughters the same ages as my own, had taught in the Los Angeles public schools for five years. I knew this, but I had never known how hard this had been for her. Her sixth grade classroom was in disputed gang territory, and she quickly became acquainted with many of her students’ probation officers. She tried to see beyond their rough exteriors. 

But then, in her fifth year of teaching, she became pregnant, and so did one of her favorite--and most promising--twelve-year old students. When another student pulled a knife on her and her husband lost his job, she was relieved to move to a place where she could afford to be a stay-at-home mom. She avoided thinking about public education for several years. But then her children began school, and she was back in the thick of it again. She concluded, “I’m not the idealistic twenty year old who wants to change the world anymore, but I’m not twenty-five and wanting to stick my head in the sand.”

Perhaps, in the end, that will sum up the reason why we’re all there--to find some balance between idealism and cynicism--but we didn’t start here. We started with our stories so that we might know each other, and even know ourselves better. How else could we be clear about what our next steps might be?

Digging Deeper:

  • Take a blank piece of paper and draw your own educational journey, starting in early childhood. Think especially about people and places along the way, as well as roadblocks and ‘ah-ha!’ moments. Think and draw to the present.
  • Ask someone else to do the same exercise and then share your stories.   


About the Institute's Resident Writer

The Institute is excited to be able to share these stories with you, courtesy of one of our participants, Jennifer Pelling. Jennifer is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She and her husband have two daughters--one in second grade at an independent Christian school, and one in first grade at a local government-run school. This arrangement has given her a greater appreciation--and endless questions--about the benefits and drawbacks of diverse types of schooling.

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