Dear Oli Family,
In early June, 1978, my family packed up the station wagon and headed north from Palo Alto, California, up the 101 toward Bonanza, Oregon and my Uncle Rabbit’s 12,000-acre Black Canyon Ranch. Rabbit collected horses and raised cattle on the ranch and, once a year, let his nieces and nephews pretend to be cowboys and cowgirls.
This year, though, our trip started a week before my school year ended. I was only allowed to leave school early on the condition that I promise to finish and mail a final book report by the end of my second week at the ranch. The ranch was my favorite place on earth, so I promised.
But despite my scholarly intentions, every day started with Uncle Rabbit’s eggs and bacon and toast instead of my pre-breakfast study session. Then a succession of hunting, fishing, motorcycle riding, frogging, horseback exploring, and canoeing with my cousins. If Del, the wizened, trail-dusted ranch manager and former rodeo star, was in a good mood, I might even herd some cattle or rope a calf.
At the time, I guiltily viewed all this activity as an evasion, an avoidance, an irresistible obstacle to my learning, to my “should”. It took as much energy to manage the burning anxiety of my unread book, unwritten paper, and unkept promise as it did to hunt, ride, and rope all day. After dinner–my last opportunity of the day for schoolwork–I collapsed into an early and fitful sleep–as exhausted by anxiety and guilt as by all that activity.
Only now, 42 years later, do I fully understand that the ranch was not an obstacle to my education. It was my education. How many 13 year old Palo Alto kids knew how to write a book report? All of us. How many knew how to heel a calf, hook a trout, skin a rattlesnake, feather a clutch, or catch and cook cuisses de grenouilles sauvages a la provencale? Just one. If I’d possessed the wisdom of that perspective at the time I might have enjoyed my ranch education without the torture of book-report ambivalence.
As we prepare for the start of school, we can either view the idiosyncrasies of the last six months and the next three?, six?, twelve? months–masks, COVID tests, physical distancing, quarantines, et cetera–as obstacles to our education, or the path to it.
Most deep learning starts not by asking, “What do I know and what can I do?” but, rather, “What don’t I know and what can’t I do?” Novel circumstances–like cattle ranches and pandemics–tend to expose those learning objectives organically and can, therefore, lead to deeper growth than more conventional circumstances. I suspect that will be the case as we welcome you back on Sept 10- 14 and begin a type of schooling we don’t yet know how to do–with masks, hyflex, family groups, social distancing, COVID tests, bubbles, etc.
How many Oliverian faculty and students know how to write a book report? All of us. How many of us know how to navigate uncertainty, put others before ourselves, read peoples’ eyes, creatively respond to changing circumstances, invent, teach and learn both independently and in community, live harmoniously at close quarters, and cherish–or at least tolerate–stillness? Soon, I hope, the answer will be the same as for the book report: all of us.
With the right mindset, this weird time is not the obstacle to our education. It is our education. And a precious one at that.
Warmly and hopefully,