"Stupid dirty hippies!"
Though I might not have ever said these words out loud, I no doubt thought them more than once when walking away from a lecture during college. I came to Grinnell as, and still am, a fairly moderate individual—choosing to straddle the fence between conservative and progressive ideals. I wanted to be a high school teacher in a quiet, well-to-do setting; trying out new and “crazy” ideas was not on my resume; social justice was not my #1 priority. As you might assume, my first year at Grinnell left me bewildered. “How will such a group of out-of-touch dreamers ever function in the real world?” I asked myself.
But Grinnell had a funny way of getting under my skin. Whether it was my professors or my classmates, I was pushed to examine the path my life was headed down. Though it sounds silly now, I believed the path in life should be: school, then work, then family, then retire. It was the status quo, but I thought it got to be that way because that’s what people wanted.
Grinnell changed that; Grinnell gave me permission to forge my own path in life.
The summer before my senior year, I applied for a Rosenfield Grant. Knowing I wanted to be a teacher, I decided to shadow one of my high school teachers for the summer. “Is that what you really want to do this summer?” Steve Langerud (then with the Career Development Office) asked.; Believe it or not, up until then, I’m not sure I even considered the question myself. When I walked out of his office, Steve’s question remained in my head; it gave me permission to forge my own path, wherever it may have led. That summer ended up being a pivotal one for me. Somehow—between cold calling, sending in samples of writing, and a heavy dose of sweet-talking—I ended up being a personal Speechwriter to the U.S. Secretary of Education (Rod Paige, at the time). During my first day on the job, the Secretary gave a speech at a school named KIPP DC: KEY Academy. The school had a record for scoring the largest educational gains among underserved populations that the city had ever seen.
After receiving my teaching license through Grinnell, I applied and got a job at KIPP.
My first year, to put it bluntly, was a disaster. It was so bad that if any other teachers needed to feel better about themselves, all they had to do was spend five minutes in my classroom and they could leave confident they weren’t the worst in the building.
However, after Professor Jean Ketter took a year-long sabbatical and spent it with me in my classroom, I was beginning to believe that I could actually do this. After three years on the job, I finally had a knack for guiding students along the writing process. They were achieving! After five years, the kids were producing work that went well beyond my highest expectations. Having taken on several leadership roles within the school by my fifth year, the natural progression should have led me to administration.
But it was then that another voice in my head nudged me to start questioning the path I was headed down. “Is this what you really want? In this case, it was Ali Brown ’03 who I’d met in DC and have lived with since we started dating three years ago. Our days were long at my school, and although I felt a tinge of self-righteous pride and accomplishment with what we were doing, I could also feel the need for a change. I was running out of steam and motivation.
What to do then? Move to a different city? Get a different teaching job? Switch careers? Well, Ali and I were forced to think about what the best path for us would be, rather than just resigning ourselves to continuing down the road we were on. In the end, we decided to move to Costa Rica. We’ll be leaving for this adventure in October, and we couldn’t be more excited. We want to see where our passions really lie when not forced to do anything (we won’t have any regular “jobs”).
One of the most interesting phenomena we’ve noticed is how people react to our plans. Many people, including a huge contingent of Grinnell alumni, think it’s fantastic. There’s another group though—equally as large—that get a look of disdain on their face when we reveal our plans. Instead of getting mad, I can’t help but smile when I see the look; what they’re thinking is very familiar to me:
“Stupid dirty hippies!”