I am the administrator of the first high school in the United States to join the Ashoka Changemakers Network. I also harbor a dark secret. On a personal level, I’m really not all that into change. I know that it’s the only constant in life and that you can never step into the same river twice and all that. But on a day-to-day level, I find change extremely distasteful.
I drink the same kind of tea every morning and afternoon, the idea of a two-week “vacation” is far more stressful to me than the idea of 52 relatively similar work weeks, and I’ve never ordered anything from Taco Bell but a crunchy taco supreme. Although I recognize on an intellectual level that change is the first step toward growth, I often find myself all too willing to let others try on the itchy sweater of metamorphosis. In the end, change is great like the sun, from a distance.
So, when the opportunity arose to attend the Momentous Conference on emotional and social education in Dallas, Texas, I figured I’d let someone else leave the padded routine of everyday life to brave the uncomfortable hotel beds, anonymous diners, and strange faces of the Lone Star Republic. After all, I had everything here figured out. However, Jacob Hundt, our Program Director and my colleague of over 10 years (a man who knows me better than anyone else ) nominated me. Now, anyone acquainted with the internal history and politics of Youth Initiative High School knows that if Jacob Hundt, a founding student at YIHS in 1996 and a man who makes a medieval ox look lazy, nominates you to do something, you basically need to do it. I mean, George Washington never accrued a fraction of Jacob Hundt’s political capital.
There was no squirming out of this one; I agreed to go and started looking for a hotel and a plane ticket (both paid for by our generous benefactors at the Changemaker Network, so I couldn’t even use the expense as an excuse). As I began to plan my weekend in purgatory I also did a bit of research into the conference itself.
The first things that I noticed were slickness and enthusiasm, two things that immediately make me suspicious. The second thing that I noticed was a gallery of very well-lit and extensively powdered “headshots” of the presenters at the conference. Call me crotchety, but when I see a headshot I immediately retreat, like a hypersensitive hermit crab, into a shell of mistrust. Because, after all, headshots are not actually people, they’re more like privileged, un-relatable humanoids. Needless to say, on my day of departure what I felt was not so much despair but a sort of self-righteous irritation that washes over me in these moments of discomfort or anxiety. I drove the four hours to General Mitchell international airport in Milwaukee. Finally, on to the plane I relaxed and looked out of the window.
There is always something beautiful about the view from a plane’s window, exposing the intricate geometry created by human industry, a geometry which enmeshes us and ties us together though we remain entirely unaware of it from the ground. Here a trapezoidal field of soybeans, there the arterial ballet of an interstate freeway exchange, a constellation of perfectly circular orbs on the grounds of an oil refinery, the endless queue of tractor trailers resting on a secluded acre of pavement — from a new perspective these things are no longer banal and confounding but grand and impressive. We landed in Fort Worth as the sun began to set.
When I awoke in the morning, I ate the continental breakfast of dry pastries and frosted flakes. After a tall glass of orange juice that came out of a bag, I began my short walk to the conference. Arriving at the Hilton Anatole, I was astonished at the size and opulence of the hotel and found the conference to be no less gratuitous in its amenities. Three large screens the size of the broad side of a barn projected ebullient things that started with hashtags and were supported by statistics. Latino servers busied themselves with offers of organic, full-leaf teas in silk bags and little bite-sized quiches each with their own little, flaky pastry crust. A woman in a cocktail dress (didn’t she know it was 9 in the morning?) introduced the conference, and after a sappy video vignette featuring some little uniformed 3rd graders, the first speaker took the stage with one of those little microphones strapped to his jawline reminiscent of cult leaders, cops, and Tom Cruise in Top Gun. I knew exactly how this was going to go down.
But it turned out, I was wrong.
Perhaps the long exhausting hours of travel had eroded my defenses or perhaps my psyche had become enchanted by the ambrosial yogurt parfaits they served in martini glasses. Whatever it was, as the first speaker fired up his PowerPoint I began to feel a strange reminiscence.
Here was a man (Daniel Pink) with an impressive education who was speaking about things I didn’t know, and there was no reason for me to act like I knew them. The anonymity of the conference and the distance it held from everything familiar to me allowed me the space to simply listen, I did not need to stake out a position or further an interest. I was brought back to my undergraduate days; when ideas existed for themselves, of their own virtue; when I was expected to have questions instead of all the answers; when there was nothing to defend or advance; a time when I was so thrilled by change that I couldn’t stay in the same state for more than 3 months; a time of exponential growth. I realized that we don’t grow up despite the proverbial adolescent discomfort we grow up because of it. Adults are not too old to change, they are too comfortable.
I spent the next couple days listening, and dreaming up plans, and thinking about the future, and making connections, and concocting schemes with our fellow Changemaker schools. On breaks, I investigated the peculiarly dry but soft and green natural turf that exists in the boulevards and lawns of Dallas and appreciated the dry warmth of the Texan sun on my shoulders. Each night I returned to the strangeness of my hotel, walking and eating and swimming through a silence that I almost never experience in my daily life with the responsibility of four children, two birds, a chihuahua, and 67 teenagers. What struck me was not so much that I was being inspired (and I was) but that I could be inspired. I wasn’t too old or too stubborn to change and to grow.
I came back from that conference I had so dreaded with more energy for my students, parents, and colleagues, a renewed commitment to our membership in the Changemaker Network, and a killer idea for an urban-rural exchange program. I also came away with a little nugget of wisdom that I really hope doesn’t get lost in the joyful haystack of my everyday life. Maybe change is inevitable, but growth is not.
Change is merely the harrow through the seed bed. It’s just as likely to end up in eroded topsoil as it is to produce a bumper crop.Change is a necessary but not sufficient condition for growth. Growth must be cultivated consciously, and by journeying to the edges of our knowledge or comfort zone or the contiguous United States, we create the conditions for growth that can make the individual and the society smarter, more empathetic, and more talented than ever before.
Bio: Matthew Voz is the administrator at Youth Initiative High School. YIHS is an Ashoka Changemaker School in Viroqua, WI.