Listening, or What I Did Over My Summer Vacation


Zombies Aren’t Real

You may have noticed that it’s been fairly quiet on Stay Out Of School over the recent months.It all started back at Memorial Day—which you may remember instead as the start of the Zombie Apocalypse, kicked off by the infamous Miami Face Eating incident. I was actually in South Beach that day, crossing I-395 at the exact time that the whole thing went down on the I-195 bridge (the bridge I would normally have taken). Not to get all woo-woo on you, but it was pretty striking for me. If I hadn’t taken the express lane I would have been right in the midst of that whole showdown.This made the story close to home both figuratively and literally, so I followed it a little more carefully than I normally might have. Early that week the coverage was non-stop and I noticed everyone kept calling this guy the Face Eater,almost instantaneously. I, the grammarian and general stickler that I am, kept thinking “how do we know that this guy was eating his face? Doesn’t that imply he was swallowing? Do any of us know if he was swallowing?”This brought me to two conclusions:

  1. We really, really like to hype things. That’s not new news; sensationalism is a topic taught in elementary schools. But for me, this really stuck out. We as onlookers wanted this already positively horrific incident—I mean off the charts foul—to be that much more mythic and epic in nature, and we were using the language to prove it.
  2. I really needed to relax.

Rest assured I felt a special dose of vindication when it turned out a few weeks later that he was, in fact, only the Miami Face Biter. Rhetorical purists, unite!Meanwhile, on the relaxing front: I decided to take a break. I was only going to write if I had something to say. To be completely honest with you, it was pretty much a brain-sanctioned break. Memorial Day weekend was important to me for more than just zombies because it was the moment I noticed I was experiencing my first case of real, honest burnout, which quickly devolved into the inability to do much of anything other than stare blankly at the pool at the Delano hotel every other weekend. Yes, the nice people at the Morgans Hotel group probably quietly saved my sanity this summer. When I wasn’t amusing myself watching the paparazzi try to snap shots of luminaries like Miley Cyrus, I was in the pool back here at the Kiwi cottage with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.Don’t feel bad for me; I’m not asking you to. But, let me be clear: I was totally busted. I couldn’t read (I mean, I couldn’t even make it through a page of People magazine). Couldn’t think. Could hardly make polite conversation.All I could do was teach my students and listen.As you might imagine, my Klout score plummeted.

The Word Trend

So listen I did. At first I was really only noticing picky stuff: the face eater-biter frenzy, the mom who was staging a lemonade stand for her kids that I wrote about a few months ago. Then a friend noted one afternoon that he was going to the “snobby” yoga place instead of his usual place. What made it snobby, I asked. Well, the teachers actually helped you do poses properly and it was really beautiful inside. It turned out that in this case “snobby” was standing in for “quality.”That got me thinking about the war on “elitism,” that we got all over Obama four years ago because he made a remark about the price of arugula, that we as a culture have begun openly confusing being elite, striving, excellence, with “thinking you’re better than everyone else.”Lately, as the final weeks of the campaign fire up (and I bet you can imagine what that’s like here in Palm Beach County) and as the vitriol and lying and atrocious Facebook posts by both parties fly by on a minute-by-minute basis, I figured it was time to say something.

The Stay Out Of School Connection

Yesterday, Scott Porad of, whom I met briefly at Rethink Hawaii a few years ago, tweeted something that buttoned this for me so well: Be thoughtful with your words. Words program people just like code programs machines.


Shortly thereafter, my friend Erica Napoletano (@RedheadWriting) shared the following incredibly moving two-minute video all about meaning.


Finally, while she was writing an essay with me last night, one of my young students slipped into her piece the phrase that all my students use, that we as parents and teachers use, that Arne Duncan uses; it’s the phrase that drives my work here. It’s just two words, but they are huge: “real life.”As in, “if students don’t do well in school they won’t be prepared for real life.”If you’ve chatted with me back channel recently you’ll know that I’ve become extremely hung up on this idea of “reform for the rest of us.” Lots of people are talking about how to enhance curriculum, how to train teachers, how to attract top talent to schools. Very few people are talking about the hand the rest of us play in education reform, how the way we as regular ol’ community members live in the United States and how we talk about education telegraphs a giant, overarching message to students:



That’s a problem. In fact, I think it’s our biggest problem. Stay Out Of School is really about the connection between the post-graduate world, and by that I mean K-12, and beyond. I’m convinced that the way each of us lives as an adult, what we do in the privacy of our own homes, even when we’re alone, distinctly and actively informs the classroom experience of students around us.We live what we find valuable. Our communities reflect those trends, and kids pick up on them.This summer it sounded like we value zombies, being deeply average, and malicious standoffishness that prevents discourse and solutions.

Going Forward

So sure. Classrooms have to change, but the rest of us do, too. Ed reform, reform that shapes the future of everyone living in the United States, really ought to be a conversation between people in schools and those of us outside schools. All of us.In doing all that listening, I realized that my personal culture is part of the problem. People don’t suffer burnout without cause. I was caught up in my own segment of the “not relevant to school” adult culture: the workaholic rat race. Some us in the internet world like to call it "hustle."I have no business talking about what “we” should be doing if “I” am not doing anything myself. In emerging from burnout I’ve decided I’d really rather not go back there again. Moreover, it’s pretty hypocritical of me—and poor leadership—to spend my days coaching young people to develop their talents, vision, and health and not do the same myself.I’ve taken the following steps:

  • Hot yoga three to four times a week. I’ve always taken my fitness pretty seriously, but I find the meditation of yoga to be profoundly helpful for my million-miles-an-hour brain.
  • I’m learning to run, frankly for no other reason than I used to be one of those people who joked, “I don’t even run if someone is chasing me with a knife.” I was convinced I couldn’t, so I’m doing it.
  • I’m off the meat. This is really about trying to be healthier and not be supportive of Big Agriculture. If Joel Salatin raised the chicken, it’s safe to say I’d eat it. For now, though, I’m not eating beef, pork, or chicken and I’m steering clear of farmed fish as much as possible. I’m also buying organic whenever possible.
  • I’ve started doing things I really love to do that are good for me. Go figure! I’ve always been a big reader, but instead of relentless business books, I’m reading Jumpa Lahiri, Lillian Hellman, Pema Chodron, and David Lynch. I went out at four am the other night to go watch the Orionid meteor shower on the beach with friends, armed with pastellitos and cafe con leche. It was excruciating to get out of bed, but why sleep through it? I went to see Bonnie Raitt with my mother. In short, I’m doing stuff that’s enriching, that’s fun, that brings value to my life whenever possible.
  • I’ve had impromptu dinners with the neighbors and let friends swing by, sharing the best wine I’ve got on hand with them, just to celebrate it being Tuesday.
  • My first class in throwing pots begins on Monday night.

…And, most importantly to me, I’ve finally started my first novel.In short: I’m working really hard at being myself and using my gifts as much as I can, at living a life that is as autodidactic and engaged as I can muster. As I begin to write again on Stay Out Of School themes will largely be the same, but I’ll be framing a lot of the ideas about creativity, thinking, and education within the larger question of purpose—personal purpose and cultural purpose.As test scores continue to sink, as our political discourse degrades and congressional approval is rock bottom--and as stress levels skyrocket--it’s time to look at reform for the rest of us, because really, we can’t just tell kids to stay out of school.What do your words and actions say about what you value?

Elizabeth KingComment