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Imagine if our biggest impact is our ability to see the kids in front of us?

I woke up one morning to a few messages sent from old friends.

Just wanted to let you know, Mickey passed away yesterday.

I thought about Mickey while I went about the morning routine. I had woken up early to make my daughter pancakes for her birthday (she turned five). Hot stove, spatula in hand, and in the peace of the quiet morning, I found myself crying. My husband came downstairs and asked what was wrong.

My old teacher, Mickey, died yesterday. I just found out.

He was confused. I had never really talked about Mickey in the years of our marriage. Maybe once or twice but nothing significant. I had a hard time explaining why the news of his death hit me so hard. I've had plenty of good teachers but Mickey was different. I spent the day thinking about how I could put words to the impact Mickey had on my life... and why. Maybe it was to rationalize to my husband why I was crying on a Wednesday morning over breakfast, or maybe it was to understand the profound impact Mickey had on my life. Continues to have, really.

I think the story starts by admitting that I didn't attend a "normal" school until high school. My mom found a local school not far from our house in Green Bay, Wisconsin called Aldo Leopold Alternative Program (or later and currently: Aldo Leopold Community School). She didn't know much about the school and later found out it had originally started as a school for kids who didn't fit in so well in traditional classrooms. We called our teachers by their first names. We were never given grades. Most of the teaching was done through projects and student well-being was valued just as high as academic learning. Sometimes even higher. There were kids from all over the city. There were kids with significant learning challenges and kids with off-the-charts IQ scores. And everything in-between. That's where I was: in-between.

The school was normal to me. I didn't know anything different. Occasionally, from my parents' friend or a neighbor, I would hear them refer to me as an Aldo Kid. Which I would learn much later in life, meant that I was different in some way. More creative, smarter, needed more help, needed less help, couldn't fit into a normal school. It was hard to see exactly where the assumptions came from because I saw our school as a really diverse place. I didn't see us all fitting into any one category.

In the elementary years, we had immersive experiences as Barkhausen Waterfowl Preserve. We worked with puppeteers to create, write and perform our own puppet shows. We mapped the solar system by creating a scaled model of the universe several blocks around the school building. Learning was experiential, hands-on and really, really fun.

I always knew about Mickey. He was the 8th grade teacher and ran a morning volley-ball program for students in the middle school. By the time I arrived in Mickey's class, I was a pretty normal teenager: awkward yet cocky, boy-crazed, socially-driven and ready to be at the top of the school.

My second admission, is that I spent a lot of time in school avoiding learning. Avoiding class, to be precise. I would use any excuse to be in the hallway or go to the bathroom. My friends and I played Bloody Mary in the bathroom by the gym with my blue Indiglo watch for hours. I spent a few years being out of class more than being in class. I can't really remember why.

I was supposed to do a project on vitamins. A topic I chose and a project I developed... at first. I squandered months of open work time when we were supposed to be working on projects and at the final hour, I threw together a report and it was awful. I sat with my parents and Mickey and fumbled through an ill-prepared presentation about vitamins, though it was clear I had done nothing.

My parents were so angry.

We are so disappointed, Loni. What have you been doing in school?

I was embarrassed. And ashamed. I didn't have an answer for my parents, but Mickey did.

He explained that I had not been working on the project. I was often really social, and he didn't think I was really interested in learning about vitamins. He said all this in the most calm and matter-of-fact way. Mickey was not disappointed in me. He agreed I should have chosen a more interesting topic but I was also learning by interacting with my friends. And I will probably learn to manage my time better after this experience.

The next project I did was about drugs. Street drugs. I still feel the ownership and pride over the book I made and presented at the end. That was 25 years ago.

This is just how Mickey was. He held a perspective about kids that generally they would be alright. That a "failed" project of three months gave more learning for a student than years of half-hearted successes. I remember Mickey the most in our common work area. When he was sitting with us at a table, just talking. As people. Mickey asked usquestions and listened. He listened like he valued what an 8th grader said. I would often refer to Mickey not as a teacher, but as a friend.

Mickey's wife, Renee, was also a teacher at the middle-school. On vacation in New Orleans, they sent us all post-cards. Each year we were invited to their home for an infamous "Taco Party" where we ate delicious tacos made from a secret recipe, drank our weight in soda and hung out with our friends... including our teachers.

In 2009, I was doing a masters degree at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education and we were tasked with finding two "living resources" to interview for our research. Mickey was my first choice. Mickey, Renee and the school principal, Dr. Hutchison, were some of the founders of Aldo Leopold Community School and I was on a mission to understand the philosophy behind it. During a series of rich conversations, I learned how the school was deeply inspired by the work of A.S. Neill and Summerhill School in the United Kingdom.

It's how we always thought a school should be.

Summerhill School is a democratic boarding school where attending class is optional and student well-being is paramount. A.S. Neill, the school's founder, believed students come to learning when they are happy, ready and when the learning is relevant to them. He famously wrote:

Children do not need teaching as much as they need love and understanding.

A.S. Neill's book, Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood has helped me make sense of my own experience as a student at Aldo Leopold Community School and it's helped me to shape my thoughts around teaching and learning, especially in working with transforming schools. Although I have always held a high amount of admiration for Mickey and his educational philosophies, I respect most his ability to practice it... for an entire career. In the everyday interactions with kids, Mickey brought love and understanding.

After work, I Facetimed with my dad. He volunteered throughout my middle-school years at the morning volleyball sessions. He also started to cry. I still hadn't been able to find words to explain to my husband the significance Mickey had on all of us, but I think he could start to see it.

To put it simply:

Mickey was always there. He was a listener. He had patience and understood what was needed for teenagers in their most awkward and vulnerable moments. He was stability. He founded a program that raised a generation of creative problem-solvers and happy street cleaners. He was a legend that everyone in the school knew. He was the person to call many years later, knowing he would remember who you were.

Mickey was my teacher. And my friend.

In loving memory of Mickey Knudson (1943-2020)


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