More from the Interview with Jim Robert of Pioneer High School: An Outpouring of Response from Former Students

By Jim Robert

In the month or so since the interview with Maureen McMahon about my Senior Passage Class at Pioneer High School was published in the September-December issue of the CW Journal, the outpouring of reactions from former students has humbled me. Each and every semester I do my best to pay careful attention to the effect the experiences in this class are having on my students as they take the class, and I've also had the great privilege of keeping in touch with many of them in the years that follow as they share with me the lasting effect one or another of the experiences continues to have in their lives, but I was ill-prepared for the outpouring of love and affection from students who happened to read Maureen’s interview.

I do not have a Facebook account, but apparently someone must have posted links to the interview, and in a matter of just a couple of days, I began receiving these remarkable and thoughtful responses from former students, some from 20 years ago. Just today, I have finished responding to each and every one of them. If there were 26 or 28 hours in a day, I would certainly jump full-fledged into making sense out of all the attention this interview has brought to my life, but for now, I will simply allow all of this to wash over me like the warmth of the sun’s rays and save a more intellectual processing for a later day. In the meantime, I would like to share with readers a broad sampling of some of the responses I have received from former students. Moreover, I will be challenging our readers in my next blog to take up their pen and a quiet meditative pose, and write their own response to the seminal question of this Senior Passage class. More on that later!

#1: Former Student from 1995

Hi Mr. Robert,

I saw the article in the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal and wanted to take a moment to drop you a quick line. It's been about 20 years, so I don't know if you remember me -- but I wanted to let you know that both you and your classes made a big impression on me, and was a real bright spot in the PHS drabness.

#2: Former Student from 1999

Hi Jim,

I came across an interview with you tonight in the Crazy Wisdom Journal. I . . . have spent the last hour devouring the short documentary film and your TEDx talk. It took me right back to Pioneer in 1999 and creating my philosophical self-portrait, which is still one of my most prized possessions. I have such conflicted memories of high school, and of being so closeted, but my friendship with you endures in my mind as part of what eventually guided me out. 

I'm sorry that our run-in three years ago at Wolverine Brewing did not materialize into another meet-up. I would still love to get that beer and have you get to know my wife, Melinda. I live in Baltimore now (halfway through a political science Ph.D. at Hopkins), but come to Ann Arbor frequently to visit family. I will email in advance next time and hopefully we can find a time to overlap. I would also love for you to meet my son, Reed. He is five weeks old and just starting to take in the world. In the last few days he stares awestruck at high-contrast black and white images. I know there is so much he will teach me, and already has. It is very humbling.

#3: Former Student from 2002

Who am I? A question that has become almost impossible to answer. I wonder if the “who am I” that I wrote 14 years ago still exists; maybe if I read it, I would have some light into the answer of that question now . . .

Who am I? A question that has become almost impossible to answer. I wonder if the "who am I" that I wrote 14 years ago still exists; maybe if I read it, I would have some light into the answer of that question now . . . It seems like I am asking myself this question a lot, and I feel really stumped to come up with any answer at all. First, I think. . . . I am a mom, and then I think I'm a bereaved mom. You see, sometimes it's hard to feel like there is space to be both of those people. Many bereaved moms, have no children; ah, yes, that is easy-ish for outsiders to relate to. Then there are those like me, a bereaved mom, with two children. "At least you have kids," they say.Yes! Yes, indeed I am so thankful for the two children I have, laughing, playing, fighting over toys, in my home each and every day. That doesn't ease the pain and morning of the son I lost. The baby I held in my arms, the one I had to give back to the nurse and walk out of the hospital without. I look in the mirror and I see someone who has aged more in the last 6 months that the previous 31 years. But who am I?

I am a daughter, I am a wife, I am a sister, I am a granddaughter, I am a friend, and I am an employee and boss. AND I am a mother… All of these titles, are roles I play in my life, but they are not WHO I am. They are, what I am.

Who am I?

I am honest, trusting, loyal. I am loving and a caregiver; I am fierce, I am spunky and spirited, I am smart, strong willed and stubborn, I am silly, I am playful, I am witty, I am sarcastic, I am broken, I am sad, I am lost at times, but I am "okay." I'm trying to find a new place in my same world. I look like me, I sound like me, but I don't always feel like me. I have more strength in my character and my convictions than ever; I am more aware of the joy and the sorrow around me. I am conscious all the time of the memories I am creating with and for my children, and in those same moments of joy, I am sad and am missing my Chaz; he is missing from our lives, he is missing from me. I've never had tolerance for much bullshit in my life, but at this point, there is no patience. I quickly become angry/irritated/over it when petty shit is going on around me. The number of times I've refrained from yelling "BABIES DIE" and then the few times I've said it out-loud is . . . I don’t know what it is . . . not right? Uncomfortable? Strange? Weird? Makes me feel like some one might have me committed? I am not crazy, I know that. But seriously, people -- babies die, and it's awful, it's not right -- spend more energy being positive and enjoying life and less time complaining. But here I am complaining.

It seems I carry so much of who I am from before my son, my Chaz, died, to who I am after his death. Yet there is so much that is not here; I am not me, but I know I cannot be anyone but me. The me of my past 31 years is so familiar, and trying to find a connection between who I am right now and who I was then is hard work. I'm working at it every day, and I'm laughing and smiling and enjoying my life in the process. But at least once a week, if not daily, I think, "Who am I?"

#4: Former Student from 2004

Hey JR,

It has been quite some time since I have seen you, but I saw the Crazy Wisdom article and had to reach out. I was in your class in the spring of 2004 and spent lots of time hanging in the portable during your off hour (which, being a teacher myself now, seems even more generous than at the time).

I am a 5th grade teacher now at an online school, and we just had a delegation from China come to our office for a visit. Long story short, they are looking to start using some of our curriculum etc., but I was absolutely fascinated by what this Chinese man had to say about the direction of education in China. He spoke about how students in China have been very disciplined, for a very long time. They sit in front of their teachers, and they do not talk. They listen and study and memorize and what we see as a result is -- yes, they can perform on standardized tests (those that do not pass them cannot move onto high school, which is not paid for by the State anyway), but they are lacking essential communication and critical thinking skills to succeed in this globalized work place (and I would argue, to engage other human beings on a meaningful level). What this man was saying is that China is trying to move in a more comprehensive direction.

Isn't fascinating that we, here in the United States, are moving in the complete opposite direction? I see it every day. The importance that is placed on a single day of testing for a student becomes the sum of "who they are" as a student. Many of my students who performed low on the MEAP last year are brilliant students who either had a bad day, do not know how to take the test, are not well-suited for that type of testing, or were trying to finish first, regardless of the quality of their work.

So this was on Tuesday afternoon; I saw the article that same night and I just thought, I need to talk to JR.

#5: Former student from 2004


20-plus years of teaching, thousands of students, and I wonder if you would remember me . . . I read and watched the wonderful video about your class. I honestly can't say that I exactly remember my day of council, but I remember being confused and uncomfortable. It is such an amazing class! Do you keep all of those essays? It would be interesting to see what I wrote. Now, 10 years later when I think about "who am I?" I think, I'm a student still learning, a constant dreamer and worrier, a fighter and a fragile person, I am a Christian, I am now a wife and a mother, I am unconditional love to someone I created. I could go on and on about what I've become, but to be honest, I'm still trying to find myself. Ten years ago I was looking for myself and today I'm still discovering who I am. I know our experiences make us who we are, and for those seniors in your class -- it's just the beginning of finding themselves. Finding out who I am still today is a pretty amazing journey; I discover a little more about myself, as I get older. Your class taught me a lot about self-reflection and loving myself. Thank you!

The last time I danced in the rain was outside your portable after school. Way too long ago . . .  I think we all could use a little dance outside in the rain.

Ten years ago I was looking for myself and today I’m still discovering who I am.

#6: Former student from 2004


My brother sent me your interview with Crazy Wisdom and my memory jogged . . . immediate desire to reach out and see how you are, share some of me, and also see if you may be available between the dates of October 15 - October 23. I'll be in town and would love to see you and gift you something as well . . . 

That something is a book, which was published this February. It's called 50 Ways to Wear a Scarf, and it is by far the biggest thing I've done in my life. I wrote and illustrated it in 2012 -- and the story of how that happened is proof that one must be careful what they wish for. When I first struck out as self employed, in my list of career goals I included: "Write a book for Chronicle Books." (They have always been my favorite publisher.) Two and a half years later, I received an email from an editor at Chronicle Books, who had seen an illustration I had put up on my website about how to tie a scarf, and she asked me to write and illustrate a book about scarves  . . . 

Writing and illustrating it was months of intensity (and honestly, the best preparation for it was field hockey -- athletics are the best teacher of discipline), but the hardest part, truly, was when it was published, a year later. I had a crisis of confidence this year, realizing this thing that lived in my notebook and my head was now open for the world to see and reflect upon, and it was difficult to identify "what was next." In the year of waiting games between when I finished and when it was published, I stopped much of my art, probably out of exhaustion, much of it out of financial necessity to get a job that immediately paid the bills. I felt all this pressure I'd put upon myself, to keep moving and creating and improving, but I was struggling. Writhing around and freaking out and making things worse when really what I needed was a vacation and just some time to let the field fully fallow!

The happy news is I'm now working on the next book (it's going to be about denim) and feeling the loss of pressure I previously put on myself. I'm making a living out of being an artist, doing commissioned illustrations, chalk art, menus, murals, and fashion styling, which, if  I were really honest throughout my life (if someone had asked me, straight up, at my council whether I wanted to be an artist!) this would be the deepest, soul stirring answer. I feel so lucky to be able to answer that calling, and for the circuitous path I've taken so far to get there.

On the other hand, I'm  yearning for the emotional freshness that lives around a big life change, for instance, the openness I felt senior year in philosophy class. I've lived in DC for five and a half years now, unbelievably, and I love my life here -- but I'm feeling some stagnation, and also financial pressure (making rent every month as a self employed artist is a small triumph). And also, my search for love! Part of me wants to sling it all back to the Midwest and find a proper corn-fed man . . . 

I'm sure you have a set schedule for your philosophy classes, but it would be wonderful to stop by, if that were a possibility. Or perhaps just a coffee. I've been thinking a lot about my network, my web of teachers, and the time I spent in philosophy was, IS, so seminal. Every day I learn how little I know, and having a good teacher is having someone to help expel that fear of "not knowing anything." I have so much to thank you for!

#7: Former student from 2005

Hi Mr. Robert,

I just saw the article on Facebook that another former-Pioneer student posted… Great article!  I enjoyed reading about how the class came to be, and how much it has changed since I left in 2005 (which does NOT seem like almost 10 years ago!) I still think about that class to this day, and tell people about how great it was. I often think I wish I could do a re-council, because I feel like I am the true Clare today, rather than the person I was back in 2005. But that's all part of the process, I suppose. 

Just wanted to drop you a line. Hope you're doing well! I've been keeping myself busy- married, working for the University, and going back to school for my Masters of Occupational Therapy. I want to do animal-assisted therapy (specifically with dogs) and try to bring that more to the forefront of conventional therapy. I am training my German shepherd to be a therapy dog, because I got her a few years ago and fell in love with her, and was inspired by how the relationship between animals and humans can have such a positive impact on the spirit. I hope to be able to use that to encourage patients. Also, I'm pregnant and expecting a baby boy in December! So I'm certainly on a new emotional journey now, learning and feeling and changing my identity to 'mother.' I'm not sure how I will accomplish all of this at one time, but I'm going to try :)

Hope all is well in your world!!

#8:  Former Student from 2006

Hi JR!

I'm not sure if you remember me… I graduated from Pioneer in 2006 and took your philosophy class during that year as well. 

After I graduated from Pioneer, I went to Northwood University, then off to my first job in Indiana, and I am now living in Washington DC and have been married for a little over a year now. It's crazy how fast life changes! I can honestly say that your class was a major driving force as I went through the different stages of life and continue to look into the future. 

I told her I think the most amazing thing is how you can put a group of high school seniors in a class together and talk about the most intimate details of that person’s life without judgment from another student, not to mention, how others come to the aid of someone in need, truly amazing.

The reason I am emailing is because I was on Facebook tonight and came across your interview on the Crazy Wisdom Website and TedX talk you gave at Michigan. I showed my wife the article and video and she is AMAZED! We have spent the last hour talking about your class and how it changed the lives for so many students. I told her I think the most amazing thing is how you can put a group of high school seniors in a class together and talk about the most intimate details of that person's life without judgment from another student, not to mention, how others come to the aid of someone in need, truly amazing. 

I am currently the President of our young professional group at Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in DC. Our group is made up of members ranging from 18-40 years old. We have a wide range of activities we plan and have been trying to get into more areas where we can examine each other and help to improve the community. We currently have quarterly discussion with our priest but that tends to be more theological or about a specific issue that society faces. 

After explaining the class to my wife she thought it would be great to use the council model for our group. I was wondering if you have any ideas of how we can take this approach and use it at a weekend retreat or break it into other sessions throughout a few months. We both think it would be very beneficial to the group.

#9: Former student from 2009


today: soft rain, grey skies, and a quiet river,
in the small town east of Portland where i live now.
it's sacred here. like if rowe hall were an entire stretched prairie expanse.

listened to an old timer talk about switching from horse drawn wheat cutting technology to tractors
he told me at first that he didn't remember anything
but he remembered most details, like how you switch gears on the tractor, and how steep the incline was, and how tall the alfalfa grew in spring
came to my home with rain stuck to my coat and found an envelope from my mother.
magazine with a photograph of you on the front.
smiled the biggest smile ever.
it certainly is a beautiful and blessed life.
hope your morning meditations are peaceful.
love to you and lisa and gianni and marra.
thank you for being in my life,

#10: Former student from 2009

Hey JR,

…I am not sure if you remember me -- I took your class fall of 2009, and I was in your 6th period.

Wow, it has been a long time, but I just read an article in The Crazy Wisdom Journal, and it made me think of you and the class. I really do miss it; I miss the environment, and I miss the curiosity. The article evoked all the feelings that I felt during my Council and throughout the semester in general. It is a singular experience that I haven't experienced since. I have come close to it but nothing quite like that. It makes me wonder what my Council would be like now, after almost five years of having meandered through the life-changing maze called college.

Currently, I am knee-deep in recruiting for a full-time job after having graduated as an industrial engineer from U-M. So I am in town and have a bit of free time in my hands. I was wondering if I could drop by the class sometime? And if I am allowed, to sit in on one of the Councils?

Regardless, I would love to catch up with you. Hope you have been doing well.

#11: Former student from 2010

Hey JR,

I just read through your Crazy Wisdom interview and was reminded again of how powerful your class was. I STILL work on my self-portrait from time to time -- I've been working recently on writing about some of the important people that have come into my life once I started college. I skipped around in the documentary at the bottom of the article and just so happened to catch a quote that beautifully captured a big decision I'm struggling with right now, so I guess Philosophy is still finding ways to touch my life.

I just wanted to tell you again how grateful I am to have been in your class and to say thank you. I know I'm just one of literally thousands of people who were positively affected by being your student. The world needs more people, and especially teachers, like you.

Thanks . . .

#12: Former student from 2012

Hey JR,

As always, hope everything is going great over at Pioneer. Oddly enough, I find myself missing that place from time to time. Just wanted to shoot you an email to tell you that I just read the Crazy Wisdom article that just came out. Firstly, it was a fantastic relief/escape from homework (most things are these days), but really, just a beautiful article. Almost brought me to tears; your class meant so much to me, and while its essence cannot be captured in an article, I'm glad the world about your class is out a little more. It just made me really happy to read, really took me back.

I'm sure you're continuing to inspire students over there, even in the face of all the change that's been going down these last few years. Haven't been back in a while, but I'll be sure to come straight to your room when I make it. 

Thanks again, and best wishes. 

#13: Former Student from 2013

Hi JR,

Just saw your article from the Crazy Wisdom Journal. Wow!! I loved reading it. So glad for you. Though I've never heard you called Jim Robert before . . . I hope you're doing well! I owe you an update email. I'm doing really well in general. I've a lot to tell you about sometime.
Congrats again! so glad that article is out there.


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