North Star Annual Brunch Speech 2006
by Ken Danford 

I am thrilled to stand here and tell you that North Star is as healthy as it has ever been. Our program and staff are solid, we may have a record high percentage of members returning in the fall, and already we have a half-dozen new members signing on for September. In many ways we feel we are accomplishing our goals more substantially than ever before. Today I want share with you what we call success at North Star.

First, we know that North Star is successful because we stay in touch with our alumni and we see what happens when our members move on. I have a few highlights coming up. Second, we know that North Star is successful because we see teens learning and improving their lives in all sorts of subtle, inspirational ways. I plan to describe what it is we see when we look into the noisy, bustling rooms in North Star and why we feel so inspired by the chaos. Third, we know North Star is successful because of the profound transformations we witness in our members over time. I will share the story of one young man’s growth and reconciliation that we believe could have happened only with North Star.

When new families come to North Star, I still hear regular concerns about whether the choice to homeschool might somehow be limiting later on when it comes to college admissions, job applications, or real world preparation. At this point (actually years ago), the homeschooling world has moved well beyond the National Spelling Bee, and there are legions of stories, articles, and books that prove how homeschoolers have enjoyed more opportunities than their schooling peers, and that the world is widely receptive to them. But I prefer to make this point with our own stories!

You may have seen Miro Sprague on the David Letterman Show in April, where he played piano with another local musical phenom, Sonya Kitchell. (Two years ago you could have caught these two playing the North Star Auction!) Miro will be taking a year off from the Manhattan School of Music to go on a national tour with Sonya. Mishy Leiblum was elected to be next year’s student trustee on the University of Massachusetts’ Board of Trustees, where she will represent over 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Greg Stutsman is opening his second branch of Andiamo Restaurant, this one on Main St. in Northampton. Raphie Levy-Moore was accepted, in fact courted, by Amherst College to the tune of a full four year scholarship. Vlad Blanton was accepted to Bates College, and our very own Ellen Morf was accepted to Smith. (I only wrote her a letter of recommendation when she confirmed that she was only applying to Smith and Mt. Holyoke, and that continuing to direct the theater program at North Star will be prioritized over her class schedule.) Several of our earlier members are now moving on to graduate school. And, Jordana Harper-Ewert, who left a stellar academic career at Amherst Regional High School when she was in tenth grade, is now an elementary school teacher in…the Amherst Public Schools. I won’t go on, but many of us here could spend the next hour talking about the activities of our alumni. 

Now I want to talk about what happens in our center for our current members. If you don’t know the teens or what to notice when you walk in the door, you might be struck by an overwhelming sense of chaos. There are small groups of people coming and going in various directions. Several teens may be clumped around a computer. A few may be on the couch reading or talking or making music. In the back, behind the dividers, other small groups are chatting, lounging, or making art. In the office, staff are on the phone, meeting with adults or teens, or otherwise looking busy and productive. (In other words, the adults are ignoring the kids, who are doing whatever it is they do out there.)

But, if you know the cast of characters and their individual stories, you might notice some interesting things. First, generally. One sees immediately these kids seem happy to be here, they seem friendly enough. There is no anger, no sullenness, and no fear. No fear of grades, no fear of each other, no fear of being caught doing whatever it is they do are doing. Second, at a personal level, there is plenty of drama to dissect. One group is going to Comedy Improv with parent Cathy Wolf, including several teens who are not actors and not even particularly verbal or outgoing. How Cathy got this group to do the risk-taking involved in this activity I’ll never know. But it was the favorite class for many of these teens. Meanwhile, Matt Munson, who wants to catch up on the academics he feels he missed out on the past several years of an uninspired school career, is coming up to Catherine, saying “It’s time for my math tutorial.” Catherine, meanwhile, was just finishing up on the phone with Annie, for whom she was setting up a dance or singing tutorial with a UMass work-study student. Olivia, a relative newcomer who spent the first week quietly in the corner looking at the floor because in school she found teens to be mean, is one of the bright-eyed girls quite animated with the group playing a game in the back. She sparkles now. Vlad, a new twelve year old who arrived full of bluster and cursing, and whose parents kept asking me daily if we weren’t throwing him out yet, is literally squeezed in with Ben Rosser and others on the couch laughing the photoshop marvels they are creating. (Vlad, by the way, made a ten minute end of the year presentation in which he was all smiles without a single curse word.) Ian, who has had negative experiences with nearly every adult in his school career, is now engaging Susannah about the death penalty and how he wants to become a criminal lawyer. As the conversation progresses he begins pouring out the long, complicated tale of his personal life, stopping only when Susannah finally has another appointment. Meanwhile, I am showing a new family around, and when I open the door to the conference room, Matt Weigang is having an intense Calculus tutorial with UMass student Brian Scannell, who is coming to North Star for no credit, no work study, and no reason other than the joy of teaching complicated mathematics to a serious young man. 

There is no way for a visitor to have all of this information or to know how each of these kids was doing six months ago or what they do when they are not at North Star now that they are homeschooling. And while it’s difficult to select any one story from this year as representative, there is one that I find especially compelling for what it shows about our definition of success. Last August, Jules walked out of our family planning meeting when he was being asked to make some real commitments for the coming year. Jules, now 15, was working through a difficult couple of years in which his mother had passed away and he had had trouble in school. He came to North Star late last year, and found the lifestyle to be an incredible relief. However, he felt estranged from his father, and he didn’t see much to look forward to last fall with the “homeschooling requirements” being expressed. The truth is, I basically crossed Jules off my list for last fall when he walked out of the meeting, and I wasn’t sure what we could do to help him avoid falling into a full-fledged crisis. Fortunately, Jules has a wise and loving grandmother, a patient and optimistic father, and some wonderful friends with heroic parents who informally adopted Jules. 

Jules did agree to have a writing tutorial at North Star with Susannah, and a math tutorial with me. These commitments along with a few other promises, when contrasted against a void of other plausible options, were enough to have Jules’ father sign up for another go at homeschooling and North Star. For math, we discussed the basic economics of what it costs to live and how hard it is to get started. We read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Jules grasped the premise, and I think he was moved when his grandmother informed him of how his family was ready to help him over the hump of getting started in life. We did a bit more of math and social analysis together, but really this year, Jules wrote. He worked with Susannah on the story of his life, which he wrote as fiction. To say they worked “diligently” or “seriously” doesn’t capture the true sense. Jules made nearly every appointment, calling whenever he would be late. They met in town during weeks that North Star might have been closed on the Monday of their regular meeting. They intend to continue their work this summer. At our end-of-the-year presentations, Jules read several pages of what is now a 2,000 word story. I asked Jules, “Before this year, did you write?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “No, in school they told me I was no good in English.” Also at his presentation, Jules shared photographs he had taken with his father, a professional in the field. Sometime during the year, Jules accepted his father’s invitation to shoot photos together and receive some suggestions. These were father-son moments that were beyond unthinkable ten months ago. Jules’ father wasn’t able to be at the presentation, but our description to him of Jules pride in showing off his photo portfolio highlighted one of the most unpredictable success stories of our year. 

Immediately after Jules’ presentation, another young woman, Madeline, read from her writing. One piece was a long, visionary, complex, allegorical poem. Jules, of all people, was the one who had the audacity to ask her, “Can you explain in one sentence what that was all about?” Madeline answered, but then he asked his real question, one that he must have been holding since Madeline arrived at North Star in February. He asked, smiling, “Remember when we were in the same sixth grade class? Well, you were so good at school. You were the smartest kid in the class. You were friends with the teacher. I mean, what are you doing here?”

Madeline looked at him a bit stunned, but realized it was safe to reply, “I wasn’t happy there. I was never happy in school.” The room was speechless. We all got to watch Jules consider the possibility that someone who was good at school didn’t like it. He hadn’t considered this as a likely response. Who is North Star for? It’s for everyone who might want this option. How do we define our accomplishments? This exchange between Jules and Madeline and observed by twenty-five other people ranks at the top of my list.

In a sentence, what we are accomplishing at North Star is providing the time and space for teens to become happy to get up every day and to do activities they find interesting and meaningful in a way that ultimately leads to a sense of productivity, confidence, and belonging. We see academic skills, comfortable social interaction with peers and adults, positive relationships with family members, and a vision for the future as interconnected, and each aspect worthy of being a starting point. 

For what it’s worth, I think I enjoy going to North Star every morning nearly as much as our teen members. I don’t know that I could honestly encourage teens to pursue their ideal lives if I didn’t feel that in doing so I was pursuing mine as well. I am grateful to all of you who have made it possible for me to do this work for the past ten years, and I appreciate that you who share my joy in seeing our community thrive. Thank you.