on meeting a hero and discovering "connection"
The first time I met Grace Llewellyn, she gave me a big, sweaty hug.
Sitting awkwardly in her kitchen, I felt nervous and disoriented. Having just completed a 10-hour drive from the mountains of California where I’d worked at Deer Crossing Camp for the past 9 weeks, I was about to serve at a new and unfamiliar camp—Grace’s camp. But when I arrived, Ms. Llewellyn was nowhere to be found.
“Don’t worry,” the other camp counselors in the kitchen reassured me, “she’s just out dancing tango.”
Then, like a phantom emerging from the dark streets of Eugene, Oregon, she materialized in the kitchen’s warm glow. Slender and athletic, with long dark hair and a mischievous smile, Grace immediately recognized me, the new guy.
“You must be Blake,” she said, beaming. Then she walked right up and hugged me.
It was a hug that said Welcome to the team, You’re among friends, and I see the light in you, all at the same time. It was the kind of hug I never received from any male role model in my life. As her wild, frizzy hair swallowed my face and my arms wrapped around her damp tango clothes, my nervousness evaporated.
To me, Grace was already a hero, albeit one I only knew through the printed word. Three years earlier, at age 20, while questioning my college major in the sciences and considering becoming a high school science teacher, I started reading books about the American education system. This investigation eventually leading me to Grace’s 1991 underground classic, The Teenage Liberation Handbook, which she self-published at the age of just 26. Like the hug she would later gave me, the first chapters of Grace’s book radically reoriented my outlook, beginning with these eleven little words:
“Do you go to school? Yes? Then… You are not free.”
Despite my track record as a high-achieving student, Grace’s works provoked memories of the simmering frustration I’d felt throughout middle school and high school: frustration toward checked-out teachers, mindless bureaucracy, wasted time, lack of choice, pointless testing, everyday bullying, and, more than anything else, the utter, insidious, pervasive sense of boredom that seemed to infect every corner of my giant public schools.
To play along with the conventional school system, Grace argued to her teenage audience, was to allow your senses to be dulled, your intellect to be stunted, and your inalienable freedom to be alienated. Public or private mattered little, because all schools were fundamentally about control. And to teach in such a system? No matter how pure your intentions or how strong your will to reform, becoming a schoolteacher was, at minimum, an invitation to a Sisyphean ordeal. More likely, you would become part of the problem. Grace herself had taught English in both public and private schools and left in frustration, deciding instead to help teenagers “quit school and get a real life and education,” in the words of her book’s subtitle.
Well, paint me polarized. This woman was a badass! While I had already discovered a few other important books about alternative education, Grace’s words were the ones that inspired me to avoid the conventional school system altogether. My youthful experiences with summer camp and study abroad had already proven to me how transformative learning could happen outside the classroom. And lo and behold, when I arrived at the final pages of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, I discovered that Grace herself had started a camp: Not Back to School Camp, a week-long, end-of-summer camp for homeschooled and unschooled teenagers, with sessions that conveniently began just a few days after Deer Crossing ended. I mustered my courage, cold-emailed her, and got myself invited on staff.
Thus did I find myself in my hero’s kitchen one August evening in 2006, surrounded by a vibrant group of fellow 20-somethings who would become dear friends, held for a moment in Grace’s sweaty embrace.
The four summers that I worked back-to-back for Jim Wiltensand Grace Llewellyn from age 23-26 surpassed all my previous educations. Jim and Grace were both self-employed authors, autodidacts, and summer camp founders and directors—but that’s roughly where the similarity ended.
Jim was like an adult boy scout, prizing competency, positive attitude, risk management, and endless hard work. As the sole person responsible for managing an off-grid wilderness camp where a dozen things could go wrong at any moment—injury, drowning, lost camper, flipped canoe, broken water pump—he had to run a tight ship. From Jim I learned how to act with authority, manage a team, notice tiny details, look for problems before they arise, work my butt off, and teach outdoor skills to young people in a highly engaging manner.
Grace, on the other hand, rented established camp properties in Oregon and Vermont that were managed by year-round staff. A hospital was always a short drive away. Not Back to School Camp didn’t teach technical skills, nor did it have any formal curriculum. From Grace I also learned me how to teach, lead, and build a camp community—but one that did not center on performance and control. Life, I learned from Grace, could be about connection.
Connection—what was that word? At Not Back to School Camp, I found myself surrounded by adult staff who used it all the time. They wanted to connect with each other, connect with the campers, connect with themselves. My rational brain cried out for an explanation: What exactly is being connected? No one could give me a straight answer, so I had to learn from observation.
A key activity at Grace’s camp was the check-in. Every day staff would meet and check-in with each other, and we would lead daily check-ins with the dozen campers who formed our advisory groups. To check-in was, essentially, to tell others how you’re doing. But saying “I’m okay” wasn’t a real check-in. As Grace and her long-time staff modeled from day one, a true and authentic check-in was a deep dive into one’s psyche, a sort of emotional spelunking, a sharing of the rawest and most vulnerable bits of your being. Feeling anxious, insecure, fearful? Elated, proud, angry? Now that’s the stuff of a good check-in—as long as it’s honest.
The business-first attitude drilled into me at Deer Crossing resisted this gross oversharing, which felt like an invitation to a problem that I would then have to solve. But by the end of my first session, I began to see how it worked. Check-ins offered the chance to name the harder and more uncomfortable feelings that we typically suppressed in day-to-day life. To reveal such hard truths was not a problem to be solved, because the sharing itself was the solution. And this was apparently why both campers and staff returned to Not Back to School Camp year after year: because Grace had created an atmosphere in which deep sharing, listening, vulnerability, and acceptance were woven into daily existence.
I’d never been part of a family, friend circle, or work community that ever solicited such powerful introspection. Check-ins helped emotionally illiterate people (such as myself) discover that we have feelings, our feelings can have labels, and that it’s okay to talk about those feelings, even with people you just met. This basic act of open, honest sharing—and the culture of attentive listening that accompanied it—was clearly how anyone “connects” to anyone else in the first place.
As soon as I had the eyes to see it, connection was everywhere. When campers piled off buses on the first day, everyone hugged each other—connection. When staff met for our daily meeting, they offered shoulder rubs to each other—connection. During one of the evening activities, campers gazed into each other’s eyes and asked each other big life questions—connection. If I was sleepy and not otherwise occupied, I could take a nap in the middle of the day—connection to my own basic needs.
Year after year, while appreciating what both Deer Crossing and Not Back to School Camp had to teach me, I found myself gravitating ever closer to Grace’s humanizing approach. Jim was undoubtedly impressive, creative, and self-sufficient: a role model in so many ways. But he also demanded so much of his employees, and could be so critical of those who didn’t meet his exacting standards, that few returned each year. Meanwhile at Not Back to School Camp, staff would return for five or ten consecutive summers. Jim had created a powerfully effective teaching environment; Grace had created a powerfully sustainable community. This was a green flag. Whatever Grace was doing, it was working. I wanted to learn from her magic.
The staff of Not Back to School Camp dedicated time to each other outside of the camp season. Sometimes they lived together in shared houses; sometimes they married each other. And the longer I stuck around, Grace, too, began to invite me into her life.
Sometimes, I didn’t like what I saw. Her house and business could feel disastrous when viewed through my ingrained lens of order, efficiency, and control. But the beauty of her life always spoke louder than the debris left in its wake.
Grace listened more than she spoke, and she spoke with precision, honesty, and charity. Her curiosity was boundless. Books overflowed from her shelves. She assumed that everyone in the world had something to teach her. Forever humble, forever compassionate, and forever armed with a wicked sense of humor, Grace’s life was more emotionally rich and, well, connected than anyone else I knew.
When developing the draft of my first book, Grace enthusiastically supported it. When I felt depressed amidst a gray winter in the Pacific Northwest, Grace introduced me to a former camp staffer who became a mentor. Whenever I had a wild new idea about how to create work in the realm of alternative education, she was my brainstorming buddy.
More than anything, Grace gave me the gift of dance. As a long-time, multi-talented dancer (tango, bellydance, ecstatic, and beyond), Grace’s infectious enthusiasm had already led many Not Back to School Camp staff to discover partner dance. These same staff then returned to camp and taught the basics to the teenagers—and the occasional 23-year-old white boy who only knew how to bounce up and down at pop punk shows. Such did I find my first partner dance workshop, where a staffer named Nathen taught me to step on the beat, isolate my hips, lead an inside turn, and enthusiastically look for a partner whenever a good dance song came on (rather than hiding sheepishly against the wall, as I’d done for most of my life). But it was Grace herself who suggested that I contact a specific tango teacher in Buenos Aires when I brought my first group of teens to Argentina. The teacher turned out to be a world-class instructor, and after two weeks of mind-bogglingly good private lessons, I went straight back to the United States and threw myself passionately into the tango scene, mind and heart burning with desire for this new mode of expression, this ultimate embodiment of connection.
To meet a hero is a privilege. To work for one, even better. Befriending one, the best. Today, Grace still hosts me whenever I’m coming through town. We still go out dancing. I continue to learn, every year, from the words she’s written, the camp she’s built, and the life she leads.◼
For more about Jim Wiltens and Deer Crossing Camp, see: