Monthly Archives: June 2011

Unexpected light in Florence, Italy!

A letter from a recent LEAPYEAR graduate from her travels in Italy – beautifully demonstrating the way that an outer journey becomes a metaphor for an interior journey. Reminds me of a quote by Lillian Smith: ”I soon realized no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”

Today I caught a ride bright and early into Florence and spent my first real full day alone in the city. I want to share one incredible experience with y’all: There is this one building a few streets away from the big old famous Duomo, that was once an open air market and a granary. There are tall, thin columns and arches, but somewhere along the line they decided to enclose it so there is no more flowing air, and stone was plastered in between the columns. It’s a tall building – 5 or 6 stories at least – with various larger than life saints carved from stone or cast in blackened metal gazing down from on high, small frescoes high up the walls are chipped and faded in places, the stone work was not anything especially ornate to begin with. Now it has been worn away by time and the elements. To sum it all up, it is not the most beautiful or ornate building in Florence, not by far, but it is my favorite. I don’t chose favorites often, but something about the very real history of this spot draws me, it feels like a place where people have lived, not just where they have been. It feels very real.

All the times that I walked around this building I never realised that I could enter it but today I found one set of the small wooden doors open. Inside had been converted to a rather shabby higgledy-piggledy sort of church, it was dark because of the closed arches and the frescoes on the ceilings and inner columns were dark and rather grim. I sat for a short while in one of the pews slightly disappointed despite myself, until I noticed a very small door opening onto a small shabby stone staircase. There was no rope across it and a little sign said “museum entrance” with an arrow pointing up. The sign looked like it had been printed from a printer a decade ago that had been low on ink and it all felt so peculiar but up the stairs I went.

It was a very very small stairwell, it was stone, and it just went up and up. I was thoroughly winded by the time I made it to the top where a well-dressed older gentleman handed me a ticket and waved me forward. The room was big – filled with chairs, a few people, and about a half a dozen statues, life-sized versions of the same ones that are on the outside or maybe the originals – I don’t know. Finally there was one last staircase, though this one rather grander than the last. I emerged into something amazing: LIGHT. It was a vast room with high arched windows many of which were open. I stuck my head out of every one of them to gaze out at the breathtaking views of the city and to feel the soothing breeze that was not sweeping the sweltering streets seven stories or so below me. I could see these huge thick dark wood beams that supported the high ceiling. I spent a long time up there. It felt so peaceful. So wonderfully perfect.

The reason I share this surprisingly long love letter to a building with you is because as I read all the emails today and talk with my cousin about my experience I was very reminded of this afternoon. It feels like a metaphor to me; Like that building is my life, or no, more like living, and I’ve spent years walking around living, admiring it from afar – never realizing that I could enter it and live in it as well. Then one day I find a door in, and it’s new but it’s also a little disappointing and a little hard and not at all what I expected. But wait, there in the corner, where others overlook, is a way up, a way to more. It’s dark and not clearly marked and it’s much harder than if I had just stayed on that first level and I doubt myself but still trudge on, and with each new landing it is brighter and clearer until finally I am above everything and my life just pours out the window reaching tall above the roof tops, and it all makes sense!

But as much as I want to stay, I have to descend the steps again into less clear times of life. With me though I now carry a memory of that room at the top of the last landing, and the way to the steps to get back there if I ever need them.

We have been schooled to have no inner life – JT Gatto

Our American system of compulsory schooling was created about 150 years ago.  “Schools were established when kids were experience-rich and information poor.  The world has changed; schools haven’t.”   (James Coleman)   Our accepted educational system generally asks young people to sit in age-segregated rectangular classrooms under fluorescent lights and absorb and regurgitate information for 12 years in a row.  When the bell rings, they move to the next room, whether engaged in the subject matter or not.   They learn about ‘what is important and real” second-hand through the process of having someone talk at them.     And all of this happens during the most physically active and inquisitive years of their life.

As a result, they learn that education is something that someone else does TO them, and that others know more about than they do.    To do school successfully they learn to stifle their organic physical vitality and much of their curiosity.   They become distant from their own authentic voices, and their hearts.  Rather than pursuing learning for its value to them, they learn to focus on how to jump through hoops for outer authorities.

From the full spectrum of human possibility and capability, schools select a limited band and focuses our attention there – compromising our wholeness throughout 12 foundational years of our development.

The focus of the curriculum is on the head, and particularly the left hemisphere.   The rest of the body is asked to sit still for much of the day.

The arts, creativity and physical education are marginalized, and are the first things to go if there are budget cuts.   They are systematically separated from traditional sources of wisdom – elders, religion, spirituality, time alone and in nature.

Academic subject matter is generally taught out of context – students can rarely tell you what the relevance of the subject matter is to their current life or their future.  Time doing something real is limited.    Students are generally limited to work in schools – thus not building their understanding of what adults do.   They rarely get to see the beginning, middle and end of a process.

The environment is contrived – students spend the majority of their time in environments that don’t bear a resemblance to the real world – age segregation is a good example.

Students aren’t trusted – time alone is monitored and limited.  Students rarely get to choose what they can study.  Because the student isn’t trusted, they learn to mistrust themselves.  Time outdoors in the natural world is limited.  Physical activity is constrained and controlled.  They learn implicitly that they aren’t important or to be taken seriously until they graduate from a college.

We don’t tell them specifically what it means to be an adult and how to get there.  We don’t tell them when adulthood begins – because we aren’t clear ourselves.  We give adolescents permission to drive between 16 and 18, we allow them to die for their country at 18, but we don’t trust them to drink until 21 – clearly a confused message about adulthood and responsibility.

They aren’t taught what integrity is and how to maintain it.  They don’t learn to feel their feelings – what to do with sadness, anger or fear – which is of vital importance for successfully navigating the challenges of life.   Many haven’t learned what to do about procrastination.

A majority of the college age students we come in contact with go into a trance as soon as an adult starts talking to them in any formal way.  They have learned to dial down their aliveness and natural reactions until they can get out of the classroom – when they can start living again.   Most are comfortable leading such split lives.

Then, we’re supposed to invest $60,000 to $250,000 in their “higher education.”   Does it make sense to ask someone who hasn’t done anything real in the world to choose a major?   On what basis can they make an informed choice?

Does it truly make sense to send someone off to college before they have developed a sense of themselves – before they have sampled the world of work – before they have taken time to live in the question of “who am I, really?”

We have accepted a situation in which college means muddling around for a year or two – but can we afford this?   Is this the best way to go?

In the light of the limited focus that is built into our educational system by design, consciously chosen and planned time outside of the classroom becomes an imperative.

Currently only 57% of first-time college students have graduated after 6 years.  (U.S. Dept. of Education).  This means that most students are taking a de facto gap year.

Before going on to enroll in college or choose a major, it just makes sense to do something for a year or two to help you restore your wholeness, and help you connect with your unique life purpose.

Art class in Zanzibar

Check out this video shot by a LEAPYEAR student who spent the spring of 2011 working at a pre-school in Zanzibar – a group of islands off the coast of Tanzania.

So I made another video this week, this time I filmed the kids in my Pre-School class painting with watercolors and crayons on Wednesday.

I posted it on Youtube, here’s the link:

Nayuu PreSchool Art Class

I’ve been really enjoying working with them and seeing them be creative in the class, especially knowing that once they enter public school they will essentially be completely stifled creatively.  It’s good to know I’m a part of the highlight of their education.

A song of endings and beginnings…

A song of appreciation written to her group by a member of the recently completed LEAPYEAR Pegasus group:

A Leap
I know a place where the creek runs free
And I know a place where I can be me
The creek it takes my hand and leads me in this land
It starts out with a step, then we start to jump, then we start to dance
And then it’s a leap of faith, a leap of hope, a leap of love, a leap of joy
I know a place where food and love abound
And I know a place were true humans can be found
The love surrounds me, shows me who to be
It starts out with a step, then we start to jump, then we start to dance
Then it’s a leap of faith, a leap of hope, a leap of love, a leap of joy
Hungry, aching souls reborn upon this land
Lost and lonely ones find hope in this land
And-well, wait, what about right speech? *Ahem*
I know a place where hope is relit
And I know a place where to truths I must admit
Cassie and Sam take my hand and point me down the road
But then they must let go
And again
It starts out with a step and then we start to jump, then we start to dance
A leap of faith, a leap of hope, a leap of love,a leap of joy
Though I cross the bridge, you’re in my heart
You’re in my soul, you’re in my love, you’re in my blood
And you’re only a leap away
Because I know a place…

Thank you for the journey…

An amazing expression of gratitude sent from one member of the most recently completed LEAPYEAR – the 2010/11 Pegasus group.    It expresses the quality of bond and family that is created by many LEAPYEAR groups:

To the people who know me best,

What can I say after the most amazing year of my life?What can I say to the people who held a space that let the world open its arms high and wide to me?I want to tell you all of the infinite love and gratitude I feel for you all as Pegasus, as students, as travelers, as peers, as pioneers, as people.   I am so blessed to have been given a chance to see you at your best to love you all the more at your worst.

I think we can all say that this year has irrevocably changed us all. But I feel a change so deep and so steeped in the love that surrounded me all year that I couldn’t rest easy without naming it and sending it back to all of you in the ways I can.

I am here to stand witness to the beauty and light and infinite power and grace I see in each of you. I am here to hold the space for you all to look back on when your vision goes blurry to remember a time when you surpassed any life anyone could have ever dreamed up for you, when you held the power of the universe in your hands like a ball of white light and accepted a blind faith with a smile on your lips.  I see you all.

I don’t feel like I can really say what you all have meant to me in this year.  I am not afraid of time’s effect on our relationships, I am strong in my faith that we will all always be able to find home in each others hearts.

My heart is a home to you all, and you can seek it out whenever you need it. I am here in bliss to repay and offer up all the gifts you have given me.

To the people who changed my world and are the change in their own

I send:

All my love….

Medical work in Indonesia

This report received from a LEAPYEAR student who spent the spring of 2009 working at a medical clinic in Aceh – a part of Indonesia that was very hard hit by the tsunami.  This student had his EMT, and had worked on ambulances in Vermont during college.   He wanted to get more medical experience to determine if he wanted to go on to med school.    This is difficult to do in the U.S., because of liability issues.   But in Aceh, he got to work side-by-side with doctors who let him do everything they were doing.   The clinic was too busy, and the need to great, for them to worry about liability.

It was great to hear from you!  I am doing really well, this place is amazing. Right now I am in Banda Aceh, we had to take a patient up here to have surgery, she is a 19 year-old with some sort of infection in her throat that needs to be removed and the hospital in Melaboh couldn’t do it.   Banda is amazing, its huge, there is internet and the food is awesome. Samatiga is awesome in a different way, there is no internet and the food is horrible, but the people are amazing.  I love the clinic, and everyone who works there.   I am the only English speaker at the clinic right now, there is a translator but she had a baby a couple of weeks ago, so she isn’t around much.   I have a dictionary that is glued to my hip and i manage to get by alright, usually I don’t know what’s going on until it is half finished but its alright.  I am picking up Bahasa alright, sometimes its a little frustrating, but everyone is so patient that I don’t usually mind.

I get to do more and have learned more than I did the entire time that I worked on ambulances in the States.  I got to stitch up a kid’s knee and have seen more diseases, rashes, cuts, scrapes, bruises, etc. than ever before.   People are great, there is one guy who was a rebel commander who decided he wants to be my friend.  He is weird, he told me a story about killing an Indonesian journalist, because one of the people at the clinic said that I had been in the military, he must of thought I would get a kick out of the story, I mean he is very nice and he does fun stuff with me, but he has also shown me how real the civil war was in Aceh and how in reality it’s still going on today.  There may not be fighting but the Acehnese absolutely hate the government.

I love all of the people at the clinic, I mean they could not be nicer, and they are all around my age, which is nice too, so it is a lot of fun. I am going to start teaching English to the community after I get back from Banda, and then Mimi the translator who just had a baby is going to take over after I leave.

A Summary of Two Months in India

An email sent to LEAPNOW by a student that was doing a 3-month semester of travel, work & study in India in 2009:

Boiling down a two-month experience into an email isn’t an easy task. Here’s a boring list of a few things I’ve done recently:

  • I’ve broken my foot. – paid Rps. 60 ($1.10) for an X-Ray, cast, and crutches for the above.
  • won a football [soccer] game against a local team in Sikkim/The Himalayas (where I broke my foot).
  • been on TV and in the newspapers because of that game.
  • written articles to be published in local newspapers and magazines.
  • repaired a micro hydro electric dam for a struggling village.
  • volunteered at the Mother Theresa home in Kolkata (Calcutta)
  • had tasty, delicious food everyday
  • gotten very tired of rice and potatoes
  • accidentally ran into three-time Mr. Sikkim who gave me a free membership to his gym to combat the excess rice and potatoes
  • had dinners in houses owned by families I met on the street.
  • gone to see the Himalayan sunrise
  • arranged to go [animal] hunting with local Lepcha tribes, spear and loin-cloth style
  • learned a small bit of Hindi
  • lived out of a 21lb. backpack for two months, successfully
  • tried to buy a sweet, exotic pistol to ship home, unsuccessfully
  • visited the Bodhi Tree where Buddha attained enlightment
  • dabbled in meditating, unsuccessfully
  • felt more at home here at times than in the US
  • fire danced on rooftops in Varanasi in the sunset
  • secretly tried to leave the group to go on a 2,000 miles rickshaw race across the country, unsuccessfully, but will be back in time for the next race
  • and many other things …

I’m amazed by how internal everything is, and am amazed by how assumptions can [negatively] change those internal experiences.    I came to India under the assumption that it was a “magical” place; I didn’t really know what that meant, but I had a [false] idea. India is incredible, as I’ve come to find, and I love it, but it itself is not magical.   India is beautiful, spiritual, respectful and full of life, but it is also dirty, corrupt, manipulative and full of suffering.  One of the most amazing places I have ever been to, Sikkim (Northeast India in the Himalayas), I’ve found is just as “human” as anyplace else – if one takes the time to peer behind the veil.

I’ve learned that assumptions are never acceptable, under any circumstance, and that it is necessary to fully explore a person, place or thing, and rid yourself of your assumptions before you can truly hate it or love it for what it really is. That being said, I love India, and I hate it, and that’s okay.   I understand it (relatively) and am seeing and experiencing India for what it is, not for what I falsely want it to be.   I came here looking for adventure, challenge, and to take a 7,000 mile step outside of my comfort zone.   In ways, I’m disappointed, and in other ways I’m extremely delighted.   Either way, I have no regrets coming here, and made the right choice.   I am a different person, yes, but India only indirectly contributed to that.   The rest is, as I said, internal.   I now realize that some of these adventures and experiences can be had pretty much anywhere, and are much closer then I think.  That isn’t going to stop me from going to China to study Kung-Fu though, because, hey, that’s awesome.    I have just over a month left here, but I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve to continue to make the most out of the time I have left.

What is a gap year?

Simply defined, a gap year is a significant period of time that provides a gap in your life.  The term is most commonly applied to time “on” taken between high school and college, or a year “off” during college – during which you generally do something other than traditional academics in a classroom setting.   This time is generally used to explore the world, do a variety of real activities, then reflect and prepare for the next purposeful step in their life.

Prior to 1985 or so, the concept of a gap year was mostly unknown in the United States.   If you were making “normal” progress with your education, it looked something like this:

In this scenario, it wasn’t until your junior year that it was accepted to study abroad, or to learn in some way that was out of the box – though generally you just traded in a classroom in the U.S. for one in Salamanca, Spain, for example.

With the idea of a gap year gaining understanding – particularly in the past 8 years, this has become an accepted path for your education:


In this progression, it has become more accepted to take a year to mature, explore interests, gain self-esteem, travel, work, do internships and volunteer exchanges.   Unfortunately, today’s model still defines the gap year in reaction to traditional classroom education –  within the limited idea that education isn’t generally valid unless it happens in a classroom.

LEAPNOW is involved with expanding the definition of a gap year to focus on the wholeness of the human being as a primary goal of the gap period, and to remove the assumption that classroom learning is the highest form of learning.

How to set up your own Gap Year

With some work on the part of students and their parents, and with the help of the amazing resources available on the Internet, it is now within your reach to set up your own “time on.”

Important questions to answer when thinking about “time on:”

  • How much time is available to you? A summer? A semester? A full year?
  • How much money do you have available to you? Include airfare, spending $$, & activities.  It works well to structure “time on” in 3-month blocks – particularly if you wish to save money.    Three months is usually the minimum amount of time that you need to give in order to get room and board from an organization – enough time for you to be useful to them.  The more time you can give, the more likely you are to receive support from an organization – you become useful to them.
  • Do you want to travel with a group or alone? Or some combination of the two?  For students who aren’t used to traveling it can be very helpful to take a hybrid approach – start with a semester or summer of organized group travel, then do one or two three-month internships in the second part of your time on.   Such an year might look like this:

Sept – December :  Travel with an organized group

Christmas break: Home for the holidays – make some money, ground and re-load

Jan – March  3-month volunteer stint somewhere      This could also be a period of work to fund the year.

April – June     3-month internship, or two months and a month of travel.

  • Do you want a lot of structure or less structure? It is a good idea to start with more structure, then as the year progresses, increase initiative required & decrease structure.
  • Do you want to do a variety of things or just one thing? Most people want to do a variety of things.
  • Do you need to build in time to work to make money?
  • Do you want to include time to be a tourist or to wander?
  • What do you want to be doing?  What do you want to accomplish?

If you aren’t willing or able to do the work needed to set up your own “time on,” there are organizations dedicated to setting up structured “time on” for you for a fee.   They may charge you per placement, or a flat fee for a set period of time.   Their experience can give you a sense of security and they may be able to save you money by helping you find situations that pay or give room and board in exchange for work.

If you don’t know what you want to do, think about the following questions:

  • Urban or rural?
  • US or abroad?
  • Where do I feel called to go, or where do I want to go?   Is there someplace on the planet I feel pulling me?
  • Do I want to work with people, or not?
  • Do I want to work with animals, plants, the land?
  • Is there a language I wish to learn?
  • If money were no object, what would you do?
  • Are you willing to serve others?   Do physical labor?

Give particular attention to transitions.  You are most vulnerable when in transition.   It may make sense to pay extra to have someone meet you at the airport you fly into.  Make sure you have a backup plan – such as a  hotel near the airport to check into if you miss your connection.

To save money, you can do the following:

  • Stay in this hemisphere – to keep airfare costs down.   String a series of internships together in a region to keep airfares to a minimum.   Find people who can donate their frequent flyer miles to you.
  • Work in the areas of social service, teaching, agriculture, environmental work, construction, outdoor and manual work, work with wildlife, or hotel work.   These all tend to be situations that can offer room or room and food in exchange for your labor.
  • Consider working where you can legally work for pay – in the U.S., the UK, Australia.
  • Set up an internship or volunteer stint through a foreign-based volunteer placement agency – they will generally charge much less than a US-based organization.

One way to get oriented and grounded in a country is to start with a period of language study.  Plan on two weeks and up if you are brushing up a language, a month or longer of intensive study if you need to gain enough proficiency to get around comfortably.     Language schools usually can set up stays with host families, and often can set up internships for you.

Do your due diligence.  Make sure you can get names and contact information of others who have worked with the organization that you want to work with – then call or email them about the support they received.  There is no better source of information than someone like you who went before.

This will get you started thinking about the process.   Stay tuned for a blog entry devoted to available resources that will help you set yourself up.

Why take a gap year?

There are as many reasons to take a gap year as there are reasons for living, or for getting out of bed in the morning.   Here is a partial list:

  • Why NOT take a gap year?   There isn’t a compelling reason not to take one.
  • Life isn’t a race, college will still be there a year later.
  • Get out of the stale classroom – rather than learning by sitting in a room for 16 years in a row.
  • Get away from parents, friends and your hometown, and put it in perspective – discover the difference between what you have inherited, and what is essentially YOURS.
  • Explore learning in different modes and different environments
  • Grow a year older and hopefully, in the process, wiser or at least more practical
  • Experience other cultures, and see the world
  • Learn another language
  • Try on possible career choices in real time – try on the work represented by different college majors
  • Find and explore at least one passion
  • Try on new roles and identities. Experiment!
  • Discover new talents and skills
  • Take risks
  • Give your parents financial breathing room between children
  • Take time to earn money for college
  • Learn about practical economics
  • Learn practically about the world of work
  •  Become more interesting for your college essays
  • Recover from high school pressure and burnout
  • Be responsible for taking initiative for your own education and experience
  • Take advantage of one of the last accepted times to be irresponsible without feeling too guilty
  • Let the well fill back up
  • Feel the wind in your hair
  • Explore what you love and discover a worthwhile reason for attending college
  •  Break through our uniquely American sense of entitlement and realize how materially blessed we are.
  • Do something for someone else – be of service
  • Experience a greater variety of ecosystems – deserts, jungles, icebergs, et
  • Be treated as an adult – perhaps for the first time.  Practice being an adult.
  • Build self-esteem by overcoming real obstacles and achieving real successes
  • Learn by doing what adults do.
  •  Live on your own and show yourself that you can deal with loneliness and adversity
  • Learn to structure your own time
  • Take some time to wander in the world
  •  Escape from deadlines, other people’s expectations, and outer pressures
  • Develop a stronger sense of yourself
  • Find out how big the world is, and gain a sense of my own insignificance
  • Get out of the educational trance and learn that you are responsible for your own learning
  • Have psychological time and space to re-imagine your own life.
  • Differentiate yourself from parents, friends and your cultural assumptions
  • Learn how to live, work and travel independently
  • Don’t waste your parents money if you don’t want to be in college, or if you don’t have a good reason for being there.