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Wednesday Wonders: A Meeting of Minds

May 31st, 2017

Today we hear from our Intermediate Lead Teacher, Lisa Ann Dillon, as she reflects on SLOCA’s wonder-filled visit from John Matteson:

Every now and then, you cross paths with a person who seems put there by some divine intention.  Such was the meeting of Mr. John Matteson and me.  By now you have surely heard the details of the story, but to briefly recap:  John Matteson is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Eden’s Outcasts: a Biography of Louisa May Alcott and her Father.  He was the primary resource I turned to when researching Little Women for the Lit Training for trimester 2.  

Fortuitously, he decided to come and see for himself what we are up to at SLOCA.  The resulting visit, which occurred May 9-12, was filled with rich conversation, strong connections, mentoring and inspiration.  I say this for myself but I think I speak uniformly for our broader community.  For those who had time with Mr. Matteson, each felt listened to, invested in, and came away floating a little bit on cloud nine.

It was a full week too!  I kept worrying that we were going to wear him out but he proved to be indefatigable.  In his own words, “Far from being exhausting, as you more than once worried that they might be, my recent days at SLOCA were intensely inspiring and invigorating.”  

He was hosted by the Roberts’, a track A family who have a little cottage, which they donated to our purpose!  We kicked off the visit with a welcoming Potluck where mostly staff and board members visited with him.  We were delighted by his storytelling abilities as well as his focused attention on each person he met.  

On Wednesday he had a tour of the school and Katie Morales, who led him around campus, noticed that he became so involved and interested at each stop along the way, that she had to toss her “schedule” to the wind.  John spent an hour in one classroom alone because he was so engaged with the students there.  They even asked for autographs and he whimsically obliged them, signing their school work and other slips of paper they handed him.  But please don’t think of him as one of those folks who thinks others will ask him for an autograph.  We all found him to be remarkably humble, particularly for one so accomplished, talented, and inspiring.  

Other highlights of the week included a hike out at Montana De Oro which had him recognizing what a little slice of heaven we have here on the Central Coast.  Then we had lunch at a winery, deliciously catered by Julie Smith, with our High School staff, some of whom he observed on Friday.  A stand out of the week was an impromptu socratic dialogue with our staff and faculty all about Bronson Alcott and teaching in general.  I have heard from so many who participated how exhilarating this discussion was and found it to be so myself.  

Our big event of the week, however was the talk he gave at the SLO Library.  Many of you were there and have shared with me how moving you found his story to be.  After leaving the law, to read and study great books, John took up writing.  His first book, Eden’s Outcasts and a Pulitzer Prize was the result.  And now, he is SLOCA’s newest friend and I believe he will turn out to be one of our greatest standard bearers to the broader community.   If you missed the chance to see him speak, I still encourage you to pick up one of his books: The Lives of Margaret Fuller, The Annotated Little Women, or of course, Eden’s Outcasts.  A gifted writer with an eye for detail and heart for a good story, his histories read like novels and his annotations of Little Women will answer every question you have thought to ask about that classic.

So you can see, I am still floating, just a little.  This was a first for my teaching career and I count myself so fortunate to have had the week with my new friend.  What strikes me even more, is that SLOCA is such a home of wonder and wisdom as to draw one so accomplished to us. Throughout his visit, two thoughts kept flitting through my mind:  1.  I can’t believe he came to visit us!, and 2.  The education our students are getting just might change the world.  More people should come and visit us!

So true, Lisa Ann! Thanks for sharing this with our readers. We also received several additional comments from our teachers and students about Mr. Matteson’s visit:

"We felt like we had a movie star visiting when Mr. Matteson popped into our classroom to learn more about life in LMS. We put him on the spot with a Q & A session, where students asked lots of thoughtful questions about Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, and being an author. An interesting fact we learned is that he had to pay $750 (per picture) for the rights to include some paintings by Norman Rockwell in his annotated Little Women! Then Mr. Matteson walked around the classroom, and interacted with each student as he/she shared an HRA (home reading assignment) on Little Women with him. He even took the time to sign each assignment with his signature and a brief note of encouragement! It was quite a memorable experience!"
~ Jennifer Wright, LMS Core teacher

"I just wanted to share with you what an invigorating experience it was for me and, I hope, others, to meet and speak with John Matteson after reading his book.  His talk at the library, my subsequent conversations with him, and his facilitation at our Team SLOCA meeting were among the most intellectually stimulating experiences I have had in a long time. HIs fielding of questions after his speech was masterful and gave us a glimpse into his teaching style.  The exchange of ideas on teaching, as well as topics from his book, Eden’s Outcasts, left me feeling inspired and renewed in my own teaching.  Our Lisa Ann did a daring and wonderful thing in bringing Matteson here.

"It had never occurred to me what a valuable thing it is to introduce a scholar into our community who can help to stimulate us as an intellectual community through a meeting of minds.  I have no idea how it might happen, but I am hoping that we might have more such experiences in our future."
~ Sarah Weinschenk, Latin teacher 

"It was such a treat having John visit! He has such a wealth of knowledge, and it was an honor getting to spend time with him. He is a SLOCA kindred spirit, to be sure!"
~ Sarah Shotwell, High School History teacher

"At first I was a bit perplexed as to why a scholar of John Matteson's stature would take an interest in our little school. But after opening Eden's Outcasts, it all made perfect sense: as an authority on the Alcotts, of course Professor Matteson would be drawn to SLOCA, where many of Bronson Alcott's highest ideals of education continue to inform our daily praxis. We are a community centered on great books, committed to growing in virtue, and rooted in family. We are dedicated to the proposition that each child enjoys "an original relation to the universe," as Alcott's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson put it. (It's a good thing SLOCA also combines these lofty ideals with a kind of pragmatism, grit, and worldliness that Alcott's utopian visions mostly lacked!) What we found in John Matteson was a careful and serious historian of ideas who was also completely at home conversing with children--or jumping on a trampoline with them! This, to me, is the sign of a first-rate mind. No matter who you are, to spend even just a few minutes with John is to glean many things, directly and indirectly, about what real education is and why it matters. His knowledge and his generosity seemed to know no bounds. I hope we can lure him back someday."
~ Paul McCullough, High School English teacher

"As a junior in high school (and I guess a senior in just a few weeks!), I get a lot of comments about my future: half of everyone asks me what I want to do with my life and the other half says that I don't have to worry about it yet. So I'm still considering what exactly it is I want to do! However, I do know that I want to write, whether or not it's my life's passion or just a side hobby. Because of this, I really enjoyed listening to a published writer share about his experiences. When John Matteson was describing his writing process, he said that he wrote about Louisa May and Bronson Alcott because nobody else had told quite that story yet. I found this comment really interesting and inspiring because, well, everyone has a story that they can tell unlike anybody else—whether it's about oneself or another person/thing. Even when it seems like all the good books, poems, essays, etc. have been written, I feel the courage to keep writing anyways because I never know what I may be able to draw out from what I know."
~ Brigitte Rein, High School Junior

"John Matteson kept me enraptured in his poetry of words and paragraphs."
~ a High School Freshman

"When I first heard a biographer was coming to visit our school, I figured he would think too much of himself and be too intellectual for any of us to understand. However, upon meeting Mr. Matteson, I was blown away. He spoke to me as though he truly cared about me. When he asked what I was considering for a career, I said I was thinking of becoming a novelist. He told me that to become a good novelist, you must do things that “might not get you into Harvard.” (Pretty sure those were his exact words). While I have since decided to become a poet instead, I find this is extremely true for both. When one sets out to experience life and is inspired by someone as genuine and amazing as Mr. Matteson, the whole world changes in their eyes. I will forever owe an immeasurable debt to Mr. Matteson. Mr. Matteson was a very down-to-earth person, he showed me that he was always kind and intellectual whether people were watching or not. I am very proud that someone such as Mr. Matteson was interested in seeing our school."
~ Luke Rossi, High School Freshman

“When we said our recitations for Mr. Matteson, he was saying each poem along with us. He knew every poem! He also knew the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address when we all recited those together! It was pretty amazing. I want to grow up to be that kind of guy.”
~Calvin Bischoff, Intermediate student

Clearly it was an inspiring week on many levels! We are so grateful to Mr. Matteson for traveling across the country to get to know our school community, and for sharing his friendship, his wisdom, and his story with us. Thank you for reaching out to him, Lisa Ann, and thank you to everyone who helped make him so welcome!