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Never Forget Where You Came From

How could I? West Virginia — this valley in particular – is responsible for the very best of me — my humility, my empathy and certainly my strength. In return, I have belittled her at times and worse, used her to shoulder my own shame. For too long I undervalued us both.

It was 1989 when Marvin Bressler, my senior thesis advisor, said to me, “Well, you’ve done it.” I thought we were embarking on a congratulatory conversation about my defending my thesis. We were not. Before I could form the words, “thank you,” he continued, “You will forever live with one foot firmly planted in the world that shaped you in West Virginia and one foot stretching as far as it can to plant itself in the world at large. What you will make of that challenge is up to you.”

Before I had any idea of the depth of his insight, I could feel the tension he predicted in my future. It was compounded by the philosophy and the challenge made to every graduate of the call for “Princeton in the nation’s service.” The opportunity to learn together at Princeton was accompanied by a responsibility to serve others as we moved forward in our lives.

The die was cast — make something of your life, give back to others and forever contend with this notion of where you are from. And so it was for most of my adult life. Get up. Make a difference. Give back. Beat yourself up for not doing enough in steps two and three. Sleep. Repeat.

At a reunion 25 years later one of my college roommates, who spent her life’s work finding a cure for breast cancer, asked about my work. Self-deprecation bubbled up. My work? It paled in comparison to hers. Again it nagged at me that I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t daring enough. Looking back I was really thinking I wasn’t enough. I paled in comparison. I was only achieving any success because I was doing it in Wheeling, W.Va. A refrain with which I was all too familiar. It is the story I had been telling myself since 1985. I only got into Princeton because I was from West Virginia.

Before breakfast ended, my roommate further mused, “You could do the work you are doing anywhere.” I rolled my shoulders forward to protect myself and braced for the expected judgment of West Virginia. Instead she said, “But anywhere else you would not have the opportunity to make the impact that you do where you are.”

Just before she wiped her mouth, folded her napkin and hustled off to find the others, she quite simply may have changed the trajectory of my life and our school.

I never forgot where I came from.

By habit, I tempered any achievement, growth or recognition as being contingent on my being a necessary token from West Virginia. I let that feed the false perception that I wasn’t enough.

I am. I am more than enough. In the weeks that followed that reunion breakfast, I started asking questions. What does real learning truly look like? What more can I do to improve learning? What if we risked more? … failed more? … learned more? Doing this work in Wheeling, WV was more than necessary — if not here, where? Wheeling Country Day School could be a private school with a public purpose. We could build on the strengths of our community and help others see any loss or problem as an opportunity.

We have grown leaps and bounds at WCDS since then. We offer an educational experience that I would hold up to any other in the world. I am proud of the work we do. I am proud of the place we do it. It is possible here – with the emphasis on here. When I tell colleagues around the country about our innovative and differentiated learning or share the model for deep learning in middle school, they cannot believe we do it here. They should come see for themselves.

If I could, I would tour Dr. Bressler around our 8 Park Road campus here in Wheeling, WV, so he could see what I made of my having that one foot stretched out into the world and the other one proudly and firmly planted here in West Virginia, where I came from.

Elizabeth Hofreuter is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has two daughters.

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