School Choice & Charters

Grace Under Pressure

By Brett Schaeffer — March 01, 2004 26 min read
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The unschooling movement that Grace Llewellyn helped create may no longer need her—so now she’s helping kids who’ve decided to stay in school.

Grace Llewellyn’s tiny, bare feet are moving at roughly the speed of a hummingbird’s wings as she skitters around her living room in late August 2003, attending to the last-minute details of her summer camp. Though camp staff members are packed inside her rambling, wood-shingled house in Eugene, Oregon, Llewellyn weaves through the rooms rapidly, checking to make sure that the food prep is done, that the cars soon heading 120 miles south to the campsite are being loaded, and that her own gear is ready. She’s definitely in charge here; she simply doesn’t call attention to this fact.

Despite Llewellyn’s unassuming manner, the 39-year-old made a name for herself 13 years ago by doing something bold: She wrote and published The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How To Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, which almost immediately became a cult classic. “Homeschoolers were really into it, really fast,” says Llewellyn, a former teacher. “People would buy cases [of books] and give them to relatives who were still in school.”

Mainstream educators were not nearly as excited about the book, which teaches kids everything from how to convince their parents to let them leave school to how to pursue their own science curricula. But its relative success, at a time when homeschooling was considered a highly impractical means to getting an education, led Llewellyn to co-write and edit a few other books on the subject and to start the Not Back to School Camp. The late-summer gathering of mostly homeschooled teens—or, as Llewellyn prefers to call them, independent learners—was not designed to offer campers practical training; it serves as inspiration, pure and simple, according to Llewellyn.

But lately, the homeschooling pioneer’s world has gotten more complex. For one thing, she’s thinking about closing the camp after this year. During 2002’s West Virginia session (there are three weeklong sessions; the other two are in Oregon), a parent volunteer created a stir after spreading what Llewellyn calls “crazy gossip"—by posting allegations against staffers on the camp’s e- mail listserv. The listserv was soon deluged with comments from other parents, and Llewellyn scrambled to do damage control, an experience that forced her to revisit her idealistic perceptions about people involved in the homeschooling movement.

Her Teenage Liberation Handbook encouraged kids to leave school. Now Grace Llewellyn is helping them stay.
—Photograph by Robert Graves

So today, for the first time in NBTSC’s seven-year history, she’s invited campers and their parents to her house for a meet-and-greet at the start of the first session. Only one parent, a man from Austin, Texas, has taken her up on the offer. Llewellyn introduces him around while his stepson makes quick friends with staffers—mostly college-age men and women, many of them former campers and homeschoolers themselves. There are one or two older camp counselors, but youth reigns in this crowd, as does a familiarity with the outdoors. Their piled-up camp gear—sleeping bags, hiking boots, backpacks— is well-worn from use.

Camp or no camp, Llewellyn is facing an even bigger dilemma. When The Teenage Liberation Handbook hit the shelves, independent-minded homeschoolers—those less dependent on their parents for an in-house education—were in dire need of someone from the “grown-up” world who could champion their cause and serve as mentor. But since then, a more comprehensive “unschooling” movement has taken shape, with help from educators, alternative schools, books, and the Internet. And, for the most part, mainstream acceptance of homeschooling is now a given, so much so that homeschoolers have gained admission to some of the country’s most prestigious colleges. Llewellyn, too, is 13 years older and considerably less radical.

Proof of the latter is a new book, in which she focuses on teenagers who’ve chosen to stay in school. Although she originally planned to publish the as-yet-untitled work in fall 2004, Llewellyn still has a lot of research to do, including interviewing local high schoolers. The big question is, Does she still play a significant role in the alternative world of home- and unschooling? “It doesn’t need me,” she dismisses. “The movement is fine.”

Maybe so; but an assessment of that movement, as well as a look at Llewellyn in action, suggests otherwise.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, homeschoolers were thought of as either religious fundamentalists or hippies; today those ready-made labels are obsolete. And homeschooling methodology no longer consists merely of a full- time homemaker standing at a living-room blackboard, drilling his or her kids on the multiplication tables. In recent years, online schools and learning programs have added a high-tech element to the mix, and many youngsters combine their at-home studies with classes in local schools and community centers as well as field trips to museums, galleries, and parks.

The campers at this year’s Oregon NBTSC, which, indeed, does give off sort of a hippie vibe (the meals, for instance, are strictly vegetarian), represent the middle of the spectrum. Daniel Van Strien, 16, takes classes at the community college near his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ethan Moses, also 16, does the same in Santa Barbara, California. Jonathan Aldort, a 17-year-old from Puget Sound, Washington, is planning a cross-country bicycle trip. Others take acting classes and play in bands.

Just how many homeschoolers there are in the United States has been debated for some time. But whatever the disparity in numbers, their ranks are growing. Between 1999 and 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the number went from 800,000 to1.3 million. The National Home Education Research Institute, a homeschool advocacy group, claims that as many as 2.1 million children were taught at home in 2002. And those are only the students who register with a school district or state agency; many opt to steer clear of governmental agencies altogether. Some homeschooling advocates say the number is likely more than 3 million.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, homeschoolers were thought of as either religious fundamentalists or hippies; today those ready-made labels are obsolete.

The legal battle over the right of parents to homeschool their children ended a decade ago. By 1993, the practice was legal in all 50 states. And the philosophical battle—changing outdated perceptions about homeschoolers—is one advocates believe is turning in their favor. “I think that as awareness of homeschooling as a real option has grown, more people have been willing to try it,” says Debbie Schwarzer, a member of the HomeSchool Association of California, a statewide advocacy and resource group. “More and more people know of someone who has done it, so it’s not just the weirdos and fringe members of society who do it.”

The remaining struggle, as both homeschool advocates and critics see it, may be regulatory. In the era of No Child Left Behind—the federal education law that ratchets up testing requirements, teacher certification guidelines, and a host of other regulations—policymakers are looking to apply similar accountability measures to homeschoolers. “Currently the regulation, or nonregulation, of homeschooling varies dramatically from state to state and, even within a given state, from school district to school district,” says Dennis Evans, director of doctoral programs in education leadership at the University of California, Irvine.

At minimum, Evans says, all students, regardless of the school venue—public, private, or home—should be required to take mandated state tests. “If public schools are to be held accountable for student performance on legally required standardized tests,” he insists, “then shouldn’t it follow that any form of ‘schooling’ with legal status should also be held accountable?”

Besides, Evans adds, homeschooling advocates should welcome performance evaluations since they could provide “objective data to support their self-reported, anecdotal claims that homeschooled students do better on standardized tests than do public school students.”

Rob Reich, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, concurs. “From a policy perspective, we have no idea of [homeschooling’s] outcomes,” he says. For anyone to make claims on the academic success or failure of homeschooled students at this point is, he adds, an exercise in fortune telling. “People are just guessing.”

Homeschool advocates debate this point, but Llewellyn isn’t interested in minutiae and technicalities. Assessing just how kids are doing in a conventional sense has never been her aim. When she published Handbook in 1991, homeschooling wasn’t even legal in all 50 states. Merely advocating for it was considered a radical notion, a big idea. And that hasn’t changed; Llewellyn is still focused on big ideas.

Camp Myrtlewood is tucked into the wooded hills of southwestern Oregon. The closest town—little more than a truck stop and scattering of homes—is Bridge, about three miles away. The camp is lush and pine-scented, with Spartan wood cabins lining one side of an open field big enough to accommodate a football game. A combination meeting hall/cafeteria/game room stands at the far side, and directly behind the field is a narrow bridge leading to a mountain trail. A shallow creek runs under the bridge, not far from the campers’ single-sex cabins and bathroom facilities.

Evan Wright, an NBTSC counselor, shows a few of his charges in Oregon how to operate an underwater robot to collect samples for a nature workshop.
—Photograph by Robert Graves

Most of the campers—70 for the first weeklong session—arrive by bus, which ferried them from a park in Eugene. They spend a good part of the first day unpacking and acclimating themselves. There are no scheduled activities until an early-evening camp meeting, and unlike the chaotic preparations at Llewellyn’s house earlier, the mood now is relaxed.

Tomorrow the campers, most of whom came from Midwestern and Western states and paid $500 to be here, will have a full menu of workshops and activities to choose from, but participation is not compulsory. These kids are given, essentially, the same freedoms they have as homeschoolers. They can wander the grounds aimlessly or sit under a tree and play guitar all day if that’s what they want to do. Morning and evening whole-camp meetings are the only requirements.

For most of the kids, though, the camp is a chance to socialize with other homeschoolers and, in some cases, reconnect with old friends. It’s rare for a camper to spend an entire day alone. “Some of my best friends are here,” says Jonathan Aldort, who’s attending his fourth session. He’s lounging at a picnic table, watching a pickup volleyball game. Jonathan, who’s been homeschooled his whole life, would like to continue coming to camp, perhaps as a staff member. What appeals to him is the “universal acceptance” all campers receive.

The kids in this batch—and, increasingly, at all of the camps, Llewellyn says—are a mix of longtime homeschoolers and students relatively new to home learning: Some hail from one-stoplight towns in the northern reaches of California, and others, such as suburban Dallas residents Krysten Cabell and her cousin, Alejandra Antell, are from metropolitan areas.

Krysten, age 15, and Alejandra, 16, are camp newcomers and rookie homeschoolers as well. They disliked their public middle school, and, as Krysten explains, experienced something of a revelation last spring. “It dawned on me, there was an alternative,” she says. So she and Alejandra left school and, through a local homeschooler’s network, they discovered Llewellyn’s book and NBTSC.

Llewellyn founded the camp in 1996 as a response to the reactions garnered by Handbook. Soon after it was published, she was flooded with letters from kids who’d heeded her advice. In the book’s 1998 edition, she included several of those letters. The beginning of this note from a teenage girl in Illinois is typical:

Dear Grace,

I love you! ... I am 15 years old, and today, I liberated myself. As far as I know, today was my last official day of compulsory school.

For the camp’s first few years, there was a sense that the work Llewellyn and her staffers were doing was revolutionary. The homeschooling movement, which included a more independent-minded group that referred to itself as “unschoolers,” was just getting off the ground. But by the late 1990s, mainstream acceptance of homeschooling was pulling the spotlight away from pioneers like Llewellyn.

Four years ago, Llewellyn recalls, she had one camper who, even by NBTSC’s generous standards, was frequently breaking the rules. “I had to go talk with him,” she says. “So he was in his cabin, and another boy had to go in and get him for me, and I overheard their conversation. The other boy said, ‘Mark, Grace needs to talk to you.’ And he said, ‘Who?’ And the other boy said, ‘Grace.’ And he said, ‘Who’s Grace?’ I realized I’m not the center of the universe.”

Grace Llewellyn was not a homeschooler herself. Born in Boise, Idaho, in 1964, she had a typical upbringing that included public school. “My parents definitely value education,” she says. “I grew up in a home where we were expected to do well in school.”

Llewellyn’s mom is a registered nurse, though she mostly stayed home with Llewellyn and her younger siblings, two brothers and a sister. Llewellyn’s father, who has a master’s degree in geology, also spent considerable time around the house while working as a freelance writer and photographer.

Llewellyn also has two half-brothers from her dad’s previous marriage. The oldest, 12 years her senior, is “kind of eccentric,” she says. He converted to Islam and moved to Saudi Arabia, where he works as an environmental planner for that country’s National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. “The one thing I did get from him is that teachers and schools wouldn’t always necessarily support or understand people who are creative or who thought for themselves,” Llewellyn recalls.

The Not Back to School Camp gives kids a chance to socialize and reconnect with other home- and unschoolers. “Some of my best friends are here,” one camper points out.
—Photograph by Robert Graves

While she never doubted she’d go to college, her high school experience was less than fulfilling—except for one detail. “I was totally inspired by my choir teacher,” Llewellyn says. Jerry Vevig sparked an interest in music and teaching. So after graduating in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Carleton College, in Minnesota, she began taking classes for a teaching certificate. “I found the teaching classes enlightening. I came from a pretty conservative town, and I felt like this was new material to me—a new lens on the world.”

Even so, Llewellyn’s idealism was put to the test in 1987, after she signed on as a substitute in Oakland, California. She soon decided that, at the very least, public school teaching was not for her. So she headed off to Taos, New Mexico, with $500 and plans to start her own breadmaking business. Three months later, she was out of money and had failed to get a shop off the ground. Next stop: Colorado Springs, Colorado, to stay with her sister and grandmother.

While working at a temp agency, Llewellyn “sort of stumbled across” a job in education that seemed ideal: teaching language arts to 7th and 8th graders at the progressive, private Colorado Springs School. Small classes and sharp students—she loved it. At the same time, she started reading the works of John Holt, a former private school teacher himself. His books from the 1960s, such as How Children Learn and The Underachieving School, vigorously questioned the common belief that children learn best in institutionalized settings. Based on his own classroom experiences, he argued in favor of a much more individualized schooling approach that allows children to learn at their own pace and to follow their innate interests. “I read John Holt’s stuff, and I was an immediate convert,” Llewellyn recalls. “It was potent—a different way of looking at life.”

By the time Holt died from cancer, in 1985 at the age of 62, he was lobbying hard for the legalization of homeschooling. He’d become so frustrated with trying to reform schools that he started advocating for homeschooling, or unschooling. “Unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept ‘living’ as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn,” he wrote in his 1981 book, Teach Your Own. A few years earlier, in 1977, he had founded Growing Without Schooling magazine, and as its most prolific and well-known figure, he’s now considered the godfather of the entire movement.

While Llewellyn enjoyed teaching at Colorado Springs, she kept wondering, What would John Holt do? Then she found what she thought was the answer. “I asked the headmaster if I could try a radical experiment,” she recalls. “I wanted my class to be completely independent study in the realm of language arts.” The headmaster agreed, and Llewellyn led 26 students—divided into four classes—through individual projects. “My thought was, I was taking the pressure off [the kids] and offering them the freedom to do all kinds of different things,” she explains. “I just thought that would push the boundaries.”

Persuasive writing was part of the course, and in one class a few students tried to ban Styrofoam from the city of Colorado Springs. One student essay even made its way into the local newspaper, earning the young author an invitation to visit the facility of a local company that “either produced or distributed Styrofoam,” Llewellyn says. But as encouraging as the attention was, the ban effort stalled. “We didn’t really make any significant progress,” she explains, adding that, if she had to do it again, she’d try to focus the students on smaller, more easily achievable goals.

The idea of trying to work within “the system” and of going up against big companies and the government, only to fail, made Holt’s writings resonate all the more. So at the age of 25, Llewellyn began writing the first parts of what would become The Teenage Liberation Handbook. Then, in 1989, after her second year at the private school, she left Colorado and moved into a friend’s house in Eugene, Oregon. She spent the next year finishing the book and searching for a publisher. Four rejected the work, telling Llewellyn she should write for parents, not teenagers.

So in the spirit of her book, she self-published. Handbook rolled off the presses in 1991 and quickly became a must-read for homeschoolers and potential homeschoolers. The book’s success—Llewellyn says it sold more than 20,000 copies between 1991 and 1998—continues to earn her a modest living. She collects about $10,000 a year in royalties and currently supplements her income with money from the camp.

‘OK, now you come in, like this: ‘Muuu...tambara....’ And then, Taber, you come in like this: ‘Ke...daaay.’” Llewellyn is in teaching mode. Because I’m within arm’s length, I have no choice but to participate. “If you want to sit here,” she told me, “you have to sing.” It’s lunch time, day two of NBTSC- Oregon. I’m at a picnic table with Llewellyn, camp co-director Taber Shadburne, and the four female campers Llewellyn has recruited for a presentation she’ll make later today. Before dinner, everyone will gather in the meeting hall to learn about the week’s workshops and activities. Campers and counselors create the workshops—everything from reading poetry to practicing yoga to identifying native plants. But it’s up to each workshop leader to entice campers to sign up.

Llewellyn heads the folk song workshop, and the tune we’re rehearsing comes from Zimbabwe. Roughly translated, “mutambara kede” means, “We are here; the living is good.” It’s a call-and-response number. Between singing the “call” parts on cue, the campers nibble on the dining hall’s vegetarian lunch. I’m trying to do my part by singing the “response” with Shadburne.

The legal battle over the right of parents to homeschool their children ended a decade ago. By 1993, the practice was legal in all 50 states.

A 41-year-old psychotherapist based in San Rafael, California, Shadburne is familiar with homeschooling. “I was a hippie child raised by hippie parents,” he told me earlier. He dropped out of high school, earned his GED, and enrolled in college at 16. He went on to get his master’s in counseling psychology. Shadburne and Llewellyn met in 1996, when she and her husband of three years were divorcing. She attended one of Shadburne’s personal growth workshops and found that it struck a chord. After spending years writing about how others should approach life, Llewellyn realized she hadn’t spent much time on her own development. The workshops helped, she says.

Llewellyn and Shadburne became friends, then a couple, and though they’re no longer romantically involved, they remain close. Shadburne, like the brown-eyed, auburn-haired Llewellyn, has a lean dancer’s body, and his close-cropped dark hair is splashed with gray. He’s doing an excellent job of chewing his food and singing in tune, as Llewellyn works to get the song’s sound just right.

This song-prep session shows Llewellyn at her most natural. Even as she approaches 40, she’s childlike in many ways. When she wants to, she can mimic the singsong quality that’s become the near-universal speech pattern of teenage girls. And from afar, her slender figure—the result, no doubt, of an almost lifelong passion for various forms of dance, from ballet to belly— resembles that of a woman half her age. Whenever she puts her hair in pigtails, as she often does, the transformation is complete.

What’s apparent, in person and in her writing, is that Llewellyn appeals directly to teenagers. Her language is straightforward and doesn’t condescend. Handbook is also an easy-to-follow, chapter-by-chapter guidebook on how to leave school and educate oneself. In Chapter 2, titled “School Is not for Learning,” she lays out her basic premise:

Our brains and spirits are the freest things in the universe. Our bodies can live in chains, but our intellects cannot. It’s that simple. The mind will be free, or it will be dead. It can be numbed, quieted, and restrained so that it memorizes names of Portuguese explorers and plods through grades 1 to 12. If it is fiercely alive and teamed up with a forgiving spirit, it may find a way to be free even in school and stay awake that way. But these strategies are defenses, not full-fledged learning.

About the same time that Llewellyn published her book, another former teacher was preparing his own arguments against schooling. John Taylor Gatto was named the New York City and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, then promptly left his 30-plus-year public school career behind to spread the gospel of homeschooling and school choice. More than anything, he set out to discredit the blind acceptance of mainstream education. He published his first book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, in 1992 and has written three others since then, including The Underground History Of American Education, published in 2001.

“Although it’s never occurred to me before, The Teenage Liberation Handbook may well have been part of the battery of compelling arguments which forced me to leave the classroom on July 15, 1991,” Gatto wrote in a faxed response to a list of questions I sent him. (He was traveling in the Far East at the time.) “In the 12 years and 2 million miles I’ve traveled all over the planet since I quit, there’s scarcely been a place I’ve spoken where a chunk of the audience hasn’t been affected by Grace.”

If John Holt is the stately godfather of the homeschooling movement and Llewellyn a deserving heir, then Gatto is an angry son. Unlike Llewellyn, who published Handbook to little fanfare, Gatto launched his anti-schooling career as the organizer of a Radio City Music Hall rally of alternative- and homeschoolers only months after he left teaching. And in his writing, including a cover essay in the September 2003 issue of Harper’s magazine, he tends toward a more adversarial denunciation of schooling. “Now, you needn’t have studied marketing to know that there are two groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they need to: addicts and children,” he writes in Harper’s. “School has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children.”

While the fire in Gatto’s belly seems, if anything, to have grown larger in the past dozen years, Llewellyn has mellowed, due in no small part to her interactions both with campers and their parents. The fall 2002 incident, sparked by allegations made by a parent at the West Virginia camp, was a defining experience in many ways. Llewellyn, ever-respectful of people’s privacy, refuses to divulge the name of the parent involved. But she did tell me that the woman, a registered nurse, offered to volunteer at the camp in lieu of her daughter’s tuition. Llewellyn accepted the offer.

"[The parent] was hostile to us from the start of camp,” she recalls. “She exaggerated things. There was a workshop about women’s reproductive health, and there was a speculum that was passed around the room, and she implied—pretty much said— that we had used the speculum on the girls.”

Llewellyn went on the NBTSC parent listserv—which she normally steers clear of—to try to quell some of the then-rampant rumors about the West Virginia session.

Despite her online responses, many parents remained upset, and the experience sapped much of Llewellyn’s enthusiasm for continuing the camp.

Llewellyn, who still stands behind the ideas in her book, says, ‘It’s been more of a gradual evolution.’ The homeschooling movement, she notes, has enough momentum and supporters that she doesn’t need to be a front-line fighter anymore.

More than anything, this story is an example of the 39-year-old’s almost willful naiveté. For a long time, Llewellyn focused solely on the good in people. “When I wrote my first book, I was very idealistic about homeschoolers,” she admits. “I imagined them to be these people who had figured everything out and who didn’t have the normal problems of being a human being.” But the recent run-in was only the most extreme example of a trend she’d noticed after encountering homeschoolers and their parents at conferences and speaking engagements and through the camps. “I realized that these people have their neuroses and their various issues,” she explains. “I don’t any longer see them as perfect human beings. I think that’s important. A situation can improve life, but there’s no sort of magic pill, like, ‘Oh, unschooling is the answer to all the world’s problems.’”

To me, this sounds like a sudden change of heart. In Handbook‘s third chapter, Llewellyn writes: “Are you tickled pink to have your mind programmed into Obedient Worker mode? To cash in your cultural heritage for Mainstream Suburbia-think? To be baby-sat 35 hours every week?”

But Llewellyn, who still stands behind the ideas in her book, says, “It’s been more of a gradual evolution.” The homeschooling movement, she notes, has enough momentum and supporters that she doesn’t need to be a front-line fighter anymore. “I find myself less and less identifying with a movement, per se,” she says, “and more interested in broader questions, existential questions, of like, ‘Whatever situation I’m in, how can I best learn?’”

With that in mind, Llewellyn’s new book, which might not be published for another year, tackles the question of how, within a mainstream school environment, to get the best out of an education. “For me, more and more, the first step—it isn’t so much ‘get out,’ it’s awareness,” she says. She explains by playing the role of the student: “Maybe I’m in a history class that I feel is boring. What can I do? Are there questions I can generate? Are there things that I can do?”

This all begs the question: Is Llewellyn selling out? Gatto says no, mainly becauseshe’s still writing for kids. “Grace has been, and will continue to be, an important contributor to the broader homeschooling movement,” he wrote in the fax. “In speaking directly to kids as she has done, she has filled tens of thousands of young people with the confidence that their inchoate hunches are correct—schooling as we know it is like a monstrous Halloween prank, one played on school personnel as well as youth.”

As if to prove Gatto right, Llewellyn acknowledges that, since 1991, the school landscape has changed, with the advent of charter schools and the growing popularity of small as well as progressive schools. But even they are flawed, she argues. “There are a lot of alternative schools that are about teaching alternative content but are not about supporting an alternative process,” she explains. “In other words, they’re not about giving students more control or initiative over their own learning. They’re about, ‘Oh, instead of teaching physics, we should be teaching kids how to build straw-bale houses.’”

She adds rhetorically, “Did anyone ask the students whether they wanted to build straw-bale houses instead of learning physics? Did anyone ask the students what they wanted to learn, what they cared about?”

Before I was formally introduced to Llewellyn, on the eve of the Oregon camp’s first day, I saw her dance. Several staffers had gathered at a spacious Eugene café for dinner and music. Most were lounging at tables, where they munched on pizza and conversed as a college-age trio—guitar, drums, and keyboard—belted out original indie rock tunes.

“Grace...will continue to be an important contributor to the broader homeschooling movement,” John Taylor Gatto says of Llewellyn.
—Photograph by Robert Graves

But Llewellyn had staked out a corner of the café, where she was dancing with Shadburne. I watched for a few minutes as she swayed and twirled in rhythm with the music. Her long skirt spun around her ankles, and her shoulder-length hair, freed from pigtails, bounced around her face.

Recalling that scene, I’m given a hint of Llewellyn’s place in the “movement.” As homeschooling has become more acceptable, Llewellyn, an early believer and promoter, is ready once again to find her own space, in some new corner. It was obvious, watching her dance, that there’s a strong spirit to her movement, a spirit that carries over into her writing and teaching. She’s great with kids, not because she can get away with pigtails but because she doesn’t preach. There’s nothing Messianic about the way she conveys her message. Most important, she still gets excited about learning—a new song, a new dance—and about teaching and can tap into a genuine enthusiasm typically seen only in teens.

She’ll tell me later, in the fall, that she’s decided to continue with the camps—both in Oregon and West Virginia. Having been around the campers and the staffers, she’ll sound rejuvenated, and will have almost forgotten the run-in with the difficult parent. And, of course, there’s a book to finish.

And watching her dance that night, none of the past year’s struggles were evident. Llewellyn had cast off her worries like so much dead weight. As she twirled and shuffled, she looked light, almost weightless. She looked liberated.

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