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Whose Shoulders Do You Stand On?

Finding Yourself through the Stories of Others

I met Linda when I was a senior in high school while she was visiting us in the conservative suburb of Pittsburgh where I grew up. She was a friend of my parents.

Linda was a therapist, and she lived across the country with her husband and three children in the liberal and hippy enclave called Bolinas, north of San Francisco. Therapy, to me, with my Catholic background, was the California version of confession. I was wary, yet I must admit, curious too.

That night, I was struck by the way she controlled the conversation through long silences. I assumed it was because she was a therapist, but wasn’t sure. Later, at dinner, she told us about a new project she was working on: helping low-income teenagers go on life changing summer programs all over the world. She was going to call it Summer Search.

During my freshman year of college, feeling stuck I recalled that conversation and reached out to her. Linda suggested I look at a newly formed community service program in Kenya. For three months, I lived in a mud hut with no running water and felt a serenity deep inside that I’d never felt before. I was a long way from everything familiar and felt layer after layer of what I thought I knew about myself fall away. I resurfaced back into my everyday life as a changed person filled with a new and fierce determination to someday work with that intriguing woman out in California.

I went back to the University of Pennsylvania and became the only white girl I knew on campus with a degree in African American Studies. After graduating, I got an offer to join the newly formed program called Teach for America. I called Linda. She urged me to get two years post college experience before talking with her again. Disappointed, I turned my attention to teaching middle school kids in inner city Baltimore while continuing to plot my move west.

I completed those two years, and after numerous calls, Linda agreed for me to come to San Francisco and meet with her. We would go together to Oakland High School to interview new students for Summer Search.

Every interview began with the same words: See those shoes? Tell me what it’s like to be in them. Linda’s prolonged silences filled the room over and over. She was a master at creating a space where those young people experienced the rare combination of feeling safe enough to become vulnerable as they talked about their lives.

I was amazed with these kids and with their courage. On a deeper level, I was stunned. Here was my chance to create with others the kind of connection I had craved my whole life. Here was my chance to learn from a dynamic woman like Linda. Here was my chance for my life to have purpose, to have meaning.

And so Linda became my mentor and I became her apprentice. I opened my heart and mind and soul to her. She was relentless in her desire to help the kids see what they did to sabotage themselves, and she was just as relentless in her expectations of me. Every day I felt pummeled, raw and exposed.

I will never know why I trusted her so much.

The transformation didn’t move in just one direction; I was living the same change we were offering the kids. I began to look at my persistent habit of pleasing other people and the underbelly of anger and resentment that came with it. I found a therapist and began talking about my loving parents yet the pressures and emotional isolation I had felt growing up. I pointed fingers a lot. I worked through a lot. And as I did all these things, the fears that had kept me from being close to other people fell away.

The work itself was all consuming. The evenings brought long phone calls with students that lasted for hours. Every morning, in the office, we would comb our lengthy list of conversations and share the stories we had heard the night before. During the week, we would head over the Bay Bridge to sit all day in the airless closet-like rooms we were given for interviews and listen to young people talk about their lives and obstacles, traumas and deprivations, things I never could have imagined.

I didn’t pity the students or their stories. I admired them. I felt their pain, I heard their sorrows, I saw them completely. They were brave and strong, in ways that were new to me, and they helped me step into a braver and stronger place within myself.

Slowly, I became more courageous. And, to my great surprise, I became a skilled mentor.

When my future husband came into my life, I didn’t flee or say “Next!” as I had so many times before. I was able to become vulnerable. I’d had some practice now in letting myself be seen, really seen. I let him in.

As my relationship with my husband got closer, and I got pregnant with our first child, things with Linda shifted. The little program she had started and we had devoted ourselves to had grown beyond our wildest imagination, with a board and staff and donors and all the complexities of an actual organization.

Linda’s role shifted to teaching and training staff around the country, and the natural result was that I began to run our home office in San Francisco as she had been doing for so long. She celebrated my taking over her position but I felt a pervasive guilt that she had been replaced, ousted, by me. She kept saying the natural and healthy course of an intense mentoring relationship was to slay the mentor but stepping into a leadership role left me riddled with anxiety. Yet I found myself relieved to be free of her overbearing presence.

In those years, we were still connected, but we moved carefully around one another. I still loved her and needed her approval, but our all-consuming union had retreated into an uneasy bond.

As Summer Search continued to grow and change, other people weren’t necessarily as willing as I had been to turn themselves over to her influence and opinions. Her behavior became increasingly controlling and negative as she was forced to let go of the baby she created.

At the same time, her husband of many years, was dying of Alzheimer’s. She was almost unrecognizable in her despair. The confident, busy, determined Linda I knew disappeared, and I was flooded with love and sorrow for her. All the strife between us fell away. I rushed in to help her, and she welcomed me with open arms.

We spent a lot of time walking together in the hills of West Marin. I listened better than I ever had. (I’d had a lot of practice by then). We laughed a lot. But we couldn’t go backwards—we needed to find the way forward—only differently. Even so, we had switched roles: now she held on to me as I led her on the tricky path back to solid ground.

Today, I’m the middle-aged woman Linda was when I met her. I have a loving husband and three amazing school-aged kids.

Linda is almost 75 years old, a grandmother, and has built a new life and found a new love. She wrote a book about those heady days of our work together building the program, mentoring the kids and, most of all, loving them and each other.

We’ve both moved on from Summer Search. I’m now pursuing my calling, a calling that sprouted so many years ago, when Linda taught me the gift of how to open people up with dignity and safety…when she taught me how to listen. This gift allows me today to help people from all backgrounds share their stories and tap into their confidence by finding their own true voice, on stage and off.

Sometimes I still feel my heart clench, and the old loneliness creep in. How will Linda and I stay connected, now that the thing we made together no longer lives between us? But when I stop and wonder, I already know. Just the other day, Linda emailed that she was feeling anxious I might be pulling away. Recognizing her need for me, I emailed her right back, “Don’t worry: Hip to hip, brain to brain, heart to heart. I will always be there for you.”

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