Last week, we talked about the joys of stability. Aimless meandering seems to be the opposite. There’s a lot of joy in aimless meandering too.
Walking on the boardwalk recently, trying to get as many steps in as early as I could, -- it would be getting very hot and muggy soon and then it was going to rain, -- a tee shirt walking toward me caught my eye. I slowed so I could read it, “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost.”
I love that. I Googled it as soon as I got back to the car.
All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
I read the Ring trilogy in the late 60’s, soon after it appeared in paperback. I was reading it often on the subways where “Frodo Lives” had become the ubiquitous graffiti, the “Kilroy was here” of my generation. I don’t remember this poem. Not surprising. I loved Tolkien’s saga but was in a hurry to get on with it, skipped the poetry. It didn’t seem to advance the plot.
“Not all those who wander are lost” reminded me of Bernie. He used to describe the Street Retreat as “aimless meandering.” I remain intrigued by the idea of living life without a purpose.
On the street, we could worry about where the next meal was coming from or where we would sleep if we really wanted to worry, but we didn’t have to. It was Holy Week and after a bitter cold first night, it was unseasonably warm.
One afternoon, I wandered alone, walking north from the ferry terminal along the East River. Sitting alone on a park bench, basking, gazing out across the grass at the river, my legs way stretched out before me. It was luxurious. In those days, when I still carried my wallet in my back pocket, I worried whenever I stretched out the way I was that day, that my wallet would slide from my pocket. No worries. I was on the street without a wallet. It was as if Janis Joplin was singing in my ear, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” No wallet. No worries.
So much fuss is made about the “purposeful life.” The bums who were wandering Manhattan had to be made invisible. Purposeless people were bad for tourism. Purposeless people, peoole without jobs and ambitions threatened to bring down our whole American way of life. “You must be,” we were told, “the author of your own life.” You must have a purpose.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to just wander aimlessly, allowing the unseen hand of the Universe to guide me? How is that possible? When we were kids, we played a game of wandering. Each corner, we flipped a penny. Heads, we turned right. Tails, we turned left. It was fun. It was freedom.
“God works in mysterious ways” certainly seems to have been the truth of much of my life. “The hand of God,” call it what you will, was everywhere in the evolution of our schools.
Here’s one thread of a tale.
Early on, before we got our first charter, Peter Ashenden, who was a member of the board of The Verrazano Foundation — The Verrazano Foundation was the midwife which brought our first school, Lavelle Prep, into the world — told me we should get a pro bono lawyer.
Although he was then based in Chicago, Peter had worked in New York a long time. He told me exactly what we needed to do. “Call the New York Lawyers in the Public Interest.” I didn’t think we needed a lawyer. “Do it now. When you need a lawyer, it’s often too late to look.” Advice out of nowhere? Divine intervention.
I was being pushed out of my comfort zone, but I made the call. They were very sweet. They would get back to me when they had possible representation. I didn’t hold my breath. By the time they called back three days later, I had figured I’d never hear from them but anyway I’d given it a shot.
They thought they had someone at a top firm. They wanted to schedule a meeting. To give the lawyers a chance to back out, I figured.
“Next Monday. At Hughes Hubbard.”
I immediately called Dick Kuhn. Dick was an important supporter of The Verrazano Foundation and when we first wanted to see if our charter school idea, a school which would help to level the playing field for students living with emotional challenges — we were learning not to refer to them as the “mentally ill students,” — Dick had convened a meeting at his law office of community leaders in mental health and education.
“Dick, I’m way over my head. Would you come to this meeting with me on Monday?”
Dick agreed and took my anxiety down thirty degrees. What a relief. I could relax and enjoy the weekend.
And then Dick called back. “I have a better idea. I won’t go.” I could feel my anxiety rising. “Perla,” Dick’s wife, “will go to the meeting with you instead. Perla is a partner at Hughes Hubbard.”
Coincidence? Hand of God?
The meeting with Monday went great. I met Ed Vidal, the partner who seemed to be interested in us. I learned later that these big Manhattan firms only took on pro bono clients if one of their partners was interested. Ed and Hughes Hubbard represented us for five years. They helped us get our first charter.
As we struggled to get over the last hurdle, State Education Department approval, the bureaucrats were bombarding us with what sounded to me like legal obstacles. I wondered if we would ever get a charter.
“Don’t worry,” Ed told me. “State Ed doesn’t want to get into a pissing contest with us. We have a lot more lawyers than they do. We’ll drown them in paper.”
We got the charter. Although I had worried that pro bono clients might get the service they were paying for, Ed and his team, everyone at Hughes Hubbard, always treated us like Fortune 500. Ed always called me back the same day, often after 7 PM from the train on his way home to Westchester.
When I called him on a Friday about something we needed urgently, Arinze Ike, the young attorney who was the associate Ed had assigned to our case, called me back that afternoon. “Is it ok if I get it to you Monday?”
“Of course. Have a great weekend.” If I had said I needed it sooner, Arinze would have worked over the weekend.
We had been working with Ed for a couple of years when, finding myself in lower Manhattan with some time to spare, I just dropped by the Hughes Hubbard offices, wonderfully located for me just a block from the Staten Island ferry. I had never done anything like this before. “Any chance Ed Vidal is available?” Surprise. He was.
We were sitting in his office — I think Arinze had joined us — “shooting the breeze” like I was hanging with members of our school team around my desk. I don’t know how the question of school replication came up.
I told Ed, “People have been encouraging us to replicate since before we opened Lavelle. "There should be a Lavelle Prep in every borough.’” I was flattered but had no interest in spending my days in a car between boroughs.
“You ought to build the charter sector on Staten Island. A bigger charter school presence on the Island will give you more clout and more cover with the local pols.”
Serendipitous advice or the hand of God. Ed had opened a possibility which we had never considered, which had never occurred to me. Relieved of my imagined travel burden, we began work on a replication proposal. We called it Lavelle Prep North. That’s the way all networks seemed to grow in the charter sector. You opened one school, and then you cookie-cuttered it.
Instead of additional schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx or Manhattan, we would open our second school just across the Island.
Staten Island is a public transportation nightmare. Another school in another location would make our integrated college prep program available to more kids.
Except our application was rejected. Lavelle Prep had not had enough time to show that it was replication worthy. A setback or divine guidance?
We pivoted. Instead of a replication of Lavelle, we would propose an entirely different school model. We considered alternatives before going with a proposal for a transfer high school. The second charter was easier to get than the first. The third was easier than the second. The fourth was the easiest of all. All schools shared a common vision, college preparation while integrating students living with emotional challenges and other disorders. Each with a unique design. We were creating a range of choices for Staten island parents, and we were piloting four quite different new school designs.
I want to say it was “a brilliant solution.” We didn’t figure it out. We were led to this solution. Was it luck? Was it the hand of God?
We were wandering aimlessly, not without intention. We wanted to level the playing field for students living with emotional challenges, but we weren’t following a map. We allowed ourselves to be guided, and in this instance, as in so many others, the Universe took us to a wonderful place.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.