Published in the Ventura County Star

I grew up in a farm family where hard work, industriousness and resourcefulness were highly valued. Our seasonally governed lives meant more than just calendar changes. From an early age, I internalized the planting and harvest patterns of corn and soybeans. The Farmer’s Almanac taught me to discern the stages of the crops, as well as humans’ inextricable connection to the land and to nature.

My entire life, much of my learning took place outside the classroom; I viewed school as a steppingstone to extracurricular activities like Model U.N., tennis, Student Council, musicals and classical ballet. My parents taught me to view my God-given gifts as such, to use them for the benefit of others. They cultivated in me a respect and love for fun education that transcends standardized tests, encourages asking questions and seeks out wise mentors.

In college, I studied what I loved, taking classes that interested me, like film studies, linguistics, quantum physics and the evolution of social justice movements in the United States. Afterward, however, I had no idea where to get a job because there is really no urgent call for neurolinguist majors in the Help Wanted ads. And there was no newspaper section called Careers with a Conscience. So, I started thinking about who I admire.

My list of heroes include Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor; Indiana Jones, the fictitious archaeologist/professor/adventurer; Laura Ingalls Wilder; and my best friend Jill, an occupational therapist who has begun talking to shop and metalworking classes in high schools about how students’ skills can create useful household items for her differently-abled patients. Grace Llewellyn, one of the pioneers of the Unschooling Movement and author of “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education,” also ranks high on my list.

All these people have in common the goal of freeing education. Unconstrained by the boundaries of desks and classrooms, they bring learning into the open. They represent creativity, individuality, deconstructing barriers, having fun, serving others and making the most of natural talents.

So it makes sense that I was drawn to peace education, a holistic approach to learning. Peace education means many things: conflict resolution, anger management, power with vs. power over, respect for nature, love of diversity and community service. But it is more than that; it’s teaching students about the connections between poverty, racism, technology, the environment, politics, economics, religion and education. I have learned from my students they most value authenticity. Tired of being fed prepackaged ideas through mass marketing and mindless trips to the malls and movie theaters, my students keep telling me they believe there’s more to life than Nike and Coca-Cola.

I believe it too.

Yet, these messages are not the standard priority of pop culture that tells us to get good grades, to get into a top school, to get the right degree so that you can get the high-paying job, the big house, the fast car and the latest look. What we neglect to tell students in their college counseling sessions is that none of these things guarantees happiness.

We teach students to compartmentalize, that in school, English is separate from science is separate from history is separate from math. Peace education decompartmentalizes more than that, it fosters a sense of interconnectedness where each subject, each person, each decision is inextricably linked to another. It demonstrates that, in life, there is much more gray area than black and white.

So why am I a peace educator? Because it fulfills my love of teaching, writing, learning and travel. Because it is authentic. Because I continually meet interesting people who challenge my beliefs and boundaries. Because it promotes consensus and process-oriented skills that make life more functional. Because I can work locally on issues such as peace education and PictSweet; nationally on issues such as juvenile and restorative justice; and internationally on issues such as Iraq and Aceh.

It feels good to do good when no one’s watching. It feels good to be a part of a larger cause. It feels good to make even a small difference. It feels good to be in solidarity with people struggling for their right to learn, to work, to live. It feels good to teach peace.
*Leah C. Wells of Santa Paula is Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.