Carol Ann Wilson’s first book, Still Point of the Turning World: The Life of Gia-fu Feng, won Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in biography, and was a finalist for the 2010 Indie New Generation Award and the Colorado Author’s League Top Hand Award. Because We Wanted To!: Two women, a dream and a ranch called Singing Acres, another biography, was a finalist for similar awards. “The Girl from Coke,” a personal essay, appeared in the October 2020 issue of UNDER THE GUM TREE. Carol lives and writes in Boulder, Colorado.
Carol Ann Wilson interviewed by Sandra Fluck
For over forty years, you have been a teacher, high school principal, assistant principal, university instructor/visiting professor, and a consultant. What have you learned about the public school system in the U.S.?
Our system of compulsory schooling grew from the recognition that a healthy democracy depends on an educated public. An educated public is laudable and essential, and we still have work to do toward that end. What has struck me over the years is the unevenness of quality in schools across the country and, not uncommonly, within some school districts.
Philosopher John Dewey observed that schools reflect the broader society. In like manner, what I have noticed is how schools reflect their respective communities. And the degree to which schools and their communities work together in supportive ways can make a major difference in the quality of students’ learning experiences and how students engage in their own education. When educators, students and community members engage in constructive ways, everyone benefits. Educators feel a sense of efficacy, students feel involved and valued, community members become a vital part of a school’s ongoing process of renewal.
Community includes parents but, while parents are vital in this process, they are not the only ones with a stake in our public schools, which are supported by all taxpayers. When, as is too often the case today, parents think only they have a say, public schools become something else.
Some years ago, when I was in charge of curriculum for a school district, a wave of school protests spread across the country, ostensibly out of concerns of local parents. We discovered, however, that the protests had been sparked by a national group agitating local groups. Their complaints, that schools were using a program called “Magic Circle,” supposedly usurped parental authority. The program’s goals were, in fact, to help primary school students solve problems that arose on the playground or in the classroom. The aim was to build community in the classroom and help students respond to harmful behaviors by learning to talk through problems as a group.
The district’s school board meetings were televised at the time, and agitated parents signed up one after another to register their complaints with the board. I was asked to speak in response to the complaints and talked about the importance of problem solving and critical thinking skills. A parent, claiming to speak for the whole group of concerned parents, told the board they did not want their children discussing private matters in a “magic circle,” which hinted of witchcraft. Nor did they want their children to engage in critical thinking. I’ll never forget the statement this parent made in conclusion. “I don’t want my children to think critically. I’ll tell them what to think.”
Because these parents were speaking only to the school board, and people were not talking to each other across groups, the district administration decided to engage in a community problem-solving process through which various sectors of the community, e.g., business, recreation, justice, education, parents, and others, came together to discuss, research and make recommendations to the board. The recommendations were well received by the board and by the community at large. This was democracy in action.
This example speaks to a reaction by a school district and its community, but among the recommendations were those recommending an ongoing process for the community to avoid such crises.
You focused on two themes in your capacity as an educator: The role of public education in a “social and political democracy,” and the education of students “equitably and excellently.” How do you define “social and political democracy” and “equitably and excellently”? How did you translate their meanings into action in the U.S. educational system?
Public schools are supported by taxpayers, and that is for a reason. Schools are places where, as Benjamin Barber has said, “we learn what it means to be a public . . . [Schools] are the forges of our citizenship and the bedrock of our democracy.” Learning the democratic arts means that students need to know not only a fuller history of our country and how our democracy functions but also how to think critically in order to discern fact from falsehood and make good decisions, and further, how to engage with others to solve our collective problems.
By political democracy, I refer to our system of government that, as Abraham Lincoln so familiarly phrased it at Gettysburg, is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Ours is a representative democracy in which we vote for those who will represent us. But voting is only one aspect of a citizen’s role. We must inform ourselves, speak out for those who can’t, and generally engage as active citizens.
As a social democracy, the emphasis, too, is on the people. Social democracy means a shared way of life; it concerns the relationships we have with each other, how we work together, how we treat each other, how, in our pluralistic society, we resolve our differences.
These ideas were foundational for the work in which I was engaged with the National Network for Educational Renewal and its partner organizations. The founder of our work, John I. Goodlad, spoke often about the public purposes of education in a democracy and how they differed from such purposes in an autocracy. This was a critical lens for viewing curricula and school practices, as well as with the larger community, including higher education institutions.
We introduced and supported ongoing critical inquiry as a way for educators to examine their practices, with a view toward continuous school renewal as central to educating all students well and in equitable ways. By critical inquiry, I mean a kind of ongoing collaborative research about the effectiveness of certain practices, as well as looking at whose interests were being served by those practices. We understood, in our system of compulsory schooling, that we as educators have a responsibility to all students who are required to be in our charge to do our best to create the circumstances in which each and every student could be challenged and learn.
You grew up in the Florida panhandle during the segregated years of Jim Crow, and “the strict demarcation of White and Colored bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools, churches, restaurants, and more” confused you. How did this environment inform you as an educator?
As an educator and as a citizen, I think growing up in that environment taught me the importance of questioning assumptions and trying to understand other points of view. We learn from our environment—family, community, school, faith institutions, and others. And, sometimes what we learn leads us to perpetuate wrong. For example, I believe we don’t naturally fear and hate others, at least not to the extent that created Jim Crow in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. We learn that behavior. The song “You’ve got to be carefully taught” from the old musical South Pacific says it well.
You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
It’s difficult to see what is familiar, and as an educator I thought it important to help create conditions under which students and educators could step outside the familiar and see matters in a different light. For me, that’s crucial to becoming an educated person.
In your review of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and published by The New York Times Company in 2021, you quote Hannah-Jones when she first learned about the “White Lion,” a ship that arrived in the Virginia Colony of Jamestown in 1619, bringing the first African slaves to the shores of the Americas. How can students be educated equitably, you write, “when we don’t know more of the whole story ourselves”? How do you answer this inquiry?
Inquiry is, indeed, the key. We have to understand that history is incomplete and, in some cases, romanticized to perpetuate certain myths. We must ask whose voices are being heard, whose voices are missing—and again whose interests are being served by the way things are.
Just think how exciting history as a subject could be if students were to pose questions, do research, discuss, and come to their own informed conclusions—or even better, realize there likely are further questions, not definite conclusions. This does happen in some classrooms, and it’s exciting to see. Such activity illustrates the variation I mentioned earlier in the richness of student experience across the country.
What are the some of the themes in The 1619 Project that jumped out at you? Why is it vital that students learn the facts of the origin story and slavery? What educational guides can educators consult to teach The 1619 Project?
Three powerful themes jumped out as I read, and sometimes wept over, the remarkable poems, essays, pieces of short fictions, and photographs in The 1619 Project. The first was irony—that slavery and its progenies have thrived in a democratic republic founded on the premise “all men are created equal.” The second was contradiction—that people accused of being shiftless and lazy succeed, thrive, and then are punished horrifically for their success. And the third was a zero-sum game mentality—if those people have the same rights as White people, then the rights of White people are somehow diminished.
I saw all of these growing up when and where I did, and I see them now, sometimes in more subtle forms, sometimes as blatant as ever. We have made some progress, but not enough. Making further progress means we have to make different choices as individuals and as a society. We can’t do that without seeking truth. Slavery has affected much of our history and our present. We can choose to face facts squarely and resolve to change, or we can continue in willful ignorance because the familiar is more comfortable. I think, given the choice, most young people would prefer the former. And providing that choice just may help our democracy realize more of its potential.
The Pulitzer Center provides a rich array of teaching materials and community resources, which thousands of educators and community members across the county have tapped. I encourage readers to visit their website and see for themselves all that is available.
You have published several books, but one of these books—Still Point of the Turning World: The Life of Gia-fu-Feng—took you thirteen years to write. What did you learn about yourself as a writer? What did you learn about the publishing business? Were you surprised when Still Point of the Turning World won the Foreword Reviews INDIEFA Book of the Year Award in Biography in 2010?
Writing the book took thirteen years because I was directing a non-profit organization, consulting and traveling a lot, and teaching occasional courses at the university. I was also still reeling from my sister’s death. My sister, Susan, had known Gia-fu and had begun working on his biography, but had not been able to finish it. The main reason, however, that it took thirteen years was because I didn’t know what I was doing. I had written academic articles and book chapters, but I’d not written biography. I thought it important to use Gia-fu’s own words as much as I could, and so I wrote draft after draft trying to do that. It wasn’t until friends, who had read draft after draft, introduced me to a developmental editor that the book started to take a shape of its own.
Laura Goodman, that wonderful editor, read the draft-of-the-moment and proposed several ways of framing the story. When she suggested that the story wasn’t complete without my sister’s journey, and mine, I burst into tears, knowing that was truly the heart of it for me. I also knew it was something I had been avoiding because losing Susan had been so painful. But, difficult as it was to write about her, I proceeded to do so, in tandem with writing about Gia-fu and my search to know him.
Two lessons from this: First, I didn’t have enough confidence in my own words, so I tried to stick to Gia-fu’s. Once I realized this wasn’t the best way to tell his story, I let go of that and used my words, from my heart as well as my head. And second, what I tried so hard to avoid was exactly what was needed for me to write it.
Another thing I learned was that if I happened to get stuck, I could pose a question for myself and free write for five or ten minutes and that would loosen me enough to carry on. But I also learned that I can’t force what isn’t ready to appear on the page, that sometimes letting the ideas sit and ripen produces the results I want.
It’s funny looking back on it now, I didn’t think much about whether the book would be published. But I knew I had to write it and write it as well as I possibly could. When I was close to completing it, Gia-fu’s former wife Jane English, who had been tremendously helpful with information and insight, suggested Amber-Lotus Publishing. They had published Jane and Gia-fu’s translations of Chuang-Tsu Inner Chapters and Jane’s calendars based on the Tao Te Ching. I contacted them, they read the manuscript, and offered to publish it.
Still Point of the Turning World was released on April 4, 2009. In the process I learned how long it takes to publish a book (more than a year in this case) and of the need to get signed permissions from the many people I interviewed.
Terri Stanley was Amber Lotus’s publicist at the time. She submitted the book for the Foreword Review Award, along with several others. I was astounded when it won. And that it was also a finalist for other awards.
You wrote About Earline, I assume, after forty years in public education. What is the genesis of this book?
Earline was my mother. To say she was a character is to understate the facts. She loved adventure, and she instilled that love in her three children.
Once, when I was visiting her at her home in the Florida panhandle, she and I sat chatting as we sipped tea and basked in the morning sunshine. I was close to finishing Still Point of the Turning World and had a publishing contract signed and in my files. Our meandering conversation led to adventures she’d had as a nineteen-year-old when, after losing both parents, she’d gone out for a walk one afternoon and ended up hitchhiking across the country. I’d heard these stories before, but something in her retelling the part about joining a carnival to be part of the four-legged woman act, the sword box act, and become Electra, who lit a torch with her tongue, made me realized I had to write about this. The words flew from my mouth, “Mom, I have to write a book about you!”
We set to work soon after, me asking questions, she responding, and then we’d review the transcripts together. I would then write a chapter and send it to her to ensure that I’d gotten the story straight.
While the book isn’t a literary triumph, I’ve often been told it’s a fun read, despite the several incidents my mother censored. More significantly, both the process of talking about her life and the kiss of celebrity the book brought her in that small Florida panhandle town made her feel seen. In her late eighties and with congestive heart failure, she lived a quiet life. That in itself wasn’t easy for an adventurous person, and to feel heard and seen clearly buoyed her.
I self-published the book in 2011 because I wanted her to enjoy it while she could. She passed away not quite a year and a half later. Because I came to know her as a person and not just my mother, and she came to see how much I cared about her, researching and writing the book brought us closer together. It may be the most important thing I’ve written.
We have published three of your Creative Nonfiction narratives about Hong Kong on The Write Launch: “Fireworks in Hong Kong”—an award winner; “Glass Houses”; and “Antidote to Truth.” What led you to write these narratives about Hong Kong?
During years of my research for Still Point of the Turning World: The Life of Gia-fu Feng, I developed a great interest in and tenderness for the Chinese culture. On my first trip to China to meet some of Gia-fu’s family, we stopped in Hong Kong for a few days. David, my husband, had been there before, but it was my first time, and it happened to be on Hong Kong’s last lunar New Year’s celebration as a British colony, February 7, 1997. It was an unforgettable spectacle, complete with throngs gathered for fireworks over the harbor, a huge parade through downtown that featured bagpipers, dragons, dancers, and more.
After that first trip, everything about Hong Kong and China caught my eye, especially the relationship between the two. So years later, when China moved to impose national security laws on Hong Kong, and protests escalated, I was aghast. China’s actions showed blatant disregard for the fifty-year treaty in which Hong Kong was to keep its financial and semi-democratic system under the One China Two Systems agreement. As the crackdown on protesters became increasingly serious and harsh, I felt such outrage that I needed to do something. Few options were available, but I knew I could write about it.
The images of that remarkable lunar New Year celebration remained vivid, and the thought that we may have experienced those events with some of the protesters who were being threatened and beaten made the situation feel more personal. That we were facing our own problems as a country added to my anger, and writing provided an opportunity to reveal parallels with our country’s hypocrisy.
I was delighted when The Write Launch wanted to publish it, and even more so when you suggested a follow-up creative nonfiction narrative. “Glass Houses” allowed me to address more specifically the role of public education in our democracy, while contrasting and comparing China and the U.S., especially in light of our former president’s authoritarian acts of installing only those loyal to him and punishing those who weren’t.
“Antidote to Truth” grew out of the same impulses. After reading about the Chinese authorities’ intention to remove the Pillar of Shame, sculpted by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and cherished by Hong Kong, I felt the need to write about it. Shortly after, the authorities removed the sculpture while students were away for Christmas break. At the same time, the former U.S. president was attacking, among other democratically significant ideas and publications, The 1619 Project, an effort led by Nichole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times to commemorate the landing of the first enslaved people in what would become the United States. The two events begged for comparison as efforts to deny the truth. I had to write about it.
We have recently published your essay, “Parts of Me: Reflections on Reviewing The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” in our ongoing series “The Writer’s Journey.” You reflect on the rooms that “are parts of myself I have yet to meet” and relate this feeling to your first reading of The 1619 Project. What themes in The 1619 Project awakened you to the facts and a deeper understanding of America’s historical origins?
The themes I mentioned earlier, irony, contradiction, and zero-sum game, seemed to crystallize as I explored the varied, powerful accounts and representations of what the enslaved and their descendants have experienced in this country. I felt as though I were being allowed to see from the inside out what had been going on for centuries. I was offered the opportunity to explore these “rooms” of human experience, the human condition, therefore my rooms, too in a way I hadn’t had access to before.
I was also struck by the notion of progress and how we get in the way of progress by assuming it’s self-propelling, inevitable. It isn’t. It’s difficult, messy, unending work, and when we become self-satisfied and sit back, it slips away. Examples abound, but a haunting one is how the election of President Obama led to complacency about racism in this country and was followed by the election of a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Complacency and backlash are progress’s nemeses.
The 1619 Project caused me to reflect on the purpose and power of origin stories, how they can unite and how they can disregard truth by a singular focus on a particular dimension of a story. But if we continue to seek the fuller truth by exploring other rooms of our collective history, the parts of ourselves we have yet to meet, then we can have a richer, more complete story to unite, rather than divide.
On your website, you talk about why you write. I’ll ask the question this way: Why do you write?
In thinking about my desire to write, I’m inspired by others. Emily Dickenson wrote, “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” These lines speak to my love of seeing words come alive on the page and how central that is for me in making sense of my my life and the world.
Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson wrote in Composing a Life that, going forward, we’re too busy to compose our lives, consumed as we are by making decisions and living life. But we can do this by looking back. I look back on my own multifaceted, nonlinear, serendipitous life astonished, and see patterns and relationships that hadn’t revealed themselves before. New awareness emerges when I probe the dark corners of my life and brush cobwebs away to find neglected parts of myself.
Mary Oliver’s remarkable poem “Spring” nudges me further. She writes, “There is but one question, How to love this world.”
I must ask, can one love it? How have I loved it? How do I love it? In spite of itself. Because of itself. Because of the work that’s to be done. For me, that work lies in how we treat each other and the places in which we find ourselves. I write about equity and social justice, just maybe because I want to love this world and I want it—I want us, the people of the world, to treat each other better, or at least move closer to trying. I write about equity and social justice because I spent forty-plus years trying to address it through our educational system, and I don’t want to waste the insight I’ve gained. Loving the world means seeing it as it is and as it might be and doing what I can—which is, now, to write.
Writing to make sense, to share what I’ve learned, to explore what puzzles me, all of this rings true. But the most important reason I write is because my mother told me to. She told me of her hope that I would finish a project my younger sister had begun but hadn’t lived to complete. When my sister, Susan, died unexpectedly, the partially edited, stream-of-consciousness writings of Gia-fu Feng, tai-chi master and Taoist rogue, sat unfinished. My grieving mother longed for me to complete it. Steeped in heartache myself, I protested. I’d studied English literature, not Chinese literature, history and culture, as had my sister. I knew little about Taoism or China. My sister had been Gia-fu’s friend and his community’s attorney. I’d never met him. How could I possibly write this book about him? And if I did, how would it ever serve as an acceptable substitute for what Susan would have written?
But, as you know, I did write it. And Still Point of the Turning World: The Life of Gia-fu Feng won an award. What an unexpectedly comforting way to honor my sister and my mother.
And now, I continue to write because I must.
You are invited to give a talk to an audience of high school students about the importance of education. What do you tell them?
Mary Oliver’s lovely poem, “The Summer Day,” ends with this provocative question:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
If you’re anything like I was, you probably don’t have a clue, but perhaps you believe in possibility. Even if you do know exactly what you want, you may think there’s a chance it will change, and given the fact that our general life span is longer these days, you may want to do many things with your life. Regardless, the realm of possibility, of options, beckons. Education provides the means for opening many doors and pursuing now-unknown possibilities. I can think of three crucial ways it does this.
First and most basic is by emphasizing critical thinking—observing closely, analyzing, evaluating, solving problems, making decisions, and communicating effectively. In today’s world, where so much mistaken and deliberately wrong information creates greater challenges and more urgency, learning to discern fact from fiction is essential. This is true in private life, as well in public and civic life. Can you think of recent arguments with friends or family in which incorrect information has played a role? Or a faulty analysis has skewed public discourse? If you’ve seen the news, you’ll think of multiple examples.
The second follows on the heels of the first and that is to encourage the ability to formulate good questions and nurture curiosity. Learning to do these will ensure a robust life of the mind that enhances every possibility, whether you want to dance, be a brain surgeon, or travel the world. It’s also essential, as is the first, for participating in and contributing to our democratic way of governance. And that leads to the third.
Here you are, in a public school in this social and political democracy called the United States. Our system depends upon the enlightened participation and contributions of its citizens. This comes in many forms, such as working with others to plan civic events, advance particular causes, bring attention to injustices, welcome and integrate immigrants, help voters get to the polls, vote. Knowing our country’s full history, including mistakes, injustices and meaningful progress; how our system of government works; how our local civic institutions work and contribute to the larger whole all lend themselves to an educated citizenry. This knowledge base helps us be a responsible, competent public. It doesn’t just happen.
These are some of the ways in which education enriches and helps fulfill us, individually and collectively. These are some of the ways that it can contribute to pursuing your one wild and precious life.