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The Joshua Slocum Challenge

Especially in turbulent times and rough seas, transformation starts in our own imaginations.

Especially in turbulent times and rough seas, transformation starts in our own imaginations.

Joshua Slocum came to great fame as the first person to circumnavigate the earth on a sailboat, singlehanded, and left a legacy of courage and resourcefulness. His book, “Sailing Alone Around the World,” set for me a personal record as one of the books I have repeat-read the most. I’ve probably read it five times.

Facing the world and its far-off gales, knowing the laws that govern the winds, managing tribes and leaders and foes from far off cultures, these all are wonderful to think about and to read about again during pandemic days. Slocum sailed day after day, charting his position, alone with the rushing water along the ship’s side. On one run, he ran the ship 43 days and nights from land, a long time to be at sea alone. I know many people might feel isolated as such and, to this, Slocum pens one of my new favorite lines, a subtheme I had never noticed in earlier readings of this amazing tale:  

“I had already found that it was not good to be alone, and so I made companionship with what there was around me, sometimes with the universe and sometimes with my own insignificant self; but my books were always my friends, let fail all else.”
—Joshua Slocum

I once (at 25) finished a master’s degree and holed up in a cottage far up the McKenzie River (out of Eugene, Oregon), alone for five months—I don’t know why. And all I remember are the wood stove, my banjo, and my history books, wonderful companions. I’ve spent the next 45 years as a professional teacher and, over that time, I’ve seen the emphasis shift steadily towards group work. I have to wonder if all that team emphasis hasn’t taken something away. I have no data, but it feels like people with more alone time read a whole lot more. Think: Little House on the Prairie.

Dr. Stuart Grauer reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe to 8th Grade English students - October 22, 2020

We are now 10 months into a global pandemic forcing many students and families into an aloneness greater than they have ever known. What will we have to look back on during times of our own isolation? What will we make of these times? Who will squander the preciousness of time alone in seeking out all sorts of ways out of it? I can hear the reflections now:

It was so boring.
I wasted time.
I watched a lot of TV.

While others among us will look back in joy and story:

I made more art than I ever have.
I surfed so many days.
I read so many books!

School closures have impacted over 91% of all students enrolled in schools. The risk of educational disengagement is greater than we have known in modern times. And yet:  Literary Hub noted recently that 35% of the world is reading more during this pandemic. Not only does reading feed students' intellect and curiosity towards literacy, but it aids the development of analytical thinking, creativity, comprehension and empathy. Reading transports us to new dimensions, and it mitigates feelings of isolation and distraction, just as Slocum wrote about.

Said Slocum, “to be alone for forty-three days would seem a long time, but in reality, even here, winged moments flew lightly by and, instead of my hauling in for Nukahiva [the next port], I kept on for Samoa, twenty-nine days more… I was not distressed in any way during that time.”

72 days without a port, alone in wind and waves, and Slocum took safe harbor in the beautiful world of words and ideas. People with more alone time seem to read more. What does that mean?

Grauer 9th Grade English students reading together during class with teacher Paige Prindle - October 7, 2020

I know many among us who are engaging with Eastern forms of seeking peace, avoiding distraction and anxiety, and increasing concentration, such as meditation or present moment awareness, and I commend them, but here in the West we have something that can do that job: it’s called the short story.

Reading is the place we can transport the pure mind. We meet far more heroes there than anywhere else. Likewise, most of our heroes in history were great readers, including: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Albert Einstein, Jane Austen, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates. Elon Musk learned rocket making from reading. Many of the busiest, most successful people somehow find more time than the rest of us do for reading. Mark Cuban reads three hours a day. 

Don’t quote me on this one:  we spend six hours a day in classrooms with skilled, dedicated teachers, and we thank them, all while knowing we may never have a better teacher in our lives than ourselves alone with a good book. If it gets kids to log off for a while, better still. 

Grauer Junior Sophia H. '22 reading "The Scarlet Letter" for English class - January 21, 2021

Of course, it does not come easy for everyone. Some people need more explicit teaching, others muddle through independently—great teachers and parents know the difference. Tips for teachers and parents: emphasize meaning making and ideas in reading. To promote independent reading, you may need to leave the conversations about spelling, syntactical conventions, and “required” classics for later. Let’s drive the ghosts of reading arrogance out and make way for diverse ways of sailing alone in the mind, even if it’s in comic books. Personally, I like easy books and easy reading. For all its diverse functions, to me the ultimate read is a flashlight we bring into the cave of the imagination.

If I’d been living in an exotic port as harbor master, rather than right here as school master, while simultaneously being a ski guide and a touring surfer, painter of large oil paintings, and writer of tales, and a marine, plus a thief and a spy, and I could have done well at those two (or as a lawyer for that matter), and a general rambler and gold trader on the side, if I could be all those alter egos, plus of course a sailor, all vocations towards which I am still inclined, all parallel lives and loves I still pine for, then books could be less essential to me, but I don’t think a single human life exists absent of the vicarious, a fantastical capacity given to Homo sapiens alone, probably, and to well-read lives among them much more so—which could be why I gave up all those fantasies to be a classroom teacher who made the most of a career out of little more than reading great and beautiful stories to young people and talking about them.

So then. As I am writing, we could easily have at least 72 days left to sail this pandemic. What will you make of them? Will you be a ship’s captain? In our books, we board vessels of any class and pilot them through all weather and romantic escape; we accompany the queen at coronation, and receive saints and geniuses of wit and warmth whom we could never be alone with otherwise. Sail alone around the world and never be late for dinner. There is not a single pandemic day you cannot whitewater raft down the Grand Canyon gorges and stop to break cornbread with the peaceful Havasupai at a sandy wash, 1000 years ago. There is pandemic enough for each of us to resolve that, once we come in for a landing, we’ll have tackled more books, and embraced the vivid and life-changing experiences they have to offer us. We are transformed for the better. These are the days to read like a leader—there may never be a better time.

“The wind …was light and dead ahead. But now, with a good stock of books on board, I fell to reading day and night, leaving this pleasant occupation merely to trim sails or tack … while the Spray nibbled at the miles.”
—Joshua Slocum

Recommended Books from Tricia Valeski & Stuart Grauer:
The Boys in the Boat
English Passengers (Booker Prize Finalist)
A Voyage for Madmen
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Dr. Grauer invites you, the reader, to comment below about the best things you and your children have been reading. What books have taken you on a journey lately?


Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Sailing Alone Around the World - by Captain Joshua Slocum

Dr. Stuart Grauer reading "The Telltale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe to 8th Grade English students - October 22, 2020

Grauer 9th Grade English students reading together during class with teacher Paige Prindle - October 7, 2020

Grauer Junior Sophia H. '22 reading "The Scarlet Letter" for English class - January 21, 2021

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer


Fearless Teaching® is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

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"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

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Dr. Grauer's Column: Archive of Past Columns

Dr. Grauer's Column - The Joshua Slocum Challenge

Dr. Grauer recounts wild lessons from the great read, Sailing Alone Around the World and invites you, the reader, to comment about the best things you and your children have been reading. What books have taken you on a journey lately?

Dr. Grauer's Column - We Don't Notice

Students are feeling more isolated and passive in the global pandemic lock-down. The role of teachers today is to invite and inspire things for our students to do. This is no time for a passive education. This is no time for standardization!

Dr. Grauer's Column - Teaching Economics and Planting Trees

Dr. Grauer relates the bountiful fruit harvested from trees on Grauer's green campus to the bounty of blessings received from Grauer families past and present, joining together to benefit our current and future Grauer students and teachers.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Resiliency 2020

In his weekly message to Grauer students, Dr. Grauer discussed the importance of resilience and optimism, and how these character attributes contribute to each person's own sense of happiness and success.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Real Connection in Middle School

Middle school is one of the most difficult times because there is nothing more important than being accepted and included. Guest columnist Dr. Tricia Valeski writes about the real connections that are made in middle school at The Grauer School, and why it continues to be "an oasis of heartfelt education".