On Friday morning, as the hustle and bustle of carnival setup was transpiring, I received news that my longtime mentor and friend, Ralph Peterson, passed on from this world. It was fitting that he left us on the same day as the carnival. Ralph and his wife Georgia attended many Seed carnivals over the years. He loved a good party and understood the value of community better than anyone I’ve known. In fact, one of Ralph’s books is called Life in a Crowded Place, a book about classroom community.
We met in the 1980s when I was a grad student at ASU. It was during the heyday of the whole language movement, and it was an exciting time to be a teacher. Once I began studying with Ralph, I couldn’t seem to get enough. I needed 30 hours for my masters program and ended up with 45, because I took so many Ralph classes. He was the chair of my thesis committee, and I found his ideas about authentic learning and the value of true dialogue to be in alignment with what I believed about education. The depth of our reflective conversations about teaching and learning sustained me in ways that were not replicated until many years later. Ralph taught us through example what it means to be part of a true community of learners.
Ralph was an infinitely curious man. He asked wonderful questions and leaned in closely to hear our responses. He always rearranged the furniture when he entered a room to set up for class, and made sure there was food. We were all teachers who had put in full days in our classrooms, and Ralph knew we needed sustenance before expanding our minds. He always made me feel like I was smart and loved to know what I was thinking. He never said he didn’t like one of my ideas. Instead he’d say, “I’d be careful of that idea.”
Long after I completed graduate school and shifted my full attention to being the Seed director, my relationship with Ralph continued. Often when I was struggling to solve a problem, Ralph would randomly appear at the school, just dropping in to say hi. As we talked, he always left me with something to ponder that related to the problem. Every conversation with Ralph was that way.
The last time I talked to Ralph was September 1. He’d made steady progress recovering from his stroke in January. We discussed many topics in our hour and a half conversation, and he remained curious to the end. He wanted to know about my work, an upcoming trip, my art, and poetry I was reading. Throughout his life, a devoted community surrounded Ralph, in large part because of how valued each of us felt by him. His passing leaves a big void in the crowded place we shared with him. In my heart I send Ralph off with these words from the late poet, John O’Donohue:
“Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”