Laurie Levy has been an educator, school administrator and community leader for over 30 years. Before embarking on her encore career as a writer, she founded and directed the Warren W. Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois (where my twins went to school). In an era when academic pressure trickles down, in some circles, to the diapered set, this innovative preschool sticks to developmentally appropriate practices that are inclusive of all children, creating an environment where children and families can truly thrive. Levy remains a passionate advocate for diversity, community and the rights of children with special needs.
In her debut collection of essays, Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real: On Belonging, Loving, Evolving, Advocating, Musing, and Letting Go, Levy deftly captures a range of insights and personal experiences. Heartfelt and often humorous, these glimpses at a lifetime of change-making, learning and loving touch on themes we can all relate to: the process of growing older, learning to forgive, screwing up, and surviving all the same. Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real is a portrait of the educator and advocate as a woman, with a decidedly human touch that appeals to readers regardless of gender or generation.
I sat down to talk with her about writing, activism and advocating while female.
Deborah Siegel: As a longtime advocate for the voiceless, how do you understand the relationship between writing and activism?
Laurie Levy: Prior to blogging and putting myself out there on social media, my advocacy was pretty much on my home turf. While I saw the need for action on so many fronts, I started small as a school volunteer. I had been a high school English teacher for four years right out of college and learned that activism could be as simple as inspiring low-achieving students to believe in themselves and succeed. When I left that job, my homeroom gave me a plate that said, “Flowers leave their fragrance on the hands that caress them”—something I have always remembered.
Several years later, when my first child entered elementary school, I was hugely inspired by the principal of the school, Warren Cherry, to consider the link between school leadership and advocacy. Founding and directing Cherry Preschool provided me with a platform to speak out about important issues in my community and become a local leader in the Evanston early childhood community. I had decided that I would “tend my own garden” rather than working at state or national level activism, and I became very invested in advocating for children with special needs.
Writing has opened a door for me to express my ideas far beyond anything I experienced before. Retiring at a time when social media was expanding was perfect timing for me. I now have a platform that reaches far beyond my local garden.
DS: Why now, after a long career as an advocate and educator, did you decide to dive into blogging and write a book?
LL: I have always loved to write. Had I been born at a different time, I have no doubt I would have become a journalist rather than an educator. When you suggested on my last day of work prior to my retirement that I write the story of the preschool’s founding, I thought, why not? It was therapeutic, as it occupied the first weeks of my retirement. It felt like a natural segue to try blogging. There is no shortage of opinions out there, so why not add mine?
The book came from my need to create something less ephemeral than a blog post that basically disappears. I was facing down a 70th birthday, which felt monumental. Then my mother died. The book became a tribute to her, as she always told me I should write one. But more than that, it became part of my mourning process. I had lost not only my mother but my father three years earlier and my career. The book became a way to shout out, I’m still here and I still have things to share.
DS: What’s surprised you most about the process?
LL: It was much harder than I anticipated. I have always written quickly and am generally far too wordy, but I was used to doing my own thing in writing newsletters and materials for the preschool. The notions that blog posts needed to be short, essays had a different format, and a book required a lot of editing and rewriting were a steep learning curve for me.
I was also surprised by the parts of social media that were a natural fit for me and by how I was able to slowly, over the course of almost three years, build up a modest following: over 2,000 people following my Facebook page and 500 subscribers to my newsletter. Both of these vehicles are fun and easy for me, building on skills I had acquired as a preschool director. I am always surprised when something goes “mini-viral” but can never predict how well a given piece will be received.
I’m also humbled by how much I don’t know about social media and now, about book publishing. Unlike Donald Trump, I still don’t tweet much. And now that I have figured out how to get my book published, I’m surprised that is only step one of the process. There's the marketing, the publicity—the getting people to show up and buy your book.
DS: As more and more women who were active in the civil rights and second-wave women’s movements turn to writing their memoirs, the sub-genre I’d call "portrait of the activist" takes on new dimensions. Your short essays cover activism across a woman’s lifespan. What is different, do you think, about a portrait of an activist who happens to be female?
LL: For a woman of my generation, the first step was finding my voice and believing what I thought mattered as much as a man’s opinion. While I participated in protesting for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, most of the leaders were men. Although she stated it ineloquently, I get what Gloria Steinem was trying to say about young progressive women being drawn to Bernie Sanders because that’s where the boys are. For my generation and hers, there was some truth to that allegation.
As a young mother, I joined a group of women working on the issue of how girls were portrayed in children’s literature. We were all about banning books in which girls were spectators or cheerleaders for the actions of boys. We especially hated the Dick and Jane readers and fairy tales in which the passive princess waited to be rescued by her prince. But my activism at that time still centered on my children and how to raise them differently from how I had been raised. As a woman, I was drawn to issues that impacted my children’s education, and later to issues that impacted the kids at my preschool. Special needs advocacy (that touched both the preschool and grandmother parts of my life), and issues surrounding the care of aging parents (mine) also became activist passions in the last couple of decades.
I’m sure my path was quite different from the path I would have taken as a man. I think my peer group of women took a much more active role than men in many important issues that touched our lives directly. I can’t think of a similar path for the men I know as they aged.
DS: In all the roles from which you write—daughter of aging parents, mother of three, grandmother of eight including children with special needs, a boomer turning 70—there are through-lines that transcend gender and generation. What, in your view, is the most salient message that these essays, taken together, have to share?
LL: I hope my essays convey the important roles empathy, commitment, caring, kindness, community, humor, acceptance, and love play in living life to its fullest. Sometimes, you make a real difference. Other times, you barely survive. As I tell my grandkids, it’s not the messing up that matters. It’s what you learn from the mistakes. In the end, it’s all about appreciating the unique gifts each person brings to your life and giving more than you receive.