“A Little Genius In Every Madman”

Joey Ramone of The Ramones was always “different.” (image credit: Adam Louttit)

In our culture, when a teen is really different, the adults in his life often feel a crushing pressure to try to fix him and to get him to conform.  “How will he ever succeed in this world?” we ask.

Joey Ramone’s brother, Mickey Leigh, had this to say about how his brother’s unique gifts were supported:

“Fortunately for my brother, our mother was an incredibly nourishing person, and raised us in such a way to never think of any individual as useless because they may not be on a par with the status quo. That because a person might be struggling with whatever mental or physical condition they have been afflicted with, it does not mean they have absolutely nothing within them to offer society, or to contribute, be it artistically or another way. She instilled that in me, and though it was very difficult to grow up sharing a room with someone turning lights on and off, running the water in the bathroom for hours and hours, unable to throw things away; or to walk to school with him as he stepped on and off the curb while the other kids pointed and laughed- due to the way my mother raised me I was about as sensitive as a younger brother could possibly be.

“If I had been like a jock, or macho type of kid, I don’t think he would have fared as well. I’ll admit I lost it several times, but l never treated him as a hopeless lump of flesh. I encouraged him as much as possible, taught him how to play the guitar, and encouraged him to get into bands.

“When he found himself unable to deal with his problem and felt suicidal, he voluntarily admitted himself to St Vincent’s Psychiatric Ward for evaluation. That was when I told him ‘don’t worry, there’s a little genius in every madman.’

“We were not your average family. Our parents got divorced when we were very young. Our mother was an artist who encouraged us to recognize and express our individuality. I knew we were different from the other kids. My brother was not normal, and we lived in the same room, so neither was I. It was impossible for me to be. I shared his problems right along side him, and knew I had to, like it or not. We were both freaks. Fortunately he was able to tap into his inner strengths and realize them, unleash the incredible talent he had within him, and was in an environment that allowed him to thrive. And as fate would have it, thanks to rock & roll, it worked out pretty damn well for him.”

Supporting and accepting a teen for being exactly who he or she is — that’s where it all starts at Open Doors, whether it’s through our regular program or our Summer Art Program.  There are many, many ways to be in the world — many ways to make a living, and many ways to contribute.  Help us explore these many ways with our teens:  donate or contact us to find out more.


Slender: The Short Film

It’s here!

Hot on the heels of the world premiere (an intimate screening with family and friends in Eastown at our Festive Finale 2014), the teens at Open Doors now present the Internet debut of Slender:  The Short Film.  

You can read about the history of this Slender project, and about the process along the way.  You can also read our thoughts and concerns associated with the Wisconsin stabbing incident on May 30.

We couldn’t be more pleased with this project and the fun and learning it brought about.   It’s a great example of self-directed learning in action, and it’s what we’re all about here at Open Doors.

Sharing our Shine 2014

Each of our members have their own shine:  that is, something that they love to do, something they’ve worked hard at, and/or something that just makes them happy.  During our last week of the 2013-2014 Open Doors program, we gathered to share our shine with each other.

Wild Edibles pretty table
Our Wild Edibles Class prepared a foraged feast!
Close up Wild Edible
… a feast with a sense of humor, that is. (These are actually delicious.)
Japanese food
One member shared his love of all things Japan by bringing Japanese food.
game theory
It’s game theory time! This member explained his love of strategy and interaction by having the group play a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Skyrim Mod
This member has been creating a mod for the video game Skyrim — he showed us his latest dungeon creations.
This guy showed us his awesome juggling skills.
Back Handspring
And one member showed us footage of her back handspring, done in her tumbling class.

In addition, we heard from one member who is learning on the job at an auto repair shop, and one member shared the love of her life, her little dog Chloe.   Staff and parents shared as well — poetry, perspectives on life, a dramatic reading.

We had such a great time celebrating each other.   At Open Doors, we are so honored to be a safe space where teens can share who they are and what they love, without worry that it will be “good enough.”  We love these teens!

Up next — our last day together, dedicated to fun!

Can You Find Your Calling?

Consider the story of the famous Spanish bullfighter, Manolete (1917 – 1947), whose life was the subject of the 2008 film The Passion Within (UK) starring Adrien Brody.  No matter what you think of bullfighting, the story of Manolete’s calling has some interesting things to say about the journey of self-directed learning.

Born Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez, Manolete would grow up to change the face of bullfighting, inventing new methods and revitalizing the ideals of el corrida de toros, which some would say holds the soul of Spain.  And yet, Manolete was a timid and fearful boy.

Delicate and sickly, having almost died of pneumonia when he was two, little Manuel was interested only in painting and reading.  He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.  Around his hometown, he was known as “a thin, melancholy boy who wandered around the streets after school lost in thought.  He rarely join other boys’ games of soccer or playing at bullfighting.”  This all changed “when he was about eleven, and nothing else mattered much except the bulls.”

– Barnaby Conrad, The Death of Manolete

As James Hillman tells it, “at his first corrida, Manolete, hardly out of short pants, stands his ground without moving a foot — and does in fact suffer a groin wound, which he regards diffidently, refusing to be helped home to Mother, so as to return with the comrades with whom he came.”

Was a dim knowledge of the call there all along?  Then of course little boy Manolete was afraid and clung to his mother.  Of course he kept away from torero games in the street, taking shelter in the kitchen.  How could this nine-year-old boy stand up to his destiny?  In [the acorn of his soul] were thousand-pound black bulls with razor-sharpened horns thundering toward him, among them Islero, the one that gored him through groin and belly and gave him death at age thirty and the largest funeral every witnessed in Spain?

… Manolete exhibits a basic fact:  the frail competencies of a child are not equal to the demands of their daimon [or destiny].  Children are inherently ahead of themselves, even if they are given low grades and held back.  One way for the child is to race ahead, as in the famous cases of Mozart and other “infant prodigies” who benefit from good guidance.  Another way is to shrink back and hold the daimon [or destiny] at bay, as did Manolete in his mother’s kitchen.

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code:  In Search of Character and Calling

At Open Doors, our teens do come to us with their code written deeply into their souls, their calling hidden among the glimpses we get of their passions, fears, and dearly-held opinions.  It is up to us, the adults, to listen and to become a student of that code.  Come to our events to find out how we help teens discover who they really are.


Learning with Slender Man

(Note:  If you are concerned about the May 30 stabbing in Wisconsin and its relevance to Slender Man, please see our statement here.  Our thoughts are with all the families and communities involved, and we hope for a complete and speedy recovery for the victim.)

Last week in Open Doors’ Critical Thinking and Feeling class, instructor Adena Koslek decided to play the student.  She asked the class to design an activity that would bring her out of her shell, as her “student self” was feeling a bit anxious about participating, though underneath it all she really wanted to.

After some brainstorming, the class introduced “Shy Adena” to Slender Man, an Internet horror legend.

Can you see him in the back?

The class then encouraged Adena to play one of the Slender Man video games, which involve the player exploring a dark house or a landscape with only a flashlight, looking for signs to lead her to safety, only to have the Slender Man appear.  When he does, the player character’s vision warps as she meets her doom.

“Helpful” signs to follow — from Slender Man, Eight Pages.
Slender Man appears from the darkness — your vision blurs as you meet your doom.

The class then brought the game to life for their shy student.  Two members put up signs for Adena to follow around Eastown, ostensibly to bring her to safety, while one member, dressed in black, played the Slender Man, appearing just as she thought she was going to make it.

Slender Man in Eastown
Is he there?

The fun and thrill of being scared out of their wits inspired the class further, and they hope to develop a short horror film (in cooperation with their Film Studies class) for their end-of-the-year project.

Who knew that this is where the class would lead?  The journey of real-world learning is often so surprising, so laugh-out-loud fun.  It can start with the Internet as a window to the world — it can move into local community and creative endeavors.  It can be as thrilling and surprising as spotting Slender Man — one just never knows.

Slender:  The Short Film

The Making of Slender

Nurture What They Love


From The Mother List:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, and doctors said he would never speak. She tried special education programs and therapies aimed at addressing his limitations. When teachers told her there was no hope, she rebelled and took her own path.

“A lot of people thought that I had lost my mind,” she recalls.

Instead of focusing on Jacob’s limitations, Kristine nurtured his interests. Now her 15-year-old son is on track to win a Nobel Prize for his work in theoretical physics.

Relying on the insights she developed at her in-home daycare, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob’s “spark” — his passionate interests. Why concentrate on what he couldn’t do? Why not focus on what he could? This philosophy, along with her belief in the power of childhood play, helped her son grow in incredible ways.

This is our approach at Open Doors.  We focus on what your teen loves — that passion will lead to a world of learning!  We can’t guarantee a Nobel Prize in Physics, but we can help your teen become happier, more confident, and more fulfilled in his or her learning.

Come see us to find out more, or support our scholarship fund.


A few weeks ago, we had a new member join Open Doors.  Cecilia is fourteen years old and passionate about science, particularly biology and the healing arts.  But she noticed that nobody else at her school seemed to be as passionate as she was — they didn’t even want to be there.

Cecilia is also a hands-on learner:  the rote memorization required before she could dissect a simple worm felt lifeless and meaningless to her.  In her science class last year, the class got to do only one dissection, and her teacher had to leave the room because she was squeamish.

Cecilia was looking for people who could match her passion and meet her need for hands-on learning.  In her first week at Open Doors, she was dissecting pig’s lungs, facilitated by Rebecca Kirk — our director, a science teacher, and a hands-on learner herself.  Rebecca picked lungs first because the tissue feels and looks differently than any other tissue, and it’s not what you would expect.

lungs deflated and inflated
Pig’s lungs — first deflated, then inflated. Breathe out, breathe in.

Since that first dissection, Cecilia has her learning hands everywhere — feeling the chambers of a pig’s heart (in another dissection), drawing dissection diagrams, and even helping a veterinarian as he makes his rounds.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

She’s also full of explorations and questions.

“I feel like I know almost nothing about chemistry — where should I start?”  (We suggested Hunting the Elements, an excellent NOVA special.)

“It feels like humans are easier to help heal than animals — at least humans can tell you what’s wrong.”  (We passed on the DVD of Temple Grandin, to show how Dr. Grandin’s autism helped her understand cows through careful observation.  The reference to autism led elsewhere …)

“That’s another area — how the brain works.  I want to see it work.  And what causes it to work differently in some people?”  (It turns out that Cecilia was already pursuing a visit to a neurosurgeon at work.  After further conversation, we passed on a Psychology Today article called “Confessions of a Sociopath,” about functional sociopaths, which includes a bit about the role of genetics and environment on the brain.)

Then it was on to the Internet as we discussed cancer and how cells might replicate and what was known and unknown in that field.

Learning.  Often it’s as natural as breathing.



Media isn’t Passive

Some time ago, we heard an adult complain about a young person, the kind of complaint that seems to be pretty common about teens in general:  “He watches South Park, listens to music on his iPod, plays video games on his Xbox but has NO INTEREST in learning even the basics.  Kids today just seem to want passive stimulation.”

“Passive stimulation”?  That’s becoming a very foreign concept to us here at Open Doors.

For instance, some folks associated with Open Doors have a background in Film and Film Production. We notice that they’re always pointing out *how* TV shows and movies are made—how the perspective was framed, how the editing decisions worked with the overarching philosophy, as well as “how did they get that shot?” questions. That’s part of the conversation around here when we’re watching something together, or talking about what we’ve watched.


Those of us who have studied the dramatic arts watch a different set of skills at work:  the actors’ choices in every scene.  Contrary to the belief that actors are just glorified line-readers, actors develop a way of walking, of talking, of moving in relation to each character and their emotions.  For those who excel at their art, they can show us a character’s vulnerability in one gesture, one hesitation.  That’s some powerful stuff — enough to make you rewind and watch again, just to appreciate it.

The writers among us are always looking at the story behind the story as well. How is the plot structured?  What are the creators accomplishing by giving this action to that character?  We talk about those factors whether we’re discussing video games, TV shows, or movies. Our understanding is complex and is focused on the whole story system.  We explore each story as a fresh view of ideas that have been around for a long long time, some since the birth of human civilization.

As we’ve researched the video game industry, we’ve thought about the process behind the production—how the graphics are rendered, how some dialogue is written to be flexible enough to sound relevant at various stages of the game, how the process of creating the story is changed by adding interactivity.  We like to imagine the project management aspect of each game, especially the big ones.  There are passionate game designers in the industry, looking to push this media into new directions and tell new stories in different ways.  That’s exciting.

Many of us at Open Doors are music lovers. We love to scour out-of-the-way places for new music to share, and there are times our members are just taken with the music. They think about how the music is put together, and why it speaks to them.

When we’ve experienced live music in the community that surrounds Open Doors,  we could see all the connections being made—how the instruments were played, how the sounds and the rhythms came together, how it feels to move to the music and let it all come together inside of us. Our knowledge and awareness of music is growing deep and wide—it’s not about “the basics,” but about a gestalt — a holistic, systemic approach.

When someone complains about the lack of learning in media (or a word we prefer not to use, “screentime”), you might wonder if they’re looking in the wrong places? Are they looking only to see what a teen is doing or producing?  Are they expecting learning to look a certain way?  Are they missing the fact that when we watch, listen, observe, and respond, we are building an inner understanding that is deep and wide and whole?

At Open Doors, the adults blend our own experience and knowledge with what our teens seem to like doing. We remember to ask questions and start where they are—we get into their interest and appreciate it and enjoy it.  We don’t dismiss their love of media — it counts, and it’s a great starting place for more. Going to concerts, finding out how different bands have influenced each other, figuring out how people have made the movies they’ve posted on YouTube, researching FAQs, talking with different kinds of gamers, looking up the history of weapons that are used in video games, talking through the logic of different game strategies, looking up actors on IMDB—all of this keeps leading to more and more learning about how the world works, and about how the creative process works.

“Passive stimulation”?  No.  There is an aspect of of letting the experience fill us and wash through us as we consider how to how to store it and bring it into our worldview.  As Helen Luke says, “The person who quietly responds with intense interest and love to people, to ideas, and to things, is as deeply and truly creative as one who always seeks to lead, to act, to achieve.  The qualities of receptivity, of nurturing in silence and secrecy are as essential to creation as their [more active] opposites.”

Come see us to find out more.

Long Winter

So much I’ve forgotten
the grass

the birds
the close insects

the shoot—the drip
the spray of the sprinkler

the heat of the Sun

the impossible

the flush of your face
so much

the high noon
the high grass

the patio ice cubes
the barbeque

the buzz of them—
the insects

the weeds—the dear
—that grow

like alien life forms—
all Dr. Suessy and odd—

here we go again¬
we are turning around

again—this will all
happen over again—

and again—it will

Timothy J. Nolan

Learning, art, and culture — this poem by an established poet suggests how they are all around, even in our longing –especially in our longing — for a glimpse of green.  Want to connect with more folks who love artists/learners/longers?  Come to our events.