What Bob Garmston’s memoir teaches us about resilience and life-long growth


Given the demands of teaching and school leadership, my goal has been to keep these essays as brief as possible.

Today I alter that pattern to pay tribute to Bob Garmston, a wonderful human being and educator, and to acknowledge the hard-won lessons his life reveals, many of which are particularly important to educators.

This summer I spent some “enjoyable” hours reading what as far as I know is Bob’s newest book , I Don’t Do That Anymore: A Memoir of Awakening and Resilience. I added quotation marks around enjoyable because reading about Bob’s often painful life, particularly his early years, was, well, painful. And the book was painful, too, because at least some of his experiences were similar to my own.

If you don’t know Bob personally, you may still know him through his books on Cognitive Coaching (with Art Costa) and Adaptive Schools (with Bruce Wellman) or experienced him as a teacher in any of the countless workshops he has conducted over the past 30 years. And I hope you will come to know Bob in new ways through I Don’t Do That Anymore.

My first memory of Bob is from the early 1980s at a mountaintop learning event at the northern California home of Jane Stallings. We both spent some time working with a small group of principals whom Jane had gathered together.

What I didn’t know then was the challenges of his early life and how his life had been shaped by a handful of significant adults, persistent hard work on Bob’s part, and good luck, which is summed up in the phrase “awakening and resilience” found in his memoir’s subtitle.

Those challenges included five years in a Salvation Army home for troubled children, encounters with “dangerous adults,” and placements with relatives and a foster family.

Bob wrote: “Most children, even those from an extraordinarily stressed family or resource-deprived community, somehow manage to make decent lives for themselves. According to experts, as many as seven out of ten kids from populations at greater risk have managed to achieve decent lives by the time they are 40.

Bob added: “One didn’t have to grow up in a children’s home to experience some sense of distress. Most of the people we meet have a story behind the faces they present.”

Bob formed positive relationships with a teacher, a school nurse, a social worker, and with his foster father (who many years later adopted him when Bob was 60). “The adult influences in my life . . ., he wrote, “turned me toward a totally different direction than the one in which I was headed.” About these relationships he concluded, “I got a lot of breaks because I could be emotionally available to adults.”

Of the social worker Bob wrote: “Marabel and I talked many times in her small office. She was interested in what I had to say and challenged my thinking, asking provocative questions. She was also interesting herself. She like me even when I caused problems, and when when I got into trouble, I knew Marabel would talk to me about it without judging me and would me consider alternative choices. She listened to my anger about my parents and absorbed the loneliness I felt.”

From his foster father, King Hart, Bob learned “. . . what it meant to be an honorable and courageous human being.”

Two significant lessons emerge from Bob’s memoir:

Adults can have lifelong influence on young people, for good or for ill.

Often a kind word or gesture from an adult can make a substantial positive difference to a vulnerable young person. The consequences of those influences may never be known to those adults, but their consequences can be significant and lasting.

Profound learning and development can occur throughout the live span.

Of his later years, Bob observed: “Hindsight suggests what research is now bearing out, that prefrontal cortex—instrument of empathy, attunement, social connections, emotions and author of a narrative about one’s life can be developed even into adulthood. Experiences with early caregivers shape this part of the brain. I was catching up to what was probably missed as an infant.”

Bob’s memoir might have been subtitled, “Growing older, or older and growing?,” to borrow the title of a speech I once heard psychologist Carl Rogers give. I Don’t Do That Anymore provides a definitive answer to that question—older and growing, at least for those wiling to make the effort to do so.

(In my next post Bob Garmston will offer a “commentary” on the lessons that can be drawn from his life.)

In your experience, what are the sources of human resilience? What factors offer hope for young people whose lives are severely stressed and challenged?

4 Responses to “What Bob Garmston’s memoir teaches us about resilience and life-long growth”

  1. 1 Jeffery Robinson September 13, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Thanks for this Dennis. It’s always important to remember the role that we play in the lives of our students. I sometimes take for granted that spot and assume that I am always having a positive effect. I wonder how many times I’ve had an unintended negative effect on a student that had implications that were more profound that I could have imagined….

    • 2 Dennis Sparks September 13, 2013 at 10:33 am

      Thank for your comment, Jeffery. More than once over the years I’ve wondered about the same thing—to what extent my words spoken without sensitivity or in the frustration of the moment had a lasting negative effect. Hopefully, those times were few and their effects short lived.

  2. 3 Kimberly Snyder September 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    It can be such a simple moment….standing next to a third grade teacher on the playground, (Mrs. Hartman) and crying because the kids were teasing me for being so tall. She told me that I was tall so that they could look up to me.
    So simple and sweet! I’m 54 years old for goodness sake and her way of reevaluating a reality is still available, when I choose to use it.

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