Perspectives: From Heartwood to Yale, via Madagascar

Fri Aug 30

Colin Peterson (’05) is the son of beloved Children’s House teacher Ms. Becki. He attended Heartwood from 1997 to 2005. In 2015, he obtained a B.S. in Environmental Science from UNC Chapel Hill. After graduation, he served with Americorps in Montana, protecting National Forests and Wilderness Areas. From 2016 to 2019, he lived and worked in Madagascar with the US Peace Corps, implementing projects focusing on public health and biodiversity conservation. In August 2019, he began a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs at Yale University related to climate change, Africa, and human rights.

I’ll always remember the first time I saw a classroom in Madagascar. The school was in a rural village of about 1,000 inhabitants on the east coast of the African island nation, and I had been living as a part of the community there for a few months when the school director invited me to visit.

I prepared an icebreaker game, a lesson with some basic English greetings and expressions, and some practice time for the kids to speak to each other. Walking inside the building, the crumbling walls weren’t an issue, and the extreme heat didn’t even phase me by that point. You can’t do much about those factors, I knew, but what really ended up throwing me for a loop were the learning conditions that were normalized for the children…

But how did I get to in that classroom, so far from my North Carolina roots? I believe my Montessori education at Heartwood was responsible for fostering many of the qualities that drew me to a life of service, qualities I now value most in myself.

In Ms. Sue’s third grade class, those who were grasping the material well got to move on to more advanced topics like long division (lucky, right?), helping us recognize the joy of striving to meet challenges that fit with our potential.

Our teachers helped us balance valuing creative endeavors with effective time-management. I always worked extra hard on mornings that had free time scheduled, so I could write and draw comic books with my good friend Jared.
And perhaps most crucially for my future, I distinctly recall at every level – Children’s House, Lower Elementary, and Upper Elementary – my gratitude when helped by older peers, as well as my eagerness to pay the mentorship forward to younger classmates.

We all served one another from places of privilege, leaned on one another when we needed help, and grew alongside one another in our wonderfully unique and distinct directions. That camaraderie foreshadowed an important lesson to be learned in life – nobody goes through it alone, and we need each other as much as we need oxygen.

I applied to serve in the Peace Corps because of a deeply human desire to connect with other people and a strong belief in reducing the suffering of vulnerable populations. I looked forward to the exciting cultural exploration too (another important link to my Heartwood days, where my class celebrated Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Diwali, and the Feast of Saint Lucy, among other holidays).

My Peace Corps assignment sent me to Madagascar, a country I knew only from an animated children’s film (which didn’t even have any Malagasy characters). My three very luminous years of service ended up being the most life-affirming decision of my life. My work ranged from distributing vaccines in remote villages to teaching lemur conservation for populations living in rainforests and educating pregnant women to prevent malaria. I can’t think of a better way to expand the mind, touch the heart, and satiate the adventurous spirit.

At Yale, I’ll complete a Master’s degree focusing on climate change and human rights. I’m fortunate in this opportunity, both because of critical financial assistance tied to my Peace Corps service, and for the distinction of the institution that will develop me professionally and personally to be the best version of myself.

It’s a lot to look forward to, but as I enter this new phase, I can’t help but think back to that primary school in my Madagascan community. As I stood in front of those fifty second graders sitting wall-to-wall, I realized that everything I’d valued about my own formative schooling years – individual attention, critical thinking, freedom to ask questions, metacognition, intrinsic motivation, peer support – was absent.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not criticizing the school, nor the teachers or students for this deprivation – neo-colonialism, deep-rooted corruption, and rampant poverty are obvious contributing factors. What the moment elucidated for me was the deep appreciation I have for those opportunities which were provided at a very important time in my life.

From preschool to fifth grade, Montessori gave me a plethora of treasures, both intangible, like a love of learning and an independently-oriented work ethic, and tangible, like lifelong friends (including my angelic preschool teacher, who may or may not still be at Heartwood…). The communal style of education is underappreciated, and I sorely missed it as a middle and high school student in the Wake County Public School System.

I believe that at Heartwood, the systemic approach and impassioned teachers provide all students the greatest chance to flourish as their true selves.

Themes of peace, love for the earth, and understanding that our differences are our greatest strengths underpinned my Montessori education, all of which I’ve found most important in living this one life we have, and continue to preach wherever I may roam, be it Madagascar or Yale or good ol’ Cary, North Carolina.

Heartwood will not reopen for the 2021-2022 school year.

We regret to inform you that Heartwood will not reopen for the 2021-2022 school year.

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