Faculty Profiles provide an opportunity to learn more about the lives and previous work experiences of Sturgis faculty.
By Abby Rhoads, English, Wellness and CAS – West
I grew up on a “gentleman’s farm” outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My father was a lawyer and my mother a teacher and artist. We had a big beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch barn, a meadow, a small garden, a cat, a dog, chickens and some sheep. I spent a lot of time outside playing and watching the animals. I have always felt like in some past life time I must have been a pioneer woman. That may be an impression left from my early love of the Little House on the Prairie series, but since my roots growing up by the Yellow Breeches stream to working on an organic farm in central Maine at the end of my time at Bates College, continuing to the many gardens I have cultivated since, my drive to make a homestead, work with my hands and body, and my hard work ethic seem to indicate some link to a past time of connection to the land and manual labor that is, unfortunately, no longer a requirement in our modern-day life.
In addition to spending many hours in the fields and woods near my house, I spent a significant portion of my childhood, and early adulthood in dance studios practicing ballet and modern dance. I spent years training in a Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet where I joined many young dancers practicing for hours a day. My dedication to ballet was my first introduction to the profound importance of self-discipline. In high school, I was introduced to Modern Dance, and the freedom of moving away from the more rigid poses of my ballet training. In modern dance, I discovered liberation of movement in the spine. I parallel my journey from the foundation and structure of ballet to the deconstruction of that formal movement in modern dance to my study of literature, and life. First we are taught the essential building blocks of grammar and belief systems, formal poetic structure such as sonnet, verse. Later, we learn ways to bend those same rules to create whole new styles of expression and being. Just as I fell in love with modern dance and the freedom of expression that I found after years of ballet, I was completely blown away when in college, I first read Metafiction – The Handmaid’s Tale, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Tristram Shandy – and was opened up to new ways of thinking. Later, I discovered the same awe and expansion of thought through the practices of yoga and meditation.
Growing up, my parents strongly believed in the importance of travel and exposure to cultures different from our own. My mother was a French teacher for many years and my father a corporate lawyer. During my childhood, we always had a Rotary Youth Exchange student or foreign businessman at the house. Through my parent’s commitment to instilling a global awareness in their children, I got the opportunity to travel to many amazing places. One year we joined former President Carter’s Friendship Force and lived in Mexico City for several weeks with a Mexican family. Another year we visited a Rotary exchange friend of my father’s in Zimbabwe. It was through this friend and that experience that I learned about the terrors of living in a country where the government does not support freedom and equality for all.
As a high school student, I went on an American Field Service exchange to New Zealand where I lived with a family who owned a restaurant/bar on the North Island and hiked in the mountains on the South Island. I continued my travels in my junior year of college when I went to England to study at Oxford. I spent half of a term at Stratford where I got to immerse myself in Shakespeare. Back at Oxford, I was introduced to the metafictional writing of A.S. Byatt, who wrote the novel Possession. I returned to Bates College my senior year and decided to write an honors thesis exploring 18th Century women writers and metafiction through the worlds created in Byatt’s Possession. I finished and defended my thesis in front of the Dean of Faculty, the English Chair from University of Virginia and my adviser, and I received highest honors.
On the day after I graduated, I moved to a small organic farm in central ME where I worked with an amazing couple – fellow pioneers – a former Anthropology professor from Harvard and his wife, an editor of the Atlantic Monthly. They had both left their jobs to start Hedgehog Hill Farm in Sumner, Maine. They were my teachers and guides, not only in the nature of plants, but in life. On that farm, I learned the reality of working hard with my hands every day in the fields – there is a whole level of full body physical exhaustion that comes from working the land that teaches you a certain kind of humility and an awareness of the realities of living off of the land. Bug bites and exhaustion pretty much cleared my romantic views of farming and living a self-sustaining lifestyle – It is really hard work!
At the end of the summer of 1995, I left the farm to head west to my first teaching job. I drove cross country to live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where I had been hired to teach at the Red Cloud Indian School. Red Cloud is run by the Jesuits and Franciscan nuns. While I was not raised in the Catholic tradition, I found my Jesuit and Franciscan colleagues on the Rez to be some of the most profoundly inspirational teachers I have ever had, except, of course, for my students. The Lakota Sioux children I was there to teach were really my teachers during the time I was living and working with them.
My original position at Red Cloud was “Reading Specialist” in the middle and high school, but that position transformed into poetry teacher, which is what became my official role at Red Cloud. I also had to get my commercial drivers license to drive the bus. As a bus driver, I got to see where all of my students lived and to drive the roads around Wounded Knee and the Badlands. There is something about living in a place of extreme poverty (Pine Ridge was the poorest county in the United States at that time) mixed with the deep spirituality and connection to tribe and place on the reservation that for me was most perfectly captured in poetry. While my students were at first too shy to directly tell me the stories of their lives, they found a kind of freedom in their own poems. Through sharing our words, my students came to trust me, and I was very lucky to be welcomed into some of my student’s homes and to join in their rituals. The Rez was a place of contrasts and intensity for me. It was beautiful and expansive, and so full of pain. I am including here a couple of poems I wrote about my time on the Reservation: Dakota Sky and God’s Children.
I left the Rez to return to Boston to pursue my Master’s in Teaching. After teaching High School English for several years on the North Shore, I moved to Cape Cod. While my two children were very young, I worked as an Immigration Paralegal using my writing skills. After several years of working in Immigration, I was lured back into teaching by the Montessori school my two children were attending. Some Montessori parents had created a Montessori Middle School and several of the school’s board members knew that I had a Montessori background. Maria Montessori’s model for the middle school years is based on farm work. Her model is powerfully effective for this age group (Interestingly enough, her high school model is for students to be at sea ).
I was very lucky to serve as the Lead Teacher at the Cape Cod Montessori Middle School on Coonamessett Farm, where I worked with a small group of students learning Humanities and Sciences through work on the farm. One day Sturgis West Principal Pete Steedman came out to the farm to check out what I was doing there. We had a great chat. Some time after my talk with Pete, I received a call from Eric Hieser inviting me to interview for an English position at Sturgis. The timing was just right, and I am so thankful that I was able to start teaching at Sturgis West in its first year on West Main Street.
My background in literature, travel, nature, international law and life have all come together perfectly to land me at Sturgis. I am deeply thankful to continue my journey of learning with my students and colleagues at Sturgis.