Walking to Listen Author Andrew Forsthoefel Speaks at School Meeting

Andrew Forsthoefel, the author of this year’s all-school reading Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time, addressed the Lawrenceville community last Thursday at school meeting.

Andrew Forsthoefel, the author of this year’s all-school reading Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time, addressed the Lawrenceville community last Thursday at school meeting. His memoir recounts the people he encountered and difficulties he experienced on his 11-month journey, in which he traveled 4,000 miles across the U.S. with the goal of listening to others’ stories.

To begin, Forsthoefel acknowledged the presence of listening within the School’s culture, specifically through the Harkness teaching method. He also addressed the concept of “trustworthy listening” within the student body, which Forsthoefel defined as “listening from the heart, both to and for the other person.”

“Trustworthy listening is listening to understand, listening as if somebody matters… You're not listening for a rebuttal… You're listening to understand who that human being is and what they lived that made them that way.”

After candidly asking students to raise their hands if they had not read the book, Forsthoefel shared an anecdote from his memoir on his engaging in trustworthy listening with a man from New Orleans. Although originally hostile towards Forsthoefel, the man eventually invited him into his home for a beer. He then immediately opened up to Forsthoefel “as if he had been waiting all along for someone that actually cared to listen to what he had to say.” As the man shared stories about racism and intolerance, he slipped in a detail that changed the way in which Forsthoefel viewed him: His son had passed away.

“In that moment, he showed me some of that humanity that you wouldn’t show anyone you didn’t trust. It didn’t excuse or justify any of his insanity or delusion or racism, but… the chain reaction of hatred I had been feeling the whole time stopped in me during that moment,” Forsthoefel said.

After emphasizing that trustworthy listening can allow for “transformation… both of your own identity and of your thoughts,” Forsthoefel concluded his speech with a question-and-answer session.

Many students seemed to dislike Forsthoefel’s methods of teaching and sharing during this question-and-answer period: On Forsthoefel’s responses to questions ranging from privilege to vulnerability, Stephanie Owusu ’20 said, “It would’ve been more beneficial to hear Forsthoefel talk about his concept of listening rather than [his] turning the question on [students], especially in such a large setting.”

Similarly, Abby Sieler ’21 said, “Every time someone asked him a question, he would say, ‘well, tell me your story.’ And I didn’t want to hear that—I wanted to hear his thoughts, his story. That was supposed to be the whole reason he came.” Sieler added, “I personally think we should have a speaker who’s giving us another perspective instead of the same one I’ve been told at Lawrenceville for the past three years. I didn’t read the book, but I still would’ve liked to hear someone at school meeting with a different opinion.”

The night before his speech, interested members of the Lawrenceville community joined Forsthoefel and his colleague Pete McLean in the Bunn Library to launch Lawrenceville Listens, a “school-wide initiative to learn and practice radical listening,” according to Forsthoefel. Based on the concept of StoryCorps, an American nonprofit organization that shares the stories of a diverse group of Americans, the newly-created Lawrenceville Listens project strives to record the Lawrenceville stories throughout the year.

Students seemed to have had an overall positive experience during the Lawrenceville Listens event, unlike the school meeting session. Reflecting on Lawrenceville Listens, Evelyn Dugan ’21 said, “[Forsthoefel] was really easy to talk to, and his message of listening is very important… While we do practice the Harkness method of learning, listening spans far outside the classroom. We should all listen empathically, learn how to let people talk, and how to open up to people, rather than forcing things out of them.”

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