While I was enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I wrestled, as did most of my fellow students, with the issue of where I would begin my professional life. And the answer throughout that fall was Alaska. After all, I had travelled and worked there twice, my sister Susan lived there with her family (still does, in fact), and it was far away, romantic, and very rugged, which fit my Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) experiences.
Still and all, I had a persistent, gnawing sense that I was running away from something; that there was a “push” as well as a “pull” in my calculations. Why didn’t I want to go to Vermont where I knew so many people, the terrain, and the history so well? And then, one sunny Sunday afternoon in North Cambridge, it hit me: I was afraid to go to Vermont.
My extended family was large and had played a significant role in the political and economic development of the state (particularly northwestern Vermont) since their arrival around 1800. The “push” towards Alaska was my fear that I would not be able to develop my own professional and social identity under this historic cloud of family achievement. That, both in terms of career arc and psychologically, they would control me.
I struggled with this fear all afternoon that day. It was a little like a combination of wrestling an elusive greased pig: furtive, dodging in and out of the shadows of my consciousness; being denied, then affirmed, and finally…..understood. I reckoned with it and the message was clear.
It went like this: “Peter, you cannot run away from your family name and history or the privilege, the responsibility, and the identity that comes with it. You could be in Madrid, Spain, get robbed and left for dead in an alley. And, if you could beg a dime and get to a phone, you could call home and everything would be okay. Also, if your family can dominate you in Vermont, they can dominate you wherever you are. The fear you have is your construction, not theirs. So you can deal with it or it will color your life. Decide where you want to live and go there. And, no matter what, understand your privilege and what you are going to do to be yourself and use it for good things, if you can.”
I went to Vermont, and over the next 20 years I lived near and loved my parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and charted my own path, sometimes to their consternation. During that time, I founded the state’s community college system (Community College of Vermont), and served as a state senator, Lieutenant Governor, and Congressman-at-Large before leaving the Congress in 1990 at the age of 45.
In the end, everything worked out for the best. But without my Turning Point that sunny Sunday afternoon in North Cambridge, I am not sure any of that would have happened.