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09 April, 2007

MS. PAULA SPELLMAN: A CHARISMATIC VOICE OF OPTIMISM

By: Diane A. Sears, Managing Editor - IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD(R)

It is in her voice. It is in her laughter. Compassion. Intuitiveness. Soulfulness. Spontaneity. She is a woman who is not afraid to step out of her comfort zone. And she is a woman who knows how to dance with life. A 1964 graduate of the University of Southern California, Ms. Paula Spellman is an author and a member of the Advisory Board for Unified Progress International Education (“UPI Education”), an entity founded by Mr. Frank Crump, a successful international businessman, that is rapidly becoming one of the key “pieces of the puzzle” in alternative education for children in the United States.

Ms. Spellman’s book Code To Victory: Coming Of Age In World War II has been categorized as not being “the typical war memoir.” Her literary work transports the reader back to World War II and is described as “a fascinating volume of reminiscences that evokes the realities of war and heartwarming with her account of the liberation of Paris . . .”. It was my first clue to discovering that Paula Spellman is a woman who truly “thinks out of the box.” She is a charismatic voice of optimism.

When I asked Ms. Spellman to talk about what motivated her to write Code To Victory: Coming Of Age In World War II – a literary work that seems to juxtapose a dramatically historical event – World War II -- with the life of Arnold Franco, a code-breaker during the war who, as a result, sees himself differently, she offered the following:

“Simply put, I wrote it because I was asked. But what is important about it is that I saw it as another step in my life’s journey. I had been writing only short pieces up until that time and when I was given the chance to write a book, I saw it as an opportunity to push myself outside my comfort zone. This is the way I try to live my life – do everything that life presents as long as it’s reasonable and safe. Taking on the responsibility of creating someone’s memoir was
uncomfortable and it was also a large self-growth step.”

And when did Ms. Spellman know that she wanted to become a writer?

“Ah. When I was six years old I would get up in the middle of the night and write and it was awful stuff. I didn’t keep any of it. Later I realized that I was in love with the noun, not the verb, meaning that I really wanted to be a writer but I didn’t want to write because it was too hard. I never pursued writing until my later years. I think it was because I didn’t know how to get started. Now it’s a pleasure and a passion, not work, until the editor gets hold of it.”

Ms. Spellman’s authorship of a memoir that is, to a degree, historical in nature moved me to ask whether historical events had exerted any impact on her life. Have historical events caused her to see herself differently and the world around her? How have historical events affected her personal decision making?

“If I may, I’d like to narrow the question to small events in my life because it’s the small events rather than historical ones that guided me. Small events were turning points that provided me the opportunity to see beyond my immediate world. I came from a blue collar family with neither parent finishing high school, but both understood the value of education. And because my Dad’s work required a lot of traveling, I had the opportunity to go with him and see that there was so much more than my neighborhood. I also had a teacher who understood that there is much learning that can take place outside of the classroom. In college, I had the opportunity to attend a formal luncheon and see salt cellars for the first time. I was fascinated with them and the tiny salt spoons they held. I decided that one day I would own my own set. It wasn’t a big goal but it was symbolic that there was so much more I didn’t know. I began looking at the world differently as my world expanded. I have an insatiable curiosity. I’m always looking around and beyond the next corner to see what more I can learn. One of the things that is missing for our youth today is the opportunity to get outside of their own neighborhoods. When I was in school we had field trips. We went to the Philharmonic. We went to museums. We saw more of the world, but today there is no funding for any of this. I would like to work toward reversing this short-sighted mentality.”

When I asked Ms. Spellman to talk about the role, if any, destiny plays in our decision making and in determining the paths that we embark upon in life, she offered the following:

“Your question reminds me of a time when a friend had my astrology chart done and the astrologer said that she was uncomfortable sharing the fact that my chart showed no predetermined destiny and that she had never before had that happen. I don’t have a clue about destiny. What I do know is that I take advantage of opportunities and I take responsibility for my decisions. I’ve done a lot of personal growth work and I have overcome chronic health problems. At sixty-three, I’m more vital and enthusiastic about life than I’ve ever been. If there is such a thing as destiny, it has been very kind to me.”

Most individuals look at the world and themselves and instead of doing the work that needs to be done to change either themselves or their environment, they “change the facts.” Paula Spellman is quite the opposite. I probed to learn how and why she has evolved into an individual who engages in the hard work necessary to change herself and transcend her environment.

“Somewhere along the way I realized that I had no choice but to do the work in order to become the woman I wanted to be. I made a commitment to myself that no matter how painful it became I wouldn’t turn back. Having been raised a very dependent only-child and continuing the dependency within a marriage, I had low self-esteem. I was intimidated by everything and everyone. At forty-nine, I decided that I would not live the second half of my life as I had lived the first. So, when I became single I had to take care of myself for the first time. I was terrified, but I developed a philosophy of life that has opened door after door. I jumped outside my comfort zone and the net appeared. My first experience was a one-month archaeological dig in Russia. That was a big jump.”

The discussion shifted to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents and the observation that although they lived, worked and raised families at a time when wages were low and opportunities and options were scarce, family and community life was stable. What was the “glue” that held things together?

“I can hypothesize about the past but I would like to answer your question in reference to our current and future family stability. We are in the most challenging time that has ever faced mankind because the impact of decisions can sometimes be felt immediately. In my opinion, we need to quit rethinking and analyzing the past. We need to understand that it is the evolutionary process that we need to work with rather than against. We need to bring optimism back into life. There is so much negativity out there and we are being consumed by it. We also need to stop focusing on the absurdities of life, for example, issues such as the word ‘chairman’. To ‘man’ something is a verb and not a noun. When you ‘man’ the chair, it is not politically incorrect. You would not ‘woman’ the chair, you would not ‘person’ the chair. You ‘man’ the chair just as you ‘man’ the gun boat because it is a verb. Should I change my name from ‘Spellman’ to ‘Spellperson’ to satisfy the disgruntled person who hasn’t yet figured out what’s really important? We get so caught up in absurdities that we become reactionary and lose sight of where we can really make a difference.”

Today, opportunities and options abound. We have a higher standard of living and modern conveniences. Yet despite these advantages, we seem to be “stressed” out and very unhappy. Family life has destabilized and the institutions that once strengthened and empowered our communities, in the days of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents are crumbling in front of our very eyes. Are the wheels falling off America’s wagon? Why? Who or what is to blame? How can we fix it?

“I’m not sure we’re even going to have a wagon. First, we must stop regurgitating the past. We are constantly analyzing every thing; every murder, every battle, every sexual transgression. It’s monotony ad nauseam. Larry King used to be wonderful. Dr. Phil used to be wonderful. But now it’s all ‘media spin’. As individuals we must work on changing this and perhaps the best way is to turn off the TV or at least limit our viewing to only one CNN show or soap opera a day. It’s a start. Little changes are as important as big ones. One of my ‘little’ ways was to change my voting registration to ‘non-declared’. This isn’t going to cause any ripples in the world, but it’s symbolic to me because it acknowledges that I no longer support what’s going on politically.”

The 1960s was a time of change and turbulence -- not just in the United States – but throughout the world. In Paula Spellman’s eyes, was this “time of change and turbulence” a good thing or a bad thing?

“In the sixties I was in a fog. In retrospect, I realize that my world was very small at that time. In 1964 I graduated from college, got married and went directly into teaching. I also went into a severe clinical depression. And from that time until recently, I suffered from depression on and off; something that significantly colored my life. I was also raised to be a ‘good little girl’ and would never have considered being an activist. I had not even learned to question or think for myself yet. I look at television shows of that time when college students were protesting and wonder ‘Where was I?’”

And what are Ms. Spellman’s thoughts about “Women’s Liberation” and “Feminism”?

“I was against feminism because I didn’t like the militant stance it took. I had always preferred to see myself as an equalist, but having said that, I acknowledge that I never encountered the glass ceiling and all that comes with it. If I had, I might have been out there burning my bra, too. It was easy for me to move into the somewhat cloistered feminine educational setting and not get too much exposure to the world outside the elementary classroom that might have motivated me to become a feminist. At no time was I harassed or experience anything that would have led me to take up the cause. If I had gone into the corporate world, I don’t doubt that my perception would have been different.”

A number of individuals in the Fatherhood movement point to “feminism” as one of the causes of the breakdown in the family and a skyrocketing divorce rate in America. Are they right?

“I think that they are right in the sense that gender roles got confused. There were some valuable changes made, but also some significant damage was done. I hope that I am not the last generation when men open doors and stand up when I enter a room. These are small things, but they are not trivial ones. Manners honor both sexes and I highly respect men who are confident enough to be courteous.”

Ms. Spellman’s remarks about feminism and gender roles opened the door for a discussion about male-female relationships. I pushed the envelope and asked: What is it that women really, really want? Do women want “strong” men? And what is a “strong” man?

“My definition of a ‘strong’ man is someone who is confident living his life according to his values and principles and one who has interests and friends outside the relationship. He is one who can hear as well as listen and is able to give emotional space when needed. And he is one who makes me feel visible within the relationship. I want a man just like me, but I don’t know if I could stand him!”

Are women sending men mixed signals about the rules of engagement for courtship and marriage?

“Yes! I think very often women expect men to read our minds and that in itself is a misstep because it simply can’t be done. But, the reverse is also true. Let’s get clear in our own heads and communicate clearly what we want no matter what room in the house we’re in. And let’s stop assuming. It’s so destructive. Let’s focus on how to develop interdependent relationships instead of what the ‘other’ is doing or not doing.”

It has been said that many mothers “raise their daughters” and “spoil their sons” by encouraging and, in some cases, instructing their daughters to become a “self-contained unit” and not rely on a man for money, food, shelter or security. At the same, it has been said, that mothers do not impress upon their sons the virtues of being a “self-contained unit.” Does this observation have merit?

“I don’t have a clue. I raised daughters.”

So, did Ms. Spellman instruct her daughters to become self-reliant and not rely on a man for money, food, shelter or security?

“I don’t believe I ever said anything about it, but again small experiences allowed them to learn it. One that comes to mind is when my girls were five and eight. They asked for popcorn at the movies and I gave them some money, but they were afraid to go buy it without me. We discussed it and then I told them that if they wanted the popcorn they’d have to get it themselves. They did! It was a major small learning experience. Or was it a small major experience? Both my girls are independent and confident women. This was another small incident in their lives that set the model for who they have become. I know that part of my need to impress upon them the necessity for independence was because of my background of dependency. My parents did everything for me. When I was in college I would come home weekends to have them gas up my car and do my laundry. It was absurd. They felt that they were giving me a gift -- not understanding that they were actually taking away something very important. I pushed my daughters into situations that were ‘success generating’ because I didn’t want them to be afraid of life.”

As I listened to Ms. Spellman talk about how small incidents in her daughters’ lives played a key role in shaping the women that they have become, I thought about the small incidents that are occurring in America’s homes and public schools that will set the model for the adults that today’s children will become. This seemed like a perfect time to talk about the interview of Microsoft Corporation’s Chairman Mr. William Henry “Bill” Gates and his wife Melinda Gates conducted by Ms. Oprah Winfrey which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Show on 11 April 2006. During the interview, the Gates remarked that “the disastrous consequences of America’s failing high school education system” terrified them. During our talk, I discovered that Ms. Spellman, a former educator, is also deeply troubled by the state of affairs of public education in the United States. She spoke passionately about the impact that the destabilization of America’s public education system is having on our children, our families and our country.

“Nothing I’m going to say about this is new. We continue to have tenure in our educational system that wouldn’t be tolerated in the corporate world. We undervalue teachers with disgustingly poor pay and even require many of them to supply their own classrooms. The arts have been discontinued, as well as life skills. We focus on test scores at the expense of education. ESL programs are fully funded while gifted programs are under-funded. We are desperately in need of developing relationship and life skills that prepare students to become happy and productive adults. We’re not doing that. I have a lot of frustration and it is hard for me to stay optimistic about our educational system. Hopefully, people like the Gates will have a significant impact on the situation.”

Paula Spellman is not just talking about what is wrong with the public education system in the United States. She is doing something about it. Ms. Spellman is a member of Unified Progress International Education’s (“UPI Education”) Advisory Board. UPI Education offers a Life Skills SolutionsTM curriculum that is enjoying tremendous success in schools in New Haven, Connecticut. I asked Ms. Spellman to talk about her affiliation with UPI Education and the role that she sees UPI Education playing in our society.

“My role is primarily to support and promote UPI Education in whatever avenues I can. Whenever I evaluate whether to put my energies into something, I first look at the people and then the concept. I invest in people and Frank Crump, the founder of UPI, is one of those people. His vision through UPI addresses the emotional and practical needs of students that our educational system simply does not. Today the priority is on test score performance and not education. This enables schools to receive ‘distinguished school’ status while allowing students to fail in life.”

UPI Education has a Life Skills SolutionsTM curriculum. What does the fact that we are at a point in this country where we need to have individuals and organizations outside of school teach our children “life skills” say about our nation’s commitment to children?

“It says that our priorities are out of touch with reality. Too often the decision makers are not trained or sensitive to the real needs. It’s akin to a non-medical insurance administrator
making medical decisions. It’s political and it simply does not work.”

So, what’s next for Ms. Paula Spellman?

“I have just returned from a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostock to Moscow and at the end of the year I’ll spend a
month on an ice breaker in Antarctica. I’m still stepping outside of my comfort zone.”

The news of Ms. Spellman’s trip on the Trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostock to
Moscow moved me to ask one last question. Does she speak Russian?

“I did study Russian for a period of time, but now I only remember how to tell my dog to sit!*

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