Alumnus brings maritime ‘Wonder’ to Middle School

Do you ever read the Colorado Academy alumni class notes, so carefully curated by Alumni Director Sue Burleigh, in the CA Journal? You never quite know where those small bits of personal information might lead you.

Last summer, Middle School science teacher Sue Counterman read a class note about Chasing Wonder, a book written by Greg Lewis ’65. It’s a tale set in the ocean with a cast of marvelously crafted characters. The book caught Counterman’s attention because Counterman has had a lifelong passion for the ocean. She is even a member of the National Marine Educators Association. “Not too many of us here in Denver!” she laughs.

She had just returned from a visit to the North Shore of Oahu, where she had experienced a magical time with her grandchildren, so a book with maritime characters that Lewis wrote for his own granddaughter seemed like an intriguing bit of serendipity.

Then Counterman read a review of the book. “This is E.B. White and Dr. Seuss for adults, plus a bit of Roald Dahl!” wrote the reviewer. The review prompted her to hunt down a digital version of Chasing Wonder, and after a reading it, she thought her Seventh Grade Advisory would love it. And that’s how author Greg Lewis ’65 found himself standing in front of a group of CA Seventh Graders on a November afternoon, answering insightful questions and explaining what parts of his own life are in his book.

A resource for social emotional learning

Counterman had first considered the book as a science lesson about the ocean but ultimately decided it was best used as a tool for social emotional learning. Students in her Advisory spent the first trimester reading it aloud to each other, enjoying the wordplay and six-line rhyming stanzas.

They were charmed by the playfulness expressed in the characters’ names: Vidi, Big Maw Maw, Marlin Brand-Oh!, Crusher, Squid Pro Quo, Coral Larry, Yada Yada, Blah Blah Blah, NepTune, Rattail Ronnie, Twain, and of course, Wonder, the eponymous oyster with a red hat.

“The language is beautiful,” Counterman says. “The students love the characters, but ultimately they are captivated by the wisdom of the book.”

Over time, Counterman and Lewis chatted about the book by phone, and eventually, Lewis offered to visit her classroom on one of his trips to Denver from his home in Aspen. Counterman was delighted to take him up on his offer.

“I am always amazed how well our students can engage speakers,” Counterman says. “They ask brilliant questions.”

 A lifelong learner

Lewis brought the students his personal story—that of a modern-day Renaissance man who has been a lifelong learner. An Emmy Award-winning TV sports reporter and commentator, he worked for NBC for 30 years, covering six Olympic games for NBC and CBS Sports. To celebrate his 60th birthday, he scuba-dived to a depth of 227 feet in the Bahamas. He has always loved playing with words, dating back to his time at CA.

He started writing Chasing Wonder when his granddaughter was two years old. She is now 10. Sometimes, he told the students, it took him six hours to write six lines.

The students were primed with questions. Why does Wonder wear a red hat? (It’s an homage to Jacques Cousteau, who always wore a red woolen cap.)

To which character does Lewis relate?  (To Wonder, he told students, because “my life has been a series of chance happenings, and I have been on my own journey of discovery.”)

Which character was most fun to create? (“Coral Larry,” answered Lewis. “He has knowledge, but he doesn’t have experience. He doesn’t have that wisdom that comes from applying knowledge to situations.”)

Did he think his book would be popular?

“You have to write for you,” Lewis told the students. “You have to write what you feel and not worry about whether it will be popular. All stories take on their own shape and destiny.”

Where is Greg Lewis in this book?, students asked. Calmly and straightforwardly, Lewis told them how Twain the turtle, who suffers from survivor’s guilt, is a character he can relate to because, when he was 15, his best friend died in a car accident. He survived the same accident.

“For the longest time, I had survivor’s guilt,” Lewis told the attentive Seventh Graders. “I said, ‘Why him? Why not me?’ And finally, I realized I should live my life as fully as possible in a way that would honor his life as well.”

Ultimately, Chasing Wonder is a book about values—in this case values inspired by Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher and author. Anyone familiar with his work will find this passage from the book to be familiar:

 Truth is always most essential
Beauty makes you reverential
Goodness leaves you feeling great|
Justice for all must never wait
Equality belongs to everyone
Freedom’s quest is never done

Lewis left the students with advice for future authors in the group.

“If you want to write, you have to write,” he told the students. “No matter what you love—to ski, to dance, or to do math—you should do it every day.

“We all have great setbacks in life,” he added. “What works best for me is to think about them and process them but not give them a lot of time. Move forward. Don’t be a prisoner of the past.”

After meeting with Lewis, Counterman’s class wrote a thank-you to him—in rhyme, of course!

Thank you for coming to our class
We enjoyed your visit and had a blast
Thank you for sharing your mind
We all had something in the story to find!
We admire you so much
And Wonder inspires all of us!