In 2009, Professor John Hattie did a landmark meta-study about what improves learning in schools – including results from 52,637 published studies – which found that out of 138 factors, the one that most strongly disrupts student learning is moving. Thankfully, Doug Ota’s new book, Safe Passage, guides readers in the essential process of making good transitions. Doug is a practicing psychologist, and former school counselor and head of the transitions program at the American School of the Hague. He lays out a clear plan for all involved – children, parents, teachers, counselors, administrators – including numerous examples and solid theoretical background.
I was glad to meet Doug at the Families in Global Transition 2015 conference and to be able to interview him about his book, published a few months earlier.
AW: Why did you decided to write Safe Passage?
DO: I’d actually turn that question around. This book decided to write me. Let me explain:
From my earliest days, I have struggled with feelings of being an outsider. Having a father with Japanese roots and a mother with English roots produced a cappuccino skin color that befuddled people, including me. I hated the question, “Where are you from?” I wanted the question to go away, so that I could simply be like the other kids.
I carried this sense of outsiderness into my young adult life, like a fragile ceramic that refused to be finished. It got further embellished during exchange-student postings in France and Japan, and it got its first oven firing during a year out of college traveling through the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, India, and Nepal. Everywhere I went, the locals mistook my cappuccino skin for local genes. They spoke to me in their dialect. I grew up feeling comfortable not understanding what people were saying.
But this ceramic sense of outsiderness got its second and hottest firing by moving from the United States to the Netherlands. In one move I lost who I was. Worse still, I didn’t even know it. The Preface to Safe Passage explains what I mean in more detail.
For the first ensuing decade after that move, and while also completing my graduate work in psychology, I would try to figure out in retrospect what had happened to me by leaving my identity in the United States. During that period of time, I had the good fortune of working with a critical mass of brilliant and highly motivated people at the American School of the Hague (ASH). The ‘Transitions Program Team’ that resulted – a program that would eventually evolve into ASH’s renowned ‘Safe Harbour’
program –constituted that school’s highly successful attempt to do something about the issues at stake.
But there was a problem. Almost everyone on that team eventually left or stepped down, leaving me as the main continuous agent for many years. That took its toll on me. I learned first hand not only what it did to me to have to say goodbye to so many people I cared about, but more importantly, I learned what it does to a soul to be the sole agent continuously leading a team charged with managing these grief processes for a community of thousands. Sometimes the grief was too much, and I would feel the desperate need to quit, to get off the team, to get out of the transitions business altogether. But transitions wouldn’t let me.
Whether I liked it or not, my personal and professional autobiographies had led me to, then through, the process of writing this book in a way that now strikes me as inexorable, inevitable. It feels funny to say, but this book chose me to give it safe passage.
AW: What was your favorite part about writing the book? What was challenging?
DO: My favorite part was taking every Monday off from my practice for an entire year, ensconcing myself in the Royal Library of the Hague, and having the peace of mind to finally write down what had been growing in my heart for years. That was also the hardest part: I didn’t tell anybody but my wife what I was up to, and after several months of writing, particularly when the words were not flowing, I often asked myself whether I was utterly nuts.
In fact, as far as challenge, there’s a very worthwhile story there. I had to resolve inside myself that the time had come for me to write this book.
With the wisdom of retrospection, I can now say that, like a good wine or whiskey, the distillation of ideas and experiences that I had been through in life, both personally and professionally, had to settle and ripen. This distillation would announce itself, if and when it was ready. In the spring of 2012, I smelled something in the air, and I knew that time had come.
AW: How would you describe the book and its intended audience?
DO: Safe Passage explains what mobility does to people. When people you care about come and go from your life, it does something to you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the one who moves, or the one who is moved away from. You’re hit by loss and grief. When you lose lots of people and places at the same time, it can feel like a profound loss – like your entire life got erased. And yet, far too often, these types of losses remain insufficiently named and addressed by schools.
Safe Passage offers a three-part remedy to these gaps by first explaining what happens psychologically when people move, then taking the reader on a tour through the kinds of programs needed to address such challenges, and finally providing various means of evaluating how effective such programs actually are.
Safe Passage is targeted at the adults – both parents and staff – who are involved at international schools with any significant degree of turnover. But this book’s message is equally relevant to people who are involved in any organization where people come and go. The list includes domestic schools, universities, international organizations, NGOs and so on.
The reason why is simple: regardless of our age or the setting in which we operate, the attachment issues that become activated when important people leave us are rooted in our biology. We can try, but we can never succeed in sidestepping the reality that secure attachments are essential to an authentic sense of well-being. Threats to our secure attachments – like those that occur when we must take leave of important others, or they must leave us – activate alarm systems deeply lodged in our brains and genetic code.
I hope Safe Passage will be read by anyone who has struggled with the powerful emotions that get activated by mobility. I hope Safe Passage will be read by anybody who has wondered “What is happening to me?” after they have moved, or had somebody move away from them. I hope Safe Passage will be grabbed by anyone seeking a life-buoy to help them transform feelings that seem overwhelming into actions that organizations have a responsibility to implement, particularly schools. Our young people’s ‘attachment systems’ are developing on our watch, and to thrive in life, these attachment systems need to stay well nurtured, and not to be burned out.
In fact, I’ve heard from many that Safe Passage has a wider audience: people who have become parents, or lost parents, or had the last child move out, or retired, all such people have told me that the book speaks to them. That’s because this book, fundamentally, is about dealing with life’s transitions, and not just the geographical type.
AW: What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book? It is in a few sections, so how do you advise they read it?
DO: I hope many people will have “aha” moments where they feel that somebody has put into words what they’ve been through, feelings they’ve been vaguely or strongly sensing for years for which they had no words. I wish I had had a book like this.
People involved in any way with a mobile lifestyle are needlessly suffering and missing golden opportunities for growth. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the one doing the moving, or you’re the one being moved away from. I always keep close to my heart a saying from Bertrand Russell that a Dean at Princeton quoted in an opening address during my first year, namely that “from he to whom much is given, much is expected.” Much is indeed given to those lucky enough to experience a life moving across cultures, particularly during their developmental years. But these individuals have to be able to cope with that which they’ve have been given for it to actually be good for them. If that which they’ve been given exceeds their coping capacities, it can produce harm and even be traumatic.
Safe Passage seeks to educate people about the issues at stake and equip them with the means to address those issues, so that the coping strategies of all involved – particularly the youngsters, who often have no choice in the matter – stay well matched to the considerable challenges a mobile lifestyle entails.
The best time to read the book? Anytime you or somebody you know is struggling with transitions – perhaps without even knowing it. Ideally, in line with David Pollock’s  injunction that “it takes six months to pack up one’s heart, and six months to unpack it,” I’d say that this should be six months prior to any transition. If people have to move in June, then that means reading Safe Passage around the winter holidays. But who has that kind of foresight?
AW: Do you have any stories you would like to share, related to writing your book?
DO: The book is so personal that it’s literally infused with stories. It’s actually a book about story: this is the medium we humans have used for thousands of years to create, convey, and recall meaning in our lives.
I start with a quote that runs “that which is most personal is most universal.” My hope is that, by having the courage to speak frankly and honestly about my own struggles in the transitions in my life, I can free my reader, and the audiences I speak to, to do the same.
AW: Is there anything else you would like us to know about you or your book?
DO: This book afforded me a right of passage. I run marathons to stay real, to gauge myself against the universe. While running the marathon is the single most demanding physical endeavor I do, writing this book has been the single most demanding intellectual feat I’ve ever undertaken. In his review of Safe Passage, Graham Ranger described it as a “life work.” He hit the nail on the head. It feels like a singularity in life to be able to put forty-five years of living into a single book.
I would love to hear from people about their reactions to Safe Passage. When you put your guts into a project like this over the span of a decade, all that passion and energy is out there in bound and printed form, and then there’s a sudden quiet. I’m starting to hear from people who’ve made it through the entire book, and that’s a very gratifying and nourishing experience for an author.
Doug describes how working with the ‘Safe Harbour’ program “taught me the transformative power of saying effective goodbyes,” relating how “teaching our students the skills for how to say effective goodbyes converts an experience that can be crippling if avoided, into one that can foster immense personal growth if embraced.”
Safe Passage is an excellent resource for international families and schools to help with positive transitions. Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, comments: “As one who has lived this globally transient lifestyle since the moment of my birth, and worked with countless others… I cannot recommend this book highly enough… principles here will apply in countless other arenas of life.” Co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds with Ruth Van Reken.