Ben Cannon grew up primarily around Portland, Oregon, but attended college in St. Louis, Missouri. At Washington University, he started as a delivery boy for the student newspaper and became its editor-in-chief his senior year. He also moved the paper on-line and created a new journalism program for freshmen. After studying in Oxford for three years, he returned to his home state where he enjoys his favorite activities like hiking, camping, and running. He currently teaches American history and civics to sixth to eighth graders at Arbor School of Art and Sciences in Tualatin, just outside of Portland. Inspired by talks with his wife, a public school teacher, and others about educational issues, he decided to run for office. In 2006, he was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives. He is currently the youngest member in the legislature. His focus is on educational, health care, energy, and environmental issues.
Let’s begin by talking about your home environment while growing up.
I grew up in a very stable home, where all our primary needs were met. I experienced a degree of security about my environment that was a real advantage, in terms of being able to feel I could take on academic projects, independent exploration, or just be curious about the world.
So how would you describe yourself? What kind of person were you?
Growing up, I was fairly serious, curious, and pleasant. People, who observed our family, always commented how well I got along with my sister who’s three and a half years younger. Generally, I was self-possessed and self-confident, but I certainly didn’t feel that way at every stage.
Did your parents pamper you, or were they tough love kind of parents?
Neither. My parents gave me a lot of space. I felt like they were interested in me. They respected me as an independent creature and even from a very young age, they watched, listened, followed, and guided. I never felt pushed. I was certainly given a lot of challenges, in terms of opportunities to take on music lessons, art, drama, and sports. They provided those opportunities, but it was very much in a follow-your-interests-and-curiosities mold.
Did you have a mentor, or anyone outside your family who influenced you in a big way?
At different points, different people, but no single, long-term mentor. My parents shaped my upbringing and my values more than anyone else in my life.
[Ben’s father was a pre-school director and his mother was an assistant to the dean of faculty at a small college.] When did you know that you wanted to be an educator, too?
I only knew after my first year at Oxford. That’s when I realized I had a real desire to try it. I never feel like I’ve committed to a career forever, but I decided at the time that it was something I really wanted to do and just see how it went.
I really enjoy working with kids and thinking about and trying to understand how people learn. I enjoy the range of topics and concepts that I’m able to bring into the classroom. I like the flexibility and unpredictability that teaching as a career provides. It’s a continuous challenge and I enjoy the uncertainty of every moment of every day. It’s not a job in which I can imagine myself being entirely comfortable and confident. You just have to be on your toes, at least in my relatively limited experience. I’m just in my fourth year of teaching. You never quite know what to expect. It certainly quickens the heart and the mind to work in a classroom.
And did you consciously pick middle schoolers to teach?
I consciously focused on older kids and I applied to high schools and middle schools. In many ways, I have to best of all possible worlds by working in a middle school. But at the time, I was not consciously focused on middle schoolers.
Let’s go back to your motivations. What drove you to do more than the average teenager in school?
I had a great peer group in school. I went to a public high school—a large, comprehensive, conventional, suburban high school. It was a good school with a number of accelerated academic opportunities, but most importantly for me I had a strong cohort. By my sophomore year, it had coalesced into people who were about ideas, adventures, curiosity, books, and knowledge. And it was, in many cases, knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It was a fairly small group—10 to 15 kids—who shared those values. We’re still in close touch. I think that had a lot to do with my desire to go beyond the textbook and the grade.
Certainly, my experience at home and my parents and other family members who were engaged not only professionally, but in civic and community life, were also important models. Generally, I had a curiosity about the way things work, an understanding about the boundaries of learning not being defined by classroom walls, and there was much knowledge to be gained outside of school as within it.
Did that translate into a lot of travel abroad before you went to college?
As an eleven year old, I spent three weeks in Mexico on a class trip. At the time, I was a scholarship kid at a private school and they had a unique exchange program with a school in Mexico City. So I had been abroad only in that context, but that was important. Three weeks in sixth grade in another country, away from your parents, with a small group of peers and staying at someone’s home, was really exciting, adventurous, and wonderful for me. Apart from that, my family did a lot of camping in Oregon and the Northwest, so I had been on a number of car trips and been back to visit my extended family in the Midwest.
I’m really curious about the time you took six months off after your freshman year in college. Why did you do that? Did you know that you would definitely return back to Washington University?
I decided to do it after I completed my freshman year in college. I realized I had been in school all my life. I was 19 years old with the maturity and capacity to do something independent and adventurous, apart from being in school where our needs were well met by doting residential advisors, bountiful cafeterias, and all kinds of student wellness programs. Partly, this kind of dissatisfaction with my freshman year and a real excitement about the possibility of going to a part of the world I had never been to before helped in my decision. Doing it independently and a sense of finding my own way through the world literally excited me.
I had saved my money from part-time work over high school and my first year of college to finance the trip for $20-25 a day for three months. Then I ran out of money and found a job. My attitude was, “Let’s make some adventure happen.”
I knew when I left I would go back to school. Maybe there was some question whether I would return to Wash. U., but I don’t think I ever really seriously entertained the idea that I wouldn’t go back to college. Here is something a little unique about my parents and about what I said earlier about not pushing. Not only were they supportive when I told them I wanted to do this, but they said, “We hope you go back to school, but we understand you’re not necessarily making that commitment now.”
When I was in high school, they even said, “Look, college is not for everyone. You don’t have to do this, just because your peers are doing it and the people in your socioeconomic background are doing it. It doesn’t mean you have to do it.” They were very open to the conversation about what my life would hold and not making me feel as if I had to go to college, because that’s what successful people did. Understanding there are a lot of ways to be successful in life and fulfillment can come many different ways was really important. It gave me a stronger sense about what I did, the purpose for doing it, and that I was really choosing it. In a way, I think I hadn’t felt that was the case about my freshman year in college, despite what my parents said. The fact that all my friends were going to school and it was the thing to do was too much for me to buck. But after my freshman year, I said, “You know what? Let’s take some time and try some other things.”
And was it only six months?
I took a whole year off from school, but I was only able to be abroad from October until I think April, or May.
Were you only in England?
I traveled through Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and then back to England.
And you worked in a pub, right?
I worked for three months in a pub in a little village near Canterbury, England.
When you returned to school, was your uncle a huge factor in why you applied to be a Rhodes Scholar? [Ben’s uncle, Michael R. Cannon, the Executive Vice Chancellor and General Counsel at Washington University, was also a Rhodes Scholar in 1973.]
He was a big part of why I applied. He didn’t bring up the topic until my junior year, even then, only in passing. He helped plant the idea, but didn’t push. He encouraged me and talked to me about the process, along with a couple of other folks at Wash. U. I actually had a counselor who pushed a little more officially, and then both became resources once I decided. I was a relatively old Rhodes Scholar. There is an age limit on when you can apply and I was nearly up against that. [Applicants have to be at least 18 years old, but not yet 24.] Because I had taken a year off for my European adventure and I took another year off after college, I didn’t apply until the fall after my senior year. Actually, I was two academic years ahead of the people who had gone straight from college to the Rhodes.
What were you doing the year before going to Oxford?
I was a Coro fellow in public affairs in St. Louis, which is a nine-month program offered in five cities made up of internships at various organizations. [The Coro specifically focuses on developing talented, young public servants.] It was great and it was through that track that I decided to go back to graduate school and learn a little more.
A lot of students associate resume padding with excellence as a response to the tremendous pressure to succeed. What would you say to students about the pursuit of excellence?
Honestly, I think the effective argument to that student is to say, “That’s not what the people who measure you are really looking for in most cases.” People, whether they are admissions counselors or scholarship judges, can see through resume padding very easily. What will distinguish a candidate is their genuine interest in activities and a deep commitment to them. The most compelling argument is: if you want those accolades, resume padding is not the most effective way to get them. Obviously, the deeper argument is one should do things for their intrinsic merit and that’s what brings a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, and meaningful contribution.
I try to have that conversation with students. I teach middle schoolers, so it’s not often I’ve had this conversation directly with them. In fact, I’m not so sure a direct conversation on this topic, especially with middle schoolers, would be a particularly helpful, or appropriate, although it might in some cases. More to the point, you just try to bring that attitude into the classroom. Students very quickly pick up on a teacher and an adult they hopefully respect–one who is not pushing the activity for the activity’s sake, but is genuinely interested in the student’s ideas and wants to push on content rather than on delivery of product. Push on the thinking process, rather than on checking off boxes.
I try to bring that attitude towards my interaction with students and I think they quickly see that’s the environment they are in. I’m fortunate also to work in a school that generally shares that outlook. I’m supported by other teachers and very often families, too, who have a similar way of seeing things. For instance, it may mean with a particular student, rather than completing the three assignments that were assigned over a course of a month, the student spends all of their time on one, because it’s so engrossing.
Let’s talk about your other work. What are the three things you like about working in the legislature?
I really like grappling with the law. I’m not trained as an attorney, but I find the law very interesting. I enjoy moving from the minutiae of the law, reading bills very, very closely, and working out to the letter, trying to get the meaning correct. Then from that detailed, painstaking, lawyerly kind of work, I enjoy putting the big ideas into practice and answering big policy and political questions—how you build support for an idea, how you measure support for an idea, what a good idea is, and how to make it work.
I also enjoy dealing with the range of people who come together to make policy from all corners of the state and all walks of life and getting to know them, their interests and backgrounds.
I really enjoy the idea of representative democracy and the notion we’re here in some sort of feeble way to express the public will. And through fits and starts and all sorts of wrong turns, it manages to happen. I really like that idea and I like that it works…sort of… some of the time. I consider that an accomplishment.
What is your perspective on failure and have you had any major obstacles that sort of helped you move forward or develop into a better person?
I’m been very fortunate. I have not experienced major failures. I think if I were to fail, I almost wouldn’t know it. For example, I have bills that haven’t passed in this legislative session and I suppose those are failures. But I look at it as work for the next session. I have probably learned a lesson and will do it better next time. I feel like we began the conversation and got some people’s attention. We’ll be better set when we come back the next time, so that doesn’t feel like a failure. I feel successful in having begun the process.
Did you always have that approach in your early years?
Probably not. I remember some sharp disappointments as a kid related to musical performances. I was a pianist and in drama. I didn’t get into a couple of plays that I really wanted and that just hurt for a while. It was helpful that nobody was really suggesting I wallow in that sorrow. No one was bringing it up and asking me to really reflect, or talk about it. You just get on and ask what’s the next opportunity. I think having that perspective around me as a kid probably had something to do with my approach to it now, which is, “It’s not really about what happened. It’s about what’s next.”