Academy Experience Inspires TED Talk Alum to Foster Connection and Dream Big

Thirteen years ago, Zachary R. Wood began his four-year experience at The Grosse Pointe Academy as a fourth grader. Wendy Jerome, Wood’s math teacher and current GPA math teacher, remembers him as the kind of kid who asked questions. “Not the ‘who, what, where’ questions, but the ‘how and why’ questions that made you think and took time to answer,” she said. Jerome recalls that math didn’t come as easily to Wood as other subjects, but that he worked hard. At the end of his sixth grade year in Jerome’s class, Wood won the Award for Excellence in Mathematics. “Words like grit, resilience and determination can only marginally describe his academic effort,” she said. In short, Wood was the type of student a teacher loves to teach.

from Wood’s Facebook page

Flash forward to 2020. Wood has worked as an assistant curator at TED and as a columnist and assistant opinion editor at The Guardian. He is a former Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal, and was a Herbert H. Lehman Scholar and graduate of Williams College. He is the author of the book, “Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America,” has a TEDx talk: “Confronting Controversy” and a TED Talk: “Why It’s Worth Listening to People You Disagree With.” His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Post, The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Times Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed.

Wood, who recently moved back to his hometown of Detroit to study for law school, visited The Grosse Pointe Academy campus in early January to talk about how his Academy experience helped shape both his evolving career as a successful speaker and writer, and future aspirations of law school with the ultimate goal of electoral public service. 

In his meeting with faculty and staff, he mentioned how his teachers, specifically Jerome and Bob Lapadot, enabled him to reach his potential by taking the time to get to know him. Wood said that simply knowing he had teachers who believed in him, allowed him to challenge himself and reach his full potential, not just at the Academy, but in his years beyond. 

He thanked teachers for their dedication and reminded them why he has such strong feelings about The Grosse Pointe Academy. “It’s because of GPA that I was able to go on to my other schools, and on to college and thrive,” he said. “I would not be who I am today without the teachers at The Grosse Pointe Academy.” He encouraged the group to continue to teach beyond the classroom by getting to really know their students by paying attention and engaging with them in ways that make them feel heard and understood. “What I took away from my experience at GPA was, getting to know people is essential to connecting with them, the same way that the teachers here get to know their students. Knowing you have teachers who are invested in you means the world,” he said. 

Playing Board Blanks with Middle School Social Studies students.

To a group of attentive fifth through eighth graders, Wood touched on his tricky home situation and how he would sometimes assume different roles between home, his daily bus commute (which at one point was two hours each way) and school, a process called code-switching. He shared how leading his college organization, Uncomfortable Learning, ignited his passion for human connection and understanding opposing views, a curiosity that fuels his interest in politics. “My main goal with Uncomfortable Learning was to foster conversation. You can’t change people, but you can change your interactions with people by paying attention and being engaged,” he said.

He talked about the importance of connecting with people in order to understand them. About making eye contact and asking deeper questions that show your interest. At the end of the session, he answered questions from the group. He answered questions about meeting “famous people” like Ryan Coogler, Al Gore and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at his TED Talk and a question about how travel can broaden one’s understanding of others. His last question came from a fifth grade student. “Would you ever want to become President?” he asked. After a smile and a thoughtful pause, Woods answered, “Yes. Yes, I would.” 

To learn more about Zachary Wood, follow him on Twitter @ZacharyRWood and Facebook @zach.wood.56027