Susan stands at the base of a mountain. Before her a wide, straight staircase climbs up steadily.
There are students marching up single file in groups of about 30, with an adult behind each group.
Susan’s son, James, is beside her. This is his first day on the staircase. She gives him a kiss and he joins his group, excited for what’s in store.
Sadly, his excitement doesn’t last long. As the next couple of years pass, Susan sees that her son is like a square peg in a round hole, and she begins to look for some other way for James to get up the mountain.
She starts to notice other children for whom the staircase is a struggle. She seed kids who are gifted or late readers, kids for whom the pace of the staircase is too slow or too fast, free spirits for whom the staircase feels like a straight-jacket, and kids with a variety of special needs. She sees them all over the staircase now that she is looking for them. She also sees some of their parents for the first time, coming to take them off the staircase.
Some of the parents take their kids to a smaller, private staircase where the students seem to have more room. There are only about 10 kids in each group, which means they each are getting more attention from the adult with them. These kids seem to be doing better than those on the main staircase. Susan looks into this option a little further. She finds that the cost of this private staircase is completely beyond what she can afford, and there is no use looking at it any more.
She then sees some of the parents taking their kids to a dirt path leading up the mountain, just outside the staircase. Here the parents are climbing with their kids, and the kids seem to do much better, apparently because here they can be themselves. The parents seem a little stressed with trying to keep their kids in pace with their age group on the staircase, not wanting to fall behind, but the kids do look like they are faring better than they were before. After looking at her options, Susan decides this is where she will take James.
She takes James off the staircase, and he has mixed emotions about it. He really wants to be free of the staircase and all of the restrictions and sameness there, but he will miss his friends. Susan hopes that he can make new friends on the dirt path.
They climb the dirt path for a few months, and it’s a struggle. She’s trying to keep pace with the staircase, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep James focused. He’s even starting to say he hates the dirt path and would rather go back to the staircase.
She wonders if the staircase wouldn’t be better than this. At least there the destination was obvious, and keeping James focused wouldn’t be solely her responsibility any more.
Their relationship is strained, and she is about ready to quit when she remembers that her friend Jenny is on this dirt path somewhere with her daughter. Susan gathers up her courage and calls Jenny.
Jenny tells her that she had been on that dirt path, but she and her daughter, Anna had struggled there too. Jenny has since found yet another option. She offers to meet up with Susan in a bit.
A little later, Jenny and Anna appeared next to Susan and James. Susan can’t figure out where they had come from, and Jenny tells her they have been in the forest. Susan thinks that’a a bit odd, and asks what they were doing in there. Anna answers, telling Susan and James all about all the amazing things she has been learning in the forest. There is a twinkle in her eye and an enthusiasm for learning that Susan wishes she could help James find. Susan also notices that Jenny has none of the stressed appearance of the other parents on the dirt path.
Now, as Susan looks into the trees beside the dirt path, she can see other little paths leading into the forest. She hadn’t noticed them before, probably because it had never occurred to her to look.
Jenny and Anna entice Susan to bring James into the deep forest paths. She is intrigued, and they go in.
Susan feels like a fog is blocking much of her view. She can't see far, but she is amazed at all of the paths she does see. She can hear lots of people running about, playing, talking, and laughing, most of them shrouded by the fog. She is excited to see where these paths lead, but the fog keeps their destinations a mystery.
James, however, isn't quite sure what to do. He is used to his mother pushing him forward, so he just waits for her to tell him which way to go.
She asks him which path he'd like to take.
He doesn't know, doesn't care.
Susan pulls him along a few paths, telling him to try this and try that. He just wants to get through the path and be done. They go on this way for a while, but Susan is getting frustrated. She worries that all this wandering around means that her son is falling behind, so they go back toward the dirt path near the staircase.
She nearly puts James back onto the dirt path, when she notices Jenny has come out with them. Jenny encourages her to come back to the forest paths. She tells Susan to not try to organize where her son goes but to be patient with him, as it will take some time before he is interested in much.
Susan and James return with Jenny to the forest, and Susan tries so hard to be patient.
Susan sees some kids in the forest by themselves, and asks Jenny about them. Jenny says some parents have led their kids to the forest paths, and just sent them in on their own, hoping that the freedom to find their own way will get them to the top. Some of them do fine, but those who are in the forest with their parents really thrive, even when the parents are new to the forest. Something about climbing together is a much fuller experience for the whole family.
Jenny recommends that Susan find some interesting things nearby to show to James. She tries it, and gets no reaction from him.
Jenny then says that James just needs more time; Susan will need to let him get bored.
He just sits there.
He begs to use his mom's phone to play some games, which she allows, since he isn't doing anything anyway.
Jenny kindly tells her that James won't get bored and curious if he always has easy entertainment. Susan takes her phone back, amidst much protest from her son, and waits.
Jenny has another suggestion. Susan could sit down with her son and start exploring the stuff around them herself, being an example of what she wants James to do instead of telling him what to do.
Susan isn't quite sure what she is supposed to do with all this stuff, but dutifully she picks up a rock, turning it over in her hands. Then she looks at a feather. Then she notices a little line of ants nearby, and crouches down to watch them. She becomes engrossed in the trail of ants, and starts talking about what they are doing. James glances over, looks down at the ants, watches with interest for a few minutes, and then complains of boredom again.
That little glimmer of interest gives Susan hope.
She looks around for something else interesting, and the longer she looks, the more she can see. She calls James to come with her, and she leads him up a path that she can see, but he can't. She finds a path that reminds her of something she had always wanted to learn but never felt she had time to. She has time now, so she takes the path.
Along that path, as she is learning, other paths appear.
James is still just following her, not engaging much.
Susan decides that perhaps she should try some paths that look like something he would really like. She knows he likes Legos, so she takes that path when it appears (funny that it appeared the moment she started looking for it). James is finally doing something, even though she has no idea how this Lego path will help him up the mountain, as it just seems to go around the mountain and not up at all. He does nothing but Legos, all the time, and Susan thinks maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Jenny assures her that it’s okay, he won’t stay there forever.
Susan begins to see that James is coming up with his own designs, and they are getting quite elaborate. His latest is a pirate ship, but he says that something doesn’t look right to him, and he starts to wonder what actual pirate ships looked like. Just then, he notices a path that he hadn’t seen before, a Pirate Ship path! He takes it.
Susan realizes that the more paths she tries, the more paths James tries.
Somehow, even though she and James are now on different paths most of the time, they always seem to be right next to each other.
The more they explore, the more the fog lifts.
Susan can now see the paths that branch off from her own path, and she can see the paths that branch off from her son's. She is beginning to see that nearly all the paths are interconnected; she discovers that paths she had once considered completely different in every way actually intersect in many places.
Susan notices that the paths James is choosing are not anything that she would recognize as education, and she worries that he is never going to make it up the mountain this way. Not only does he seem to just be going around the mountain still, but many times it looks like he’s actually going downhill instead of up.
She calls Jenny again, who assures her that James being interested and taking his own paths will lead to the top. In fact, all the paths lead to the top.
Susan begins to see some changes in James.
She sees a path near him about Naval Warfare, that he doesn't seem to notice, and she points it out to him.
He thanks her!
He takes this path, even though he has scoffed at every other suggestion she has made.
James starts asking her to help him find specific paths, and as soon as he asks, the paths appear to her and she can help him find them.
As the years go by, Susan and James are both learning and enjoying it more than either of them could have imagined. They have wandered all over the mountain. Often they have wandered together, but even more often, as James has grown older, their paths have gotten further apart.
They have made many friends and met lots of very kind people who gave directions to specific paths. Some of these people even climbed some of the difficult paths along with them, helping them through the hard spots and encouraging them along the way.
Susan hasn't been tempted to return to the staircase in years.
James is a teen now. He starts talking about his future, about new ideas that have grown in him as he has taken path after path. He feels he really has something important to do with his life, though he isn’t clear on what that is yet.
He starts planning out his paths ahead as he feels there are some very important paths he will need to take to reach his goals. He will take some branching paths still, but he carefully maps out the main paths so he is sure to reach the summit.
Some of the paths he is choosing now are quite hard, but he loves the challenge.
James and Susan eventually reach a ridge together, and walk back toward the staircase to see where they are. They are surprised that they are on a higher ridge than his former classmates. He can see them just below. They are celebrating. They reached the top of their staircase. He goes down to congratulate them, and notices something odd.
They are celebrating being finished.
He hears many of them saying they will never climb a staircase again; it was so boring and irrelevant.
He hears others bemoaning four more years on another staircase. They don’t sound sure about why they are going to climb another one, but they don’t know what else to do.
Still others are talking about an additional eight year staircase. They don’t necessarily sound excited about eight more years, but they are determined to make it to the top and reach their dreams of success.
James is confused because he has had a great time climbing the mountain, and he can't wait to climb further.
James sees that these former classmates carry almost nothing in their packs, just a “Certificate of Staircase Completion.” He looks at his own pack, which he has been carrying all these years, filled with beloved books, notebooks and mementos of all he has discovered.
He remembers back to when his mom first brought him to that foggy, confusing, boring forest, and realizes how his experience with the mountain was so much more than that of his former classmates. He can't wait to get back to the forest paths--he still has so many plans, so much more to learn about, and visions of making a real difference in the world.
His former classmates can't wait to get off the mountain forever.
James gives his mom a hug, and tells her, "Thank you."
They return to the forest paths together and keep climbing.