“I’m available after bus duty, around 8:15ish.”
That couldn’t be right. This was the man who had been voted TED Talks‘ “most influential speaker” in 2011 (if you haven’t seen his speech, you’ll probably want to click here). A documentary about him and his project has been aired in every school in Norway, on national television in Israel, in South Korea, all over the Middle East – even in Estonia. Both the Secretary of Defense and the United Nations have brought him in to talk. And Bill Gates just opened for him at a conference – opened for him.
And he’s still on bus duty at the local elementary school where he teaches?
I was confused, until I drove down to Charlottesville, Virginia to meet him.
I found him waiting in the drizzle with the same smile on his face that millions around the world now know well. A sense of serenity poured off him as he extended his hand; he is the corporal incarnation of the project that has him taking calls from every major news outlet, world powers, and a long list of celebrities.
I had hoped to show a different side of the game, something no one had thought of yet. This was my first interview as The Good Traveler and I wanted to make an impression… but I couldn’t.
Because John Hunter wants to talk about you. Or he wants to talk about how his 9-year-old student stumped the Pentagon press secretary on a recent trip to Washington.
If you sit with him awhile, he might even talk about his previous career in music, or the time he spent in India in the ’70s.
The back and forth comes so easily, I forget why I’m there.
But back in his classroom (the one that’s been covered from every angle by every news crew you can imagine), the game — with its towering layers of space, sky, land, and ocean — snaps me back into focus. Each corner is peppered with small toys and figurines representing people, weapons, natural resources, burial grounds.
“You see this satellite?,” he asks, pointing to a LEGO block on the top level. “It’s broken, which normally isn’t a big deal. But as you can see, it’s casting a shadow on a religious artifact on the ground which is considered blasphemous by this country. So there might be an attack, there might be a resolve, there might be a joining of new allies. You never know.”
He never tells his students what to do, or what will happen. He merely asks them to remember one thing and one thing only:
“Consider the consequences.”
Unpredictable weather patterns, erosion, oil spills, debt, famine, exploration, political conflict, attacks, drops in tourism, falling debris – these things are all taken into account, discussed in conferences headed up by presidents and prime ministers, agreed upon by special committees. And all of it’s done by fourth graders.
All of the world’s problems on a 4’ x 5’ plywood board.
And they’re being solved by fourth graders who quote the “Art of War” while discussing strategy.
Hunter’s phone makes a different noise – calls, emails, text messages, reminders — almost every minute. He’s been given his own desk at think tanks. A book on his life and the game that made him famous will be out in a year, the movie is in such demand that it will be shown again – nationwide – soon, and there’s been talk of a virtual version of the game for the iPad. He’s Skyping with Hawaiian students and being flown to Norway to play the game in a public forum. Kids are playing World Peace Game knock-offs in India. He’s clearly in demand.
And he can “meet me right after bus duty.”
“You can’t attach yourself to all of this, you really can’t,” he says as we walk down the hall at his school. As we pass by, teachers run over to hug him and students beam as they wind up for a high-five. Hunter knows them all by name and has a way of making each one feel like his favorite. “This quote-unquote ‘fame’ thing is just a ripple in the vibration, so you hang back and enjoy the show,” he says. “Sometimes it’s up – sometimes down. It’s just all a show.”
The man whose opening act founded Microsoft is now making me sit down and eat a sandwich – asking more questions about me than I had prepared for him.
“Oh man, the Gates thing” he says, laughing. “It was like Pat Boone following James Brown.”
Something tells me he’ll ever get used to “the ‘fame’ thing.”
“I find myself walking into rooms with people staring at me and thinking ‘Why are they all looking at me?’ before realizing, Oh right! I’m the guy!”
But as I walked away from the school having just received a hug that I’d like to think was better than the ones he gave to all those other reporters, part of me can’t help but be worried for John Hunter.
His idea – to challenge children to tackle the big issues our world leaders so often fail at – is already changing the world for good.
His students are growing daily; one of them has already gone on to major in Peace, War, and Defense at UNC.
And one of them will end up solving these problems in real life.
And the reason I’m worried is that I hope he lives long enough to see that.
John Hunter is the guy.
Follow the Good Traveler’s adventures on Twitter @GoodTraveler and on Instagram @GoodTraveler.