Hello, and welcome to WE Talk, a podcast that explores the role of Waldorf education in helping children, parents and families thrive in an ever-changing world. WE Talk is brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School, and this is your host, Nita June Davanzo.
Nita Davanzo: I am so pleased today to welcome Verita Malin Perry to our show. Verita attended Shining Mountain Waldorf School from kindergarten to 8th grade, graduating in the class of 1992. Verita felt inspired and enriched by her nine years at Shining Mountain and launched into life as a student at Boulder High, feeling a need to explore new and uncharted territories.
This decision turned out to be the perfect choice for her, as her earlier Waldorf years had supplied her with the tools necessary to take full advantage of her new school environment. She had a natural curiosity for learning, that motivated her with her studies, and an artistic passion that led her to be engaged in art, music and theater programs.
During and after high school, Verita traveled to Ecuador and Wales, fueled by a growing interest in the environment and doing work in support of others. She spent a year in a Camp Hill community in Wales, where she worked on a biodynamic garden, and gained invaluable life experience by supervising the special needs students, and utilizing Steiner’s pedagogical philosophies.
Fast forward just a little bit, and Verita enrolled at first at the University of California–Santa Cruz, then transferred on to the University of Padua in Italy, before at last returning to the States and back to her roots of Waldorf education, first as a teacher at the Roaring Fork Waldorf School in Carbondale, Colorado, and then at last to Shining Mountain.
With a recent little one just born, Verita has chosen to take a break from her teaching work, and now enjoys being a Shining Mountain Waldorf School parent.
Nta Davanzo: Welcome, Verita. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Verita Perry: Thank you for having me.
Nita Davanzo: Verita, you attended Shining Mountain Waldorf School from kindergarten to 8th grade, and then you chose to head to Boulder High. For those of those who are not local, one of the local high schools for 9th grade through 12th grade.
One of the questions that comes up so often is around this transition between 8th grade and high school. And a lot of parents hold fear around this change from a Waldorf school and their children going into a public school.
So for you, as a longtime Waldorf student, how was that transition for you? How was it to go from being in a very rich, strong, wonderful class with Dawn Deal, into the greater wide world of Boulder High?
Verita Perry: Well, I’d have to say on one level it was really exciting, because I think being at a Waldorf school and learning so much about the world around us as students, and yet we’re also nurtured in this small, somewhat protected environment, there was this feeling of embarking upon a great adventure in the same way in so many of the stories there were these heroes and heroines that were always off on an adventure.
So I think, from being given all those stories, had this sense of curiosity and a spark for tasting the world that led me to go there. So it really did feel like this big adventure, going into this school. Coming from a class of, I think we had in the mid-20s, to all of a sudden I think there were around 500 in the freshman class, and 2000 at Boulder High. So it was a really big change, and at first I felt there was that sense of change is exciting, it’s an adventure, it’s a journey, and yet it was also intimidating, because to be so seen and so known, and to be surrounded by people who have no idea who I am, and students, and just trying to navigate the flow, and a different system.
We were getting grades by middle school at Shining Mountain, but even though the grades were given, there was always so much conversation around it, and so much more about the big picture, versus just “stamp, here’s your grade.” So there was definitely a learning curve.
For example, textbook learning versus having the teacher digest and deliver a lesson. Or present an experiment and then our job was to create a lesson book page. It was more study from a text and respond to the questions.
So there was definitely a different learning style. But I found the challenge invigorating, and socially I think definitely it took me about a semester where I was feeling homesick and missing my peers. And my parents had given me the option, although my class was the first class to create the high school, so it was like, go back to my class, which was the high school at SMWS or stay at Boulder High.
So I felt I had freedom. And my dad, I remember him saying, “Why don’t you stick it out? Because it can be hard to make new friends, it takes time.”
So I just decided to stick with it. And by spring semester, I had found a group of friends and peers that I identified with, and I understood all the change of the learning style, and what was expected of me. And then I really started to enjoy myself and loved it. And I didn’t feel that because I had grown up in a Waldorf school with very different learning style and in a much more sheltered environment, that it held me back. If anything, it gave me this love to tackle new challenges, and that’s what Boulder High was to me.
It ended up being a really positive experience, one that to this day, I’m really grateful my parents allowed me that choice and that I chose that path.
Nita Davanzo: And I love that you described it as this adventure, and that you took it on as this invigorating journey of, “Yes, I’m going to try this, I’m gonna forge my way.” And that you still have those close relationships with your 8th grade graduating class, and forged those and kept those on.
I think it’s interesting and a really important piece to note, too, that especially today in our culture, so many parents have so much fear just around everything. Fear is such a big element of today’s society. Not to fear public school. And I love that you were given that choice, too. It’s not right for everybody. Waldorf high school isn’t right for everybody. But that you took all that you had from your nine years at Shining Mountain, and then applied those to your high school time.
So in hindsight, for both your high school peers and your college peers, what strengths do you feel that you had in comparison to them, and also possibly what challenges did you face, both in high school and in college?
Verita Perry: Well I think again, with the challenges, I would just say I think it was more initially, learning a whole new system. You could say it was a challenge. And yet I think that as I was mentioning, because of this love of learning that had been instilled in me, I really felt I wasn’t doing it just for the grade, I was doing it for the experience. And that carried well beyond the project or the paper I had to turn in. It was really just, what could I learn from this teacher, and what could I learn from this material being presented in this textbook?
So my drive was really different, I began to notice that many of my peers. It sounds stereotypical. So I would have to say, the peers I ended up aligning with, were students who eventually as I found my way and began to select my classes more in the upper grades, especially high school, compared to freshmen, everyone has to take the same classes, so you don’t get to be in a group with people you might identify with more.
So I would say I found students to have the similar quality of my classmates at Waldorf in the AP classes I ended up getting into in the upper grades because they were driven, curious, excited. So finally I began to feel like, oh okay, versus sitting in classes like “I have to be here, but I really don’t care, and I don’t care what you’re saying.”
Nita Davanzo: Right.
Verita Perry: So that was, I felt like I had a gift, I cared what I was learning about. So that was a strength i had. But then I was able to find – just in a public school, there’s more variety. So I was able to find those that aligned with my values and surround myself with those type of students. So that was really fulfilling for me.
And then in college, I think because I had already gone through the public high school experience, I didn’t see as much of a change. I felt like a college freshman just like everyone else. But I do think again, I was always driven by the experience more than the grade, and I actually chose to go to Santa Cruz, I think partly because it was a school that didn’t really do grades. They did pass/fail, and they really wanted their students to be learning from the experience. And I resonated with that mission of theirs. So it did influence even in my college choices and then doing my studies in Italy, again, I wanted the experience of being in a foreign country, as well as learning in an academic system that was established hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
So I was again going not only for the learning but for the experience. So I think maybe that was something that even in college, sometimes I met students that were just “My parents said I had to come, so I’m here to get through it,” and getting through it was never my objective.
Nita Davanzo: You see those students that are like, “Well, I gotta do this, because once I do this, then you do that. Then you get married, then you have kids.”
Verita Perry: Yeah. I was never–it was much more self-directed. And I think that is definitely something we got through Waldorf.
Nita Davanzo: Yeah. Waldorf is certainly known for inspiring students to own their curiosity and their love of learning, and certainly their compassion for others. And the connection with the world around them.
As a former student yourself and now, as a teacher, or you’re on a break as a teacher right now but you still are a teacher – what do you feel it is in the Waldorf curriculum that stimulates these capacities of the love of learning, and the curiosity and the compassion for the world around them, in students?
Verita Perry: Well, I think there are many different aspects that nurture and draw forth these qualities. Just to speak on a few, I think a big part of it is the Waldorf teacher, or teachers, that in terms of the specialty and then later in high school, you have a team working with the students. It’s really these teachers’ dedication to having a love of learning themselves.
The teachers in the Waldorf movement, one of the criteria is that you have to love what you do, you have to be flexible, willing to grow and change and strive. So I felt like we had this modeling of these adults before us from the time we were little, that were really in it, in an earnest and invigorating way, that everything they brought they brought out of love, and they brought out of curiosity, and they brought out of compassion.
They say children are influenced more by those that are in front of them, than by anything else. We just as human beings, we follow living examples. We know it’s all true for infants, who repeat like parrots everything you say or do. But really children all the way through are living in this very imitative place, as they begin to develop more of their intellect as well. But they’re still living in a world of taking in, what is it about? What does it mean to be an adult?
So I think the role modeling was huge, and the love and the nurturing that these adults provided and instilled in us. And then the other aspect I think really did it was just the beauty of Steiner’s curriculum that he was able to foresee what in child development, that children are hungry for certain things at certain ages. And by giving them the food that they are yearning for and craving, it is going to feed them and nurture them in a way that it wouldn’t if you were giving them a meal that wasn’t what they wanted and wasn’t really what they were craving, or wasn’t even necessarily good for their bodies.
Instead, I feel like, using this metaphor of food and meals, Steiner really knew what would create optimal health and digestion in an education, and was able to create these stories and know which cultures would really speak to a child as she developed through these different developmental phases of childhood.
So I think by learning and hearing stories, as I mentioned earlier, these heroes and heroines, or gods and goddesses, that are always grappling with this. How to find their moral compass, how to deal with conflict and adversity, and how to find their way in the world.
So as a child, you’re hearing these stories, and they’re really going in deeply and they’re informing who you become as a human being. And then it’s not just the listening, you do do a fair amount of listening and taking in these stories that the teachers have beautifully prepared, but then there’s a lot asked of you as a student.
Instead of just checking a box, or writing a quick sentence of A, B or C, you’re really creating well-digested thoughts of your own and putting them down in terms of what you think about what has happened. So it’s that moral compass, that creates that sense of compassion, and a sense of love and curiosity, I think it’s the curriculum and those that are asked to bring the curriculum in a Waldorf school.
Nita Davanzo: I so agree with you with that. It’s interesting, something that you said sparked a moment ago, when you noted that when you were in high school, you found your peer group in the AP classes. I currently work with high school students as an independent college counselor, and it’s interesting to me, a fair amount of them are in AP Literature classes their senior year, and how they describe these classes to me, directly ties into what you were just saying about all these different ways of experiencing a story and being able to respond to it.
It was a couple weeks ago, I was speaking with a senior about her class, and she was saying, “Finally we get to talk about these stories, we have these amazing discussions, and we get to write these different insightful essays and perspectives about the characters,” and I was thinking, wow. I was doing that, we all were, as Waldorf students, when we were in even the younger grades. Maybe not long essays, but we were really looking at what it is to be a human in so many different ways, and what an incredible, valuable experience that was and is for current students.
Verita Perry: Yeah. And I think you touched upon it, even in 1st and 2nd and 3rd grade, where because in Waldorf we don’t have students already knowing how to read in kindergarten, we provide them still with some of those things that senior was saying she loved. We allow them, after hearing a story, respond with a picture. Or why don’t several of you get up and do a skit, representing the scene in the story that you heard that you felt drawn to.
So in these very artistic and creative ways, even before the children are given the pen and paper to express their ideas, they’re expressing it with their whole bodies and beings, how did you respond to this story? We’re asking that of them from even a very young age. And even in the kindergarten, they’re hearing these stories and they get to dance them out in a circle time, or take them out onto the playground and act them out because they’re given that freedom and time to play imaginatively.
We’re providing them with these stories and allowing them to live into them pretty much from the get-go.
Nita Davanzo: I love talking about it and bringing myself back into those times too because they’re such a huge part of me. And I think a lot of parents feel this way too, that “I wish I could’ve done that.” They take it in and go, “Well, I’ll give that gift to my children.”
So Verita, I had noted in my introduction of you that you spent a year working at a Camphill community in Wales after high school. Can you share a little bit with our listeners what a Camphill community is and also about the work you did there?
Verita Perry: Sure yeah. So Camphill communities, they were actually developed by a man by the name of Dr. Karl Koenig. And he was an Austrian pediatrician and educator who lived around the time of Rudolf Steiner, and he had a vision to create communities where children or adult people with special needs or disabilities, would be able to come and thrive and be seen. And each one could be a contributing member of this community.
So these communities sprung up at first in Europe, he was actually escaping the Nazi annexation and re-established himself in Scotland, but eventually, the Camphill community movement now has more than 100 communities in over 22 countries around the world. So there are these communities that are inspired by anthroposophy, the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, which also inspired Waldorf schools, but they’re more geared toward this whole lifestyle experience.
So there’s often the biodynamic farm, which again, biodynamics is another branch that was influenced by Rudolf Steiner, and his teachings. And they incorporate this lifestyle where you have volunteer families, oftentimes parents with children can go and become house parents in the Camphill communities, where the children go to the local school and they live in this farm community in the garden, and everyone participates in weekly meetings, and the whole cultural life of the seasons, in a similar way to that Waldorf schools follow the seasons and the cultural life that’s created.
And you live and work with these adults or children, or depending on the Camphill, with special needs, and you really learn about them and learn how to care for them, and you also learn about their beautiful individualities and what gifts they bring. Whether it’s baking with them in the morning, they all are given chores, and everyone has their work to do.
The one I was in, in Wales, I was on a biodynamic farm and garden–I went as an 18-year-old so there were a lot of European students–in Europe, you often have to do a year of service work after you graduate from high school or some sort of military experience. So there were people my age, around 18 or 19-years-old, from all these different countries, Norway and Holland, and Russia and Germany and England, and they were all there to be of service.
So it was a really beautiful experience, not only learning about people with special needs and all the beautiful gifts they offer. But it was also this worldwide experience of getting to know people from different countries. I highly recommend it to people. There’s a bunch in the United States too if people ever get a chance to visit a camp hill. They’re really a beautiful vision and way of living in harmony with nature and with each other.
Nita Davanzo: What an incredible experience for any age, but certainly as an 18-year-old too. And I’m just struck also that you felt called at 18-years-old, to go and to do that work. Not a lot of 18-year-olds are.
Verita Perry: I know. It’s sort of funny how it happened. I do feel like sometimes we have this destiny, we get nudged by helpers that we don’t realize at the time. I had my 18-year-old mentality, I knew I wanted to take a year – again, going back to my love of the experience, living the experience. I wanted to just take a pause to experience life in a different way than in an academic setting. So I knew I was gonna take a gap year.
But I had this idea that I might go around with my good friend Melea, who had also gone to the Waldorf school. We were going to go around in her bus and play guitar, because I love music as well, and travel the country basically. Much more a bohemian way. And my mom was like, “Okay, we’ll see.”
And then I met a friend when I was waitressing, during my senior year, whose brother had been in my class, and she had gone and done this experience. And she basically was so insistent that I had to do this, as she got to know me, that I’d see her at work, she’d be like, “Have you filled out the application? Have you done it yet? You need to apply for the visa. Where are you on that process?”
So she was like a mother to me in a way, she was the older sister of her brother. And since I was in her brother’s class, she took me on as this fledgling to get out of the nest and she had this idea for me. And it really was because of her inspiration, because I was like, “it’s gonna be a lot of long hours, and it’s quite a commitment.”
And yet obviously a part of me wanted to do it. But it was just funny how sometimes if you’re open, you’ll sometimes get pushed along. And I feel like I couldn’t have chosen a better year experience.
Nita Davanzo: And then you went on to UC-Santa Cruz, and there you were studying music, correct? And then remind me Verita, what year did you then head off to University of Padua to –
Verita Perry: So I took a gap year and I think it was in 98 or 99 that I then had decided, as a University of Santa Cruz music student, that I wanted to do a year abroad in Italy, and they offered a program in Padua that had a scholarship, in addition to living in the dorms with the Italians and taking classes at the university, I could take private voice lessons with a teacher there.
So it met up with what I was studying, classical music as a singer, the Italians. It all sort of – yeah. I thought it made sense as a place to go. I could go anywhere, there was such an extensive abroad program, but I was drawn to Italy for those reasons.
So I did that year abroad, and then it was during that time I realized, as a musician, it can be really hard to find your way. You have to have such an extreme level of dedication and talent, and still, you may not make it, you may end up just busing and waitressing.
I had this dawning realization there was more in me that maybe wanted expression besides the music, as a lifestyle, just a maturing sense of what did I want to do as a career that could also let my music live on but not rely on that as my sole source of income. So I decided to become a teacher, and that’s when I decided, I really love living here in Italy, I’m just going to enroll in the Italian university, instead of as an exchange student, as an actual student. Decided to get my – yeah, that was definitely another adventure to see if I could climb this mountain.
So I enrolled, and it was again, if Boulder High in the first semester was challenging, Italy was tenfold with going from, as an exchange student, they give you a tap on the shoulder, like “you’re doing great work, have fun in your year in Italy,” but as an actual student enrolled in their system, all the same expectations were on me as all the native Italians.
It was challenging to say the least, but I had a friend who helped me who was also an American who had decided to do the same thing and had been there longer, and her Italian was better. And she basically helped me get through that first year like I remember she’d pass me her Clif Notes. She’d read all the books and take copious notes, and I’d study her notes because reading that fast in Italian, I didn’t quite have it when I first enrolled.
Then I learned how to take notes because the Italian university system is very much traditional lecture style. I had to get good enough to be able to understand and take notes in such a way I didn’t miss anything and read fast enough that I could do six books per course and get through the material.
So it was definitely an adventure, but it paid off, and I loved my experience there and got to work in the Italian elementary schools.
Nita Davanzo: That sounds amazing, Verita. Holy moly. And do you speak Italian at all?
Verita Perry: I do, but it’s hard because Spanish is more readily available. The girls, my two daughters, want to go to Italy where their mama lived, and we dream about taking a little family trip maybe for several weeks one summer and getting them in a little language school and getting back to it, because I really don’t get to use it, and it’s a little bit of a shame. But I know it’s back there, I would have to dust off the cobwebs.
Nita Davanzo: Yeah. I’m sure it would come back to you. Indeed. So Verita, you have all these different experiences of Waldorf education. As a student, as a teacher, and then now as a parent. From a trifecta, triangular, or a rainbow prism view of education, what do you value most about the education onto the light of student, onto the light of teacher, onto the light of a parent? It might be the same thing, it might be three different things.
Verita Perry: Well, I think I spoke to what touched me as a student, and it was really the modeling and nurturing from adults, as well as the curriculum content, and the amazing stories – I speak a lot about the stories, but even just the way the science was brought. It was always this invitation like, what is this about? Go further, look at it, what do you see? Everything was so enlivened.
I feel like that, for the students, as a student, really is what spoke to me–as well as the social, because you’re with the same classmates, you really get to work through things together and form bonds that they are, they’re lifelong and lasting. I’m in touch with a lot of my Boulder High friends occasionally, but they’re not my go-to people in the same way that my relationship with my Shining Mountain friends have continued to be so strong.
So there’s that social that also overlays what you’re learning and how you’re learning it, for a student. Then I feel like as a teacher, it really is the freedom to make things your own and to live into an experience the way you feel called to do. So that it’s almost like you’re a teacher in it, but you’re also a student because you have to learn the new curriculum every year, even if you’re going back and repeating. By the time you go back and repeat, it’s been a handful of years. So you really are learning along with them, so there’s that feeling, there’s constantly a challenge, it’s constantly an adventure, whether it’s the class and what they’re experiencing versus 9-year-olds, versus 7-year-olds, versus as 12-year-olds.
Or it’s the stories you have to bring, and as you get into the middle school, the scientific experiments you have to get them involved in. It’s always an adventure that way as well for a teacher, and I felt like that really spoke to me, that side of my personality that likes that always being on a journey and adventure.
And the artistic of course. Because I was a Waldorf graduate, I was the fine arts and visual arts, and music – it was all nurtured in me, so I could turn around and use that very easily as a Waldorf teacher and enjoy that aspect as well.
Nita Davanzo: Yeah, there are not many career opportunities where you can still play an instrument and sing, and be a visual artist, and be a storyteller, and be a theater director and a mathematician and a scientist, all in one day.
Verita Perry: Exactly. Yeah. I know. So it really does provide that. I think as a Waldorf teacher, it’s the renaissance human being that likes to dive into different aspects of human expression. Those type of people do well as Waldorf teachers and are drawn to it.
So that really fed me as well. Then as a parent, I would just say, knowing that my children are being surrounded by loving, caring individuals and following a seasonal experience that’s very rich and very deep. They don’t need to know the spiritual underpinnings but they feel it just by experiencing some of these festivals, like Advent spiral, and the waking up of spring and nature, and the spring Mayfair festival. It’s all happened for them in such a living way, even if purposely, they don’t understand why or how.
And I appreciate that they’re given that. As well as the community they get to be a part of and the friendships. So it’s nice, knowing that they get to have that experience.
Nita Davanzo: And they can share that in later years, talk back in it together, and continue those yearly rituals, and recognizing those different times and changes of the season.
Verita Perry: My girls, they’re still very innocent, my oldest is getting in 4th grade, so she’s definitely waking up more and more. But it’ll be fun to see as they get older, the more they understand and can articulate what the Waldorf experience is for them.
Nita Davanzo: Last question for you, Verita. You’ve been a part of the Waldorf educational movement now for some many years. How many years in total has it been? When did you first start teaching?
Verita Perry: I started teaching in 2005. So it’s been a while. Then if you include all the years as a student, it’s been decades.
Nita Davanzo: As a teacher, as a student, as a parent, what are some of the things you recognize or see in how it’s changing and how it’s developing, how do you see it possibly fitting into the future?
Verita Perry: Well, I think there’s so much about it that is just beautifully laid out by Steiner and perfect the way it is. And yet I do think that one of Steiner’s premise of what he laid out for the teachers in the movement was that it needed to be based on fluidity and flexibility, and the spiritual science he encourages teachers and that teachers today are still encouraged to take up, in terms of looking at the quality of what really is a human being beyond just our physical selves. But the biggest thing is being able to take charge and to look at each moment in a new way and what is that moment asking of you – what do you have before you and what is it asking of you. Whether it’s the class, or the experiment or the journey you’re going on, it really is something that I feel like the movement continues to need to do as well. I feel like they are.
In order for schools to keep their enrollment up, they are forced to look at the changing circumstances of, for example, the charter movement. That’s a whole new upspring of manifestation of Waldorf schools, the private schools need to look at and say, “Obviously some of our students will choose schools like that. What are we offering that’s different,” redefining themselves as private Waldorf schools and also looking to the world around them.
And as other even private school movements like Montessori and others, have been going along strong or sprout up I think it’s important for the teachers and administrators as well to just know what’s out there so they themselves can contrast, why are we doing what we’re doing? Always be able to answer that. And if you don’t know the answer for that, it might be okay to let it go.
Because I think there are some teachers in the Waldorf movement that are starting to write things about some of these Waldorf customs we have, like painting the rainbow through the grades. That wasn’t something Steiner necessarily said. And yet, you’ll have the painted rows in the kindergarten and 1st grade going all the way up through the indigo violet in 7th and 8th.
So that’s just one tiny example. But if things have become part of our cultural identification of “that’s what we do as a Waldorf school,” don’t be afraid to reevaluate. Even if Steiner had said it, which maybe in many cases he hadn’t. If we’re a Waldorf school, let’s look at that. Is that worthwhile in continuing, is it serving our students still?
Especially with our society at large, and a lot of the influences that even the parents that choose Waldorf decide to limit screen time and media, there’s still that frenetic intensity of our high paced society and its effects on all of us. So I feel like the students that are coming to us, we need to know how to meet their needs as well. Just always keeping that conversation alive, of how do we best meet the children of our times. And I think the Waldorf schools to be truly successful will continue to need to ask those more deep discerning questions.
Nita Davanzo: Meeting with the times as they are now, and not sitting back on your haunches, just watching everything else develop or progress, absolutely. Having that sense of reflection constantly of self, which all the Waldorf teachers always do. The meditation on the children, on their selves, and what they’re doing. And then certainly for the school as a whole to be looking at “where are we at? Why are we doing all those things?”And that’s hard. Holy moly. Self-reflection.
Verita Perry: It is hard. And it takes tough reflection and it takes courage, and especially as an institution. You don’t only have the dynamic of, I’m looking at myself, I’m looking within. You have to work with others they might have a different view of it. And how do you reconcile different viewpoints, someone who’s been there a long time with someone who’s just starting?
How does everyone together find a place at the table and really have their voice heard? It takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. It’s not easy work but it’s necessary.
Nita Davanzo: I feel like that is certainly the work of life in general.
Verita Perry: For sure.
Nita Davanzo: Verita, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate your insight as this trifold Waldorfian you are. Just courageous and brave, and curious and lovely human being.
Verita Perry: Thank you, I feel the same about you and think you for inviting me to this interview.
Nita Davanzo: Absolutely sweetie, take care and have a wonderful rest of your day.
Verita Perry: You too.
Nita Davanzo: Bye-bye.
Verita Perry: Bye.
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