A life-skills innovator, Zachary Reznichek has figured out how to combine his long history of role-playing games with a Master’s in Education, teacher training, and producing artists.
He has shared his love of role-playing games with children in schools, homeschools, summer camps, and youth workshops with glowing success.
Developed as an extension of the Self Personal and Social Development Local Program at the English Montreal School Board in Quebec, the RPGs in Schools program has now been adapted it into the Wild Mind Training program for youth and adults.
I'm at a new school and for good reason. It wasn't going well. You see I'm nine years old and I'm at a private school—a French school. So I've got my white button-up shirt. I've got my maroon cravat. I've got my wool gray slacks. I'd love to have some new friends. So I walk into this courtyard, and I see some kids playing over on the wall. And as I walk over to them, my eyes widen because they've got paper and pencils and drawings and maps, and they've got these dice that look like gems.
And I say, "What are you doing here?" They say, "We're playing Dungeons and Dragons. You wanna play?" "Y-yeah." Now I didn't know what Dungeons and Dragons was. So I was like just happy to be accepted to do anything. And so they said, "Here. You can be this character." And then I was on a boat, and in one hand I had a sword. And with my other hand, I had the tiller, and we were going towards this island. And then I looked in the water, and I could see these gems in the coral. And there was a treasure chest and I wanted at it, and I just jumped over and into the water. And I swam, and I could get to the gems and the chest except for I was wearing thirty pounds of chain mail. And I couldn't get up out of the water. And I drowned to death.
And with tears in my eyes, I stumbled back away, and I was devastated. I didn't know what to do. My new friends, my new opportunity, my new school. It just felt like the world was crashing in on me.
To take you back a year . . . I woke up to pounding on the door, and I had a little peephole in my bedroom where I could look down and see the front door, and I could see a woman there, and she was screaming for help. And curiosity got the better of me, and I went down the stairs, and I followed her out to a man lying dead on the ground with blood pooling out all around him. And my dad turned and saw me. "Get back in the house!" I ran back in the house, and I went in under my sheets.
And that's when the nightmares started. "Mommy, don't go in there. Don't go in the closet. There's a witch in there. She's coming for you. She's coming for me. She knows you're here." My imagination had gotten the better of me, and everything every night was one nightmare after another.
So I went the next day, a year later, back to see those boys after a night of crying myself to sleep, and I sidled up to them, and I was like, "So I died. Is that it?" They said, "Oh, you wanna make a new character?" I was like, "Yes!" And that became this moment where I came alive, and a whole new world came out for me. And I found a new place for my imagination. My imagination a year before that felt like a curse. And every time I went to bed, I was so fearful. And I don't want to tell you that Dungeons and Dragons made my life better because life is what it is. And life offered me a lot of different opportunities to face challenges.
At ten years old, I was looking down into the coffin of one of my classmates. And I could see his white face, his cold body lying there. And at fourteen, I was hit with it again. One of my best friends had passed away, and it was announced at school while I was sitting there eating a bagel that just turned to sand in my mouth, as this was one of our brotherhood. This was one of the people who had gone on these journeys with me. We had slayed dragons. We had faced monsters. We had rescued damsels, and we had formed a brotherhood. And we had felt like we had connected with something.
And then there I was at fifteen, and I was standing on a balcony with my dad. And I was just telling him, "I just don't know if I can go through this anymore." I was so cynical. "I just don't know what it's worth. I don't get it. I don't know what we're doing here. I don't know what this planet is. It's for rent. You know, like, what am I doing? I feel like I'm in a Tron light cycle, and I'm racing with my friends inside of a giant machine, and we're trying to beat each other and cut each other off just to get jobs." And this is the way I was looking at the future. I'm trying to get myself into university. "Who can get in there?" It's like, "Why do I even wanna do this? What is the point? Why don't I just pitch myself over the railing right now?"
He talked me down from that ledge. And I carried with me this feeling of darkness. And it kept creeping back in on me. But I did have this imagination and this feeling that when I played role-playing games, there was something in the pain that my characters would go through that wouldn't stay with me. It was just in the game. Why was that? Why did I not mind the pain in the game, but in reality, it was so prevalent? It was so intense. And so, using my imagination, I thought, Well, why don't I role-play my own suicide? I didn't act it out. And I don't mean it in that way. I mean, in my mind, in my thoughts, like what would it be like if I just let everything go and just let go of all this intensity and let go of all these things that are haunting me because every time I was just getting upset. I was just getting anxious. And so I made a decision that day. "I'm committing suicide. I'm done. I'm finished. And I'm just gonna stick around to see what would've happened after."
And I'm standing before you here today, having manipulated myself. So that the next day when I woke up, I actually felt a lot lighter. And I walked up to that girl that I wanted to ask out, and I asked her out, and I went up to the bully in our tennis team who kept correcting how I was playing. And I told him, "Let the coach coach me. Stop riding me." And, you know, I also had to come clean with some of my friends. And I remember really clearly deciding, all right. And I went to a couple of different friends of mine, each on my own. And I said to them, "You know, remember I told you about that girl that I got together with last summer at camp? Well, I didn't, and actually, I'm still a virgin."
And it was really hard to do these things, but I started to feel lifted. And I had used my imagination to bring me to a new place. And role-playing stayed with me. It was always a place I could come back to. And I did when things got difficult, especially when I had a few long-term relationships. And in one of them, I just decided and said to her, "Look, let's get married. We don't have to get married like for real, but let's get married, you and I. Let's make our own vows. Let's commit not to leave each other. Let's commit not to walk out the door. Let's figure it out. Let's hash it out. Let's figure out what's going on—why I'm always trying to win in the relationship, and I'm hurting you. And I don't like that, and I don't want that anymore. And I wanna figure it out." And you know what? We got married for a year, and we renewed that vow for another year. And we stayed together for three years.
We made it work, and we worked it out, and we played it out. And when it didn't work anymore, it didn't, and we let it go. And it was okay. We were okay. She left, and she found love. And I left, and I found love. And she's still sitting here with me in my life twenty-one years later.
And you know, I've been trying to figure out how can I share this experience of role-playing and using our imagination in a positive way to uplift ourselves and to move forward in our lives.
And so I wrote a book. It's called the Teacher-Gamer Handbook, and I just want everyone to have it—adults, teachers, gamers, psychologists, educators, social workers, community leaders. These are all people that could benefit from this. But the real people who benefit from it are the kids. The kids who are trying to make their way in the world who don't have tools or who don't know how to imagine or use their tools of imagination to move themselves forward when they face tragedy, when they face upset, when they face heartbreak, when they face their identities, and they try to work through their pasts and their futures.
So I just want to share the joy and the gift that I've had of figuring this out. I feel like I'm very serious right now, but I wanna say to you that there's so much freedom that I found in it and fun and play and risk-taking. And there's so many things that are creative about it that I just wanna share.
And I took a really big risk myself actually, working in a public school, working in a very official environment—I brought meditation into the school. But I didn't ask if I could do it. I just did it. This was in an inner-city school in Canada, where the retention rate was 50%. So one out of two people by the end of the year dropped out of this school. And so, I just taught my students how to meditate and how to bring it into their lives so that they could just ground themselves and get to work and find a way to connect with themselves. And they did. They connected with themselves. They found a way to empathize with each other and the world around them. And they developed skills—life skills—and they went into their lives, and they started to crush it. And the retention rate of the school went up to 80%. Yeah, we quadrupled how many students were actually staying in the school.
And actually, from taking that risk, I got hired by a prominent globally recognized school—Green School. And that's how I got to this place where we are.
And I just want to be able to share that commitment, the commitment that I have to try and move education into a new realm of using our imagination. And that's risky because as an intellectual and as an academic, I know that people don't always appreciate imagination. They want to keep it really straight. They wanna keep it really straightforward. And I struggle with that. I try to figure it out because it's tricky. How do you bring imagination into school and make it legit? And I want that to be something that people can try. And so, I commit myself to bringing role-playing games into schools worldwide. I don't know how it's gonna go, but I'm gonna do my best. And you can count on me for it.