I have long compared teaching to baseball. In baseball, arguably the greatest hitter ever, Ted Williams, hit .406, in 1941. That means Ted Williams failed more than half the time. It is the same for great schools and teaching. The best teachers and schools make their greatness over a long period of time, steadily, with many failures, but always persevering and rising to the top. Over time, .400 means sublime, steady greatness. So it is in teaching. Days and days and weeks and weeks go by. Project after project, presentations, writing, notes, problems, equations, experiments, plays, adventures, initiatives, field trips, older kids graduating, new students coming in. None of it is ever perfect, and one learns to learn from the difficulty of failing often.
The early years of the North Branch School were hard because we were learning what and who we were, which was, simply, a small group of people creating a school and community out of nearly nothing. We weren’t always sure what the next step should be. There were some moments of financial reckoning; a steep learning curve on raising money, building buildings, staging events, discovering and telling the story of the school. We drew on our experiences in education; we drew on the faith, goodwill, and humor of the families in the school. We drew on our board members, who supported each step, even when it wasn’t a 100% assured step.
We passed through our wobbly infancy into the school’s “elementary years.” Our identity, such as it is, began to emerge. We had our own building, field, and woods. The early students had an early hand in making the building as an expression of them. Jim Sanford, the architect, asked them, “How do you want to feel in your school?” The students generated words. “Safe, open, free, sunlight, durable, us, messy, natural, warm, cozy.” Gary Rutherford then built that building. It had sunlight, and you could see the old wooden structure that housed us, and it quickly filled with the spirit of kids who loved coming to a school where they could discover and express themselves.
Somewhere in the mid-2010s, we hit adolescence and our “teenage” years. We were pretty sure we knew what we were doing. We had a smooth(ish) running operation. Sometimes we didn’t, but we learned, and we were, so we thought, pretty cool. Still, the building was filled with the spirit of growth and adventure, and learning, and no year was like the one before.
As could be expected, some first big transitions arrived. After thirteen years of teaching math, Rose became the science teacher. We hired a new math teacher. These kinds of changes are not easy in a small school. Rose segued strongly into her science teaching, but we took some detours until Steve came along.
Then COVID hit. Suddenly it all felt new again. When I thought about running a school in the middle of a pandemic, all my earlier questions from the first years came rushing back: How can we possibly make this work? Will we survive? What in the Sam Hell are we doing?
With COVID, it was like we suddenly had a twig for a bat while trying to hit a bouncing pea—and we were seeing pitches that we’d never seen. But we did not fold. We determined that if we were going to have school on Zoom, or with social distancing precautions, or when we couldn’t see each other’s smiles or laughter, we would nevertheless carry on with verve and positivity and not ever giving up. We focused on the essentials: staying active, taking care of each other; having a sense of humor; remaining connected; using our time well; and not despairing. We made movies. We talked and wrote, a lot. We turned the basement into a sketchy clubhouse with faerie lights and Buddhist prayer flags and stuffed animals. When we had to, we had school outside, with campfires and snow-sculpture building and science labs in the snow, snow-shoeing, and meditation in the winter woods. We kept going, we kept trudging.
I would say the school batted .280 during COVID, whereas perhaps other schools batted .190. It wasn’t ideal, but we came through with strength and our core intact. We stayed true to our ideals—humor, closeness, fun, working hard.
Now, this year, our 22nd, we are feeling like we are on the other side of a long and difficult storm. We are back, we are together, we are strong. We learned, and we grew, even through a difficult time. We made it to the other shore. The ball looks big, and we are familiar with the pitches coming our way. When alums or alum parents ask me how the school is doing, my confident elevator speech goes thusly:
“It feels like we are back in the groove. The kids are working hard and in full possession of their community and creating the school as a reflection of themselves. We are laughing, we are in balance, we are working hard, and every day feels like an adventure. We know what we are doing, and we know that we can handle anything that comes our way, and we take advantage of every moment.”
What remains the same? The first days of school are filled with the thrill of expectation, the sense that we are launching on an important, fantastic journey. We still build sculptures at Lake Pleiad. We write place descriptions and speeches. Kids are drawing from nature in the woods for science. In the first labs, they are looking at protists and algae from the Burrito Pond. There are origami folding projects and presentations of Celtic knots in geometry and projects on number systems and Galileo and Katherine Johnson. There are the first projects, on Colonial women in education, or the Zong Massacre, or Frederick Douglass. We build sculptures, we draw, we play Gadzooks, we do skits about extracting essential oils through steam distillation. We build giant all-school sculptures by the bank of the North Branch River under the changing leaves. We hike over Moosalamoo, we look over the mountains and trees, we meditate and have our Tootsie pops, we swim in the cold river at the end. We ring the bell to begin class, and we read the morning poem.
Some rituals and traditions are growing and changing. Each fall, the Burning School now carries massive ritual significance, a marker of time and change and a communal prayer, a janky skeleton of wood that holds the personal, sacred, and singularity of each student. The ninth graders pick and recite a poem. The previous year’s alums ring the bell. The oldest alums light the fire. There are torches, starlight, and sparks in the dark sky. Some of those new to the school quip that all of this is “cult-like.” Others say, “This is what a school community should be.”
We sing “happy birthday” loudly. For a few years we shouted it like bellowing cows (we once nearly broke the internet shouting it over Zoom). Now it is marginally harmonious, with a few cha-cha-chas thrown in for spice, and then a cake is devoured and crumbs are all over the big room floor.
We still walk the labyrinth in silence—those brief moments when we are all in the middle of our individual journeys, but each of us at a different stage, each of us facing a different direction, closer or farther away, but still together.
We still put all the terrible ideas on the board while brainstorming for the play. Eventually, somehow, those terrible ideas turn into a coherent three-hour epic replete with song, satire, and truth woven through. We still write stories that open up the idea that each of us is on a journey of self-discovery. We still talk about love—trying to define it, make it, feel it, learning how to live it.
We have added dimensions–the meditation walks to the clearing on Chandler Hill. Up behind the school, through a steep slope of conifers, onto an old logging road, then a winding path under hardwoods. Along the way there is a massive, towering red oak, perhaps 85 feet tall, that seems to hold the hill in place. We sit in a ring on the highest knoll, whether there be tall dry grass, snow or rain, or tall meadow flowers in June. We read poems there, talk about our aspirations, talk about the best things.
We still talk and write about the best things: laughter in the halls of the school. The light shining through the dormer window, which casts rainbows of refracted light onto the floor, the big room table, and sometimes our faces. A poem read in the morning that speaks, miraculously, to our feelings. The sound of the birds, sometimes through the open door of the classroom, sometimes the sound of geese or crows over the Doug Walker Field. When we spent all morning helping a classmate who was struggling, and the students asking the questions, giving the wisdom. Someone crying, then laughing, as someone passes the tissues. Days of catching leaves in the October chill. The first firsts: “My first piece of writing to be read. My first drawing in my science journal. My first math test.” The days of first snowball fights, writing stories, the sound of fingers taping as the words pile up. Teaming up in math games, writing code, making games. The first “lasts.” “My last speech. My last Burning School. My ninth-grade play.” The awareness of the preciousness of time, the fleetingness of it. Learning to take care of what we are given.
Anticipation flows each day. Anticipating a lit class, or games of Red Rover or Knock-Out or Capture the Flag. Anticipating Peanut Sales presentations and Jeopardy and the play. Looking ahead to the Maypole, and dandelions in the spring and, distantly, even graduation. Anticipating those markers of growing up: thinking about schools for 10th grade, learner permits, a first job.
There is learning happening during all of this. But maybe better than learning is the growing. It never stops. We try not to make barriers, but let it flow and climb in the scaffolding that is the school. We are constantly looking at that growing, laughing through it, marveling at who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. We take it all seriously, and we relish the cosmic comedy of these wild discombobulated growing, gangly, searching young bodies of energy and aspiration.
There is only the loosest of lesson plans: to make this day new, this day great, this day alive, rich, and full. To bring energy and love to the process. To push to the farthest edge. To believe in trying, and trying again. And so it is as it always has been, this year building onto the last, growing out of it.
Occasionally an alum asks me, “Was our class the best ever? Weren’t we the best?” I always answer, “Of course! Your class and your years were glorious.” And then we reminisce about little memories and old times. “Remember when so-and-so did X, and wasn’t it crazy that day somewhere when…”
I do think about those moments of the past which, as Stephen Spender wrote, were “truly great.” But then I think again of his lines:
What is precious, is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.
Inside my mind, a deeper thought takes shape: “This year, this class, is the best ever. This one, happening right now, this morning’s simple light, this living moment! The growing and changing and learning is happening here, with us, today!”
It is work to keep something alive over time. Work and time are what make anything meaningful. For now, it is enough to be in the heart of it, wherever the heart is, in the essential delight, in these precious days when we can all be a part of something where the spirit flowers.