Making Eutopia


The second week of remote NBS is in the books (or screen). We are trying to see it for what it presents: possibility, a chance to try our skills at something different, the challenge to do it better than it’s been done. We’re dealt a hand of cards, we play the best ones we’ve got. Again, as ever, we find that the knitted fabric of togetherness and contact is the most important and most difficult element to sustain. But we are still connected, and there is joy and laughter in every class. We look forward to reading the kids’ comments in the meeting log every morning. We look forward to our classes. We look forward to signing off at the end of the day. The regular check-ins and the hundreds of pages of daily meeting comments  have made it feel as though we have some continuity. . When the kids say goodbye on Zoom at the end of each class, it has a special poignancy. We feel our having been with each other, and we are assured that we will be back together again the next day.

On Saturday Elise sent me a curated list of quotes that had been said, written, overheard, or copied down over the week, from Meeting comments to Zoom meetings to Google Chats to classes to books we’d read, videos watched or listened to.  Some of the quotes were from teachers, some were from students, some were from documentaries we showed. (See here ). Elise said that since we did not have Weekly Notes, this could serve as a sort of stand-in record. In essence, Elise looked at the situation and made an adaptation,  Over the years I have learned that when the kids start making something new out of something broken or old, then we are really doing it right. Whether it is making a play out of an old joke from October, or a church steeple out of screws and pine-boughs, or staging a wedding in the field with dresses made of butcher paper and burlaps sacks. Whether it is a sculpted face made out of bent wire or a game using a tarp that everyone learns or a perfectly set table for 29 people for a pizza feast. When the kids invent and those inventions are suffused with love and fun and joy, when a new tendril shoots out or a blossom emerges from the muck—those are the high points. Elise’s list is a new branch growing off what we are doing. When you read it you will see a smidgeon of the many fruits of just one week of school.

I reminded the kids over the last days that they had done everything they had needed to do as a class up to the point when we had to close the school. They had done it exactly right, according to the dictates of this year, these circumstances, this collection of humans. All of their mistakes, all our screw-ups, all our good days and bad days—all of it had fallen and played out exactly as it should have. The Nineties had led; the Eighties had stepped up; the Sevies had come into the school with vigor and courage. 

Having done this a fair long time now, I’ve come to know that certain occurrences at certain points in the year foretell certain outcomes. For instance, if there is a Ninth-grader who takes on the mantle of leading the building of the Burning School structure, and does that by incorporating seventh and eighth graders as “apprentices,” it’s going to be a great year. If older kids come in with their voices shaking and then cry in the first class on the first day when I ask, “How do you want to live?” we will have a higher degree of emotional openness and a deeper experience of learning. If the kids flock to the science room one day at lunch for some wild dancing and laughter around Rose’s table, and then the next day assemble in a large group the math room to receive the rules straight from Steve concerning the latest version of “Assassin;” and then on the third day the building because the entire school left at lunch to go play in the snow on the Hill, then the school is humming and all is going to plan. 

The corollary: if there are conflicts, tears, frustration, agitation, stubborn problems, and knotty dilemmas, and the kids are talking together about it, we are still going to get somewhere good. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we welcome creative tension. No growth or change can happen without tension. We find ourselves at an impasse. Currents of anger or fear or indecision may be present. Still, we gather together to examine it and let the feeling play out and be expressed. Listening, and moving carefully, sometimes achingly, we determine our needs and our options. We decide on how to move together. A new situation is born out of the old. We move and build again. It is not clean, it is not perfect, but we say that living in these difficult moments is as important as creating and living in joyful moments. 

So we are always on the lookout for these moments, good or bad, hard or easy. Some of these “indicators” happen at precise and predictable times. It is the day that the Fed Ex man walks into the room and asks me to sign for the shipment of toilet paper. I say to him, “I’ll have my associate sign. Greyson?”  Greyson looks around in terror and shock and points to himself, mouthing the words, “Me?”  “Yes, Greyson, you’re my associate, get your fanny over here and sign for this toilet paper.” From that day forward Greyson is more fully visible in the eyes of his classmates. The day of Burning School, Rose arrives in the science room to start making pizzas, and all the the ninth-grader are already there assmebled before her, with aprons on and music playing from a mini-speaker, the fire already lit in the bread oven. In the week before Thanksgiving, a ninth-grader will say, “Tal, when are we doing peanut sales!?” and then there will ensue a half-hour’s worth of reminiscing about the comedy of errors and surprise and hilarity about the previous two years’ Peanut Sales. In March a musical-minded student will say, “Should we start getting the music together for the play?” I will say, “Yes, you organize it and let everyone know.” These moments occur with such perfect regularity that I think of them as the stars in the constellation of our school year; I can know where we are and how far we have to go and our relative speed simply by their sudden and steady bright appearance week after week.

On the Tuesday before we closed the school, we had been in play rehearsal. Ezra was absent. Someone shouted, “Who’ll be Marge?” Marge was Ezra’s character. A chorus of shouts answered, “I will! I will!” “Oscar, you’re it!” I shouted. Oscar proceeded to bumble through Marge’s lines. It was impossibly comical. He didn’t know where to stand or which way to go or where to look. His ramshackle but determined imitation of Ezra’s Marge was ridiculously and perfectly awful and spectacularly free and uninhibited.  All twenty-five of us broke up laughing, doubled-over, breathless, red-faced, coughing, stomach-hurting laughter. Everyone laughing, together, at the same time, at the same thing, for the same reason. Not one iota malicious, and Oscar laughing the hardest. All mad joy, nobody on the outside, everyone on the inside, all of us together. It took a good two minutes to gather ourselves and reset the scene again. And then the laughing started all over.

This happens every year sometime in the middle of March. We’re down in the dark, dirty basement with our terrible play and our unfinished script, with the usual currents of irritation and frustration and chaotic un-doneness, and then through some mysterious cosmic predetermined order, the last vestiges of walls or veils between us dissolve, and we are all in the unity of understanding of our mutual and shared being. No one ever sees this but us. No audience, no parents, no graduation crowd. Never again is the play so funny as that moment, so perfectly timed, so true. 

I told the kids that that is eutopia. That moment when everyone is suddenly and naturally and unexpectedly stitched together. All the work of the months before. All the tension and arguments and fears and screw-ups and half-done work and all the good moments, too, now have their denouement, here in the basement at 2:48 pm on Tuesday under the chicken lights. Such a moment is not a miracle. It was made through work and time, and it arrived right when it was supposed to, and they lived it together. Those moments are brief and they are rare, but they had a taste of it.  And they will taste it again.

I told all of them that we will, no matter what, “end this year” in a way that is fitting and celebratory. We can’t know when that will be. But at the first suitable moment, at the first chance we can, we will assemble to celebrate our year and what was made and learned. And let’s be clear, the learning is still going on and in, and perhaps in deeper ways than we could imagine. We will gather somewhere. We will hike to the top of a mountain. We will light a raging bonfire. We will play a fully-costumed Wiffle Ball game; we will hold a graduation ceremony in which we will read our speeches and say thank you, thank you and goodbye to the ninth graders. 

In the meantime, we can only do what we can do and that is, simply, to stay together. This has been the essential teaching and learning in the last two weeks. It will have to be the central learning for the next many more weeks to come. We play the best cards we’re dealt. As Sam wrote in the meeting notes, we still have time.  “So we can’t just say it isn’t gonna happen. It might not be looking up. But if we don’t think positively then we won’t enjoy the time we have on this. We still got time on this. We have gotten so much better at it. And once we get fully ahold of it we are going to be professionals. So if this is what we got, we are going to be the best online school in the state.”  

We still have time, a lot of it, and we will try to use it as best as we can.

Weekly Notes–No, Wait, Weekly Quotes

Weekly Quotes. These were compiled by ninth-grader Elise Heppell from the last week of NBS online school. From classes, the meeting log, and other sources.


“The fire demons . . .” [starts coughing] – Grey, on a video call with Anika


“I don’t want to just go on through life doing nothing because that won’t get me anywhere, and I need to do more, I just don’t know what more there is to do. — Maggie, from part of her meeting comment in the morning

“I ran around the yard with Rusty in my fuzzy crocs and we chased the squirrels that were shocked by it snowing. ” — Sam; from part of his meeting comment in the morning

“’You can control your reactions to the world around you,’ I have said to a lot of people. It was time to take my own advice.” -—Steve, from part of his morning meeting comment

“I wanted to keep [Sasha] safe from everything. Even though he was older than me. I wanted him to be my little brother. So I could protect him from things. I did not want him to cry or get angry. I wanted him to be happy with what he does.”  — Dinara, I will let you guess on this one

“If you go to a store where they’re sold out of everything. There’s no flour, no bleach or anything, they will still have Grapenuts.” —Steve; in the ninth grade math class

“I think when you guys are feeling low it’s because you’re not connected to your gut power.” — Tal, in the ninth grade lit class

“My actors are busy at the moment.” —Luke, on the all-school google chat, stating his excuse for not having made a video for the NBS film contest yet.


“If you want to expand your mind, you have to push yourself. You have to elevate to another step. Find a new perspective.” — Tal, from part of his meeting comment this morning

“I think that is what photography means to me. It is just a vehicle that transports me to the time and place that I took the photo. I can remember what I was standing by, who I was talking to, and what my emotion was in most of the photos. It is something that I truly love to do, and I hope I can share the slideshow with all of you.” — Giles; from part of his meeting comment this morning

“Death by pufferfish.” —Steve; during the nineties’ math class, commenting on one of the ways to fail Viv’s Scratch game

“The comedians keep going.” — Tal, during the nineties’ class with him, talking about how it’s odd for him to talk into a computer and not have an audience, and that for comedians an audience is half of the performance.

The following are from MLK Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid . . . I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta” “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” “No one who lives in the United States can be considered an outsider” “In these workshops, we asked them, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?  Are you able to accept the realities of jail?’” “For years now I have heard ‘Wait’ . . . it rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity” “Our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny” “But what else can one do . . . but write long letters, think long thoughts, pray long prayers?”

“Today is the last day of freedom. As of tomorrow, everyone is officially put under a stay at home order.” —Celeste, from her afternoon meeting comment

“Wallace and Jasper, Lockdown Buddies.” —Rose; from her afternoon meeting comment, sharing a picture of the dogs lying on a rug together

“Celeste also shared her mom’s arm (as part of her skin project.)” — Rose, from her afternoon meeting comment

“I have hope every day that we will get to laugh like that with each other really really soon again, but for now, insane laughing like that feels really really good.” – Iris; from her afternoon meeting comment

“I feel like a dock post, and everything that’s happening, is just barnacling on to me and I want to be free of it. I guess in a way it might be a good thing that it is barnacling on to me, but there’s always something that’s not done or something that needs to be done that I haven’t done yet.” —Anika, from her afternoon meeting comment


“He was locating one of his own.  He was trying to locate humanity.” — Iris, during the nineties’ lit class, talking about McMurphy singing in the bathroom one morning

“Sam, you’re speaking out of a robot’s ass.” —Nate and Tal, during the nineties’ lit class, commenting on Sam’s speaker sounding strange and not working

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to hate my parents, and love my phone more than love itself, but for the time being, I have the space to be whatever I want at North Branch, and I chose to play with Beyblades with my class. I chose to play manhunt in the woods, and carve pumpkins for Halloween. I chose to strain myself working on the play and writing stories about love. I chose to jump off cliffs into the water, and I chose to dance in the light.” — Iris; the last sentences of her three-part story, which she sent to the ninth graders to read

“I think we all have a base understanding that we shouldn’t settle for going small.” — Tal; in his afternoon meeting comment

Quotes from MLK Jr’s The Drum Major Instinct speech: “Let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance, that same desire for attention, that same desire to be first” “We all have the drum major instinct; we all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade . . . and this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive, for human, human life” “Everybody likes [praise] as a matter of fact, and somehow this warm glow we feel when we are praised, or when our name is in print, is something of the vitamin A to our egos” “this perverted use of the drum major instinct led to the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man” “they have 20 megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds with everybody wiped away and every building and we can do the same thing to Russia and China! . . . nations are caught up with the drum major instinct” “[Jesus] said it’s a good instinct if you use it right, if you don’t distort it” “[Jesus said] keep feeling the need for being first, but I want you to be first in love, I want you to be first in moral excellence, I want you to be first in generosity” “true greatness comes  not by favoritism but by fitness” “I want to leave a committed life behind”


“I guess the best thing to do now though is to just focus on today.” —Isabelle; from her morning meeting comment

I want to get to the point where people say of my work, “that man feels deeply.” —Van Gogh, in a letter to brother Theo, from the Van Gogh documentary Tal showed in his class

“No one was buying his painting . . . but he kept a belief that he was doing what he needed to do.” — Tal, talking while pausing the documentary

“I think he used himself as a model to try different styles.” -—one of the speakers from the Van Gogh documentary

“It still doesn’t feel real that we might not have school at school again. It seems so completely impossible. But we never know what is going to happen. It is going to be terrible if we don’t get back. But we still have time. So we can’t just say it isn’t gonna happen. It might not be looking up. But if we don’t think positively about anything then we won’t enjoy the time we have. We still got time on this. We have gotten so much better at it. And once we get fully ahold of it we are going to be professionals. So if this is what we got. We are going to be the best online school in the state. We aren’t going to be like my dad’s students and not care and be happy school is over. This is going to be the best online school ever. So everyone full send into this. We never know what is going to happen. Just don’t give up at this because of what is happening.” — Sam, his afternoon meeting comment

“It is good from time to time to think about what your mind dwells in and ask if it is dwelling in the best places possible.” —Tal; from his afternoon meeting comment

NBS Survives First Week of Internet School

Below is the weekly note I write to the school community:
        We want to thank you for your patience, forbearance, support, encouragement, and humor as we try to shift NBS to on-line and keep up with some meaningful school and connections between us all. Our goal is to try to replicate the NBS experience as much as humanly and technologically possible. After one week we feel that, while imperfect and limited at best, we nevertheless created a more than a passable version of an online school.
        We do not know how long we will need to do this. As I mentioned before, we are preparing for the worst, hoping for the best, and have a reasonable belief that we will find ourselves somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.IMG_5515.jpg
(some of Jacques’paintings)
         To be sure, we are aware that the nature of the North Branch School has built-in advantages that other school systems do not have given the circumstances. First of all, we are small, not a system, but a community. This has made for relatively speedy and easy communication and has allowed us to move about like a little water strider racing gracefully over the waters relative to other schools. As important, our students are in safe homes, have food, support, and have the necessary technological means to do what we are trying to do. We also have a small and closely-knit community. Parents, teachers, and kids are uniformly motivated, committed, and giving best effort. When these factors are all in place, the chance for success is high.
        (Iris working in her field journal)
IMG_1844[692] (1).jpg(Oscar skinning up Mad River)
       I was saying to Rose that had we had to do this in September it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible. Had it happened then, we would not have had time to build the necessary connections between us and the kids and the families, and the kids would not have already built their connections to each other. We would have been split asunder before we had created the lines of understanding and affection that are necessary for any learning community.
        As it is we were just coming into that place where all our year’s work as a school was going to bear fruit. I have to believe that all the work we did through the longs months of fall and winter made it so that we were, in all the essential ways, ready for this. I have full belief that we will stay together and keep going together. I have full belief that when we get together again, we and the school will be whole and intact.
         During the last eight or so days, we teachers have watched and listened to the kids processing events. From despair and disappointment over losing “their year” and their work to various intensities of frustration, anger, irritation, disorientation, grouchiness, confusion, worry, resignation, disillusionment, loss and grieving—all of these feelings and states of mind have been transmitted clearly and openly in their morning meeting comments.

          At the same time, the meeting comments have been filled with jewels. Humor, comedy, hope, ambition, solidarity, support, continuity, life advice,  empathy, responsiveness, care, responsibility, timeliness, delight, encouragement, cooperation, teamwork, unity, patience, determination—all of these have poured forth to and from the kids each morning and afternoon, with side commentary in the column to the right of the regular meeting comments, and an on-going Monty Python-esque dialogue of pith and insane silliness extending into the All-School Google chat.unnamed-3.jpg (Sam’s two-pound loaf)


          Essentially, what we have seen is that the kids learned—a LOT—over the course of the year, and what they learned is, to the degree possible, carrying us through.
          As Geeta wrote on Friday: “We can do it, this week really showed that we can get through it. Like I’ve been saying every single day. I have to come up with ways to get through it. But I will. I always think of the saying my grandma used to say to me when I was little that her mother used to say to her. “It’s not the end of the world” (just imagine that in a Jewish accent) so I keep telling myself that.
          Some silver-linings. We all get to see each other in new ways. The very first morning, we saw Grey on his black couch, chasing his sister’s bird, which had escaped its cage. We heard Maggie slurping on her seltzer. We saw Sam’s Nerf Gun collection on his pegboard. We saw Nate’s Liverpool flag and Axel’s Dutch flag. Celeste with her head-set and microphone, looking like the DJ of Bristol. We saw Dinara in the basement with her dad’s amplifier and Sasha’s drums. We saw Isabelle with her zodiac tapestry on her wall behind her and Jholai at her kitchen table. We saw Eli in his parachute fort and Nate on his trampoline and Giles loading logs into his stove and we saw Finley in his mudroom. We saw Finn’s pet rabbit, Axel’s magnetic stress beads and Anika’s desk calendar, and Finley’s rupee collection. We saw Iris and Maggie’s brother Toby saying “hi” and Declan’s dog Soso.
          Because the kids are at home, other possibilities opened up: Jholai took a long walk with her sister. Oscar skinned up Mad River. Sam baked bread and built a Salmon Ladder. Vivian took a walk and found a wood frog in the leaf litter that was bright orange. Maggie sat by a stream lost in thought. Declan took a ride on his four-wheeler and saw the mother deer and her yearling that he had seen last spring. While walking Declan found a perfect owl pellet, which he later dissected. Iris sat and drew in her field journal. Finley made paintings with Una and his little sister. Jacques painted three watercolor portraits. Eli played Taboo with his family. The Howell and Mayer families set up inter-family competitions, including who could dress up their dogs in the best St. Patrick’s Day costume. Axel explored up in “the forbidden forest,” the hill behind his house. Finn went for a run with mom and visited an old fort he built which he discovered was still standing two years later. Giles took his (and honorary NBS) dog Blue on a walk and studied Blue’s movements and behavior. Anika talked to an old friend. Jonah said he had more in-depth conversations with his family and Nate and Jonah went on a muddy mountain bike ride on the trails and roads of Lincoln. Vivian baked a birthday cake for her mom and then her family shot of “legal” fireworks into the dark night. Declan hiked into the woods where he used to walk with his dad in the fields behind his house and listened to the quietness. Sam made soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day and painted the downstairs room with his mom. Steve, or “Professor Holmes,” took his brood on a long PE hike to Silver Lake and then made a website called “Quarantine University–QU.”  Jholai played Snakes and Ladders with her family and found herself laughing uncontrollably. “All this laughing felt good.” Celeste worked on improving her crystal storage system because she has “been a very bad crystal mama.” Iris went running. Rose got out her art supplies and made a quarantine bedroom for her son Jared in our shop. Eli went on long walks with his family. Elise wove a trivet out of grape-vines. She went for a long walk with Anika and took approximately 17,000 photos of spring returning and the small pebbles she collected. Geeta made tea with her grandmothers while using her Aroosh Indian accent and made them fall over laughing. Then she remembered an old recipe for cleaning pots (lime and salt) and cleaned two old pots. Tal saw a robin.
         There is so much still going on that is life. There’s a chainsaw buzzing in the woods as I write this. The sun is out, the daffodils are just breaking through.
         During the week we wrote and read our feelings. We made jokes. We did Scratch, made graphs, wrote in Field Journals, learned about bone health, muscle growth and atrophy (very important now), learned about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963 and watched a documentary about it. We had lit class, we experimented with meeting technology, we posted pictures, we wrote scenes, we laughed into the computer screen, there were math classes and we drew apples and eggs. As much as possible, it felt like we are still going.
         In the documentary of the Children’s Crusade, we saw pictures of the children being carted away in paddy wagons. We saw footage of them singing in the streets, dancing with each other under the firehoses, arms linked, laughing and shouting from behind the bars of Birmingham’s jails. If there was ever an inspirational message for us this was it. The irrepressible, indestructive human spirit. Persevering in spite of circumstance.
         But there is no doubt the kids are missing that animal closeness they need and crave. They have a ceaseless, indefatigable hunger for human connection. They want to play, run, wrestle, and hug each other. They want to see and find themselves among a community of others who love, understand and accept them and where they can learn to love, understand, and accept others. This enforced isolation is making us more aware than ever that our school is built around these ideas of human community and bringing kids into it and sending them out to do big things.
        On the last day of school, I told the kids about Henri Matisse, the great French painter. When Matisse was nineteen, he was unhappily training to become a lawyer. Then he was struck down by sickness and was bed-ridden for a year. While laid up, someone gave him a box of paints and he began painting as he lay in his bed. By the time he was well, he had decided that he wanted to be a painter and to this task, he devoted his entire life. When he was aged, he was again bed-ridden, but he kept on painting. He had assistants pin large sheets on his walls and attach ink brushes or charcoal to a long bamboo limb. He then lay in his bed and continued to draw, and he drew magnificent line drawings of fish and other animals and water and swimmers and dancers. The life in him never left, but kept on coming out.
         It’s also instructive that the window played a huge part in his work throughout his life. When could not go out, he painted both what was inside his room as well as what he could see out of it. He might be looking at the Notre-Dame or the boats in the harbor of Coulloires or palm trees of Tangiers, but he cast his view outwards and brought the outside in. He was not limited by enclosure. His view was broad, brilliant, and expansive.
           I am hoping we can keep this kind of mindset for these coming weeks. Keep looking for color and life all around. Be active, even if you are laid up. We’ll stride forward this week and see what else we can create.
          Tal, Rose, and Steve

NBS Sets Up Remote School During Pandemic

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Due to COVID-19, we moved to remote learning on March 13. Below is some of what we have done and are doing.

Highlights from the first NBS online Morning Meeting:

Isabelle, March 13, 8:55

       When I read the email that was sent on Wednesday night, it felt almost as if a snow day was being called. I was disappointed, but it didn’t seem real. I couldn’t imagine having to do everything online and not being able to see and talk and interact with everyone every day. I didn’t want to think about it too much and so I kept myself as busy as I could. I cut fabric patterns for a shirt my mom is going to teach me how to sew, I read The Shell Collector, I wrote, I made lists, I put pictures up on a corkboard, I practiced piano, I checked the updates on the virus, I checked my email and the google chat, I did a Khan academy assignment, I cleaned my room. But throughout the day, there was an underlying feeling, the same feeling that I get when I am absorbed in a book and things aren’t going well for the characters, but I can just look away from the book and all of that will disappear and I will be in my own life once again. I felt as though I was in a story that was not my own, and if I just looked away, then I would realize that everything was actually fine and normal and I would see everybody after the weekend. But then I would remember that I didn’t know when I would see everybody again.

        Throughout the day, there were various phases of optimism and hopelessness. On one hand, I thought this could be an interesting opportunity. Maybe something great will come out of this that would never have happened otherwise. Maybe this will strengthen our connection to each other and this will be something we will always remember. But on the other hand, I thought about everything that wouldn’t happen. I thought about only being able to see each other through pixels on a screen. I thought about watching people dance in the science room and the sound and laughter and light that the school is usually so filled with. And then I thought about how the school must look now, all dark and far too silent. Ramen packets and snow pants still in cubbies, shoes strewn around the floor, posters up, math sheets in a box on the piano as if we had all hoped to come back the very next day.

Jholai/March 13, 8:34

     I had walked out to my mom’s car on Wednesday with a smile on my face since I had just hugged everyone and had said goodbye. It reminded me of graduation last year with all the goodbyes and tears except I felt extremely happy. I was thinking of how far I had come since last year. Even with school and my connection with my mom who was sad when I told her the news. She then began to talk about how this would mean we would have to isolate ourselves and we would get to spend more time all together, as a family. I thought about going skating with her and my sister that weekend and us all linking hands and skating together, falling and laughing. There would be more time to do these things.

Giles: Meeting comment. Monday, 8:45 Am

             As I sat in my house the Thursday that school had been announced closed, life seemed to have slowed to a halt. I sat contorted on my couch, a drink out in front of me, and no one was going to move me from that spot. I lazed for a long while, my movie blared on, and for some reason, I had no motivation to make myself useful with my time.

So I sat, and after some time of sitting, my phone buzzed. I picked it up and on the screen showed the name Finley Kaeck. Surprised, I opened it. There stood the words, “I was wondering if you were still sugaring if you are, could I join?”

         I had not started sugaring. I had not done anything. I had wasted most of my day, out of grief for my school, as well as just lack of energy. I responded yes.

        Fifteen minutes later Finley was at my door. And approximately fifteen seconds later he made his way up to the boiler where I stood. The fire was in the making. Paper was strewn about the inside of the boiler, and wood was laid on top of that. We poured some diesel full on top of all of the materials, and lit the fire that would at some point, make sugar.

        We stood, and stoked, and not so much laughed and goofed off, as we did talk about how disappointed we were, not being able to go to the place that we loved. We agreed, with empathy, how much we felt for the nineties. Not being able to have every minute of their last NBS year.

        Finley told me throughout the process, that he felt like the school was getting to a really good place, and we were just leaving at its climax. I agreed.

         School was feeling like it was really heating up, and then someone, the all-powerful someone (god perhaps), just took the fuel out from under us and let us fall. I miss being at school, but having Finley with me was just about the greatest thing that could have happened to me that day. Emptying buckets and talking about school. It felt like we were really together.

Revelations of Divine Acorns, Toiling and Digging Deeper

Bob the Dog had shown up again at the school.

Bob was an ever-roaming and indefatigable Australian border collie, known to turn up at strange times in strange places all over the town of Ripton. Often he’d be observed trotting down the middle of a snowy mountain road or waiting at a back door with a stick in his teeth.

Bob was also a member of an original NBS family, the Allens, whose three children, Sophie, Walker, and Lydia had attended the school. Mia was a co-founder and the only chairperson of the board the North Branch School had ever had.

I called the Allens to tell them we had Bob. When Freeman showed up later to collect him, he’d brought with him books for our school library. One was a volume of Isaac Asimov short stories.  The other was a small, brown, side-stitched chapbook, from an 1969 edition of 400 by Spiral Press. In it were only five pages, a poem by Frost called “One Favored Acorn,” published on the occasion of the dedication of the Robert Frost Cabin and Homer Noble farm, where Frost had spent many summers. Freeman had been at the dedication and had two copies and so was donating one to the school. 

The poem was not in Frost’s Collected Poems. I had never seen it before or even heard of it. Holding the slim volume was like having picked up a rare treasure. Ten stanzas, thirty lines dropping down the pages in perfect terza rima.

That afternoon I told the class about the poem and held the volume up to show them. 

“Can we hear it?” Liam asked. I explained about how terza rima worked and then I read it.

More than a million seed
Most of which must fail
And go for squirrel feed.

Some had got themselves hurled
On the equinoctial gale
Far out into the world.

Some when the wind was still
Had fallen plummet direct
(but may have bounced down hill).

In a hollow some lay in a heap
Not knowing what to expect
Two or three acorns deep.

Already at one extreme
By autumn dampness’ aid
Some were showing a toothlike gleam

What might have been a fuse
To some small devil grenade
Fat-loaded ready to use.

All that mast must perish
Unless I should intervene
And pick one up to cherish.

I might plant one in a yard
To alter a village scene
And be of long regard.

But whether with faithfully shut
Or intelligently open eyes
I wished I could choose a nut

That would be most appreciative
And would feel the most surprise.
At being allowed to live.

Nothing much happened after I read it. We talked briefly about what it might mean. What’s he saying about the “toothlike gleam?You never know what will happen. Chance or conscious decision may bear fruit one day.  Maybe it’s about wanting to live on after you die. Life is precious. We have a chance to live.

The afternoon passed, the day ended, the students went home. As always, I had no idea what if anything might have gone in, what seeds germinating, what fuses lit. That night I awoke and remembered the poem. I thought of that toothlike gleam; I could see the whiteness shining in the dark. I recalled how I had once picked up oak acorns from a litter of wet leaves to see the smoothe taproots finding their way into the earth, each one a possible life just beginning.


We were studying religion throughout that year. The idea of heaven and hell came up frequently. Was there a heaven or hell after this worldly life? Most of the kids in class said they did not believe in either place.

“What if we say there is no hell after life, but only hell in life,” I proposed. “If that was the case, what would comprise your own personal hell? What would ‘hell in life’ be?”

“Mine would be what I wrote in my place description,” said Marley.  She had recently written a short piece about fear of death, the fear of darkness, of not being able to sleep, of fearing to wake up and have everyone gone, or even waking up grumpy and tired, and only ever seeing the clock turn slowly and being so tired and scared to face the day. It was a description of an adolescent beginning to face the world alone. 

“Let’s try that,” I said. “Let’s do what Marley did and all try to write what our own hells are. Get your writing utensils and a sheet of parchment. Or you can use your typer.”  After a minute of rustling and clearing the table, the room settled into quiet. Only the sound of pencils or fingers clicking on keyboards.

We spent the rest of the afternoon reading what we had written. Every kid in the room had “hellish” feelings which constantly collided into others, created conflicts and misunderstanding. For many, these undesirable states were seemingly always there, controlling instead of being controlled. The hell of always fighting or too much fighting with parents or siblings; of not knowing what to say; of feeling like a failure; of not wanting to be in the crowd, or wanting too much to be in the crowd; of being alone; of wondering: does anyone care about me? Do I matter? Of not understanding what is going on; of being afraid to ask a question or of saying something true; of feeling trapped. Guilty. Lying. Being bored, wrong, empty, greedy; the fear of silence, of wanting big thoughts, or not having them; of having big thoughts and being frightened; of not being liked or noticed or good. Over and over, the theme of wondering if one made a difference, if one mattered, if the universe held us each apart and alone.

Later I read Julian of Norwich’s prayer which begins: “Be a gardener;/ Dig a ditch; /toil and sweat, /and turn the earth upside down/ and seek the deepness and water the plants in time.” If education was anything, it was about upending the surface of things and planting, inculcating a belief in work and beauty to come. I wanted them to remember Frost’s single acorn, to have faith in what could be born and what might come to be one day. I often had to tell this to myself: my work matters. I’m given a few seasons and a few favored acorns, these few students. I toil in darkness. I try to cherish them and hope they are well-rooted, that they will outlive me and alter the village scene and the world after.

Like most days, we did not come to answers or conclusions. The questing and the questioning rolled on out of one day and into the next. Like a sequence of interlocking rhymes, we picked up one unfinished thought and started a new one. The gift of understanding would not appear on this day but in ten thousand days to follow.


That night I could not sleep again. I thought of the day’s classes, the conversations, the half-thoughts, the unresolved issues, the simmering conflicts, the ongoing struggles. I thought of the world, too, with its violence and suffering, assassinations and corruptions and deprivations, its injustices and coarseness and vulgar arguments over truth and fact.  I lay in the dark asking: “How is it likely to get better?  How is it likely to change?”

In the morning light, I woke and heard words echoing in my head, like someone calling from another room, reminding me. The lines were from Frost’s “Birches.” “Earth’s the right place for love:/ I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I left the house that morning, the words of the poet trying to make me see. I tried to work out the dialogue in my head. We know, or we are trying to know, that the only place it can go better is here. There is no other world. This place, this time, this day. Heaven or hell—either way, I could make something only now. The only way I could face my students was with my eyes faithfully shut or intelligently open. Sitting among them was the only where I could be. We had to try to make it go better.

And then, some days later, I was sorting through drawings that the kids had made in science class while they watched a film about the inquisition of Galileo. The pictures were meant to show in symbolic images what science could learn from religion, and what religion could learn from science. Crude or expert drawings of candles, the Greek symbols for alpha and omega, volcanoes, rivers, trees, ladders, crucifixes, altars, a pair of praying hands, stairways, eyes, lightning, constellations, swords, snakes and dogs—scattered and scrawled depictions of a child’s emerging sense of the cosmos.  One of the students had drawn a picture of a candle and a scale. Above, the words, “eyes faithfully shut or intelligently open” were written boldly and brightly, as though announcing to us or reminding herself that in exchange for being allowed to live we must hold these two poles in balance; as though to say we must learn to walk ever so tenderly and hopefully under the old trees and among flickering candles, cherishing both paths and both kinds of vision.

Later that week I was reading through character sketches the kids had written. One of the sketches, about the writer’s dad, ended with these lines: I want to love, play and laugh with him. I want to get the bond between us stronger; I want to appreciate him more.  I want to learn from him, and always tell the truth. I don’t want to upset him. I want to make him proud…I want to be that special acorn to him who appreciates where I am and that I am living. I want to be the best acorn to him.”

As I read it to the class I felt something inside me moving. My own voice quivered and my own eyes filled. This child, who proclaimed her dream to be the best acorn, was right here, listening and speaking, in the molder of the day, among all the other ones with their taproots just beginning to seek for the depths. She was seeing the possibilities before her. I am living, she said. She did not want all that to perish. That was a beauty and mast we could keep.

To Live in the Along

      It’s well below zero degrees and rains of a January thaw have pooled and iced over the Doug Walker Field. We’re still waiting for snow. When I walk into the school on this dark morning a few students are milling around the big table. Nate is talking about the Liverpool Football Club with Oscar. Eli excitedly shows me a pile of old Wall Street Journals, and he wants me to check out a fascinating story about a major art heist in Germany. My eye flashes over a headline that says something about the rise of authoritarianism around the globe. I am thinking about the previous night, when I couldn’t sleep, due to having read too many news articles on the fires in Australia and the assassination of an Iranian general. And in the morning, after that sleepless night, I hear from a parent whose daughter’s friend has committed suicide. These factors have my heart pounding. I am on edge. And the whole day is before me, twenty-five adolescents, seven hours, and the goal to make good things happen.
       I am trying to think about the three chapters of I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings we are going to discuss in an hour. I am thinking of how I am going to show the seventh graders slides of Michelangelo’s “David” to try to understand how an artist changed the world with a revolutionary vision. I want them to pay attention to the size of the hands and David’s gaze at the moment he contemplates entering the battle. I am thinking about Iris’ project from the day before when she taught us about the poetry of Georgia Douglass Johnson. I am thinking about whether the other kids in the class learned anything about the Harlem Renaissance. Did the poetry of the women of the Harlem Renaissance matter to them? Was it knowledge they might fold into their thoughts and deeds? I am thinking of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” It sounds easy, but it’s not. How will we school them today to have both intelligence and character?
       The ACTR bus has just arrived.  I hear loud yelling in the entry. Hugs and laughter. A clattering of stomping boots and rustling coats. The school is waking up. Someone has gotten braces or someone else got a hair cut.  At the big room table, Nate is looking through the Vermont State Driver’s Manual and Ezra is poking him in the shoulder. I am thinking, Over one billion animals have just burned up in Australia, and there is a possibility we are about to bumble our way into another war in the Mid-East. Anika is sitting quietly and Finley is doodling in his notebook. Other students are hugging and shouting about something that someone said yesterday and laughing uproariously.
       I am thinking: What will come from me today and go into them? What part of what I am doing will be important? How much pressure can I bring to bear to make them see or know or feel new thoughts? What will be important to them today? I have to muster my energy to bring them to ideas and concepts which may or may not interest them in the least.
      None of them are thinking about fires in Australia or drone strikes in Bagdad.
       There are times in teaching when the whole project seems impossible. Too many distractions. Too many things to learn about and not enough time. We should watch the film, “Hidden Figures,” since Isabelle presented a project on it. But do we have time? I want to show them King’s entire speech from the March on Washington, but there is so much to unpack. The words “interposition” and “nullification” echo in my head and I do a quick calculation of how much energy and time it might take to explain those terms. There is a play the whole school is trying to write. Some of the kids need to be set up with Nordic ski equipment. I need to read and edit Oscar’s weekly notes, which he sent to me late last night, all 3,919 words he’s written about the week previous. There’s a field trip to Middlebury College on Friday where will be dissecting sheep hearts. Rose has told me there are five students who don’t want to touch the hearts. Part of me wants to raise hell about this. Leonardo Da Vinci dissected forty human cadavers over the course of his life in order to understand human anatomy: why can’t these kids be excited to look at the hearts of sheep? We have lives that are only so long. We only have so many chances to understand what we are, where we came from. So by all means, and for the sake of your own life, take the scalpel in hand and start looking into the heart in front of you!
       Before the field trip, I read them an essay by Brian Doyle called “Joyas Voladoras.” It’s a comparison of the hummingbird’s heart—which is the size of a pencil point—to that of the blue whale, which is bigger than a room. These two animal hearts are then compared to our own. But a single fact remains true for all of us, animals and humans: we all have an estimated two billion heartbeats allotted to us in a lifetime. Our hearts may beat slowly, Doyle writes, like the tortoise, and we can live to be 200 years old. Or our heart beats ten times a second, like the heart of a hummingbird, and we can live for two years. We have a lifetime given to us that can be measured in heartbeats. We have 170 days, give or take, to make a memorable year in our school, to shape both intelligence and character.
       I tell them about Hadley, a girl who attended our school whose dad, Bud, had a heart that failed. When he died, we planted a tree at the school in his memory. The spring after he died, Hadley came back to tell us about it. She’d graduated, but she wanted to come and sit around the big-room table again and talk about Bud with the whole school. Many of the kids in the room knew Hadley and her dad. Many did not. It didn’t matter, though. These matters of the heart were something everyone could feel and understand, and they all listened as Hadley laughed and cried. I read the class the poem by e.e. cummings inscribed on a plaque by the tree that we had planted for Bud: here is the deepest secret nobody knows/ (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud/ and the sky of the sky of a tree called life.
       With the news of fires and bombs raining down and children who commit suicide, I find my spirit sagging. When the noisy shouting of adolescents seems indecipherable, when they are wrapped up in the blissful ignorance and joy of being children, when the sky is steel gray and the sun has not shone for a fortnight, I try to remember that one of my central roles is to keep the blood moving in this little heart of a school. This goes alongside ushering them through long novels, correcting their stories, imparting bits of history, helping them understand what the U.S. Constitution is meant to do. I tell them about Wilma Rudolph. You can overcome any defect or disease. You can become the fastest in the world. I tell them they have two billion heartbeats to spend. Feel all that you can, and have a strong heart. I tell them about Frederick Douglass, whose biography I am reading, a few pages each night. Mobs showed up at his lectures. He was called the vilest names you can imagine. He was attacked and pelted with rotting food and run out of town. He gave speeches in empty rooms and to three thousand. He stood on the outskirts of town and preached in the darkness among a grove of trees. Keep talking, even when it seems not one other person in the world is listening.
      Then I think, I do not have a right to give up. These kids, they do need to feel hopeful. They don’t yet know all of what is in the world. I have to give it to them in truth, honestly, but with hope. I remember the story about the Dutch pacifist, A.J. Muste, who stood in front of the White House in protest of the Vietnam war holding a single candle. “Do you really believe standing out here with one candle will change the world?” he was reportedly asked by a journalist. “Oh no,” Muste replied, “I don’t do it to change the world, I do it so the world won’t change me!”
       I have felt myself being changed by the world outside of me these last few years. I have heard words and watched actions from our leaders which have made me feel hopeless, disheartened, enraged. I am learning that when I feel this way, the most useful thing I can do is direct my attention to the Good. Where is the Good that I can grasp onto? Who has done Good? Who keeps doing good? I say this, knowing that none of us has a single heartbeat to waste. Countee Cullen, a gay, black man in the 1930s whose partner was a white man, sang his poems to his nation and was not afraid. Emily Davidson placed herself in front of the king’s horse. British suffragettes suffered broken teeth, vomiting, bleeding and choking when they were force-fed during hunger strikes. Frederick Douglass fought his brutal overseer until his overseer gave up.
       On the days that drag, or on the days that drag us down, we have to look for glints of light where we can. If there is a flash of movement in the limbs, we must catch it while we can. Later in the morning, at the end of meeting, I ask who has a poem to read to the class.
      “I do,” says Maggie. I had earlier given her a collection of poems that had been displayed on the subways of London and New York.
      She opens the book to a marked page, then reads a short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize.

       Say to them,
       say to the down-keepers,
       the sun-slappers,
       the self-soilers,
       the harmony-hushers,
       “even if you are not ready for day
       it cannot always be night.”
       You will be right.
       For that is the hard home-run.

       Live not for battles won.
       Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
       Live in the along.

       I keep my head down while I listen. As noise rises and friction of the day heats up, this may be what passes for a blessing. Live not for battles won. We have long hours and months ahead. My sphere of influence is at this table, in this room, with these souls, who are on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, just before they open their wings. I want them to love the truth that they can know and learn, that they must. I want them to learn to become desperate and impatient for what they don’t know, to be willing to be uncomfortable because comfort is not important.  I can teach them about poetry or a prophet like Douglass. But more than that. I want them to want to know all the chambers of the heart. There is something to explore in that. It may end at two billion beats, but there is still so much. There is the Great Migration, and Robert Smalls, and Katherine Johnson, and Sally Hemmings. There is a flower in the hand of the slain warrior in Picasso’s “Guernica.” There is the snaking vein Michelangelo sculpted into David’s hand, the blood moving in him. That is the hand of a man who walked into battle unarmoured, with belief and fearlessness, his heart steady and sure. I am thinking of Bud’s tree outside shivering in the wind. We have our hands and our beliefs and the wind blows over us. We have our eyes looking forward. I want my heart all the way in it and I want to feel the terrible or beautiful meaning of what happens. This morning I want to feel changed and I don’t ever want to be changed.


From Sierra Leone to Appomattox: Of Frogs and Bees, and Heroes and Heroines

When I was six or seven my grandfather told me he was taking me to a movie. But not just any movie. “Gone With the Wind” was being screened at the majestic and historic Fox Theater, in Atlanta, an hour and a half drive from where we lived, in Macon. My grandfather had a love of history, even as told by Hollywood, and he wanted to impart that love to me. We drove up to Atlanta on a Saturday afternoon and the theater was full. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember if we ate popcorn. I wasn’t intrigued by Clark Gable or Vivian Leigh or Butterfly McQueen.

What consumed my mind, during the film and after, were the long shots of the Atlanta rail yards filled with Confederate wounded. I was disturbed. So many wounded and bleeding, so much agony and suffering, as Scarlett O’Hara walked between the rows of bodies, giving soldiers sips of water and cleaning their wounds. Those images stayed with me.

But I was a little boy, and I got tired, and midway through the movie, just when Scarlett was clutching a single carrot in the wasted fields, my grandfather decided it best to take me home. I slept all the way.

Later, after we had moved to Atlanta, I found a cannonball in our neighbor’s yard. A Confederate 24 pounder, half-buried in a low ditch. The Battle of Atlanta had been fought where we lived. This, along living only three miles from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King preached, helped make me know that I was living in history, that it was close and it was real. It was in the ground I walked on.

At school this year, inspired by the New York Time’s “1619 Project,” we have been studying American history through the lens of slavery and African-American history. It is important to know, in these times when our current president does not know who Frederick Douglass is, that our history began 150 years prior to the Declaration of Independence. It can be said to truly have begun with the first slaves arriving in Hampton, Virginia, in August 1619. This is where we started our projects, tracing the arch of our history through the lens of the marginalized—primarily African Americans and women.

We visited the Middlebury College exhibit, “Votes…For Women?” where the story of the suffrage movement is artfully portrayed through text and image. We were overwhelmed by the enormity of the story, and we copied down some of the words of those who fought for 70 years to gain the right to vote. “The best protection any woman can have… is courage” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton).  If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it” (Sojourner Truth). We learned about the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the reason for the purple, white, and gold sashes suffragists wore—which stood for purity and royal nobility.

We looked at woodcuts recording the events on the “The Zong,” a slave ship from which 133 Africans were tossed overboard while still alive. Geeta told us the story of Thomas Jefferson’s nailery, which was filled with ten-year-old enslaved boys who toiled to enrich Jefferson, and of Jefferson’s relationship to Sally Hemming. After her project, we ate grits and collard greens. We crouched under the big room table to feel, if only for a few minutes, what it would be like to be stowed under decks on a slave ship with no room to sit or stand. Iris taught us the story of John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who wrote “Amazing Grace” after his conversion to god, and she arranged a small chorus of her peers to sing it to us. Finley showed us a mountainous pile of buffalo skulls left behind by settlers and soldiers during the time of westward expansion, under the banner of Manifest Destiny, an expansion that decimated indigenous cultures. The photo gave us a grim counter vision to the “glory” of American empire. When we visited the college, we put our hands on actual copies of “The Liberator,” the Abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. In her project on Abolitionism, Isabelle had us analyze the masthead of the paper, which included imagery of a slave auction on one side, an image of Christ with a freed slave at his feet in the middle, and a gateway in the far-right inscribed with the word “Emancipation.” We looked at photographs of the dead at the Bloody Road at Antietam. We read the Gettysburg Address in class, Lincoln’s words so poetically sure and aspirational. In Dinara’s project, we held voice votes to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, with unanimous assent to ratify all three.

It is massively difficult to make history important and exciting and compelling to middle school students. All we have is a few pictures. The hieroglyphics of political cartoons. Journal entries, letters, and speeches, which are often ornate and difficult to understand, almost a foreign language.  It is difficult to compete with all the claims on our student’s attention, the technicolor kaleidoscope of images on Instagram, or the immediacy of Snapchat or the drama of a Google chat. Moreover, students come to the school with practically no historical awareness. Only a few of them have visited historical sites. Only a few of them have read much history. History, its magnificence and beauty and terribleness and drama is, in most cases, a distant echo in their ears

And yet when we read about the singular acts of actual historical persons, we find real examples of the traits we most wish for ourselves. When we learn about Harriet Tubman going back and forth from north to south over seventeen times, we see towering bravery. When we learn of Frederick Douglass’ journey from being slave separated from his mother to become the greatest orator of the 19th century, we feel the immensity of possibility and noble transformation. When we learn of John Newton’s conversion from slaver to abolitionist, we see that anyone, us included, can move from darkness to enlightenment.


One night this fall I had a dream in which the world was ending. It happened after I had seen a news clip of horses being lead from their stables in the wildfires in California. In my dream, thousands and thousands were streaming down highways on foot. There was nothing left, just roads leading into a wasteland.  When I awoke that morning, I immediately thought of a book of poetry in the pile of books by my bedside. The book that came to mind was Kevin’s Young’s book of poems Brown (Knopf, 2018) The book is filled African American history, both personal and public, and in particular focuses on great figures and moments in time: John Brown; the “Brown Bomber,” Joe Lewis; Brown v. Board of Education. But the volume closes with a marvelous poem about a child bee-keeper. The poem is called “Hive,” and it is this poem that was in my mind when I awoke. Before I got up to get ready for school I pulled the book out and read the poem again.

The honey bees’ exile
is almost complete.
You can carry

them from hive
to hive, the child thought
& that is what

he tried, walking
with them thronging
between his pressed palms.

Let him be right.
Let the gods look away
as always. Let this boy

who carries the entire
actual, whirring
world in his calm

unwashed hands,
barely walking, bear
us all there

buzzing, unstung.

I did not know exactly why this poem came to me. But when I got to school that morning in meeting I told the kids about my dream. And as I described it, I realized that the poem was the answer. If the world is dying, or if it is in convulsions, or if we are living through some kind of collective rupture in the natural and political order, then the answer is the boy in this dream. He appears, on the last page of Young’s book, as a prophet for our time. A child who possesses all of the sacred knowledge; a child so careful, so loving and gracefully poised and so great in his power, that he can carry the entire buzzing world in his hands.

We teachers are driven by the idea that we can transmit all of experience into the hands and heads of our students. That we can make them feel the majesty of the universe in systems of equations and the sacred order of geometry; that the beauty of a frog’s iris is so moving that, upon gazing into it, our students want to save the world; that the story of John Brown or Robert Smalls is so inspiring makes them want to change their lives and the world entirely.

But sometimes this can only happen in a purely ahistorical way. Iris wrote a sketch about her little brother, Tobin. One day, playing in spring puddles, he accidentally stepped on a tiny frog. He froze and stood over the dead frog, in terror and dismay, heart-broken at the outcome of his playful glee. Iris stood by him and watched him coming to understand what had happened. She wrote that she learned how to love from seeing Tobin weep over a tiny frog in springtime.

In the morning I read them Kevin Young’s poem, no light shone down in the classroom. It was all I had to give them. It was another day of the North Branch School, another poem in meeting, another lab looking at cell structure, another day of balancing equations. Sometimes poetry and history do not touch them.

Still, we want them to see the infinity in a grain of sand, that is sure. Infinity in the life and death of tiny frogs and in feats of heroism. The hope is that they will learn the course of those right ones who came before. The dream is that they will pick up a handful of bees and find the right way to walk in the world.

Open Doors, Open Minds

When I was about ten years into my teaching career, back in the 1990s, I photocopied a letter I had seen in the NYT. When I photocopied it I enlarged it repeatedly until it was poster-sized, and then I laminated it and hung it in my classroom in Atlanta. After ten years of teaching in Atlanta, we moved to Vermont. Three years after that, we started the North Branch School, in 2001. When we first set up the school, I pulled that hand-made poster out of a box and it was the first thing I hung up on the wall in the new North Branch School. It was the first thing I hung up in my office in the new school-building we built to house the NBS in 2003. It remains on my wall today.

Here is the text:

To the Editor:

“Teacher Who Assigned Graphic Poem Says He Made Mistake” (news article, Oct. 23) reports that a Manhattan public high school teacher, after coming under fire for assigning a sexually explicit poem written by a former student, said that he had made ”a mistake in judgment.” I beg to differ.

As a student at Stuyvesant High School in 1977, I took a creative writing class with Frank McCourt, now famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes. One of the things that made him such an extraordinary teacher was the way he encouraged his students to express their thoughts and feelings honestly, and without external or self-imposed censorship.

We were allowed to hand in, and to read aloud in class, poems containing explicit images, rage, obscenity and whatever else we felt a need to relate. In respecting us for who we were, by accepting our thoughts and feelings at face value, Mr. McCourt helped us learn to respect ourselves and to listen to our own ‘’voices.”

Our society’s misplaced Puritanism communicates to adolescents that what they are feeling is somehow immoral or inappropriate. Rather than forcing teen-agers to remain underground, hiding their thoughts and feelings from those charged with facilitating their emotional and intellectual growth, we should unflinchingly encourage them to share their lives and experiences with us, openly and with pride.


Brooklyn, Oct. 23, 1997

I keep this letter to remind me of one of the core beliefs I hold about teaching and about kids: Students should be free to talk about what is important to them, and classrooms should be hospitable to all that they bring forth.  In our case, since our students are young adolescents, their concerns are, generally speaking, considerably non-explicit, but their concerns are serious and real. In order to usher them into the world of their own thought, the mechanics of their cognitive powers, their wobbly psychological growth, the layered and shimmering world of meta-reflection, and the intricate depths of their lives, the first move has to be to say: You are free. You have the license to talk and write and discuss what matters to you. We are a thinking and feeling community and we will, with all the grace and intelligence we possess, try to handle what comes up and learn what we can from it. 
Because at this age–12,13,14 years old— kids are beginning to come into and see themselves in the world before them.  They are beginning to see things they do not understand but want to understand. They are beginning to feel things that they do not understand, but want to understand. Their feelings are quite larger and more intense than they ever previously could imagine. Suddenly feeling becomes massive, unexplainable, volcanic, three-dimensional. In the folds of meta-cognition, they are thinking about why they feel and think one way while everyone else is different; they are comparing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with those of their peers. They can actually see and feel their thoughts changing in time and through experience. They begin to grapple with their own cognitive dissonance and that of others. They are asking existential questions for the first time. They are beginning to see where they do and don’t fit in. They are beginning to see how their thoughts and feeling are intertwined with the others in their midst. They are beginning to see that they and others fit into a great fabric of existence: a family, a grade, a school, a team, a society, a nation. They are realizing that others have complex lives of infinite value and each of those lives has something to teach; they are finding that their actions or inactions have deep and meaningful consequences. They are trying to find their voices, their “thing,” their way, their path, the person they want to be; they are beginning to envision the future and relate it to the past. They can now notice their bodies and perceptions as they take from in the present. Their bodies and minds are changing to such a degree that they feel themselves to be entirely new beings, a revelation that is at once terrifying and thrilling and dismaying and disgusting. They are losing one self–the child, but have not quite gained another, the near-adult, which, as they see it coming, they can not quite imagine embodying. They are contemplating death, or the end of being, and ends of self, on a daily basis; they are beginning to understand the suffering of others. They are beginning to comprehend the nature of courage and sacrifice and altruism and cowardice and inaction. They are seeing themselves as the result of history and the generations; seeing themselves as inheritors of the past and as a vast network cultural beliefs. They are beginning to realize they have a responsibility to others besides their families. They are beginning to confront the fact that this life is their only life, a life distinct from all others.

One of our foundational beliefs as a school is that all these changes, threshholds, and forms of “becoming” are the lodestone and locus of all of the most important learning that occurs during the transition through adolescence. The students themselves, the process of adolescence, the experiences of their lives—these are the subject and the wellspring. Of course, we overlay and weave into our days conventional and relevant academic exercise, but the heart of it is the kids themselves, their lives, their minds.

In order to do this, we have to start with the door wide open. It is death to freedom, it is death to Truth, if we began by saying, “No, you can not talk about that. That is off-limits. We don’t go there.”  Because once you do that, a new consideration begins to metastasize inside of every subsequent thought or impulse: “Is this appropriate? Is this off-limits? Is this wrong? I shouldn’t say this, should I?”
These questions, in their fearful negative form, truncate the intellectual or creative process before it can come alive. Such questions cut off the journey before it can begin. If you cut off one thing, you cut off everything, because once you have cut some things out, particularly the vibrant unknown, you are not dealing with whole truth.
So we veer decidedly the other way. We say: tell me who you are, who you want to become? You feel sad? Mad? Confused? Happy? Excited? Why?  You believe in fairness, equality, courage, grit, hope, love, honor, curiosity?  Then tell us why you do, and how you came to believe in that. What experience made you? What has taught you? Who? How? When tragedy or suffering or hardship visited you or those close to you, what did you learn? How did you react? Pick yourself up? How did you change? What did you decide? When you saw your father crying, what did you feel? When your mother celebrated her new job, what did that mean? What did you suddenly see in her that you had never seen before? Yesterday, why did you not fight back? Why did you fight back that way? Why were you afraid?  What happens when you are afraid? What happened when you cried at the lectern when you got up to read your first speech? What happened the second time? What did you feel when you classmate said thank you to you? When something terrible happened to you on the field at lunch, what made you afraid to say anything? What if you had said something? What is it that you really need? How did you learn to learn, even when it was hard? What we can we learn from that? That walk you took with your parents last night, why did it matter? Why should it matter to us? 
When the kids know this is all part of the discussion, they suddenly realize that they can be philosophers, seekers, inquirers. The world, their world,  is open to them.
Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese” comes to mind.
     You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

“Wild Geese “is a poem of invitation. It calls to every existing soul to join the family of things. This is what we are saying to the kids when they walk through the door of our school. You are something, you have something, you are a part of something. Bring what you have to the table.
Conversely, the “Resource Room” is the place in most schools where the real issues go to be hidden and scuttled. When anything gets dicey, when there is conflict, suffering, trouble—emotional and personal complexity—it is quickly removed from the classroom and dealt with, or not, by an adult who does not necessarily know the child, and there the conflict stays. The reality of the child, the reality of life and living, is divorced from the classroom. No doubt this may be a cleaner and potentially less upsetting or controversial way to manage affairs. But have you been in a classroom lately, one where emotion is not regarded, where the personalities of both the teacher and taught are excised, and the reality of lives lived is sanded down to edgelessness until it disappears? If you have, you will begin to understand why so many children feel lost, invisible, uninspired or uninterested in school, and why going to school, for so many, is nothing but a boring drag and a long, dry way of marking time.
So we tried to design a school that was equipped, in size and intimacy and disposition, to accept and celebrate the lives of the children and the emotions and thoughts exploding in them; to take young adolescents and all their manifold characteristics and convolutions, to let all that loose into the classroom; to work with those beings lovingly and intensely and directly; to accept them as they are and help them make sense of themselves; and to do it, every day, openly and with joy and seriousness. That is what we set out to do and we made a school that kids want to go to.
Every year at the end of summer, and at the end of vacations, I get emails from students who are dying to come back to school. Something has been happening there that they miss, that they need, that they long for. They want to come to school. Most days. They are excited, most days. They are seen, and known, and celebrated, most days. They will laugh, cry, be somewhat of balance, be challenged, and have joy, most days. It is messy, most days. And it is wild and alive, most days.
Their days at school are rich and pulsating with life not because we teachers devise great activities and projects, though we try to; it is because we invite and allow the fullness of their lives–the entirety of their lives–to be alive and expressed here. And to be learned from. This is why they want to come to school and why they realize, in their time here, that they are indeed part of the family of things.

Four Days in September

On the morning we started school I first asked one student from each grade to pick a book off the shelf. “Pick an interesting title.” Our shelves are packed full of books—maybe 3000 in the big room. After a few seconds, three books were placed on the table in front of me. 

      The Oddysey

      The World of Edward Gorey

      How Could I Not Be Among You

“I’m going to use the titles of these books to say how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking about today, at this point in my life.”

I told them that I was nervous, scared even, full of anticipation and hope. Based on the titles I told them I was thinking about our odyssey as a school. I told them that I thought of each school year as an epic, filled with a variety of tales and adventures, some terrifying, some joyful, all of which will call from us as yet unseen powers, none of which we could ever predict or plan, and that in the end, my hope is that we will have traveled a great distances, nobly and together.

I told them that we are all on this odyssey together. I told them that as a teacher, I was prepared to end my summer solitude and enter into their world, whatever their world is, no matter if it is populated with strangeness or adolescent freaks, and then I showed them Edward Gorey’s drawings. “This is you guys here,” I said, holding up the book. I then told them that in my mind I never had any question about my choice to be among them. 

“All of my best thoughts and joys of mind and soul that I’ve experienced have come in large part from sitting and being with and listening to kids like you around this table. My life and experiences led me to this place and time—though I did not consciously plan to become a teacher in Vermont— but how could I not be happy and joyful to learn from you, to have my own thoughts sparked by yours?” 

Then I asked them all to get up in silence and spend a few minutes looking over the titles of the books on the shelves and pick out one or two that articulated, through only the title, how they were feeling. Some title that said something to them about this moment in their lives. 

Once they had their books in front of them, they wrote out a feeling or idea that was wholly their own. Not something delivered to them by a teacher or school system, but their own self-created conception of themselves in space and time.

Treasure Island: Because I think of the school as an island, and I am here to find treasures and I don’t know what they will be. 

The Way Things Work and 30,000 years of Art: Because there is so much we don’t know, and yet humans have been creating art from so long. We all have something to say. It’s a part of us. There is so much to be known about how things work—gravity, hair, even.

Let The Circle Be Unbroken: We ended last year, but we continue this year. We have to bring back from last year what we want to keep the school going. 

I Dream a World: I am thinking about what this year will be like.

Leap: Going into this is unknown. I don’t know what will happen. I have to just leap in.

No More Masks: We tend to hide. This school is about trying not to hide but to be real and to show it.

Ants on the Melon: I think of the school as the melon—it has sweetness and bad stuff like rinds and seeds, and we are the ants on it.

Living Your Dying: I have to experience everything here. I can’t just sit around and wait.

What Are People For: We are here to figure out what we are for. What we stand for, what we are supposed to do.

World’s End: Last year is ended. That’s the way it works. It’s up to us to make a new world.

Eyes on the Prize: I am trying to figure out what my goals are. I don’t know who I’m going to be.

Growing Up: That’s what’s happening. And it happens fast. This school is about that, and especially with the three grades.

A New Creation—Spiritual Voices: We are trying to make a new creation. I want to make something.

Utopia: Last year we studied and tried to make Utopia. Even though we are not studying that this year, it’s still our goal.

Witness: Part of being here is looking, listening, observing, and witnessing. I don’t talk a lot and I listen at first in order to figure out what to do and how to be.

I’m a Stranger Myself: Even though I was here last year, I am a stranger again. Because it is a new year, new people, new everything. 

Paradise Lost: Last year was not always paradise, but sometimes we got close to it. Now it’s gone and we have to start over.

Plain and Simple: Plain and simple is how I like things. But sometimes what is plain and simple is actually complex and not plain at all.

The Stranger: I come here and I feel like I am a stranger. I hardly know anyone and that feels weird.

Jung: The Undiscovered Self: We are trying to find ourselves here. We don’t know what we are going to discover.

The Craft of Poetry: We care about poetry at this school. We read it and write it and it’s an important part of what we do all the time and part of how we learn.

American Utopias: We studied this last year and we are trying to make one.

The Big Burn: Every year we create the burning school and it’s a way we remember the old year and start a new tradition.

What’s to Become of the Boy: Heinrich Boll—I thought of this like myself, even though I’m a girl. What will I become? What will become of this girl? How will I learn to free myself from my own cages.

The Invisible Man: Sometimes I feel invisible. We don’t want to feel that way. Nobody should feel invisible.

This Is My Century: This is my year. I want to take all the time I have and grow past what has held me down. I feel strong.

The Gift: This school is a gift. This book is a gift. Life is a gift.

The Promised Land: We are looking for it. But it’s not just promised: we have to make it.

Maiden Voyages: It feels like we are going on a voyage. If you’re a seventh-grader, it’s your maiden voyage. For seventh-graders, they are leaving the harbor. Eighth graders are halfway across and can’t see land in either direction. Ninth graders are getting closer to the new world.

Great Expectations: I have great expectations for myself, but I don’t know if I can live up to them.

The Crossing: To be in a crossing means to be between worlds. I am used to being between worlds because I have changed schools so many times. I have become used to it. But I don’t know what it will be like to stay in one place.

Brave New World: This is what it feels like coming into a new school.

Second Skin: I have two ways of being. There is the part of me that is easy going and relaxed and there is the part of me that gets anxious. I want to peel off the thin skin of anxiety and be the full self underneath.

The Elements of Grammar: Grammar is important because it’s how language works. We have to be able to communicate with each other. The grammar of our connections, the way we hold ourselves together with language and our connections with each other.

The Perfect Storm: I am hoping that this year will be a storm—not one that destroys me, but one that makes me change and changes me, that shakes me up enough to change me in a good wat.

There Once Was a World: The old school year is gone—good and bad has disappeared. That leaves us with a big responsibility.

Boundaries of the Soul: We are pushing to the edges to find out how far we can go.

The World’s Rim: I am perched on the rim, looking out into the unknown. My life is behind me, and the world is in front of me.

The above list could stand as a temporary manifesto of our educational project. As you may observe, it is already in them, and it arises organically, with very little prompting, virtually unbidden.

By this point, everyone has spoken. Every voice has been heard, every person has contributed an idea. None of the ideas are wrong. All of them are valuable. All of them tell us something about our desires, hopes, fears, awarenesses. Some hint at struggles and difficulties. Lurking behind some of the notions are bigger ideas, larger considerations, vast possibilities. But now we are moving.

I want them to begin thinking about their lives in a serious manner. To think about who they are, or were, who they are becoming, the directions towards which they want to move. I read them a quote by Frederick Douglass, remembering that only a short time ago it was revealed that our nation’s leader did not know who Frederick Douglass was. But more than that, I want them to think about what Douglass said about struggle:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

We began talking about speech ideas from this point. What is a struggle you have had? What is worth fighting or struggling for? What is the right way to fight? What progression do you seek? When have you failed, or when has your life gotten the best of you, and how did you respond? What experiences have you had that have forged your ideas and beliefs? What are you willing to work for, in yourself or for others?

But as is often the case, the responses from the kids took us in unforeseen directions. And by some strange occurrence, I had been handed a slip of paper earlier on that  morning that sent me off in a new direction. See, I am like a squirrel: if I find a good nut, I take it. It was part of an essay by Toni Morrison, in which she writes…

“Well, now you may be asking yourself: What is all this? I can’t save the world. What about my life? I didn’t ask to come here. Didn’t you? I put it to you that you did. You not only asked to be born, you insisted on your life. That is why you are here. No other reason. It was too easy not to be. Now that you are here, you have to do something you respect, don’t you? Your parents did not dream you up, you did. I am simply urging you to continue the dream that you started. For to dream is not irresponsible; it’s first order human business. It is not entertainment; it is work. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream,” he was not playing; he was serious. When he imagined it, envisioned it, created it in his own mind it began to be, and we must dream it too, give it the heft and stretch and longevity it deserves.”

I read this to the class as well. It is not unrelated to the words of Frederick Douglass. We are not playing. We have a responsibility. This is serious business. There is work to be done. You are here to envision a world. I Dream a World. The Perfect Storm. American Utopia. A New Creation. Eyes on the Prize. Great Expectations. This is My Century.

The miracle plainly evident is that the kids, without yet knowing it, are in conversation with the great thinkers and novelists and abolitionists and scholars and epic writers and artists and activists of history. Their lives are wound up in history, they are thinking about the same notions, and they are here because of those who envisioned it before them. So they owe it to the world, to the past and the future, to begin to play their part and begin to do something they will respect.

Our job is to help them bring it out as fully as we and they can, and celebrate when they do.

In the afternoon of the first day, three teams of students built geodesic domes out of sheets of newspaper outside on the sunny patio. This proved difficult to say the least. the paper crumpled. The tape got stuck. The structure sagged. What’s the first step? What am I supposed to do? What is my role? What am I able to do? How do I fit in? Do I give direction or do I take direction? Who is in charge? What needs to happen next? Am I being useful? What am I contributing? How do we overcome a challenge? What happens when it all breaks down?

We teachers gave very little support or direction. We wanted to see what they are, what they can figure out, where each of them is as an individual, and as a member of the whole. In the end, the domes were decorated, and the domes were named, and the domes stood for something.  Each dome, in its patched together, misshapen jangled mess, was a pretty fair representation of what we are right now. Not great, not bad. Standing up, barely, a mere skeletal frame, ready to be filled in.

On Wednesday Geeta read “Eve Remembering,” by Toni Morrison also. I had been planning on reading this in class and had given it to Geeta prior to receiving the portion of Morrison’s essay, so that was a happy coincidence.

It’s a beautiful poem, speaking from the voice of Eve, at the end of her life, explaining that for any difficulties leaving Eden might have presented, those were more than redeemed by a true life lived thereafter.  For  “gardens planted for a child”—those pre-made gardens of bliss—do not help to make a soul. A soul is forged through hard living. One learns the heights of summits by surmounting them: 


I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.

My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple

Fire red and humming.

I bit sweet power to the core.

How can I say what it was like?

The taste! The taste undid my eyes

And led me far from the gardens planted for a child

To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.


Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;

Lips forget what they have kissed.

My eyes now pool their light

Better the summit to see.


I would do it all over again:

Be the harbor and set the sail,

Loose the breeze and harness the gale,

Cherish the harvest of what I have been.

Better the summit to scale.

Better the summit to be.

Now our eyes pool the light. The thread here is woven into the first other threads. There is something always ahead in life.  Struggle is at the very heart of it. Struggle is to be embraced. “Be the harbor, and set the sail. Loose the breeze and harness the gale.” The Perfect Storm. The Second Skin. The Undiscovered Self. The Gift. Living Your Dying.


Their initial speech drafts are filled moments when each kid saw and could feel themselves alive in space and time. This is one of the things we set out for them to learn and understand: how to be themselves, themselves and no other, in space and time, even in the presence of others. To know the mind and heart of the person they are. In order to become themselves more fully, they have to see themselves honestly, as they are, as they conceived of themselves in the past, as they see themselves changing now. When they can do this, when their foundation is solid, they can begin to see far beyond themselves.

A boy’s memory of being teased on a trampoline one summer night brings tears. The details of the teasing are lost. The feeling is not. The feeling comes up in class. It becomes clear, sitting at the table, that the person each of us each is is filled with a thousand stories and all the associated feelings. This boy at the table, he now only remembers what happened after he was teased. He left the trampoline, and he walked around the perimeter of the yard, circling again and again, counting the paces. He remembered that, and that is part of his struggle. What in him distances him from the moment the pain was inflicted? What can he reclaim from that moment to begin to envision his dream? What is he circling for, and when he stops circling, what will he do?

There is hint of it when I ask him, “Why did you not punch your tormentor?” And he replies, through the hands he holds over his face: “Because I wanted it to be that when she grew up and stopped doing these things, I could say I never did a wrong thing. I never went to the low place like her. So I could say I did not do anything wrong.”

This is a beautiful commitment. But it is also the struggle. How long can one endure being the outcast or the alien? Indeed, Nat Turner could take being a slave for only so long before he turned murderously on his oppressor. Who can say which path is right? Silent endurance of suffering, or righteous violence in response.

Sam hears the first draft of his friend Declan’s speech. In it, Declan recalls times when, during the past year, his friends, Sam among them, teased him. Declan says he fell into a state of mental anguish. The narrative he has constructed spares no one, obscures no facts, does not equivocate. At the end of it, his friend Sam, sitting at the table, is not angry. Sam is crying. He is mad at himself, that his own fears of being an outcast or teased drove him to tease his friend Declan, who he loved then and loves now. Sam was in his own struggle then—who am I going to be, and what am I willing to do to preserve myself and others, and how do I mend this? Now, at this moment he feels he created nothing and only destroyed, and it is a terrible feeling. But the sun also rises. A full acceptance of his role in Declan’s suffering—his willingness to feel the consequences of what he did or did not do—gives him a vision of what he wants to do and can become. He knows he has a choice and responsibility to remake something, to do a new thing with greater courage and conviction. This is the crux of the writing we do: reinhabiting our struggles and difficulties, going backward, reckoning with actual lived experience—this is the way to the source of all wisdom and meaning. That is how we grow, that is how we go forward. 

One student starts his speech with this declaration. “All my life I have struggled with dyslexia.”  The value of his willingness to share this is nearly impossible to quantify. It is a magnificent thing, from the perspective of teaching and learning, that a student can come into a room and reveal something so personal, so raw, so hard. When I read the rough draft that followed that sentence, I already saw in him great courage and power. He is not hiding. He is willing “to loose the breeze and harness the gale.” He is already fully present, to teach, know, and to love. He wrote: “It was hard to sit inside while other kids were outside playing and working on reading and writing. But I learned to use elbow grease.”

No student that I can remember in 28 years of teaching has used the words “elbow grease.” Ah, but it is so perfect, and so in tune with everything we tried to open up in the first days talking about struggles and hard work. He’s ninety-five percent of the way there. On Friday morning I told him all of this while the whole class listened: how reading his work woke me up, and made me excited to come in and tell everyone what I had learned from him.

I asked Iris to tell about a moment from the week. She stumblingly and improvisationally meandered through a tale of what happened in science class. Her sketch is filled with details—of her surroundings, her teacher’s voice, the objects in the shelves, the notebooks, the vocabulary on the board. Iris is marvelously and acutely self-aware, of her feelings and of what is actually happening with the balloon, sugar, yeast, the graduated cylinders.  As an older kid, she is able to inhabit her body in time and space. Able to see herself feeling and seeing. But what she wanted to tell us about was the moment, during all that, when she looked at her classmates and felt, for the first time, that she wanted to be partners in the science lab with all or any of them. There was no one she was afraid of. No one who bugged her. No one she was mad at. She was joyfully content to look through microscopes with any of her classmates, because, though time and struggle, she has come to know and love each of them.

Then I made her write it. And this time, her sketch was a composed, balanced, nuanced, poetic artifact. A statement of where she’s been and where she wants to go. A snap-shot of her dream and a dream of what school can be.

Jacques did not listen to me when I said to write about something that happened in the first four days. When he read his scene it was evident that he had something far more important and pressing to say. It was welling up in him, ready to spill.  He wrote about a time from the previous year at his old school. He had befriended a boy with Downs syndrome. Jacques was his buddy, took care of him, and was often tagged by teachers to partner with the boy. But one day on the playground, standing with the boy, Jacques wanted to go play with others. So he left the boy alone in the middle of the playground. 

“I just left him. It felt terrible.” The feeling of having abandoned that boy now has Jacques to tears and his voice was trembling. 

“But what you did was not wrong,” I said. “You were the one who loved the boy and took care of him. You are also a boy who wants to go play with others. That’s a human thing. You wanted to go be with your peers and play. No one is guilty of doing something natural and human. But your other self, which you’re showing bravely now in the depth of these feelings, is that you have a self that is also Super-Human. Someone who can give to someone else. You are someone who has so much in you that you gave love and care and companionship to someone else who needed it.  That’s also what you are teaching and revealing.”

We have now learned something about moral struggle, and also Jacques’ morality. We’ve learned that he cares, and we have begun to learn how he cares.

It will be some time before he or any of them can take their experiences and manifest them consciously and intentionally in the school. But they will learn to do this. They will learn to take what they have learned and turn it into something beautiful. 


At Lake Pleiad, we took our chance to make something beautiful. Though it is hard to improve on what was already there. Which reminds me, and I hope all of us, that we are part of something far larger than we can imagine. Although we all have powers like Jacques and Iris and Jonah and Declan and Sam, we are also quite tiny relative to what is above, below, and around us. Rose tried to be like a bird and made a nest with bundles of grasses and twigs. She found, even with her fingers and two opposable thumbs, that making a nest is extremely difficult, and that birds can do it with only their beaks. She knelt before her creation with a renewed humility about human limitation and the power of little creatures.

In the silence of the woods, with the sound of sticks snapping and feet scampering in the leaf detritus, with the wind rustling the over-story, we knelt in the understory and built little sculptures of what we could find: moss, mushrooms, twigs, ferns, flowers, berries, vines, logs, stones. 

This is, of course, an analog for what we are all about. I do not have much genius educational theory except this: anything of value will be made from us, by us, and for us, from whatever is close at hand. The kids in the room, and who they are. The powers and material are already there. What wants to happen, tries to happen, does happen, this is our syllabus. Latent or as yet to be discovered; timid, undefined, hesitant, shy, or unsure.  Whatever it is, whatever issues forth, there needs to be an axis Mundi which gathers the powers, a focal point where we can all be there to feel and see what matters most where we gather to see what we are and made. This is what the school aims to be.

In the woods on Friday we had already come a far distance from those first spindly geodesic domes. In the works made in the woods there was density and color, depth and hidden places, minute fairy houses or towering structures built without rule or form. The shaky utterances taken from book titles speeches on the first day will grow into towering manifestos, the best each of us can do in each moment. 

Before we took off for our sculpture building, we had spent some time in the basement drawing leaves. Steve demonstrated how to start lightly. “Just move your pencil over the paper without setting anything down. Just practice the motion a few times. Sort of like little practice swings.”

We started putting down lines. In time they will become deeper and more committed, more confident and defined. And then we will really be making something.

The Most Pressing Questions

When we begin we start with big questions as fast as we can, to get moving, as fast as we can, to begin to go far, as far as we can. The first question was: how are you feeling, right now? In this moment, sitting in this room? I have them close their eyes so that they can shut out the many new and dizzying distractions. No reactions of others to gage.  Try to be as undefended as you can, so you can know the ground YOU are standing on.

 The answers are variants of scared. excited. nervous. anxious. eager. Hopeful. Full of faith, wondering, comfortable, “not here yet,” confident, determined. Everyone speaks in the first hour, and now we are all here. 

The next question: how do you want to live? How should you live? What does it mean to live “well.” What is the way to spend a life, if it must end and too soon? 

Bukowski says: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” 

He also says: “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”

Or as Wislawa Szymborska writes:

“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.

I had meant to ask him

the same question.

 Again, and as ever,

as may be seen above,

the most pressing questions

These give us something to push off from. The answers to these “most pressing questions” and the resulting declarations will become beginning-of-the-year speeches. The speeches are filled with experiences, moments, ideas, and intentions, and by setting them down each student sets their own course. At the same time, we will end up with an informal manifesto of our collective end aim: the completed speeches will comprise the vision of a group of a people who have declared how they want to live and be together and how they will travel together.

In order for these speeches to really have grit and substance, we ask that the kids commit themselves to digging deep. Not to just say how one wants to live, but to show the origin of those ideas, which of course will be found in examining the amplitude of one’s lived life. That is, the kids are encouraged to find the origins of their intentions, the source of their ideas, the seed of their wisdom. “One who is able to realize the truth of one’s own mind has sown the seed of Buddha-hood,” wrote Paul, quoting the Buddha on the white-board in the big room. 

The Buddha’s idea is not too different from our own. We are pushing to find the truths inside ourselves. This requires various amounts of directness, honesty, questing, trust, courage, humor, self-revelation, self-disclosure, or self-deprecation, and a willingness, to the degree one is comfortable, to share it in the learning community.  

In the decades of doing this I have come to an understanding that is practically a physical law: So long as the school is a safe and supportive place and filled with the spirit of communal inquiry then happiness, humor, emotional richness, openness, learning, wisdom, excitement, wonder, love, compassion, and unity will thrive. As these qualities thrive, the safety of the school and the spirit of communal inquiry grows. 

Our first task then is to make it safe, safe for feelings, whatever they may be, and safe for all kinds of minds and experiences, whatever they may be. 

By writing speeches that are personal and true, we move with directness to a place where we are all in it together, sharing who and what we are, what our hopes, dreams, and needs are. We begin to see all these minds and feelings and thoughts. The collective begins as a sketch–a kind of unfolding human mandala, and we begin to see human variation and geometry, colors, patterns, and all various permutations, intricacies, and intimations of infinity that you can get when you put a bunch of growing, changing people of good spirit in a room. When it happens, as it now is, it is thrilling and beautiful.

By the morning of the fourth day, I asked the kids to do an accounting of all that they had done, felt, or thought—at home or in school—since the first day on Tuesday. Their answers provide a snapshot of the energy, activity, and diversity of experience as it has been lived so far in the school.

I felt love for my sisters when I saw them again. I made plans for being organized and responsible. I didn’t talk to Jholai, but I really wanted to. I shot a potato cannon. I realized Celeste is very intelligent and meaningful. I felt jealous of Declan. I remembered that fabric is stitched like chain-mail. I saw Tal try to smile and then pant with exhaustion. I heard Henry Swan yell at Sasha, and then apologize profusely. I learned more about the importance of words. I wrote an email to Lena. I felt overwhelmed. I burst out laughing looking at an art book with Luke. I felt happy. Tal called me a rock-hound. I ate birthday cake. I felt excited about geodes while breaking rocks in science. I started writing a speech about how I want to live. I made a poster in the basement. I pet Giles’ dog Blue. I tried to reconnect to my class. I tried to draw a picture of Tal. I tried to think about why most of the boys in my class don’t want to talk to me. I learned I am excited for math. I tried to help Isabell and Luke connect to the school. I learned more about Paul from his science bag. I got motivated to write. I made a mobile out of nature. I learned part of Alex’s story. I started to go back to my corner. I pondered about how we know and do not know things. I felt sad when Geeta was talking in class. I found the goose egg I left here last year still here. I realized I am not as close as I want to be to the whole school. I answered the question, “How do you want to live?”  I talked with my mom about East Germany. I read the entire book Animal Farm in less than 24 hours. I am excited for soccer. I already made a rough outline for my Utopia project. I ran through the woods being chased by Declan, the wind on my face and Joe beside me.  I was thankful for new friends. I thought about what “epistemology” is. I felt anxious when I sat in the woods. Henry helped me when my bike got stuck. I thought about how this school is my new family. Nate and Joe showed me everything in the school. I thought about the hike. I felt sad when Geeta cried. I asked Tal if I could bring in my dog. I looked at the flowers that Isa brought in I checked that a poem I memorized over the summer is still in my head. I watched Isa, Geeta, Iris, Isa, and Una make Tal a strange birthday card, and I felt included, even though I wasn’t helping. I helped Celeste crack open a geode. I remembered what “meta-cognition” means. I thought about why a poet referred to death as a “she.”  I made flower crowns with my family and friends. I fell out of a tree while playing pokey stick. I drew a portrait of a face. Alex and I researched uses for Pascal’s triangle. I made a scavenger hunt for Declan. I felt sad about Creed not being here. I set up class for Tal. I saw Henry B. get attacked by bees.  I read and thought about a poem called “Fern Hill.”  I examined the engine of the car at school. I looked at a book about D-Day. I have been working on a speech about who I want to be. I thought about whether I was close to my class again. I felt anxiety when I started working on my speech. I started to appreciate the posters on the upper big room wall. I found a mouse nest in the air filter of the car. I yelled out to Isa. I talked to Tal about my overall life in summer, and wondered why he cared so much to ask. It felt good to talk, but a little strange. I thought about the moment in the entry with Ben last year, and when that happened, I felt sad.  I felt hopeful that Alex will be a great new math teacher, because she is young and relatable. I was nervous that I would not be able to hold my end of the school up. I made a good notebook in science. I volunteered to do class notes. I pumped up the soccer balls for Tal. I bonded with Henry Swan. I missed Will. 

In addition: we hiked to Lake Pleiad. Asked questions about landforms and the mountains. Sat in silence on the rock. Took a class picture. Built sculptures in the woods. Swam in the lake. Started a class-note book. Listened to John Coltrane; weeded the labyrinth. Made science notebooks and artistic collages. Placed flowers on the table; talked about the new school bell. Played soccer. Decorated sticks with natural materials and hung them in the trees. Made sculptures with pasta and marshmallows, which melted in the hot sun. Played pokey stick; meditated. Contemplated the meaning of the Dhammapada quote: “Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery.” Discussed who we had not talked to in the class so far and why not?  Had our first meetings, poems, classes. Collected flowers at Lake Pleiad; Had class in the basement because it was 100 degrees in the big room; 

Una read the poem “Sunflower Sutra” by Allen Ginsberg to the class on the first day.  Henry B. directed the clean-up system and volunteered to be the soccer goalie.  Isa brought in the flower “Indian pipe,” which is thought to aid in resolving grudges and which lacks chlorophyll–and she came out for Prunes soccer. Elise took on the job of being the Undercurrent Managing Editor. Nate volunteered to do the weekly notes, then asked Tal if he could do it again, because he wants to do it better. Eli brought read a book faster than he ever has and was able to keep his eyes closed for an entire hour-long conversation. Swan made a funny “Pac-man” journal cover, rode his unicycle to school, and made Tal laugh with witty jokes. Joe and Nate biked to school on the first day, and Joe came in early on another day and he and Tal talked in the big room. Geeta told us we have to live on top of the mountain with twigs in our hair. Alex told us her brother is in the army, and she respects what he is doing because it is difficult, and he loves what he is doing, just like she is. Paul held up the singing bowl and led the meditation, and wrote quotes from the teachings of the Buddha. Tal said he wants us to work like he did, stacking wood in the middle of a dark and pelting thunderstorm and not stopping until the woodpile is huge. Geeta made a sign-up sheet for a cooking competition. Iris wanted to get a Golf Cart for the school. Sam found a truck on Craig’s list for one dollar.  Jholai told us she had skipped 6th grade and she was nervous. The class told her that that is okay and she will be incredible. Isabelle brought rocks and crystals to school. Luke drew an eye in his notebook. Finley and Dylan went deep into the woods. Phoebe tried to learn to ride the unicycle. Dinara talked about courage, determination, and not being anxious. Iris danced in the dark to make the basement lights come on. Rose was remembering her mother. Vivian decided that YES, she will play soccer. Dylan raised his hand in class and spoke boldly. Eli was articulate about how to make the school a safe place. Sam told us how he had found his Declan. Declan said he was find-able again if anyone needed to find a Declan.  

There is already so much happening. We are excited to crack open the metaphorical geodes and discover the crystals inside.