My First School
I didn’t intend to be an educator. My parents were both teachers—my father at a law school and my mother in a fifth-grade classroom—but it never occurred to me to follow in their footsteps. I was going to be an artist—a playwright, actually. I worked for my university theatre after graduating from college, and then I went to graduate school to get my Masters in Fine Arts. I learned a lot and met a number of people who ended up being important in my life, including my wife. But the one thing my advanced degree didn’t give me was a job. There were no jobs, really, in my field, unless you wanted to teach. And at the time, teaching gigs in theatre were scarce and fiercely fought-over. So there I was, returned to Atlanta, Georgia, ready to ply my craft but in need of a day job.
When I told my mother that I would try to get my old bookstore job back, she…well, she didn’t exactly tear her heart out in classic Jewish-Mother-Anguish, but she came pretty close. To keep me from this fate, she introduced me to a friend who was running a small, alternative school right across the street from my old college campus. The man’s name was Wood Smethurst, and throughout his career, he had been instrumental in founding almost every progressive alternative school in and around Atlanta. He sounded like an interesting man—and worth meeting—even if he didn’t have a job for me.
I went off to see him at his school, which turned out to be a tiny, one-story house—an atypical school in appearance, easy to miss. When Wood came to the door, he looked nothing like a school headmaster. He was nearly bald, with his remaining hair wild and uncombed. He was overweight, with food stains on his shirt and his shirttail un-tucked. Overall, he looked a bit like W.C. Fields. But he had an enormous smile and a hearty laugh, and he welcomed me into his world.
On the inside, his world looked even less like a school. The rooms of the house were furnished with big, wooden tables where students worked individually or in pairs. There were lovely bookshelves and antiques everywhere. There was a functioning kitchen where kids could make themselves a bagel or a cup of coffee whenever they needed a pick-me-up. There was a garden out back where students could sit and read. The adults in the building moved around from room to room, stopping and sitting whenever they needed to spend some time with a student. Everything was individualized and everything was self-paced. Everyone called the headmaster “Doc,” and he presided over the main room of the building, sitting at the head of the biggest work table and watching over the students and teachers with a benevolent smile, usually with a cat sitting in his lap and a cup of coffee near to hand.
His school, the Benjamin Franklin Academy, was founded to catch high school students who were “falling through the cracks” and who were in danger of dropping out, or who had already dropped out (or been kicked out) but wanted to get their diploma. It was Doc’s dream school—inspired by A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, but aimed at a very particular student body. It was deliberately designed not to look or feel like a traditional school, to help both students and teachers break old habits and old ways of interacting. Students had clear graduation requirements, and they worked with their advisors to make monthly and weekly plans. They were free to work on whatever they wanted to work on, whenever they wanted to work on it, as long as they worked and progressed. In fact, there were only four rules governing the entire school: do your own work and let others do their work; be gentle with the house and the furniture; no fighting; and don’t let the cats out. In the four years that I taught there, I never saw the need for additional rules.
This was not an easy school. There were no Carnegie Units, there was no such thing as “seat time,” and there was no social promotion. In fact, there were no grade levels at all. You either met your graduation requirements in a year (or two, or three) or you didn’t. Some of the requirements were formal, like completing twelve, error-free papers in a variety of essay formats. Some were more informal, like being able to identify 20 nations and their capitals, selected at random by a teacher. It was competency-based learning, decades before that was a hot topic of conversation in our world.
It was a deeply human school, designed to meet the needs and lives of adolescents rather than asking students to bend and warp themselves to fit within a cookie-cutter school structure. Students felt known and understood as human beings, and they knew their teachers as human beings as well. Learning was an ongoing conversation rather than a lecture. The school was more than a community; it was a family. In the years I spent there, we never had a truancy problem. In fact, we had more of a drop-in problem; kids felt good there, and they wanted to be there as much as they could be.
Although I never heard Doc say it, it was clear that love was his guiding principle. When hiring new teachers, he cared very little about the schools they had gone to or the certifications they held. What he wanted to know was: Did they know their subject deeply? Did they love their subject fervently? And did they like hanging around with teenagers? He wanted—and he built—a community based on passion for learning. And he led his school with absolute commitment to his students. If a family ran into financial trouble, he kept the student on for free, even in the early years when money was tight. If a student ran into legal trouble, he took collect calls from the jail every day to talk to the student and keep his spirits up. Everything about the school said, “We are on your side, and we will not abandon you.”
It mattered. Even the most sullen, disengaged student in our school was only disengaged on the outside. After all, they had chosen to come back to school. They wanted to graduate and get on with their lives. But more importantly, they wanted something to be meaningful. They were desperate for meaning, for connection—for passion. They may have rolled their eyes and said sarcastic things about how nerdy their teachers were, but it mattered to them that they were surrounded by people who cared about something—or someone. That modeling of living a passionately-committed life was more important to them than anything in the English or math curriculum.
It is almost thirty years since I first set foot in the Benjamin Franklin Academy. If you click on the link, the school you see will look nothing like the modest little building I taught in. I was there for four of the early years, when desperate parents, surveying the scene, wondered if the headmaster was insane and doubted if they were making the right choice for their children. No one wonders about that anymore. The school has grown impressively in size and stature. It is an Atlanta institution.
But, like all successful institutions, it will have to outlive its founder. We lost Doc on July 14 of this year. He is the second of my education heroes to have passed this year—but this loss is more personal and painful to me because Doc was more than an author I admired. He was my mentor, my guide into this career. His modeling, his manner, and his careful curating of my reading list, early on, all shaped my understanding of what teaching should be and what schools could be. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that everything I have done in my professional career in education bears some trace of Wood Smethurst’s beliefs and passions.
I often say that the Ben Franklin Academy ruined me for any other school. I say it only half-jokingly. Being able to see, with painful clarity, the gap between what is and what can be, is a great motivator. It keeps the fire burning, even on the bleakest, most hopeless days of my personal winters. It reminds me that we owe our students—and ourselves—so much more.
Look, we’re all grown-ups here. We’re all professionals. We know that the world demands compromises and concessions from us—sometimes daily. We make the adjustments we need to make to hold onto our jobs and to get through the day. We tell ourselves that today’s concession is pretty small, really, and it doesn’t undo or undermine all of the good we’re doing in the world. And that’s probably true. Holding onto unrealistic dreams and refusing to face reality can drive a person crazy.
But I knew a crazy dreamer once. I knew someone who decided to resist all the compromises being demanded of him, and built exactly the kind of school he had always dreamed of. It was, and is, a beautiful school—a fitting legacy to a beautiful man. I am grateful to have known him, and to have had a chance to be part of his dream, if only for a few years.