In 1968 I was a 15 year old woman in her fourth year at a public experimental "college
preparation" combined junior and senior high school. Young people were bused
from all over the city of Cincinnati to attend this highly respected school. The year
before I had been selected to be a participant in the Project Humanities: known by
the students as Project H. Project H was an effort of the faculty to bring some
connection between subjects usually kept extremely separate: Latin, English, and
Ancient and Medieval History. In Project H, the teachers of the three subjects
valiantly attempted to interrelate them. From this point of view nearly 30 years
later, I think I can fairly say they failed. But it was the attempt that counted and it
counted for a lot.
The English teacher, Joel Wittstein, was the only truly inspired teacher I had my entire elementary, junior and senior high school education. He gave us real books to read like Franny and Zoey, The Book of Job. When we talked incessantly and he couldn't take it any more, he walked out on us in disgust or frustration, slamming the door behind. I preferred this role reversal to the method of the Ancient and Medieval History teacher who actually made young adults stand in the corner. My friends he subjected to this humiliating punishment probably still suffer from it today in some deep dark corner of their tentative self esteem. He obviously had not been exposed to the basics of nurturing self esteem in teacher's college.
It was a good year. My mind was turned on, I was having my first tastes of the sensual delights, writing sizzling poetry. June came, Project H came to an end. I turned 15 in July. In September, another round began. I have an extremely vivid (indelible is more accurate the word) memory from this time -- I am sitting in one of the temporary classrooms (alias barracks) in the back of the three story brick fortress that was and still is Walnut Hills High School. The clock is high on the wall, do you know the kind?--generic school clock--big round thing that ticks loud--9am, 3pm-- those hours that defined our young lives--the English teacher's desk sits right below the clock in the absolute front center of the room and she sits at her desk, lips red, clothing bland. The fact that I don't remember her name is significant. She was a tired and uninspired, by-the-book teacher--sticking to the required reading list. The standards: Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, the dudes. There was an amazing absence of anything approximating aesthetic in this outpost. (But we learned our alliterations.) And then and there it hit me--I have three more years of this--that is three precious years of my tender and juicy young life--in this deadening prison. In that moment I became an edge-ucator, a fierce, dedicated, radicalized, uncompromising edge-ucator.
When I came across George Leonard's magnificent visionary book Education and Ecstasy in 11th grade the following year, my destiny was set. George Leonard who dared to dream that education and ecstasy could hang together in the same breath gave me inspiration. (etymology: a breath of spirit) He imagined an extraordinary future in his scenario of a school in the year 2001. And I became a futurist imagining the future myself and daring to put it into words that others too, might be inspired.
What has struck me the most in the years since, dialoguing with many people from all walks of life about transforming education, is the number of times people have said to me, I know it has to change but I don't know what it could look like. When I was 16, George Leonard gave me a glimpse of what it could look like. It was a glimpse that sustained me through difficult and unhappy times. A.S.Neill, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Jonathon Kozol, Herb Kohl, Ivan Illich, Paolo Freire, Joseph Chilton Pearce, the merry band of authors of Big Rock Candy Mountain offered further glimpses.
of what it could look like.
Education and Ecstasy
copyright 1968 by George Leonard
Dell Publishing Company