Saturday, July 7, 2012

Life Lived Backwards

I’m sure we’ve all playing this little game with ourselves— if this hadn’t happened, then that wouldn’t have happened.” The life we’ve ended up with is hinged on little twists and turns of fate, most of which don’t seem significant at the moment, but end up having a big effect. “If you hadn’t had a sore throat and come home early from the movie, I wouldn’t have met you while talking business with your roommate. And hence, no marriage, no kids, no job at the school, none of this life I’ve lived the past 40 years.” Once you start reading your life backwards like that, there’s no end to all the things that turned you in one direction and not the other.

Sometimes the turns in the road are larger and one such turn came to me in my last year of Antioch College. The college had a work-study program that alternated three months study at school with three months working somewhere, usually as an intern or apprentice. I had already worked at a Summerhill School in rural Maine, an alternative public high school in Hartford, a traditional 2nd grade in Manhattan and now went to a Quaker boarding school for 7th-8th-9th graders in the Black Mountains of North Carolina—the Arthur Morgan School.

The Morgan family had deep connections with Antioch College. Arthur Morgan was president of Antioch from 1920-1936. His son Ernest founded the Antioch Bookplate Company and later the Celo Press and achieved modest fame in the alternative culture’s bible, The Whole Earth Catalogue, where his book Manual for Simple Burial was listed. Ernest’s wife Elizabeth founded the Arthur Morgan School based on a mixture of ideas from visionary educators Pestalozzi, Montessori, John Dewey and Gandhi.

From the moment I stepped out of the car in the Fall of 1972 and was greeted by 25 curious kids, I knew I had landed into something special. A community with a vision somewhat aligned with the 60’s revolution of consciousness, but more firmly grounded in the midst of a Quaker cooperative land-holding community, an eclectic educational philosophy and an actual schedule of classes (unlike my earlier Maine Summerhill experiment) mixed with chores, work projects, community meetings, hikes in the mountains and evening folk dancing.

My own educational philosophy, borne from the failures of my own schooling, the successes of Antioch, the experiments of the various schools I interned at and the ideas of John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, A.S. Neil and others, was still forming, but edging closer to a unified vision and the intentional community out in the country felt like what I had been searching for, a place where school was not a specialized set of hoops to jump through to collect random information, but an attempt to live a whole life and learn exactly what was needed at the moment in company with others. I didn’t know anything about Arthur Morgan at the time, but had I read his quote, I would have recognized the vision that was forming:

The ends of education should be that men and women shall have a strong appetite for living, a craving for truth, an insight into the nature of men and things, an understanding sympathy for human hopes, a trained and tempered habit of creative action which turns conviction into accomplishment, a comprehensive purpose which unifies life, and a spirit of passionate commitment which drives one to stake his entire energies and resources on bringing life into accord with his hopes."

Also developing at the time was my remedial music education. I had discovered Scott Joplin, the blues and was tickled by Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. So when I decided to offer some music classes, the idea of starting a jug band quickly rose to the top and off we went. I also met up with a drama teacher (soon to be girlfriend) and we collaborated with little pantomimes set to ragtime piano and an ambitious production of West Side Story As my allotted three months drew to a close, the kids, myself and my girlfriend felt it was too short and I was granted another three-month extension from Antioch. Enter the first of fate’s twist. Had I returned to Antioch in the winter, I might have gone off again in the Spring and missed meeting Avon Gillespie, the Orff teacher who changed my life. I also would have missed singing in the chorus that took me to Europe. Unthinkable both!

And I would have missed organizing and carrying through the infamous Jug Band Field trip. 17 middle school kids, four teachers driving a rented school bus touring the South for two weeks, from North Carolina to Miami and back, playing and sleeping at community centers, alternative schools, parent’s houses and the like. That’s a story worthy of a best-selling novel, but suffice it to say that it was utterly wild, crazy, fun, intense and forever memorable. I am astounded that I organized all this at a mere 21- years old in the days before e-mail, internet and cell phones. And thankfully, in the days before the lawyers took over the world. I’m sure I would be arrested today simply for thinking about this trip and how we did it!

Fast-forward to yesterday, the first day of the Arthur Morgan’s School 50th year reunion.
Some 200 alums gathered back at their old home in the mountains, seven of them veterans of the jug band field trip and four of whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years! Those bubbly 12-year olds now 52 and all of us hanging out and chatting as if it were the next day of the trip. That was pleasure enough, but when we sat around the piano with kazoos and spoons and washboard and sang the old songs, we could have powered Las Vegas with the electricity generated—and everyone remembering all the words!! Tomorrow we perform at the formal ceremony.

Comparing banging around on spoons and humming into kazoos with what the 17 Middle Schoolers my colleagues and I took to Salzburg last year (almost exactly these dates!) did, I felt like I had grown as a music teacher enormously. I told my old students that it was a mercy that we had no recordings of us because I’m sure we sounded like crap. They seemed a little insulted and countered with, “No, we were great! Remember we played at this place and the people were dancing on the tables?” And then it struck me that though in terms of musical sophistication and actual developed skills, the Salzburg group was a different level, the spirit behind both was the same. And 90% of what communicates and matters in music is the spirit, the feelings generated and the unbridled sense of fun in both the participation and the listening.

James Hillman’s “acorn theory” of development in his book The Soul’s Code suggests that our destiny is born with us and we live our lives backwards, aiming to bloom into the oak already in the acorn we’re born with. The qualities of our guiding image change and develop in nuance and sophistication with age and practice, but their central character is fixed and unchangeable. My work with the jug band at 21 years old and the Orff Salzburg group at 60 years old was one and the same.

After my six months was up, I did return to Antioch, met Avon and took my first Orff class, went to Europe and sang 15th century sacred music with the Antioch Choir and graduated from college. My intention was to return to the Arthur Morgan School as an official teacher and live the rest of my life teaching in the North Carolina Mountains. But Destiny had other plans. Before I left, my fellow teachers on the jug band trip had written a letter to the school Board of Directors suggesting that the current head (in his first year) was doing strange things, alienating students and withdrawing from teachers. The Board eventually agreed and fired him, but the new directors decided not to re-hire us long-haired agitators and thus, my vision was not to be. So Plan B was to go to San Francisco and find out what awaited me there.

Back here at the reunion, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that things turned out as they did. Of course, I was disappointed and angry at the time, but looking back, I can’t imagine it happening any other way. One theory, and the one I lean to, is that invisible hands are guiding these things and everything that happens, no matter how painful at the time, is supposed to happen. Another theory, and one I think about when bad things happen to good people, is that such things are completely random, but it’s the way we respond to them that matters. Had I been hired back here, I’d like to think another life would have awaited me as fulfilling and pleasurable and exciting as mine has been. But having lived through The San Francisco School, my wife Karen and daughters Kerala and Talia, it’s beyond me to imagine that other life.

Much food for thought here. But I gotta go rehearse with the jug band!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Doug! I feel so lucky to have had you as my teacher at such an important age. It was great to see you again!!!!

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