The Anatomy of Blind Brook
I used to feel like the building could breathe. I would think that as I looked at it, walking from the upper parking lot to the glass front doors after my dad would drop me off at 7:30 in the morning in his VW Bug on his way to the train station. I was sure that I could see the building taking in air and letting it out, like a living thing, like a big, observing lion on a hill.
Emmy-winning writer, Janet Iacobuzio, BBHS Class of 1980
The best framework I can think of, in writing about and describing the first decade of Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School is a combination of the anatomical and the romantic/spiritual. That is: a body (the building), a head/brain (David Schein), a heart (George Trautwein), and a Soul (the students and staff). In relating the complete story of the unique endeavor Blind Brook was during that first decade, each of those components needs attention, analysis, and explanation. Janet Iacobuzio’s memory of that building all these years later --- that it was “a living thing” --- reinforces my belief in the need for a thorough autopsy of that first decade. So, let’s wash up, put on those gloves, and get to work!
At some point during the school year, in those early years, I would march my classes outdoors (weather permitting) to not only look at our building but to “experience” the space, the openness, the light and the sound or silence. To my mind, the building invited, indeed, required explanation and analysis because it was so unique. It did not, upon first view from the outside say “school” --- and certainly not once you were inside, either. I believed our students needed to consciously experience the SPACE they lived in (and probably took for granted) each day. Sadly, very little trace of the original building remains today therefore it's important to memorialize what the first Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School was, physically, as that built environment embodied much of the school’s progressive approach to education.
“A Building Landed on Our Building”
If you were to visit 840 King Street in Rye Brook, New York, today you would drive up a lovely tree-lined incline and see, up to your right, Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School. The present incarnation of the building bears no resemblance to the original structure that housed the first decade of the school’s existence. There is barely a trace of the building we lived in from 1973 to 1983 --- so much so, Joe Levy (Class of ’82 & former Executive Editor of Rolling Stone Magazine and The Village Voice) commented, “A building landed on our building.” Indeed, that’s what it looks and feels like. The current incarnation of the school reminds me of a piece of New York City history. From 1842 to the 1890’s the Croton Distributing Reservoir sat on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. If one is familiar with New York City today, you know that the New York Public Library sits at that address (and has since 1911). However, if you tour the library, you can see stones that are a vestige of the original structure that stood there. In the same way, if you tour the current iteration of BB Jr./Sr. HS you can also see a vestige of the original red-brick structure that was consumed by the new building. Today’s school architecture very much coincides with what would be considered traditional secondary school architecture (and all that implies).
Here’s what Wikipedia says about Blind Brook’s history:
The original building was considered modern as it contained "open classrooms". This setup contained classrooms that had movable walls and/or bookcases separating them. This made for an interesting and different learning environment since students walking in hallways would also be walking behind classes. The building was designed this way as the district chose to focus around a humanities curriculum that included interdisciplinary studies. Its faculty, a blending of teachers already working on the K-9 Ridge Street staff with new hires committed to the open-space educational concept, began an educational adventure that lasted in spirit for over 20 years. Wikipedia (Bold, mine)
It wasn’t just the “open classrooms” that distinguished the new school, though. What Wikipedia fails to document is all the other essential components of the building that contributed to the development of a unique school culture during the first decade. If you happened to be in my class during that time, here’s what you would have learned during “the Tour.”
Form Follows Function
Starting exactly where Janet Iacobuzio left us, “walking from the upper parking lot to the glass front doors,” here’s what you would encounter.
Standing before the building you would first notice that unlike most traditional high schools of that era --- which resembled factories or warehouses with Greek columns at the entrance --- Blind Brook resembled a fortress or citadel, with dark red brick and lots of glass. Leading up to those glass doors was a long walkway of dark gray stones --- a drawbridge spanning the moat between “the world” and our school. As noted earlier, you drive up an incline to reach the school, so it was, indeed, set upon a hill --- like the metaphor used to describe the founding of the American Republic as a “beacon of hope.” Grandiose, perhaps, but not inaccurate. Once you reached those front glass doors, you entered a New World, unlike any school you’d ever been in before.
After passing through a set of double glass doors you moved into a foyer bathed in light by the two-story glass windows surrounding the front doors. To your left was a suspended stairway, to your right, a sunken staircase, and directly in front of you a two-story wall of glass with a Commons area ahead and a second-floor walkway (bordered by the glass) suspended above. A double door to your left led into the Commons, with yet more glass walls to your left, looking into the Instructional Media Center (IMC). Entering the Commons was a stunning experience. Picture this: a vast carpeted open area, almost three stories high with angled skylights above, immersing the space in glorious light on sunny days. There was another suspended staircase essentially “hanging” in the Commons, with open slats you could see through --- and your unobstructed view directly ahead revealed a short, recessed stairway to the cafeteria, whose back wall was, of course, windows! In other words, there was a wondrous sense of space, light, openness and, yes, freedom, that the space, the building conveyed as soon as you entered. As you looked up in front of you (and you couldn’t help it --- those skylights drew your eyes up, just as a medieval cathedral’s architecture does) you saw yet another glass wall with a “hallway” that passed before some of the only enclosed areas of the building (the Main Office, Faculty Room, Business Classroom). And up to your right --- more glass walls --- that looked into the Science Labs on the second floor. Up to the left was the second floor’s suspended walkway/”hallway” (with lockers tucked away, off the walk) --- where students could congregate and look into those same Labs. Light, space, openness and, freedom --- and that was just upon entering the building!
Why this Story?
If you have not read the late Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (The Ecco Press, 2000) I recommend you get it and consume it posthaste. It’s a wonderful book in which the author’s voice rings true throughout. Back at the turn of this century it became a cause celebre in the restaurant industry, particularly as The Food Network was exploding as a national phenomenon. I bring Bourdain’s book up here to explain why I’m writing this story --- a story about a unique secondary school that was started in Westchester County, New York fifty years ago.
A half-century is a good chunk of time --- presently, 34% of the U.S. population is 50 years old or more --- about one-third of the country. As one who spent most of his professional life teaching history to secondary students (or to aspiring teachers of history), a 50th Anniversary is significant to me. In the last five years we have seen the 50th Anniversary of the MLK and RFK assassinations, the moonwalk and Woodstock, Earth Day and Roe v. Wade. Fifty years ago, I began my first full-time teaching job at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in Rye Brook, N.Y. in September of 1973. At that time, BB Jr./Sr. High School was brand-new and had students in grades 7 through 10, with the plan being to add a grade each year, graduating its first full class in 1976 (4 students graduated early in 1975). More than that, it was a consciously planned interdisciplinary, Arts/Humanities focused school, with a radical open space floor plan (no interior walls!) and a unique glass and brick structure. Some of the early graduates told their college classmates they had attended an “experimental” high school.
Most people have attended secondary schools that have been in their community (seemingly) forever. Even in this era of charter schools, it is still unusual to see a brand-new school created from scratch. Yet, in 1973, a school was created where one had not existed before, and its story is worth noting --- not only because of its unique architecture and curriculum but because of the people who attended and taught there. In its first decade (1973-1983) Blind Brook produced a stunning array of graduates (particularly in the Arts/Humanities) and boasted an administration and faculty that, like the school itself, was singularly unique. And that’s where the connection to Anthony Bourdain occurs.
The first Blind Brook administration and faculty was notable for their energy, creativity, and youth --- orchestrated by a visionary leader. It was a faculty well-versed in progressive education philosophy and recognized, in their Principal and colleagues, a shared commitment and a clear awareness that we were creating something no one had seen before. And that’s where this quote from Bourdain comes into play:
I want readers to get a glimpse of making really good food at a professional
level. I’d like them to understand what it feels like to attain the child’s dream
of running one’s own pirate crew – what it feels like, looks like and smells like
in the clatter and hiss of a big-city restaurant kitchen. . . . I’d like civilians who
read this to get a sense, at least, that this life, in spite of everything, can be fun.
(Kitchen Confidential, p. 5)
Like Bourdain’s book, I’d like to re-create the sights and sounds, successes and failures, of those early years at Blind Brook where, at least some of us, did feel like we were that “child’s dream of (being) one’s own pirate crew.” There was an energy that propelled the school’s creation that felt . . . swashbuckling! We had set out into unchartered waters and, luckily, the man at the helm, David Schein, knew how to set a course that moved us forward, guided us through storms and swells, and kept us headed toward a safe harbor for the crew and its precious cargo (our students).
It’s also important to tell this story through the voices of those who were there --- the students, teachers, administrators, and staff. Most people (“civilians”) think they know how schools work because they went to school. To me, that’s like saying you can fly a plane because you’ve been a passenger on an airliner. Unless you’ve spent your days in schools, with students, with other teachers, with administrators, with the staff, for 8 to 10 hours a day, forty to forty-five weeks a year, you have no idea what “life in schools” is like. And here, again, I must quote Bourdain’s “A Note from the Chef” in his book:
For me, the cooking life has been a long love affair, with moments both
sublime and ridiculous. But like a love affair, looking back you remember
the happy times best --- the things that drew you in, attracted you in the
first place, the things that kept you coming back for more. I can give the
reader a taste of those things and those times. (p.5-6)
For me, the teaching life was a similar “love affair” and I’m sure it’s because that first decade at Blind Brook taught me how interesting, exciting, creative, and gratifying spending your days with young people and committed adults can be. I only hope that the stories that follow will convey a fraction of the unique and exceptional experience that first decade at Blind Brook was.
In the summer of 2022, I was watching a New York Yankees game when a rookie reliever was brought in during the late innings to pitch for the Bombers. I wasn’t paying much attention until I heard that Greg Weissert went to Bay Shore High School --- my alma mater. Maybe this has happened to you, too --- that someone from your high school has reached a place of notoriety or celebrity. Up to that point in time, the most notable BSHS graduates I knew of were Harvey Milk (Class of ’49, the year I was born), writer Ron Rosenbaum (Class of 1963), and investigative journalist/radio personality Amy Goodman (Class of 1975). And now, Greg Weissert! Given that Bay Shore has graduated anywhere from 350 to 500 students every year since I attended the place (1963-1967) I assumed that most PUBLIC high schools do not, in fact, graduate very many notable luminaries. We know, of course, that the elite private schools crank out people whose names we recognize in the worlds of business, politics, entertainment, literature, etc. And, to a lesser extent, “prestige” public high schools (Stuyvestant & Bronx Science in New York City, for example) also have their fair share of “known” graduates. But most public high schools graduate a handful of people who achieve “celebrity” or “notable” status. Which is why, ultimately, I believe the story of Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School’s first decade is significant --- and might, I hope, give rise to a discussion about (if not an argument for) the necessity of progressive education in our public schools.
If “the proof is in the pudding” then it is significant to peruse what Blind Brook’s “kitchen” produced between 1973 and 1983. The graduates I am going to list are individuals who have achieved not only success in their field but at least a modicum of recognition for their work. Given that Blind Brook was designed to be an Arts/Humanities high school at the outset, it is particularly interesting to note how many writers and artists (in a variety of genres/fields) the school produced. Which is not to say it did not produce notable graduates in business, the sciences, and the culinary world, as well. But it seems more than coincidental that a school that focused on the progressive tenets of student-centered classes, project-based learning, and developing critical thinking skills produced graduates who carried that learning into their careers beyond the classroom. If “the proof is in the pudding” then it seems Blind Brook’s progressive approach to education was, indeed, a success.
Without naming names, here are some of the positions achieved and accomplishments of the BBHS graduates from that first decade.
This doesn’t mention all the other successful graduates, of course, who (like teachers) lead productive and enjoyable lives --- and remain an active part of that early Blind Brook Community (thank you, Social Media Networks). In reviewing the list above, it is significant to note how many writers, artists, and arts-related graduates emerged from that first decade at BBHS, when the focus was on a progressive, student-centered Arts/Humanities curriculum. Maybe it’s coincidental, maybe it’s a fluke, but maybe, just maybe, there was something special happening in that place at that time. And that’s “why” this story.
Context: Inside the Story
John Dewey is considered the “Father of Progressive Education.” Integral to his conception of what school should be was that it must be “a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons.” Dewey’s belief was that school, done right, would be an incubator of democracy. In his words:
The good society was, like the good self, a diverse yet harmonious,
growing yet unified whole, a fully participatory democracy in which
the powers and capacities of the individuals that comprised it were
harmonized by their cooperative activities into a community that
permitted the full and free expression of individuality.
Living in a post-Covid world, the need for community is more important than ever and schools --- which were particularly devastated by the pandemic --- need to be places that are as focused on community-building as they are on making up for the “learning loss” engendered by the pandemic. Given that, it seems a story about building school culture around a notion of community is more important now than ever. And that’s where a glimpse back at an experiment in Progressive Education may be instructive.
There are moments in history in which the improbable --- indeed the impossible --- happen. The odds seem impossibly stacked in one direction --- the British Empire versus the North American colonists, the 1969 Baltimore Orioles playing the New York Mets in the World Series, the NFL’s Baltimore Colts against the AFL’s New York Jets in the third Super Bowl, George Foreman fighting Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. Yet, in all these cases the underdog, miraculously, pulled out the victory, stunning the world. On a much smaller and localized scale, for a brief wrinkle in time, a similar “miracle” occurred in a small unincorporated village in Westchester County, New York.
There is no doubt that the 1960’s was a period of upheaval and change in the United States – civil rights, the Vietnam war, women’s liberation, and gay rights were the driving political and social movements of the period. Before examining what specifically happened in Rye Brook, New York, let’s define “the Sixties.” When people refer to the “the Sixties” it may evoke images of Jack Kennedy’s election and inaugural address (November 1960 and January 20, 1961). Or Kennedy’s going toe-to-toe with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. But I would contend that “the Sixties” don’t really begin until 1963 --- and don’t end until 1974. Why 1963 to 1974? Consider the following:
“The Sixties,” as we know them, were propelled by Baby Boomers. The “Baby Boom” began in 1946 --- and those people were reaching College Age in 1963.
And it’s during this period that a “revolution” was occurring in an unexpected ---and unlikely setting --- an affluent suburb of New York City.
It’s important to note that while there were political and social revolutions transpiring in the world of “liberation” (Blacks, women, gays, indigenous Americans, et al), as well as a vigorous anti-War movement, changes were afoot in the world of education as well. It’s significant that as Baby Boomers ascended to the position of becoming the “best/most educated” generation in U.S. history, there was a new wave of reform/revolution breaking shore in the world of education --- and a host of writers emerged in the late-Sixties/early Seventies popularizing a New Wave of progressive reform.
In a paper presented to the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE)in 1978, Professor Murray Print discussed “The Romantic Critics: Implications for Schooling and Learning in Australia.” Several the “romantic critics” cited in this paper --- Jonathan Kozol, James Herndon, John Holt, A.S. Neill, and Ivan Illich --- were among the most influential progressive writers who directly influenced many of the new teachers entering the field of education in the late-Sixties/early-Seventies --- and certainly many of the new teachers at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School.
According to Print’s paper, tenets promoted by the “romantic critics” included:
2. They have greeted with skepticism the values and attitudes in schooling. They have described with incredulity, the attitudes of teachers and the methods they have employed.
3. The affective development of children has been a readily demonstrated concern of the critics. They deplore the practices of schools in emphasizing the child’s cognitive development while neglecting his affective growth.
4. An emphatic message of the radical reform movement is that schooling should not be accepted as it existed in the 1960s.
5. Teachers can and do play significantly different roles. Meaningful, helpful, supportive relationships can exist between teacher and student, though the onus for establishing such relationships is on the teacher. . . . These teachers are not dominating, petty, apathetic, coercive, or bombastic, rather they view their role as facilitator, to encourage the child to develop what is best for him.
There is a clear focus on student-centered education and the affective domain in the work of the Sixties/Seventies reformers. In 2000, the prominent education philosopher Maxine Greene reviewed a decade of publications from the University of Illinois Education School’s Educational Theory --- looking back on what was being discussed in school reform. She, too, notes the “romantic criticism of public education” and cites Paul Goodman, Edgar Friedenberg, John Holt, George Dennison, James Herndon, and Jonathan Kozol as well. In reviewing their work, Greene detects:
Echoes of Emersonianism were audible, a pleasant libertarianism, a touch of Rousseau, certain aspects of Deweyan thought. Here and there new schools, “free schools,” were established.
Greene goes on to mention her own encounter, in the late Sixties, with Paolo Friere (his Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a touchstone tome for progressive reformers of that era) and his “new recognition of how persons are trained, by means of assessment and sorting devices, to accommodate a stratified society. The contradictions involved troubled many educators, even those of us who still believed the common school can become a site for democratic modes of thinking and being.” Indeed, Friere’s notion of “banking education,” in which teachers make “deposits” (content) to students that are then “withdrawn” (year-end testing), leaving empty vessels, was a strong metaphor that influenced many a young teacher at the time. Continuing, Greene notes that the literature of the period “wanted to see a reflective examination of . . . ‘roles and rules’ . . . more ‘socially . . . relevant and comprehensively grounded ethical conclusions.” In all, there was a focus on “the importance of educating secondary students in the responsibilities of a free society . . . to nurture . . . the democratic way of life.”
Greene, the pre-eminent education philosopher of the late 20th century, always looked for ways in which philosophy, as a discipline, intersected with praxis --- the actual “doing” of education. That said, it is not surprising that her reflection on the Sixties/Seventies school reform movement was this:
Philosophy is viewed here, not as the governing discipline, but as a way of posing
critical questions of the moment to the school and the society. The view of the
situation, like the view of political education, opened the way to an approach to
education in continuing transaction with salient issues in the culture. The choices
of these issues or of what constituted a situation were to be made reflectively by
teachers in dialogue with one another and with at least minimal familiarity with
the doing of philosophy. Most important, they were to become the questions
of real significance to the community and to the projects teachers might chose
for themselves as they moved ahead in their teaching lives.
For those who think teachers simply “show up” and teach a “subject,” I would point to the Faculty and Administration that inhabited the Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in its first decade to dispel such notions. The awareness and familiarity the administration and staff (and community, for that matter) had with the writers and philosophers who shaped the progressive reform agenda of the Late Sixties/early Seventies was front and center. If you spent more than five minutes in the BBHS Faculty Room, you would have witnessed exactly what Greene is describing when she says “The choices of these issues . . . were to be made reflectively by teachers in dialogue with one another “ --- over and over again.
To understand what made Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School so unique in its first decade, one must understand the deep philosophical foundation the school was built upon. Even if a teacher couldn’t quote chapter and verse or hadn’t read any or many of the authors noted here, the ongoing, incessant conversations that dominated the time the staff spent together built the momentum that carried the school through its first decade and made it, indeed, a unique endeavor.
Mr. Petes & The Moment
A particular highlight of the first year at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School (1973-74) was developing a friendship with Peter Tarshis. One of the most brilliantly creative people I have ever known, Peter had recently graduated from Union College in upstate New York and was living around the corner from me in Rye Brook, where his Mom was the Health/Sex Ed. Teacher in the district. While figuring out his future, Peter (“Mr. Petes”) began substituting at Blind Brook and we quickly became fast friends, based on our mutual love for New York sports (the Knicks & Yankees), the arts (theater, film, cartooning, et al) and our left-handedness. During that first year at Blind Brook, we spent countless hours going into New York City --- to Madison Square Garden, to Yankee Stadium, to the theater. Peter introduced me to the Wooster Group, the Ontological Hysterical Theater, Andre Gregory’s fabulous experimental production of Alice in Wonderland, and, most significantly, Sam Shepard’s early works (The Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth). Because he was substituting so frequently, we found ourselves working and “playing” together all the time --- and it was a blast!
I knew I’d be working at Colgate in the summer of 1974 (as a “Graduate Student Liaison & Video Supervisor”) and encouraged Peter to apply to the program. The way I saw it, he could get his certification (and a master’s degree) in a year and then a full-time job at Blind Brook (we had no doubt David Schein would hire him --- he was a natural in the classroom). We could then continue our adventures in and around New York City --- what could be better? And, in fact, that’s what happened. Peter got into Colgate, did a teaching internship at Eastern Middle School in Greenwich, Connecticut, one semester (so we got to continue hanging out) and, by the fall of 1975, began teaching at Blind Brook as a full time English/Drama teacher.
An interesting sidebar involves that summer in Colgate, 1974. In Peter’s cohort were several notable people. A former schoolmate of Peter’s at Union, Jamie Jacobs --- a brilliant math/science scholar and gymnast, was in the group, as was Del Shortliffe, a newly minted Morehouse Scholar graduate of the University of North Carolina. The four of us quickly became inseparable on the Colgate campus that summer (and in and around the town of Hamilton --- where Del’s aunt lived!), forging friendships that have withstood the test of time. The plan that Peter and I had idealistically hatched during his substitute year came to fruition in the fall of 1975 with Peter becoming a full time English and Drama teacher at BBHS. A side note: David Schein wanted to hire Del, too, but felt he couldn’t hire two English teachers from Colgate at the same time, as he had already hired me, Roger Smith, Mike Nyhan, and Bill Metzler (a math teacher who was in Peter’s cohort) --- worrying that people would think he had some kind of kickback deal with Colgate. Del, of course, was hired in 1977, as soon as another English position opened up --- but that’s a story for another time.
Peter Tarshis’s impact on Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in that first decade was incalculable. His development of the drama program --- as well as his work with George Trautwein’s wonderful musical productions --- was stunning. I’m not sure if Peter was ever aware of how much his enthusiasm for dramatic theater and his ability to translate that into brilliant teaching effected not only his students but also his colleagues. As a result of working with (and learning from) Peter, I had no qualms about taking on producing and directing school plays when I taught in Winchester and Bronxville.
After a decade at Blind Brook, Peter was looking to move beyond teaching high school, professionally, and in 1986 he directed a music video that won the MTV Basement Tapes contest (for “Boys” by the Triplets) which included the group getting a contract with Elektra Records. Shortly after, Peter left BBHS, beginning a very successful career as an Emmy winning producer and executive vice-president at the A & E Network. Nonetheless, like any great teacher, Peter’s influence is still felt by the students he worked with at Blind Brook. As I’ve been compiling stories about the first decade of our unusual “no-walls” progressive school, I received the following narrative from Marc Ackerman, Class of 1985. I believe it speaks to how special Blind Brook --- and particularly Peter’s work there --- was.
The Blind Brook Moment
I consider my years in BBHS (1981-1985) to be the late stage of its “golden era.” The more
progressive ‘70’s had yielded to the more conservative ‘80’s, with Dave Schein no longer
roaming the halls and Ronald Reagan leading the country. There was even talk about building
walls in classrooms and restricting the school’s open campus. The walls were literally closing
But fortunately, my classmates and I were still able to experience that unique BB magic. Del Shortliffe took an expansive view of the English curriculum, taking time in class to introduce us
to the jazz stylings of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s and the avant garde prog rock of David Byrne and
the Talking Heads. Zach Charon taught us how to make tofu in Physics, which I’m sure made
perfect sense at the time. We made our own video games in computer class with Dave Press,
whose corny jokes masked that he was teaching us valuable problem-solving skills and what we
now known as coding. Gary Cialfi, that intimidating, and irascible, but ultimately kind and goofy
music director, whipped us into mastering the classics in concert band, and then encouraged us
to put aside our scores and explore the vague wonders of improvising solos in jazz band. The
band and choir traveled to Italy to learn more about the world and ourselves. And, ultimately,
the campus remained open and free periods were genuinely free, giving us the ability to make
some choices we’d regret and some we’d be proud of, but all of which helped us understand
For me, the real magic happened every spring when I opened the doors to that small black,
rectangular studio we called the LGI (Large Group Instruction Room), and began rehearsals for the spring play with Pete Tarshis. I can still hear Pete’s laugh during auditions. He’d throw out a few random words and ask you to improvise a monologue using them–a near impossible task for an awkward teenager that Pete would make easier by laughing heartily at any choice you’d make. And then rehearsals would start, and we’d create entire worlds within those LGI walls. Pete would ask us to imagine our characters’ lives beyond the script and stage directions, asking us as we lay on the stage in a semi-meditative state: What does your character’s room look like? What objects are there? How does your character feel when you see those objects? Then we’d slowly rise
and walk around the stage and do our best to adopt our character’s physicalities. How do they
walk? How do they sit or stand? How do they smile or frown? We did this every day and it
never felt repetitive or unnecessary. Pete somehow kept it fresh and important, and
encouraged any choice we made. Pete’s approach to directing was not to dictate to his actors,
but to provide them the tools to make their own choices. We somehow knew that none of our
choices were wrong–they were simply ours. How about that for a life lesson?
I couldn’t wait to get to the LGI every day for rehearsal, and I hated to leave. It was not unusual
for cast members to arrive early or linger at the end just to soak in a few more minutes together.
Which is why there were always mixed emotions when it came time for the performances. We
were excited to share our work with family and friends, but we knew it would be over soon. Pete
sensed this, and in his perfectly understated way prepared us for it. The day of each opening
performance, he told us: You’ve got a lot going through your heads right now–lines, blocking,
costumes, homework and more. But don’t pass up the opportunity to remember a moment.
That moment is the one when the lights are down, the play is about to begin and you’re ready to
make your first entrance. In that moment, take stock of how you are feeling. Feel the
nervousness, the excitement, the anticipation, and the fear. Remember the work you’ve put in to
get you to that moment and feel proud. Really drink in that feeling and connect to it. There is
nothing like it.
To this day, I can put myself back in those moments. I can conjure up precisely how I felt just
prior to my first entrances, experiencing those emotions as vividly now as I felt them then. Pete
and all the teachers, students and administrators that made up the BB institution gave us the
gift of moments that enable us to put ourselves back in BB at any time in our lives. My
moments were in the spring play, but everyone who passed through BB has such a “moment.”
This ability to connect with our past makes it easier to face the challenges of the present. I also
learned to try to recognize the important junctures in life and, in those moments, take a beat to
be present. Remember what I am feeling so that someday I can look back and feel how I felt
then. It’s a priceless exercise that has made my life fuller and more fulfilling.
This wonderfully articulate expression about Peter’s teaching (as well as that of Del and David Press and Zac Charon and Gary Cialfi) is just one of the narratives I’ll be sharing in my effort to capture the unique experience that Blind Brook was during that first decade, 1973-1983.
The New Trump University
If you’ve been watching television the last few weeks, you may have seen some advertisements encouraging you to take free online courses from Hillsdale College. The offerings I have seen are for “Constitution 101,” “The True Story of Our America,” and “Discover the Origins and Key Ideas of the Modern American Left.” Knowing a little bit about Hillsdale --- it’s an independent, Christian college in southern Michigan which does not accept Federal funding of any kind and has become a darling of politicians like Ron DeSantis --- I was particularly interested in seeing what the content of “Origins of the Modern American Left” might be.
The New Yorker’s April 3, 2023 issue ran an article by Emma Green entitled “The Christian Liberal-Arts School at the Heart of the Culture Wars” about Hillsdale. According to Green:
The Hillsdale education has several hallmarks: a devotion to the Western canon, an emphasis on primary sources over academic theory, and a focus on equipping students to be able, virtuous citizens. There is no department of women’s and gender studies, no concentrations on race and ethnicity. It’s a model of education that some scholars consider dangerously incomplete. It’s also a model that communities across the country are looking to adopt.
That description may seem innocuous --- the glaring omissions of race/class/gender studies notwithstanding. But there’s more to Hillsdale than that, and therein lies its popularity with the MAGA-oriented public.
For the past 20 years, under the leadership of Larry Arnn, Hillsdale has established itself as a college that has not been sucked into the left-wing woke downward cultural spiral. While it claims it is not partisan, their website states:
Sadly, reports show that increasing numbers of schools are indoctrinating students with a false and dishonest narrative of our nation’s history, presenting America as essentially and irredeemably flawed. Your Liberty Walk brick shows that you’re on the battlefield of education, promoting the knowledge and understanding necessary to preserve liberty.
“Liberty Walk” features statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thachter, lined with a donor-sponsored brick walkway. Green notes in her article, that as she walked around the campus “it was also impossible not to notice the whiteness of the student body and the faculty. Every professor I met was a white man, except Khalil Habib, a politics professor, who is Lebanese Catholic. Hillsdale pointedly refuses to compile statistics on its students’ racial backgrounds.” She also reports the campus is not exactly LGBQT friendly, as one might suspect. Perusing a list of the College’s guest lecturers also speaks to the school’s orientation: Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Dnesh D’Souza, and Christopher Rufo who, according to Green, is “the researcher and conservative activist who spearheaded the campaign against critical race theory, (he) gave a talk at the school last spring called “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” in which he argued that conservatives will never win the fight against progressivism “if we play by the rules set by the élites who are undermining our country.” That said, I decided to look at what the online course advertised as “Discover the Origins and Key Ideas of the Modern American Left” might be teaching prospective Hillsdale students.
One of the first things one discovers when you hit the link for this course is that the actual title is: “The American Left: From Liberalism to Despotism,” which certainly says a lot. Claiming to provide an “in-depth explanation” of how the political Left became “radical,” the link claims that by taking the course
Hardly the language of an institution that claims to be “non-partisan.” But let’s consider what each of these bullet-points is really stating.
“The differences between midcentury liberals and the radicals who revolted against them.” One can only assume this means that the late-Sixties “liberation” movements (Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, indigenous people’s rights, worker’s rights, etc.) were further Left than the Establishment’s “New Deal” (midcentury)liberals. We can’t quibble with that distinction. New Deal liberals had given a wide berth to the segregationist Southern Democrats/Dixiecrats who, because of Lyndon Johnson’s “radical” Civil Rights legislation (Voting Rights Bill, Civil Rights Bill), migrated to Nixon’s Republican Party (the “Southern Strategy”) in 1964. In Hillsdale’s ecosystem, the move away from white, male-dominated political power is, in fact, a move toward “despotism.”
“How post-sixties radicals gained power in government bureaucracies and educational institutions.” While it is difficult for me to find any evidence that this a true statement, Hillsdale College believes this --- as do MAGA-supporting Republicans and it fuels their anger and “victimization” conspiracy theories. Let’s look at some facts: since 1972, where have “post-sixties radicals gained power?” Certainly not in the federal executive, legislative, or judicial branches! And, while there is great sturm-und-drang regarding the supposed “indoctrination” happening at universities across the country, all polling shows a strikingly evenly divided nation: Gallup’s March 2023 numbers are 25% Democrat, 25% Republican, 49% Independent. Since 1972 the Presidency has been controlled by Republicans for 28 years and the Democrats for 24, with control of the House and Senate almost equally divided as well. The Supreme Court, since the demise of the Warren Court in 1969 has become more and more Conservative --- hardly a group of “post-sixties radicals.” This Hillsdale course, then, has some questionable premises underpinning it.
“The principles of neoliberalism that arose in the late 1970s and how these ideas changed the morality and economy of America.” Clearly, the “changes in morality” has to do with women’s reproductive rights and gay rights --- rights a white, male dominated culture cannot tolerate. The changes in the economy, one would have to guess, have to do with what the Right believes is the establishment of a “socialist Welfare State.” The incessant attack on “entitlements” (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, C.H.I.P.S., Veterans programs, unemployment compensation, etc.)from the Right --- and in this course (?) --- is a central plank of the MAGA “platform.”
"The reasons America’s political and business elite embraced the woke ideology of the Left during Barack Obama’s second term.” The buzzwords here are obvious: “America’s political and business elite” and “woke ideology.” The animus the Maga-Right holds for what they label “political and business elite” has grown out of the Tea Party and MAGA white, male fear of losing power and dominance over politics and business. Once again, it is not at all clear WHO these people are, exactly, other than anyone who holds even a remotely progressive view of how business and politics should operate. In the same way, very few on the Right can clearly or precisely define “woke ideology” other than it being anything connected with progressive ideas about economics, civil rights, education, or social justice.
The final statement for the Hillsdale “Liberalism to Despotism” course is this:
These lessons are designed to explain the nature and direction of politics today and to provide a path for a return to republican government in America.
It is interesting how a school that supports a political movement which consistently denies a variety of groups their voting rights, a political movement which overtly gerrymanders districting (through state legislatures) to maintain “supermajorities” to subvert the will of the people and supports demagogues and right-wing “radicals” can claim to “provide a path for a return to republican government.” In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, Hillsdale College, and its “Christian liberal-arts” orientation seems hypocritical, at best, and dangerous at worst.
Over many years of teaching --- no matter whether it was English, History, Humanities, etc. --- there was one lesson I always taught my students: critical viewing, particularly television. The premise was simple, really --- watch commercials carefully and critically (critical = serious, not negative). In an age of digital streaming this is less cogent, of course, but the tenets of critical viewing remain the same. If you are watching any entertainment on a screen keep your eyes peeled to discern who the producers/directors/sponsors think their audience is. Even back in the 1970’s I would point out that during NBA games McDonald’s commercials were suddenly replete with Black people in their ads. Soap operas got their name for a reason --- starting back in the 1950’s the consumers of daytime television were housewives and various laundry and home cleaning products were the advertisers. George Carlin did a routine where he pointed out that during Sunday football games, most of the commercials “had hair on them.” “Tires that grip the road!,” for example, and lots of razor blade, power tool, and John Deere ads. The same holds true for streaming channels, too. While some try to appeal to a wide audience (HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Amazon Prime), others have a clear target audience (ESPN – owned by Disney), and still others offer “ad-free” or “with-ads” (Hulu, Sling, et al) trying to straddle the divide. But even with those channels, you can watch their programming with an eye toward “Who do they think the audience is for this (horror, crime, rom-com, etc.) offering?” The point is, be an active viewer/consumer of whatever is on your screen --- don’t simply let it wash over you without thinking (unless, of course, you simply need to spend some mindless couch time --- and you consciously turn your brain off).
All that said, it dawned on me recently, that I have been mindlessly watching a lot of television since retiring in 2014. Even though we subscribe to Netflix, HBO/MAX, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Apple+ our default mode is, too often, cable television offerings (with commercials!). We have taken to watching syndicated shows that were on when we were very busy working on school reform (read: approximately 1990 – 2014). Many, many episodes of Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NCIS, NCIS: New Orleans, CSI: NY, Criminal Minds, and other “police procedurals” have taken up countless hours of mindless viewing (usually while “multi-tasking” – reading, making grocery lists, playing Wordle, etc.). We’ve also seen every Seinfeld episode (several times?)as well as lots of MSNBC and Food Network chatter. What prompted my thinking about critical viewing of late, however, has been the discovery of the Rewind Channel (151 on Fairfield County’s Optimum cable) --- which “specializes” (?) in recycling old sit-coms. As I have surveyed their offerings throughout the day(retirement affords a lot of tv time) it is clear they have geared their programming based on whom they believe might be watching their channel throughout the day. Therefore, during the morning and afternoon, prior to Prime Time, there are a lot of “family” and “kid” oriented sit-coms (Different Strokes, The Facts of Life, Head of the Class, Family Ties, Hogan Family, Growing Pains, Who’s the Boss?, 227). At 6:00 p.m., though, the programming shifts to more mainstream/”adult”/prime-time shows (Wings, NewsRadio, Drew Carey, Just Shoot Me, Becker, Murphy Brown – all in two-episode, one-hour blocks). We have, of late, found ourselves catching Just Shoot Me (from 9:00 to 10:00 p.m.) and Becker (from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m.) several evenings per week. I won’t critique either show (they are amusing, well-written comedies with engaging cast members) but I will apply my own critical viewing lesson regarding who advertises during the 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. time slot on the Rewind Channel and reflect on how that reflects whom they believe their audience is.
During the past week I have taken notes on the advertising we have been subjected to while watching these shows. After examining this list of advertisers, it becomes rather apparent, I believe, who Rewind television thinks is watching. But you be the judge. All these products are advertised more than once during the two-hour span --- another significant critical viewing fact.
I hardly know anyone who owns a Time-Share but there must be a shocking number of people who do because the Time-Share Relief Hotline advertises again and again on Rewind TV. According to these ads, many people bought their Time-Share after being “kept in a room for as long as 10 hours without water,” subjected to “arrogant, aggressive salespeople” who wore these innocent victims down until they relented and invested in a Time-Share. Years later, these people have not only come to regret their purchase but are saddled with enormous annual debt they can’t get out from under --- unless they call the Time-Share Relief Hotline. The wizards at the Hotline have expertise that will allow these Time-Share victims to finally escape their oppressive, crushing financial burden.
It wasn’t until I watched Rewind TV that I discovered “every 39 seconds someone has a heart attack” until I was bombarded by American Heart Association ads. In the same way, I’ve made the acquaintance of Jonathan Lawson, who has instilled in me the importance of “the 3 P’s” which govern the Colonial Penn Insurance Company. “Price, Price, and Price” guides Colonial Penn, offering insurance options starting at $9.95 per month --- even if you’re “54 and a former smoker,” or “80 and taking medication.” You don’t have to pass a physical and your rate is “locked in” for the rest of your life (but no benefits are available in the first two years of your policy). There aren’t a lot of other details, but Jonathan is a convincing pitchman ---you might want to consider calling that 800 number!
Another product you can’t escape on Rewind TV between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. is Plexaderm. This is a skin care product that makes wrinkles and discolored skin disappear! Of course, if you happen to read the fine print at the bottom of the screen you discover “Effects last for hours. Results are temporary and vary by individual and require 10 minutes for maximum effectiveness.” Of course, it’s only $14.95 for a small jar (about 6 applications) so why not change your appearance like the folks in the video? Part of my issue with this one --- aside from the clearly ephemeral nature of the product’s effectiveness --- is that the “models” in the ad barely look different in their “before” and “after” pictures. But you be the judge --- just tune in weekday nights between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. and keep your eyes peeled for the Plexaderm people.
Before watching Rewind TV, I was not aware of the severity of “IRS Tax Nightmares” affecting my fellow citizens. Most egregiously, according to the Tax Relief Line, there are cases of divorced single Moms who have been left with enormous tax debt by their slacker ex-husbands. Luckily, the Tax Relief Line has used the “Innocent Spouse Relief” card in cases like these and saved numerous damsels in distress (we’re led to believe). Along with the “Tax Relief” pro’s there are a bevy of personal injury lawyers who will represent you if you believe you’ve been a victim of a “medical mistake” which has led to your child’s cerebral palsy or Erb’s palsy --- particularly if you believe the disability could have been prevented. I’m sure people are victims of this kind of malpractice but I’m not sure I trust lawyers who are advertising to encourage people to engage in litigation designed to line the lawyer’s pockets by preying on tragic victims.
If you suffer from diabetes you need to get in touch, posthaste, with the Diabetes Solution Center to get your CGM – Continuous Glucose Monitor. There is no doubt millions of Americans suffer from diabetes --- and I’m sure a CGM is a very useful device --- but I’m guessing one’s doctor can provide the best advice regarding your obtaining a CGM. Along those lines, I’m also convinced Instaflex Advanced Pain Cream is not any better than taking a couple of Tylenol (or any other topical cream) for relieving your arthritis pain. Given the bombardment by these products on Rewind TV, I can’t begin to guess how many of my fellow citizens are suffering from these maladies.
Finally, the ASPCA and the ACLU make numerous appeals between 9 & 11 p.m on Rewind TV. Both (quite worthy) organizations ask for $19.00 a month (“only 63 cents a day”). Even non-profits that don’t advertise on Rewind TV (St. Jude’s & Shriner’s Hospital, for example) are also asking for $19.00 a month --- as if there’s some magic in not asking for $20.00? Whatever . . . the ASPCA runs a heartbreaking video of poor animals (mostly dogs) who have withstood abominable treatment and conditions --- making you consider that $19.00 a month, even if you can’t afford it!! The ACLU simply lays out their “protect our rights” case directly and logically --- and then ask for $19.00 a month, the magic number.
Given what’s been presented here: Time-Share Relief, Tax Relief, “medical mistakes,” diabetes, heart attacks, Life Insurance, Plexaderm, the ASPCA and the ACLU --- who would you say is watching Rewind TV weekdays from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m?
Where were you?
There are certain events in U.S. history which are so dramatic that citizens have a shared memory --- enabling them to answer the question: Where were you when . . . ? For my parents it was Pearl Harbor and then V-E & V-J Days. For my generation it was the JFK assassination. For younger generations it was the Challenger explosion and, of course, 9/11.
On the Smithsonian Institute’s website 1968 is referred to as “The Year that Shattered America.” The sub-head reads: “The nation is still reckoning with the changes that came in that fateful year.” Fifty-five years ago. About 75% of the U.S. population was born after 1965 so 1968 is history --- and, in many cases, distant (“ancient?”) history.
Let me briefly summarize some of the major events of that year.
The War in Vietnam dominated the news. In February, the Tet Offensive hit the headlines and accelerated the protests against the war. Throughout the year marches, draft-card burning, campus unrest & building takeovers (Columbia University in NYC, most famously) began to move public opinion against the war. The Kerner Commission Report about race-relations was released (declaring “we are moving toward two societies --- one white, one black --- separate and unequal”) and civil rights protests --- with its attendant violence (particularly against the Black Panther Party) --- increased as the year went on. Other highlights included Richard Nixon’s nomination for the presidency by the Republican Party and the “police riot” at the Democratic Convention in Chicago as well as the Mexico City Olympics where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists from the winner’s podium as the national anthem played. We also had Shirley Chisholm elected to Congress as the first Black woman in U.S. history. 1968 was also the year Yale University announced that it would begin admitting women. All memorable events, indeed, and all still resonating --- in good ways and bad --- in today’s society.
There were three specific events which resonate for me, particularly regarding the “Where were you?” question: Lyndon Johnson’s announcement he would not seek re-election (March 31), Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination (April 4), and Robert Kennedy’s assassination (June 5). All three events are inextricably related in my memory and, in retrospect, combined to shape my life going forward. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true for my peers but I’m guessing at the very least, most 73/74 year old’s can tell you where they were when they heard the news about at least one of those events. I know exactly where I was in all three cases.
For two of the events --- the LBJ announcement and the news of MLK’s assassination --- I was where I had spent an inordinate amount of time: 68 Vanderbilt Hall on Yale’s Old Campus in New Haven. It was spring of freshman year, and I lived in 69 Vanderbilt Hall but spent a great deal of time next door, where Steve Dillon had a “portable’ black-and-white television --- rabbit ears and all. Ten of us lived on the 4th floor of Vanderbilt, overlooking the semi-circular driveway courtyard and Chapel Street (where ambulances seemed to blare 24/7 headed up to St. Raphael’s hospital). Steve’s roommate, the late Bruce “Boat” Macmurdo and I had become particularly close, having played “A-League” intramural and New Haven City League basketball together that winter (we also learned to juggle, too). We spent a lot of time playing gin rummy and watching the news on Steve’s tv that spring and were camped in front of the tube when LBJ came on and announced: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Johnson declared he would dedicate himself to ending the war in Vietnam and opened the door for Richard Nixon and his Silent Majority/Southern Strategy (the direct ancestor to Donald Trump and his aggrieved white supremacist/conspiracy addicted followers). I remember being dumbfounded --- with all of us looking at one another and asking, “Did we just really hear that?” By the spring of 1968 most of us were opposed to the war, happy to have student deferments, and hoping the war would be over by the time we graduated (it wasn’t). But the image of LBJ on that little black-and-white screen making that announcement is still vividly clear in my memory (caveat: it may be entirely different in the memories of Dillon, Moyer, Hazard, Cech, Deutsch and any others who may have been there!).
The MLK assassination was more shocking, of course, but the setting was the same. We were watching the tv in 68 Vanderbilt when a “News Flash” interrupted the 7:00 p.m. news and announced King had been shot. Within the hour, he was dead. He was there in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers strike (which started in February and was yet another case of discriminatory practices & violent action by government agencies against Black people) and had delivered his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before, prophetically (and eerily):
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
The clip of that speech was run time and again over the next few days --- and I’m sure it was shown that night, too. Having already lived through JFK’s assassination, this seemed more than a cruel joke --- and it was within a week of LBJ’s announcement. The words from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” reverberated:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Those words ring all too true today.
Finally, there was RFK’s assassination on June 5th. Having completed my freshman year, I was home working my summer job as an apprentice carpenter, framing houses on Long Island. Before leaving New Haven, I had already become a volunteer in Bobby Kennedy’s campaign (he announced on March 16th . . . . which may have contributed to LBJ’s backing out --- particularly after Eugene McCarthy had garnered 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary on March 12th). RFK was gaining momentum and a victory in California’s primary could propel him to the nomination. He edged out McCarthy in California and, immediately after his victory speech was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, sending the Democratic party into disarray and all but guaranteeing Nixon’s ultimate victory in November. It was a shattering moment for the nation, and for me. Even though Kennedy’s assassination occurred around midnight, West Coast time, I was in my parent’s house in Bay Shore (N.Y.) --- wide awake and watching Walter Cronkite’s coverage on CBS, excited about RFK’s chances. In one moment, all my hopes were dashed and the deep cynicism I hold for U.S. politics to this day can be traced to the spring of 1968.
“The nation is still reckoning with the changes that came in that fateful year.”
There is no doubt that we are “still reckoning” with the events that occurred 55 years ago. As we watch the first former president be criminally charged, those who are a certain age remember what led to the ascendence of a president who should have been criminally charged. As we watch the continued violence against Black citizens, we remember the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Living in the wake of senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we can see, clearly, that “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Winston Churchill). Politicians in this country, more interested in maintaining their privileged positions of power, consistently ignore history and the will of the people (witness: the pro-choice/abortion polls and the actions of state legislatures). Who knows when the “Where were you . . . “question will emerge next (Trump’s first conviction?). Let’s only hope that we can, somehow, learn something as we move forward and begin to see that arc of history bend more toward justice and equality.
School Culture – Part Two
A school's culture is made up of the traditions, routines, expectations, and interactions that take place. Attending to these factors in a way that reflects the mission and values of the community, in and outside of the classroom, are key to a healthy culture. (online dictionary definition)
During the first decade of our school-without-interior walls it was natural to develop the trappings of a “real” school: a newspaper (Focus), a yearbook (Spectrum), a variety of “clubs” (Math, French, Spanish, Art, Model U.N., chess), --- all the kinds of organizations you would find in most “traditional” high schools. But beyond those “expected” clubs and organizations Blind Brook began developing an array of routines and interactions that were, indeed, unique to a school that was consciously progressive and believed, at its core, that students had a voice --- and a voice the adults in the community should listen to.
As a result, there was a shifting landscape of new clubs, new organizations, and new “traditions” --- and even “teams” --- as the first years unfolded. In Roger Smith’s words:
A student approached me and asked me to start and coach the ski team. That was a bit of a sham, because he was a much better skier than I, but he needed a responsible adult. Well, he got an adult.
That’s the way the school evolved. In those early years teachers were recruited by students to serve as “advisors” to a Birding Club, a Backpacking Club, a Batik Club, a Cartooning Club, a Frisbee Club (later, an “Ultimate” team), a “Learn to be thin” Club. Some of these clubs lasted over several years, some dissolved after certain classes graduated, while others (like the Frisbee Club) took on a life of their own and evolved over the years into cultural organizations or teams.
Beyond the Club scene, Blind Brook experimented with new ideas for “doing school.” One classic example was the C.A.S.T. program – “Creative Alternative to Substitute Teachers.” In the words of Allison Marx (Class of 1979):
For one month each semester we had no subs, instead each day had speakers, projects, films, etc.… that you had to attend if your teacher was absent. Each event was coordinated with a class, so the speaker would have an audience, even if no faculty were absent, but most teachers planned to take a sick day that month in order for the project as a whole to work and have an audience. Students would come in in the morning and look up at the walkway above the entrance foyer to the school. On the walkway was a sign saying who was absent that day and, therefore, who would be attending the CAST events. I wish I could say I clearly remember the films or speakers, but I don’t. I remember walking into school and looking up and being excited to see one of my teachers’ names. As a teacher, I imagine a project such as this required an open-minded administration, and a very hard-working faculty to put this together. For that I say thank you. I have never seen or heard of any school doing something like CAST.
This was, of course, an enormous undertaking but Suzette Tarshis, our wonderful Health & Sex Ed teacher --- and the mom of two future BBHS teachers --- oversaw the C.A.S.T. program during its existence. It lasted about three years but, as the school evolved, C.A.S.T. faded away (probably because the staff was involved in so many other projects --- including gearing up for our first Middle States Accreditation evaluation in 1977-78). Another challenge we faced was creating unique “traditions” that would live through the coming years --- things like the Sophomore Circus and Olympic Day.
Once again, Roger Smith’s recollection of the creation of the Sophomore Circus describes how Blind Brook’s culture emerged.
The second year (1974-75) I was the Sophomore Class Advisor. As a fundraiser, I suggested that we start a Sophomore Circus, which would have a midway in the Commons and cafeteria, and then circus acts in the gym. We packed the gym for magic, jugglers, and as the grand finale, Jimmy Kahn jumping over seven garbage cans with his minibike. I believe I have a black & white photo of him wheeling around just before he made his final approach. All eyes in the bleachers were riveted on him. His jump was perfect, and he got a thunderous applause. I remember looking up at Wilbur Johnson, who was watching the spectacle from the glassed hallway above the gym. He gave me a cross-eyed look and twirled his index finger around his ear, which meant “you are a fucking idiot for allowing that to happen.” I smiled. That’s how we rolled. As we counted the proceeds in the Commons at the end of the evening, we made over a thousand dollars. I threw the wad of ones and fives up high in the air and the bills came floating down like confetti at the end of the Super Bowl.
The Sophomore Circus remained a staple at the school for years to come --- and proved to be a reliable fundraiser for the Sophomore Classes year after year. Due to the success of the Sophomore Circus, Dave issued a challenge to the Faculty --- what could we do in the Springtime that might be like a “Field Day” that most traditional schools had? With a little brainstorming, the staff came up with the idea that we would have an “Olympic Day” which would pit the existing classes (we were now 7th through 11th) against each other in a series of group-oriented contests --- relay races (three-legged, piggy-back, etc.), tugs-of-war, and the like. It would also have a “carnival” aspect to it, a ring-toss, a hit-the-target-and-dump-a-bucket-of-water on a teacher, shell games, and so on. We would use our front lawn and all the fields as our staging areas and, somehow, design some way to “score” the class versus class events so that one of the groups could be designated “Olympic Day Champions.” There were no trophies or prizes --- it was all about the fun of spending a (half) day outside together, “competing” and enjoying the time. And it worked!
Other aspects of developing the school culture were far more informal but no less important. During the first year, several of the 7th and 8th grade teachers had lunch with the students in the cafeteria every day and, more often than not, went into the gym and played basketball before the period was over. The “eating with the kids” did not go beyond that first year (although enough can’t be said for the bonding it created) but the lunchtime basketball games persisted for years (remember – much of the staff were in their mid-twenties and energetic). Most significant in developing the culture of Blind Brook in those early years was The Commons.
I had done my teaching internship in the fall of 1972 at Greenwich High School in Connecticut. That new high school had just opened in 1970 and featured a huge “Commons” at its central core. The GHS Commons served as a lunchroom for the 2600-student body and an area where students (and, possibly, teachers) could spend any free time they might have. The school was divided into four “houses,” each with its own administration and teaching staff --- essentially 4 smaller schools within the larger High School. Each House had its own lunch period in the Commons. It was a spacious well-lit area and gave the school a sense of openness. I was glad to see that Blind Brook’s design incorporated a “Commons”, but I could never have predicted just how central the Commons would become in developing Blind Brook’s school culture.
Architecturally, the original Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School Commons was brilliantly designed. As one entered the building (through an “airlock” of doubled glass doors) you were in a foyer, facing a two-plus story glass wall that looked into the Commons. There were another pair of glass doors to one’s left and, as you entered the Commons, you reflexively looked up because there was an angled skylight almost three stories above, often suffusing the space with light. You came in under a suspended walkway (which overlooked the Commons area) and, up to one’s right, were more glass walls that looked into the Science Labs. It was an open space with low, padded benches spread around the area and a recessed stairway at the far end, leading to the sunken cafeteria area --- which also had glass walls looking onto the back patio of the school. The Commons, almost from Day One, became Blind Brook’s agora. For those unfamiliar with that term:
Agora, in ancient Greek cities, an open space that served as a meeting ground for various activities of the citizens. The name, first found in the works of Homer, connotes both the assembly of the people as well as the physical setting. It was applied by the classical Greeks of the 5th century BCE to what they regarded as a typical feature of their life: their daily religious, political, judicial, social, and commercial activity. (bold, mine)
Indeed, the Commons was the hub of the cultural life of Blind Brook, and it was not unusual to find small groups of students “hanging out” there, but it wasn’t unusual to see students sitting with a teacher (or two) at any given time. There was an added element created by the suspended walkway above: students interacted with each other from one level to the other --- often in hilarious ways.
What struck me, as I researched Blind Brook’s history in the Yearbooks from 1976 to 1983, were the sheer number of pictures that featured Blind Brook’s Commons. As Debra Agran Palay (Class of 1982) noted:
It was not unusual for a teacher or two to join a group of kids who gathered in
The Commons . . . casually chatting, or sometimes engaging in deep conversation.
Impromptu discussions with our teachers occurred routinely during free periods,
between classes, or after school. These interactions fostered an environment.
of trust, and as students we felt valued, seen, and supported the adults we most.
admired and respected.
This new school’s culture was being created as the school grew, with new ideas and “traditions” emerging and growing just as the students, teachers, staff, and administrators were, too.
A school's culture is made up of the traditions, routines, expectations, and interactions that take place. Attending to these factors in a way that reflects the mission and values of the community, in and outside of the classroom, are key to a healthy culture. (online dictionary definition)
Long before the Charter School movement was a “thing,” parents, teachers, administrators, and a school board in the Town of Rye, Westchester County marshalled their energy and creativity to create a junior/senior high school. As a result, a unique institution opened its doors to students in the fall of 1973 --- first as a 7 through 10 school and eventually graduating a full class of high school seniors in 1976 (4 students graduated in 1975). In this attempt at documenting the creation of that institution --- and what life was like during its first decade --- there are many stories to be told. This one is about some of the actual mechanics of starting a school from scratch --- never an easy task.
Throughout the 20th century --- and into this one --- there’s been an amazing homogeneity to “the high school experience” across this country. Whether public or private, you can pretty much count on a high school having a yearbook, a newspaper, a prom, homecoming, a commencement ceremony, a musical, a drama production, and the like. Beyond those “expected” school culture traditions, most places develop their own unique “traditions.” When I was at Bay Shore High School, back in the mid-Sixties, we had a Spaghetti Dinner, a Senior Card Party & Fashion Show, and Class Day --- traditions not necessarily shared by neighboring schools. If you are starting a new school, from scratch, it’s easy to say, “Okay, we’ll create a yearbook and school newspaper, and we’ll have a prom” but what other “traditions” is your school going to have that distinguish it from its neighbors? And what are the other aspects of your school culture that will reflect “the mission and values of the community, in and outside the classroom?” That was a big question when the staff began meeting to plan the opening of our new school in September 1973.
Blind Brook was created with a vision of it being an “Arts/Humanities” school featuring an interdisciplinary curriculum and subscribing to a progressive education philosophy. Hence, a building with very few interior walls. As Mort Smith, a member of the school’s Founding Board put it: “You can’t close Arts/Humanities in a room! You need space for creativity.” The building’s glass walls, which were everywhere --- looking into the Science labs, overlooking the gymnasium, at the back of almost every teaching area --- added to that sense of openness and freedom. Given that, how do the parents, administrators, and staff create a school whose “traditions, routines, expectations and interactions” develop a school culture that lives up to the “mission and values” of the community? As luck would have it, David Schein and the staff he assembled were up to that challenge.
One early question we faced was: what are our school colors and mascot going to be? Believing in the tenets of progressive education, there was no debate about letting the students decide --- it was, after all, their school. This can be formula for disaster, of course. Our students ranged in age from 12 to 15 --- they might come up with anything. Were we, as a staff, willing to live with it? We were and, after an all-school vote, the new school’s team colors were red, white, and blue. More problematic was the mascot the student chose: a Trojan. We knew the older students had convinced the younger ones to go along with voting for a mascot that represented a condom company but we, as a staff, had promised to go along with the students’ decision. The kids, for their part, feigned they were all huge USC fans, and the University of Southern California Trojans were, indeed, their favorite team. We, in turn, feigned believing them and, to this day, the Blind Brook Trojans proudly compete in sports and academic challenges.
Beyond school colors and a mascot, the usual “traditions” of yearbook, school newspaper, etc. were easy to establish. But what else would make the place ours and ours alone? One early aspect regarding the school’s “openness and freedom” was that no teacher could shut his/her door and dominate a fiefdom. Because of the school’s architecture and design --- and unlike more traditional schools --- there were no hallways with doors enclosing classrooms. There was a semi-circle of Teaching Areas --- which were essentially like Stalls (with moveable walls) --- which students (and others) could walk around at any time. It was not unusual for passersby to stop and observe one’s class for several minutes and then move on (or for a kibitzer to interrupt the proceedings!). None of the teachers, of course, had ever taught in an environment like this before so we were all learning as we went. As Roger Smith, one of the Founding Teachers, put it:
Having taught for a year in a traditional high school in Central NY, having the department head, or (God forbid) the principal or vice-principal show up to do an observation in my classroom was cause for a guaranteed adrenaline rush. Of course, that probably happened all of three times in the whole year and it was always done as part of a mandated evaluation.
At BBHS, administrators, strangers, board members, other teachers, politicians, air conditioning installers, parents . . . pretty much anybody, was likely to walk through my area on any given day. After a steady parade of same, had I had a blood pressure monitor attached to me, there wouldn't have been a blip if Governor Carey had walked through.
And that became true for all of us. Early on in late September or early October of 1973, my class was interrupted by two construction workers who proceeded to install my Teaching Areas blackboard during my teaching period! We learned to take it all in stride and students, miraculously, learned to focus on tasks-at-hand, lectures, group work, etc. It did put the onus on teachers to create lessons that engaged their class --- you couldn’t shut your door and demand silence --- that Old World was gone, and this new school culture was taking hold.
Along with not having one’s own room as a teacher, our desks and work area was a communal space. There were doors off each Teaching Area into a central core office which was shared (downstairs) by all the Humanities Staff and (upstairs) all the Math, Science, and Foreign Language staff. (The business, art, music, and industrial & home arts each had their own areas.) Maybe because many of us were new teachers so we just didn’t know better, or maybe so many of us were the product of 1960’s “communal” philosophy we didn’t think it odd, but the staff rather seamlessly adapted to this. A by-product was that students could access teachers easily (there was no way to lock the doors!). As Paul Satenstein (Class of 1979) put it:
What I appreciated most was that the teachers' offices were at the center of the multi classroom floor square so access to teachers was very easy and casual. That easy access enabled me to get help when I needed it. Also, since the teachers got along so well, the environment was always cheerful and welcoming.
It may not have been that way for every student, of course, but I believe Paul’s recollection would be echoed by many during the first decade at Blind Brook. The collegiality the shared Teachers Area generated was another aspect of the developing school culture that was crucial to the school’s emerging identity --- and contributed directly to other unique features of our New World.
Fall 1973, the New York Metropolitan region 50 years ago. Richard Nixon is an embattled President, with the Watergate Scandal gaining momentum. The World Trade Center had just officially opened in New York City that Spring and the Mets were making a run for the World Series. And, in a tiny village on the New York/Connecticut border, a new Junior/Senior High School was opening.
Ordinarily, a new school opening would not necessarily be a significant event. But this school was unique in several ways. First and foremost, it was a school with no interior walls dividing classroom spaces. Second, the architecture was distinctly post-modern, predominantly glass-walled with deep-red brick. Upon first glance, one wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh, that’s a school.” Set back from King Street – the road that divides New York from Connecticut – the school stood on a low rise to the right as you drove in.
Set back from the driveway, the school had the air of a castle, with turret-like corners. To enter from the parking lot or front drive students, teachers, and parents would have to walk along a cobblestone “drawbridge” (about 50 feet long and 15 feet wide) to the set of glass doors at the entrance. Once through those doors you were in a foyer, bathed in natural light, with a public telephone mounted on the wall to your right and a suspended slat-through staircase to your left. Directly in front was a two-and-a-half story glass wall, with a huge, blue-carpeted open space on the other side.
Entering “The Commons,” you were, once again, in a space you wouldn’t at all identify as a “Public School.” The long, wide space had low, padded wooden benches spread about, with another slat-through suspended staircase dividing the area – and an overhanging walkway above, to the left. Looking up, you saw angled skylights filling the room with natural light. At the end of The Commons was a descending staircase leading to a cafeteria, where the back wall, again, was glass. The sense of openness and light were the hallmarks of your entry into the building. An important opening “statement.”
As you entered the “teaching areas,” walking in a semi-circle, you passed by “classrooms” that had no solid, interior walls or doors. Tall, rolling bookcases and movable wall dividers separated one “teaching area” from another. A visitor – or anyone, for that matter – could see what was going on in 6 to 8 classes in one spin around the area. Upstairs was the same, with the exception being the Science labs, which overlooked The Commons --- with glass walls. Their classes were visible to anyone standing on the suspended walkway above The Commons. The watchwords were openness and light.
The other significant, distinguishing feature of the new Junior/Senior High School was the teaching staff. Because it was a new school in a small district (read, restricted budget due to low population) the first decade saw a procession of young, energetic, creative, and bright young educators learn to teach under the guidance of a visionary Principal.
Finally, there was a clear philosophical emphasis on the Arts and Humanities, with an eye toward interdisciplinary education. Many of the new teachers had recently graduated from progressive teacher education programs, where the focus was on student-centered learning and critical thinking. As a result, Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School, with its open concept, blazed a path unique in the history of public-school education, producing an impressive parade of exceptional graduates over its first decade --- as unique as the building itself.
The Colgate Connection
Colgate University rests in the sleepy little town of Hamilton, in upstate New York’s Chenango Valley. While notable alumni included Adam Clayton Powell and Charles Addams, Colgate’s claim to fame, for our purposes, has to do with its Teacher Preparation program from the late Sixties through the mid-1970’s. Under the supervision of William Griffith (Class of ’33) and the inspired leadership of Bill Moynihan (Colgate M.A.T., Syracuse Ed.D.) the program produced a small army of progressive educators, all with a mission to serve as “change agents” in the U.S. public school system. As synergy would have it, the creation of Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in September of 1973 proved to be the perfect landing field for Colgate Master of Arts in Teaching graduates.
Throughout the late ‘60’s and early 1970’s Colgate’s Teacher Education Program focused on a humanistic, progressive approach to classroom teaching and learning. This meant reading Paolo Friere’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Carl Rogers’s On Becoming a Person as well as Edwin (Ted) Fenton’s Teaching the New Social Studies in Secondary Schools: an Inductive Approach. Colgate’s program was aimed at producing educators intent on being teacher-leaders whose focus was student-centered and change-oriented.
I’m not sure how much of that I was aware of when I applied to Colgate’s M.A.T. program in the fall of 1972 but when I was accepted and they offered not only a paid internship but also a substantial scholarship (combined with my Regents Scholarship, which was still usable 5 years after graduating from high school!) there was no question where I would prepare to become a public school teacher.
Once I got there, in June of 1972, I learned two things very quickly: this was a serious and well-focused program, and I was with a cohort of equally smart and energetic future educators. On one of my first days there I met Steve Jones, a fellow Long Islander with a dedication to teaching and commitment to sarcastic humor that immediately made us fast friends. Colgate’s immersive summer program had us reading deeply, participating in probing seminars, and practice-teaching following a system developed at Stanford University called “micro-teaching.”
Microteaching is a scaled-down, simulated teaching encounter designed for the training of both preservice or in-service teachers. It has been used worldwide since its invention at Stanford University in the late 1950s by Dwight W. Allen, Robert Bush, and Kim Romney. Its purpose is to provide teachers with the opportunity for the safe practice of an enlarged cluster of teaching skills while learning how to develop simple, single-concept lessons in any teaching subject. (https://education.stateuniversity.com/)
Students from Hamilton High School were paid to be our classroom guinea pigs and we were videotaped and de-briefed every-other-day during the summer --- to work on our classroom practice skills. In all, the reading, the seminars, the microteaching, and the informal interaction with our cohort and professors proved a wildly effective preparation and, as it turned out, one that fit hand-in-glove with the new Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School.
As spring of 1973 unfolded, Steve Jones and I were living in a two-floor townhouse on the edge of the Colgate campus, rooting for the New York Knicks, and wondering if we would land jobs for the fall. It happened that I subscribed to the “Teacher Drop-Out Newsletter,” a publication out of Amherst, MA aimed at recruiting teachers for “alternative,” “open,” and “free” schools --- products of late 1960’s school reform notions of how schools should change. I was determined to find a job at a school that was on the cutting-edge of the reform movement.
An ad for a new, “open-space” public high school opening on the New York/Connecticut border intrigued me. I had done my paid internship in the fall of 1972 at Greenwich High School – also on the NY/CT border – and had a wonderful experience. Greenwich was a huge public high school – around 2800 students, as I recall – divided into “Houses,” creating four smaller schools. Each House had its own teaching staff and administration, and the school used a “modified” block schedule, so classes only met 4 times week, with two meetings being 66 minutes (with the other two the usual 42 minutes) -- a great place for me to experiment with new ideas and methods. I answered the Drop-Out Newsletter ad and was invited to interview in the Village of Rye Town.
I’m not sure everyone has a sense of how they fare in interviews, but I would say my sense of “oh, yeah” or “oh, no” has been almost flawless throughout my career --- whether interviewing for a teaching position or a bartending job. And the Blind Brook interview was no exception. The immediate rapport I felt when meeting David Schein, the new school’s Principal, proved true and my decade working with him bore that out.
When I went to sign my contract, Dave Schein --- knowing he already had three Colgate M.A.T.’s in me, Steve Jones, and Roger Smith (sounding like a very WASPy law firm: Johnson, Jones, and Smith?) asked if there were any Science teachers in the Colgate program who might be interested in working at the new school. I told him I’d check and, before you knew it, Mike Nyhan (a married Army veteran from New Hampshire, who was in our M.A.T. cohort) was joining the staff, too. Out of 12 newly hired staff for the Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School (“The Dirty Dozen,” according to Cora) four of us were products of Colgate’s progressive, change-agent program! Quite a coup.
But that was just the tip of the Colgate iceberg. As it happened, I was hired by Colgate to serve as a “graduate student liaison” and “micro-teaching video de-briefer” for the summers of 1974, 1975, and 1976. I would be spending 6 weeks each summer, in Hamilton, with the cohorts that followed my group. Since Blind Brook had opened as a 7 through 10 school, it was hiring new staff until it graduated its first class in 1976. As a result, Dave Schein was looking for more progressive change-agents. Synergy. I became Dave’s talent scout and, in late-July/early August of ’74 & ’75 & '76 he would call and say: “We need a math teacher, another science teacher, and Spanish teacher.” I would pass the word along to candidates I had watched micro-teach (and gotten to know), encouraging them to apply to Blind Brook. Within the first decade of BBHS, ten of the high school’s 40 teachers were Colgate M.A.T.’s and we were making quite a mark on the school’s culture.
Add to that group, our Assistant Principal Sal Corda’s work with Charles Weingartner (co-author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity) at NYU, the math department’s Jim Alloy and David Press with their experience in the New York City alternative Satellite Schools program, Bill Mendelsohn’s prep in a program at Yale, Doris Patrao’s experience at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Teachers College, as well as the veteran teachers from Ridge Street – Jean Hurley, Jim Nelligan, Tommy Reistetter, Patty Overby and the Language Department (Simpson, Yellen, Toulouse) - who already had experience with Project-Based Learning and the Arts/Humanities Program --- and you had a very impressive staff primed to walk into a new building with no interior walls, glass walls, and a commitment to student-centered progressive education. We were off!