Present at the Creation
September 24, 2023 will mark 50 years since Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School opened. I'm not sure that anyone on the "campus" is even aware of that fact but, having been "present at the creation" I have begun working on some way to commemorate that event for several reasons.
For those who are unfamiliar with what BBHS was at its inception here are the details you should be aware of:
* it was designed to be a public high school dedicated to the Arts and Humanities
* physically, it was a school with almost NO interior walls. Classes were separated, initially,
with movable dividers and, later, with permanent walls that created teaching stalls/areas.
* there were NO hallways --- you traversed around the classrooms and had the ability to
watch classes as they were happening.
* as a teacher, you couldn't "close your door" and shut out visitors, observers, or random students
wandering by (what I have often referred to as "teaching naked").
The school, during its first decade, was, quite consciously, dedicated to a model of progressive education that would have made John Dewey proud. It attempted to be as student-centered as possible, as democratic as we could make it, and, like its architecture, an open place that valued its community. What is remarkable to me, in hindsight, is how successful it was --- and how it tried to fulfill its goal of being an Arts/Humanities high school (with sterling STEM departments!). While no school can be everything to every student, Blind Brook was unique in producing a disproportionate number of graduates (in its first 8 graduating classes - 1976 - 1983) who went on to have careers in the Arts/Humanities. As an affluent New York suburb it also produced a significant number of very successful doctors, lawyers, and business people, too, of course.
But the story I want to tell is about that first decade, when a visionary principal and a relatively young, creative, and energetic faculty and a (mostly) supportive community set out to intentionally create a school that was unique and special. This, then, is the first "introduction" (of several) that The Blast will be serializing in the coming weeks. Hope you enjoy the stories.
Setting the Table
It all started with a phone call in January 2022. Craig Bierko, that rare species of human who is a Working Actor, was on the phone.
“Doc, I’ve been reading your book (Right Time, Right Places: One Teacher’s School Reform Journey) and the chapters about Blind Brook brought back a flood of memories --- and ideas. I think we should make a documentary.”
Explanatory Note: Blind Brook Jr/Sr High School is in Rye Brook, Westchester County, New York. It opened in September 1973 as a 7-10 school and was an “Open Space” school --- that is, there were no interior walls to separate teaching “areas” (“rooms,” in a traditional school). It also featured an interdisciplinary oriented curriculum with an emphasis on the Arts and Humanities. Craig attended Blind Brook from grades 7 through 12 and graduated in 1982. I was called “Doc” because I was the first Varsity basketball coach at the school --- at the same time Julius “Doctor J” Erving was starring for the New York Nets. “Mr. J” became “Doctor J” to my students and that was shortened to “Doc.” All these years later former Blind Brook students call me “Doc.”
As Craig and I began to talk about the idea of, somehow, documenting what a downhill slalom Blind Brook was during that time some thoughts began to emerge. Since September 2023 would mark 50 years since the school opened, we had a natural timeline for our project – if we started right away. We also knew that there was a strong presence of Blind Brook alumni from those first years on Social Media, so we had potential resources at our fingertips. Finally, it seemed natural to look at the first decade of Blind Brook, when it was truly the Wild West of Progressive Education, to help focus and limit our scope.
With that in mind, here’s the story of a unique experiment in public education: an Open Space school focused on its students, encouraging participation in a wide range of activities, and learning on the fly about creating a genuine Learning Community --- even if that’s not what we called it at the time.
A quarter, A funnel, and a Pitcher of Water
Here’s what made BBHS different from Day One: it was a school with Sense of Humor! And it was a school that could take a joke – understanding that we are all human, vulnerable, insecure, and, yes, downright silly sometimes.
Michael Caplan is an MD/PhD and Chair of the Cellular and Molecular Physiology Department at Yale University. He was a member of the first graduating class at Blind Brook in 1976 and, as such, was essentially a “senior” for three years. Because Blind Brook started as a 7-10 school, adding a grade each year, Michael’s class of sophomores in 1973-74 were the first juniors and then the first seniors at BBHS. They were a bright and energetic group of adolescents, just as you’d find at any secondary school anywhere in the U.S. But this group was dropped into not only a brand-new school--- it was a brand-new school without any interior walls! It was, truly, an “Open Space” junior/senior high school. Right there in affluent Westchester County --- a living, breathing educational experiment. A secondary school Petri dish, birthed by late Sixties mid-wives who believed that traditional “egg-crate” structures were stultifying and joyless spaces and unfit for energetic, creative teen-agers. Thrust into this environment, Michael and his cohort were genuine pioneers --- and instrumental in creating the school that Blind Brook was throughout its first decade.
When asked what he remembered about the experience Michael explained that he believed the space one lives and works in --- whether it’s a school, office, or home --- sets a tone for one’s behavior. And Blind Brook’s Open Space was one of “shared air and shared environment.” In his mind, “openness was more than Space,” it was an ethos that permeated Blind Brook during those early years and the students were “partners in creating the esprit and culture” of the new school. Indeed, from my newly minted teacher’s perspective, that’s exactly what we were after --- and we, the faculty, had no doubt that David Schein, our Principal, supported that notion whole-heartedly.
By their senior year, Michael and several of his best friends felt they “had the run of the place” and “a sense that we were trusted.” As he described it, he and his friends believed they were “loved and nurtured” and, as such, could push the envelope as long as they were not “disrespectful or cruel.” To genuinely understand the limits of “respectful/disrespectful” in Blind Brook’s early going --- as well as the faculty’s and Principal’s sense of humor --- there is a particular story that must be told.
To set the stage, one needs to understand several items about Blind Brook school culture between 1973 and 1976, when the first class graduated. First, David Schein’s office was always open to students. One of the few places in the school that had a door and an enclosed space --- Dave’s door was almost never closed. And students, from early on, got into the habit of walking in and talking to Mr. Schein. Sometimes it was with a particular complaint (the cafeteria food was often a target) and other times it was simply to shoot the breeze. Most of the kids knew Dave had played football at Harvard so Monday mornings would often find boys in there talking about weekend football games and such. As Michael Caplan noted, the “openness” at Blind Brook was not just physical, it was also a philosophical linchpin to how the school operated. As a result of Dave’s “open door” policy, many students got to know their Principal --- an unusual circumstance in most public high schools, even today. Dave’s open-door policy sometimes opened him up to “challenges” as Principal.
By 1975-76, Michael Caplan and his friends were feeling confident in their “good standing” with the Faculty and Dave and participated in some interesting (?) pranks (one of which involved a motorized fetal pig from the science lab running amok in the cafeteria!). The most notorious prank, which became legendary among the faculty and student body, involved a quarter, a funnel, and a pitcher of water.
None of the participants in this prank (Michael Caplan, Peter Adamson, and Bob Bessen) has an exact memory of where it all originated but they are all in agreement about two facts:
#1. They did a “trial” run on Bill Metzler, their Math teacher.
#2. They decided, somehow, they would try it on David Schein, Principal.
The prank itself requires that you know your subject/target has a certain amount of pride in his/her athletic prowess --- this is the “entry point.” There is a simple proposition posed to the subject/target: Here’s a physical challenge that is, supposedly, so difficult that only a very good athlete can succeed. If the subject/target wants to hear more, they are told the challenge involves a quarter (25 cents) and a funnel --- like those found in most kitchens. The task is this: put the funnel inside your waistband/belt, tilt your head back and put the quarter on your forehead, a little above your eyebrows. Once set, can you, the graceful athlete that you are, flip the quarter into the mouth of the funnel in your waistband? The prank, of course, is that once the subject/target tilts his/her head back and puts the quarter on his/her forehead, the pranksters have a formerly hidden pitcher of water they pour down the funnel! Brilliant in its simplicity.
Our students had a good relationship with Bill Metzler, their Math teacher (and the Varsity Tennis Coach) and decided to try this prank on him --- originally thinking it would be a one-shot trick and a great story to tell.
Between classes, with some time to kill, the boys offered Bill the challenge, and he took the bait. As Michael Caplan and Bob Bessen set him up with the quarter and funnel in front of the science lab table, Peter Adamson sneaked over to where they had hidden a pitcher of water, preparing to strike at the opportune moment. It came off perfectly. Metzler put his head back and was placing the quarter on his forehead and Adamson rushed in and poured the water into the funnel, dousing the teacher’s trousers.
In most schools this would be a transgression that might result in suspension --- or at least significant detention. Not at Blind Brook in 1975. Good sport that he was, Bill realized he had been pranked, laughed along with the boys, and then went into the Science teachers prep room and came out with a hair dryer! According to Bob Bessen, here’s what happened next.
“As Bill Metzler is blow-drying his pants, Peter Adamson: “Let’s get Schein!!”
Not as easy as getting Metzler, though.
Well, we were all arriving for math class…everyone was milling about…nothing to alert him to having water poured down his jeans.
Let’s get Schein anyway!
How’re we going to do it? 1
Ok, we’ll need a distraction.
You mean like starting a fire?
No. Mike – you stand in front of Schein’s desk and distract him. Bob – you hand me the beaker. I’ll pour the water in once he puts his head back.
Ok. But we’re not going to be able to get behind him with the beaker of water.
Then Mike, make it a really good distraction!
(Knock, knock at Mr. Schein’s office)
We have a coordination test for you. We bet you can’t do it!
Oh, really. What’s this about?
Well, you’ve got to slide a quarter starting from your forehead, then let it roll down your nose and into a cup near your waist.
You’ve got to stand up, though. Now we don’t have a cup, but this funnel is just the right size. Here, tuck it inside your belt to hold it up.
(Mike starts his animated distraction, Bob hands Peter the beaker of water.)
Ok, now put your head back. Hold on tight to the funnel – make sure it doesn’t move. Ok, put the quarter up higher on your forehead…….No, you have to tilt your head waaaaay back.
Here we go!
(Out of the corner of Schein’s eye, he sees movement, and quickly drops his head and pulls the funnel away. Some water splashes in, but the pants are bone dry.)
3 more seconds, and…coulda, shoulda, woulda....”
So, Mr. Schein did not suffer Mr. Metzler’s fate, but he did make sure he posed for a photo for Blind Brook’s first Yearbook (The Spectrum) holding a pitcher of water just above Peter Adamson’s head, with Peter mugging fear of getting drenched.
What this story reflects is the culture that was established at Blind Brook in those first three years --- through Dave’s guidance and the faculty’s energy and engagement with the students, who were full partners in creating a high school --- that was proudly different and wonderfully unique.
2/23/2023 10:18:24 pm
I love this- so descriptive and well written. We have such amazing memories of that time-it Was an amazing experiment. We were lucky to have such an alternative public small high school and fabulous teachers and beautiful campus. Lucky to have my mom there as accompanist to wonderful George Trautwein. Great years. Fun times. I learned a lot! A great base for college and for life . xo
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