by Lawrence Williams, Ed.D.
©1997 Oak Meadow, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Part I: The Birth of Oak Meadow
I’ve told the story of the birth of Oak Meadow to many people over the years, and each time I tell it, it seems almost too unbelievable to be true. Nevertheless, it is true. It’s what actually happened. I’m telling it now as a reminder of what can happen when a group of people are inspired by an ideal and are willing to endure any obstacles to bring that ideal into reality. Ideals have tremendous power. If we make them our own and give ourselves to them, they can burn with a holy fire that makes all things possible. Those of us who were involved in the birth of Oak Meadow remember it as just that kind of fire.
It started off simply enough. The year was 1974. Bonnie and I had just moved to Ojai, California where I was starting a new job as the Business Manager of Happy Valley School, a small private high school in Ojai. For the first few months, all was wonderful. As the year progressed, however, our children began having problems in the local school, and we discovered that there were no alternatives.
Bonnie was working part-time as a registrar at a local school, but since she had several hours free during the day and I had time at night, we thought maybe we could share in teaching our children at home. It seemed like a great idea, but–being young and naive–we thought we’d better check with the California Department of Education. I figured that with my Master’s degree in education, it wouldn’t be a problem. I can still remember the conversation as clearly as if it was yesterday. I was home for lunch when I made the call. Home schooling was virtually unknown at that time, so I was referred to the supervisor for private schools.
When I told him our plan, he asked just one question, “Do you have a California Teaching Credential?”
“No,” I replied, “but I have a Master’s Degree in education.”
“Nope, that’s not good enough,” he said.
I just couldn’t accept this. There had to be a way. Not knowing what else to say, I asked, “Isn’t there any way I can teach my own children?”
“Well,” he replied, “you could start a private school.”
Start our own school? Unbelievable. I had to run that one by him again just to make sure I’d heard it right. “You mean I’m not qualified to teach my own children, but I’m qualified to teach a whole school full of children?”
“Yep, that’s right.”
“And my children could be part of that school if I wanted them to be, right?”
“Sure, if you wanted them to.”
“Thanks for your help, sir!” As I hung up, I stared out my window at the mountains in the distance, and my mind began exploding with possibilities. I told Bonnie what had happened, and her eyes widened as she saw the same possibilities I had just seen. Create our own school! For the next hour, we ate lunch and talked excitedly, and the vision of Oak Meadow began to take shape: a school that would respect children as intelligent, sensitive human beings; a school in which learning would involve the whole child, and not just the intellect; a school where living and education were not separate realities, but an integrated whole. In the following weeks, we kept clarifying the vision, and we began to meet more and more families who were looking for an alternative school in Ojai. Gradually, a core group of people developed who were dedicated to starting the school. Now we knew there was a need, and we knew we weren’t alone, but we still had to find a location for the school.
With the arrival of spring came an offer. Several years before, Happy Valley School had moved to its present location, and the old school campus was available for lease or purchase–33 acres with six buildings. Buying it was out of the question–we had no money at all, and the price was steep. But some of the buildings had been renovated into apartments, so if we could find enough people to rent the apartments, we could afford to pay the lease on the school building. By this time, the vision had begun to have a power of its own, and one by one people began to show up who wanted to rent an apartment and be a part of the new school that was opening. By May, all of the apartments were rented, and we signed a lease on the property. The property was full of oak trees and rolling meadows, so we decided to call the school Oak Meadow. The vision was in place. Now we had to see if we had any students.
We wrote a brochure that outlined our vision, talked about the beautiful 33-acre campus, listed the fees, and gave our home phone number. We had $40 extra that month from my salary with Happy Valley, so we invested it in the school and had a few hundred brochures printed. We put a few on bulletin boards around town, some on the counters of local businesses, and a whole lot of them in the local natural food store. Then we waited to see what would happen.
We didn’t have to wait long. The very next day, the phone started ringing, and Bonnie spent the whole day talking to people who were interested in this new school called Oak Meadow. The next day, the phone kept ringing, and the next day, and the next, and the next. By the end of the week, we had 40 students. Now we had three months to find some teachers and create some classrooms. The real fun was just beginning.
It’s impossible to adequately describe what happened in the next few months. When I look back on it now, I can laugh at it, but while we were going through it, it was anything but humorous. From the beginning, the problem was finding a legal building. Even though all the buildings on the property had been used for school purposes for fifty years, they had been abandoned for several years and were badly in need of repair. Although Happy Valley School, with the best of intentions, assured us that all the buildings had all met the building code requirements for a school several years before, we found that it wasn’t quite as easy as that.
The original main school building of Happy Valley School was our first choice, but when we checked with the County Building Inspector, we were told that it had been condemned recently and was scheduled to be demolished in the fall. So we chose another classroom building and spent a month preparing it for inspection–driving bulldozers, smoking out beehives, clearing brush, and hauling off truckloads of trash–only to find out that it too was condemned. Two of the other buildings were divided into apartments, and we needed the rent from those to pay the monthly lease on the entire property. Bonnie, our three children and I lived in another building. The only other choice was a long building that was occupied by a home for developmentally delayed adults. The inspector told us that was the only building that could be used for a school, because it had been renovated and brought up to code five years before when the home opened. The home was having financial problems, however, and they were planning to vacate the building in August. So, to make the most of the little money we had, we spent July building desks, content that we would move into the building in August.
When August arrived, they refused to leave. Happy Valley had to file papers with the County Sheriff to force them to leave in 30 days, so we spent August interviewing teachers, making more desks, building blackboards, and preparing curriculum. When September arrived, we discovered that the owners of the home had filed a lawsuit against Happy Valley, and our building would not be available for three months. Crushed, but not defeated, we did what we would do many, many times during that first year: we worked with what we had. The only other option was the house in which Bonnie and I were living, so we decided to put the school in our house.
With one week to go before school started, we mounted an all-out attack. We tore down walls, built new walls, painted, put up blackboards, and made more desks. The night before school opened, we were putting the last coat of paint on the classrooms. And at nine o’clock the next morning, Oak Meadow School opened its doors for the first time. We thought the worst was over. But it was just beginning.
We had the usual problems all new schools have: new teachers, new students, administrative matters, and questions over curriculum. The teachers met together once a week, and we started working out our problems. We were making real progress, and everyone started to feel very good about how the school was developing. Then came a bigger problem. We had been teaching for about three weeks when we were visited by a building inspector from the County Planning Commission. “This place is a fire trap!” he exclaimed. “You can’t have a school in here. I’ll give you until Monday morning to get out of here!” It was Friday. We had two days to find a new place to hold classes.
As soon as school was over, Bonnie and I left town. Well, it’s not quite what you might think–we weren’t running away. No, whenever we needed to get fresh inspiration, we went to the ocean about a half hour away and walked along the beach. After walking and talking for several hours, we had the solution: tents! If we couldn’t hold school in a building, we would have it in tents.
We went back and started calling all the parents to see if anyone had large tents we could use for about two months, until our building became available. It turned out better than we ever expected, and we ended up with four large tents and a huge tipi made of canvas and real lodgepole pines. On Monday morning we took all the kids and set up the school in a large eucalyptus grove at the end of the property. The kids thought it was the coolest school they’d ever seen. The parents thought we were innovative. But we knew the truth: we were desperate.
All went well for about a month, then the fire department showed up. “You can’t have a school here!” the Fire Marshall screamed. “What if one of these tents catches on fire?”
“We have water buckets beside each tent,” I replied, “and it’s real easy to see where the exits are. Plus there won’t be any fires, because none of the kids smoke!”
“I don’t care! I’m coming back tomorrow morning, and you’d better not be here!” And off he went.
Again Bonnie and I left town, and again we walked the beach. By sundown we had our solution. If we couldn’t have our school in a building, and we couldn’t have it in tents, then we would just have it outdoors. We’d use the parks, the woods, the rivers, anyplace we could find that would provide shelter and a place to meet. So we went home, called the parents again, and told them to bring their children the next morning to the park in downtown Ojai. They were really getting used to this. They thought it was a great idea.
For the next three weeks, we held classes in the great outdoors. We weren’t bothered by building inspectors or fire marshalls any more, but now we had another problem: the children’s academic work was suffering. It’s hard to stay focused on books and math when you’re sitting outdoors with squirrels, trees, warm sunlight, and gentle breezes. After three weeks of being outdoors, we knew we had to find an alternative. We still had a month before we could get into our school building. Once again, we thought of a solution. I went to Happy Valley School and asked if we could use some of their vacant classrooms. Maybe they were feeling sorry for us, or maybe they were feeling a little guilty, but whatever it was, they agreed to let us use some of their classrooms until we could get into our own building.
We fit in wherever we could–the cafeteria, the auditorium, the music room–and we adjusted our schedule to fit theirs. We had some problems, but we were able to work them out peacefully, and November passed into December with Oak Meadow in Happy Valley School. When the middle of December came, we planned a Christmas performance for the whole school, followed by three weeks of vacation. We promised Happy Valley that our stay with them would end with the Christmas performance. By the end of December, we knew we would be in our own building. We would have a home of our own. Bonnie and I had been working for three weeks to help the children prepare for their parts, but with two days left before the performance, I had something else to take care of. Bonnie gave birth to our fourth child, Christopher. It was an emergency cesarean delivery, and both Bonnie and Chris were in intensive care. I stayed at the hospital until I was sure they were safe, and then I went back to school to finish preparing for the Christmas performance.
Two nights later, I left Bonnie and Chris at the hospital and went to Happy Valley School for the Christmas performance. It was an evening I’ll never forget. With all of the Oak Meadow parents and teachers gathered together, and joined by everyone from Happy Valley, the first students of Oak Meadow School put on a performance that left everyone in tears. As the last strains of “Dona Nobis Pacem” filled the auditorium and drifted into the cool night air, our troubles melted away, and we knew that we had all been blessed beyond measure, and that this was no ordinary school. Then we left for two weeks of vacation, content that our problems were at an end, and January would find us in a new school building all our own. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
After Christmas, the owners of the home finally vacated the building, and Bonnie and I went down to look at it. We were expecting to see a relatively new building that probably needed some cleaning. What we saw shook us to our roots. The building was wrecked. The owners had seriously neglected and abused the building during the years they were there, and it would never even meet the code requirements for a house, much less a school.
This required more than just a walk on the beach; we had to do some serious soul-searching. We had no money. We had a new baby. Due to the emergency cesarean delivery, Bonnie’s health was not good, and she didn’t know if she could teach any more. We had forty children and several teachers arriving for school in about a week, and the building we had planned to put them in was a total wreck and would have to be extensively renovated. We had no other place to go. Many of the parents were unable to pay their tuition, so we were constantly scrambling to pay the teachers and the rent.
It was our moment of truth. We knew we had to either rise to meet a challenge that was even greater than any we had already encountered, or we had to pull the plug on our vision and close the school. Our heads told us to pull the plug. There were too many obstacles to overcome, we told ourselves. We don’t have any money for renovations, we told ourselves. We just can’t do it any more, we told ourselves. But our hearts simply said, Do It. So we did it.
We went home and called in plumbers and electricians. We told them we wanted the building put into condition to meet all school building codes. They would work on the building while we were in it and send us their bills when they were done. To consolidate expenses, we decided to rent out our house that had been the first home of the school and move into a few rooms in the end of the new school building. Bonnie would keep teaching, and we would take turns wearing Chris in a baby carrier on our backs while we taught classes.
The plan was in place, and the work began. We started cleaning. Everyone connected with the school–teachers, parents, and children–joined in. We scrubbed floors, we painted walls, we sewed curtains, and we hauled away truckloads of trash. Within a week, our family moved into the converted apartment at the end of the school, and a few days later we opened the school to the children. It wasn’t finished, and it wasn’t legal, but it was a start. The plumbers, electricians, and carpenters had to completely rewire the entire building, install a new bathroom with all the plumbing, put a door in every classroom, build firewalls between our apartment and the school, and lay a sidewalk with ramps leading to each door. We had no money at all to pay them, but we’d deal with that later. For now, we had children to teach.
If the inspectors thought our house or the tents were hazardous, they would have had a stroke over this situation. Plumbers, carpenters, and electricians worked on the building while the children were learning their lessons. We isolated the children from the renovations as much as possible, but we were not going to leave this building because of a few inspectors any more. We were very clear about our strategy now: this was war, and we would do whatever was necessary. Each of the teachers took turns being lookouts for the county inspector. When the lookout spotted him driving down the road toward the school, the teacher would sound the alarm, and everyone ran out the back door of the school and hid in the woods. I would talk with the inspector about the progress of the renovations, then he’d look around, smile, and leave. As soon as he left, we called all the children back to their classes again. I think he knew what was going on, but he simply decided not to ask about it. After all we’d been through, I think he had begun to develop a certain respect for this determined little school, and he didn’t want to be the one to rain on the parade.
This went on for about two months. The children learned, and the contractors renovated. Around the middle of March, the work was finished. The county inspector showed up for the final inspection and signed off on the building. We finally had a legal building, and we didn’t have to hide any more. After a year of struggling and scrambling, Oak Meadow was a “real” school at last. But we weren’t finished yet. We still had to pay the bills for the renovation.
When we added up all the bills, they came to over $15,000. That was a lot of money. We were still wondering where we were going to get the money to pay our teachers for that month. An extra $15,000 was completely out of the question. We had absolutely no idea how we would pay it, but we knew we would. We hadn’t come that far to fold at that point. We had made it through the fall and the winter, and now spring was coming. Renewal was in the air. We knew an answer was coming, so we waited.
We didn’t have to wait long. About two weeks later, I walked out of my history class and bumped into Dan Haines. I had met Dan several times during the year, but we hadn’t talked much. I knew that he was a pilot for United Airlines, that he was single, and that he was a friend of one of the parents in the school. That’s about all I knew of Dan at that point. What I was about to learn was that Dan was also an extraordinary human being.
“Oh, Hi Dan! It’s good to see you. Want to come in and learn some history?”
“No thanks,” he laughed, “I’ve learned all the history I need for quite a while.”
“I understand you’ve got some bills to pay,” he replied.
“Yeah, we’ve got a few–electricians, plumbers, carpenters.”
“How much do they come to?”
“Give them to me, and I’ll take care of them.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Are you serious?”
“Yep, absolutely. What you’re doing is really great, and I’ve been looking for a way to help all year. This is something I can do. You’ve got more important things to do than worry about bills.”
I was flabbergasted. I thanked him over and over, but he really wasn’t interested in a lot of gratitude and praise. He just wanted the bills. I went into the office, reached into a folder, pulled out all the bills from the renovation, and gave them to him. We shook hands, I thanked him again, and he left. Clearly, this was not your average airline pilot. A few months later, he was reassigned by the airline to another city, and I never saw him again. But I’ll never forget what he did for Oak Meadow and, more importantly, the simple, unassuming way in which he did it. In a way, though, Dan’s action was just a final symbol of hundreds of smaller and perhaps less dramatic sacrifices made by parents, teachers, students, and friends of the school throughout the year. They were the true heart of Oak Meadow, and they were the ones who brought it into being, each contributing some unique talent to create something much greater than any of us.
After that, the school moved along smoothly through a wonderful spring. The children didn’t enjoy the legal school building nearly as much as the tents, the parks, and hiding from the county inspector, so we still had to go on a lot of field trips to keep it from getting too boring. But when June arrived and we said good-bye to each other for a well-deserved summer vacation, not even the children could keep from crying. As difficult as the year had been, we all knew we had received a priceless gift, and none of us would ever be the same. We had all experienced the power of an ideal, we had learned lessons about perseverance that would stay with us the rest of our lives, and we had created an extraordinary school that would eventually provide unique learning opportunities for thousands of children around the world.
Part II: The Death of Oak Meadow
When we finally got a legal building, we thought our problems were finished. For two years we operated in the building we had renovated, and we didn’t have any more visits from county inspectors or fire marshalls, except for the yearly routine check of our building. We had a lease with Happy Valley Foundation, and we felt we were secure for many years to come. We had no idea that our tidy little world was about to become unglued.
I still remember the day we got the news. It was in the spring of 1978, and we were beginning another renovation on the building, because we found that it was becoming too small for our needs. We had hired a carpenter to do the work, and he was just climbing up a ladder to begin tearing down a wall. The phone rang, and Bonnie answered it. It was Shirley Myers, the Business Manager of Happy Valley Foundation. All I heard was Bonnie saying, “Oh, no! I can’t believe this!”…then a few more words, and she hung up. She looked shell-shocked, like she had just heard that the world was going to end tomorrow, and in a way, it was. “The building has been sold to a developer,” she said. “We’re being evicted.”
I couldn’t believe it. Shirley knew what we had gone through to renovate that building; she knew how we struggled, and she knew we were planning on buying the building ourselves. We had even started negotiating with Happy Valley because we knew they wanted to sell it. And now we were just being tossed out, like some undesirable tenants. Of course, Shirley didn’t make the decision; that was made by the Board of Happy Valley Foundation, made up of people who didn’t really know us. Shirley was just the messenger.
It was a rude awakening to the realities of business. We talked and pleaded with Rosalind Rajagopal, the President of Happy Valley, but she stood by the Board’s decision. It was simply a business decision, pure and simple, and the developer had offered them a price they just couldn’t refuse. There was nothing for us to do but accept it and consider what we would do next.
For the next few months, we looked everywhere in town for other buildings to house the school, but nothing was available. We checked with local churches to see if any of them had any space for rent, but nothing turned up. Gradually we began to acknowledge the bitter, inconceivable truth: the school would have to close. That which we had struggled so hard to birth three short years ago was now about to die. We just couldn’t accept this. The school was too vital and alive to die. The parents and students were committed to us, and we were committed to them. Nevertheless, one fact was painfully clear: we had to vacate our building by June 30, and we had nowhere else to go.
We called a meeting of all the parents and students in the school, and we told them the school would be closing at the end of May. Everyone was stunned, and the tears flowed freely as we talked for hours and hours about ways to keep it open. But in our hearts, Bonnie and I knew the truth: the school had to close. We didn’t know why, but we knew it had to close. The same fire that had started the school was now leading it somewhere else, and we had to follow that fire, for that was the school. Without it, there was no school. In spite of all outer appearances, in our hearts we knew Oak Meadow was alive and well, we knew it was just beginning, and we knew we wouldn’t rest until we realized our vision–wherever it led.
Situations like these–where the facts say one thing and our hearts say another–offer unique opportunities for growth that we often overlook. When we’re faced with such apparently irreconcilable differences between realities, we have three choices. First, we can believe the facts and ignore our hearts. This leads to logical, orderly, cold lives. The second option is to believe our hearts and ignore the facts. This leads to frustration, because the facts keep stopping us. The third option is to believe that both realities are right, and then look for a way for that to be true. Usually, the situation that makes both realities true is one that encompasses both realities in a larger vision.
That is what we did. After a month of trying to choose between the polarities, we let go of our concepts about the school and opened ourselves to the possibility that both realities were correct: we would not have a legal building, and Oak Meadow would continue. But how? It wasn’t long before we got a glimpse of an answer. Within a few days, Bonnie and I went to hear a talk by Virginia Burden, the head of a school named Shimber Beris, located deep in the rain forests of Guatemala. As we heard Virginia talk, we were spellbound. Shimber Beris only accepted students who had already failed and were rejected by schools. After one year at Shimber Beris (which means “mountain of birds” in the local language), the students turned their lives around and became strong and confident human beings. At Shimber Beris, students learned from direct confrontation with life. The school was only accessible by a two-day mule ride over rough terrain, and the first thing the students had to do when they arrived was to build their own place to live: a hut made of grass and sticks.
After the talk, we met Virginia and found that we shared a common vision about children and education. Over the next week, we spent many hours with her talking about schools and learning, and by the time Virginia left town to return to Guatemala, we had decided to transform Oak Meadow into a traveling school, where students could learn directly from the world, instead of through books. The idea was that we would take a small group of students (and also our own children, of course) to Europe and teach them all their basic subjects while we lived in a various locations throughout Europe. In addition to learning a variety of languages, they would also experience different cultures, meet new people, and visit places that were rich with history, art, and music. It would have been very much like homeschooling while traveling.
When I look back on it now, it seems like a wild idea, but we were still pretty young and foolish, and we felt that it would be a great–although expensive–way to learn. Actually, a few years ago I heard of a school that was doing exactly this, but I’ve since lost track of their name and address, so I don’t know if they’re still in operation or not. In any case, we proceeded to present this idea to everyone we met, and by the time summer arrived, in addition to our own family, we had two students and a donation from a private donor. It wasn’t quite what we had envisioned, but at the current exchange rate we had enough money to fly to Europe, travel a bit, and stay for a total of nine months in three separate countries. It wouldn’t be an extravagant year, but we could make it if we watched our budget carefully.
So with the arrival of summer, we sold or gave away everything we owned (except our clothes and a few other personal items), sold or gave away everything the school owned (including everything we had made by hand when the school was beginning), closed the doors on the building we had struggled so hard to renovate three years before, said good-bye to the parents and students who were the very heart of Oak Meadow, and drove away with a station wagon full of kids and piled high with packs, sleeping bags, and passports.
As we were leaving, someone was playing the “1812 Overture” on a tape player, and I could envision the Russian army burning everything behind them as they retreated deep into the heart of Russia, drawing Napoleon’s army into a deadly trap. It seemed a fitting recessional, for we were burning every bridge we knew, and the sinking feeling in our hearts told us that we, too, were heading into a deadly trap.
Our plan was to spend two months traveling across the United States, then catch a September airline flight at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and fly into Luxembourg to begin our year abroad. After one week on the road, however, we began to experience the dark side of a traveling school. One of the students traveling with us went through an emotional crisis and ran away, and when we finally caught up with her, we decided to send her back to her parents on a bus. Now there was only one student plus our family, and with the loss of tuition our financial situation was looking a bit shaky. Over the next few weeks we encountered one crisis after another, and it seemed that nothing we could do made any difference. The children were in a constant state of conflict, with arguments, emotional crises, and bitter rivalries proliferating daily. We continued traveling, but we were all beginning to wonder how we were ever going to survive a whole year like this.
Just as we were questioning our sanity in even considering such a venture, another problem began to present itself–one that we had never even considered. Listening to the radio as we drove, we discovered that a variety of economic and political conditions were causing the value of the dollar to decline rapidly against foreign currencies, so the amount of cash we would have available once we got to Europe was decreasing dramatically every day. We were learning a valuable lesson about cash. Even though the money we had for our living expenses in Europe was safely packed away, we were losing it day by day.
As we heard the news each day of the continual decline of the dollar against foreign currencies, we could also see our plans for the year slipping away. By the time we got to New York, the fall of the dollar, coupled with the perpetual conflict we had experienced with the children, had resulted in a total collapse of our vision, and we realized that our plans for a traveling school were dead. It finally all came to a head as we pulled into a gas station off the Long Island Expressway, just outside of New York City. The children were arguing, Bonnie and I were exhausted, and death was all around us.
“Bonnie,” I said, “I think it’s over.”
“I know,” she replied. “I’ve been thinking that for the last few days.” That didn’t surprise me. She always knew things long before I did.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she responded.
All of our visions about children and education, all of our hopes for Oak Meadow, all of our plans and dreams, had come down to this. We were standing on the side of the Long Island Expressway watching thousands of cars go by, with no place to live, no place for the school, no visions, no dreams, nothing but the harsh reality of New York City rush hour traffic. As the weight of it all fell upon me, I broke down and cried bitter tears. It was over. We simply couldn’t do it. We had failed, and Oak Meadow was dead.
Before we can discover something greater within ourselves, we have to experience our limitations. As long as we think we’re capable of handling life completely on our own, we have no need of something greater, but when life is collapsing all around us, we reach deep within for something that transcends everything we know and understand. And that’s what I did.
Choking back my tears, I poured out my heart to that spiritual presence I had known since I was a child, the same spirit that had sustained me through my teenage years, and that had nurtured Bonnie and I through our struggles with the birth of Oak Meadow. I brought up all my hopes, dreams, fears, and ambitions, and completely let go of it all. It was now out of my hands, and in the hands of the spirit. Gradually, I felt a deep peace settle over me. I opened my eyes, and everything was the same as it had been minutes before–the cars streaming by, the dirty gas station, the sun sinking in the western sky. But inside, I was different. I felt warm, light and full of energy. I knew that, whether I could see it or not, I was part of a greater plan, and I wasn’t alone. Then my thoughts returned to our current predicament, and with a certainty I hadn’t known since we received that phone call from Shirley Myers back in the spring, I knew it was going to be all right. I had no idea how, but I knew that it would.
As soon as I had this thought, I began to laugh out loud, and I decided that–whatever happened–we would be able to live with it. After all, New York is a big city, and I knew we’d survive somehow. I’d get a job, and we’d find a house, and slowly we would rebuild our dreams. We were both intelligent people–even if we were a little flaky–and it might take us a while, but we could do it.
“I have to look for a job,” I said to Bonnie.
“I know,” she replied.
“Do you have any ideas?” I asked.
“What about Garden City?”
The Garden City Waldorf School. Of course! How could I have forgotten? I had completed my student teaching there while I attended the Waldorf Institute of Adelphi University years before. Located in Garden City, Long Island, about a fifteen-minute drive from where we were standing, the Garden City Waldorf School was one of the oldest and most respected Waldorf schools in North America. Directed by Dr. John Gardner, a remarkable human being with a deep understanding of children and education, that school had always been for me the epitome of what a school should be, and John Gardner had been a strong guiding light for me: my mentor and my inspiration in education. Many times I had thought of that school while we were building Oak Meadow, but somehow in the confusion of the past six months I had completely forgotten about it–until this moment. Without even stopping to think of what I would say, I went to a pay phone in the gas station, looked up the number and called the school. A secretary answered, and I asked for Dr. Gardner. To my surprise, he was in. As soon as I heard his voice, I felt like I had come home. Like a babbling idiot, I spilled out the story of my journey, and ended by saying I’d like to see him. I don’t know what I expected him to say, but it certainly wasn’t what I heard him say.
“Well, well,” he said. “This is very interesting. We have an opening for a teacher for our First Grade Class, and we’ve waited all summer to fill it because we felt someone was coming from a distance who would be the perfect person for the job. School’s starting in about two weeks, and we were beginning to get a bit nervous. Can you come by and see us tomorrow?”
I agreed to come, we set a time, and I hung up the phone. I was speechless.
“What’d he say?” Bonnie asked.
“He said they have an opening for a teacher, and they’ve been holding it all summer waiting for someone. He wants me to come see him tomorrow.”
“Yep,” she said. “I’ll bet we find a house tomorrow, too.”
We spent the night in a motel, and at nine o’clock the next morning I went to see John Gardner. The school was just as I remembered it. As I entered the main lobby, I could feel the magic permeating the place. When I was teaching here as a student years before, I yearned for the opportunity to teach here on a permanent basis, and for my children to go here. This was more than just a school; this was a sanctuary. Just by being here, teachers and children were transformed. I wasn’t sure how Oak Meadow fit into all this, but I knew I wanted to teach at this school.
I learned that John Gardner had turned over leadership of the school to Andy Leaf, the former principal of the high school. Dr. Gardner was now focused primarily on the Waldorf Institute, the teacher training college connected with Adelphi University, but he said he wanted to sit in on our meeting because he had a special interest in this class. The three of us sat together and talked, and I told them of my experiences since I graduated from the Waldorf Institute.
“I think you’ll be just right for this class,” Dr. Gardner said. “It’s a large class with a lot of strong, independent boys. They’ll need a strong hand to guide them. Do you think you’re up to it?”
At this point, it was clear to me that I belonged there, and that this would be the turning point of my life, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. “Well, I feel I’ve been guided here,” I said, “so I either already have what’s needed for this class, or else I’ll find it in the process of teaching them. I’m sure it will bring out the best in all of us.”
“I’m sure it will,” said Andy, and as I shook hands with both of them I felt I was joining a group of old, old friends. As I turned to leave, Andy said, “Oh, by the way, have you found a place to live?”
“No,” I replied, “We’re staying in a motel just down the road, but we haven’t had time to look for a house.”
“You should drive over to Point Lookout, on the beach. I understand there are some houses for rent there.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll do that.”
I drove back to the motel and told Bonnie I had a job, and the children had a wonderful place to go to school at no cost to us. Andy had said that all children of faculty members at the school could attend for free, and he even agreed to also take the Oak Meadow student who had traveled with us. Now all that remained was to find a house, so we packed the car and drove to Point Lookout.
As soon as we crossed the bridge into Point Lookout, I saw a small grocery store in front of us, so I parked the car and went inside. “Do you know of any houses for rent around here?” I asked the older man with glasses behind the counter.
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I do know of a place. My neighbor, Mrs. Fox, has a house for rent. Wait a second, and I’ll give her a call.” He dialed the number and soon was talking with someone on the other end. “Hello, Esther?” This is George down at the market. There’s a young man here looking for a place to rent. You want to show him your place? Okay, I’ll send him right over.”
He hung up the phone and said, “Head straight down toward the beach, and she’ll meet you in the road.”
“Thanks for your help!” I replied. I got back into the car and started driving toward the beach.
“What did they say?” asked Bonnie. But before I could answer, a woman walked in the middle of the road and started waving her hands. I stopped the car and asked, “Are you Mrs. Fox?”
“Yes, I am,” she replied. “Are you the ones looking for a place to live?”
“Yep, that’s us,” I answered, feeling like I had just wandered into the Twilight Zone.
“Follow me,” she said.
So we drove slowly about a half block down the street with this woman walking in front of our car, and then she motioned for us to turn into a driveway on the left, in front of a beautiful house sitting directly on the beach.
Mrs. Fox opened the front door, and we saw that the house was completely furnished, down to the pots and pans in the kitchen. As we walked through it, we found that it had five bedrooms, enough for all of us to live comfortably.
“This is lovely!” Bonnie said. “We’ll take it!” Then she looked at me and smiled. “Yep, just like I said! We’d find a house today. And we don’t even need any furniture.”
“That’s great!” I chuckled, “Because we don’t have any!” And we looked at each other and started laughing. Without speaking a word, we both knew that the adventure was just beginning, and we were in for a very interesting ride.
Part III: The Rebirth of Oak Meadow
In 1979, the Garden City Waldorf School was the epitome of a successful Waldorf school. When I began teaching there, it had been in existence for twenty-five years and was considered to be one of the pillars of the American Waldorf movement. The headmaster of the school (or “Faculty Chairman,” as he was called) was Andy Leaf, who had formerly been the Principal of the high school for many years. But the real force behind the school was John Gardner, who had been Faculty Chairman of the school for about twenty years. During that time he had developed a solid reputation as an extraordinary human being of almost mythic proportions. Tall and robust, with pure white hair, he radiated strength and wisdom wherever he went, and he guided the school and presided over the teacher meetings with a firm hand and a warm heart.
As soon as I started teaching there, I felt I had come home. During his career as Faculty Chairman of the school, Dr. Gardner had developed it into a full K-12 school and assembled a group of remarkable teachers. Strong, experienced and supportive, these teachers provided the guidance I needed, and with their help I was daily realizing more of my own potential as a teacher. Every Wednesday we had a faculty meeting, and this meeting provided inspiration and support for all of us, and served to meld us together into a cohesive unit. As September passed into October and the leaves on the trees began to turn red and gold, I felt that I had found what I’d been looking for my whole life, and the dreams and plans that Bonnie and I had for Oak Meadow gradually began to fade into the background. Why should I create another school, when I was daily living in the perfect embodiment of all I had envisioned? But what I didn’t know was that all I was experiencing was about to change. Underneath this idyllic scene, a storm was brewing that would transform this extraordinary school into a maelstrom of bitterness and conflict and dramatically change the life of every teacher there.
The story of the collapse of the Garden City Waldorf School is very complex, and it would take an entire book to explore all the intricacies of it and attempt to understand what really happened. Since this isn’t my main concern at this time, I’ll simply say that–from my perspective–it was a classic case of a battle between life and form played out in the context of very strong personalities. To understand what I mean by “a battle between life and form,” let me digress a bit.
The Garden City Waldorf School–as with all Waldorf schools–followed the educational approach developed by Rudolf Steiner, a remarkable Austrian artist/philosopher/scientist who had a unique insight into the natural world and the nature of human beings. In addition to education, Steiner also developed initiatives in agriculture, medicine, dance, art, architecture, and religion that are still thriving today.
Inspiring and effective, the Waldorf approach to education is the fastest-growing educational movement in the world today. Nevertheless, it incorporates specific principles and practices of Steiner’s into a unique form, and as with all forms (educational or otherwise), the tendency is for the followers of that approach to become enamored by the form and lose sight of the life that created and ensouls the form. This is especially true when the form was developed by someone as extraordinary as Rudolf Steiner. From my perspective, this is what happened at the Garden City Waldorf School.
In his twenty years as Faculty Chairman, John Gardner had carefully crafted a strong, clear form based upon the pedagogical teachings of Rudolf Steiner, but in recent years Dr. Gardner had begun to feel the limitations of the form he had created and felt that the teachers needed to be guided more by the spirit instead of the outer forms, so he had started encouraging some of the teachers to use their own spiritual perceptions in their educational approach, rather than automatically adhering to the traditional form. As word of this began to spread throughout the school, more of the teachers became interested in following this approach, especially many of the younger teachers. However, even though the initial results of this approach did not conflict with Steiner’s guiding principles for Waldorf schools, it set off a firestorm between those teachers who felt we should follow the traditional forms that had made the school what it was, and those who wanted to explore new approaches guided by the spirit.
As November passed into December, the teachers became more and more polarized, and the weekly teacher meetings that used to provide such inspiration and support soon became battlegrounds for the warring factions. As the tension in the school escalated, the parents of the students in the school became angry and demanded a resolution. When a resolution was not immediately forthcoming, the parents began to boycott the school by taking their children out and refusing to make their monthly tuition payments. Soon, the situation became desperate. If a resolution wasn’t reached within a week, the school would have to close. The teachers called in an outside arbitrator, Peter Curran, who had been associated with the school for many years but who was not currently teaching at the school.
Mr. Curran met with all of the teachers as a group and listened to all of us present our views of the situation. After several hours of listening, he stopped the discussion and said he had two final questions to ask.
“Do you want the school to continue?”
This took us by surprise, because we had never really asked ourselves that question. We had all assumed that the school would continue, so we were only arguing about what the guiding principles of the school should be. But now it was clear that the school was in real danger of closing within a few days unless the situation was resolved. As we discussed the possibility of closing the school, we all agreed that if we were to do that–even for the most noble of educational principles–the ones who would be hurt the most would be the children. Whatever our philosophical disagreements might have been, we were united by a love for the children in the school, and we couldn’t stand to hurt them any more than they had already been hurt. We voted unanimously, “Yes,” we wanted the school to continue.
“Are you willing to accept and abide by whatever decisions I must make in order to keep the school alive?”
We all swallowed hard as we considered the implications of this, but we knew that the situation had progressed to a point that someone had to make the hard decisions necessary to keep the school alive, and quarreling over those decisions would only paralyze us further and force the school to close. The time for discussion was past; it was time for action. Again we voted unanimously, “Yes,” we would abide by his decisions.
“Thank you,” he said. “That’s all I need to know.” The meeting was adjourned.
The next day, we learned that everyone strongly aligned with the “spirit-led” group had either been fired or resigned, and older teachers who were experienced in the traditional approaches had been hired to replace them. In the end, it was simply a matter of finances. As a very pragmatic New Englander, Peter Curran had cut through the philosophical debates and seen the obvious truth. On a purely practical level, the only thing that keeps a school alive is the tuition paid by the parents, so if the school was to continue, he had to find out what the parents wanted and move in that direction. The majority of the parents supported the traditionalists, so the choice was clear: everyone associated with the new impulse had to leave.
It was a clean sweep. About a dozen teachers were fired, Andy Leaf resigned as Faculty Chairman of the school, Dr. Gardner resigned as Director of the Waldorf Institute, the Institute was to be closed at the end of the school year, and Peter Curran assumed the position of temporary Faculty Chairman until a permanent Chairman could be elected by the teachers. I remained as the first grade teacher, with the understanding that I could make a decision about whether or not I wanted to continue as a teacher at the school.
Relieved that a resolution had been reached, the parents brought their children back and started paying tuition again. The financial crisis was over, and within a week it was clear that the school would survive. A few weeks later, the school closed for a much-needed Christmas vacation, and Bonnie and I had two weeks to think about all that had happened and consider whether we wanted to stay in Garden City. We talked about it for a few days, but in the end the choice was clear. The children in my class had been through enough during the past few months, and I couldn’t leave them now. I decided to return after the vacation and finish out the rest of the year.
When I returned in January, the school I had fallen in love with four months before was gone. The spiritual fire was extinguished, and I felt like an alien stranded in a distant land. Most of the teachers I had loved and respected had left and were replaced by teachers who were quite capable, but with whom I felt no allegiance. Within a few weeks, I decided I would leave in June.
I continued teaching through the winter, wondering what to do when June arrived. Outside of my classroom, the school was empty and meaningless for me; the only joy I found was in my class of first graders. They were a strong, lively class, and as we struggled and learned together, I slowly found that spark I had lost, and once again Bonnie and I found ourselves thinking about Oak Meadow. Although we had apparently wandered far, our vision was still alive and burning in our hearts, and now that the “perfect embodiment” of that vision was gone, we were once again considering how to create it ourselves.
Then, in February, an interesting event developed. Our oldest son, Jay, began having problems in school. He was in the second grade class at the Waldorf school, and almost every day I would see him in the hallway, being punished for disrupting the class. Bonnie and I talked with his teacher, and it was clear that, although he loved and respected Jay, with twenty-nine other children in the class he just couldn’t give Jay what he needed. Bonnie and I talked about it for a few days, and finally we decided to take him out of school. Bonnie would teach him at home. At the time, we didn’t see the significance of this, but slowly, quietly, in our own home, without our even realizing what was happening, Oak Meadow was being reborn.
Gradually, the snows of winter began to thaw, and spring was in the air. One Saturday morning, Bonnie and I were sitting at the kitchen table, watching the morning sun shining brightly over the Long Island Sound, and pondering the whole situation. With June rapidly approaching, the question of Oak Meadow was again weighing heavily on our minds. How could Oak Meadow continue without a building? What would we do in June? Gradually the conversation shifted to Jay, and how well he was doing at home since we took him out of the school. Bonnie was excited about all of the things they were doing together, and how quickly he was learning. As if in slow motion, I looked across the room at Jay sitting at a small table reading a book, I looked back again at the sun shining over the sound, and then I looked at Bonnie. Suddenly the whole kitchen lit up, and I saw it: children and parents in their homes all over the world, using the Oak Meadow curriculum. Of course! We didn’t need a building; children would be learning in their homes! In that one brief moment, the spirit of Oak Meadow was reborn, and it was shining brightly.
We talked excitedly about it all weekend. There was a lot to be done, and very little time in which to do it. On Monday, I left to go to the Waldorf School, and Bonnie called the New York State Department of Education. She told them about our plans, and they gave her a simple reply: “That’s not legal. You can’t do it.”
When I returned from the school in the afternoon, she told me what she had found out. We talked about it, reflected on the power of the vision we had experienced over the weekend, and we decided that just meant we couldn’t do it in New York. They didn’t say anything about California! Oak Meadow was still registered as a private school in California, so all we had to do was move back to California! Being a little flaky has its advantages at times.
The next month passed quickly as we made plans for the coming year. I continued teaching in the Waldorf School during the day, and at night I started writing the Oak Meadow curriculum, drawing from the lessons I was teaching my first grade class. Gradually, however, we began to consider the financial realities. How could we start such a school? We had no money for advertising, setting up an office, printing brochures, and moving back to California. But we knew that a vision as potent as what we had seen would somehow find a way to manifest. Once again, we found ourselves moving ahead on faith. So I kept writing curriculum, and we kept making plans for the coming year.
In April an answer came, with a phone call from my father. Several years before, my grandmother had died, and in her will she had left her house to my sister and I. My father had rented it out since her death, but recently someone had made him an offer on it, and he decided to sell. The escrow had just closed, and he was calling to tell me that he was sending me a check for my half of the proceeds. As I heard my father’s words, I breathed a silent prayer of gratitude to my grandmother. When I was a child, I had gone to her many times when I was feeling lost, and she would always lift my spirit and give me confidence that everything would turn out all right. Now that I was embarking on what I knew would be the most challenging period of my life, receiving support from her in this way once again gave me confidence that what I was doing was right, and everything would work out just fine.
With the inheritance from my grandmother’s house, Bonnie and I produced a brochure that detailed the new Oak Meadow Independent Study Program, had 1,000 copies printed, and paid for ads in several national magazines. When the Waldorf School closed in June, I said a last good-bye to my class, packed up our car, and drove our family back to Ojai, California.
In California, we rented a house, set up an office in a spare room, and I kept writing curriculum. We figured we would have to support the school for a while before it could support us, so I got a job as an accountant during the day and wrote curriculum at night and in my spare time. Bonnie homeschooled our children during the day and worked as a desk clerk in a motel at night. Any extra money we had went into printing curriculum, buying books, and buying ads in magazines. Gradually, the inquiries began to come in the mail, and we sent out brochures.
One day, toward the end of the summer, I opened an envelope in the mail and saw a beautiful photograph of a six-year-old boy running across his front lawn. As I looked further, I saw an enrollment form and a check. Darlene and Steve Lester from Westfield, Indiana were enrolling their son Eli in the Oak Meadow Independent Study School. I stared at the envelope, the picture, and the enrollment for a long time, and then tears came to my eyes. Until then, everything was a vision, but with the arrival of that envelope from two wonderful people in Indiana enrolling their son, it all became very real. Before the summer was gone, eleven other students had enrolled, for a total of twelve. There were many more years before we could quit our other jobs and devote ourselves fully to Oak Meadow, but we were on our way. Oak Meadow was alive and well, and we had found our way home.