Thursday, July 13, 2006

Revive Us Again

July 13

Every so often a venerable institution undergoes an upheaval followed by a revival of interest, a rebirth, and a reaffirmation of its reason for being. This is slated to happen very soon for a school that was once at the very heart of Fairhope.

The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, often referred to as the Organic School, was founded in Fairhope by the visionary educator whose name it bears in 1907. It's about to have a Centennial, and will definitely have a reunion in that year, and we may legitimately talk about a revival at that time.

New things are happening, and the first is a new website that you can reach by clicking on the link on this blog. I wrote all that stuff, so I won't write it again here, but it will tell you a bit about the school and Mrs. Johnson. What the website may not quite capture is the mysterious spirit that surrounds the school and its offspring. I think offspring is the right word here; you wouldn't say graduates, because many who love the school the most went there a year or two, sometimes just a semester.

The Organic School gave us the feeling that school itself may be just a kid's daily job -- but that some days miracles happened. And every day in school was thrilling to some degree. We didn't think about it consciously (unless we observed a miracle) but there was a process of osmosis called learning by doing that accompanied every textbook we read, every map we looked at, every project we worked on. In addition to that, which occurs in every school, was the unstated component in our school that we learned because we wanted to.

In high school, I remember, we put together a newspaper because we wanted to. The students before us had done it and we felt it was our turn. We didn't even have a faculty advisor. Someone showed us how to cut stencils and operate the mimeograph machine, some of us just naturally did the writing, and we had a newspaper. We would stay after school and work on it. Sometimes we came at night and worked until 8 or 9 P.M. to put the paper to bed. Nobody told us to do this; if we hadn't, nothing would have happened. We just never thought of not doing it.

Another example of what Marietta Johnson called "organic education" was when I was in Junior High, probably 7th grade. There was what was laughingly known as a library at the school, containing lots of decrepit old books left there by previous generations. I would read them sometimes just for their time-capsule quality. One I remember reading was about a young lady who was driving a roadster and it got stuck in the mud. I couldn't help thinking how funny it was to read about getting your roadster out of the mud -- and relating to the young people of the 1920's reading this book seriously and thinking of the life they must have had. (A lot of roadsters in Fairhope probably did get stuck in the mud; streets weren't fully paved until the 1960s.)

Anyway, back to the 1950's -- we're browsing around in this antiquated library and we see a bunch of copies of worn playscripts of the works of Shakespeare. There was As You Like It, I remember, and The Merchant of Venice.

It was not a big leap, seeing that there were copies enough for the whole class, to ask the English teacher if she thought we would get anything out of reading those plays. Sure, said the English teacher, and we set out to study them one by one. We wrestled with the verse, wrote essays about the plays, and nobody thought twice about what was in the Alabama Course of Study for 7th or 8th Grade. I remember years later coming on a theme I wrote at that time entitled "Why I Like Shylock." Wish I had saved it. I wonder why I liked Shylock. I think I was just trying to be shocking, but maybe I made a valid point or two in the process.

Now flash-forward again to the Organic Revival. A generous benefactor has donated money toward bringing the eminent systems designer Medard Gabel to the school for a project in 2007 as part of the Centennial celebration. Mr. Gabel, who once worked with Buckminster Fuller, understands the underlying principle of Organic Education as well as “organic” living – we are interconnected and our future depends on the ability of our children to think. He is fond of saying, “The best way to understand a system is to understand the system it fits into.” In this spirit, we have invited Fairhope’s City Council, members of the Single Tax Corp., members of Smart Growth, and parents, board members and teachers at the school to a meeting with Mr. Gabel Monday morning, to plan the event or project that will be featured in the school's Centennial year of celebrations. Mr. Gabel will help us to tie the school's mission to that of the town, in a spirit of revival and redirected growth, with hope for both for the community as well as the Marietta Johnson School.

We have a fair hope of success for the future, and a spirit and heritage of miracles from the past that cannot be ignored. If near-term coming events help boost a revival, hallelujah! We are saved, brother.

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