- by Pat
- Everyone knows how to get to
Carnegie Hall - you practice. But I never thought of my years of
work with John Holt and Growing Without Schooling as
practice for an engagement at Carnegie Hall, yet in a way they
were. When John Gatto first approached me in August about the
possibility of speaking at Carnegie Hall, I immediately said
"yes," though I had lots of questions.
- "Where is the money coming
from?" I asked.
- "Out of my pocket and
Roland's (a student of John's 25 years earlier) and fund-raising
efforts," he said.
- "You'll go broke! You won't
get more than a hundred people to pay to listen to us."
- "Don't worry about money;
that's my department. This is something I've decided is worth
doing. You're underestimating people's need to hear ideas.
Audiences listen to me talk for hours on the road, and I'm a lousy
speaker. I read from a prepared text. It puzzled me for months
until I figured out it's what I'm saying that grabs them. People
yearn to know how we got into this schooling mess. They suspect
there are better choices than government schooling. I think the
effect of 'little people' renting Carnegie Hall and having their
say, displaying working options, will build with time. Like the
shot heard round the world."
- As the evening took shape
and more speakers were added to the program, I began to marvel at
how the conviction of one man can practically will such a major
event into existence in less than 12 weeks. This was not
accomplished without difficulty: several famous Teacher Colleges,
some unions, a well-known think tank and other groups who didn't
like the ideas to be espoused that evening actively worked to
sabotage it for several weeks leading up to Carnegie Hall. They
almost succeeded. Professional fund-raisers wouldn't work for us
because they were told it was "too radical." The State University
of New York cancelled two chartered buses set to go. Elements at
Bank Street College, Columbia, and Fordham refused to return
calls, answer letters, or allow bulletin board postings to remain.
John didn't let these setbacks stop him. He told me that in spite
of these factors and in spite of having virtually no money, even
being $7,000 short of simply paying for the hall a week before the
show (0, and in spite of the fact that there were no rehearsals,
that some of the participants didn't even know one another, (and
some of them cordially disliked one another's ideas), in spite of
the fact that we had two 14-year-old boys as masters of ceremonies
instead of Bill Moyers (who wrote that he was interested in the
event but would be in China at the time)-we drew 1,024 people, as
we learned from counting the ticket stubs after it was over.
- What an evening! John hired
a pianist to play Mozart. He provided a grace note before the show
started and during intermission. The men wore tails, the ladies
black gowns. Our 14-year-olds wore top hats and looked very natty.
Carnegie Hall is actually an intimate space with superb acoustics.
From the stage the view is amazing: gold filigree, brass rails,
red velvet and mahogany seats are beautifully worked into the
hall's design; its multitude of lights gave the effect of a clear
sky at night. The hall isn't nearly as deep as it is tall, and the
two tiers of box seats and the large balcony above them add
considerably to the effect that this is a cathedral for
performers. Indeed, after inspecting the hall back in Sepmber,
John told all of us to practice in large churches to be familiar
with the resonance and space we would encounter at Carnegie. My
impression of the audience was that a lot of school people showed
up in spite of the overt efforts against the show. Teachers,
administrators, students, and professors were there, with a number
of interested parents, homeschoolers and alternative schoolers,
too. There was even a baby in the audience, his gurglings could
sometimes be heard clearly and it gave us a smile backstage.
Before the event I was told several times by John and Roland that
homeschoolers seemed to be the ones supporting the event most. I
met Dan and Andy Endsley from the famous Homeschoolers' League of
Toledo who travelled from Ohio to be there, and I heard of (though
I didn't meet) a group of homeschoolers who travelled all the way
up from Florida. Representing homeschooling in such a place, and
to an audience that largely had never heard of homeschooling
before, was a thrill and honor for me and my family People came
from 17 states in all.
- The evening was structured
so Victor Gonzalez, a 14-year-old student of John's, was first to
face the audience. He provided me with an image of that night I
can never forget: we got the cue to start. I saw the large crowd
silently waiting in darkness, a single shaft of spotlight
appeared, waiting for Victor to walk towards it. I patted Victor
on his shoulder, wished him luck, and saw him take a deep breath.
Then I saw his little frame, a silhouette in tails and top hat,
bravely walk to the podium and open the show. He soon got the
audience to laugh exactly where he wanted laughs, and he
introduced each speaker flawlessly (as did his counterpart for the
second half of the evening, young Jamaal Watson). Both performed
with only a few run-throughs about two hours before curtain time
because John couldn't afford rehearsal time at $300 an hour.
Again, I was shown how capable youngsters can be when they are
trusted and treated with respect.
- When Victor finished his
stint he introduced John - whose role for the evening was to
criticize schools. The rest of the speakers were to avoid
criticizing schools and instead to present as forcefully as we
could the unique logics behind our various educational approaches.
I spoke next, then came Dan Greenberg (from the Sudbury Valley
School near Boston), Kathleen Young (from the Waldorf-inspired
Hawthorne Valley Farm School in Duchess County, New York) and then
a former student of John's, Roland Legiardi-Laura, who spoke about
his adventures in self-education as a filmmaker, poet, and as a
self-taught general building contractor.
- The second half of the night
consisted of Dave Lehman (from the Ithaca Alternative Community
School in upstate New York), then another former student of
John's, Barbara Jill Cummings, who spoke about her self-education
in the field of ecology, teaching herself Portuguese and living in
the Amazon to examine the impact of dam-building on the local
native cultures, Mary Leue then spoke of her Albany Free School,
which owns ten buildings and operates six businesses as part of
their "community" curriculum. John closed the evening with a
ringing denunciation of government monopoly schooling and a call
for alternatives, after which we all retired to the Maestro's
dressing room for a reception.
- Before we came to Carnegie
Hall, John wrote us all, urging that our purpose be to inform and
be useful to people who come to hear us. Our long-range purpose
was to establish that choices are available and to suggest that no
sane decision can be made without knowing what those choices are.
That we succeeded in these goals has become apparent to me.
- John is using the Carnegie
Hall event as a model for presenting local education options in
other parts of the country. This spring he will do a similar event
in the West, but his real goal is to have everyone and anyone
understand that leadership is not the prerogative of an
- John recently wrote to me,
"We established a model at Carnegie Hall - which can and will be
improved upon - but a model whose existence will be slowly heard
of, mark my word, because it asks the question why wasn't this
(letting people know about their educational options) done before?
And done by those who have the stewardship of our schools?"
By John's example, we see just
what can be accomplished, on a grand scale, by just one person. I
doubt Carnegie Hall will ever see such an assortment of
non-professionals taking over its stage. Which brings me to the
second indelible image of that night: the shoes that came with John's
tails were too tight for him, so he took them off and did the whole
performance in his stocking feet! That was a lesson about free market
choice I'll remember for a long time!
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