by Pat Farenga
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 élite.
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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