I’ve read much commentary over the years about the state of education in our country, most of it voiced by politicians and citizens who’ve never taught and some of it voiced by frustrated teachers. I’ve never read an account, though, by someone who has taught at a highly successful school. I did, so I want to stop and tell you about Santa Barbara Middle School.
Back in 1989, immediately before I moved to Santa Barbara to join my new family (a woman I had known in high school and her five year old daughter), I had a midnight encounter with the spirit of Joseph Campbell. Bill Moyer’s famous interviews with Campbell had taken place several years before, after which, Campbell had died. The local PBS station was showing the whole series of interviews uninterrupted over the course of an entire night so that viewers would be able to record them. I hadn’t ever seen the interviews since I didn’t have a TV. I ended up staying up most of the night in a hypnogogic state with some friends listening to Campbell spin his stories of the Hero’s Journey. I felt entranced and altered. Campbell relentlessly gestured toward the Mystery and I was willing to go where he pointed.
I didn’t know that about ten years before, some educators and parents in Santa Barbara had created a new school around this mythological construct of the Hero’s Journey. They felt the most important and unfulfilled time of a child’s development occurred during the junior high years and they wanted to do something about it. They built a school to point toward the Mystery, a school to take kids out of the normalcy of their lives and ask them to confront greater challenges in order to confront themselves. The school out of necessity was created as a private school, not as a replacement of public schools, but rather as an augmentation. Most of the students come from public school and return to public school.
The Mystery is always beckoning to us, though we may not identify it as such. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The DaVinci Code owe their success to our wanting to know more about the conditions of our existence. Even badly written books such as The Celestine Prophecy and Mutant Message Downunder owe their success more to the themes with which they play than the abilities of the author. These themes move us and guide us on a level that is below the radar of our awareness. The themes move us to do great and terrible things because of this lack of direct awareness and conscious deliberation. Kids at the junior high age reflexively begin to look to these themes and yet find no one there to teach them. They begin to think that meaning doesn’t exist.
My experience of Campbell merged with SBMS when my stepdaughter (hereafter called “my daughter,” simply because she is) was in sixth grade and we decided to look for a different experience for her than the public junior high. We ended up sending her to SBMS to begin her rite of passage into young adulthood. As a teaching vehicle, the school takes the students on three outdoor trips a year: an all-school six-day trip in October to integrate new students into the whole community, a five-day trip in small groups in March, and a ten to fourteen day trip at the end of the school year. The first and last trips are centered around bicycle travel, while the March trip has trips that range from backpacking to bicycling with self-contained trailers to a winter assault on Mt. Whitney. As a teacher there I led a cross-country ski trip to Yosemite. I can still remember my daughter returning from the first trip. She was small and skinny and flushed with excitement and pride at what she had accomplished. Her mother and I knew she was now a different person. After her first year at the school, I was hired to become a math teacher.
There are many mountains to climb at the school whether on bikes, on foot, on skis, or with crampons. The point is to make it to the top, even if you have to walk your bike. Students encourage those who struggle, will even fall back to help another to top. Evenings are spent around a campfire where the purpose for the trip is reviewed in different ways and the students can share their adventure of the day. Students are not selected for academic ability at the school. It is a cross-section of a public school except for being woefully under-represented from the minority end. It’s a money thing, not a selection issue. The school has many students who have learning issues and who have struggled in the public schools (sometimes at other private schools). In the fall the school holds parent conferences attended by parents, the student, and all five of the student’s teachers. Many times parents break down in tears at the fact that their son or daughter now enjoys going to school. Parents marvel that students don’t want to miss school, even when they are sick. Many of the parents, remembering their own junior high experiences, weep for themselves.
A significant number of the graduates write on their college applications about their experiences at SBMS as the formative experiences of their lives. My daughter is now a 21-year old senior in college; bold, intelligent and creative. Though she had many fine qualities to begin with, the school helped her gain strength and courage in her capabilities. She returns to help out on the end of the year trip as a way to help other students “get” what the school is about.
I can’t possibly cover the totality of the experience in this short post, so this will probably become the core of my next book (acquisitions editors please take note). There is much more to be said about mythology and the symbolic life, about the great wealth and profundity. I took leave of the school this year to devote my time to writing, to attempt to do same thing I did in the classroom and on the road on a larger scale. Sadly, I feel the school is in peril. Many of the parents no longer know of Campbell or the mythological process. They would rather have their kids go to a soccer or volleyball tournament at the end of the school year than go to sweat and toil on a life altering journey. But, the real journey toward Life is not an opt-out event, even though we might like to think so.
I know that it’s not possible to replicate the school and place it down in other contexts, but what is important is to deeply understand the symbolic, mythological underpinnings and then go from that point. Just know that something better is out there. I’ve lived it.