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In Defense of the Free Meandering Brook.

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
In Defense of the Free Meandering Brook.


It was one of the first warm days of summer, I sat next to Mark in his parents mini van that he’d borrowed to bring home the last of his music equipment from college. He was going home to Vergenne, a small town just outside of Burlington, Vermont while I was headed north to Montreal to do a summer internship. He was happy to have company on the eight hour drive from the coast of Maine, up the scenic route 2 highway through the white mountain range of New Hampshire, the tiny farming communities and breath taking green landscapes of Vermont. We were in the wake of graduation and the joyful parties that followed. As we drove the conversation fell upon education and Mark began to tell me about his experience in the Vergenne public school system.

Mark: This guy Matt Schlein, he was a teacher at the pubic school. He raised money and bought this 260 acre property near by. Every morning about 25 of us would get dropped of there and walk about 30 minutes into the woods. We’d start making a fire right away.

Me:Who were the 25?

Mark: The Walden kids, we were all a bunch of misfits. Everyone had a different reason for being there. For whatever reason we all just couldn’t deal with being in the regular classroom. Some kids had major problems at home. Not everyone has a perfect life, ya know? Some people just couldn’t deal socially with high school, and some just hated being stuck in a little room, sitting at a desk all day under florescent lights, bored to death. So they decided they’d rather be out in the woods.

Me: Why were you called the Walden kids?

Mark: The project was based on the teachings of Henry David Thoreau. One of the few true American philosophers haha. That’s why it was out in the wood. He believed in living simply and being in nature so we didn’t have any shelter either, just a sort of lean-to to get out of the rain or snow.

Me: Whoa. Even in the winter?

Mark: Yeah, it was pretty frigging rugged, but I loved it. On really rough days we just focused on how to keep warm and survive mostly. But we were all in it together it was really fun.

Me: I bet you can make a fire in the woods no problem.

Mark: Every one of us could make fire in any weather with nothing but what we find on the ground. I don’t even think of myself as someone who’s interested in wilderness skills per say but I do think that’s important.

Me: What were the classes like?

Mark: We did all the usual subjects but we got to go with how the group was feeling. Every morning everybody was supposed to come with something to talk about, a current event or issue they read about the night before. We’d start from there and sometimes those talks would get us off on a project or a writing assignment. We talked about lots of stuff. We all hated Bush haha.

On Tuesdays we’d go to Burlington and hang out in coffee shops -- and sneak off to smoke cigarettes hahaha. That was our language arts day. One time, we were all on the bus and Matt was like “Okay, so I want everybody to write a paper about homelessness.” So, when we got to Burlington, we got off the bus and went off to talk to people on the street.

Me: That sounds really interesting.

Mark: Yeah, I learned a lot. My thing is science though and that’s sort of something you have to give up for that style of education. There isn’t a lab so you don’t get to do lab science.

Me: What did you do?

Mark: Matt let me do whatever I wanted so I found ways. They have a program that lets Waldon kids take community college and university courses, usually just one at a time. And for grade 12 I decided to go back to regular high school and I took all the advanced and AP science and literature courses I could do in one year. I got really into literature too of course, reading Thoreau in the woods all the time will do that to you.


My friend’s and I sometimes jokingly refer to ourselves as the Ritalin generation. Surrounded constantly by interactive digital media, put through an educational system based on the factory model of the industrial revolution,  expected to focus on material much less stimulating that what we're accustomed to in the outside world for 7 hours a day, many of our classmates and friends were diagnosed with ADD and prescribed Ritalin from a young age. (Of course, Adderall, amphetamine/dextroamphetamine,  has recently replaced Ritalin (methylphenidate) as the drug of choice amoung the 20 somethings age group.)

Mark’s experience in the Vergenne public school system made me think of another college friend, who after reading The Teenager’s Liberation Handbook: How to quit school and get a real life education, dropped out to stay home reading books, thinking and avoiding the social nightmare that high school is for many. Free from school, she achieved things that would later earn her a full ride to college. The past few summers she has worked as an outdoor educator and once told me “If you take a kid with ADD or ADHD, a trouble maker, a supposedly bad kid and put him outside in nature, do you know what you have? A really smart, interesting kid!”

The problems faced by our generation will not be solved by a lot of drones, steeped in psychiatric drugs and taught to cooperate in a dull, oppressive classroom, never arguing or objecting. Many of my peers seem keenly aware that something about our world is going to change drastically, is already changing. We live in a society where formal education is necessary and high grades equal success. Initiatives like The Walden Project give hope that people are realizing that there is more than one way to get an education and, in the words of Henry David Thoreau: “What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.”


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mccabe.melissa (Melissa McCabe)
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