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Ripton, VT: North Branch School

Annie suffered from extreme anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. In addition, her mother told me, she was dealing with the afteraffects of an incident of sexual molestation when she was four. Sophie appeared terminally shy. Najat, according to her mother, was hesitant about plunging headfirst into the world of adolescence and still liked to play with Playmobil figures to relieve stress.

Janine’s primary home-school education had been working in a farmyard raising rabbits and tending lame horses, goats, and miniature donkeys. Zoe had been home-schooled, half-schooled or un-schooled and had spent half of a traumatic year in the local middle school. Five of the ten were receiving financial aid. Three of my students were trans-racial adoptions–from Morocco, India, and Honduras.

We came from all over the place and we were strangers. The parents did not know each other. None of them truly knew me. By enrolling their kids, they trusted my word and vision as I sketched it out in the curriculum guide. There was no instruction manual and no guarantee–just a collection of odds and ends that appeared to have, at best, only a remote chance of fitting together.

Entrusting their children to the North Branch School, a school with no defined structure, “charter” school status, or orthodoxy, at the precipitous moment when their children were entering the critical, tumultuous time of adolescence, could only be seen as an act of utter, eradicable faith.

The kids loved poetry class, and Steve seemed to love it the most. There was no possibility of a wrong answer in a poem, and for a boy who had failed virtually every class in his old middle school, this was liberating.

Steve had no organizational or even rudimentary study skills. His spelling was poor, his penmanship shoddy. His notebook was tattered, duct-taped, and covered with graffiti and stapled-on baseball cards. Dogeared math sheets and three-month-old assignments spilled out, displaying a sort of half-intention, half-prayer that by holding on to them he might somehow one day do them.

His responses to questions asked in class were terse, his motivation almost nonexistent. He had a hard time finding the words to express his ideas. He leaned back in his chair in a kind of dreamy torpor, with his coat wrapped around his thin shoulders and his hood pulled over his brow, his eyes moving to whoever spoke.

He walked two miles to school every day no matter the temperatures, wearing a light New England Patriots coat and no hat or gloves, his hands pulled into the sleeves. The bottoms of his red silk sweatpants were always soaked from walking through the first wet snows. He had no boots. I had given him a bag of winter clothes, but he did not wear them.

“Steve, why the hell aren’t you wearing your hat?” I asked, realizing as I said it that he would be embarrassed to wear clothes his teacher had given him.

“I don’t get cold,” he said nonchalantly.

“Tough guy, eh?”

“Oh yeah, you know it.”

Steve arrived before me every morning. No matter how assiduous I had been about locking up, he was always already inside the house. I knew why he came early: The school was a cleaner, warmer place than his home, a trailer in which there was no phone and where his father was almost always on the road driving trucks.

Most mornings he was lounging around in the school with the lights off, still wrapped in his jacket, playing games on the computer, doing a late homework assignment or resting, still half asleep, on top of the science table. He occasionally answered early morning phone calls and left scrawled messages on my desk.

One morning in December I arrived to find Steve’s footprints leading through the snow on the deck. I followed them around the building until I came to a window. Snow, leaves, and dead pine needles were ruffled where he had climbed in. I imagined him inside, dozing in the dark.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

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