Who’s Lucky?

There’s a “special” school in St. Louis County. Its seniors graduated on last Friday.


How sad it must be for those kids. They’re not graduating from the district’s “normal” schools with their peers. For various reasons, they’ve been relegated to a school for misfits.

Seeing the building makes the bad feelings worse.  It’s a former grade school, crammed inconveniently behind a bank and a Taco Bell. Its Eisenhower era architecture stands out  amidst its Mortgage Boom surroundings like a dandelion on golf course. And the high school kids—some in their early 20s—appear freakishly large in the building.

The clown car impression intensifies inside the gymnasium. Its small, undersized basketball court barely holds the families of sixty or so graduates.

The scene was such a contrast for me.

I graduated with almost 600 other kids. Of them, I knew only a small percentage, really. At my high school graduation in the cavernous Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis – which I and all locals will forever call “The New Cathedral” – we sat in alphabetical order for the first time ever.  I had never met the two girls sandwiching me.  (One of them I would have remembered, trust me.)

I was lucky.  I graduated on time with my peers. I was never set back. I got by with a lot—a lot of misbehavior that earned expulsion for other kids. Like I said, I was lucky.

Or was I?

The ceremony at Fern Ridge High School moved me. Me and everyone around me.

Mr. Chris Oliver, an English teacher moving onto a new career after this year, served as the key note speaker. He talked about the wretched state of factory education in America, of course. He talked about the graduating seniors, too.

And he cried.  He paused to compose himself three, four, five times.

I cried, too.  It’s been a while since I’ve had a job that moved me. Chris’s job surely does.

Or did.

Chris said, “Fern Ridge should be a model for all schools in America.” I think he might be right.

At Fern Ridge, Chris was freed from the strictures of a “safe” curriculum handed down like divine instructions on granite tablets. Instead, this school expected him to use his skills and his heart to reach the students—students who have already rejected the factory model of education.

Chris was free, as he said, to “say something crazy” in his classroom.

That means Chris’s students were free to learn and to think. Fernies, as they’re called, do not memorize and regurgitate. 

After his talk, Chris kicked off a Fern Ridge tradition. Teachers stood, one by one, and read an original Tanka to a student.

More tears, but lots of laughs.

(You can’t read Tankas to every student in a class of 600.)

The administrators and teachers on the dais beamed throughout the ceremony. Why shouldn’t they? I said that this was no factory high school. The kids were no factory products. They were, as one of the Tankas described a girl in the class, round pegs in a square world.

America’s education system couldn’t hold these kids.  Most were too intelligent and passionate to make it in regular schools where conformity, anonymity, and banality earn non-descript praise from a faceless bureaucrat.

Education in America—regular, factory education—banished creativity, expression, and brilliance long ago.  Like all socialist schemes, public education “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd [source].”

Students with the courage to cut through that network of rules and stand above the crowd are sentenced to places like Fern Ridge,  or to Missouri’s Options program, where they can earn a diploma without corrupting the numb kids in the regular schools.

When my son accepted his diploma from the principal, I was proud, of course. I was even more humbled and a embarrassed. Not because my son graduated from an alternative school for kids who refused to conform, but because I didn’t.

Way to go, Ben.