I went off to see him at his school, which turned out to be a tiny, one-story house—easy to miss and looking nothing like a school. When Wood came to the door, he looked nothing like a school headmaster. He was nearly bald, with his remaining hair wild and uncombed. He was overweight, with food stains on his shirt and his shirttail un-tucked. He looked, overall, a bit like W.C. Fields. But he had an enormous smile and a hearty laugh, and he welcomed me into his world.
On the inside, his world looked even less like a school. The rooms of the house were furnished with big, wooden tables, where students worked individually or in pairs. There were lovely bookshelves and antiques everywhere. There was a functioning kitchen, where kids could make themselves a bagel or a cup of coffee whenever they needed a pick-me-up. There was a garden out back, where students could sit and read. The adults in the building moved around from room to room, stopping and sitting whenever they needed to spend some time with a student. Everything was individualized and everything was self-paced. Everyone called the headmaster, “Doc,” and he presided over the main room of the building, sitting at the head of the biggest work table and watching over the students and teachers with a benevolent smile, usually with a cat sitting in his lap and a cup of coffee near to hand.
His school, the Benjamin Franklin Academy, was founded to catch high school students who were “falling through the cracks” and who were in danger of dropping out, or who had already dropped out (or been kicked out), but wanted to get their diploma. It was Doc’s dream school—inspired by A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, but aimed at a very particular student body. It was deliberately designed not to look or feel like a traditional school, to help both students and teachers break old habits and old ways of interacting. Students had clear graduation requirements, and worked with their advisors to make monthly and weekly plans. They were free to work on whatever they wanted to work on, whenever they wanted to work on it, as long as they worked and progressed. In fact, there were only four rules governing the entire school: do your own work and let others do their work; be gentle with the house and the furniture; no fighting; and don’t let the cats out. In the four years that I taught there, I never saw the need for additional rules.
This was not an easy school. There were no Carnegie Units, there was no such thing as “seat time,” and there was no social promotion. In fact, there were no grade levels at all. You either met your graduation requirements in a year, or two, or three, or you didn’t. Some of the requirements were formal, like completing twelve, error-free papers in a variety of essay formats. Some were more informal, like being able to identify 20 nations and their capitals, selected at random by a teacher. It was competency-based learning, decades before that was a hot topic of conversation in our world.
But, like all successful institutions, it will have to outlive its founder. We lost Doc on July 14th. He is the second of my education heroes to have passed, this year—but this loss is more personal and painful to me, because Doc was more than an author I admired. He was my mentor, my guide into this career. His modeling, his manner, and his careful curating of my reading list, early on, all shaped my understanding of what teaching should be and what schools could be. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that everything I have done in my professional career in education bears some trace of Wood Smethurst's beliefs and passions.