Old School: The Making of Hume-Fogg Academic

This guest post comes from freelance writer, and sometimes WPLN contributor Kim Green:

In the autumn of 1983, a few pioneering teachers and students took a chance on each other and showed up at a decrepit behemoth of a building in seedy downtown Nashville.

What happened next was bloody well magical.

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A weird thing happened to me in high school. Brace yourself for it: I enjoyed the experience.

For a lot of people, this is almost impossible to fathom: that those four decisive years of adolescence could have been anything but awkward, painful, and best forgotten.

Until I was 14, I’d lived the classic nerd-kid story: I liked to read books. The kind without pictures. And for that, I wore Otherness like a Maori chin-tattoo. Nobody bullied me, but I was never quite One of Them. The social life of school was a party I wasn’t invited to.

All that changed in August of 1984, when I climbed the castle stairs at 700 Broadway. Hume-Fogg Academic High School was the city’s first public academic magnet, an experiment then in its second year. That year, we were only three small classes in that grand old edifice. We were a closely knit cadre of explorers pressing into the unknown together, and we were having a marvelous time.

The faculty entrusted us with unprecedented freedom and responsibility: We were to take charge of our own learning, in classrooms and stairwells, wooded paths and artists’ studios, and most of all, at our desks at home, late into many a night. In those four years, kids became published writers, accomplished musicians, and national merit scholars—and later, trailblazers from working-class homes who were the first high school and college graduates in their families. Cycles were broken, and new ones drawn.

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And we wrote. How we wrote! Essays, poems, stories, and twenty-plus-page journals, in which we free-associated our thoughts about the literature we consumed. You heard that right—we were adolescents, having thoughts worth recording; we were learning to tame the chaos of a teenager’s mind, to corral it, and to render it ably on the page.

“When you just take a test, it means nothing to you except a grade,” said Bill Brown, a poet and writing teacher with a preternatural gift for conducting exalted word-music via children’s pens. “When you make something you’re proud of with your own hands and your own mind, then you’re getting an education. Then it means something to you.”

It meant something to us, all right, that Brown (somehow) managed to make poets out of us kids from Donelson and Bordeaux and Antioch; but what meant even more was that he seemed to live his own life as an epic poem, as a high-stakes tale starring quotidian hero-mentors and everyday adventurers of the mind.

They all did, that original HFA faculty, and they helped us imagine such lives for ourselves.

“When you want to build a ship…awaken in men the desire for the vast and endless sea.” —Antoine de Saint Exupery

“When you want to build a ship…” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “awaken in men the desire for the vast and endless sea.” But those yearned-for seas aren’t necessarily what you’d expect. In a lot of prestigious schools, the stated goal is: Get kids to Harvard, to Wall Street, to the halls of power. That wasn’t what HFA’s founders had in mind, specifically (unless that was what a student himself wanted).

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When I interviewed our former teachers and principals for the mini-documentary posted below, I asked them the same question: What did you want for us? “Happiness,” said retired English teacher Alan Kaplan, “a life of the mind.” Former HFA principal J.D. Taylor told me he imagined that a lot of students would end up doing satisfying work that wasn’t necessarily lucrative, and that many of us would live according to our own visions of success, and not by society’s measure.

Secretly, I think, they hoped we’d be a little bit like them.

In fact, many of us did go into education, or we at least carried the love of it into our lives, as parents and part-time artists and curious souls of all kinds. And I do mean “all kinds”—because although we shared a mission for four years, we, as a whole, were not at all alike. We were wildly different from one another, and yet, we still managed to be kind to each other, and to forge community out of colorful miscellany. (Insert pointed societal metaphor here.)

My Hume-Fogg era was the best of times, but it was not the best time of my life—because even a happy high school experience should never be as good as life gets. It should, ideally, be the opening passages of a book you can’t bear to put down, an inciting incident that moves your story forward, inexorably, to a life of epic intellectual adventure.

Hume-Fogg was not a perfect society. But it was a pretty darned harmonious one—a safe place for nerds, we liked to call it. In the video that follows, you’ll meet a few of the people who created it.

See this post at Kim’s blog, The Greenery.

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