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The Voices of Paideia

Druid Hills school chronicles 40 years of joyful innovation

Maybe schools publish books all the time.

Maybe some are even so good that a reader with no connection to the place can pick a 40th anniversary collection up cold, and still be moved by the content.

Maybe it’s not that unusual, in these days of hyper-focus on test scores and GPAs, to keep coming across the word “love” in a book about a school.

But I’m not so sure.

After spending a few days with a new 240-page full-color hardback called School Stories: Paideia at 40 – which offers a window into the life and times of one of Atlanta’s coolest places – I think the book is pretty remarkable.

Now, if you’re already one of the Druid Hills school’s 2,300 graduates, or among its faculty or staff (or their families), that won’t be news to you.

But if you only know about from is reputation, or what you’ve heard over the years from proud parents, or what you’ve seen walking past its sprawling Ponce de Leon campus, School Stories is a welcome chance to learn about the place for yourself.

If the first thing you notice is how solid and well-designed the book is, the second is how well written every bit of it is, from the essays by current staff and faculty, to pieces by current and former students.

“This is a school community that appreciates words,” says headmaster Paul Bianchi, who’s been there since Day 1. So the book honors that.

Listen to the way 1998 grad Vladimir Kleyman – of whom Bianchi says, “I give him an enormous amount of grief because he should be a writer instead of practicing law” –  remembers the teachers who made the deepest impression on him, including junior high English teacher Bernie Schein:

“In an age when education is thought to be the indoctrination of kids with discrete, quantifiable, and testable knowledge, Bernie’s teaching philosophy was simultaneously simpler and infinitely more complex.

‘We don’t make you write because we are trying to prepare you for high school or for the real world,’ Bernie once told us, ‘but because we are trying to help you become decent, compassionate people, not the jerks you otherwise might become.’ He taught us that and more – working with his kids long after the school day ended, ignoring the crowds of parents waiting outside his classroom’s French doors. Bernie wasn’t there to please the parents. He was there for us, his kids. At a time when we were uncertain about everything from our appearance to our intelligence, Bernie heartened our trembling hearts. And we intuited that in spite of his wrinkles, Bernie not only understood us, he loved us, and we loved him back, expansively and permanently.”

Or read noted Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene’s account of her 14-year-old daughter’s transformation.

Before Paideia, she was a disconsolate public school freshman fearing “it was too late” for her to ever enjoy school again.

After, she “thought and wrote and studied until all hours (‘I don’t mind,’ she assure me late one night as I groggily peeked into her still-lit bedroom, ‘because this is stuff I want to know.’ ) ”

The stories, memories, confessions and interviews are interspersed with timelines of the school’s milestones, way better than average photographs and – for the Paideia insiders, “Test Your Knowledge” quizzes.

Talking about the book last week in his book-lined office, Bianchi said it was never intended to simply chronicle the school’s history.

The goal was to assemble something that “would begin to describe the culture.” Which would have to include lots of fun and laughter: “A friend said it’s probably the only 40th anniversary book for a school with something on pranks by the headmaster.”

It had been 15 years since Paideia celebrated its past with an anniversary book. This time out, Bianchi convened a bigger team – trustee Christine Cozzens, director of Agnes Scott’s Writing Center; Judy Schwarz, the school’s director of parent involvement and communications director Jennifer Hill –  which collaborated with a broad range of the school’s extended family, including commercial book designer Patti Willard, and professional photographer Peter Essick.

Although the school grew out of the reformist ‘60s and ‘70s, Bianchi said, it wasn’t purely an idealistic venture.

“We think this is American pragmatism,” he said. “You want an educated populace. You want them to think and give them experiences in which to practice those skills.”

You also want to create a world in which students feel safe and challenged enough to bloom. I loved the way high school counselor, teacher and alumni parent Thrower Starr described the school’s moving spirit in an essay called, “Saying Yes”:

“In my thirty-third year of working with kids, I see little miracles of carbon, water, and light. I say yes to these shining beings. I say yes all the time. Love comes in different ways from different people. From some it comes through ribbing and jokes, from some through the wisdom and discipline of the material, from some by information and knowledge; some push precision, some say no or almost, some create order, some acceptance, gentleness, a hug. I love by saying yes. … Like a work of literature, we all have our themes. Each life has one or two. This process is quiet, but it stays with you your whole life. Working through you. It is the particular key you carry, looking for doors to unlock. Your cells vibrate to this tune, this fork struck at your soul’s birth.”

Back in the ‘70s, I thought the British school A.S. Neil described in “Summerhill,” sounded almost too good to be true. The contrast between my narrow parochial school days couldn’t have been more extreme. I was reminded of that book, when I stopped in to talk to Bianchi the other day about how School Stories came to be.

My undergraduate school days may be long past, but I still found myself wishing I could go back and do it all over again – only at Paideia, with folks like these.

School Stories: Paideia at 40 is available for $35 through the school’s website, www.paideiaschool.org or by calling the school at 404-377-3491 and asking for Flo Henry at ext. 165.

Andrea July 05, 2011 at 02:27 PM
I am floored that someone with no apparent connection to this school has captured its joyful, quirky essence so quickly, and so well. Delightful.
Eileen Drennen July 13, 2011 at 11:32 AM
thanks so much, andrea! that's what the book does -- have you seen it? it's wonderful.
Samantha August 20, 2011 at 08:11 PM
My boyfriend is a graduate and now teacher at Paideia. I had never even heard of the school until I met him 2 years ago. The book holds the exact truth of Paideia's wonderful uniqueness. I have to agree that it is one of the coolest places in Atlanta!
Eileen Drennen August 21, 2011 at 12:16 PM
congrats to your boyfriend, samantha -- what a cool place to work!
Jana Eplan August 26, 2011 at 02:43 PM
thanks for your beautiful review of this very special book. I am an alum of Paideia and a current parent of two students who get to go to school in this wonderful place. Your review was as heartfelt as the book and I so appreciate it.

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