Part Ken Kesey, part Thomas Jefferson, part George Carlin, part Mark Twain and 100% genius, John Livergood lived life in truer accordance with what he believed than perhaps anyone I’ve ever known. He was happily unapologetic and enthusiastic in his total rejection of America’s public education philosophy; he itinerantly thumbed his nose at the status quo, choosing instead to put many things in his personal life at risk in order to teach what was really needed. Shady Grove—the school he founded, built and ran with his wife Joyce—was unlike any other among the breed and, I now realize, took a LOT of courage and commitment in order to face down the risks and bring it into existence.
Memorization and recitation was replaced with the teaching of actual skill sets, and a lively dialogue was maintained regarding the goings on in the world around us. How the world (or someone in it) might be changed for the better was a constant theme and the floor was open for the students’ ideas and perspectives; failure to contribute was frowned upon.
Believing things at face value as presented was also frowned upon, as was any kind of “subscriptionist” or sheep-like thinking. John taught us to be objective, to scrutinize and reason for ourselves and to see the actual facts and truths driving matters, both in current affairs and in history. Accordingly, he taught us to pull the curtain from in front of the American political circus. We were treated more or less like adults and held to a higher level of accountability and decision making—a style of teaching that would get people ostracized in most of American culture, especially today—and we thrived. It was really liberating for square-peg high schoolers like us. Yet for all the revolutionary tossing out the window of the moldy, broken status quo, he and Joyce managed to get full accreditation for the school. No mean task, that.
The impact he had on the lives of his students is as varied as we are as individuals. Speaking only for myself, I was wholly and completely incapable of tolerating the glacially slow-paced, cookie-cutter approach and downright lies of the public educational system. I had cut classes much of my 7th-grade year and barely avoided flunking and, despite being a pretty smart kid, was faced with the specter of “continuation school”, which carried a very real likelihood of compromising my future. Who knows where I’d be today, had I not had parents who cared enough to go the extra mile to get me off that track, and had I not been accepted into John and Joyce’s school. I doubt it would be pretty, though. John entered my life at a pivotal time, with the effect of shifting a stone in a riverbed at the top of a long waterfall. The change he brought to my life couldn’t have been more profound, and I’ve always believed that my getting into that school at that juncture has made all the difference in my trajectory. I’ve been grateful every day of my adult life for what Shady Grove, and specifically John, did to encourage me, providing me with an environment that enabled me to go at my own pace, opening the future back up to me. This is a common feeling among his students.
We all owe him, every one of us students. I wish I could thank him one last time, but I realize that the best thanks that we can give him is to carry on his philosophy of teaching. And we don’t have to be teachers in order to carry the torch.
I’ve taken the liberty of listing some of what I think might have been his educational and personal constitution:
1) Robust and unending disapproval for underestimating what the student is ready for;
2) Strong disdain for non-objective, grabbing-the-tail-in-front thinking;
3) Abandonment of any administrative criteria or choice of curricula that doesn’t put the student’s growth first;
4) Thumbing the nose at fear and facing the risks of teaching and living according to what is really and truly good and right, bounded only by the limits of actual possibility;
5) Screwing the status quo; not taking any shit from the zeitgeist; exposing the rot and fixing it;
6) Willingness to go out of the way to make a difference in a young one’s life and way of thinking;
7) Willingness to take a risk to uncover and deliver truth;
8) Taking action instead of simply talking about it;
9) Teaching through providing experiences out in the world, not just through books and classrooms; and
10) Teaching that NOTHING you nor anyone can ever do in life will ever be more important than parenthood.
Damnit John, I miss you. We all miss you. Your grin; your total refutation of a broken system; the ease with which you poked fun at, and exposed the myths of, our most sacred and august institutions; your smiling David to the status quo’s frowning Goliath. The world badly needs your presence, your clear-sighted perspective, the way you could clear the air with a simple matter-of-fact comment; the way your eyes always glinted with laughter. The thicker and more ridiculous the wool you were pulling away, the more your eyes laughed. I think you truly loved what you did for us; giving of yourself to our futures was a thing that truly fueled your heart. Lucky us!
John has gone his way and left us, but he has left us able to carry on the teaching of free, objective thinking and scrutiny, to which he fiercely dedicated his every moment in life. The world is a lesser place now, but I’m so bold as to expect his students to honor his legacy by living good, effective lives, doing what we can to improve the world around us and teaching others to do the same; thus can he live on through us.
Thank you, good sir. I am forever grateful for what you did for me and for so many of us, your students. And I promise never to take any shit from the zeitgeist.
Fare thee well.