A Labor Of Love

December 01, 1989 9 min read

Two years ago, inspired by his inability to reward his best students adequately, Will Fitzhugh gave up a job at Concord (Mass.) High School to sink his entire life savings-- and then some--into a project that would finally allow him to give students the A pluses they deserved.

He started a scholarly journal for outstanding writing by high school students.

“I have always had students who have done 35 percent more than anyone else,’' explains the 54-yearold, Harvard-educated Fitzhugh. Like any good teacher, he gave those students extra encouragement. Many of them were “history nerds,’' a term he doesn’t find pejorative. “I loved them,’' he says. “I would get these kids who were World War II buffs--not so great when you’re talking about the Depression or Reconstruction, but boy, when you get to World War II, they’re not students, they’re colleagues.’'

When students turned in papers of exceptional scholarship, Fitzhugh would give them an A plus. And he did that for years until, at a faculty meeting, he learned that when the final grades were recorded, his pluses carried all the weight of a stray pencil mark. “They were counted as A’s,’' says Fitzhugh, to whom the practice made as much sense as paying a top worker a good salary and then throwing away his bonus. “What else could I do for these students aside from writing them college recommendations when they were seniors?’'

Fitzhugh, who was an industrial trainer and manager, and a consultant to the Peace Corps before he began teaching, didn’t get his answer until 1986, during a brief hiatus from the classroom. With time to ruminate, he hit on it: “If someone did an extra good job on a paper you could pat them on the back, give them an A plus, and hand it back, but you couldn’t submit it for publication. But I’m a fan of desktop publishing. I thought, the technology’s there. I could publish something myself.’'

So, in May 1987, with his own money and an Apple Macintosh II, Fitzhugh started The Concord Review, a quarterly publication of what he immodestly calls “the best essays on historical subjects written by students in the English-speaking world.’'

In the last two years, Fitzhugh has published more than 50 papers written by teenage historians--some as young as 15, from as far away as Australia--on subjects as varied as the political fallout of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the legal ramifications of the 19th century plunder of the Greek Parthenon by Britain’s Lord Elgin. To these teenage history buffs, The Concord Review is not just their A plus. It’s what the sports banquet is to the varsity athlete: public recognition of superior effort and ability on a very special playing field. Fitzhugh finds the sports analogy apt. “I remember sitting in front of the TV in 1984, watching the Olympics and thinking of all the attention we pay to sports, all the while decrying how far behind we are in academics,’' he says. “Here in Boston we have a local program called High School Superstars. They’re all athletes. Why don’t we recognize the same kind of excellence in academics?’'

But even when academic prowess is rewarded, in this age of superconductors and microchips, the budding scientist or mathematician--not the would-be history professor--is likely to be lauded. For history, academe’s less glamorous offspring, excellence goes incognito.

“When I tell people I want to be a history teacher, they go, ‘Huh?’' admits Joshua Brooks, a 17-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., whose essay on union leader Joe Hill led the field of 30,000 essays in the 1989 National History Day competition. “My father wanted to be a history teacher but got pushed into law instead,’' says Brooks, a senior at Great Neck High School. “My dad loves history. I guess that’s where I get it.’'

Unless his high school offers a special history prize, Brooks, whose essay appears in the Fall 1989 issue of The Concord Review, has just about accumulated all the extra credit available to exceptional young historians.

“One of my hopes was that The Concord Review might be useful for lots of kids, whether they submitted essays or not,’' says Fitzhugh. “Good history essays are fun to read. I thought it might be broadly useful as a teaching tool in the classroom. Social studies teachers are always searching for books the kids will actually read. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen teachers order books they’re enthusiastic over, and then by midsemester you see hundreds of copies of Profiles In Courage rotting on a shelf. With The Concord Review, when the kids tell us history is over their heads, we teachers can say, ‘Take another look. This was written by your peers.’'

If students are turned off by history texts that translate often rollicking stories into dry and stodgy prose, they may find The Concord Review refreshingly readable. In fact, when selecting essays for The Review, in addition to fine scholarship and good writing, Fitzhugh looks for that extra something, that spark of adolescent insight or compassion, that will give an essay pulsing life. “A lot of these students have something personal at stake--a personal interest in the subject,’' says Fitzhugh. “One of the marks of a good historical essay is an interest in what you find out and a strong urge to tell it, an urge to say, ‘Listen, this is a good story.’'

It was something personal that drew Joshua Brooks to union leader Joe Hill and, he concedes, may have skewed his historical perspective. (“I’m told I wasn’t objective,’' he admits.) When he was a child, his grandfather, who helped organize the New York Teachers Union, crooned him to sleep with a clearly radical lullaby: “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.’' Says Brooks: “I grew up always wondering who was this man that someone wrote this beautiful song about. To find out, I wrote this essay.’'

Students seem to find the personal approach to history appealing. “The kids really like it,’' says Broeck Oder, head of the history department at Santa Catalina School, a private college-preparatory school for girls in Monterey, Calif. Oder has 51 subscriptions to The Review, which he uses with his advanced history students to teach them everything from how to write abstracts to how to critique historical research.

“Kids tend to think that just because something’s printed, it’s gospel,’' he explains. “I want them to learn to make thinking judgments. To use a Civil War analogy, has a researcher gone and looked at the actual report Robert E. Lee submitted, or has he looked at the Time-Life books? I like The Review because it’s one of the best teaching tools I’ve had in 14 years. The students like it because it’s readable; it’s history in digestible chunks. And they find it special that kids their age have done this.’'

The Review has a loyal following, people such as Oder, who stood for hours last March handing out sample copies at the California Social Sciences Convention in Oakland, Calif. It also has received accolades from a stellar array of scholars, including Chester Finn, former assistant secretary of education; Diane Ravitch, co-author with Finn of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?; and Brown University’s Theodore Sizer, who called it “a testing ground, and one of elegant style, taste, and standards’’ that does not “undersell students. It respects them.’'

But, however fervent its audience, it is alarmingly small. Despite three mailings to more than 20,000 public and private schools and 16,000 individual social studies teachers, The Concord Review has only 500 subscribers, spread over 41 states and 10 countries. Among them are the Harvard admissions office and American schools in most of the world’s major cities. However, “that’s only 8 percent of what we need,’' says Fitzhugh, who sank $80,000 of his own and his father’s money into the project. Fitzhugh takes no salary, and, to cut expenses, does all the typesetting and page makeup himself on his home computer.

He notes ruefully that he has been turned down by “just about every foundation you’ve ever heard of,’' except for the Polaroid Foundation, which donated $5,000, and the Esther A. & Joseph Klingenstein Fund, which gave Fitzhugh a one-time grant of $10,000.

He suggests, largely in jest, that his problem is that he has made The Review look “too good.’' Patterned after Daedelus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it is printed on the same weighty creamcolored stock. “I gave a talk at a local prep school and they told me they hadn’t realized some poor schnook was trying to do this out of his house,’' jokes Fitzhugh. “I guess it looks like somebody put a lot of money into it. In this case, me.’'

When pressed, however, Fitzhugh admits what he really thinks: That The Review hasn’t caught on because it’s perceived as “elitist.’' Nearly half the essays he has published--and the bulk of those submitted--have been from students in private schools, including some of the nation’s best: Choate Rosemary Hall, Groton, and St. Mark’s--all part of the Ivy League’s farm team. And, in fact, most of these young essayists have matriculation points that are decidedly upwardly mobile: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Stanford, and University of Pennsylvania. Fitzhugh fears that some teachers may be frightened off by this seeming exclusivity. And maybe something else. “Some people seem to think that showcasing excellence will somehow discourage everyone from trying. But that doesn’t work in athletics,’' he argues. “When Olga Korbut did her stuff in gymnastics, a lot of little girls decided they wanted to be on the balance beam. It was inspiring. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be inspiring in academics.’'

The very notion that The Review might be seen as just another perk of a high-priced education makes Broeck Oder boil. “There is immense talent out there,’' he says. “I would hate to think that a teacher would subscribe to that kind of thinking. You can certainly find talented kids at any school. Maybe there won’t be a lot of kids writing quality essays, but if you’ve got one kid with that kind of talent and you let it lie dormant, well, that’s just terrible.’'

At this point, the The Concord Review’s future does not look bright. Fitzhugh is running out of money. “I’m just barely going to squeak through this next year,’' he says.

Although the failure of The Review would represent a tremendous personal loss, Fitzhugh remains optimistic and serenely philosophic. “One of the things that influenced me to do this in the first place,’' he says, “is that a couple of my friends dropped dead. They were in their early 50’s. It made me think. So I decided to go for broke--literally.’' He laughs. “But you know,’' he adds, “for most of my life I didn’t feel like I was doing very much. I don’t feel like that any more. This was worth doing. And if I dropped dead tonight, I would feel like I had done something worthwhile in my life.’'

Denise Foley is the former managing editor of Children Magazine and coauthor of What Do I Do Now?, a book on parenting to be published by Prentice Hall.

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as A Labor Of Love