Fall From Grace

By Debra Viadero — January 01, 1994 32 min read
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The Rabun County jail sits in the bowels of a modern, brick complex one block behind the main street in Clayton, Ga., a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The building itself is mostly given over to courtrooms, clerk’s offices, tax offices, and the usual array of government services.

From the front parking lot, however, you can peer down a sloping driveway to the right of the building and glimpse a high chain-link fence topped by coils of concertina wire. That is where the jail begins.

Brooks Eliot Wigginton has spent the past 12 months of his life here, living alone in a gray-and-white cell that is six-and-a-half cinder blocks wide and 12-and-a-half cinder blocks long. In the mornings, he writes, working at a small, dimly lit desk borrowed from the laundry room. In the afternoons, he is let out to paint walls, pick up cigarette butts, reorganize filing cabinets, and do whatever other odd jobs need doing around the sheriff’s department. When visitors come to see him, he can sit with them on a patch of grass outside the jail, smoke a cigarette, and watch the cars turning up from Clayton’s main street.

Mostly, though, he writes and reads. On this October day, he carries with him a dogeared, heavily underlined copy of Man’s Search for Meaning, a book by Viktor Frankl that explores the experiences of concentration camp inmates during World War II. One underscored passage stands out. “The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex,” Frankl writes. “We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be `somebody.’ Now we were treated like complete nonentities.”

Eliot Wigginton was indeed “somebody” once. With his students, he founded and created Foxfire magazine, a quarterly publication that discusses how to build a log cabin, how to churn butter, and other “affairs of plain living.” The magazine spawned a series of best-selling books, a Broadway play, and an educational movement whose effects have been felt nationwide. In 1979, Time magazine named Wigginton one of “50 faces for the future.” He won a prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant, and he was chosen as Georgia Teacher of the Year in 1986.

All of the accolades stopped two years ago, however, after a 10-year-old boy from Athens, Ga., accused Wigginton of fondling him during an overnight stay at the educator’s log cabin near Clayton. Soon after that news broke, other young men began to come forward. They said they, too, had been molested by Wigginton when they were teenagers, and their stories were remarkably similar. By the time the case brought by the Athens boy was scheduled to go to trial, a total of 18 young men were prepared to testify that Wigginton had molested them—or had attempted to—on 23 separate occasions.

Faced with that litany of accusations, Wigginton on Nov. 11, 1992, admitted to having fondled the student from Athens. A judge, after giving the educator one last night to have dinner with his father, ordered him to report to the jail the next day to begin serving his 12-month sentence.

The whole messy affair rocked this small, conservative community, where churches seem to spring up at every bend of the winding mountain roads. Rabun County’s citizens were made famous by Foxfire, and many of their children had been taught by this man, whom they had come to know as “Wig.”

The news also sent shockwaves through the education world, where Wigginton had earned a reputation as a respected writer and teacher-reformer in the model of a Pat Conroy or a Jonathan Kozol. And it devastated the Foxfire organization, which had grown up under his nurturance.

The incident also effectively ended Wigginton’s career as a teacher. Under the terms of his sentence, he is barred from working with children for 20 years. And Foxfire, the organization whose name had been synonymous with Wigginton’s for the past 27 years, has effectively divorced him.

It’s been nearly a year since his sentencing, and everyone is still picking up the pieces. As Eliot Wigginton prepares to walk out of jail a free man—at least in a physical sense (he was released Nov. 12)—the question now becomes: Is there life without Foxfire for Eliot Wigginton? And can Foxfire thrive without him?

Clad in faded jeans, his shirt sleeves rolled up, Wigginton looks every bit the reformer whose photos appear in Foxfire publications. He has the same round glasses, long buckteeth, and tall, lanky frame that have become almost trademarks for him. At 6 feet 1 inch and 155 pounds, he is impossibly thin.

The face may be more lined than the early photographs suggest, but, in truth, Wigginton, at 52, is still somewhat boyish-looking as he sits with his long legs casually sprawled. The voice, in contrast to the informal image he projects, is deep and resonant, and his words often are eloquent.

What concerns him most on this fall day, as he sits beneath a tree outside the jail, is that people distinguish between the man and his misdeeds and the educational mission he created because the mission—the teaching approach he has spent a lifetime perfecting—is the one thing he’s still sure of now that the rest of his world has disintegrated. “You know that line from the Robert Frost poem: `They would not find me changed from him they knew only more sure of all that was true’? “ he asks. “I have never been more convinced in my life of the wisdom and the efficacy of the approach. What I knew, I knew, and what I now know, I know in spades. It’s like the difference between a straight flush and a royal flush.

“Anyone,” he says, becoming more animated and forceful as he speaks, “anyone who discounts or dismisses the principles and the pedagogy and the exploration that is going on with committed professionals and the [Foxfire] teacher-outreach office would be in my estimation an extremely small-minded, mean-spirited, ignorant individual.”

His personal transgressions and the work of Foxfire “don’t go together,” he insists. “It’s analogous to saying, `Because someone crashes an automobile that, therefore, there shouldn’t be automobiles.’ “

For all his time in jail, however, Wigginton is less clear about the crime that put him here. He is prohibited, under the terms of his sentence, from denying that he molested the Athens 5th grader. But, in an earlier conversation, as he sat in a conference room across from the sheriff’s office, drinking cup after cup of watery coffee, he hinted that, were his speech not restricted, there were things he could say in his defense.

Today, outside the courthouse, he seems more remorseful, offering these words for the colleagues and friends who are still struggling to figure out how the Eliot Wigginton they knew—the educator so unselfishly devoted to the profession—could have done something so wrong, so potentially damaging to a child psychologically.

“You know, I did—I’ve done—a couple of things that cannot be defended and very possibly can’t be forgiven and I,” his voice trails off. Already a slow and thoughtful speaker, Wigginton takes an extra moment to puff on a cigarette and to regard the passing cars. “The profession is built on trust,” he begins again, looking away. “There are lots of days when I’ve felt I didn’t deserve their confidence anymore—and I’m not even asking that I be forgiven. And whatever feelings of dismay and revulsion they feel toward me, they can be confident that I’ve felt toward myself times three, four, and five.

“And I won’t deny that I did some things. That whatever happens to me I deserve, and I, you know, I’ll be in prison for the rest of my life. I deserve that. There are lots of times when I don’t know how I can actually live with it.”

The Foxfire complex sits on 110 acres on the side of Black Rock Mountain in Mountain City, which is just down the road from Clayton. There are no signs directing tourists from the main highway to the center. But visitors still manage to find their way up the mountain, past the Blue Hill Baptist Church and the Mountain City Church of God, past the few mongrel dogs that inevitably nap in the street, to the dusty, narrow road that leads to the center.

There are 15 log-and-clay structures scattered among tulip poplars. Some of them are more than 100 years old. Students, working with Foxfire educators, painstakingly disassembled the once-crumbling buildings, moved them from their original sites, and reassembled them here. A few serve as offices or housing, but the rest—including an old church, a blacksmith’s shop, and a gristmill—stand in memory of a way of life chronicled in the early Foxfire publications.

Wigginton’s own log cabin is here, too. Partially hidden by trees, the empty six-sided structure sits atop the complex and overlooks the neighboring mountains.

Wigginton has been drawn to this section of northeastern Georgia since childhood. His widowed father, a former professor of landscape architecture at the University of Georgia, frequently took his son to Rabun County on visits. As a boy, Wigginton spent many hours hunting arrowheads in the region’s cornfields and coming to know some of the longtime residents. Almost 60 percent of the county is covered by national forests. And the vacationers who come to enjoy its mist-shrouded hills, lakes, and waterfalls cause the local population of more than 11,000 to double and triple during the summertime.

Until Foxfire, however, the area was best known to outsiders as the setting for James Dickey’s 1969 novel Deliverance—later made into a popular film—which portrayed the native Appalachians as moonshiners and backward mountaineers. But Rabun County today is neither the redneck territory of Deliverance nor the isolated, rural community Wigginton encountered when he first began teaching here in 1966.

At that time, high school boys were allowed to miss classes to go “coon hunting” or to pick cabbage. Now, teenage boys do their hunting in the morning before school, and their fathers are more likely to work in textile mills than on farms. And, in an area where higher education once wasn’t considered much of an option, roughly 40 percent of the students at Rabun County High School—the only high school in the county—now go on to college or vocational school after graduation.

Fresh out of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Wigginton was hired, sight unseen, to teach 9th and 10th grade English at the private Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a hilltop cluster of buildings in Mountain City that looks more like a small college than a school. His classes were a mixture of boarding students, many from troubled homes, and local public school students for whom there was no room at the high school.

It was, by Wigginton’s account, a tough assignment. The local students were more interested in showing off their cars, hunting, and socializing than they were in Shakespeare, and there was friction between them and the boarding students, who were almost never let off the campus. Once, some boys set fire to his lectern. “Out of an enormous amount of frustration, my students and I began to try a number of different classroom possibilities,” Wigginton says. “It was, `What could we do with this curriculum that makes sense for everyone?’ “

Thus, Foxfire was born. Named after a glowing fungus that grows in the damp woods of these mountains, Foxfire magazine at first offered a mixture of poetry and journalistic pieces centered on local folklore and practices. But the cultural journalism, by far the most popular of the magazine’s offerings, gradually took precedence. Students went out into the community and interviewed old people. Then they came back and wrote about everything from hog dressing to how to plant crops by the signs of the zodiac.

The magazine, published in the “whole Earth” climate of the 1970s, was an instant success. The best of the articles were then compiled in a series of 10 books published by Doubleday. The first book of the series, The Foxfire Book, is now in its 47th printing and has sold more than 4 million copies. The students’ experiences became the inspiration for the Broadway play Foxfire, starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Wigginton’s status in Rabun County was elevated to nearly that of a saint.

“At that time, we were thought of by a lot of folks as hicks or hillbillies,” says Andrea Potts, who was one of Wigginton’s students at Rabun Gap. “He made us proud of our heritage, and I think that’s important for any child. He would get us excited about old folks, and we, like a lot of teenagers, wouldn’t have gotten near as excited about that.”

Some of the profits reaped went into the creation of the Foxfire complex. Other funds were plowed into ill-fated community development projects and into scholarships and summer work programs for students. And Foxfire Fund Inc., which had become a full-fledged organization, began recruiting like-minded teachers to take some of Wigginton’s ideas in new directions. Over the years, students working with Foxfire educators have produced record albums, run a blacksmith shop, and formed a string band, among other ventures. There were also experiments with outdoor and environmental education classes.

In 1985, Wigginton published Sometimes a Shining Moment, the semiautobiographical book that attempted to synthesize what he had learned about teaching through those experiences. Teaching, after all, was what Foxfire—the magazine, the books, the string band, and the many other activities—was all about. Out of it had sprung a pedagogy. That pedagogy held that students learn best when they are engaged in meaningful activities that they choose themselves.

The Foxfire approach, Wigginton says, “is an attempt to answer persuasively the universal student question, `So what’s the point of all this? What do people do with it in the real world?’ Rather than explaining to kids what it’s good for, we figure out ways to just do it. And so, for example, a kid who has a question about the worth of writing skills writes a book for Doubleday, and then the kid doesn’t have that question anymore. The really perverse beauty of the philosophy is that it appears to the initiate to be crazy. A teacher comes to you and says the kid doesn’t know enough about writing to do a book for Doubleday, and you say, `But that’s the point.’ Through the doing of it, they acquire the skills to do it again.”

The principles were not entirely new. Education philosopher John Dewey had said much the same thing more than 60 years earlier. But Wigginton, who had come to his conclusions on his own, expanded on them in a way that made sense for the average classroom teacher. “Eliot Wigginton created a brilliant contemporary view of how to have experiential learning,” says Ann Lieberman, a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “And, while that’s an old idea, he talked about how you can have it in the classroom in a modern way.”

Bolstered by a $1.5 million grant from the Bingham Trust, the organization began in the mid-1980s to look at ways to transplant the Foxfire principles to other schools and communities. Now, there are 13 Foxfire teacher networks in states across the country—four more are pending—and an estimated 2,500 teachers call themselves Foxfire teachers. The Foxfire books and the organization’s cultural-preservation efforts have taken a back seat to what Foxfire now views as its central mission: education.

In May 1992, in the midst of this transition, the allegations against Foxfire’s founder surfaced. By this time, Wigginton, always somewhat distant from his colleagues, had become a remote figure to the central organization in Mountain City.

He was teaching an educational-foundations class at the University of Georgia in his hometown of Athens. As part of that arrangement, he taught in the mornings at Chase Street Elementary School, a school he had attended as a boy. Chase Street was becoming a Foxfire demonstration school, and Wigginton was there to help guide it along. In the afternoons, he taught English to Athens high school students. He had taken an apartment in Athens and was commuting 60-plus miles to his cabin on Black Rock Mountain on weekends.

The 5th grader who accused Wigginton of molesting him had been one of his students at Chase Street. According to Laura Jack, the lawyer representing the 10-year-old’s family, the boy had gone with Wigginton to Black Rock Mountain for Foxfire’s annual picnic on the Saturday before Mother’s Day.

That in itself was not unusual. Students often accompanied Wigginton to such Foxfire events, where they were asked to describe their classroom projects. In fact, Wigginton had made it a policy not to accept out-of-town speaking engagements unless students were invited to go along and make their own presentations. Many a student had spent a night in Wigginton’s log cabin; students, in fact, had helped him build it.

Jack says the boy returned home the next day in a sullen and angry mood. A day later, he burst into tears and confessed to his guardians that he had awakened during the night in Wigginton’s cabin to find that the teacher had removed his pants and was touching his penis.

The boy’s guardians told local authorities, and an investigation was launched. When word of the inquiry leaked, Wigginton put out a press release denying the charges. He took a polygraph test and passed it. And he accused the boy’s family and lawyers of trying to extort money from Foxfire.

But then, Rabun County Sheriff Don Page and other authorities began to get calls from men in their 20s and 30s with their own stories to tell. Some of the incidents they described were alleged to have taken place as far back as Wigginton’s first year of teaching. “I think where his downfall was, was when he tried to deny it big-time,” Page says. “That’s when all them other boys started coming out of the woodwork.”

According to records in the Rabun County Courthouse, the alleged incidents followed a pattern. Most were said to have taken place either at Wigginton’s cabin or in hotel rooms on out-of-town speaking trips. Most of the men said they had been drinking or smoking marijuana with their teacher and had fallen asleep or passed out. They awoke to find Wigginton molesting—or attempting to molest—them.

One of those alleged victims is Clayton Smith, a contractor from Gillsville, Ga., who was a student of Wigginton’s at Rabun County High School in the late 1970s. Smith says that when he heard about the 5th grader, he “wrassled with coming forward” with his own story. “But I have a son who just turned 4, and I had to help that little boy,” he says. “I thought, Here was a 10-year-old that had more courage than I had at 22, 24, 28, 29 years old.”

Smith, who says he rebuffed Wigginton’s advances by pushing him out of bed, recalls that he was ashamed and embarrassed. “It’s hard to explain the feeling you get and the embarrassment within,” he says. “For a long time, I thought that there was something wrong with me or that I may have caused it.” Smith felt he could not tell his father, a Baptist minister, what had happened, and he was sure no one else would believe him. Instead, he dropped out of school the next year and joined the military. “I thought it would make a man out of me,” he says.

Although Wigginton is prohibited from denying that he molested the Athens boy, he has never admitted to any of the other allegations against him, and he has never been officially charged with any of them. Faced with the threat of future lawsuits, he will not discuss them now.

Already, one of those alleged victims, Arjuna Echols, has brought suit against both Wigginton and the Foxfire organization. He contends that Foxfire employees must have known what Wigginton was doing and that they should have taken steps to protect the children and teenagers in their care.

Whether anyone at Foxfire knew is a difficult question to answer. Sheriff Page investigated a similar allegation against Wigginton in 1986, but the inquiry fizzled after it was determined that the statute of limitations had expired in the matter. He says neither Wigginton nor anyone else at Foxfire was ever told of those charges.

There had been rumors that Wigginton was homosexual and that he liked young men, but local law enforcement officials, former students, and a researcher who heard them say they never seemed to amount to more than conjecture at the time. “No one on the existing, current Foxfire staff knew anything,” says Hilton Smith, director of Foxfire’s teacheroutreach program since 1986. (Smith is also directing Foxfire’s operations until a new executive director can be hired.) “Had we known, we’d have done something. Now that it’s opened up, some people on staff have had folks say to them, `I know’ or `I knew.’ I don’t know how to assess that. Did they know or didn’t they?”

Says Connie Zimmerman, a network coordinator who worked closely with Wigginton: “My 12-year-old son cut down trees with him in the woods. I would not have handed over my child had I known.”

`I am a public high school English teacher,” Wigginton writes in the introduction to Shining Moment. “If the truth be told, it is only rarely that I wonder why I am still teaching. I know why. I teach because it is something I do well; it is a craft I enjoy and am intrigued by; there is room within its certain boundaries for infinite variety and flexibility of approach, and so if I become bored or my work becomes routine, I have no one to blame but myself; and unlike other jobs I could have, I sometimes receive indications that I am making a difference in the quality of people’s lives.”

No one denies that Wigginton was a good teacher. “He could make Tom Sawyer come alive for you,” recalls former student Potts. “You felt like you were right there, riding on the Mississippi.”

Students and colleagues describe Wigginton as a man with uncommon devotion to the job. More at ease with his students than with his peers, he would frequently work 18-hour days and on weekends. Unmarried and without children of his own, Wigginton was wed to Foxfire, and Foxfire was his child.

“I went to a Foxfire staff party once, and Eliot Wigginton was the cook,” recalls John Puckett, author of Foxfire Reconsidered, a scholarly examination of the organization. “I personally observed him drinking beer, and I knew that he had collected 30 papers from students that day. The next day, he walked into class, and all 30 of those papers were meticulously graded and commented upon.”

The intensity of his devotion also lent him a kind of charisma that was most in evidence when he was teaching or when he made public speeches about Foxfire. “He was very intense and very committed to his ideas and to kids, and that was very compelling for the rest of us,” says Lieberman of Teachers College, a member of Foxfire’s advisory board.

To those who knew and worked with him, that is what makes the events of the past year and a half all the more tragic. “As far as his mission in life, well, he doesn’t have that anymore,” says Jim Nixon, a local parent who served on Foxfire’s community board. “It’s kind of like Chet Atkins with all of his fingers cut off.”

It is also what makes acceptance of Wigginton’s guilt all the more difficult to bear. In the beginning, those who were close to the Foxfire organization refused to believe the charges against Wigginton. The allegations became harder to deny, however, as more and more young men stepped forward and, finally, as Wigginton entered his guilty plea. “I can’t put into words what I felt—probably every emotion you can think of,” says Zimmerman. “There was the terrible loss of his energy and spirit, mixed with anger and betrayal and confusion about the darker side of human nature.”

There were also the inevitable repercussions and cruelties. A teacher in one Foxfire network found a newspaper clipping about Wigginton’s case tacked up on a school bulletin board with unflattering comments about those involved in the organization. At Rabun County High School, where students still produce the magazine in class, Foxfire became the target of some nasty jokes. “You’re not an outcast if you’re in Foxfire,” explains 11th grader Kaleb Love, one of the magazine’s editors, “but there are a lot of Foxfire jokes going around.”

For the most part, however, people seem to have made the distinction between Wigginton and the educational movement he created. Foxfire’s directors say no one quit the organization in disillusionment. Teachers in the network who had dropped out, citing painful experiences they had once had as victims of child molestation, eventually came back. Talk among some network participants of discarding the Foxfire label and calling what they are doing something else was eventually put aside. In Clayton, some shopkeepers put posters in their windows that said, “Foxfire Still Glows.” And funding requests that were pending when the news about Wigginton broke were granted despite all of the negative publicity. Hilton Smith says some funders even offered emergency money to defray the organization’s legal expenses, which by last summer had come to more than $100,000.

“The Foxfire program was certainly an excellent one, and it continued to represent all the ideals that attracted us to it in the first place,” says Bruce Trachtenberg, a spokesman for the DeWitt-Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, which has provided grants to the organization over the years. “Oftentimes, organizations are founded by individuals, and they acquire a life of their own.”

All of the publicity came, however, at a time when the organization was poised to embark on a nationwide fundraising campaign to double its $2.2 million endowment. Those plans were put on hold. “The counsel from our funders is that if we can continue the program and maintain credibility for the next two years, we will be viable again for a national campaign,” Smith says.

In the meantime, the organization has hunkered down. Its $650,000 annual budget, approved in September, is roughly $200,000 smaller than it has been in recent years. There are no more Foxfire books in the works. And the organization plans to consolidate its various offices in what is known as “the solar house,” a building built with book royalties to demonstrate to the local community that energy-efficient homes could be produced inexpensively. Unlike the Black Rock Mountain complex, which is somewhat off the beaten track, the house and an adjacent Foxfire museum sit on the main highway that cuts through Mountain City.

The organization has not yet determined, however, what to do with its 110-acre mountain complex. With only eight fulltime employees, the organization does not have a large enough staff to open it up as a tourist attraction. So it sits, unused much of the year, except for meetings, the summer teacher training programs, and visits from precollegiate classes.

On paper, at least, Wigginton’s absence has not created much of a vacuum. All along, royalties from the Foxfire books, and from Wigginton’s own book, have been turned over to the organization. His salary, when he was not on staff at the University of Georgia, was only slightly more than the average teacher’s salary for the area. But that amount was often surpassed by the honorariums he generated from speaking engagements, which he religiously turned over to Foxfire. The organization is preparing now to take over Wigginton’s log cabin. The cabin, which long ago had been put in a living trust to Foxfire, will help compensate the organization for the legal expenses incurred in Wigginton’s defense.

The bigger vacuum may be in the loss of Wigginton’s public persona. “We don’t have a high-profile education leader as a spokesperson for the organization,” says James Hasson, an Atlanta lawyer who chairs Foxfire’s board of directors. “This has hurt the public perception of Foxfire and whether it will continue, whether it’s an organization to give money to.”

Yet, as devastating a blow as Wigginton’s departure has been, Smith believes it has also opened up new opportunities for the organization. “This event, which cast Wig to the sidelines, provided an opportunity to show what Foxfire is to a lot of people and to move away from the guru mentality,” Smith says. “And, this is going to sound terrible, but Eliot Wigginton is not a very effective organization person, so, with him out of the picture, it became an opportunity to try to establish a better organization.”

Moreover, predicts Alan Fort, principal of Rabun County High School, Wigginton’s absence may even prompt traditionminded teachers at the school to take a chance with the Foxfire methodology. “I think that there were some teachers who were afraid to start because of Eliot Wigginton,” Fort says. “With him being the teacher of the year and the Foxfire author, they were intimidated. If Ted Sizer worked in the room next to you, you wouldn’t try to copy his style.”

There is a faint chemical smell in the Rabun County High School classroom where the Foxfire magazine is produced. This is due, in part, to the recent installation of new computers, 30 in all, arrayed in four rows. That, along with the muted carpeting and the general sense of busyness about the place, gives it the incongruous air of a corporate office.

The 11th and 12th graders here are working on the 103rd issue of Foxfire magazine. One young woman is typing out polite replies to letters from subscribers. The subscription staff is meeting in a glass-enclosed office at the back of the room. Two editors are making arrangements for a weekend trip to Tennessee, where they will do interviews and research for upcoming articles.

“You can come in here, and your responsibility is your responsibility, and teachers aren’t harping on you to get it done,” says 11th grader Jason Maxwell, a Foxfire editor. “If you fail, then your friends will get on you.”

These students never knew Wigginton except to see him once at a picnic. Nevertheless, the events of the last year appear to have exacted a small toll here, as well. Foxfire I, a precursor to this class, failed to draw enough students this year to warrant offering it. “People would say, `What do you want to be in that for?’ “ says 12th grader Lori Lee, the magazine’s poised editor in chief. “But we had an obligation to our subscribers, and we had to go on no matter what people thought.”

Some of these students had, in fact, waited a long time to be in Foxfire, and they were not about to be cheated out of the opportunity now. Lori remembers reading earlier Foxfire volumes at her grandparents’ home and wishing she could write articles of her own and have them published. Jason’s father is a blacksmith who moved to Rabun County because of the reputation it had acquired through the Foxfire publications. He encouraged his son to take the class.

“We want to make Foxfire like it was,” says student editor Kaleb Love. To these students, that means boosting the magazine’s circulation from 1,200 subscribers to 4,000 subscribers over the course of the year and, possibly, helping usher back in the days when there were long waiting lists for the class.

The magazine class, however, is not the only piece of Wigginton’s legacy at the high school. During the next period, in another wing of the school, the Foxfire music class meets. There, students set their own agendas for the development of their musical skills. They break into groups based on their musical tastes and spend the period practicing. Some will put on performances later this year. Others are just perfecting their craft.

And, at an elementary school in the nearby community of Tiger, kindergartners choose how they will learn the letters of the alphabet. This week, they are baking “crazy cupcakes” for the letter C.

Classrooms such as these are sprinkled throughout the country now. In suburban Gwinnett County, just outside of Atlanta, Linda Koch’s 8th graders are building a Cherokee house, a Creek house, and a settler’s cabin as part of their study of Georgia history. They are also writing a play to perform in the setting they create. Elementary school students in the same community, after studying a unit on ecology, created a rain forest mural and had it printed on T-shirts. They sold the shirts to raise money to help preserve rain forests. Students in an inner-city Atlanta school researched a community that was about to be razed and wrote and published what they found. There are Foxfire-trained teachers in urban schools as well as in rural ones, in elementary and middle schools as well as in high schools.

“The work that Eliot Wigginton started, that so many of his colleagues picked up on, will continue,” says education reformer Ted Sizer, whose Coalition of Essential Schools provides a framework that many Foxfire teachers find compatible with their methods. “It has momentum of its own.”

Others, however, are less sanguine about the staying power of the Foxfire movement. Although most affiliated teachers are enthusiastic converts, more than half, in a recent survey, said they found it more demanding than traditional instructional methods. When these teachers leave a school, their methods and enthusiasm sometimes go with them. Even at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee, where Wigginton pioneered the pedagogy, few remnants of the Foxfire approach remain.

“One of my concerns has been that those [Foxfire-inspired] teachers tend to be lone rangers,” says Puckett, the author of Foxfire Reconsidered and an assistant professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “Without sustenance and resources, it makes it very difficult for them to do the work they want to do. They may be able to have an impact on their students, but it’s difficult to say they have much hope of changing entire schools this way. They’ve picked their battle, and they’re going to fight it in the classrooms.

“But,” he adds, “I think this is a real and genuine pedagogical approach that should be encouraged and sustained.”

Proponents of Foxfire say they were never so immodest as to hope to change entire schools. Their goal, they assert, is to hold up the Foxfire method as an approach that works and to effect change teacher by teacher. “Kids’ test scores may not increase; they may stay the same,” Wigginton says. “But the kids will come back in 10 years and remember a great adventure that you were on together and that they have never forgotten.”

Without a doubt, Eliot Wigginton has made an indelible impression—for better or worse—on the many students he has worked with over the years. But after more than 11 months in his jail cell and periodic visits to his psychotherapist in Atlanta, he has come to understand that this chapter of his life is now closed.

At the moment, his plans are only as concrete as the 6-inch stack of yellow legal pads, filled with his writings, that sits atop the desk in his jail cell. There have been no job offers from colleges of education, no offers of any kind, in fact.

“I literally do not know what I am going to do,” Wigginton says. “I know that one of the first things I want to do is take a lot of material that I’ve written and edit it into something and get it into a computer and do something with it. Your choices range from suicide to trying to muster any optimism you can to the possibility that you might be able to make some contribution, to everything in between, which includes this:” He holds up a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Retreating from the world, as Thoreau did, is an option that holds some appeal for him now. “In my least optimistic moments,” he says, “I hang around the fringes of the lower part of the scale. In my most optimistic moments, I think that my 27 years of public school experiences and the lessons that I’ve learned from literally thousands of kids and experiences with teachers can be utilized in some way.”

What Wigginton would really like to do now is put all of that to work in prisons. Already, he has taught Spanish to fellow inmates, helped start an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and tutored prisoners who want to learn to read. He and other prisoners also built a library in a narrow conference room in the rear of the jail. They collected book donations, built shelves, and developed a system for keeping the books in order. During his stay, Wigginton has read books by a number of famous inmates, including former private school headmistress Jean Harris and Watergate conspirator Charles Colson. Some of these books, along with education tomes and works by authors known for their Christian beliefs, are piled on Wigginton’s narrow top bunk, alongside a towel that hangs drying.

Through his experience as an inmate, Wigginton has discovered parallels between prisons and schools, and he contends Foxfire methodologies would be at least as effective in prisons as they are with captive populations of high school students. “I really empathize with the frustration that lots of inmates feel,” he says, “and I feel I can really begin to have some understanding of why the recidivism rates are so high. For one thing, you are basically turned into a dependent individual through this experience. You are exited at some point, and you have all these immediate things you are hit with—where to live, how to make a living. They tend to overwhelm you because you’re in a situation where you make no decisions at all, and you turn to the only group of people who are nonjudgmental, and that’s former inmates and the people who got you in trouble in the first place.

“Frankl was right,” Wigginton adds, referring to the author of Man’s Search for Meaning. “What a man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

But while he talks openly about prison life, Wigginton is less forthcoming about the forces that brought him to this jail cell. He says only vaguely that his problems stemmed in part from his experiences in public school. He was nearsighted at a young age and, later, had to repeat the 9th grade. But he was not, he says, a victim of sexual abuse himself.

“You know,” he says, “you hear a lot of people say they’d like to be young again. Never. Not for all the money the Georgia lottery generates in its entire existence. A lot of it had to do with rejection and interpersonal relationships, the whole sort of messy, awful time.” He dismisses further discussion of the topic with a wave of his hand.

Then he adds: “Although I didn’t know it at the time, one of the reasons I went into teaching was to fix that. One of the things I was most determined about was that in my classroom nobody would ever be belittled, and there would be no losers and no rejection. You can ask anyone; I’ve basically done nothing else for 27 years. This was my life’s work.

“And students,” he adds, with a rueful laugh, “students are like oxygen to me.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Fall From Grace


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