Portrait Of The Reformer As A Young Man

By Rich Shea — October 01, 2000 28 min read
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20-year-old Bill Wetzel is on a crusade to convince anyone who’ll listen that education matters are best decided by students.

There’s no mistaking the message. Taped at eye level to the front door, it reads: “Visitors, please sign in.” As Bill Wetzel enters the building, he smiles and says, “For the moment, we’re illiterate.” This claim is far from true—the 20-year-old Wetzel practically devours books—but no matter. We soon slip past a handful of students and teachers and into an empty stairwell. It’s 9 a.m., June 1, 2000, and we’ve infiltrated Middletown High School North.

When he’s excited, Wetzel doesn’t shout or pump his fist; he simply opens his clam-shaped, hazel eyes wide. Right now, they’re as big as the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses. “Maybe it’s upstairs,” he says, referring to the computer lab, or the library, or the cafeteria-any place where teenagers gather and gossip. But after bounding up the stairwell, we find only classrooms, where many students are out of their seats. “You can tell the period’s about to end,” Wetzel whispers. “They’re anxiously waiting near the doors.”

We wait, too. The hallway is narrow and dimly lit. Paint flakes off the walls, and some ceiling tiles are missing. The bell rings, finally, and teenagers spill from the classrooms, leaving barely enough room for Wetzel to weave his way down the hall. Sporting a Jansport backpack and unruly brown hair, he looks like a high school student, but he’s not here to learn. He’s here to change things.

“Wanna see how to make school less boring?” he asks a few students huddled near a locker. He hands them a flier titled, “10 Ways To . . . Rock Your High School!!!” At the top of the list: “Have a schoolwide walkout.” Confused yet curious, the students watch Wetzel as he ambles down the hallway, using the “boring” line again and again, thrusting fliers upon teenagers and failing, for some reason, to draw the attention of the half-dozen teachers stationed outside their doors.

As the traffic thins, we head downstairs and find the library, where a stained-glass rendering of the school’s mascot, an MGM-like lion, is affixed to a banner that reads, “The Pride of Middletown.” But this library is too small for Wetzel’s tastes; he likes ‘em football-field-sized, so that he can converse with teenagers among the stacks, hidden from view. His mission today, as it has been in the roughly 20 public schools he’s “visited” nationwide, is to encourage students to take charge of their school. On each flier is the Internet address for Power to the Youth (, Wetzel’s one-man organization that, among other things, advises students to form a local PTTY chapter; put a teenager on the local school board; and, if necessary, protest an administrative decision by staging a walkout.

Wetzel enters the stacks, fliers tucked beneath his jacket, and feigns browsing until the adults are busy. He then slips fliers to four, five, six students. As an aide approaches, he grabs his backpack, and we exit the library and head for the school’s front doors.

“Can I help you, gentlemen?”

We turn and see a tall, broad-shouldered man with slicked-back hair. He’s dressed like a corporate CEO, starched shirt shining like a spotlight. I look at Wetzel; he looks at me.

If Wetzel had his way, he’d bust all the students and teachers out of school and blow it to next Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, he’d rebuild it, brick by intellectual brick.

“All right,” the man thunders. “Who are you?”

A reporter working on a story, I tell him. Wetzel stutters a bit, and the man, who we assume is a vice principal, asks why we haven’t signed in. Wetzel falters and says, “I didn’t know—"

“Oh, come on, guys, don’t give me that.”

Marched into the main office, we’re accused of trespassing. The VP wants to know how long we’ve been inside. “Ten minutes,” Wetzel says. “How many buildings have you been in?” he snaps.

“Uh, uh . . .” Our stomachs churn, as the VP ponders our fate. Suddenly, he snatches the fliers—$15 worth—from Wetzel’s hands and says, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave the building.”

So we do.

Outside, where the sun is shining, Wetzel says, “Oh my God,” in a way that indicates he wasn’t scared at all, but fascinated—as a field researcher might be. He’s been thrown out of high schools before, and what we experienced was a classic example of intimidation. Your average school, he’s told me before, resembles a prison, and the VPs, the principals—they’re wardens. Order must be maintained; hence the separation of age groups, the use of bells, the system of rewards (good grades) and punishment (detention). Any outsider who advocates independent thinking is considered a threat.

Wetzel, in this light, is pretty threatening. If he had his way, he’d bust all the students and teachers—even the administrators—out of Middletown North and blow the school to next Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, he’d help rebuild it, brick by intellectual brick. You see, most adults—the academicians, the politicians, the test-makers, the newspaper columnists—they can argue all they want about school reform, but the fact is, they’re doing nothing more than applying a new coat of paint to an institution whose foundation is crumbling. And that’s because it was constructed, all those years ago, without expert advice. When it comes time to rebuild, only one architect will do: the student body.

Thoughts like these are Wetzel’s companions. He needs them for support as he baby steps his way toward realizing a vision of widespread student-centered education—one born five years ago, when he was an otherwise straight-A, straight-laced sophomore at a New Jersey high school not far from Middletown North. His first step included gathering information, reading seminal works on education, and visiting alternative schools. Step two is the one he’s executing now, generating a buzz about PTTY with school and conference visits and a Web site. The next step begins in two weeks, when Wetzel will participate in a U.S. Department of Education conference in Washington, D.C., and debut his new, adult-friendly organization, Save the Schools (, which will enable him to take step number four: a tour of the country’s schools.

Meanwhile, he’ll do whatever’s necessary, including suffer a VP’s wrath, for the sake of disseminating his message. “The golden rule with visiting schools, and I think the golden rule for a lot of students,” he tells me, “is to play dumb, which is what I was doing [with the VP]. What a lesson that is.”

Bill Wetzel is not dumb. He’s the youngest of four very smart children: One sister was valedictorian of her class at Red Bank Regional High School, another ranked third, and his brother is a senior at Cornell University. Wetzel had his pick of colleges when he graduated Red Bank in 1998: Bard, Oberlin, Wesleyan, Cornell. But an essay he wrote his senior year, the one that earned him a gold award in the 75th annual Scholastic Art and Writing Awards (previous winners include Truman Capote, Bernard Malamud, and Joyce Carol Oates), hinted that he’d had it with conventional schooling. Titled “Nothing To Brag About,” it critiques the gifted-and-talented program in which he participated for eight years, from ages 5 to 13. After praising “Mrs. B,” his G&T teacher, he throws out a caveat. “This sweet little haven of high scores and brain teasers played a dirty trick on our minds,” he writes. “The G&T label lurked in every gold star, honor roll, and acceptance letter that would come our way. We had to be better than the best. We had to give Mrs. B something to brag about. But we never knew why.”

Lacing rebellion with diplomacy is a talent Wetzel cultivated in school. Emma Betta, a humanities teacher at Red Bank who describes herself as an open-minded conservative, says his expository pieces showed “brilliance” and “a flair that made the writing interesting.” He jumped at the chance, his senior year, to bring John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down to class. Although Betta doesn’t subscribe to Gatto’s anti-school views, “if a kid is passionate about something, I’m thrilled,” she says. “So I opened the book up for discussion.”

‘We had to be better than the best. But we never knew why,’ Wetzel wrote of the gifted-and-talented program he was enrolled in.

A year earlier, Karen Haefelein, Wetzel’s creative writing teacher, had given him a copy of Thoreau’s Walden, which includes the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” It’s no coincidence that Wetzel, with the help of a friend, soon launched The Voice of Liberation, a newspaper that challenged school policies and drew the ire of its administration. Or that, with the help of another friend, he bookended his senior year with two banners hung on school grounds: “Welcome Back to Jail” and “Free At Last.” Or that, after graduation, he put college on hold and rode a bus to the West Coast, where he biked 2,000 miles, visiting schools and capping the trip with a two-month stay with a homeschool family.

On the one hand, Wetzel is a typical progressive. But his insistence that students, primarily high schoolers, lead the school reform movement is revolutionary. “Just think of it in terms of other movements,” he explains. “When black people fought for civil rights, they had black people; if students want to improve the schools, you need student involvement.”

Easier said than done. Those close to Wetzel—including Haefelein and Betta, his parents, and his sister, Becky, a 6th grade science teacher—concur that, if every student were like him, schools wouldn’t need to be so rigid. They also admit that today’s reforms are excessive, that a test-based curriculum designed without regard for individuality damages morale. But Wetzel’s grand plan—to unify various factions and rebuild school systems from scratch—may be a pipe dream. “I think it’s an admirable goal,” Betta says, “but it’s going to take a lot more Bill Wetzels to do that.”

It’s 2:30 p.m. at Monmouth Regional High School, five hours after our visit to Middletown North, and Wetzel is stationed outside the back doors, where a concrete courtyard serves as a bus port. Just before we turned into the parking lot, Monmouth looked like one of his prisons: a massive, windowless slab of pale-yellow cinder blocks. But inside the courtyard, windows abound. After the bell rings, students trickle outside, where they see Wetzel, who—at five feet, seven inches and 138 pounds—is dressed in a button-down blue Oxford and tan khakis. On the right pant pocket is a big ink stain made by the pens he uses to fill a daily journal, which he’s done since the age of 8. Hundreds of notebooks are piled in his room at his parents’ house in Little Silver, which is six miles east of Monmouth Regional, where Wetzel is now smiling, handing out fliers, and asking, “Wanna learn how to make school less boring?”

A few students politely take the fliers, but as the courtyard fills up—as radios play hip-hop and teenagers flirt and wrestle and crack jokes—Wetzel is treated like one of those clipboard-toting surveyors at the local mall. A tall, sinewy boy looks at a flier and says, “I don’t even know what it is, and I don’t want it.” Another kid takes one, crumples it up, and spikes it.

Apathy is a big obstacle for Wetzel. Haefelein recalls that, whenever The Voice of Liberation, his anti-school newspaper, was discussed in class, her students fell into two categories. “They either didn’t get it, so they didn’t even bother with it,” she recalls, “or, if they did understand it, it challenged the status quo so much, and what their parents had taught them, that they rejected it.” It’s tough to tell if that’s happening today; students are reading Wetzel’s “10 Ways” (#2. Start an underground student press; #3. Have everyone in your class leave a test empty), but before long a man who looks like a football coach approaches and tells Wetzel he needs permission to be on campus. (Wetzel told me earlier that he gave up asking principals for permission for his visits because it was never granted.)

Back in the car, he admits his efforts were doomed from the start. He graduated just two years ago, so he knows how the students felt when they saw him distributing fliers. “They’ve had dittos, ideas, chalkboard homework assignments, tests bombarding them for seven and a half hours,” he explains, “and they got up at 6 o’clock in the morning to do all that.”

Billy Keniston, who co-edited The Voice of Liberation and now works for Youth Voice Radio in Durham, North Carolina, where he’s attending college, says it’s important that Wetzel doesn’t just preach. “Young people gotta critique their own schools,” he explains. “If you can go into schools and meet a couple kids who are upset with something, and get them to define what it is they’re upset with, then you sort of listen to them and . . . start throwing around ideas.”

Wetzel hung a banner on his school grounds: ‘Welcome Back to Jail,’ it read.

That’s exactly what Wetzel’s doing. To date, Power to the Youth has 350 members, who signed up via the Web site. At his parents’ house, where his “office” is a hallway leading to the back porch, he shows me e-mails he’s received. “The best part of my formal public education was all the teachers who inspired me to do something different,” one high schooler writes. “Those teachers are few and far between, though. The worst part [is] . . . the teachers that base the entire grade you receive on homework assignments instead of what you actually learned and how hard you tried.” One teacher writes: “I do know that my school bores me and limits what I can do as a teacher for my students because of its constraining schedule, lack of classroom space, and lack of full access to computers in every course.”

One e-mail that arrived today is from Lance Fialkoff, social studies supervisor at Rumson-Fair Haven, a high school we went to early this morning, just before Middletown. Fialkoff is inviting Wetzel to talk to his students. But before he can respond, Wetzel gets a call from one of the school’s vice principals, who tells him that his drop-by and fliers caused quite a stir. There will be no visit.

When I call Fialkoff later, he won’t discuss the administrative decision but confirms that he had planned to give Wetzel a forum. “I think he could be an inspiration to the students,” he says, adding that his sociology class already discusses school-improvement issues. “The students come alive when given the opportunity to have input.”

Betta and Haefelein concur, but they teach elective courses, which allow them plenty of breathing room while designing curricula. Haefelein, for example, asks students to submit work by their favorite authors, who serve as a basis for instruction. Asked why more teachers don’t do this kind of thing, she says: “I think it’s a matter of giving yourself permission to do it, first of all, because I think a lot of teachers teach the way we were taught, which isn’t necessarily a great idea, especially because the population’s changing and these kids are not the same.”

Nor is the world. At the root of Wetzel’s critique is a system of public education that, throughout its roughly 150-year history, has been criticized by everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Noam Chomsky. It began, Wetzel says, “with the intent of bringing people from the countryside, from farm work, into the city, so there could be massive amounts of factory workers.” And, although the Industrial Age is over, the two-part premise behind the system—that a) the more schooling you have, the more money you’ll make and, therefore, the happier you’ll be, and b) you only learn in school—is the same. “There’s this idea that when you’re in school it’s ‘on’ time and your brain is busy, and then when you come home from school it’s ‘play’ time and your brain isn’t busy,” Wetzel says. “But the way I see it, your brain is busy all the time, your brain’s playing all the time, and you’re learning all the time.”

It’s no surprise that he advocates homeschooling—that is, if the child is in charge and parents serve as “facilitators,” teaching what they know, then aiming kids in other directions: apprenticeships, libraries, museums. But the ideal school, he suggests, would eliminate the need for homeschooling. His “community learning center” would be an all-hours facility that operates something like this: A kid goes to the front desk and says, “I’m interested in working with a senator.” A resource person then helps the child contact the politician’s office and gather background material—biography, newspaper articles, voting records, etc. And if the kid wants a primer on government or, say, the art of politics, a teacher steps in. So teachers, in Bill Wetzel’s world, wouldn’t be out of work.

“I see it as changing their responsibilities in the same fields, but doing things that would excite them and the students more,” he explains. “A math teacher will be a math teacher, but instead of having Friday’s quiz on logarithms, they’d be hands-on in more practical, real-world applications, be it architecture—you name it.”

Wetzel doesn’t offer a detailed model because he knows that for every school that serves an upper-middle-class clientele, there are several urban and rural schools in need of basic resources. “I think the perfect school, in philosophy, would be what the students and community make it,” he explains. “I think there’s this underlying idea of it being learner-centered and respectful to students and resourceful with the community. But I think there’s no such thing as a perfect school.”

After our visit to Monmouth Regional, we hang at the Wetzel residence, a 110- year-old Victorian house sitting on an acre of land on Little Silver Point, a peninsula that, 100 years ago, served as a summer resort for the rich and famous of New York City, just 40 miles north. The house—with its dark shingles, paneling, and hardwood floors—looks like a mountain cabin that’s been transported to the beach. The rooms are a cornucopia of antique furniture, original works of art, ornate bird cages, ancient Victrolas, family photos, and a Baldwin grand piano, on which Wetzel plays everything from Rachmaninoff to Chick Corea. Upstairs, stuffed into three cases, are his books. Wherever he goes—on bike rides, to education conferences—he raids the local bookstore, buying paperbacks for no more than $2 each. He has hundreds, and the titles include: The Closing of the American Mind, Tolstoy on Education, How Children Fail, The Essential Thomas Paine, Death at an Early Age, and The Teenage Liberation Handbook.

Teachers, in Bill Wetzel’s world, wouldn’t be out of work—but their role would be more hands-on.

Growing up, Wetzel was pressured to do well in subtle ways. He lived in “a world of expectations,” he says. “There was this almost unspoken, ‘Thou shalt go to a prestigious college, thou shalt rise above the class.’ ” Talking to his family just before dinner, this isn’t hard to fathom. Bill Sr., who will soon retire from his job as computer consultant for AT&T, is an intelligent, intense individual. He’s also his son’s benefactor. He and his wife, Wendy, supply Wetzel with room and board and, on occasion, incidentals. (Otherwise, Wetzel’s operation is funded through contributions, his own money, and his wits; he’s king of the freebies.) But when I ask Bill Sr. his view of public schools, the answer is somewhat predictable.

“Look where you’re sitting,” he demands. We’re on a wooden porch overlooking a spacious back lawn and a small dock set on Little Silver Creek, a tributary of the Shrewsbury River. Behind me are Wendy’s well-tended vegetable and flower gardens. A seventy-five-foot cottonwood tree stands in the middle of the lawn, creaking in the breeze. “My kids have gone to Princeton, Rutgers, MIT, Smith, Williams, and Cornell,” he says. “Had I not gotten a good education and done reasonably well in my employment, that would not have been possible. So I can’t fault the public schools.” The bespectacled Bill Sr. is usually a lightening-quick talker, but he pauses for a moment, then adds: “Would I have been a better person with a different school system, with different changes in the school? Yes, I think I would have.”

Earlier, Wendy told me she enjoyed attending public schools. She did not, however, like teaching. After graduating from Douglass College in 1967—a year after Bill Sr. had graduated from Rutgers University, where they met—she traveled and worked in Europe for 18 months then taught high school German. By the end of one year, she’d had enough. So, in 1970, she and Bill got married and started a family. He worked; she stayed at home with the kids. When they moved to Little Silver, in 1983, the principal of Markham Place (Middle) School illustrated the institution’s stature by dusting off an old yearbook and listing the prestigious colleges to which former students had been admitted. But while other Wetzel children thrived in public schools, Billy, as his family calls him, was bored. “We were always arguing with his teachers to challenge him more,” Wendy recalled.

Wetzel did, however, enjoy the hobbies he developed while researching projects for his G&T classes: stamps, coins, and baseball cards, for instance. “But these were my pride and joy,” he says, pulling from a glass case a black piece of cardboard dotted with plastic domes. Beneath each is a stone or two, some of them shiny. He was so intrigued by gems in 6th grade that he called several dealers, hunting samples for class. The result: Emeralds, rubies, opals, and sapphires were sent, free of charge. Wetzel’s fixations were famous in the house. “He was always shifting; he went from one thing to another,” says his sister Becky, the teacher. “We could always figure out what to give him for presents.”

But the G&T projects weren’t enough, and at age 15 Wetzel cracked. “He just couldn’t see the point of memorizing things just to get an A,” his mother told me. “He put up with it a little while, but his grades went down,” meaning he got B’s and C’s.

Exceptional teachers, like Betta and Haefelein, were lifesavers, as was The Voice of Liberation. On Haefelein’s advice, Wetzel avoided using school resources to publish the paper, which debuted in the middle of his junior year and ran through May of 1998, a month before he graduated. It was a bumpy ride. Keniston, Wetzel’s partner in the project, remembers that, when senior year began, there was a new rule in the student handbook requiring administrative approval of all printed material. The VOL staff tried that once, but it was a disaster, Wetzel recalls; about a third of the paper was removed.

‘Students come alive when given the opportunity to have input.’

Lance Fialkoff,
Rumson-Fair Haven High School

With the help of their parents, Wetzel and Keniston challenged the administration by citing two court cases, Tinker vs. Des Moines and Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, which together, they argued, allowed VOL freedom of speech without administrative intervention, mainly because it was not a school-funded paper. But when one issue with questionable language offended parents, complaints were registered with the school board, which voted to make the rule official policy.

Wetzel, however, continued to publish, and the last issue of VOL was his best. With tape recorder in hand, he interviewed a dozen teachers; half spoke anonymously, half used their names, and all called into question aspects of school policy, from test prep to block scheduling. “American schools are the tool of American society, are the tool of those in power, those who run and always have run America: the wealthiest citizens,” one teacher is quoted as saying—and this after Wetzel allowed educators to edit their interviews.

When the paper appeared, the administration, which had refrained from enforcing the school board policy, was not happy. Students, teachers, and Wetzel were called into the principal’s office, where they discussed the concerns expressed in the articles. But nothing changed, Wetzel says. And his next issue, for which he’d planned to offer solutions, never got off the ground. After he graduated, the paper folded.

The day after our school visits, Wetzel and I ride bikes to the beach town of Sea Bright, five miles east of his parents’ house. To the first-time visitor, every town in this region is idyllic. Two rivers—the Shrewsbury and the Navesink—as well as a network of creeks and lakes festoon the landscape with shimmering ribbons of water. The houses, mostly Victorian and Colonial, sit on finely manicured lawns, and commuter trains rumble through the region, stopping at Little Silver station, which was built 50 years before Wetzel’s hometown—2.8 square miles, 6,000 residents—was founded, in 1923. Because Red Bank Regional High is both a traditional school and a performing-arts magnet, it pulls its 1,100 students from 20 towns, some of which are working-class. So the school’s cross section of rich and poor, white and minority, is representative of the nation.

But Rumson, located next to Little Silver, is not. We pass mansion after mansion as we bike through the town, from which many residents commute to high-paying jobs in New York City. After we cross a bridge and take a breather near the beach, I ask Wetzel whether the kids who go to Rumson-Fair Haven really have anything to complain about. “I think the thing that’s unique with the upper and middle classes,” he tells me, “it seems the higher up you go, there’s more parental and societal pressure to achieve, to succeed. So I think that symptom really rings a bell more with them, in terms of the educational process.”

Three cars pull into the beach parking lot, and out spill a dozen high schoolers. It’s a Friday, and final exams are two weeks away, so they’re probably cutting class. But Wetzel, who’s sympathetic, can tell they’re not from Rumson-Fair Haven. Their cars are well-used, perhaps paid for by the kids themselves. As the young people (Wetzel prefers this term) traipse through the sand, he points to a storefront on Ocean Avenue. “Over there, on the second floor,” he says, “that’s where I took piano lessons. I remember afterward, I’d go downstairs and get a snow cone. That was my reward.”

‘I think [he has] an admirable goal, but it’s going to take a lot more Bill Wetzels to [unify various factions and rebuild school systems from scratch].’

Emma Betta,
Red Bank High School

Later, after we’ve returned to the Wetzel house, I suggest, over glasses of ice water, that his family seems to have done all right by public schools. But he repeats a line I’ve heard before: He’s succeeded despite his schooling. Everything he’s ever been interested in—hobbies, publishing VOL, playing piano, reading—he initiated on his own then inserted into a rigid system to make it tolerable. Fair enough, I say, but what about students who aren’t as motivated, who’ve been conventionally schooled for five or 10 years and would find change difficult? “It’s rough overcoming cigarette addiction, and it’s rough overcoming a lot of things,” he answers. “But I also think it would be a really healthy thing to look inside and bring back that self-motivation, bring back that curiosity, however difficult it might be.”

The analogy is a good one because, as I point out, many smokers who try to quit go back. “And to carry through that analogy,” Wetzel says, “the more support the better. Parents, teachers, schools, the community have to lend a hand in helping students. It has to be the whole community.”

Two weeks later, a community of 1,500 has gathered at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Department of Education is hosting the “Reinventing High School” conference. When I track Wetzel down, he’s standing at the foot of a flight of stairs, passing out literature. He’s dressed in a navy blazer, blue tie, tan khakis, and brown shoes. The khakis have ink stains on one pocket. His hair is freshly cut, no doubt to add an air of respectability to his cause, which is listed on his nametag: “Bill Wetzel, Save the Schools.” The STS Web site, which went up two days ago, promotes the “Save the Schools Tour,” which Wetzel hopes to begin this fall. The idea, he says, is to host assemblies at schools across the country where students and adults can begin to talk about ways to improve the educational process.

This visit to D.C. is no sneak attack; half of Wetzel’s efforts are now aimed at communicating with people who run schools, such as the teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, and parents attending this conference. “I look at this as a gold mine,” he says as we file, with hundreds of others, into the ballroom, where the lunchtime speaker will be Richard Riley, U.S. secretary of education. “I could visit 800 schools, or I could talk to people from all over the country right here.”

We find a table near one of two giant video screens flanking the stage, which is decorated with faux Roman columns and potted plants. Sitting with us are officials with the D.C. public schools and members of the board of education in Sarasota, Florida. Lunch is served as Riley tells a story about his grandson, a teenager who, during a recent fishing trip, didn’t share his grandfather’s interest in the sunset. “Overcoming the ‘who cares’ syndrome is one of the biggest challenges we face,” Riley says as we all slice into our chicken breasts—all except Wetzel; his is a veggie plate, and he’s jotting in his journal.

Riley blames the system. “The American high school,” he says, “seems to be one of the most unchanging institutions in our society.” Heads nod. Everyone agrees we need to challenge kids, encourage them to think critically and be solid citizens. Riley announces that he’s forming the Commission on the High School Senior Year, to be chaired by Paul Patton, governor of Kentucky. Patton, a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman, takes the podium and delivers his own anecdote, about his daughter who, years ago, as a college freshman, was put on academic probation. A deal was struck: If I get on the dean’s list, Dad, you buy me a new Corvette. She made the list, Patton tell us, and she got the car. “That’s a classic case of manipulation,” one of our tablemates from Sarasota says. Wetzel chuckles.

As Patton continues, I remember the Aldorts, the family Wetzel stayed with for two months on Orcas Island, just off the coast of Washington state. Naomi and Harvey Aldort, a child psychologist and an electrician, respectively, have homeschooled their three sons—ages 6, 10, and 14—since they were born. They don’t “learn,” Naomi told me, they “play,” according to their interests. All three boys read extensively, and the younger two are accomplished musicians, playing cello, piano, and violin between them. The oldest is a budding zoologist and an actor, who has performed in and stage-managed community productions. When Wetzel arrived, Naomi recalled, they dubbed him “Pretzel” because he needed a funny name to counteract his seriousness. Two months with the Aldorts, who are partial to spontaneous stage shows, music recitals, and displays of affection, had an effect on Wetzel. “A lot of it, I was just in shock,” he recalls. “I think it was almost like a blueprint of how to respect children. It was a powerful message of how families could operate.”

‘We need students in the center of this dialogue. But when we try to do that, a lot of people get really uncomfortable. What’s standing in our way?’

Bill Wetzel

A few hours after Patton’s speech, Tony Wagner, a senior associate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and author of How Schools Change: Lessons From Three Communities, conducts the day’s last session. Wetzel likes what he’s hearing. Wagner, who is tall, trim, and an engaging speaker, says schools need to be community-based. He asks the audience, “Who was the teacher in Our Town?” There are murmurs, but no concrete answers. “Everybody!” Wagner says, explaining that the kids in the play learn lessons from all the town’s residents. This fits with Wetzel’s thinking. But Wagner, like everyone who’s spoken today, says little about student involvement.

At 4:45 p.m., Wetzel rips a page from his journal and whispers, “I’m gonna ask a question.” He walks to one of two spotlit microphones, where several educators are lined up. Many of the questions are long-winded, and at 5:15 dozens of audience members leave. But Wetzel sits down and waits patiently. At 5:30, Wagner allows one more question, which goes to someone at the other microphone. An older man sitting next to Wetzel nudges him, and tells him to stand up; maybe he’ll be called on. As Wetzel rises, I think of other adults who’ve helped him. Some encourage him to go to college—an option he’s considered, but only if he can take his crusade with him—and others think he’d make a great educator—another viable option. No matter how ambitious his goals (which include writing a book based on his school-visit experiences, tentatively titled School Daze), they all believe in him.

“He just seems to be awkwardly, marvelously doing things, and the world comes tumbling into him,” Naomi Aldort told me. His father said, “He gets a lot of e-mail from kids who seem to be needing help, and he’s providing guidance for them.” And Emma Betta, his former humanities teacher, compared Wetzel to the Little Prince, who, in Saint-Exupery’s book, displays more wisdom than the adults he meets on his travels.

Wagner wraps up the session, and Wetzel walks back to our table. I ask him what his question was, and he says: “It’s been my experience that we need students in the center of this dialogue. But when we try to do that, a lot of people get really uncomfortable with it. So what’s standing in our way?”


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