A Trust Betrayed

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

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, clerks' 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's 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 6 cinder blocks wide and 12 cinder blocks long. In the mornings, he writes, working at a small, dimly lighted 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 this way from Clayton's main street.

Mostly, though, he writes and he reads. On this day, he carries with him a dog-eared, 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.''

Wigginton was indeed "somebody'' once. With his students, he founded and created Foxfire magazine, a quarterly publication that discussed 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 last year, 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, 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 the Foxfire books, and many of their children had been taught by this man, whom they had come to know as "Wig.''

The news also sent shock waves 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, effectively divorced him.

Now, a year later, everyone is still picking up the pieces. At the time he sat for an interview last month, Eliot Wigginton was preparing to walk out of jail a free man--at least in a physical sense. (He was scheduled for release Nov. 12.) The questions now become: 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 that give him an owlish look, the long buck teeth, and the tall, lanky frame that have become almost trademarks for him. At 6 feet 1 and 155 pounds, he is impossibly thin.

The face may be more lined than the early photographs suggest, but 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.

He has remained in jail, for the most part, for more than 11 months--time enough to reflect on all that has happened to him and on his vision of education.

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 that 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?'' he is saying. He quotes, "'They would not find me changed from him they knew only more sure of all that was true.'''

"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,'' Wigginton says.

"Anyone,'' he begins, 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 teacher-outreach office would be, in my estimation, an extremely small-minded, mean-spirited, ignorant individual.''

"The two don't go together,'' he adds. "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 appears to be 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,'' he continues. "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 now. 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 the tulip poplars here. Some of them are more than 100 years old. Students, working with Foxfire educators, have painstakingly taken apart these once-crumbling buildings, moved them from their original sites, and reassembled them here. A few of the buildings serve as offices or housing. But the rest, which include an old church, a blacksmith's shop, and a gristmill, are here to stand in memory of the way of life chronicled in early Foxfire publications.

Wigginton's own log cabin is here. Partially hidden by trees, the empty six-sided cabin 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. And, as a boy, Wigginton spent many hours hunting arrowheads in cornfields here 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 the county's mist-shrouded hills, its lakes and its waterfalls, cause the local population of more than 11,000 to double and triple in the summertime.

Until Foxfire, however, the area was best known to outsiders as the setting for James Dickey's novel Deliverance and its film version, which portrayed the native Appalachians who live here 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 school to go coon-hunting or to pick cabbage in the fall. Now, although they may still carry pocketknives, teenage boys do their hunting in the early morning hours before school starts. Their fathers are more likely to work in textile mills than on farms. And, in an area where higher education was once considered not 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 either 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 Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a hilltop cluster of buildings in Mountain City that looks more like a small college than a private school. His classes were a mixture of boarding students, many of whom had come 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.

"The sequence of events ... was that, out of an enormous amount of frustration, I and my students 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, the 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, including some of their own relatives. They came back and wrote about everything from hog dressing to how to plant crops by the signs of the zodiac.

The magazines, published in the "whole Earth'' climate of the 1970's, were an instant success. The best of the articles were then compiled in a series of 10 books published by Doubleday. The first of that series, The Foxfire Book, is now in its 47th printing and has sold more than four million copies. And 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,'' Andrea Potts, who was one of Wigginton's students at Rabun Gap, says. "He made us proud of our heritage, and I think that's important for any child.''

"He would get us excited about old folks,'' she adds, "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 the 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 produced record albums, ran a blacksmith's shop, and formed a string band, among other ventures. There were experiments with outdoor education and with environmental-education classes.

In 1985, Wigginton published Sometimes a Shining Moment, the semi-autobiographical book that attempted to synthesize all that he learned about teaching through those experiences. Teaching, after all, was what it was all supposed to be about--the magazine, the books, the string band, and all of the other projects.

Out of all of that had sprung a pedagogy. It held that students learn best when they are engaged in meaningful activities that they choose themselves.

"It's 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?''' Wigginton says during the interview at the jail.

"Rather than explaining to kids what it's good for, we figure out ways to just do it,'' he says. "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,''' he continues. "It is through the doing of it that they acquire the skills to do it again.''

The principles were not entirely new. John Dewey, the noted education philosopher, had said much the same thing more than 60 years earlier. But Wigginton, who had come to the same 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, and, while that's an old idea, he talked about how you can have it in the classroom in a modern way,'' says Ann Lieberman, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Bolstered by a $1.5 million grant from Mr. Bingham's Trust for Charity, the organization began in the mid-1980's 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.

And the Foxfire books and the organization's cultural-preservation efforts have taken a backseat to what Foxfire now views as its central mission: education.

In the midst of this transition, in May of 1992, the explosive 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 also taught in the mornings at Chase Street Elementary School. The school, which he had attended as a boy, was in the process of becoming a Foxfire demonstration school, and Wigginton was there to help guide it along. In the afternoons, he also 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 boy'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 were often brought to 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, and students, in fact, had helped him build it.

The lawyer said 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 his teacher had removed his pants and was touching his penis.

The guardians told local authorities, and an investigation was launched. When word of the probe leaked out, Wigginton put out a press release and vehemently denied 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.

"I think where his downfall was was when he tried to deny it big-time,'' Don W. Page, the Rabun County sheriff says in retrospect. "That's when all them other boys started coming out of the woodwork.''

Sheriff Page and other authorities began to get calls from men in their 20's and 30's with their own stories to tell. Some of those incidents were alleged to have taken place as far back as Wigginton's first year of teaching. Some of the men said they been as young as 14 when Wigginton had abused them.

One of those alleged victims was Clayton Smith, a contractor from Gillsville, Ga., who had been a student of Wigginton's at Rabun County High School in the late 1970's.

"When I heard that story, I wrassled with coming forward,'' he says. "But I have a son who just turned 4, and I had to help that little boy. I thought, here was a 10-year-old that had more courage than I had at 22, 24, 28, 29 years old.''

According to records in the Rabun County Courthouse, the alleged incidents followed a pattern. All were said to have taken place either at Wigginton's cabin or in hotel rooms on out-of-town speaking trips. Usually, 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.

"I was ashamed and embarrassed,'' recalls Smith, who says he rebuffed Wigginton's advances by pushing him out of the bed. "It's hard to explain the feeling that you get and the embarrassment within. For a long time, I thought that there was something wrong with me or that that I may have caused it.''

Smith says he 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.

Under the terms of his sentence, Wigginton is prohibited from denying what happened to the Athens boy. He has never admitted, however, 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 in 1986 investigated a similar allegation against Wigginton, but the investigation went nowhere after it was determined that the statute of limitations had expired in the matter. He said neither Wigginton nor anyone else at Foxfire was ever told of the charges.

There had been a few rumors that Wigginton was homosexual or that he liked young men. But local law-enforcement officials, former students, and a researcher who said they had heard the rumors said 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, the director of Foxfire's teacher-outreach program since 1986. He is now directing the operation while a search is made for a new executive director. "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,''' he continues. "I don't know how to assess that. Did they know or didn't they?''

"My 12-year-old son cut down trees with him in the woods,'' Connie Zimmerman, a network coordinator who worked closely with Wigginton, says. "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 Andrea Potts, the former student. "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 weekends. Never having married or had children of his own, Wigginton was married to Foxfire, and Foxfire was his child.

"I went to a Foxfire staff party once, and Eliot Wigginton was the cook,'' recalls John L. Puckett, the author of Foxfire Reconsidered, a scholarly book that examines the organization.

"I personally observed him drinking beer, and I knew that he had collected 30 papers from students that day,'' he says. "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,'' said Lieberman of Teachers College, who is also 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 all the more tragic.

"As far as his mission in life, well, he doesn't have that anymore,'' Jim Nixon, a local parent who served on Foxfire's community board, says. "It's kind of like Chet Atkins with all of his fingers cut off.''

And it's what makes acceptance of Wigginton's guilt all the more difficult to bear. In the beginning, those who were close to the Foxfire organization say, they 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,'' Zimmerman says. "There was the terrible loss of his energy and spirit, mixed with anger and betrayal and confusion about the darker side of human nature.''

"Then I got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,'' she adds.

There were also the inevitable 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, but there are a lot of Foxfire jokes going around,'' says Kaleb Love, an 11th grader at the school who is one of the magazine's editors.

For the most part, however, people seem to have made the distinction between the man and his misdeeds 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. And discussions among some of the networks of discarding the Foxfire label and calling what they were doing something else were eventually put aside.

In Clayton, shopkeepers beganto put posters in their windows that said, "Foxfire Still Glows.'' Some of the posters were still up as late as June.

And funding requests that were pending when the news about Wigginton broke were granted despite all of the negative publicity. Hilton Smith said 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 at a time, however, when the organization was poised to embark on a nationwide fund-raising 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 during a board meeting 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 solar building built with book royalties to demonstrate to the local community that energy-efficient homes could be produced inexpensively. Unlike the complex, which is somewhat off the beaten track, the house and an adjacent Foxfire community 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 complex onBlack Rock Mountain. With only eight full-time 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 national meetings, the summer teacher-training programs, and the precollegiate classes that visit the site on school field trips.

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--had been turned back 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. That amount was often surpassed by the honorariums he generated from speaking engagements, which Wigginton religiously turned over to Foxfire. And the organization is taking steps 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, James K. Hasson, the Atlanta lawyer who is chairman of Foxfire's board of directors, says.

"We don't have a high-profile education leader as a spokesperson for the organization,'' he says. "This has hurt the public perception of Foxfire and whether it will continue, whether it's an organization to give money to.''

Yet, says Hilton Smith, as devastating a blow as Wigginton's departure has been, 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,'' he 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 Principal Allen Fort of Rabun County High, Wigginton's absence may even prompt some of the more tradition-minded 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,'' he says, referring to the noted education reformer.

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 slightly incongruous air of a corporate office.

The 11th and 12th graders here are working on the 103rd issue of Foxfire magazine, which will be mailed to subscribers around Thanksgiving. One young woman types out polite replies to letters from subscribers. The subscription staff is holding a meeting in a glass-enclosed office at the back of the room. Two editors are preparing to make telephone 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 Jason Maxwell, an 11th grader and an editor of the magazine. "If you fail, then your friends will get on you.''

These students never knew Wigginton except to see him once at a picnic. The events of the past year, nevertheless, appear to have exacted a small toll here as well. The Foxfire I class, which is a precursor to this one, failed to draw enough students this year to warrant offering it.

"People would say, 'What do you want to be in that for?''' says Lori Lee, the 12th grader who is 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 were not about to be cheated out of the opportunity now. Lee remembers reading earlier Foxfire volumes at her grandparents' home and wishing she could write articles of her own and have them published. Maxwell'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 fellow student and editor Kaleb Love. To these students, that means boosting the circulation from 1,200 subscribers to 4,000 subscribers over the course of the year, and, possibly, helping to usher back in the days when there were long waiting lists for the class.

The Foxfire magazine class, however, is not the only piece of Wigginton's legacy here at the high school. During the next classroom period, in another wing of the school, the Foxfire music class meets. There, led by George Reynolds, the only full-time teacher now on Foxfire's payroll, students set their own agendas for the development of their musical skills over the course of the year. They break into groups based on their musical tastes and spend the period practicing. Some of the students, like the Foxfire Boys String Band, which got its start under Reynolds's tutelage, will put on performances later this year.

And, at an elementary school in the nearby community of Tiger, kindergarten pupils choose how they will learn the letters of the alphabet. This week, they are on the letter C, and students are baking "crazy cupcakes.''

Classrooms like these are sprinkled throughout the country now. In suburban Gwinnett County, just outside 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 donate to preserving 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 rural ones, and in elementary and middle schools as well as in high schools. And there are entire schools in which teachers are working to make those approaches fit in their own classrooms.

"The work that Eliot Wigginton started, that so many of his colleagues picked up on, will continue. That has momentum of its own,'' says Ted Sizer, whose own education-reform network, the Coalition of Essential Schools, provides a framework that Foxfire teachers often find compatible with their own methods.

Questions remain, however, about the staying power of the Foxfire methods. Although most Foxfire teachers are enthusiastic converts, more than half, in a recent survey, also said they found it more demanding than traditional instructional methods. And when those teachers leave a school, they sometimes take their methods and their enthusiasm 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 John Puckett, the Foxfire Reconsidered author, who is now 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,'' he says. "They've picked their battle, and they're going to fight it in the classrooms.''

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

Foxfire's proponents point out that they were never so immodest as to hope to change entire schools in the first place. The goal, they say, is instead to be able to hold up their method as one approach that works and to effect change teacher by teacher.

"No matter what happens ... kids' test scores may not increase; they may stay the same,'' Wigginton says. "But the kids will come back 10 years later and remember a great adventure that you were on together and that they have never forgotten.''

Chances are Wigginton has made his own indelible impression--for better or worse--on the students he came to know. But, after more than 11 months in his jail cell and periodic visits to his psychotherapist in Atlanta, he has come to understand at least that he must close that chapter of his life now.

At the moment, his plans are only as concrete as the six-inch-high stack of yellow legal pads, filled with his writings, that sits atop the desk in his 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,'' he 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,'' Wigginton says, holding up a copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which he has been toting around with him. He says, half seriously, that retreating from the world, as Thoreau did, is an option that holds some appeal for him now.

"In my least optimistic moments, 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 like to do 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 prison. They collected book donations, built shelves, and developed a system for keeping the books in order. He has read books by other well-known former prison inmates, including Jean Harris and Charles Colson, and has started up a correspondence with the latter. Some of these books, along with works by authors known for their Christian beliefs and education tomes, are piled on Wigginton's narrow top bunk bed, alongside a towel that hangs drying.

Because of 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, and I feel I can really begin to have some understanding of why the recidivism rates are so high,'' he says, warming to the topic just as he does when he discusses education reform. "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,'' he adds.

"Frankl was right,'' Wigginton says, referring to the author of Man's Search for Meaning, which he still carrries with him. "What a man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.''

He is less forthcoming, howevever, in answering questions about what drove him to be in 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. He says he was not, however, a victim of sexual abuse himself.

"You know, you hear a lot of people say they'd like to be young again. Never,'' he says. "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 says and dismisses further discussion of the topic with a wave of his hand.

"Although I didn't know it at the time, one of the reasons I went into teaching was to fix that,'' he says. "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,'' he says. "This was my life's work.''

"And students,'' he adds, with a rueful laugh, "students are like oxygen to me.''

Vol. 13, Issue 11

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories