Maya Lin, Innovative Architect and Designer

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When plans for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., were unveiled in 1981, not everyone was pleased. Maya Lin's winning design was dramatically different from the white marble structures that are the standard in the nation's capital. Some thought it would never work.

But once the wall was built, the doubts gave way to awe and accolades. It is the most popular outdoor monument in Washington—attracting about four million visitors a year.

It was a remarkable achievement for Lin, then a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale. Today, at 29, she continues to explore new frontiers in art, architecture, and sculpture. “In what I'm doing now, there aren't any outward boundaries or visible goals, only personal goals,” Lin says. “So you have to be inwardly motivated.”

For that unbound creativity and motivation, she gives a great deal of credit to the entire teaching staff and the educational environment at the Rufus Putnam Elementary School in Athens, Ohio. Like the young architect, the school went against the grain—and it worked.

Putnam, which closed in 1972 because of lack of funding, was an Ohio University laboratory school. It was a training ground for students at the University's College of Education. “The student teachers were extremely dedicated and eager, and very new to teaching methods,” explains Lin. Many of the students, including Lin, were children of university faculty. However, students from the community helped create a diverse student body.

With only 15 students in each grade, ties between teachers and students were very strong, and the principal was friendly and accessible, Lin recalls.

Harry Lackey, the principal when Lin was at Putnam, attributes the school's success to “the excellence of the teachers.” In general, Putnam's teachers were free to employ their own educational strategies in the classroom. “There was no one philosophy of learning or teaching,” Lackey says. “There was a lot of flexibility.” The structures that did exist, he adds, were developed by the teachers at meetings. Lin recalls that the school allowed students to develop at their own speed. There were no grades, just written progress reports from teachers. Even on tests, right and wrong answers were marked but no overall grades were given.

That atmosphere motivated students to perform, says Lin. “I really believe if you give students a sense of responsibility, instead of ordering them, you get them to try to prove themselves to you. It always left me with an incredible drive to get things done.”

Both Lin and Lackey say support and involvement of parents was also an important ingredient. “The school was like a big family,” Lackey says. “The parents were closely involved. There was a lot of good feeling—I still get it from parents today.”

For Lin, those good feelings continue, too. “I remember school was extremely fun,” she says. “The experience was priceless.”

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Page 68

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