Monday, January 17, 2011


The farm in winter by John McDaniel

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,
Letter From a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

The book Begin With a Dream tells the story of Manhattan Country School, the progressive elementary and middle school my daughter attended for the first decade of her life in the classroom. It's a memoir of how Augustus Trowbridge, a Philadelphia Main Line WASP whose forebears made the family fortune as merchants in the triangle slave trade, would use his life of privilege to found a school in which there would be no racial or economic majority and where each child would, in the immortal words of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Gus and his wife Marty were utterly inspired to do this work by Dr. King. Gus told me later that he and Marty sat in front of their TV screens watching the brutality that transpired during the 1965 March on Selma, and in that moment they knew they would have to do something to rebalance the scales of privilege in America. They would devote the rest of their lives to doing that. "Differences must be immediately experienced, treasured and understood," Gus wrote in the school's inaugural brochure, "because a school that avoids differences places education outside the context of living." 

I ended up being a sort of midwife to this book and I believe it is work I was meant to do. Perhaps it is why I happened across this small progressive school in the first place, and why its very walls whispered to me that this was to be my daughter's place. Perhaps it's why she was accepted despite the fact that the school is harder to get into than Columbia University in terms of sheer numbers. Surely it is why, the first time I heard Gus speak at a conference about his life's work, I went up to him afterwards and gushed, "You need to write a book about this." He looked somewhat startled, I was a stranger to him then, and he stammered, "Well, I'm trying to do that." Gus was retired by that time, and was no longer a daily presence at the school. But four years later, he approached me in the living room of the school, which is located in what used to be a very grand townhouse on the margin of the Upper East Side and Harlem, and he said, "Well, I have completed a draft of that book, and I would like it if you could read it and tell me what you think." It was the first time we had spoken since the day I so presumptuously suggested he write his story.

The next day when I dropped my then fifth-grader off at school, Gus had left for me 600 single-spaced pages in a binder. Over the next year, working together, we reorganized and edited the book down to 353 pages that tell the very moving story of a man committed to a mission despite all manner of obstacles, and a school committed to realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  My daughter is immeasurably richer because of her foundational experience at this school, which also has a working organic farm. 

From second grade on, classes spend a week together at the farm, three times a year. There they do morning and evening barn chores, plant, tend and harvest their own food, milk the cows, feed the chickens, weave textiles, learn to tap maple syrup, press apple cider, bake bread, and they cook all their meals together in the farmhouse kitchen. And when the chores are done, they play, city children running free in the country air. I could go on and on about the farm, but that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the farm is one of the many reasons our children are so bonded all these years later.

Seventh-grade farm trip.

Another reason is the fact that every year on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday, the entire school, led by its eighth graders, marches to commemorate the life and work of Dr. King. In my daughter's eighth grade year, her class chose the issue of gay marriage, reasoning that if Dr. King were alive today, he would certainly take up this cause. As he famously wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail on April 16, 1963, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Each year the eighth graders write speeches and deliver them during the march as a call to action. Their speeches tell stories or recount histories or imagine letters that illuminate the issue at hand. My daughter wrote her piece as a letter from a gay-bashing police officer who participated in the violent 1969 siege on The Stonewall Inn, ground zero for the gay rights movement. In the letter, the officer was explaining to his daughter that he finally understood why his actions on that day were wrong, and how much she had taught him over the years about equal rights.

On this day in 2008, surrounded by fellow marchers, our girl read her letter into a mic standing in the sub zero cold outside The Stonewall Inn, which is still open for business today. We were so very proud of her and her classmates, and moved by the rainbow of children, parents, teachers, friends, from the pre-kindergarteners to Gus and Marty Trowbridge, now in their seventies, marching for justice and freedom and unity, keeping alive the dream for which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived and died.

My daughter's class wore rainbow capes the year they led
the MLK March. Each eighth grader delivered a speech
about a contemporary issue of civil rights and gay rights.
Their teacher called them "rainbow superheroes."


  1. It's great that there are some young people who are getting involved like this. You should be very proud of raising your daughter to be such a person.