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News & Views - Aug, 1994 Issue #29 

by: Tom Bratter, Founder
The John Dewey Academy
Great Barrington, Massachusetts

(Linda Shaffer's report on her drop-in visit to the John Dewey Academy was published in the February 1994 issue of Woodbury Reports, Issue #26)

In her spontaneous visit to The John Dewey Academy, Linda Shaffer uses the powerful imagery of the cliff when she writes "For a student with a lukewarm willingness to enroll in this college prep, residential, therapeutic school, however, the castle's beauty, warmth and intrigue might be just enough to urge a struggling adolescent to take that leap off the cliff into introspection." (Italics added for emphasis, TEB.) Linda neglects to mention the students who are responsible role models offer the most compelling reason to want to change.

While the John Dewey Academy is a voluntary program--i.e., no one remains against his or her wishes. Shaffer notes, "There is $25 in Tom Bratter's desk drawer available to any student who decides to 'take off.'" No self-destructive adolescent wants to terminate pleasurable activities such as sex and drugs which provides temporary feelings of pleasure and excitement. They struggle with Freud's pursuit of pleasure which is unhealthy and potentially life threatening (AIDS kills and car accidents, suicides and homicides are often drug-related). The only reason why adolescents initially choose to remain at The John Dewey is their parents have convinced them that living at home no longer is a viable option. I disapprove when parents threaten to exile the adolescent to the "street" because survival involves selling either one's "ass" or drugs. Most assuredly, I appreciate how demoralized parents have become because they have permitted the adolescent to control them. Obviously, if the adolescent resorts to stealing or assaulting the family, then the streets are preferable to permitting these behaviors either to continue or to escalate. Parents need to "educate" the adolescent there are involuntary programs which do give a damn about whether the adolescent wish to stay or leave. Realistically, there are (present and future) payoffs and consequences to behavior--i.e., to play the game, be prepared to pay the price. 

Holden Caufield, Salinger's modernized Peter Pan, wants to justify his life by being The Catcher in the Rye so he can "catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff...and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them." (pp. 224-225.) Caufield knows this dream is crazy because he defines the cliff as the fall from innocence of youth to his perceived corruption of adults. The John Dewey Academy's mandate is more terrifying than Holden's. Our students possess the potential to scale dizzying heights to greatness of which they are capable when they succeed at those tasks they consider important, so when they fall over the symbolic cliff, it is a long, long way down which can result in destruction. The John Dewey Academy's mission is to maximize the chances of success knowing sadly some may be too damaged to be saved. There are two realities working with gifted, self-destructive adolescents. Rule One: Some will self-destruct and will destroy themselves. Rule Two: Sometimes The John Dewey Academy cannot change rule one. What is important to remember is The John Dewey Academy did not create these adolescent mutations but tries to educate and help them to help themselves. Our students either will succeed or they will fail. When adolescents succeed the results are miraculous. 

Copyright 1994, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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