You can see Bill Wetzel’s pivotal moment coming in the journals he’s kept since he was 8. In the earliest ones, most entries include some variation of “I went to school and did all my work,” a disclosure that all but demands a pat on the head. But when he was around 15, signs of dissatisfaction began creeping into the green, college-ruled notebooks: “Went to chemistry, spent the whole period dreaming about fishing” and “English was boring.”
Apparently the boy who had framed his all-A report cards and hung them on his bedroom wall was getting sick of school. “It hit me that there were an incredible number of unhappy young people in this world, myself included, and that to put them in this school setting was very counterproductive,” recalls Wetzel, now a short, serious-looking man of 19 who runs Power to the Youth, a primarily web-based organization, from his temporary home in Little Silver, New Jersey.
Having identified school (which he sometimes refers to as jail) as the source of his frustration, Wetzel, as a high school junior, did what any budding activist would do: He started an underground newspaper. The Voice of Liberation, which included anonymous interviews with dissatisfied teachers and angry poems about the stupidity of school, got the attention of the principal at his public high school. Repeatedly called in for talkings-to about the paper, Wetzel would read from Supreme Court decisions supporting free speech in schools, no doubt scaring the bejeezus out of school administrators.
“Finally,” he recalls, “the board of ed passed this regulation full of little, picky stipulations that said we were disrupting the school’s learning activities by passing out the paper in the lunchroom. So we passed it out before school.”
It’s this kind of thoughtful confrontation with authority Wetzel now encourages as director of Power to the Youth, which he founded “to inspire young people to take charge of their schools.” On his website, through flyers, and in street-corner discussions, Wetzel advises young people (a term he prefers to kids) to organize their own classes, meet with or even join the local board of education, and generally claim the education system as their own.
Wetzel finds it absurd that “experts sit around and talk about how the schools should be run” without eliciting or paying attention to opinions from young people. “It’s like an architect building a house and the people who want the house built having no say in what’s going on. Maybe he’s building a geodesic dome and they want a Victorian,” he explains.
Although such complaints about our education system are common, there’s something special about hearing them from a person who has so recently suffered the indignity of a hall pass. Wetzel’s high school wounds are fresh; the mere mention of a hall pass is like a slap on the face, it seems. Were it not for the fact that he has immersed himself in positive alternatives to high schools like his, he might be bitter.
Instead, a 2,000-mile bike ride studded with visits to experimental schools and families who home-school (or unschool, as some like to say) has given him an overflowing enthusiasm for creative learning. On his six-month journey, during which he lived with more than a dozen unschoolers, Wetzel witnessed “a tremendous respect for young people,” not the stultifying “40 minutes, ding, ding, 40 minutes, ding, ding” experience that characterizes traditional schools. He saw student-run classes; sometimes the only organizing principle was identifying a question of interest. “It was this amazing kind of brainstorm, popcorn-learning atmosphere,” he reports, wide-eyed.
This is not the kind of environment he imagines awaits him at college. Wetzel dutifully applied at the end of his junior year and was accepted at six schools but deferred his decision. A year and a half into his “real world” foray, he is not sure he’ll ever go. His indecision makes his generally supportive, upper-middle-class parents uncomfortable and seems to challenge his own blossoming ideas: The more regimented schools don’t appeal, yet “I have reservations about going to the most alternative colleges, because that’s paying a ridiculous amount of money just to do what you want,” he says.
His alternative education adventures promise a different kind of success. After his brief stay in New Jersey, he is returning to the West Coast to live with an unschooling family. He’ll edit a book about respectful child rearing in exchange for room and board, then work on his own opus, School Daze , a compendium of his wisdom and that of other young people he’s encountered in his travels and on the Web.
In the future, Wetzel predicts, school as we know it will be obsolete, replaced by something better: “I see an enormous bulletin board that says the following trips are being taken today, the following classes are being held today, vote for the following classes you’d like to be held tomorrow. Meetings are held any time of day, and there’s constant flow in and out from the community, the real world. There are quiet spaces where people can read, music rooms, people filing through the bookshelves and having learning circles.”
Transported to a land without hall passes, Wetzel momentarily turns dreamy, his voice trailing off. But the pragmatic visionary soon snaps back: In the future, he concludes, “anyone, just by experiencing the world, will be learning in their own way.”