I first met Cousin Jim at Grandpa’s funeral. Jim was my father’s first cousin, making him my first cousin once removed. I was ten and Jim was in his early thirties—only slightly less ancient than my father and uncles and---unlike them—losing some of his hair.
So what was it about Cousin Jim?
Maybe it was his magic tricks. Or maybe it was because he was one of us---a child.
After that first meeting, I pricked up my ears whenever the grownups discussed Jim.
“But can’t stick to anything.”
Jim began a Ph.D. thesis and never finished it. He taught at Vassar College and was not offered tenure. He taught at a private school, “had words” with the headmaster, and was sent packing.
“And just think, Ruth is expecting. How will Jim support a family?”
Ruth was Jim’s wife. Sensible, practical, devoted to her husband.
When Michael was born there was no birth announcement.
Soon the news leaked out.
Michael, Jim and Ruth’s first child and my second cousin, experienced a brain injury during birth, and was developmentally disabled.
“Poor Jim,” everybody said.
“A blow like that would destroy a stronger man, than Jim.”
And indeed, Jim sank into a deep depression.
The doctor told Jim and Ruth to put Michael in an institution.
“He’ll always be a vegetable,” he said.
Three years later their second son, Daniel was born. Smart, handsome, athletic.
But Jim and Ruth refused to give up on Michael. They kept him home and treated him exactly the same as they treated Danny.
Watching the two boys play together, Jim thought, If only they could stay together.
But how? As soon as Danny started school he would leave Michael behind.
Jim was still struggling to make a living. He would land a teaching job, only to lose it over a clash with the administration.
Then—it hit him!
He would start his own school. Not an ordinary school. But one in which children of different ages, abilities, and backgrounds lived and learned and worked together. It would be a farm, where raising food would be part of education.
And so the Blueberry Hill School was born. Jim had just enough money to make a down payment on a piece of land in coastal Maine.
The first pupils were children of local townspeople who paid tuition by helping to build a small house and a barn.
Jim believed that families of means would be eager to have their children attend his school.
Word got out, and soon diplomats, ambassadors, and well known authors, were putting their children’s names on the waiting list for Blueberry Hill.
With the tuition from wealthy students, Jim and Ruth were able to fulfill their dream of a school for children both rich and poor.
Classes were in the morning. In the afternoon, all the children regardless of parental income, helped with caring for the animals, growing food, building, carpentry, and cooking. The lakes and coastal waters provided many opportunities for fishing.
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker’s movement, visited Jim’s school. She wrote
“…...I drove over to have lunch there one sunny day, and it was delightful to hear the singing of grace before the meal. All the school is a choral group, singing their Jubilate Deo so perfectly. I have never seen more beautiful order…….the fields are tidy, the houses are beautiful, and there is a great air of sunny cheerfulness."
I visited the school several times over the years. One weekend I brought two friends, a married couple Clint and Lorraine. We slept in the barn, attended classes with the students, and had meals with Jim and Ruth in the “big” house.
Danny, by then in his early twenties, was one of the teachers. He took us on a tour of the farm and showed us how to milk a cow.
Another young man took us for a ride in a pony cart that he had built. His affection for and understanding of his pony was evident. He also showed us a boat that he had built and explained to us the materials that he used and how he designed it.
This young man was Michael, the boy who doctors said would be a vegetable.
On the ride home, Lorraine said, “Were it not for Michael, this school would never have come into being.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a true story. Only the location and some of the names have been changed.
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