A Walk in the Woods

Fernald 1

NPR Reporter: “This is like a legit museum, you guys!”

Gann Student: “I know!”

Here and Now

Two years ago, on a beautiful early August day, my husband and I took a lovely walk in the woods. We came upon a neglected cemetery, with little more than a stone wall and a wooden sign to distinguish it from a field. We stopped and looked more closely. The wooden sign indicated that the “MetFern Cemetery” was where students from the Fernald School were buried, as well as the adult patients of the Met State Hospital.

Why were children buried in a forgotten corner of the woods?

Back at our house, quick research yielded some initial info – the Fernald School was a state residential institution “for the feebleminded.” The entry exam required a young child to score relatively poorly on a brief and flawed IQ test that took no account of a child’s previous education or level of literacy. The “state boys” were therefore a mix of students who were truly developmentally disabled (by 2018 standards) and those who were committed there simply by being wards of the Commonwealth. Progressive in its early decades, the Fernald School became a troubled institution by the mid-20th century — one with many stories of neglect and exploitation, such as the mistreatment of teenagers which led to the revolt chronicled in “The State Boys’ Rebellion.”  Now closed, its 186 acres of land and buildings sit abandoned — ironically, adjacent to Gann Academy. While Fernald’s entrance is 1 mile away, the property backs up almost to Gann’s fields, with only a thin layer of trees separating one school from another.

Less than two weeks after our walk, I sat down for coffee with a local historian, Alex Green, who was researching the history of Fernald . He shared with me many well-meaning but often under-resourced efforts to make visible the lives of those whom society had forgotten (“The State Boys’ Rebellion” being the one exception). It was that conversation that convinced me that a relationship between Gann Academy and the Fernald site was going to be fruitful, perhaps transformative. It was clear how meaningful it would be for Gann adolescents to research the lives of Fernald adolescents, and how powerful it would be for Gann students to help memorialize the site and suggest appropriate ways to preserve and reuse the space. It was an obvious opportunity for project-based learning (PBL). But I also felt that we had a moral obligation to tell the stories of the Fernald School. As a Jewish school with a commitment to “build a better world where human dignity will flourish,” we would be authentic to both our mission and our core values if we told these hidden narratives of liberty neglected, of dignity deferred.

Of course, it was easy for me to have coffee with someone and envision educational, civic, and moral engagement. It was another to invite my school to pursue this resource-intensive work. I did not know how students and faculty would respond to the idea of a project such as this one.

I need not have been concerned. Gann students and faculty immediately understood both the moral urgency and the possibilities. U.S. History teachers rewrote their curricula, on the spot. We brought Alex on board, first on a volunteer basis and then as a part-time teacher and PBL resource.  Students developed a test website with a virtual map of the Fernald campus. A senior conducted research on the MetFern Cemetery, designed an online presence to tell its story, lobbied the Commonwealth to rehabilitate it, and created an online donation portal. That was year one.

This past year, two classes of history students learned and taught a history of Americans with disabilities. They analyzed historical artifacts; they researched background and context. They examined the narrative of American history through the lens of those whom mainstream society labeled “disabled” in different eras. With the support of a grant from the Ruderman Foundation, and in interdisciplinary partnership with students in a graphic design class at Gann, they mounted an exhibit to demonstrate what a national museum for the history of people with disabilities might look like.

Yes. that’s right: a national museum, the first of its kind, to be sited at Fernald, around the corner from our school. It had long been a dream of Waltham City Councilman George Darcy and many other devoted citizens and advocates, although not the vision of every politician in the city. Now, Gann students were prototyping what might be possible.

On June 7, 2018, the opening night of the exhibit, politicians, activists, and advocates mingled while students led tours and ran Q&A panels. Waltham Mayor McCarthy stepped to the podium and, in a dramatic gesture, pledged her support for the creation of a national museum at the Fernald site.

The exhibit, “A Disability History of the United States: Division, Unity, Hardship, and Progress”, has now attracted national attention:

I am so incredibly grateful to the students, faculty, and staff of Gann Academy, who infused the entire enterprise with such an outstanding ethic of excellence. My school accomplished more than I could possibly have imagined in two years’ time. There is so more to be done, but we are believers and we have the confidence to aim higher and achieve even more. More stories must be told. More advocacy must happen. The museum must be built.

For now I’ll simply end by saying: two years ago, my husband and I had a lovely walk in the woods.