CHICAGO TRIBUNE Copyright Chicago Tribune 1993 TAG: 9304250380 DATE: Sunday, April 25, 1993 EDITION: FINAL EDITION SECTION: TEMPO DU PAGE PAGE: 1 ZONE: D SOURCE: By Betty Lundy. LENGTH: Long : 256 lines ILLUSTRATION: PHOTOS 4 NEW PATH TO LEARNING
COUPLE’S UNIQUE TUTORING STYLE LEAVES A LIFELONG THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE
Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
Even Robert Frost would agree: The busy route from Du Page to Big Rock on the East-West Tollway is no less-traveled road. But for educators Larry and Joan Bangs, who occasionally invoke Frost’s spare lines about choices to explain their unique educational methods, it comes close. The Bangs are Vermonters and part-time residents of Big Rock, on the western edge of Kane County. They were lured to the Midwest several years ago by wealthy Chicago options trader Joseph J. Ritchie and his wife, Sharon, to provide homestyle elementary and high school education for some of the 10 Ritchie children.
It was an assignment the New England couple were well equipped to deliver: For two decades they home-schooled their own five children on a 450-acre farm they own in northern Vermont. What began in 1968 as a home-study program for the Bangs kids blossomed into a fully accredited institution, approved by the state of Vermont. First called Northwoods, the Bangs’ school is now named Wildridge Academy. The school has always been small, ranging from 4 to 18 students. They have come from down the lane and from across the world: from Austria, Canada,Germany, England. Classes meet around a dining room table in an old farmhouse on Ritchie’s estate, where the Bangs live while in Big Rock. Or, when back in Vermont, the schoolhouse is a chalet on the Bangs’ farm near Newark. The chalet also houses boarding students. Current tuition costs just under $10,000 a year. Larry is the headmaster and principal teacher. Part-time specialists cover subjects such as Russian, French, art and music. Joan handles administrative chores. Some youngsters study with Bangs for one year; others stay for 12 years. Among the 65 students who have passed through Northwoods/Wildridge, all but one have graduated from or are attending colleges or universities. Many have advanced degrees, including six Ph.D.’s and three M.D.’s. Their schools are among the best: Bates, Bowdoin, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Middlebury, Northwestern, Pennsylvania Academy of Arts,Princeton, Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute, University of Alberta.
Their careers have led them into law, theology, medicine, engineering, marine biology, history, business, art, political science, geophysics, geology and language. And it all began, as the Bangs tell it, because of a surplus of Vermont history and a shortage of backbone. The time was 1968; the place was Bennington, Vt. The players were Dad Larry, a nuclear physicist who was a thesis away from a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Rensselaer Polytech; Mom Joan, who had a home economics degree from the University of Massachusetts; and four little Bangs: Douglas, 11; Rebecca, 10; Nathan, 8; and Sarah, 5. Benjamin, born in 1972, was not yet on the stage. The first alarm sounded when Douglas, a 5th grader in public school, came home with news. In 6th grade, he would study Vermont history-for the third time. “Now I’m a native Vermonter, and I think a lot of the little state,” said Larry, “but I do recognize that there is something beyond its borders, and I want him to recognize the same thing.” What was lacking, Larry Bangs felt, was an overall educational plan. Daughter Rebecca rang the second alarm bell: “I had a good friend across the street,” she said. “I wanted to dress like her and answer questions like I thought she would. My parents wanted us to grow up answering questions with our own thoughts, making us individuals. That was one of the deciding factors in taking us out of public school and moving up to the farm. And that is certainly what happened: We are all very much our own selves.” Rebecca now lives in Bennington, married to Larry Amos, awaiting the birth of their third child. Like most of Larry Bangs’ students, she left Wildridge with a zest for the unbeaten path. She cross-country ski raced in Norway. She set off to sail around the world on a brigantine, and when the crew mutinied in Rarotonga, she spent a week on Pitcairn Island. She was a newspaper reporter; she completed a history degree from Williams College. But before all that, back in 1968 her biggest thrill was the move to the farm. “We were going to get animals-cows, sheep, chickens,” Joan recalled. “Douglas loved the haying and milking; he had a cow named Gladys. Nathan was more of a mechanic and kept the machinery in shape. The girls could use a chainsaw if they had to; the boys cooked and baked. The thing is, our own kids all feel that they could survive, no matter what.”
She caught her breath and corrected: “Except Douglas. He didn’t survive,did he?” Douglas. The second graduate of Northwoods/Wildridge. Dartmouth alum,champion cross-country skier, geologist who had camped under reindeer skins in the Arctic tundra of Sweden and survived alone in the wilds of Alaska-Douglas died in 1984 at age 27 in a boating accident on a calm Alaska inlet. “He was halibut fishing with two friends,” said Joan. “The boat apparently overturned. They searched and searched. They don’t know if a big halibut swamped the boat or what happened.” The three were never found.
The Bangs clan reeled under the blow, but they survived. “They are a very tight-knit, close family,” said Kerry Irons, 37, who boarded with the family, one of the school’s first students outside the family. Now director of an electron microscope facility at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, she recalls the hours she and Douglas spent shoveling out the sheep stalls on the farm and driving the manure spreader around the fields. She said, “We’d come back to the house totally exhausted and reeking, shower, and sit around having a good time. It was an environment of hard work, physical and mental, and of enjoying yourself doing it.” Irons spent only her senior year with the Bangs, but she said, “I think of my time at Northwoods as a very major turning point in my life, a time when I learned how to be independent, how to trust myself and how to take responsibility.” Bangs’ program has changed little since Irons studied with him. Computers now test and drill the kids and let them work at their own paces. Larry developed the software himself. “It has more patience than I do,” he said. But the students, even in the lower grades, still read mostly primary history sources, discuss current events daily and use 19th Century math books. About using primary sources, Larry said: “Kids love to read these old journals; they’re full of the things teenagers like best. Teenagers really like two things: gossip and controversy.” About the ancient math texts, he said, flipping page after page of numbers in an 1860 book: “They had no words. These were much more rigorous, much easier to understand because everything is in symbols. Words do not help in understanding math.” The six-year Wildridge curriculum ranges from prehistory to yesterday. It is strong on European and Russian studies, with two years on American history and one year on Asia and Africa. “I realize we don’t do so much with Central and South American history,” said Bangs apologetically, “but you can only do so much.” Bangs’ approach is close to total immersion. Along with dates and revolutions, he draws on art, architecture, music, literature and science.
With medieval history, he serves up “Beowulf,” icons and the Gregorian chant. With the Renaissance, it’s Dante, the development of perspective, madrigals, Galileo’s “Starry Messenger” and the theories of Newton and Kepler. “He demanded quite a bit,” said David Michaud, 20, a mechanical engineering junior at Rensselaer Polytech in Troy, N.Y. Michaud attended Wildridge from grades 7 through 12. “On the first day of class, he had us write in big letters on our notebooks`THINK.’ If you’re working on something that you just couldn’t figure out, he’d just write on the board in giant letters `THINK’ and walk away. He’d give you hints, guidelines, but he wanted you to figure it out, and eventually you would. I still use a lot of the techniques he taught me for problem solving.” At Wildridge, Michaud stretched his muscles as well as his brain. He competed with other high schoolers in cross-country running and skiing and went on to the Junior Olympics and Biathlon Junior World Championships.
The little school cannot field teams, but individual sports are pushed. “Mr. Bangs insisted that we run every day after school,” said Michaud. Bangs also insists that the best way to see the country, any country-on this continent or another-is from a bike: “If you’ve peddled a bicycle a hundred miles to see something, you take the time to look at it.” Students 20 years out of Wildridge still speak with wonder about school bicycle treks. Kerry Irons remembers a three-month European trip with the Bangs and 17 other youngsters. They bicycled nearly 2,000 miles in all, staying in youth hostels. She said: “We’d be in a tiny village in Germany along the Rhine. Joan would say, `Okay, we need to get some ham and bread and fruit for lunch.’ We’d picnic along the river. She’d give you some German money, and you sort of had to go and figure out how to do it. Besides the close-up look at history, the bike trips taught other lessons,according to Rebecca Bangs Amos: “Our parents gave us the confidence to handle ourselves anywhere, in almost any situation. You learn that your limits far exceed what you think they are. So when you get to the bottom of an Alp, and you’ve already ridden farther than you think you can, you have the confidence to know you can make it to the top.” When time is short, both kids and bikes travel by van to the destination. This spring they returned to the Bangs’ farm in Vermont for two weeks of touring and maple-syrup production. The entire student body went along: three Ritchies (Allegra, 17; Molly, 13; Andrew, 11), three Shires (Andy, 18; Julie,16; Katie, 13) and Joanna Rudenborg, 14, a boarder from Wisconsin. This trip went better than an earlier return to Vermont, Larry said: “We had very little mall withdrawal this time. The first time we went back to Vermont, they came to us and said, `Is there a mall here?’ I said, `No.’ They said, `Can we walk to West Burk?’ It’s about eight miles away. I said, `For what?’ They said, `We want to hang out in West Burk.’ I said, `You don’t hang out in West Burk. There is a post office, two churches, and two general stores. If you’re there too long, they arrest you.’ ” Mostly the Big Rock travelers took the isolation in stride. “I enjoyed having the freedom to go out and explore,” said Katie Shire. Katie, an eager 8th grader, is finishing her first year at Wildridge, after seven years in the Somonauk school system. She hopes to become an attorney and go into politics. She said: “I’m the kind of person who asks questions and questions; you can’t do that in public school. I learned things there, but I can’t remember them. I was just trying to pass the test or whatever. Now I want to learn;I’ve learned how to learn. My idea of school has totally changed.” Compared to public school classrooms, Bangs admits his deck is stacked; teaching one-on-one is a job description written in heaven. But he insists that his methods will transfer. “There’s nothing we do that couldn’t be done by public schools, nothing mysterious about it. It’s just a way of approaching it. We can work with four students, but I think it could benefit thousands of students as well.” So far, Bangs has not been able to reach those thousands. He has tried once or twice to present his ideas to the gatekeepers of public education, but to no avail. College-level educators gave him a lukewarm reception, he said. He tried to interest the Vermont commissioner of education in his unusual mathematics program, which starts with Babylonian and Egyptian math before moving to Hindu-Arabic numbers. “He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about,” Bangs said. It is clear that battling the bureaucracy interests him less than teaching.
“Larry is a born teacher,” said Dimitri Turin, who boarded with the Bangs in Vermont 15 years ago. Turin, 30, is a restorer of antique motorcycles in New York City and is the stepson of the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “He has this incredible ability to come to your level, wherever that is, and explain things. You take in as much as you can; the more you take,the more he will give.”
Sharon and Joe Ritchie were sold on Larry and Joan Bangs before they ever met them. Through friends, they had already hired their daughter Rebecca to tutor their children. When the youngest Bangs child, Benjamin, graduated from Wildridge, the Ritchies persuaded the Bangs to bring the school to Big Rock. “There is just no comparison with what (the Ritchie children) get at Wildridge and what they would get in any other school,” said Joe Ritchie. “It’s not even close.”
Katherine Roberts Alteneder, 28, would probably agree. Now a Seattle customs broker, she studied with Bangs in 5th, 6th and 7th grades. She went on to Groton and Northwestern. She said, “The thing I treasure the most from those years (at Wildridge): It made the process of learning a lifelong vocation. To this day, I think it has made me a little different. They gave me a lifelong gift.”
Larry and Joan celebrated their 60th birthdays recently in Vermont with their children and students, but they deflect questions about retirement. “I tell my kids I have to live to be 110 to get everything done I want to do,” said Joan. “I feel sorry for retired people,” said Larry. “There is too much to do.” High on his to-do list is a project he started 10 years ago: complete the book on home schooling. “I finished six chapters and then put it away. So much has happened since then. Now I am considering rewriting it and completing it.” He calls the book “A Journal of Home Education.” He wrote it, he said,”Because people who were interested in home schooling were always calling us up and asking us questions, and they were the same questions we had asked ourselves when we started.” In the opening lines of his book, Bangs reflects on the difficult decision he and Joan faced 25 years ago. He writes: “Home-style education is the road not taken (by most), and it may make all the difference. Still, both parents and children wonder sometimes, `What was down that other road?’ ” It is not for everyone, Bangs states plainly, but for his own family and for his students, apparently, it was the right choice. For more information, write to Wildridge Academy, 8S499 Granart Rd., Big Rock, IL 60511.