Columnist Vijay Prashad: Ms. Agna stands at the crosswalk

  • Jackson Street School Principal Gwen Agna is pictured with a student from her first year at the school nearly 25 years ago. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 2/10/2020 4:00:18 PM

For almost a quarter of a century, Gwen Agna has taken her post outside Jackson Street School in Northampton. She stands near the crosswalk at the edge of the awning for the front door of the school with a vast grin and arms ready to hug any student who walks across the road.

“Good morning, Ms. Agna,” say the legions of bright faces; it is, she tells me plaintively, the best part of her day.

Gwen Agna is sad because this is her final term. She retires in the spring. Perhaps she can come back as the crossing guard, I suggest. She smiles and says, yes, the guards — lovely people all of them — experience the joy that she sees each morning. This is typical of Ms. Agna, as her students call her; she finds a way to turn a story into other people, not allowing that daily connection to be about her but to be about the children.

My two daughters went to Jackson Street School, where both skipped into school with the cheer on their lips, “Good morning Ms. Agna.” They looked forward to seeing her at the entrance, a presence of calm and love who welcomed them into the maelstrom of education and social life.

To explain the power of this encounter, Gwen uses the Zulu expression “Sawubona,” or “I see you.” This is not merely a greeting, but it is also a philosophy of life, a desire to say that you are important to me and you are valuable to me. It is what my girls felt when they walked to school.


Gwen was born in Burma. As doctors, her parents decided to take their skills around the world, which is why they went from Rangoon to Haiti and eventually to Ohio.

The oldest of five children of very busy parents, Gwen became the one who helped raise her siblings. By the time she entered middle school, Gwen was sure that she wanted to become a teacher, later joining Future Teachers of America.

At her home, Gwen found a copy of A.S. Neill’s “Summerhill” (1960), which altered her life. She rummages in her shelf in her office at JSS and finds her old copy. It has lost its cover, but it has its dignity. This is the book that did it for me, she says. Summerhill is an English boarding school set up in 1927 and led for most of its early history by A.S. Neill (1883-1973). When the book was published in the United States, it became a sensation. Neill spoke to an age that was not comfortable with conventional education.

A generation younger than John Dewey, Neill nonetheless shared with Dewey a sense of apprehension about stifling the imagination of children.

In “Summerhill,” Neill wrote, “When the school introduces each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating his life with the spirit of service and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious.”

These ideas of service and self-direction are rooted in the works of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, wise child psychologists, and then in the work of educational theorists such as Paulo Freire. Gwen read all this, and more.

Pushing children forward

Students have a voice, Gwen said, as we talked about Neill and Piaget. They make decisions. To learn, she says, is to be in charge. When the anthropologist Margaret Mead read “Summerhill,” she wrote of Neill’s “belief in the strength of the self-regulated child.”

It feels lovely to think that children can be self-possessed in a world when adults seem to be overflowing with tantrums and despair. After I met with Gwen, I went and read “Summerhill”; aspects of it appear like a science fiction novel, the inverse of “Lord of the Flies,” the hope that the world does not need to be reduced to bestial leaders and their armies of trolls.

These are three words that are not often mirrored in our world — creativity, criticalness and compassion. Gwen says that concepts such as these are the scaffolding for her work. But none of this is easy, not when school budgets are dried up and education becomes more about career planning than about allowing children to find their best possible selves.


Northampton will go into another dreary debate about overrides. Meanwhile, thanks to the Trump tax cuts, 400 of the wealthiest Americans will pay at a lower tax rate than any other income group. Tax havens around the world shelter $32 trillion, more than all the gold that has ever been brought to the surface.

That should set the terms of the debate. But it does not; instead ordinary people tear each other to bits over buying Band-Aid for basic needs. Teachers are underpaid, schools do not have the resources to be creative.

Ms. Agna will not be at the crosswalk in September. The children will walk to school, their faces beaming, their hope in a better world intact. Teachers, Gwen says, are guides; the job of a teacher is not to tell a young person how to do something, but to guide them to find their way. One guide will hang up her button-festooned lanyard; others, following her, will report for duty.

Vijay Prashad, who lives in Northampton, was born and raised in Kolkata (India). On Feb. 25, at 6 p.m., in Edwards Church in Northampton, he will be in conversation with Gwen Agna at “An Evening Assembly: When the World’s On Fire. A Conversation on Public Education.”

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