Nancy Plent: An 'A' in Life

What a crazy Thanksgiving holiday this was for my family and me. At the last minute I was asked to appear on national TV to talk about unschooling on the Dr. Drew Pinsky show. As you can see, it is a strange interview/discussion. I sat in a room, alone, facing two lights and a video camera and participated via remote hookup with the other participants. All I could do was listen to the other people on the show; I couldn’t see any faces or video that they were showing. As I was listening and waiting for a moment to speak a director or producer said into my ear, “Just jump in”; I did, and it was a free for all. However, they cleaned the tape up and edited it for airing the next day so it seems much more organized and focused than the actual taping was. I wish I had a better closing statement, but I had no idea I was going to be given the last word. 

After taping that show and watching it the next night, we cooked a Thanksgiving meal to bring to New York for my family, since my mom was too sick to come to Boston for Thanksgiving at our house. I also learned, about a week earlier, that my old friend Nancy Plent, the founder of the Unschoolers Network of New Jersey, was in hospice care. Unfortunately, I learned over this weekend that Nancy actually died on Thanksgiving Day.

I’ve been thinking about Nancy, Mac, and Eric Plent a lot since then. I stayed at their house a few times, and I worked with Nancy on many homeschooling issues and events from the early 1980s until 2001. Indeed, a quick search through the back issues of Growing Without Schooling magazine notes 85 instances of Nancy Plent appearing in GWS. Nancy ran an organic food store for many years, in addition to operating the Unschoolers Network, and she was always interested in learning and trying new things, which is how she came across John Holt’s work (more on that below).

In addition to her advocacy for homeschooling and unschooling in the New Jersey legislature and at the local district level, Nancy pioneered two concepts for homeschooling books that have been imitated many times: her book “An ‘A’ in Life: Famous Homeschoolers” (we sold this title for many years in the John Holt Bookstore catalog) and her “Living is Learning Curriculum Guides” for unschoolers. Both of these were first composed in the 1980s and were handmade by Nancy and Mac. Many imitators, some quite slick, have followed.

Oddly, as I looked over Nancy’s writing in GWS, it is Nancy Plent’s words about John Holt when he died that made me smile and remember Nancy herself vividly. Nancy enjoyed going to a particular restaurant after she did a conference at Brookdale Community College (we did conferences elsewhere together, but this was her preferred venue), and I know I always looked forward to our post-conference meal. We would break down how the event went, which workshops worked well, who were good vendors to work with, etc. Nancy’s knees would be bothering her, she’d be exhausted from the event, and she would inevitably say, “This is probably the last conference I do . . . “ Of course, Nancy always seemed to find the energy to “put on just one more conference.” We are all glad she did!

Nancy’s husband, Mac, told me the back-story to what you are about to read. Nancy was always a fan of John Holt’s work, but she had never contacted John. Knowing this, Mac called John, introduced himself and his family as homeschoolers-to-be, and asked if John would do him a favor and speak with Nancy on her birthday. Nancy mentions this in her appreciation of John Holt:

... I first "met" John Holt through a phone call on my birthday in 1977. We had just learned that GWS #1 had been published, and were very excited . . . My awe soon vanished as John chatted pleasantly with me for several minutes. When I asked him what he could tell me about the legalities of homeschooling in New Jersey, he replied, "Why, nothing. We were hoping you folks would tell us'" It was my first inkling that we were going to have a colleague in John, rather than a guru feeding us directives.

. . . His observations cut to the heart of things, one of the reasons why his opinions were so valued. In the early days, we had carefully (and nervously) cultivated a dignified, serious image with the press. Then we came across some families handling things in what we considered a flamboyant manner, almost gleefully daring the school to give them a hard time so they could "go public" and show them up . We felt sure they would come across in TV or news stories as irresponsible, and therefore would get a lot of media attention. While we were concerned, we also felt we couldn't tell others what to do. John's answer was simple. "You can't pretend to the media that there are no nuts in this thing, because there before their eyes IS one. Just trust in your own good works to speak for themselves and don't worry about what others do."

Another time when John asked how a particular workshop had gone, I moaned that some people had let us down, failing to get things ready that they had promised. I sighed and guessed that next time I'd just have to do it all myself if I wanted to see it done. John listened carefully to my woes and launched into a story about Gandhi, the gist of which was that you have to trust people "until they become trustworthy."

But the time that defines the man most clearly to me is a walk we took to the top of a hill one year at the Homesteaders Festival. John was a great walking companion. I usually drive people crazy once in a woods or meadow, pointing out things I notice. John was right in there with me, and we interrupted each other a dozen times to point out wildflowers or small creatures darting past. When we reached the top and turned to look out over the view, John scanned the hills and murmured "A thousand shades of green" as his eyes swept the trees on the hills beyond us. He said it again before we walked down, an almost involuntary expression of wonder at the magnificence and complexity of nature's midsummer show. He stopped often to feel the warm sun or admire the scene below us. I noticed later that he did this often in other settings, too, particularly where little children played nearby. He never missed a word of conversation he was in, but his eyes followed children as they played, and he smiled a lot. His enjoyment of the world was quite contagious. I thought about him daily this fall, and tried to make time often to enjoy the lovely days, wishing, in the way we do when someone we love dies, that I could enjoy it twice as much to make up for him not being able to . . .

John Gatto, who Nancy often used as a conference speaker, is recovering from a stroke as I write this, and I’m really struck by the feeling that a chapter I am part of is ending in the homeschooling movement as we continue to lose folks, publications, and their memories and associations. However, I’m excited that a new chapter is being written, too, and that I am a part of it. I hope, like Nancy, that I will enjoy every day twice as much to make up for her no longer being able to do so.