What “Foxfire” could have been— and still could be
I had never heard of Foxfire before I went to Clayton, Georgia in the summer of 2010. I had been awarded a Writer-in-Service Residency from the Lillian E. Smith Foundation, and was heading to Clayton to spend two weeks writing in a cabin that had once been a bunkhouse in Smith’s camp for girls. After several days in my cabin, when the walls started closing in, I decided it was time to head into town before I began veering toward something like The Shining. In town, on the main corner of the main drag, what did I find but a bookstore: Prater’s Main Street Books. Inside, I browsed among local authors and books on local subjects – because what better reason is there to visit an independent bookstore in a small Southern town? – and stumbled across Foxfire.
Foxfire is a student-produced journal created and led by a man named Eliot Wigginton when he was an English teacher in Rabun County in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The periodical version eventually led to the full-length Foxfire Book, published by Anchor Books/Doubleday. Being a fan of the sixties and seventies in general – the music and films from those decades are some of my favorites – I was enthralled immediately by this student project led by a high school English teacher, whose teaching style and ideas seemed similar to my own. Though two or three decades and two states stood between his work and mine, we each shared a desire to bring students to local culture through experiential learning— in his case, Appalachian folk culture, and in mine, Civil Rights and the arts in Alabama’s Black Belt.
However, there’s a tightrope to walk in professing any admiration for Eliot Wigginton. When I got back up on the mountain, I set about telling the artist in the other cabin about what I’d found. She is an artist of an elder generation and had been around that part of the country for much longer than I had. After she patiently listened to my enthusiasm about my new find, she apprised me that Wigginton’s downfall came when he was accused of and confessed to child molestation. He had done great work, she told me, and was a real star on a local scale, but had overstepped the teacher-student boundary in the most unseemly way. Immediately and completely repulsed, I backed off from my zeal and did not return to Prater’s to buy up copies of Foxfire, which I had originally planned to do later in the week. But I still do think from time to time about this man and his work— and the circumstances that overshadow his accomplishments.
In November 1992, forty-nine-year-old Eliot Wigginton plead guilty to one count of child molestation for fondling a ten-year-old boy. The matter of his small-town English teacher was covered by The New York Times, which explained summarily what Foxfire was:
Named for a phosphorescent lichen common to the mountainous north Georgia area, Foxfire began as a student-produced journal in Mr. Wigginton’s high school English class at Rabun County High School in the late 1960’s. It sent the students out to interview their neighbors and examine their communities and eventually grew to an enterprise that sold more than four million books worldwide, inspired a Broadway play and a created a network of more than 1,200 teachers in about a dozen states who actively promote the idea of the journals as learning tools.
and this about the teacher’s continued success in the 1980s:
Mr. Wigginton was seen by many as the embodiment of this experiential approach to learning. Some education professors used his 1985 autobiography, “Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience,” as a required text in their courses. In 1989 he received one of the so-called genius grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
However, as acts of intolerable impropriety came to light, Wigginton’s stellar career was over.
From the period right after his guilty plea and subsequent jail sentence, a 1994 article, “Fall from Grace,” published in Education Week, sheds more light on Wigginton, whose involvement with this one boy may not have been an isolated incident. The writer, Debra Viadero, recounts the increasing severity of the accusations against this once-lauded teacher:
All of the accolades stopped two years ago, however, after a 10-year-old boy from Athens, Ga., accused Wigginton of fondling him during an overnight stay at the educator’s log cabin near Clayton. Soon after that news broke, other young men began to come forward. They said they, too, had been molested by Wigginton when they were teenagers, and their stories were remarkably similar. By the time the case brought by the Athens boy was scheduled to go to trial, a total of 18 young men were prepared to testify that Wigginton had molested them – or had attempted to – on 23 separate occasions.
Viadero goes on to relay that Wigginton was forbidden to have any contact with children for twenty years and that the foundation built around the Foxfire ideal had “divorced him.”
Viadero also interviewed Wigginton himself for her 1994 article. About any attempt to draw connections between his teaching and his crimes, he had this to say:
“Anyone,” he says, becoming more animated and forceful as he speaks, “anyone who discounts or dismisses the principles and the pedagogy and the exploration that is going on with committed professionals and the [Foxfire] teacher-outreach office would be in my estimation an extremely small-minded, mean-spirited, ignorant individual.”
As a teacher who has struggled for more than a decade to build a writing program based on experiential-learning, I see two main themes in Eliot Wigginton’s remarkable successes and failures. First, and most obviously, the non-negotiable “line” between teacher and student should not be crossed, ever. And no teacher is immune from the scrutiny that comes with crossing it.
Beyond that though, another theme has to be acknowledged: the verve with which so many people – educators and students alike – recognized the value of experiential learning. Wigginton’s success was not built on testing, discipline, dress codes, computer software, or federal programs— all the go-to “solutions” of today. It was built on getting students into the community, where they were encouraged to understand and appreciate their own natural and cultural surroundings, and write about it. That approach invests everyone in the education of children, from parents to . . . well, moonshiners. No amount of dollars, nor any computer-based program will ever accomplish what human beings working together can accomplish. About the value of community-centered experiential learning, I’ve told my own students’ parents many times, “They may not remember my lectures the next week, but they’ll remember every field trip we ever take.”
So what ever happened to Foxfire?
It’s alive and well. Today, The Foxfire Fund, Inc. continues the work that Eliot Wigginton began, yet was forced to abandon. (Their Magazine page still lists Wigginton as the founder, though the About page doesn’t mention him, just a Board of Directors and a Community Board.) The website offers a range of Teaching materials and News, which right now include pictures from the Foxfire Mountaineer Festival last October and a scholarship opportunity for local students. The educational ideas behind Foxfire haven’t been abandoned at all. Nor should they be.
I’ve only been back to Clayton once since 2010, and that time I didn’t come down off the mountain much. But knowing a little more about Foxfire on that second trip, I did look at Rabun County differently. Thinking about how Eliot Wigginton’s actions ended his career, I wondered, had he not done those things, might experiential learning have taken hold nationally, like standardized testing did instead? On that second trip, when I would walk in the woods around the Lillian Smith Center, among the multitudinous wild rhododendrons, I would look for that luminescent lichen called foxfire . . . though I never would have seen it. The sad truth is: This Alabama boy is too frightened of bears to go out there in the dark.