"We are trying to do everything in ways that are environmentally sustainable. We have built the school largely out of bamboo but also using other local, renewable, natural materials. We've got gardens everywhere. Right now I see a group of second graders (7 and 8 years old). They are working on our organic gardens. We've got rice fields, fruit trees and vegetable fields. We're doing renewable energy projects. We have a big solar project. We have a micro-hydro-power project using the river that flows through the campus."
Ben is one of the pioneer staff of Green School Bali where he moved in January 2008. He was born in London, grew up in Washington DC and spent a a year in Japan with his family at the age of nine which began a life-long passion for Asia. Ben majored in Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan and spent terms in Beijing and Shanghai before receiving his Masters of Science in Teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has spent his career as a classroom teacher, an experiential educator, and in admissions, but he considers his small role in the development of Green School to be his proudest professional accomplishment. Aside from being a father to a beautiful little darling named Maggie, Ben’s biggest claim to fame is as a three-time champion on the American television quiz show, “Jeopardy!”. I feel so very blessed to bring you Ben's story and share with you more about Green School today on Soulspeak.
WHO IS BEN MACRORY?
I've been lucky, a few years ago the opportunity to come to Bali and be a part of helping to create Green School basically fell into my lap. I was living in New York City in a small apartment wondering what exactly to do with my life. I spent most of my career in the education world. I had taken a 5 year break to make some money in the corporate world, but really missed working with kids then. I have a background in Chinese studies and spent a year in Japan as a child with my family. I spent a lot of time in Asia.
Out of the blue I got contacted by an old friend of mine and former colleague who had been hired to be the founding director of Green School. It was by e-mail that he communicated with me and said "I'm here in Bali - come and visit when you have a chance. It's not so far away" and of course from New York City there's nowhere much further than Bali as it turns out so that was a bit of an exaggeration. I looked at the website for a project which at that point did not exist. except as a vision and I was quite captivated. I wrote to my friend and asked if there could possibly be a room for me to get involved. He wrote back right away and said "We'd love to have you. When can you come down here? You'd be perfect!" That was 4 years ago. I moved here in January 2008 and have been a part of the project Green School from very early on.
I must say that I had nothing to do with the founding of it. I was brought in to create a reality out of the vision. I can talk certainly about the founders and what that original vision was, where we've traveled and how the vision has evolved and continues to evolve. That's a little about me... I was born in England , I did grow up from the States mostly with the exception of living in Japan for a year. Spent a lot of time in Asia in the 90s and 2000... I was in China (Beijing and Shanghai) worked in Hong Kong after I finished University.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR TYPICAL DAY AT GREEN SCHOOL.
In many ways we don't have a typical day. There's always a lot going on in many ways. We have this beautiful jungle setting in the middle of Bali where we're within reach with a lot of major residential centers but our campuses are very pristine. It's a very undeveloped area. It's very peaceful. We don't hear cars and motor bikes. That said it's very lively here. There's a lot going on. It's a very dynamic environment. Not a lot of dull moments.
The basic idea here is that we are an international school. We have 250 children here from 40 countries around the world. They range from 3 years old to 17 years old. Next year we'll be going up to 18 years old. We don't look like an image of what a school is supposed to look like. But students here do learn traditional academic subjects, they're studying reading and writing and right upstairs from me now there's a computer lab with a group of 6th or 7th graders doing an online project. We have a beautiful sports field, a gym and a bamboo colosseum for performing arts. A lot of things that you expect to see at any good school in the world we have here. Of course there's a big difference here and that's the reason why we are getting a lot of attention. It's because of the 'green' part of our name. We are trying to do everything in ways that are environmentally sustainable. We have built the school largely out of bamboo but also using other local, renewable, natural materials. We've got gardens everywhere. Right now I see a group of second graders (7 and 8 years old). They are working on our organic gardens. We've got rice fields, fruit trees and vegetable fields. We're doing renewable energy projects. We have a big solar project. We have a micro-hydro-power project using the river that flows through the campus. On the one hand we are trying to give the students academic skills so that they can go into the world and be successful and have an impact but at the same time trying to give our students a sense of different possibilities for how we live in this world-- How we grow, how we develop and how we use resources as a fragile planet. One of the things that most people who visit here are generally struck by is the fact that we have a lot of learning going on in the classroom but there's probably as much if not more learning that takes place outside of our classroom. Students learn through experiential projects, environmental projects, entrepreneurial projects. We have a green enterprise program in our high school where kids actually start their own business and get mentored by members of the community. We have a couple kids who have a beautiful company of making bamboo business cards. We have a bamboo engraving machine. In terms of the typical day, again - always a lot of different things happening here but some of which would look like a typical school you would imagine and quite a lot of which looks quite different.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING?
I love my job. I've been here since the very beginning and I got to see this place come out of the jungle. I've seen the school grow from 90 students in the first year to 250 students now - I just feel really really lucky to be part of something like this. It's an exciting project. We're certainly far from perfect. We're still a work in progress in many ways but to have been here from the very beginning and be going along with the ride... it's exciting. We're not the best school in the world yet. We're probably one of the more unusual schools in the world. but we are trying to shape things a bit - we're not trying to get rid of traditional academic courses. We're trying to offer and create something that's actually more looking ahead to the 21st century.
TALK ABOUT THE COMMUNITY SUPPORTING THE SCHOOL, AND THE HOMES THAT HAVE STARTED TO GET BUILT AROUND IT.
One of the founding visions of this place was that we would need to build more than just a school. We talked about building a school-centered community. The school is in the middle of everything. It's kind of like the sun of our solar system but around the school are a number of these sort of orbiting planets or different side-projects. We have an incredible breeding program that we're doing with a local organization. We have four endangered bird species that we're trying to breed on the campus. Our students get to take part in that. We have a Balinese martial art that's based at the school. We actually built a mud-wrestling arena The home base for this beautiful martial art form. We also have performances here. Obviously a lot of environmental subjects. We have this entrepreneurial thing going on and there are housing options around the campus. Some families actually rented land and built houses around the area.
Also right across the river from the Green School we have a group of nine bamboo houses we call the Bamboo Village - and those were originally built for teachers and staff. Some students from all over the world now live inside the campus while their families are elsewhere. We also have families who have moved to Bali and the school plays a large part in their motivation to be here. Some of these families are renting houses in the bamboo village, or renting houses in the local community. Also, the company that built Green School is now building a place called 'Green Village' which is about 600 meters down the river and they're very beautiful bamboo houses - it's kind of like a sequel to green school-- incredible 5 story houses in the jungle. They're expensive, they're ambitious and architecturally creative. We have some families, some of whom buy those houses and are living in them. Some of whom rent houses from other owners. It is quite exciting . There is this kind of green community that's building up around the school.
Recently an American couple (Green School parents) who have been in Bali for about 12 years started an organic farm here. They now have an organic food company. They work with about 14,000 family farmers throughout Indonesia and right across Green School built a bamboo chocolate factory. It's supposed to be the largest commercial bamboo structure in the world. They're actually living within walking distance from the school. They have two young daughters who come here everyday. They relocated their business up to this part of Bali and if Green School wasn't here I can guarantee you their bamboo chocolate factory would not be across the river. Again- it is very exciting. There is a lot going on. A lot of moving parts which can sometimes get complicated and make life a bit stressful but again there's a real sense of energy , possibility and inspiration - I love it.
DO YOU HAVE GRADUATES ALREADY?
Not at this point. Our oldest students are in Grade 11 but next year we're going to expand to Grade 12. We opened 3 years ago and at that time we had Grade 8 as our highest level. We've been adding the high school grades year by year. We will be graduating our class in 2013. It will be interesting to see where our graduates go and presumably some of them will head off touniversities. Who knows maybe some of them will become environmentalists , maybe some will be entrepreneurs, start their own business right out of high school. Our goal is that when the students leave here - whether they have come here for one year or whether they have been here for 12 , 13 or 14 years - that they're able to get out and have options open. Have doors open to them.
HOW ARE THE FEES? DO YOU OFFER SCHOLARSHIPS TO THE BALINESE CHILDREN?
That's a great question. We are an international private school and we charge school fees.These fees are a major source of our revenue and operating budget. By international standards, depending what part of the world you come from - our fees could be seen as quite reasonable, or a very good bargain. We charge about 6 thousand to 12 thousand USD per year. That's certainly real money but even in Jakarta there are internationa schools - they're charging double what we charge. Even in Bali there is still one school that's more expensive and we're in the same range as quite a few international schools. Obviously for most local Balinese living around the school those fees are incredibly expensive - outrageously , astronomically , unbelievably expensive - and for that reason we do have a scholarship program for Balinese children. That's been a part of the vision from the very beginning. We didn't to be and international school that talked about intergration with the local community with a host community but ended up building big concrete walls around it and let in local children as long as they could pay international school fees. That's the model of international schools in many places in the world.
Again, we're in this beautiful country, we're in the middle of a jungle and we have a good security team. We try to keep this place very safe but we also did not build concrete walls, we don't have this kind of fortress mentality around us and provide a lot of physical access to the local villages around us. We provide a lot of jobs for our local communities. Right now we have 19 Balinese children who attend the school and their families are paying very very low fees (Between $5 and $20) per month depending on the family's income level. That's 19 out of 250 kids. Our goal is to have at least 20% of the students coming from the Balinese population. Right now we're less than 10% and that's just a matter of finances. We talk about sustainability all the time. Financially we're not yet sustainable. We're getting close to the break-even point but we're still a money -losing operation. We're very committed to those 19 children who are here. We've had some really fabulous success stories so far. Looking forward to seeing where these students end up, hoping some of them will play a role in re-greening the world. We've been dealing with a lot of environmental issues brought about in part by the impact of tourism and a lot of foreigners coming in - plastic everywhere, waste, water issues... We're really committed to them and looking for more ways to raise money and expand the program to bring in more Balinese students. Like any relatively new organization we're trying to make our ends meet, trying to become financially viable but really want to keep our doors open.
DO YOU GROW YOUR OWN FOOD?
We are not self-sustainable and self sufficient in terms of food at this point. We eat pretty much everything we grow , but we do not grow everything we eat. We have a large population here if you take students plus staff you're looking at close to 400 people. We have a pretty big piece of land we've got 8 hectares and a lot of green growing space but not enough to feed 400 people. We have a lot of the produce salads that's grown in the campus. we do have a program where families can subscribe twice a week and a beautiful bundle of whatever vegetables are being picked that week. It's a nice way to encourage our families to eat organic and support the food.
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE THAT YOU HAVE SEEN FROM THE CHILDREN HERE COMPARED TO THOSE YOU'VE HANDLED IN TRADITIONAL SCHOOLS YOU ONCE WORKED IN?
For people who have come and visited, it's not like a conventional school where the classes are held behind walls. There's a door and you can peak through. When people walk around Green School it's totally open. There's no hiding. Most people are really impressed first and foremost by the structure - it's physically and incredibly beautiful - This building I am right now at the heart of the school is like a bamboo cathedral. It is just extraordinary architecturally. Really really innovative. We have gardens everywhere and this beautiful river valley that goes right through the middle of school that goes by a very significant bamboo bridge.
It's a very impressive campus for most people. It doesn't look anything like what they think a school should normally look like. I think for people who come and actually see the school in action - the main impression is not about the physicality of it but it's about the spirit, the energy of it. The fact that when you go to our classrooms, even if they're open air and have lots of potential distractions - whether it's a local cremation ceremony across the river with a clanging 'gamelan' to some mother hen who decides to bring her chick to the classroom in the middle of Math, or whether it's a dragonfly parade flying through - lots of things going and yet for the most part our students seem to be very focused. They seem to be very engaged. And something that educators and a lot of different teachers all over the world who visited us always marvel at is that we have very very minimal disciplinary issues. We have children who are stimulated enough that boredom is not really an issue. I have seen that from being around classrooms all over the world -- kids get bored and when you get bored that's when all the behavioral issues arise. I've worked in different schools, both public and private - and I can honestly say Juno, the main thing that really strikes me about Green School is the way our kids are with each other. They really care for each other. There is a very compassionate feeling. We are not a tiny school anymore but we certainly are not a big school. Most people know most people. You have friendships developing across the grade levels. We have 8th graders and 11th graders who hang out during lunch. When I was in High School in the States that would have been uncommon to see friendships across age lines. These kids come from all over the world, they're not all angels, they're not all straight A scholars, but there is something quite special. One of the really beautiful things is seeing how our Balinese kids have integrated into life in the school. There are beautiful friendships from students from lots of different cultures. It's a nice little melting pot.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOURSELF FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?
It's been a very rich journey for me. That's personally and professionally. It's been very challenging at times. I moved here with my wife and my then 15 month old daughter and last year we separated and she and our now 5 year old daughter are living back in New York City. I'm very far away from the love of my life Maggie- my little girl. That's very painful but on the other hand there is the joy and excitement of getting to be in a very special project and I get to live in an incredibly beautiful island with a very aesthetically rich and in tact culture - Balinese Hinduism - with lots of ceremonies performances, arts.
I moved here when I was 39 years old . I've always been pretty passionate, I've lived fully but in terms of a professional endeavor I just hadn'tdone anything I can sink my teeth into and go all out. I had done a number of things professionally- always been pretty successful, but had never really found something that could really devote myself wholeheartedly to. Coming here to Bali Green School, I found that. It's been amazing and hard, the process of building this school has also been very challenging. It's not an easy journey. We started with a nice big piece of and a very ambitious concept. There's been some headache and heartache in the journey from vision to reality and yet we're stll here , we're growing, and as I've said a work in progress but always making steps in the right direction.
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE CEREMONIES YOU MENTIONED.
There are plenty of Christians, Catholics, Muslims who live here as well from other parts of Indonesia. The island itself - the native people are predominantly Hindu. There are always ceremonies. Every family and village has their own ceremonies but there are also very large island wide ceremonies every full moon. There are ceremonies all over the place. As for the school itself, we are not espousing Hinduism, we are not teaching the kids to be Hindus but we are trying as much as possible to operate within the culturally appropriate construct.
About 15-20 meters from our main building we have a little Balinese temple in the middle of the campus. We place offering baskets around the school in various places. Every structure has a small elevated shrine where offerings are placed everyday. There are offerings made to the 'Good Spirits' and there are also offerings placed on the ground to the 'Not-So-Good Spirits' In Balinese Hinduism there's a main focus on maintaining a balance between good and evil in the universe. You want to placate the evil spirits as much as you want to honor the good spirits.
We bring the Balinese culture as much as we can to the school. We just had a beautiful project over the last few months in October. We had students from Grade 1 to 8 (basically 6-7 up to 13-4 year olds) and they did a project looking at the role of rice in Balinese History and Culture, Mythology, Art and Society, and of course as in many parts of Asia rice is the staple crop here. Kind of the foundation for a lot of the cultures.That was a classroom project. At the end of that every class had it's own rice field and students went down and spent a morning planting rice and they tended to the rice fields with the help of our gardening staff sothey could learn their Reading and Writing and Science and Math too. Just about 3 weeks ago we had a really beautiful traditional Balinese rice harvest ceremony. A local priest came in and all of our students from 40 countries around the world they dressed up in traditional Balinese ceremony clothes, went down in the fields and harvested the rice. it was a very beautiful moment. Almost brings a tear in my eye to talk about it. I think next week the kids will actually be eating the rice that they helped to grow, for lunch.
There's a very big day in Bali too - the most important which is the Balinese New Year called 'Nyepi' . It's an incredible day. I think there is nothing like it around the world because the whole island literally shuts down and people have to stay inside. They're not supposed to cook or work. They're just supposed to be very quiet - no playing. It's a day for quiet reflection and meditation. The TV and Radio stations stop broadcasting. It's apparently the only place in the world where the airport closes for a religious holiday. No one on the roads. It's an AMAZING day.
Nyepi itself is very quiet but the day before 'Nyepi' is a very loud and ruckus, all round Bali children in local villages are making these very scary looking statues of monsters and demons they're called "Ogoh Ogoh", at Green School the kids are making that too - using recycled materials and we'll have a big assembly a day or two before Nyepi. All of the big Bali festivals ceremonies , we honor them , we observe them. Our Balinese children - the ones on the scholarship program- they will play a lead role in teaching some of the international kids what's going on. It's a really nice way of honoring and acknowledging this local context we are in, both the environment and the cultural surroundings.
LET'S STEP OUT OF THE SUBJECT A BIT. I HEARD YOU WERE A 3-TIME JEOPARDY WINNER. CONGRATULATIONS! TELL ME ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE.
Being on Jeopardy was definitely one of the highlights of my life. It had been a goal since high school (I played on both my high school and university academic teams), and I finally got to achieve it at the tender age of 25. I had a blast-- I love to perform and I made the most of my two hours of fame, theatrically mopping my brow during the Final Jeopardy, generally being very animated. Got fan mail, got recognized on the street, was able to put a down payment on an apartment in NYC that I still own. Alex Trebek, the host, was not a big fan of mine though. I was a bit too flashy for him, and the nail in the coffin was when I told the story of winning a national competition in 1990 by having a dream that he appeared on the Jeopardy set disguised as Saddam Hussein (contest was sponsored by Rob Breszny in his "Real Astrology" column that appeared in alternative newspapers around the US, and even more amazing was that there was a co-winner, Lisa Stample of San Jose, California, who had the same dream!). The day I lost, the FJ answer was Tiananmen Square. I knew the guy ahead of me was going to get it, so I figured I'd go out with a flourish by writing it on the light board in both English and Chinese. Alex called me a show-off on national television! (I deserved it...)
WHAT IS LOVE, FOR YOU?
For me it's about my daughter-- It's the love of my life Maggie. As much joy as I've experienced here in bali I'm also right now dealing with a heartache of living ten thousand miles away from my daughter. Hard to answer that question without getting emotional, I'd say. I extend it to all children. I really do have a lot of love for almost every kid in the school.
YOUR ONE MESSAGE TO THE WORLD.
Be good to each other... Be good to yourself .. Maybe the Hindus and the Buddhists are right and we'll get to come back and have another go with it, but maybe this is our only time to be here so make the most of it. Take chances,take risks, and don't live in fear.
(This interview was conducted via Skype on March 8, 2012)
FOR MORE ON GREEN SCHOOL VISIT THEIR
VIRTUAL TOUR WITH BEN MACRORY
VIRTUAL TOUR WITH BEN MACRORY
FEATURE VIDEO : 2012 GREENEST SCHOOL ON EARTH
FEATURE VIDEO : 2012 GREENEST SCHOOL ON EARTH
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