He made the bold, audacious, and potentially career-ending decision to travel with his family to Bali on an eight-month sabbatical.
The kids didn’t wake until late morning. One by one they emerged from their jet-lagged slumber. We introduced them to Putu and Made, but there was no time to linger. We were already late for a tour of their school, which we had arranged through Ben McCrory, the school’s head of admissions. Victoria and I rushed them through a quick meal and herded them into the rental car Nyoman would drive.
On the ride to school, Nyoman drove aggressively, leaving only inches between our car and the one ahead. It didn’t matter how fast he or other drivers were traveling. The braking distance on this island was obviously shorter than anywhere else on the planet because everyone drove the same way. The vehicular twerk seemed to excite local drivers.
At last, Nyoman edged out of the tailgating competition. The ride to school, which was supposed to take twenty minutes, clocked in at forty. We were staring at a New York–style commute.
As we entered the campus, asphalt gave way to a dirt road so broken that it felt as if we were back in Africa, bouncing in a Land Rover through the rough outback of the Serengeti. We pulled up to the entrance of the school and the child drop-off zone. Two Indonesian men, dressed in orange sarongs and Balinese headdress, greeted us with expansive smiles, slight bows, and hands in prayer position at their chests. We signed in and waited to join a group of visitors about to start the tour.
John Hardy led the school tour. He and his wife, Cynthia, had founded the school a few years earlier. John, in his sixties, was a formidable creative force. He stood in front of us and told us his story. He was dyslexic, he said and recounted how, in the Ontario town where he grew up, the disorder was poorly understood, and as a result, his dyslexia went undiagnosed and untreated. Despite his obvious intelligence and talent, he was treated like the village idiot. His school experience, as he described it, was nothing short of misery.
Almost as soon as he could, John escaped to Bali. When he arrived, he became interested in the island’s jewelry-making traditions and learned the techniques of the local artisans. He developed his first pieces by applying new designs to traditional Balinese methods. He began selling his jewelry to tourists on the beaches and expanded it from there to a global operation. He and Cynthia grew their business and brand dramatically, ultimately selling his products to high-end US retailers like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. When he sold his business to a private equity firm, he and Cynthia used the proceeds to found Green School. John was a born salesman, magnetic, and unwavering to the core in his conviction about what he was doing and its ultimate impact on the educational experience. I wasn’t sure I was buying his story.
John walked us past a new kitchen structure being built in the shape of a dragon, whose final design would be determined by a student sketch competition. He contrasted Green School with his own school experience: “The people who built the school I went to were the same people who built the prison and the insane asylum, and they built all three institutions out of the same materials. We built this school to inspire students and educators, and we built it almost entirely of renewable resources.”
He pointed to an array of vegetable gardens in the near distance. “All the food we serve at Green School is grown right here, and students are responsible for its production.” The place was gorgeous. But whether there was any real education going on was an open question. He made precious little mention of core subjects like math, science, or humanities.
We walked by some classrooms. There were no angles in any of the structures. Everything, including the student desks, was organically shaped. While they learned, students could hear the rush of the Ayung River in the ravine just behind the school. They could feel the tropical breeze that blew in from the nearby Indian Ocean. As we passed the Heart of School’s grand curved staircase leading to the second floor, we saw children’s flip-flops haphazardly piled at its base. “Green School is a barefoot environment,” John said. “What we’re trying to do here is to teach our kids not only the core subjects, like math, science, and English but also to be global citizens.” What he said resonated with Victoria and me. Over the years, we had debated endlessly about how to provide our children with a Jewish education, which involved a certain amount of indoctrination and simultaneously engage their creative, explorative spirits. We struggled with the best way to prepare them to be involved in the world while maintaining their traditions.
As we walked we came upon an open well with a turbine in the center. “Our gravitation water vortex,” John said. The focus of Green School’s curriculum that year was water and its role in the environment. Water would be the core theme too for the way science and the humanities were taught. The water vortex, a micro-hydro power plant designed to provide electricity to the campus, was the school’s attempt to put into practice some water-centered learning. “We want to be completely self-sufficient,” John said. Then he added, without being defensive, “We’re still trying to get it to work.”
As we ambled along a pebble path, a tall girl with straight blond hair and blushed cheeks ran over with a friend and stopped us in our tracks. Carina’s neon-green tutu matched her bright demeanor. “Are you Sam?” She exploded in a giant grin. Sam was taken aback by her exuberance. “We’ve been waiting for you! We’ve been checking you out on Facebook, and now you’re here.”
Her classmate Pim was from Bangkok. Green School classes were a United Nations of students. Pim tied her long, dark hair in a ponytail and smiled at Sam. “There’re only four other boys in our class of thirteen.” Sam turned beet red.
We ended our tour at a bamboo sign, “Healing Circle.” At the circle’s center was a giant smoky quartz crystal planted heavily in the ground. It stopped one of the women on the tour in her tracks.
“Wow!” She turned to me, her palms open to the crystal as if to a campfire. “Do you feel that?”
“I can’t get any closer.”
I looked at her blankly.
When the tour was over, Victoria asked the kids, “So what do you think?” No answer. By the look on their faces, we could tell that they were struck dumb by the massive differences between Green School and the education they were used to.
Excerpt from Take Off Your Shoes by Ben Feder, used with permission from Ben Feder, © 2018
About the author:
Ben Feder is the author of Take Off Your Shoes, President of International Partnerships for the U.S. at Tencent Games, formerly the CEO of Take Two interactive, the publisher of the smash video game hits Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, and NBA 2K. He serves on the boards of directors of public and private companies in the media and entertainment industries and is a director of Save a Child’s Heart, a nonprofit that works globally to rescue children with congenital heart defects. A Harvard Business School graduate, Feder lives in New York City with his wife, Victoria, and their four children.
You can buy the book Take Off Your Shoes from Amazon.