The Well School founder Jay Garland remembered

  • Jay Garland, who co-founded The Well School in Peterborough with his wife Toni, passed away on Jan. 15 at the age of 81. Courtesy photo

  • Jay Garland, who co-founded The Well School in Peterborough with his wife Toni, passed away on Jan. 15 at the age of 81. Courtesy photo—

  • Jay Garland, who co-founded The Well School in Peterborough with his wife Toni, passed away on Jan. 15 at the age of 81. Courtesy photo—

  • Jay Garland, who co-founded The Well School in Peterborough with his wife Toni, passed away on Jan. 15 at the age of 81. Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/27/2021 4:23:15 PM

Jay Garland first came to Peterborough at the request of his brother Peter. The older of the two siblings, Peter wanted to create a new school for his children and others in the area, searching for a different way of education. So Garland made one of the longest moves you could in the United States, making the trek from Pilot Station, Alaska to the small southern New Hampshire town with his wife Toni and their two children at the time to start a small independent school that would come to be known as The Well School.

For more than three decades, Garland was the driving force behind The Well, which opened in the fall of 1967 with just 16 students, building it from the ground up with Toni, passionately inspiring a countless number of students along the way.

On Jan. 15, Garland passed away at the age of 81 at his home in New Mexico and last Saturday was remembered through a Zoom celebration. Garland has been lauded for his many achievements at The Well School – the way he built a community, fostered a love of curiosity and instilled a passion for learning whatever it was his students showed an interest in.

“[He’s] probably the single most important person in my life in terms of how he affected my life,” said Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, one of The Well School’s original students. “Nobody could compare because Jay would make people the priority over everything else. Just one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”

Ra Eldredge, Joanna’s sister who started at The Well in first grade during that first year, also said Garland had an immense impact on her life over her five years in his classroom.

“Everyone had a different relationship with Jay because he came to where the kids were,” Eldredge said. “He really raised kids to their full potential.”

Garland, who was born in Washington, D.C., and Toni met in seventh grade in Mount Vernon, New York. The two dated in high school, but went their separate ways when it was time to go away to college, with Garland attending Harvard and Toni heading to Michigan State. But by their sophomore year, they were married with Toni transferring to Boston University to be closer to her husband and the two spent the next 62 years together until his passing.

Upon graduation, they went to Barrow, Alaska to teach for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for two years in a large Inuit village. They returned to the northeast for a year where Garland did his masters work at Keene State College before embarking on another two-year journey to Alaska to teach once again .

Then his brother called. The idea, a place where they could put all they had learned during their education and time spent in Alaska to build not just a school, but a community, interested Garland and Toni,

Akhil Garland was four when they moved to Peterborough and spent his formidable years living in the school. He was the second of the Garlands’ three children along with siblings Kambrah and Alex.

“From my perspective, I had the benefit of being planted into this incredible community with fabulous people,” he said. The community his parents built was so impactful that he wanted the same for his children, moving back to the area when they reached school age.

“It was very unique being the son of the founder and leader,” Akhil said. “It really was an extraordinary experience.”

Peter found the land that included what became the brick school house and the Garlands made into not only The Well School, but also their home.

“It really became our life,” Toni said. “I don’t think we had any idea what we were about to embark on. But it became a nice place for our kids and it was an amazing group of people who were willing to help each other.”

Toni said for the first five or six years, they discussed whether they would continue at the end of each school year. But they were building something special and knew they had to continue. “It became a joke after a while,” Toni said.

The first year, they split the teaching duties for the students in first through eighth grade. They added kindergarten the second year and hired Katie Barnes to teach the youngest students, as the school population nearly doubled. And it only grew from there, adding more students and faculty when needed.

Garland, his wife said, had a way with reaching his students.

“He really respected the intelligence of all the students,” Toni said. “He really taught what he loved and the kids loved it too. He loved all the subject matters and it rubs off when someone loves it like that.”

Sue Chollet said she wasn’t all that impressed with Garland when she first went to The Well School to check it out for her son Chris. But that impression changed quickly and she still maintains a close friendship with them four-plus decades later.

“He was an intellect and really wanted to share his thoughts and ideas with children,” Chollet said. “And he treated them as people with brains and feelings and people of worth. He was an amazing teacher and a remarkable person.”

Garland was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to education. He taught everything, was the drama director, coached sports and served as the math coach. And having the freedom to do it all in one place allowed Garland to help his students find their passions.

“He just believed in every individual student to such a deep degree,” Akhil said. “And it allowed them to grow.”

Eldredge Morrissey said Garland challenged his students every step of the way, having them read ancient Greek philosophers in third grade. He taught her how to interact with adults by always giving a handshake and looking each person in the eye.

“It was a magical place to grow up,” she said. “He just made everyone feel very special, very loved. And the biggest thing he taught us was to be an individual and to always speak up, to speak your mind.”

Her experience had such an impact that Eldredge Morrissey returned to the school to teach and served on the board of directors.

“It was a magical place created by their vision,” she said. “They took the best of education and brought it to The Well.”

Akhil said the conversations surrounding education and community building never stopped even when the school day was through.

“They were tremendous about building community and that’s really what the school has always been about,” Akhil said.

Over the years, they cleared soccer fields, dug out a pond and created skiing Fridays where they would have Latin class at the top of the mountain before hitting the slopes.

“He wore so many hats,” Eldredge said. “He did an incredible amount.”

He also passed along that passion for education to his fellow educators.

“He always said, teach what you love,” Toni said.

“He knew that whatever the teacher was passionate about, they would get the content across to the kids,” Chollet said.

Chollet saw that first hand when she took a teaching position at The Well and stayed for more than two decades.

“Jay had a way of teaching his faculty the way to be around children,” she said. “With careful listening and sensitivity. The way he taught school was different than most.”

And she could go to him with anything.

“He would be right there listening, asking questions, helping to think it through,” Chollet said.

Akhil said his father was a truth seeker and “I think he believed a lot of education wasn’t addressing that concept.”

“He looked at the world very different,” Akhil said. “He was very deep and philosophical and I think education provided him with a vehicle, in his own way, to change the world in a better way.”

Eldredge said growing up hearing about Alaska from the Garlands put her on a mission to go there.

“Alaska was always this dream of mine. I had to visit it sometime and that’s because of Jay and Toni,” she said.

After grad school while looking for jobs in ecology, one came up in Alaska. She wasn’t excited about the job, but had to take it. She planned for two years and stayed for 17.

“I only left there so my kids could come back and go to The Well,” Eldredge said.

She began teaching at The Well in 2003, the year after Garland retired, and has been there ever since. But her passion for teaching comes from his work in the classroom.

“He did give me a complete love of learning,” she said. “He loved seeing the big picture and tying it all together.”

Eldredge spent time with the Garlands creating a history of the school and heard first hand about their vision.

“He was really a pretty amazing guy,” she said. “He had his own idea of what education should be.”

Upon retirement in 2002, Garland and Toni decided that they split their time between New Hampshire and New Mexico. They had visited friends and liked the area. They began going to the southwest in winter and back to Peterborough in summer months. A few years ago, they moved to New Mexico full time.

In 2005, Garland had a stroke, Toni said, and ever since then he was going through one health issue or another. But in the weeks before his passing, it seemed like he was getting back to normal.

“He was a wonderful man,” Toni said. “He really was.”

Akhil echoed those sentiments about his father.

“He was a phenomenal man, a tremendous community builder,” he said.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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