Billy Jack farm

On a 300-acre Ontario commune, George Bullied saves incorrigibles

MICHAEL POSNER February 1 1975

Billy Jack farm

On a 300-acre Ontario commune, George Bullied saves incorrigibles

MICHAEL POSNER February 1 1975

Billy Jack farm

On a 300-acre Ontario commune, George Bullied saves incorrigibles

MICHAEL POSNER

The Royal Canadian Legion Hall in Rodney, Ontario, is a squat, unimpressive building of green brick and cement. It stands out to the sidewalk like a proud, functional piece of Fifties architecture and at night, under the glare of the light standards, the hall takes on the look of an institutional lima bean. Inside, flattering portraits of Her Majesty and Prince Philip — at least 15 years out of date — hang high on the wall, beyond the reach of flippant vandals.

It was in this hall on a warm autumn evening that the students and staff of Twin Valley High School gathered to prove a point. They wanted to show the community that, contrary to the popularly held belief, people from Twin Valley weren’t dopeheads, nor were they geeks, freaks or freeloading bums. And they’d invited the whole town to come and join them in a Hallowe’en square dance, hoping that if everyone sang and drank and do-si-doed together, they might learn to love one another. Long wooden tables, the kind that can be dismantled in 20 minutes, had been set up to accommodate the guests. At the centre of the tables stood glass bottles of dried weeds, carefully picked and arranged during Twin Valley’s morning art class.

In the kitchen, Twin Valley women prepared food and drinks. They worked quickly, taking little notice of the squarely posted list of the usual head table helpers, the ladies of the Legion’s Women’s Auxiliary: Val, Myrtle, Ethel, Helen and Bonnie. They were names that rang with the rural ethos of southwestern Ontario; and they belong to women worlds apart from the ones who worked the kitchen this night.

At precisely 8.30 p.m., in what on other nights would be the cloakroom, two men silently signaled the beginning of the dance by opening the bar. Their first customer was an 18-year-old Twin Valley student who less than a year ago had stood before a judge, not many miles away, awaiting sentence for break, entry and theft. The boy traded two quarters for a beer, carried it to the near-

est of the long tables, and took a slow guzzle. Then, sitting down, he turned to face the double doors that led into the hall. He sat staring at them: a host impatiently waiting for his guests.

Twin Valley High School may be the most unusual high school in this country. Located on a 300-acre communal farm in Ontario’s “Golden Triangle,” some five miles from the village of Wardsville, it is the first high schoolcommune ever to be sanctioned by the province’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities. Its curriculum includes not only English, math and the other standards, but courses in communal living, farming, cooking and geodesic dome construction. Its half dozen teachers are paid only $40 a month; its 55 students include former drug addicts, traffickers, alcoholics and petty criminals who have been bounced across the country from jail to hospital to welfare agency. Their average IQ is 128.

Before they came here — referred by the courts and various social service agencies as well as their own peer group — the students were thought irretrievable by all available expertise — social write-off's. But a man named George Bullied founded Twin Valley three years ago, and he has somehow managed to prove that social workers can be wrong. His students are no longer addicts or pushers or thieves; rather, they are young people with an earnest desire to share their talents and resources, however limited these might be. They are, in short, nice kids. To look at them and talk with them, you would never think they were ever anything other than average, middle-class adolescents. Which, it turns out, they once were.

Bullied, 47, Twin Valley’s founder and driving force, arrived late for the dance. His appearance seemed timed to let his guests get comfortable, perhaps have a few drinks. Unfortunately, when he arrived at nine-fifteen, fully 45 minutes after the official starting time, there were only 25 people in the room who

were not from Twin Valley School.

For Bullied, who had anticipated a crowd of 200, the turnout was a disappointment. But he hid it well, as if he were familiar with the frustrations of a hard life. Reared amid the poverty of east-end Montreal, he is a veteran of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, of Israel (’48) and Korea (’51), an army experimenter with LSD, a junkie, an alcoholic, a convict, a salesman, photographer, student, lecturer, social worker, Californian, Albertan, Irish Protestant. Along the way, he also found time to pick up a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In the spring of 1970, believing that the Crossroads drug rehabilitation program which he directed near Windsor, Ontario, had reached the end of its usefulness, this self-confessed “George of all trades, master of none” began looking for a piece of land he could shape to his own vision. What he had in mind was nothing less than a Canadian kibbutz — a permanent community taught by its own schools, fed by its own farms, housed by its own hands. He found 100 hilly acres in the heart of Ontario’s tobacco belt and, with his wife, Pat, his infant son, Adam, and eight delinquent teen-agers, launched Twin Valley.

The first months, predictably, were the toughest. “Cold tents, dinky little huts and mud,” he recalls. “Mud up to your ass.” Neighboring farmers thought they were hippies. Storekeepers sold them provisions with dirty looks. Motorists balked at extended thumbs on the highway or signaled back with a digit of their own. An OPP cruiser sat outside the property every night for months waiting for some unspecified orgy to begin. Even George’s colleagues at Windsor's St. Clair College, where he taught once or twice a week and with which Twin Valley is affiliated, wondered whether this time George Bullied hadn’t stretched an idea too far.

But four years later, despite his many critics and doubters, George is still pac-

Michael Posner is assistant editor and writer for Impetus magazine.

There are some people willing to swear that George Bullied is a saint; others are equally certain he is a charlatan

ing out the acreage of his dream. The original tract has been mortgaged into 297 acres, and where, there were first tents and trailers there are now eight geodesic domes to house the community, a profitable farming operation, a three-story recreation centre, an auditorium and George’s seven-room log home (of which a part is the elementary school), majestically perched on the highest hill. Every building on the site, every pole, every tree, every crop has been put in its place by the residents of Twin Valley.

They refer to it now as George’s Vision — a legend already swaddled in myth. And they are its disciples, created by Bullied’s determination to create an enduring communal lifestyle in the Canadian countryside.

The Bullied formula for “difficult” children combines patience and affection with a potent dose of discipline. Drugs and alcohol are forbidden on the site; sexual intercourse is discouraged. Students guilty of “dysfunctional behavior,” a favored Twin Valley phrase embracing the whole gamut of sin from sloth to hysteria, are penalized with fines, removal of privileges, or — most severe — by having their hair cut. For repeated violations, a student might be asked to leave, but it rarely happens. A two-week initiation period is usually

successful in filtering out the misfits.

In many ways, then. Twin Valley is the antithesis of the freewheeling, liberated commune. It operates on a fixed, if unwritten, set of rules, a code of ethics stringently enforced. For it is Bullied's unshakable view that rules, hard and fast, are what his kids need. Their problems, he insists, are a direct result of middle-class dementia, of a philosophy that says love things and use people (rather than use things and love people). According to George, material accretion at the expense of human development doesn’t make Johnny happy; it makes him weak, fit only for such trivial chores as taking out the garbage. In inevitable rebellion, he joins the drug culture.

If a serious indiscretion occurs — drugs, for example — George’s wrath comes down with extra zeal. The sinner is made to feel that he has breached not only his personal integrity but the trust of his family community as well. “A million policemen couldn’t keep drugs out of here,” George admits. “But the truth is we’re cleaner than any high school in the country, because the kids decided they don’t need it. They don’t want their buildings shut for one lousy weed.”

On the theory that a “kid who hangs his own door won’t kick it in,” Twin Valley students are given as much responsibility as they can handle and en-

couraged to handle more. A young man. a former speed freak whom doctors at one point gave nine months to live and who was busted four times for dealing, took charge of Twin Valley’s mammoth vegetable garden. The cucumber harvest returned $3,500. Another had serious drug problems, but is now so responsible that she can take care of George's five-year-old son. Adam. An epileptic looks after Twin Valley’s 40,000 seedling forest.

Twin Valley has not been totally successful. There have been failures — kids who chafed under George’s firm direction and. after a day or two weeks or even a few months, fled to the freedom of the cities. Still, failures are a minority. According to the Ministry of Community and Social Services’ own survey, two thirds of those who stay make significant progress. The Ontario government has asked George to teach his methods to other teachers. And the students themselves say that George Bullied. warts and all, is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Kids whose hands have never touched a two-by-four are raising geodesic domes. Functional illiterates are attempting poetry.

There are some people who are willing to swear that George Bullied is a saint; others are equally certain he is a charlatan. If I had to vote. I’d throw my

ballot to the saint-seekers, but I could no more live with a saint than I could live with a charlatan. I once had a drama teacher who was so good he was terrible. His knowledge was vast, his technique superb, but he was too commanding. Even when he wasn’t there, he was there, a constant cue, and ultimately you tired of the sheer force of his company.

George Bullied is like that, and it may explain why the Twin Valley experiment works. Maybe George is what they need — a Presence, a final arbiter, moving but unyielding, leader and father, creating fear and respect in the same bated breath. For what George likes, everyone there seems to like; and what he finds contemptible, so do they. It is tautological: to acknowledge Twin Valley is to acknowledge George Bullied. There is no separation.

I couldn’t live at Twin Valley for precisely that reason. Some students, after six months or a year, do leave. And it may just be that they’ve discovered they don’t need George any more now. All the same, he’s taken kids nobody else was willing to bet a nickel on and given them self-respect. Out of 100 miserable acres he’s made a productive farm. Out of home libraries and the idealism of young teachers, he’s built a high school for those whom normal high schools can’t handle, perhaps as good as any you’ll find in the country. He has inspired those in need of inspiration, guided those in search of guidance, and he deserves credit, recognition, thanks. But I couldn’t live there.

By title, George is merely executive director. But like a great feudal baron, at once beneficent and dictatorial, his influence extends into every sphere of activity, and the least consequential decision is not above his refereeing. He takes charge of school life in all its aspects, from new building construction to Sunday’s religious sermons (the commune is Ontological). When he is unable to direct in person, his vision is executed through staff members. He also negotiates Twin Valley’s funding, writes essays on social philosophy, lectures adult evening classes in Chatham, and teaches the pivotal course in the Twin Valley curriculum, pretentiously titled “The Art of Living.”

But if Bullied is the community’s indispensable sovereign, the school is its equally essential focal point: the major source of revenue. Ontario’s Community and Social Services ministry contributes $7.50 per student per day. Multiplied by even 20 students and a year of days, this is an extremely healthy earnings record for a primitive commune. Additional allowances of about $200 are awarded to “underprivileged” students, a definition that has been rather gener-

“This is a community. Your car is my car; my food is yours; we work for each other. George wouldn’t try to rip us off. . .”

ously interpreted to date. Take away government funds and you would effectively deprive Twin Valley of its means of support.

Twin Valley’s substantial income, coupled with George’s uneven curriculum vitae, has raised the odd eyebrow at Queen’s Park. There is a strangeness felt toward Twin Valley by those who

haven’t visited the school, and it is likely this alone that prompts such a reaction. Certainly, no one I met ever disputed George Bullied’s honesty, and in the time I spent there I saw no evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing. The mere suggestion evokes ridicule from Twin Valley residents. “This,” they say emphatically, “is a community. Your car is

my car; my food is your food; we work for each other. It’s inconceivable that George, or anyone else, would try to rip us off.” Indeed, the only real sign of inequality is George’s house — larger, warmer and more comfortable than the dome dormitories shared by staff and students. To this disparity, Twin Valley people say: “He’s entitled. After what he’s done for us, he deserves it.”

The Twin Valley staff also deserves credit. For their $1.30, they normally put in an 18-hour day. There is little privacy, and most of them could be earning $12,000 a year in the cities. But, as art teacher Diane Pasikov put it: “What we’ve got here, money can’t touch.”

The teaching staff remains at Twin Valley mostly because of a fierce loyalty to George. They share cramped quarters, cold water, spring mud and one emotional crisis after the other — but they remain. “Every day here is so rich, so intense, so meaningful,” says history teacher Les Kerr, “that I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

And yet, despite the fact that Twin Valley has very few failures, students rarely stay more than a year. They work the monkeys off their backs and leave.

For the Legion dance George dressed with a sense of occasion: turtleneck woolen sweater, pressed slacks, tailored camel-hair sport coat. His long, greying hair, curling at the neck, had been slicked back carefully with a wet comb. The rough edges of his full beard had been trimmed. His blue, Irish eyes shone with expectation.

After months of isolation, he felt ready to bring Twin Valley in from the cold, to become part of the wider community. This dance was their debut, the coming out party, and nobody was more sensitive to its significance than George Bullied himself. He had devoted his entire morning lecture to that very subject, telling the kids that Twin Valley’s selfsufficiency was, in fact, insufficient.

“Because a community responsible only to itself is a pretty narrow thing. And if we don’t share with other people, we have no right to ask them to share with us.” The dance, he told them, would be a showcase for their talents, a chance to make new friends and win the hearts of “all those people who still think we’re just kooks and hippies.”

One of those who showed up at the dance was Cindy, who is neither kook nor hippie. Rather, she is retarded, suffers from epilepsy and has a severe facial disfigurement that dates back to her

birth. In search of affection, she has been raped four times. At 16, the high point of her sad life is spending two weekends a month at Twin Valley.

Cindy asked me to dance to the Glenn Miller tune the band was playing before the square-dancing began. Her eyes, hungry with romance, gazed up at mine. “My uncle taught me how to dance,” she said. “It only took him 15 minutes.” “He did a good job,” I said. We were stumbling around the room in a spastic three-step, oblivious to the precise rhythms of the Miller music.

“How’s my makeup?” she said suddenly, thrusting her neck forward. “Fine, perfect.”

“Eyeshadow okay?”

“Looks okay to me.”

“Wanna dance again?”

“Well, I think, you know, that a lot of other boys are going to want to dance with you too, and if they see you dancing only with me, then they’re going to think maybe you belong to me, and that wouldn’t be fair, would it? To you or to them?”

“Okay,” she said. “Wanna buy me a rum and coke?”

“Certainly,” I said, and for the first time that evening I had told the truth.

George Bullied moved through the low rows of empty tables, edging toward faces he knew, shaking hands. Then, walking purposefully to the Legion Hall stage, he took the microphone.

“Give me three minutes, will you? . .. This is the first opportunity we’ve had to sort of step out and get to know each other . . . We think we have a lot of things in common ... and it’s real joy to be able to share with you. So make tonight an introduction to Twin Valley, so we can share more with you in the days to come.”

There was a light smattering of applause, and then a legionnaire responded. “I never got too acquainted with George,” he apologized. “But I met the young people. I seen them around a lot. Well, here’s the night to get acquainted. So far, you’re among the best behaved crowd we’ve ever had in this legion, and we hope to see more of you.” Loud cheers and applause accompanied his departure from the stage.

The speeches were wasted. The big crowd, expected and hoped for, never arrived. Worse, among the 35 or so who eventually turned up, there were no real strangers, no one for the kids to impress. The challenge George had spoken of that morning was nonexistent. Their critical confrontation had been postponed: the good people of Rodney and Wardsville had failed to show up. In the end, George accepted that verdict philosophically — an evening among friends, he rationalized, would boost their con-

fidence for future similar outings. Perhaps it was this sense of liberation

— the great feeling of release which comes when an examination is deferred

— that gave the dance its irrepressible vitality. Or perhaps it was just the joy of sharing that night together, a community of friends. This was their world, and perhaps only they could savor it.

Whatever it was, the community of Twin Valley danced and laughed until the clock struck twelve, when squaredance caller Dave Mitchell called at

last: “Forward again and give a little bow. Forward again, that’s all for now.” Tomorrow was Sunday, and there was still much work to do. Next day was Monday and it would be back to school. Next week, though, or perhaps in a few months, they’d make another attempt to reach out and touch the people of Rodney. And they’d keep at it until that touch is some day returned. George Bullied doesn’t give up easily; he’ll keep at it simply because he has to have things his own way, the only way.