High school senior Tom Brownsword had a dream. The Farifax County school system had a rule.
A 2,000-mile walk on the Appalachian Trail for credit, was Brownsword's proposal. Take a hike and you lose your diploma, was the school system's reply.
As a result Tom Brownsword, who is among the top 1 percent of the country's high school seniors, won't be in cap and gown when they play "Pomp and Circumstance" at Reston's South Lakes High in June.
On April 13, a few weeks before graduation, he dropped out of school after failing to convince administrators that four months on the trail would be as valuable as 45 more days in a South Lakes classromm. "They're just rockheaded," Brownsword said the other day.
When Brown University told Brownsword it didn't care about the diploma, he packed his backpack, laced his hiking boots and left school. He and a friend hit the trail in Georgia two weeks and headed north. They've averaged 15 miles a day and, Brownsword says, had more time to enjoy the outdoors since he doesn't have to do research for a school paper.
Brownsword, an A student acclaimed "Most Independent" by his graduating classmates, had dreamed for more than a year of walking the trail. Anticipating a spring departure, he presented school officials last semester with a proposal for meeting graduation requirements by combining hiking experiences with high school course work. Along the way he would interview park officials for a political science paper and try to capture his impressions in creative prose.
But rule-bound school officials took a dim view of Brownsword's plan from the start. Arguing restrictions in state law and county regulations, top administrators told the Brownswords that there was nothing like being in class.
"I guess if they weren't worried so much about precedent, they wouldn't have ruled the way they did," Brownsword said from a North Carolina campground. "But that kind of thing isn't that uncommon, the bureaucracy and all. It strikes me that's the way the world is a lot."
"Right now our regulations don't have any provisions for substitute activities," says Thomas P. McGarry, the area school administrator who originally nixed the Brownsword plan. "We can't just go around adding classes."
"In his case," countered Brown University admission director James H. Rogers, "we could see a talented, academically superior student. What he does for the next month isn't going to make a hell of a lot of difference."
Brownsword's unsanctioned departure from South Lakes routine surprised a few of his friends and teachers. A pensive and well-read student, he seldom shied from disagreeing with superiors or passing judgment on "the system."
"He's definitely different from the others," said classmate Ted Peebles. "It wasn't like he didn't enjoy high school or anything. His attitude was, 'I'm going on this trip and it [graduating] really doesn't matter.' He was dead set on going. I don't think they could have stopped him."
"I've never seen him do anything just for the sake of being disruptive or being different," said Brownsword's chemistry instructor, Leon Hawkins. "But if Tom believes he's right, and he really does believe it's just some arbitrary decision of the system, he would fight it to his last breath."
Brownsword's father, Alan, a U.S. Department of Education administrator with a doctorate in history, stood firm behind his son's plan and spent hours trying to convince school officials of its merit. "I don't give a s--- about technical requirements," the elder Brownsword said. "I want my son to get the most out of his school."
Two years ago, he said, Tom Brownsword was depressed and bored with schoolwork, his plummeting grades reflecting a growing penchant for marijuana and alcohol. "I sat down and talked with him and he said he wasn't interested in going to a place like Brown; that he wasn't good enough.
"I nailed him. I said 'You don't have to go to Brown. But you will not sit in this house in front of your mother and me with your IQ and tell me you can't do it.' My gut told me to push and push hard. I asked, 'Will you do it?' He said 'yes.' And he has never touched pot or alcohol since then. When a child of mine does anything like that, it's like, 'Hey, buddy, you earned it.'"
Tom Brownsword and his hiking companion, Brian Booker, who attended night school to get his diploma, broached the idea with South Lakes Principal George Felton. "He [Felton] really did take an active interest," Brownsword said. "He went to the rule book and found a rule that would have authorized us to go. That was a major, major victory and I guess he wasn't even supposed to do that."
But Felton was required to seek approval from the school system's area administrative office. There the plan met McGarry, whose decision the parents appealed to Area Iii Superintendent Margaret Ford.
"Her position was consistently pushing for alternatives for keeping the kids in school," Alan Brownsword said. Ford proposed that his son drop his courses in psychology, orchestra and political science during the day and complete the remaining requirements in night school before leaving.
Brownsword said he told Ford that "what she was doing, by the way she was working it, was impoverishing Tom. She looked at me and it was just classic. She got this terrific 'I gotcha' smile on her face. And she said, 'I agree with you, Dr. Brownsword. And that's exactly why I think Tom should stay in school.'"
Ford could not be reached for comment. In March, however, she wrote the parents of both students, saying that "to substitute for English and social studies course work a period of unsupervised study, without benefit of teacher-student interaction other than by mail, is not a course of action that I can either recommend or approve."
"There are clearly some schools that are more flexible than others," said Brown University administrator Rogers. Brown officials, who included Tom Brownsword among the 2,300 selections out of 12,000 applicants for openings in the freshman class, thought the trail idea terrific.
"We felt the experience would be a good one because we're accepting students not just to the academic life but to the whole Brown community," Rogers explained. "It's an experience that displays independence, self-confidence, an ability to get along on your own. All of the things we value at Brown and in our candidates."
This week, the Brownswords took their case to Fairfax School Board member Carmin Caputo, who says Tom can apply future college credits toward his high school degree.
"Maybe this is something that should be considered by the school board," Caputo said. "Maybe we should come forth with a provision that allows for this kind of thing and not only allows it, but encourages it."
Meanwhile, somewhere in the wilds of North Carolina, Tom Brownsword was learning the lessons of the life on the Appalachian Trail, eating cold dehydrated oatmeal while his companion had hiked off to buy fresh provisions 13 miles away.
"Mostly all the stuff we have to eat requires hot water," Brownsword lamented. "I've got the stove, but he's got the pot and all the matches."