from the History of the Free School
by Mary Leue


..The school year got underway in early September, initially with eleven kids, all middle-class. Bruce and I found we could work together very well indeed, and our parents seemed happy with the new experiment. We met weekly to discuss funding and other considerations, and seemed to get on very well together. One day late in the month a charming young woman, Kathy, appeared at our door and asked if she could teach with us, having just graduated from an Ohio school of education. Of course, we agreed enthusiastically, and the children all fell in love with her.

Our only problem was finding enough money to pay salaries, rent, phone and utilities. We all came up with all sorts of strategies for raising this money, and participated enthusiastically in doing so. We had bake sales, rummage sales, garage sales, and candy sales, all good middle-class strategies our parents could throw themselves into enthusiastically. None of them raised much money, but they were a lot of fun. Soon three other families joined us, and we really felt we had a nice little school going. Gordon, the younger of the black boys whom Dorothea had been pushed downstairs, asked to become a member of the school, and we all agreed amicably - even Dorothea and her husband. Things seemed to be going amazingly well.
Then two things happened, some time in December or early January. Two new children enrolled in the school, and two new families brought us their children, a significant distinction, as it turned out.. The mix proved to be dynamite. First, the children. One snowy day a bedraggled little troupe of four children resem-bling nothing so much as Wendy and the lost boys fromPeter Pan arrived on our doorstep from out of the soft white opaqueness that covered the city's ugliness. "What is this place?" asks one. "A school," we answer. "Can we visit?" "Sure, if you behave yourselves." So in they come: Kitty, a skinny girl of fifteen (as we subsequently learned) who could pass for twelve, Jimmy and Ernest, her brothers, ten and eleven, one light-skinned, the other white; and Alfred, their white cousin, a kid of thirteen the size of an average seven-year-old and with a manner to match, squint-eyed and "hyper," having been labeled by the school psychologist as retarded, with an IQ of 60-some and in a "special education" course, a total non-reader, and slated for residential warehousing in a state school for the retarded.
Naturally, these truants were delighted with us all, and immediately asked if they could join the school. Standard re-sponse, "Go home and ask your mother. If it's O.K. with her, it's O.K. with us." Well, Alfred was sure his mother would approve, and dashed off to ask her. Kitty, who seemed to be the spokesperson for all three members of her family, informed us that her mother was dead and that her father probably would not agree, but said she would ask anyway. Half an hour later, Alfred appeared vir-tually dragging his mother, who reluctantly gave her approval of his admission, saying, "Well, I was just about ready to send him to Rome anyway (a state institution for retarded children which sub-sequently became notorious for its flagrant abuse and neglect of its inmates). I can't do nothin' with him, and that school has him in one of them special classes. He ain't learnin' nothin'. If he wants to come here, it'll be the first time he ever wanted to be in a school, so I guess he can come here."
Alfred was so overjoyed at this that he whooped and sprang upon me, wrapping both arms and legs around my body and squeezing tightly, as if to insure a permanent bond that would never again come loose! And actually, it never has!
Alfred was with us for three exciting years, during which time he managed to create lots of drama around himself. Once he nearly electrocuted himself fiddling with the guts of an old TV set. Once I had to bail him out of the local police station for robbing somebody's mailbox of their welfare check! Mainly, however, he couldn't sit still in one place for more than a few minutes! It was as though his energy system simply worked too fast for him to be able to slow down long enough to learn how to decode the verbal symbols, which to me was an odd definition of retardation! Is it "retarded" to live too rapidly? The spirit in that "retarded" body was absolutely pure and sweet!
But the miracle of Alfred takes up long after we left off, and for me, is the most confirming evidence of the real nature of learning I have ever known. When he left, at the age of nearly six-teen, he still couldn't read, although his math was pretty good. He didn't learn to read for many, many years - despite enrollingtwice in adult education programs after leaving us. He finally quit try-ing, and got a job in a garage for a while until they fired him for not being able - or willing - to complete jobs. The next thing we heard, he was married, at about seventeen, and had a child. He would come back from time to time, full of optimism about his fu-ture, but he couldn't seem to stick at anything for long. For a while he lived in Florida on welfare with his wife and child. Then we heard he had enrolled in another reading course, still unable to read, and had been drifting from one job to another and from one part of the country to another. Somehow he seems to have kept the dream in his mind of learning to read.
I saw him on the street near his house during one of his periodic trips home about six years after he left us. I asked him how it was going. He answered, shaking his head solemnly, "Well, I had to leave my wife and come back home. We were fighting too much. But Mary, you should see my room now. I got shelves all around my bed and I keep buyin' books to put on them. I love books!" Could he read? No, not really, not yet. I parted from him with wet eyes.
One day some years later I got a call from a Catholic priest in a nearby city who wanted to know if this young man Alfred was for real, did he really want to learn how to read, was what he was telling him actually true? By this time, Alfred must have been around twenty-four or so. In ordinary terms, his story was pretty unbelievable, I guess. I said it was all true, that he was somebody special, and urged him to do the best he could for our Alfred. I don't know if it was this time he made it or the next time, but somehow, some way, he got through that narrow door! One of our teachers, Chris, who had known him at school, saw him at the su-permarket just before Christmas. Chris was blown away. He said Alfred had grown almost a foot, that his crooked eyes were now straight, and that he looked manly - his hair was no longer stick-ing up in unruly points, he looked at you clear-eyed and steadily. Alfred told Chris that he could now read, and loved it, and had a good job and a good marriage with four kids - that his life was great! Chris told us he could see that it was true! We don't take credit for that. It is Alfred's triumph! But he learned that ability to believe in himself with us!

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