Alternative Schools
Chapter 10
Definition of Survival
There is a strange and bitter process we see in operation in this nation at the present time by which a number of solemn, painful, and important words - each of which in itself has deep and obvious meaning, resonance, and connotation - can be "defined" and "neutralized" and "processed" by the cerebral skills of those who write and speak of social change and social revolution in terms that do not have a great deal of direct or practical connection with the things they talk about. The word survival is a good example of the process that I have in mind. It is a word that does mean something concrete. It does not mean the struggle to find depth and richness in the soul of life. It does not mean the struggle to live at peace with surfeit and excess in Palo Alto. It does not mean being able to go out into the woods of northern Mchigan and play at being a woodsman or a farmer for one season and then coming back and telling people that we have "survived." There is a way, however, in which a word like this can lose its whole truth and whole power and can be turned instead into the sort of non-essential and non-desperation matter that then is appropriated without remorse, and even with considerable fascination, by comfortable people who "survive" quite well by any ordinary standards. It becomes something complex and something intellectual. It becomes the "search for value" in the "age of the machine." It becomes the longing to return to the "good things" of the "old times." It becomes a ride into the country.
The kids I know in the South End of Boston happen to enjoy - and dream about - a ride into the country as much as any children I know. The poor people and the black people I know appreciate and value pleasure, peace, escape from anguish, happiness, and love as much as any young white person or as much as any white adult. In spite of the implications of much of the counterculture literature, rich white people in blue jeans and beads did not all at once discover sunshine, the smell of the warm earth in Apnil, or the good taste of homemade bread in winter. It is just that they alone have the inherited freedom and the lobotomized consciousness to build a whole lifestyle out of the possession and the monopolization of these luxuries, while the men they have empowered, by their abdication, to hold governance in this nation are destroying the wide world with fire and napalm.
In the best of all possible worlds, with no men starving and with no small children hungry and untreated, with no injustice and no mechanized oppression and no direct and racist exploitation of the Third World by the First, it would be fun to speak no longer of words like conflict, struggle, pain, and mandate, but only of words like ecstasy and joy, to speak not of the character of death for those who be beneath the hobnails of our shoes, but only of the "quality of life" for those who do the marching. We do not live in such a world, however, and it is not merely incorrect, therefore, but brutal, devious, or self-deceived to speak or write as if our greatest difficulties and most important challenges, in school or out, were not direct injustice and the ice-cold capability for anesthetic self-removal from the consciousness of guilt and pain, but rather a somewhat limited supply of delectation or, to state it as a nurnber of educators do, a prevalence of "joylessness."
In the face of myth, in the face of lies, in the face of mass manipulation, there is still a literal meaning for the word survival. Children I see around me every day go in the streets year after year with raw, untreated sores, swollen wrists, scars on their throat and shoulder from untreated injuries of years before. Men and women I know, and have known now for several years, go for ten years or fifteen years with huge and ulcerated tumors on their arms and shoulders.
A child in Roxbury - now eighteen years of age - falls down in the middle of the city, at Grove Hall, on Blue Hill Avenue, in Orchard Park. One night she comes downstairs into the coat room underneath the church stairs. (This is the office of a little school in which I work.) She asks me, please, if I would close the door and hold her head within my arms: She is about to have an epileptic seizure. She says she does not want to interrupt the other children in their classes. I watch her as she undergoes three seizures in a row and, in between, the terror closes in, as in a child's bad dream that you can't get out of. When she can't stand, we drive to Boston City Hospital. There is a three-hour wait before she gets to see the intern. He comes out at last and gives her an injection of some tranquilizer to sedate and to relax her. He writes out the prescription for Dilantin and for Phenobarbital. He looks at me then and shakes his head and says to me, one white man to another: "It's a goddamn shame. Nobody needs to have an epileptic seizure in this day and age. Nobody except a poor black nigger."
Hundreds of children we see as students or as neighbors in the streets were born in the Deep South under conditions that transcend the imagination of most people. In many instances, the mothers of the children we know have lived for so long on a marginal diet, which includes no beef, no butter, and no milk, that they cannot adequately nourish their own infants. The children grow up in a state of nonstop desperation. They are born without hospitals, nurtured often without milk, schooled without love, indoctrinated without learning, and grow to their tormented manhood without help of dentist, pediatrician, surgeon, or eye doctor. The only "equal care" they ever get is in the amicable supervision of the local precinct captain.
The drug statistics in our neighborhood are beyond almost all calculation. In Boston, the school-age population among black and Spanish children is, at the lowest, forty thousand and, at the highest, fifty thousand human beings. In the twclve-to-eighteen age range, it can be established at approximately twenty thousand. At least two thousand of this number are users of heroin: one out of ten is a conservative statistic. Heroin addiction exists, of course, out in the suburbs, as well as in the city. The consequences of heroin addiction, however, follow racist lines. In practical terms, in realistic working out of odds, occurrences, statistics: Heroin addicts who are white, Protestant or Jewish, middle-class, suburban go to the Institute for Living in Hartford, to the McLean Hospital in Waverly, or to a place that nobody else will ever hear about two miles west of Zurich, Switzerland. Heroin addicts who are black or Spanish go to a youth-service center if they are under eighteen, to the state reformatory in Concord if they are eighteen or older, or else, approximately one time out of a thousand, and at considerable saving to taxpayers, straight to the graveyard with a well-placed bullet in the back part of the brain.
It is in the context of these kinds of lives, and it is in the daily contact with these kinds of needs, that we must raise the question of the old, original, and unsophisticated definition of the word survival. It is frustrating, and disheartening, to me and to my wife that so much of the literature of social change and human transformation depends upon the willingness to forgo short-term, clear, and visible mandate in favor of the possibilities of long-term transformation of the social structure. It is no good to entertain long disputations about "institutional revolution" over sirloin steaks and good red wines at small French restaurants in Harvard Square, while real and non-theoretical children, adolescents, and adults are undergoing visible ordeals and literal starvation in the South End ghetto only two miles distant. This is the kind of random, unreal, and irresponsible revolution that makes good literature and pleasant seminars, but does not compel a man to act right now upon the human desperation he sees before his eyes.
There is a certain kind of revolutionary courage, I believe, in fighting for a new world and still helping men to live without ordeal within the one that they are stuck with. In the remaining pages of this section, I am going to speak about a Free School I know in which they do just that. It is a Free School that is not intimidated by its own strong purchase upon time and history and does not feel the need to make excuses for its own hard emphasis on strength and power. It is a school in which the fear of domination and the fear of excellence are not confused. It is a school, therefore, that comes very close to what I think of as the ideal model of the highly "conscious" Free School in the physical context of an urban struggle, existing both outside the legal framework of the public schools and also outside of the framework of the white man's counter-culture. It is not a well-known school and I do not intend to make it better known. I will not name this school, but I will try to give a sense of what it is that makes me speak of it with so much admiration and to remember it with so much hope and so much sense of expectation.
It is a school in which there are no more than six strong teachers, eighty kids, a group of something like two dozen active parents, a quiet, reserved, hard-working man of thirty-one or thirty-two who is, at once, co-founder and headmaster of the school, another young person who is exclusively responsible for money raising, visitors, the press. The young man who began the whole thing in the first place, his seven co-workers, and their parent allies operate the Free School as an honest and unique endeavor of their own creation, with little apparent need to look for sanction on the outside. The teachers are, for the most part, "political" people in the sense that they obviously have a kind of framework, or a way of looking at events, built up in part of hard street logic, in part of political actions, in part of just their human gut response to what they see around them in their daily work. They do not, however, forget the lives of children in the storm of words; nor do they place their ideologies or their high-level goals in counterpoise to the immediate needs of intellectual and physical survival.
There is, within the school, a lot of emphasis on what the old-time teachers used to call "the basic skills." There is also a visible presence of high energy and fun, pupil irreverence and adult unprotectedness, none of that glaze and lacquer of "professional behavior" that is so often identified with the desexed and, as it often seems, dehumanized existence of the veteran teacher in the public system. There is, in its place, a warm, reassuring, and disarming atmosphere of trust and intimacy and good comradeship between children and adults, a sense of trust that builds at all times on the recognition of the difficult conditions that surround their school and of the dangers that exist for each and every one of them on the outside.
There is also something in this school that is too rare in many of the Free Schools I know: a real sense of stability and of sustained commitment in regard both to the present lives and to the future aspirations of the children in the school. It is a commitment that does not allow for sudden abdications, unannounced departures, TV appearances, or visits to England and to southern France on the part of these six teachers and their young headmaster, but that on the contrary involves them in the most painstaking labor of medical referrals, legal battles, food-stamp hassles, landlord-tenant confrontations, difficult introductions, and complex affiliations with more traditional independent schools and with rich people's colleges, job prospects, and the like, all of which are the visible evidence and the daily confirmation of the fact that is the survival of their children and not the slogans of th'et moment they believe in.
They do not have an eighteen-member governing board.
They do not have T-groups every Wednesday or encounter sessions on the weekend. They do not have beautiful women from Vassar and dilettante poets from the other side of town coming over to "do marvelous things" and gather cocktail party aminunition at the price of their own children. They do teach reading to children who are illiterate and they have a remarkably good record of success. They do teach calculus and plane geometry to kids who want a chance someday to be an architect or engineer and not a custodian or train conductor. They do, 'in certain situations, get extraordinarily mad about bad spelling. They win be severe with-any older kid who tries to get a younger kid involved with hard drugs. They do not believe that everyone has the right to do "his own thing." They do not believe that shooting heroin-or hooking someone else on heroin-is something anyone ought to be allowed to do. They are not afraid to give their kids direct instructions, straightforward criticism, or precise and sometimes bitter admonitions. They have read Summerhill, but they do not think it is the only good book ever written. They do not hesitate to call a careless piece of writing "careless" or a piece of clear misinformation "false" or "wrong" out of the fear that A. S. Neill will come out of the plywood and accuse them of adult manipulation.
I have a sense of awe and reverence for the men and women who have given thirteen years of work to governing and teaching in this school. There are no quotations from the I Ching or Buckminster Fuller on the walls or in the stairways. There is none of that incessant jargon about love and joy, but there is also a great deal of joy, not of the verbal and self-conscious kind, which never gets past the point of mandatory glee, but love of the kind that people like Saint Francis and Tolstoi have spoken of: the love that turns, each day, from abstract concepts into an ethical vocation made of concrete deeds.
There is this also: an entire semester of consecutive and well-sustained math lessons and math exploration that grow out of a pre-planned period of observation at the local center of the drug trade; hours and evenings, weeks and days, for the better part of six months given over to a breakdown of the mathematics of police protection, cost for purchase, cost for sale of various kinds of white and yellow pills and stimulants and powders; the slow and merciless working through of something that comes to be known among the children as the "heroin equation" - all of it based upon the profitable business then and still, as of this writing, taking place in one house ten minutes distant from their classroom.
There is this: an entire semester of hard work, of writing, reading, research, and the like-preplanned and well prepared and by no pretense either "undirected" or "spontaneous" or "accidental" in the explication and examination of a set of old and evil regulation U.S. history textbooks, stolen or borrowed from a nearby public school; a strong and rich and long-sustained experience in the makeup and in the structure and substructure of political indoctrination and in the manufacture of a uniform body of apparent preferences and wishes in a nation's consciousness.
There is this: six months of labor, learning, exploration, physics, auto mechanics, chemistry, and math, all growing out of a single, large, old automobile engine, chassis, gearshift, carburetor, muffler, and the rest, taken from some old rusted and deserted car left in a nearby corner lot and dumped into the basement of the building where the Free School rents its rooms - the father of one of the children in the school leaving his work and taking off two afternoons each week, from two to four, and coming here from the auto-body shop across the square and spending those hours with a group of twelve or fourteen of the oldest children, teaching them how to take apart, examine, and repair, then reconstruct, that large and intricate and more-than-interesting piece of iron and steel.
There is this, too: a big tough black kid who perpetually struts and jeers and seems belligerent to you and to all other adults for two years, then suddenly one day sits down in the office of his teacher, of that same young man, that same young teacher who began the whole thing in the first place, and hustled the cash, and brought him in here from the street just three years back. He sits there now. The teacher sits there, and he looks this big tough black kid in the eyes and tells him something that is going to circle in upon his consciousness a moment, then for a moment more, before he can quite grasp it, seize it, hold it in his hand. He tells him, quietly, that he has just won something that he desperately wanted. He did it, made it, won it, beat it, passed it, passed that goddamn long and fucking hard exam that he's been psyching out the whole long winter. He made it past the hardest thing he ever tried to do in his whole life. He's eighteen. He learned to read and write and do math and do logic and psych out a long, incredible, stupid, evil, brutal, and inescapable exam that he couldn't even have dared to think about just three years back, because he couldn't even have read the big BLOCK PRINT instructions on the cover. He did it this time, and he's sitting there now, six feet tall, two hundred pounds, and he begins to cry. His father's a janitor. His mother's a maid. He's going to enter college in September.
I have this strong and burning vision of the school I have described. It is consistent. It is intense and vital. It is loyal to its children. It is like itself and does not try to be like any other school or to accommodate itself to any set of outside fashions. I hope they fight like hell in future years to keep it like it is and not give in to all the pressures that afflict good schools once they have proven they are good and come at last to be well known.
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