The School Around Us: 25 Years
by Claudia Berman


November, 1992. The first snow of the season. I was driving on the Log Cabin Road in Arundel, Maine, and passed by the School Around Us in my car. Big fluffy snowflakes were falling. I checked the clock on the dashboard of my car, 9:38 in the morning. School had started just over half an hour ago. As I passed, I saw children, lots of them, dancing wildly in the snow: singing, happy, running, excited, beautiful. I slowed the car to watch and absorb what I was witnessing. I cried. Here was a school where children could be children, where the first fluffy snowflakes of winter were far more important to enjoy than whatever these children might do inside their school building.
In 1970, when School Around Us (SAU) was founded, I was fifteen years old and growing up in Washington D.C., a city of protest rallies and marches of all kinds: Anti-war, Civil Rights, Women's lib, Soviet Jewry, Pro-drugs. I had two older brothers worried about the Vietnam draft and my family life was full of rebellion. By the time I was in high school I was scared, confused, and felt I had no one to talk to.
High school made me feel trapped, like a prisoner. It was a struggle to be myself in a system that made little room for individuality. I was seeking freedom in a system of constant authority beating me to pulp, working to mold me to a norm. I resisted with all that my soul could offer. Most of my classes were lecture style, but in one class students discussed current issues in America and worked in small groups on projects. We also kept journals, an assignment that represented one-third of the grade. In my journal, my teacher gave me honest feedback and respected what I said. In my journal, I could be free and I addressed the topics of school and freedom many times.
Looking back at these journals, it occurs to me that they must have been the same sort of feelings from the Maine teenagers that inspired parents to start the School Around Us in 1970.
May 5,1970
The lost boy walked through the labyrinth of turns and circles. He was lost in the vastness of his world. He slept on the treeless hills of the paved prairie, And sat sometimes as time left him waiting.
He would go to school so the informers could improve his mechanisms. Six hours of eternity, everyday, Spent in that brick building, Where his mind was transformed, Where the nuts and bolts were tightly screwed in.
And when he left the building he would wander, Fighting inside to regain himself. Struggling to loosen the tightened bolts. Unsuccessful he would sit and watch the minutes go by.
Twilight came, the death of day renewed, The lost boy would lie back on his patchwork of ideas. Leaving his world for a while, Where the bolts were unscrewed and the center of the labyrinth found.
January 22, 1971
It really kills me when people tell me they just can't create. Everyone can. It's just letting go that people have trouble with. It all seems to start in kindergarten. I do think most of retarding creativity comes in schooling. I can only talk from experience. These days, anything is what is. Whatever turns you on, whatever is your thing is cool. Most teachers and classes don't give you time or confidence to create. I've noticed that it is hard for kids to think of what to do, where to start, how to start, if given the chance to decide. A lot of kids wait to be told how to do things.
Spring, 1970
Clouds cover the world today,
in corruption and hate and dashes of war.
Poverty and starvation are enemies to me,
and the decline of freedom of life.
And I tried to walk outside the world today,
away, away, away,
And I tried to live my life, but failed,
and now it doesn't matter.
People came to watch the poor,
they laughed and said, "Look there."
Those who wanted to live went away and tried to bare.
Artificial jobs, and a culture not yet born,
A society of pieces,
to the machine of universal powerlessness.
No community. No help.
"Everyone for himself' is what I was taught today,
In the place they call education,
which is only for those who pay.
And the lack of understanding
of the dream of things that are good,
And everything a child leams,
must be better than it should.
America, America,
God shed your tears on thee,
And tell me how to live my life,
In this land of liberty.
Balancing the power,
and black and white alone.
Pollution and a war across a sea,
Inhuman men,
have inhuman jobs and are part of an inhuman machine.
Society they call it.
Money is the key to some,
Fear is the life of others.
The ability to understand seems lost
in the mechanisms of our machine.
Indifferent to human values,
out of human control,
It's gone
All the freedom we were bom with is gone.
March 9, 1972
I've decided or concluded that grades are worthless to me. At least this conclusion makes me feel better when I know I've learned something without bullshitting, and I didn't get a fantastic grade.
I really like school but I wish I could take my time and go slower and deeper into things. I love learning and there are so many things to do. "Mere are too many different classes. Once I catch up in one class, I fall behind in another!
November, 1971
My teachers of the world today,
Taught that education is the only way,
"Get up in the world, be rich and prosper," they'd say.
"Do what you are told and things will work out for you these days."
And I would sit back, widely confused,
Before I was taught by another on how not to lose.
That teacher declared, "You must praise the Lord,
Help those in need, don't steal from the poor.
God loves your nation, so you love it too,
Only then will you be a good man and true."
And I kept on thinking of my thoughts of that day,
And when I got home my parents would say,
"Your room must be clean,
Out at night? Deary me!
You must study so you can get a job,
And make it in the world, Don't you see?
Why do you wear those clothes, we buy you the best!
You must respect..." And you know the rest.
I picked up a newspaper and sat down to read,
As I read, I couldn't believe,
All the awfulness in the world which I love,
And I hated all that I saw.
I hated the teacher for telling me what I should be,
I hated my religion for telling me how to be good,
I hated my parents for not trying to see,
Where were the ones who thought kind of like me?
I wondered how I could change all that is here,
Until I find a way, I will live and be me,
And keep trying.
The story of the School Around Us is the story of people who wondered how they could change all that they saw. It is the story of people finding their true selves and together making radical changes in the way they work, leam, and freely exist. It is the story of learning respect for individuals regardless of background or age. It is a story of responsibility, free expression, and creativity.
In 1980, after three years teaching at Tatnic Hill, an altemative high school in Wells, Maine, I was hired at SAU as a full-time teacher. Since then I have enjoyed fifteen years of the freedom of teaching and leaming at School Around Us. In 1985, when my first child started at the school at age two, I took on the role of a parent. Presently, I have two children at the school and I have been a teacher and parent in various roles for ten years.
Over my fifteen years at SAU and three years at Tatnic Hill, where many SAU graduates went in the 1970s, I developed close relationships with many parents who had been involved in SAU throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They have told me countless stories of pain, joy, and personal growth gained through their involvement in the school. Through these relationships, I became a link connecting the earlier years of the school (1970-1983) with the later years (1984-1994). In 1988, hoping to bring the two ends together, I helped organize the school's first reunion.
Working with a small group of people who had fonnerly had children at SAU, we compiled a mailing list of former students and parents. While I had my hands on an up-to-date mailing list, I thought it would be a excellent opportunity to collect information on the experiences of SAU participants over the years. Marylyn Wentworth, a school founder, as well as my friend and colleague, had talked about writing a book on SAU some day. We agreed to collaborate on the project. She proceeded to write and distribute a survey designed to collect information on perceptions and experiences of people involved in SAU.
The 1989 survey was sent to 160 people. Over 150 people attended the reunion which took place on a weekend in July 1989. The reunion had the flavor of a family party: reminiscing, sharing, hugs, photos, slides, films, and fun. It was amazing how intimately connected people still were after so many years apart. People who could not attend the reunion sent postcards and letters. Two 1970s students, John Bordage and Caleb Clark lived together in California and sent a video of themselves answering the survey questions. It was received warmly and viewed by many. The walls of the school were decorated with hand-silkscreened fund-raising posters from twenty years of events, and tables were filled with old calendars, cards, T-shirts, and bookmarks created throughout the years by the School Around Us Press. Saturday morning, former and present parents, teachers, friends, and students gathered for a meeting. People spoke of their experiences, of the valuable learning they gained from the school, and of the feelings they had upon returning for this gathering. I felt a tremendous amount of admiration and love for the extended community connected with the school.
Survey results came in slowly after the reunion and sat in a box for a year. 72 surveys were returned. Marylyn and I had not talked about what to do with the surveys although we continued to exchange ideas about the school's progress and the importance of documenting what the school had accomplished.
In 1990, 1 began a masters' in education at Antioch New England Graduate School and chose to do my masters' thesis on the school, using the surveys as part of the research. Marylyn agreed it was not a good time for her to write a book and encouraged me to go ahead while I had the inspiration. With my deepening involvement in education through my masters' program, I saw that everything I was learning in graduate school was already in place at the School Around Us. I became a resource in many classes as people drew on my experience of teaching in a democratic, holistic, empowering environment. I learned that what we have at SAU is special, important, and desired by many educators. It was time for the SAU school community to acknowledge its accomplishments.
This book, then, which grew out of the research and writing for my thesis, along with the 1989 surveys, and interviews I conducted from 1990 -1993, is a forum for sharing the wisdom gained from, twenty-five years of alternative schooling. The School Around Us: Twenty-five Years is a history of the school, a description of its principles, and a celebration of its ongoing growth. It recounts the evolution of the school from the varied viewpoints of its many members. And finally, it is a record of the educational philosophies, practices, and concerns which currently guide the school, and the problems that have continued to plague it. SAU is a model of a student-centered, democratic, learning community of parents, teachers, students, and friends. Perhaps other educators can learn something from our experience, and can gain from reading our history.
The story begins with the setting in which the idea of a school was born. There was no available written documentation to pull from until 1976. The information on the first years of the school came from stories and memories gathered in interviews I conducted with several founding members. Each person I spoke with had a different perspective and a different set of memories. Every interview led to another. The interviews could have gone on for many years before I got repetition of stories and perceptions. Along with the survey responses, interviews with present and former teachers, students, parents, and friends of SAU make up the primary source material for the book. Other sources include: literature and videos on the history and practices in alternative education, super-8 films made by students and teachers in the 1970s including a film on the building of the school, and letters from various people, notes and newsletters from parent group and teacher meetings, old brochures, announcements and posters of events, and photos dug out of people's attics from around the country. John Bordage and Caleb Clark's 1989 survey video was a source of many humorous stories, some of which I have used in the book. It is my hope that this book represents many people's experiences of the school.
Although the school was founded by a group, many of the people I interviewed agreed that founding parents Marylyn and Stacy Wentworth were the driving force behind the development of the school. Throughout my research they were a source of clarity. The couple have a deep sense of commitment, enthusiasm, and drive. They had a vision of the educational setting for SAU and the community that was to come out of it. They also gave the land, which adjoins their property, to the school and their five children practically lived at the school for most of fifteen years. They provided inspiration for many of the other adults involved. However, some SAU participants felt the Wentworths influence was negative because their feelings were so strong that they alienated and angered some people. During, their fifteen years with the school, Marylyn and Stacy's strong values both held the school together and caused conflict and dissension.
Then again, some of the parents I spoke with said that many parents at SAU have been strong-willed, opinionated folks who were strong enough to temper Marylyn and Stacy's influence. It has not been a boring twenty-five years! In a 1991 interview, Marylyn spoke of her and Stacy's involvement:
There was something about the school that captivated Stacy and me quite completely. It was part of a total life change. We had tremendous passion, and passion is powerful. Others came with passion for particular aspects of the school. I can't say that anyone came in with all the parts of their lives as totally focused in that direction as we did.
Marylyn was involved in the day-to-day life at the school as well as in the parent group. She taught many classes as a volunteer parent staff member for the first ten years and in 1980 accepted a full-time paid teaching position, which she held for three years. Marylyn has since obtained a Masters of Education degree and works as an educational consultant to public schools working to implement innovative educational practices. During the early and mid-1980s she facilitated several SAU parent workshops.
Stacy was one of the few founding group members who grew up in the Kennebunks. His connection with the larger community has been of great importance to the school over the years. It has been important to him to stay in touch with the school and he occasionally still comes to parents meetings. He has written several open letters to the SAU community describing his observations of the school and its community. In 1994 he initiated discussions with the SAU community on how the school lives out its mission statement. He remains active in the community.
For many years, SAU parents have sought the assistance, advice, or ear of the Wentworths to aid in the clarification of particular school issues. Four of the five Wentworth children have taught as substitutes at the school during the past four years. All the Wentworths have kept in touch with the school in one way or another and the family's influence is reflected in many quotes included in this book.
Writing this book has made me grow tremendously in my understanding of SAU and alternative education in general. The work here is necessarily incomplete as the story of SAU continues to unfold. There are new questions to be asked and more people to interview. The publication of this book will no doubt spark the usual endless discussions that have made SAU famous! Everyone who reads this book will have a new perspective or story to add. Please consider writing me with your impressions, feedback, or stories. Who knows, perhaps another twenty-five years will inspire someone else to write another book on the school.
Completing this project has given me a higher awareness and appreciation for the great task that the SAU learning community takes on each year when it opens its doors to families. Each September parents, teachers, and children worktogetherto getthe school ready for the school year. Each year the task seems overwhelming. But in the end, the strength and spirit of the school community and its belief in the school's mission and philosophy pulls the group through. This has been the case for two and a half decades of beginnings.
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