- The School
Around Us: 25 Years
- by Claudia
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- A LIFE?
- 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.
- ON THE SUBJECT OF
- 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.
- THE GREATEST
- Spring, 1970
- Clouds cover the world today,
- in corruption and hate and dashes
- Poverty and starvation are enemies
- and the decline of freedom of life.
- And I tried to walk outside the
- away, away, away,
- And I tried to live my life, but
- and now it doesn't matter.
- People came to watch the poor,
- they laughed and said, "Look
- Those who wanted to live went away
and tried to bare.
- Artificial jobs, and a culture not
- A society of pieces,
- to the machine of universal
- 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
- And everything a child leams,
- must be better than it should.
- America, America,
- God shed your tears on
- 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
- 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
- ON GRADING
- 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
- TO LIVE AND KEEP
- November, 1971
- My teachers of the world today,
- Taught that education is the only
- "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
- 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
- Only then will you be a good man
- And I kept on thinking of my
thoughts of that day,
- And when I got home my parents
- "Your room must be
- Out at night? Deary me!
- You must study so you can get a
- And make it in the world, Don't you
- Why do you wear those clothes, we
buy you the best!
- You must respect..." And you know
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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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