"Breaking the Rules"
by BARBARA JILL "B.J." CUMMINGS
Former Student, The Lab School

 

When John asked me to speak, he said it was because he wanted my own experience with both traditional and alternative education, and because of what I made of it, despite the odds.

It was something I had thought of often. I have no doubts in my mind that my first exposure to alternative education with John Gatto played a pivotal role in my awakening of what education could, and should, be for young people growing up in an increasingly complicated and challenging world community.

For years as a student, I went through my own monotonous routine of education as discipline, and education as conformity. In fact, my own deviance from the traditional and "appropriate" role of students resulted in great frustration in my life and alienation from many "educators" in the public school system.

At times this frustration took the form of requests to my family to take me out of school because I was too repressed there; at other times it took the form of increased discipline and academic penalties against me.

Regardless of the measures that the traditional educational system took to cope with "deviant" students like myself, the obvious root of the problem lay in the inability of the schools to respond to my insistent demands for real-life experience. And for learning that was relevant to my experiences outside of the school.

Because I have been asked not to expound on a philosophy of "education in general," of which I most definitely hold strong views, I will relate to you some of my own personal experiences in searching for an education which could help me to understand, and to effectively influence, the world in which I found myself growing up, in New York - and, also, in the global community I began to search out as early as I was able.

Speakers tonight have referred to the advan-tage of "home schooling," to which I was exposed from a very early age, as a complement to my public schooling. My family took an active interest in my learning and exposed me to what were, consciously or unconsciously, fundamentally different philosophies of learning from those that I encountered in school. When studying history I was referred at home to alternative texts, books such as the People's History of the United States, which challenged the Columbus-centered view of America with the Native American perspective, for example.

I consider this involvement of my family fortunate, but I would not look to it as the answer to flaws in our education, because the demands on most families are already burdensome. I would look instead to alternative models of institutionalized schooling, which absolutely must be incorporated into public education if we are to meet the challenges of a changing world.

I began early to search for educational experiences which could help me adjust to and affect the society in which I found myself. John Gatto's Lab School, at the time located at Intermediate School 44 on 77th Street, provided my first venture in applying my understanding of the world to practical actions - ranging from making a living to conducting city planning evaluations to beginning the process of critical review of traditional education - which continues here tonight.

For years after leaving the Lab School, I was grateful for my experiences there, while simultaneously cursing John Gatto for making me unfit for my necessary return to discipline-oriented traditional schooling.

I attended four years of high school at one of New York's most competitive public education institutions, an experience which prepared me less for living in society than that one year I spent investigating the city at 13 years old. In fact, I nearly did not finish high school because of my frustration over wasting time when there were "things to be done." The way I remember it I stormed out of high school in my last year, vowing never to return. An appeal to the administration from my family made it clear to them that my forced return would result in my institutionalization, for which they would be held responsible. I spent the rest of that year settling into my own home and a full-time job. I only returned at the end of the year for graduation ceremonies (from which I somehow emerged with honors).

Once the required penance time in mandatory education was over. I began searching for educational options that would allow me creative scope in learning. I spent my college years studying in Panama and in Kenya, and working in positions that took me to Australia, Hawaii, and the hidden sectors of my own community. I spent my month in Panama camped in the jungle, studying tamarin monkeys (who were wonderful teachers). My three months in Kenya were spent in a tent on a wild game reserve and traveling to meet with Masai herdsmen. I worked for the government's Fish and Wildlife Department in Hawaii.

I finally settled into a college that made human sense to me while providing rigorous and challenging hurdles to further test my ideas and world views. As a student, I taught, became an academic activist, and finally secured funding for a senior thesis that took me to the Amazon in Brazil to investigate influences of development projects on local environ-ments and populations. For three months, I traveled through the Amazon by boat, bus and flatbed truck (with a roped bull for company) and spoke with people who were struggling to survive in a country that had essentially forgotten them. This work was the culmination of years of attempting to mesh my academic, philosophical, and activist interests into a life work that I continue to pursue today.

My own successful search for a creative, challenging educational environment, (which I found at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts) was crucial to the life I have today. I recently published my first book, which dealt with the investigation of the Amazon I began in college. In addition to representing the culmination of one stage in my development, this work began an entirely new, and still more enriching phase in my continued search for creative learning.

In Brazil I found new teachers of a type given credence by our educational systems. My teachers were peasant farmers, Indian chiefs, rubber tappers, rural union leaders. Most of them were illiterate, and all of them taught me more in three months than I could have hoped for in all my 16 years of schooling. My most influential teacher, Paiakan Kaiapo - political chief of a Kayapo Indian village - was arrested while I was in Brazil, for attempting to change government policy regarding development of his own lands. I myself was run out of Brazil by government agents for listening to the voices of teachers such as he.

We have still not recognized the value of this type of learning by living. No "system" of education can provide that if it does not include self-learning, creative investigation, and independence, both to make mistakes and to discover new truths. Our teachers need to be guides to experience, not enforcers of doctrine and discipline and must encourage us to pursue a goal of becoming "citizens of the world," which may be enacted locally or internationally, but must above all be informed, not sheltered, and not misled.

When I consider the most important lesson I taught myself through my years of searching for an education, it is that it is not only okay, but essential to learn how to BREAK THE RULES. I continue to break the rules. If I ever tire of doing this, at that time I will cease to learn.

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