by Chris Mercogliano
Why Are So Many Boys Given Drugs in School?

From chapters Two and Three


Chris Mercogliano is co-director of the Free School, a forty-four-year-old independent, inner-city alternative school in Albany, NY. His book, Making It Up As We Go Along, the Story of the Albany Free School (Heinemann, 1998), first appeared in SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education. This excerpt, encompassing chapters 2 and 3 of his new book, Teaching the Restless (Beacon Press 2003), is actually from its earlier manoifestation, which also appeared in SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education in 1998-9.

Chapter Two

Ian's mother called me about a third of the way into the school year, not long after, at the strong suggestion of his teacher, she had begun adding another ingredient to the chemical cocktail that she gave her nine-year-old son every morning before school. At this point he was up to 30 mg a day of Ritalin and it still wasn't "working." Ian's teacher continued to complain that he wouldn't stay in his seat and also that his mind frequently wandered from the assigned task.

This wasn't the first time Petra had received "strong suggestions" from school officials. When Ian entered school at age 5 in a small town near the Canadian border, it was almost immediately "suggested" that he be put on Ritalin because, like John, he was exhibiting all of the usual "symptoms" of ADD. Petra didn't at all like the idea of drugging her child, and said as much to his teacher and the principal. The school's response: Do it or else we will file charges of child neglect against you with the state Child Protective Service.

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a rural, working-class mother like the threat of having her child taken away by the local authorities, and so Petra gave in and began administering the Ritalin. When she moved here to the Capital District this past year, she hoped that the schools might be more progressive-minded and permit Ian to come off of the drug.

Quite to the contrary. Ian's new school was even more intolerant of his restlessness, physical and mental, and proposed that Petra begin giving Ian Clonidine to augment the "effectiveness" of the Ritalin. Petra, worn down by the prior threats and by the constant flow of negative reports about her son, gave in without a fight this time. Within days she received word from the teacher that, thanks to the new medication, Ian was a different child now. Here was the first good news this frustrated mother had heard from his schools in a long time, and she eagerly looked forward to the upcoming "Parents in School Day" so that she could see for herself.

When the much-awaited day arrived and Petra sat observing from the back of Ian's classroom, she was nearly struck dumb with horror. The boy slumping heavily in her son's seat was not her son at all. According to her report to me on the telephone, "He was like a zombie, just completely zoned out."

Petra decided then and there to find another option for Ian. She had somehow heard about us through the grapevine and was on the phone with me the next day.

I told Petra, as I always tell such parents, that Ian would have to come off the drugs entirely before he could try out the Free School. Our no medications policy causes many parents to take pause and think the decision over for a few days. But not Petra.

"Do you really mean it?" she blurted out, incredulous.

"Absolutely," I replied. "We find that kids simply don't need it here."

Petra made arrangements to bring Ian in the next morning.

* * * *

Ian's first day begins much like John's, except that he arrives with a ravenous appetite.

"I can't remember the last time I saw him eat like this," his mother remarks with obvious relief as we watch him wolf down a second bagel with cream cheese.

The next thing we know, Ian is bouncing on the mini-tramp next to the big mattress, still chewing his last bite of breakfast.

Observing Ian, one is immediately drawn to his eyes. Their expression is intense, electric, indicating perhaps an overload of energy in this region. The dark circles underneath them suggest that he doesn't always sleep very well. His complexion is soft and fair, his skin a little paler than I would like to see this early in the season. When Ian takes off his pull-over hat first thing in the morning, the static electricity sends his medium-length brown hair every which way, giving him a comical look that doesn't seem to faze him in the least. According to the principal of his previous school, who uttered these disparaging words to Petra in their parting conversation, "Ian walks to a different drum beat than the other kids. Perhaps he just doesn't belong here." (So much for the principal being your pal.)

I, on the other hand, wouldn't call Ian's beat "different;" it's just faster than most. He seems to do everything at a very high rate of speed. Today, for instance. he completes his first woodshop project in under ten minutes. It's a tray for his mother and the elaborate paint job he gives it takes no more than another seven, including washing up the brushes. There is nothing sloppy about the finished product either. Petra is delighted to receive it at three o'clock.

Ten-year-old Ian is highly articulate; he has an extensive vocabulary and reads at well above his grade level. A devotee of the children's interactive fantasy game, Dungeons and Dragons - or "D and D" as he calls it - he regularly reads novels like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot.

At the same time, Ian's social immaturity is readily apparent. He spends a large portion of his first several days upstairs with the little ones, where, understandably, he feels more secure. Unlike John, Ian has arrived in November, and it's always hard to be the only new kid. Furthermore, his prior school experience was no bed of roses. But I sense there might be more to it; Ian feels to me like a fundamentally frightened child. One can only wonder whether it is other people he is afraid of, or his own impulses - or perhaps some combination of the two. It strikes me that Ian's apparent inability to pay attention for very long, which was such an issue in his previous schools, is an expression of his being on the run from someone or something, and not a symptom of some organic disorder.

Ian alternates between hanging out alone and busying himself with our hybrid supply of toys and games, and playing pied piper to the four- and five-year-olds. They are in seventh heaven whenever an older kid showers them with such attention, and their instant glee is wonderfully confirming in return. The preschool teachers tell Ian they will allow him to hang out there as long as he isn't too rough or domineering.

After Ian has been with us for a few days, I find myself having an informal chat with him as he enjoys his usual post-breakfast climb on the upstairs jungle gym. Ian has reached the age where it isn't as easy for boys to forge a close connection with adults who are relative strangers. While I suspect he would love to attach himself to me the way John has done from the outset, thus far he has remained at a respectful distance from all of the teachers, continuing to prefer the company of the preschoolers instead. We exchange general pleasantries and discuss his favorite movies and video games for awhile, but what I am particularly interested in hearing is how he's feeling now that he is no longer taking any drugs. I'm wondering if he's experiencing any ill effects from their sudden withdrawal from his system, and so I ask him if he has noticed any difference thus far.

Ian ponders the question from his perch on the horizontal climbing ladder. Somewhat to my surprise, he answers, "I think I feel a little calmer."

Though I'm wary of him feeling invaded, I can't help but press a little further. The Free School is anything but a calm environment. "Why do you think that is?" I inquire.

After a thoughtful pause, he comes back with an equally unexpected response: "Because here I am free."

* * * *

My intuition about Ian's fearfulness is confirmed when he accompanies a group consisting mostly of my second- and third-graders on an expedition to a local goat dairy to breed one of our does. I heard Strawberry yelling plaintively out in the barnyard when I got up this morning, a sure sign that she is in heat.

With Strawberry on Lakota's leash, we all pile into the school van for the forty-minute drive out into the country. I start the van and attempt to back out into the street, which is on a steep hillside sloping down toward the Hudson River four blocks away. No such luck. The rear tires spin hopelessly on a small patch of ice. Muttering a few expletives under my breath, I slouch down in the driver's seat and ponder my next move. Goats only stay in heat for twelve to eighteen hours, so it is imperative that we get Strawberry to her assignation with the buck as soon as possible. While I'm mulling over my options, Ian cuts through my private deliberations with a question of his own. "Chris, can I go back to school now? I don't want to do this anymore." There is urgency in his voice and an anxious set to his brow.

I try to reassure him, responding in the calmest voice I can muster, "It's okay, Ian. It'll just take me a minute to get the van unstuck and then we'll be on our way."

I suddenly remember that I have a bucket of rock salt in my garage. A shovelful behind each rear wheel instantly sets us free, enabling me to keep my optimistic promise. But when I reach the city limits, I realize that in my haste I have forgotten the directions. It having been a year since my last trip to the dairy, the finer details are a little hazy in my mind. I make the mistake of mentioning this out loud to Kenny, the ten-year-old boy sitting next to me in the "navigator's seat" who accompanied me the last time we made this same trip. We agree that, together, we'll be able to recognize the way as we go along.

But Ian has overheard our conversation and calls forward from one of the middle seats, "Are we lost, Chris? I think I want to go back to school."

I tell him again that everything's fine and we continue on into the late-autumn countryside. It occurs to me to distract Ian by suggesting to him that he watch for deer, which are often on the move this time of year. It's their breeding season, too. He doesn't see any deer, but the search keeps him occupied until I make my first wrong turn, when the whole scene repeats itself.

Only this time it's, "We're really lost now, aren't we, Chris? Come on; I want to go back to school. Now!"

I decide to ignore his rising angst. At this point I figure my best bet is simply to get to the goat farm as fast as possible. I confer with Kenny instead and we quickly locate the right road. We manage to arrive without further incident and Ian's fears soon dissolve into the excitement of delivering Strawberry to her appointed rounds with motherhood.

The high level of insecurity Ian is carrying inside of him has not escaped my notice. Here is a boy who has already been severely traumatized.

* * * *

At the parent conference that always concludes a prospective new student's week-long trial visit, I learn of one of the sources of Ian's deep-seated fear. The story goes like this:

When Ian was about a year old, his young mother and father separated permanently. Six months later, the dad found himself in a relationship with a woman who also happened to be a reborn Christian. This new partner, according to Petra, was extremely suspicious of Petra's form of spirituality, which includes certain goddess and wiccan practices. She managed to convince Ian's dad that Petra was a Satan worshipper and that Ian was in great danger. So the dad kidnapped Ian one day and spirited him away to a neighboring state so that it would be more difficult for Petra to get him back again. After nearly a year of legal wrangling in the family courts of both states, Petra finally managed to regain custody of her son. But she said he was a different child when she did. He was "nervous" now, afraid to go places, or to be left alone.

I tell Petra that one way we will help Ian with his fear will be by exposing him to it in small doses, as on the recent field trip. This is the standard approach to desensitizing children who are allergic. It also lessens the grip of phobias. More importantly, I go on to say, just being in an environment where there is no external pressure on Ian to "succeed" or "fit in" will slowly enable him to be more at ease, both with himself and with others.

There is nothing naive about Petra. In her early thirties, she wears a forthright expression on her face at all times. I find I appreciate people like her who speak their minds freely. Petra's life until now has been such that she's been around the block a few times. She reveals that she has met a nice man in the area, with whom she's now living, and that she is pregnant with her second child.

The other important point I want to get across to Petra here is that anger and rage very often accompany fear in the psyche. While Ian has kept his angry feelings pretty much under wraps thus far, it is important for his mother to know that he is likely to begin coming out with them in school once he begins to feel "at home" with us. Nothing has gone terribly wrong for him during his visit - no fights or major conflicts - and so this bridge has yet to be crossed. Petra needs to understand that the heart of the Free School's approach to fostering children's growth, especially kids like Ian who haven't had an easy time of it, is to help them learn to deal with their emotional selves.

In order to sound out now how she might react if one day Ian were to bring home a dramatic story of one kind or another, I tell her I would be amazed if Ian, given his history, wasn't sitting on a load of unexpressed feelings. We've learned over the years, sometimes the hard way, that it's always better to have this discussion sooner rather than later, to prevent any big surprises down the road.

Petra confirms my intuition that Ian is an angry, as well as a fearful child. She assures me that, after all she's been through with him, it would take a lot to upset her, and that she is relieved to know he is in an environment where people care more about emotional well-being than test scores and compliant behavior.

When I ask Petra for her assessment of Ian since he began coming to the Free School, her eyes well up with tears and she says, "My God, you've given me back my son."

* * * *

Ian's first forays downstairs into the elementary section of the school aren't terribly rewarding, at least in social terms. On the surface he appears to have little sense of how to interact with other kids his age. He should, technically speaking, be in Dave's fourth, fifth and sixth grade class - his date of birth places him right in the middle of that group - but thus far he is showing little interest in any of their classes, projects or discussions. And his attempts at hanging out with them seem to always leave him feeling like the odd man out. Kids at this pre-adolescent stage have often already begun to adopt the tribal social customs of teenagehood, meaning that Ian certainly has a challenge in front of him if he wants to become a real part of Dave's group.

To add to the degree of difficulty, Kenny is probably the dominant boy in the ten-member class. And Kenny is a lot like Ian, except that he is African-American and has grown up in the school's impoverished South End neighborhood. Kenny might be on Ritalin now if he were still attending public school, but somehow he managed to convince his mother to let him come here before the school psychologist at his last school could get her hands, and her prescription pad, on him. And somehow Kenny managed to talk his mother into letting him return this year, even though he has done precious little in the way of legitimate schoolwork since he signed on with us.

Like Ian, Kenny is extremely active and energetic. And profoundly frightened, too. This ten-going-on-nineteen-year-old's fear is rooted in the violence, the betrayals, and the unpredictability of twentieth century ghetto life. He has seen too much already. Though Kenny would never admit to being so afraid, I can readily see the fear he silently carries overtake him, even when the gestalt is as trivial as his not immediately knowing the right answer in a little, low pressure math game that I sometimes play with the kids, especially the ones who don't respond well to the workbook format. At moments like this, his typically brash expression vanishes into thin air and his eyes dart around as though they're scanning the room for the nearest exit.

Kenny doesn't participate in many organized classroom activities either, but he is an accepted member of the group, and in many ways a leader - in the style of a lone wolf. His "turf" is what we call the "downstairs big room," a large, rough and ready play space which is the home of the wrestling mat and two large trunks filled with dress-up costumes. Kenny tends to spend a good deal of his time in here.

Today Kenny is more excited than usual, agitated almost, and Dave and I suspect the reason has to do with Ian's sudden appearance on the scene. In the afternoon a group of kids is horsing around on the mat in the big room, and Kenny, playing the role of protective big brother, is highly critical of Ian's attempt to join in on the action.

"Cut it out, Ian. You keep grabbing Austin around his neck," Kenny says crossly. Austin is only seven and Kenny is ostensibly concerned about his safety.

"I did not! I did not!" repeats Ian.

"Yes you did," Kenny returns, his volume rising. "I was looking right at you when you did it."

Round two is only a few minutes away. This time Ian has wrestled eight-year-old Sarah, who is a head shorter than him, to the mat.

"You better get off of her, Ian," warns Kenny. "You got no business picking on a little girl like that. Do it again and I'm gonna kick your ass."

Ian's eyes momentarily flare with anger. It's no mystery what he's thinking. But, while Ian and Kenny are approximately equal in size, Kenny wears the scars of many a street battle. Ian wouldn't last thirty seconds in a fight with him. And Ian is nobody's fool. To try to save face he says, "Why don't you mind your own business, Kenny? I wasn't hurting her."

And so it goes for the remainder of the afternoon. Kenny wants to leave no doubt in Ian's mind as to who is the boss of the big room.

* * * *

For the next several days Ian drifts through the school like a man without a country, more or less splitting his time between the upstairs and the downstairs. He lets it be known that he likes to draw, and so I make crayons and a supply of large sheets of paper available to him. One morning he does several interesting drawings in rapid succession. The last in the series is a nearly life-size self-portrait. It has a cubist feel to it and the figure is split by a thick vertical line from head to toe. Each half is a different color. Scrawled across the top of the drawing are the words, "I'm crazy."

Unfortunately, Kenny's earlier concerns about Ian's rough treatment of smaller kids turn out to be more than a bit prophetic. Nancy, Dave, and I begin receiving reports from the preschool teachers about Ian becoming too overbearing with their little ones upstairs. At one point we hear that he put his hands around the neck of a five-year-old boy and shook him when he wouldn't go along with Ian's plan for a castle they were building together in the block corner. Apparently this wasn't the first time, so Dave takes Ian aside and explains to him gently but firmly that if it happens again, he will lose the privilege of spending time in the preschool. Dave isn't encouraged when he gets back a defensive blast of argument and denial from his newest student.

As fate would have it, it is Dave himself who witnesses Ian's next transgression. After lunch the following day, Ian is rough-housing on the mattress upstairs with a band of four- and five-year olds. Dave has just finished eating at the teachers' table about ten feet away when he sees Ian grab another boy around the neck and begin to shake him vigorously. Ordinarily soft-spoken, Dave suddenly barks out like a drill sergeant: "IAN! I told you you weren't to do that ever again. Now go down to our classroom and stay put until I get there."

There's no argument this time. Dave clears his place and heads downstairs to deal with Ian. Deciding it's time for some stronger medicine, he tells Ian that for the next three days he will be confined to their classroom, where all the kids are his age and size.

The following morning I need to ask Dave about something, and I can't help but laugh out loud when I walk into his room. Dave and Ian are alone, the teacher in an armchair with a look of bewilderment on his face, the student at the chalkboard busily coating his palms with different colors of chalk and filling the board with handprints. A strong odor of chalk dust lingers in the air.

Still chuckling, I say to Dave, "Getting a little taste of public school teaching, eh? Imagine having to deal with this kind of captivity behavior every day."

"That's okay; I'd rather not," he groans.

I direct my next question to Ian. "Brings back memories, doesn't it?"

"Yeah," he answers in a tone similar to Dave's.

Feeling sympathetic toward their sorry lot - the other kids have long since fled this dismal scene - I decide to sit down and stay a while. I want to make sure Ian understands that the keys to his freedom are in his own hands.

"What do you think, Ian?" I ask. "Are you capable of controlling yourself around the little kids, or should the upstairs teachers just tell you to stay away?"

"I promise I won't hurt them any more. Now can I get outta here?" he pleads.

"This isn't about promises," Dave interjects. "When the three days are up, the upstairs teachers and I will decide whether or not we want to trust you again. In the meantime you're gonna park yourself in here so that you get the seriousness of what you've done."

Eventually Ian is able to drop some of his defensiveness. On the second day of his "sentence," he and Dave have a good, heart-to-heart talk about Ian's problem. Ian admits that he has trouble managing his temper sometimes, and that he forgets how much bigger he is than the preschoolers. He enters into an agreement with Dave that he will never again, under any circumstances, grab a smaller child the way he did. Sensing that Ian is genuinely repentant and ready to make a growth step in this area, Dave elects to give Ian a "day off for good behavior." I don't know who is more relieved that the confinement is over.

* * * *

Almost universally, the "Ritalin kids" I have dealt with over the years all have difficulty accepting limits on their behavior. It's an issue at school, and as we often learn from their parents, it is also an issue - sometimes larger, sometimes smaller - at home. The question then becomes: What is the best way to respond to these sometimes willful, uncooperative, and antisocial children, so that they don't drive us, or themselves (or both) crazy?

It seems to me the wrong turn so many conventional schools and so many parents at home take is that they rely too heavily on standardized discipline. They become mired in the rut of pre-set rules and punishments. Or they fall back habitually on techniques such as the "time-out room" and the "time-out chair." Even these humane and "enlightened" means of setting limits quickly lose their effectiveness when they are overused.

The trouble I see with most, if not all, fixed disciplinary measures is that they tend to deliver a sense of punitiveness, reinforcing anger and resentment rather than the learning of new behaviors. In one local high school, for instance, over two-thirds of the students were suspended last year at least once, a figure that is rising annually. Clearly something isn't working. Or should they just get rid of all the students?

Meanwhile, the kids who tend to drive parents and teachers nuts invariably are creative characters, practically begging to be dealt in an equally creative manner in return. Our first level response is to try to stay out of the business of behavioral management. We prefer, when at all possible, to let kids learn from their own mistakes. For example, kids who forget to bring their wet bathing suits home after our weekly trip to the public bath are greeted the next time with that same moldy, damp rag wrapped in plastic. If they want to swim badly enough, then that's what they will have to wear. They seldom repeat the error. Or we let the kids set their own limits on each other's behavior, as in the earlier interaction between John and Janine. Finally, in a case such as Ian's where the call for adult intervention is obvious, we set up natural consequences, ones which follow logically from the out-of-bounds behavior. Since Ian was mistreating smaller children, he was told he couldn't be around them for a while, and also that he would have to make a commitment to changing his ways before he could enjoy the liberty of playing in the preschool again.

Perhaps most importantly, we don't attempt to monitor our students' every move. In a sense we want them to have the space to make mistakes because mistakes contain within them important opportunities for self-discovery and development. After he had picked on one smaller kid too many, Ian was presented with the chance to reflect on his actions, to take a look inside. Middle childhood is certainly not too soon for a boy to begin engaging in self-examination. He got to see the anger for himself. And in the end Ian was given the chance to choose whether or not he wanted to try handling his anger in a different way in the future.

Even though Ian's misdeed was a very serious one, our response was not to punish him, but to stop him in his tracks, to send him a message that what he had done was absolutely intolerable because it was hurtful to others. Dave's decision to confine Ian to the classroom for three days was not the Free School's standard penalty for bullying; he didn't get the idea out of some handbook on discipline. Dave was simply following his instincts as to how best to deal with an individual boy in a particular situation. He made sure to follow up his initial hot anger with a caring presence, because the idea wasn't to shame or penalize Ian, thereby driving his hostility further underground, but to give him a chance to reestablish the trust upon which the freedom in our school is based. Dave's decision to let Ian go was based entirely on Ian's response to the question: "Can I trust you to act appropriately around the little kids, to remember how much bigger you are than them, and to control your temper?" When the answer was yes, Dave had to rely on his intuition again to determine whether that yes was sufficiently genuine. The idea behind letting Ian off a day early was to end the affair on a positive note and give Ian a boost in the right direction.

Like it or not, humans are aggressive beings. Some more than others, of course. Our modern, technological culture seems to head only farther and farther in the direction of bottling aggression up. The dilemma is that when aggressive energy is contained too tightly it becomes pressurized, and if there is no release valve, then the pressure increases until it explodes outward catastrophically. Someone usually gets hurt. That's why at the Free School we have a punching bag hanging on both floors of the building, and why we continually foster physicality in all of its many forms: wrestling, tumbling, running, chasing, climbing, jumping, baseball, football, basketball, and dance. And we don't restrict such activities to two or three circumscribed "physical education" periods per week. Children need more of an outlet than that, especially the country's growing number of "Ritalin kids." In Ian's case, the idea isn't to try to control and contain his aggressive impulses, to pacify - or passivize - him, but to help him learn how to find the right channels for his abundant energy and creativity.

Ritalin is control in a bottle, plain and simple. Insidiously effective, it is only one step removed from the following well-kept secret: In the early 70s, the federal government was ready to sponsor a "violence prevention initiative" among "potentially violent" inner city youths in which selected candidates were to undergo an operation to remove the "violence" center from their brains. When word of this Mengelian experiment leaked out to an outraged public, it was quickly canceled, only to resurface two decades later in a more socially acceptable form. This time the same target group was to be administered Ritalin, supposedly to "control" the same brain center and thus solve the problem of rising levels of ur-ban crime and violence. Thankfully, once again the initiative was uncovered by Peter and Ginger Breggin, whose book, The War Against Children, sparked inquiries by a group of concerned citizens - and NIH quickly canned the research.

In the meantime the war on American schoolchildren continues unabated. More and more kids are being drugged every day as our society increasingly turns toward Ritalin, et al, as the solution to the management of the children it has deemed to be misfits and ne'er-do-wells. The question that continues to nag at me&emdash;the reason I felt moved to write this book&emdash;is why is this acceptable?

Perhaps one answer is to be found in the preface to the new edition of The Mind's Fate by Dr. Robert Coles. According to Dr. Coles, a professor of child psychiatry at Harvard University and one of the most distinguished students of human behavior of the twentieth century, the fields of clinical psychology and psychiatry have already begun to enter a brave new world where the only therapy is drug therapy. Therapists in training today, writes Coles, are no longer required to undergo their own analysis, always a fundamental requirement in the past. Instead, trainees are taught how to affix the right psychiatric label to the client's symptoms, and then to match the right label with the right "medication." If this approach has become standard practice in the entire mental health field, then it is little wonder that our schools are handing out biopsychiatric drugs like candy.

But does that make it okay?

* * * *

After his release, Ian, a little gun-shy perhaps, chooses to remain downstairs. This morning he flits in and out of my open-to-all-ages math class like a hummingbird at a hanging basket of nasturtiums. On his first flight in he requests an arithmetic workbook (from a programmed, self-teaching series that I'm fond of and the kids seem to like). I issue him a copy and he proceeds to do a few pages in rapid succession. Then he's off again, as suddenly as he arrived. When I call after him to put his book away, he yells over his shoulder, "Don't worry, I'm coming back to do some more." True to his word, Ian returns several times, and by the end of the session he has probably accomplished as much as many of the others. Since the students are all proceeding independently at their own pace, his transient learning style poses no problem as long as it doesn't disturb the rest of the group, which it didn't seem to do today. When I check his hastily completed work at the end of the class, I find no mistakes.

The following morning Ian brings in his Dungeons and Dragons materials: an elaborate game board, reference books, and a slew of plastic swords, shields, and body armor. Before long, my entire group of second- and third-graders is crowded around him, asking if they can play. Lex, our new twenty-three-year-old teacher, who was once a D & D devotee himself, helps them get the ball rolling. Swords and shields are distributed, roles are assigned, and then Lex quietly disappears once things are more or less established. The game proceeds with amazingly little arguing and the kids are reluctant to stop when lunch is served.

The action resumes immediately following the noon meal. To my total surprise, Kenny is now one of the players. A stranger to the game, he willingly accepts Ian's knowledgeable direction and quickly gets the hang of it. What a sight! East meets West. Today will mark a significant turning point in their relationship.

D & D remains the rage for a week or more, with Ian as maestro all the while. One morning he comes into my algebra class and asks to borrow all of the chairs we aren't using. When I ask what for, he answers that he's holding a class on D & D in the big room. Mildly irked by the intrusion, I nonetheless tell him by all means to go ahead. Twenty minutes later, I slip out of my class and into his, only to find him seated in front of a group of six students lecturing on the various medieval creatures and entities around which the game revolves. He has their rapt attention. The class doesn't break up for at least another twenty minutes.

When Ian finally reemerges in the preschool, he appears to have a new role in mind&emdash;that of entertainer. He asks Missy if he can break out the large supply of puppets she keeps on hand. Fresh from his teaching success downstairs, he has decided he wants to put on puppet shows for the little kids. Missy is only too happy to oblige, and before anyone quite realizes what's happening, Ian has converted her kindergarten work table into a makeshift puppet theater. Then he ad-libs his way through a zany rendition of slapstick that he improvises on the spot. The kindergarten corner fills with laughter, and word of the performance quickly spreads throughout the upstairs. Act II plays to a standing room only crowd. Before long, audience members become actors and Ian seems perfectly pleased with the circus he has set in motion. He welcomes all comers and there is very little squabbling over who gets which puppet. A grand time is had by all. Suddenly Missy can be heard saying about the youngster who only a week ago had been terrorizing her charges, "What a gift he is!"

Ian's interest in puppetry leads to the kindling of a friendship between him and Andrew, our newest intern, who works as a professional clown in his spare time. The son of eastern European dissidents, Andrew, like Ian, definitely marches to his own drum beat. The two hit it off squarely, spending hours together over the next several days writing out elaborate scripts for future puppet productions. Andrew is only nineteen and has been with us just two weeks, so I think he is relieved to have already established such a rapport with one of the students. This means that Ian is making yet another valuable contribution to his new-found community.

* * * *

Yes, here is the very same boy who less than three months ago had been found by his horrified mother slumped at his school desk, driven into a drug-induced stupor by adults who had no use for his gift of imagination, no compassion for his vulnerability and severely damaged sense of self.

Which is not to say that we have "saved" Ian by any means. He still has a long, bumpy road ahead of him, a lot of wrong turns yet to make. His vehicle is already dented and scratched, a hubcap missing, the shock absorbers badly worn from potholes previously encountered. The engine idle is still set a little bit too fast, and the trunk is loaded down with old emotional baggage not all belonging to himself. But his sense of direction seems true enough, and there seems to be sufficient reason to believe he has within him all that he will need to complete a successful passage through this life, though no one - least of all he - knows exactly where he's headed.

Who would ever dream of consigning such a hopeful boy as this to the junk yard at so early a stage in the journey?

Only madmen and fools.


John manages to regain his woodshop privileges and immediately begins working on a battleship of his own. Aside from hammering his thumb, he completes the project without mishap. John is probably the only person on earth to whom his creation actually looks like a battleship, but then that's not really the point, is it? What is important here is that he made it without being monitored, and the end result was pleasing to himself.

In the meantime there's been other trouble brewing. John has started picking on a classmate who is only about half his size. Thankfully, John seems to have a knack for choosing just the right target to best assist him with his education. Sean, a diminutive French Canadian boy, refuses to play the victim even for a moment. With two older brothers at home, he learned long ago not to put up with any abuse from bigger boys.

Sean does what kids usually do in our school if they are being mistreated: he tells John in a loud, clear voice, "STOP IT!"

When John persists, Sean takes the next appropriate step after someone violates the "stop rule." He calls a council meeting. Council meetings are our all-purpose democratic decision making plus conflict resolution mechanism all in one. And they are a great way to cure bullies. Sean goes around the downstairs crying out "COUNCIL MEETING!" By prior agreement, everyone stops what they are doing, comes into the big room, and arranges themselves into a large oval. A chairperson is elected. This time it is eight-year-old Abe, a compact, high energy package who does such a capable job of running things that he is frequently chosen over much older candidates. Meetings operate according to Roberts' Rules of Order and begin with the person who convened the meeting stating the problem or concern. His small, dark eyes shooting daggers at John, Sean recounts three instances where John has either hit him or forcibly taken something away.

John is given the chance to tell his side of the story but has nothing to say in his own defense. He just sits and stares glumly into his lap. Immediately, young hands fly up around the room and John is hit with a barrage of indignant queries:

Question: John, why did you do that to Sean?
John: I dunno.
Question: John, do you realize how much bigger you are than him?
John: Yeah.
Question (from an older child this time): Would you like it if I hit you and took your things?
John: Nope.
Question: Well then, why did you do it?
John: I dunno.
Question: Has anyone been treating you this way in school?
John: No.
Question: Does anybody pick on you at home?
John: Sometimes my big brother does.
Question: Do your parents make him stop?
John: Sometimes.

So go what, for John, are several long minutes. Bullying is probably the worst "crime" anyone can commit in our school, and the kids have numerous ways to make it a regrettable act. Peer-level justice can be quite tough. This time, one of the older kids urges Sean to make a motion that the next time John bullies any smaller student in the school, he will be sat on by that child, with the help of five or six other little kids. This idea must have been inspired by the Lilliputians' subduing of Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels. It is a very effective deterrent.

Sean decides to make the motion, and it is seconded and discussed. The motion passes unanimously - John is too stunned by his sudden exposure to vote against it. For dramatic effect, Nancy suggests to Sean that he choose his potential helpers right now, just in case John should forget and pick on him again. Hands shoot up once more. Sean selects the rest of the kids in his class, along with one of the boys from mine for back-up. Someone asks Sean if he feels that his problem is solved, and when he nods affirmatively, a motion is made to adjourn.

* * * *

George Dennison, who along with his wife, Mabel and some other schoolteachers, started New York City's First Street School for the Lower East Side's throw-away children in the days before Ritalin, had this to say in The Lives of Children about the difference between their approach and the public schools':

But how does a teacher, deprived of the familiar disciplinary routines, maintain order in his classroom? The answer is, he does not. Nor should he. What we call order, in this context, does not deserve that name at all; it is not a coherent relationship of parts to a whole, but a suppression of vital differences. Nor does the removal of the suppression lead to chaos, but to cyclical alternations of individual and group interests, of which the former are noisy (though rarely irrational), and the latter quiet. Not that real crises will never occur, or important refusals on the part of the children; but for the most familiar kinds of unruliness, the observation holds. The principle of true order lies within the persons themselves. (page 22)

I am occasionally amazed myself by the orderliness of our council meetings. They stand in stark contrast to normal operating conditions in the school, which often looks like a highly charged molecule, its atoms dancing excitedly about an ever-shifting nucleus - or as an observer once said, "like Grand Central Station at rush hour." This same observer went on to point out that, seen from a camera on the ceiling of that famous railway station, the apparent chaos actually contains a great deal of inherent order. Everyone more or less knows where they are going, and all eventually reach their destinations.

And if you were to spend sufficient time observing John, or Ian, or our other Ritalin kids you have yet to meet, you would see for yourselves that "the principle of true order" indeed lies within them. It generally isn't a neat and tidy kind of order; oftentimes these children don't head in a straight line to their goals. But then again, they are boys, the kind of boys whose behavior, as Natalie Tangier pointed out in A Strange Malady Called Boyhood, would have been entirely within acceptable limits in the days of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

It is interesting to note that these same kids who were once drugged because they supposedly couldn't keep still in their previous schools have no more trouble here than their "normal" counterparts sitting through even a long, drawn-out council meeting. What's the difference? I'll leave you to answer this question on your own.

As long as conventional schools remain locked into their spirit-deadening control game, where masses of children are directed when, where and how to perform routine cognitive tasks under the guise of education and the threat of punishment, and prevented from interacting with each other in organic ways, the reliance on biopsychiatric drugs, or some other such Orwellian strategy, is inevitable.

And if nothing is to be done about it, then let's at least not deceive ourselves: It is the conventional school model's rigid enforcement of an artificial order that creates the various "disorders" like ADD, and not the other way around.

* * * *

John doesn't wait long before he decides to test the will of the community. In the van on the way back from apple-picking he starts pestering Sean, and when Sean tells him to cut it out, John bops him in the nose with bag of apples. So, immediately upon our arrival at school, Sean sets about carrying out the motion passed at the council meeting he had previously called to address his problem with John. He rounds up his already deputized supporters, and together they confront John, who has begun to play in the big room. The kids take John a bit by surprise and he only puts up a mild struggle as they set him down on the rug as gently as possible. I stand nearby to make sure things don't get out of hand. When John finally wakes up to what is happening, he becomes furious and frightened all at once. He fights like mad to get free, but since there are six kids in all, they have little trouble keeping him safely planted on his back.

As soon as John runs out of steam and quits thrashing, Sean, who is straddled across John's waist with a hand on each of John's shoulders, looks down at him and says, "I just want you to stop bothering me, okay?"

When there's no response, Sean tries again. "Are you going to stop? If you say yes, then we'll get off of you."

This time John's eyes well up with tears, and he says in a soft voice, "All right; I promise I won't do it again."

The kids immediately let John up and everyone goes about their business. It is important here to note that no one other than me was there to watch this process as it unfolded. Confrontations like these should never be allowed to become public spectacles.

The following day I happen to catch a snippet of an interaction between John and Sean in their classroom. The two boys are in the room alone working on a puzzle. Apparently John has started to hassle Sean, and from my classroom I overhear Sean say to him, "Do you want me to sit on you again? If I have to, I will!" I lean out my door just in time to catch through the open doorway of Nancy's room a look of recognition flash across John's face. It's a tough way to learn, but, as stubborn as John is, I think he's starting to get the message.

John has been with us a little more than a week now. Though he continues to do a lot of roaming, he gradually seems to be feeling more at home here. This morning he told Kenny he was going to call a council meeting if Kenny didn't stop teasing him, a sure sign that John is catching on to how the school works. He busies himself in the woodshop for up to an hour at a time, and lately I've noticed him in there with Sean. Together they're building some sort of odd contraption or another. Perhaps there is a potential friendship here. Despite their many physical differences, they have much in common. But I'm not sure John has ever had a real friend outside of his immediate family, meaning that this is yet another crucial learning that will take time.

This afternoon John agonizes over whether to go with me to help press more apples into cider - part of a fund-raising project initiated by the kids in my group and me - or go swimming, which he says he loves, with Nancy. He has even remembered to bring in his suit and towel. John changes his mind at least five times while the two groups prepare to head off in their separate directions. His struggle with his dilemma is almost comical, but Nancy and I manage to contain our laughter and allow him the space to make up his own mind. At the last second, he chooses swimming and goes and has a wonderful time at the pool. When I see John at the end of the day, he seems quite pleased with his decision.

* * * *

Learning to make good choices is such an important prerequisite for leading a good life, and yet so many of today's children have precious little opportunity to practice. The current hyper-concern with "standards" in American education is fast eliminating what scant room there was for choice in the conventional school day. Now the heat is on in the nation's day care centers and nursery schools as well, as they push reading and writing on kids at ever younger ages. Homework, even at this level, is becoming the norm.

In Dumbing Us Down, the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, John Gatto presents a time analysis of the typical American child's school week. He concludes that after you've added up the hours spent going to, from, and in school, plus homework, plus after-school activities such as music lessons or organized sports, plus meals and time spent watching television, playing video games and online, a young person only has about nine waking hours per week left that belong to him- or herself. The equation varies somewhat according to social class, but the end result is about the same, says Gatto. That's all the time there is in which they get to decide what to do, and when and how and why. I agree with John - it's simply not enough.

Unfortunately, in a computerized world children's lives are becoming programmed, too. Whereas when I was a child the majority of the time I spent playing sports consisted of us kids organizing our own ad hoc games, today there is an explosion of adult-organized leagues for every sport imaginable. There are programs for everything under the sun now: before-school programs, after-school programs, special enrichment programs, summer programs, leadership initiative programs (there's an oxymoron for you), and so on into the night. Then, on the other extreme, there are growing numbers of semi-abandoned "latchkey" kids who have far too little decent adult input into their lives, and as a result develop a deep disrespect for all forms of authority. My neighborhood is full of them, and we have one helluva time in the summer when they sometimes run wild in large, lawless packs. This phenomenon seems to grow worse every year.

Also, I watched far less TV when I was a boy - there just wasn't very much that was worth viewing then&emdash;and video games and personal computers didn't yet exist. The world was considered a much safer place for children, too, and I was pretty much allowed the run of the city of Washington, DC., where I was born in 1954. Not so anymore. Safety is the name of the game wherever you go today, and kids' lives are becoming severely circumscribed as a result. Even ordinary play has been placed in a tamper-proof package with the current proliferation of commercial play establishments. It's no wonder that more and more children have seemingly excessive amounts of energy, enough to earn them the label "hyperactive" and their parents a trip to the pharmacy.

There's one more ingredient to add to this thickening pot of glue: the parenting style of my generation has turned out to be either far more permissive, or far more managerial than that of my parents' generation, and the trend seems to be ongoing, or even increasing, in the current generation of young mothers and fathers. Most parents, especially middle-class parents, that I know these days are trying hard to be good parents, to do the job correctly, better than their parents did. But there is a hidden cost: all of this parental effort is leaving kids with less and less time and space to work things out for themselves, to learn to manage their own needs and rhythms.

It all adds up to kids making fewer and fewer choices all the time. And while I've never seen a "scientific" study confirming my suspicions, I am convinced there is a correlation between the rise of the programmed childhood, with its lack of risk-taking and choice-making, and the exponential rise in the number of distressed children in our modern, managed society.

* * * *

I finally get to meet John's dad at our post-visit parent conference. There's no mystery where John gets his height from. John Senior is at least 6' 5" tall and played college basketball in his home state of North Carolina. His hand engulfs mine when we greet each other with an introductory handshake.

Many fathers sit stiffly in their chairs and let their partners do the talking in these meetings, but not big John. He leans forward and fires off questions as easily as he used to shoot baseline jumpers. I can tell that he wants to believe in our unorthodox approach to education; the problem is he simply has no point of reference for the large degree of freedom we allow our students, even ones as young as his own first grader. His initial questions echo his wife's earlier worries about whether or not John will be able to master his basic skills when he has the choice to establish his own timetable for learning them.

It's so much easier when parents put their anxiety right out in the open. And it's a godsend when a boy's father elects to be this actively involved in the raising of his son. John Senior, however, was raised in the rural South, meaning that there is very little in common between his image of school and ours. I figure my best bet is to acknowledge this fact right off the bat, and then to talk about the rising amount of fear our society arouses in parents as far as their children's cognitive development is concerned.

My one edge with this intelligent, concerned father is that they have tried the conventional school approach with both of their boys and it hasn't worked well with either of them. Nor, he admits, did it work particularly well for him; if it weren't for his mastery of basketball, he says he probably wouldn't have made it through four years of college. Here Irene adds that by the time she reached high school, she'd had it with the routine and the enforced learning of public schooling. At that juncture she flew into a full-blown rebellion, one from which it took years to recover. Both parents express almost in unison that they don't want their kids to have to go through this painful kind of transition into adulthood. My response: If children are encouraged to belong to themselves now - if their motivation to learn comes from within and not from without, and if the thoughts they think are their own and no one else's - then the chances are good they won't feel compelled to turn their adolescence into a combat zone.

I attempt to reassure John and Irene by recounting some of the high school success stories of recent Free School graduates. I emphasize that because our kids tend to develop such a strong sense of purpose and inner direction, they are better able to roll with the punches should they find themselves in a conventional high school situation. They have built-in "bullshit detectors," a phrase I picked up from a younger friend, and to them teachers are simply fellow humans, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. And for reasons unknown, many seem to have a real savvy for playing the grade game. I've yet to hear of a Free School graduate failing at least to get a GED certificate (some wisely elect to drop out of high school because they end up growing too weary and bored).

Here John Senior returns with an insight of his own: By placing so much emphasis on "building character," as he puts it, we not only prepare kids for future schooling, we also help them get ready for life in the real world. As in my earlier conversations with his wife, I can tell that I haven't entirely erased his doubts, but at least I have managed to spark in him the willingness to give the Free School a shot with his son.

The conversation meanders away from school issues and into matters of home and family. I get the sense that in their case Mom is the "nice guy" and Dad is the disciplinarian who issues the threats and does the spanking. Even though corporal punishment is part and parcel of Southern culture, I express my disapproval as diplomatically as possible, arguing that the anger and resentment it engenders only tends to reinforce the behaviors you're trying to curb. I have already picked up that little John, like Ian, is a frightened child, and the image of him being reprimanded physically by his giant of a dad doesn't sit well with me at all. John Senior replies that he's trying to get away from spanking his kids and that they've begun to experiment with other disciplinary measures, such as sending the boys to their rooms when they misbehave. Still, my impression is that punishment in one form or another is a major ingredient in their family life.

John Senior confides that he's usually exhausted when he returns home from his job delivering refrigerators and often doesn't have much left to give his sons. Irene mentions how she's always after her husband to spend more time with the boys so that she's not carrying the entire attention-giving load. Pregnant with a third child, she has quit her job in order to take it easy and be more available to John and his older brother. Unfortunately, this means family finances will be especially tight for a while.

Before we wrap up, Irene lets drop one last significant piece of information, her realization that the baby on the way is another boy and how sorely disappointed she is. She says she's had it up to here with raising little boys.

* * * *

A few days later, John and Lindsey, one of my second graders, accompany me to the supermarket to buy pectin and canning jar lids for the apple jelly project. John has already helped us pick the wild apples from which we pressed the cider for the jelly, and now he wants to be in on the completion of the process, which is fine with the other kids in my group. They seem to like John, even though he can be so difficult at times.

It's always a grand challenge to take an impulsive child like John shopping. Modern supermarkets contain so many inviting attractions, so many seductively displayed things. Before entering the store, I put my arm gently around his shoulders and explain to him my rules: no running, no wandering off, no grabbing stuff of the shelves, no bugging me to buy him anything. I tell him that I am willing to remind him once or twice, but after that we will simply leave the store without our supplies and return to school. Just to make sure he gets the idea, I help him to visualize the angry mob he will likely be facing if he is the reason we come back empty-handed.

John quickly uses up his allotted reminders:
"Chris, will you buy me some candy? Please!"
"John, what did I say to you about nagging me to buy you something?"
"Oh, yeah."

When we pass by the aisle with the toys and games, John starts to dash off. It's a case of the irresistible force and the immovable object. I call out, "Do you remember what I told you about staying with me in the store?" I'm mildly surprised by his ability to break himself out of the toy trance and return to my side. We double-time it to the canning section, find what we're looking for and zoom back to the check-out counter. I really want John to taste success the first time around.

But I push our luck too far when I decide to make a second stop at the lumber yard next door to the supermarket to pick up a repair part for one of the school's windows. I remind John of my personal store policy and in we go. Things probably would have gone perfectly smoothly if it weren't for the five-minute wait while the clerk tracks down the right hardware. The sight of all those power saws and drills is just too much for John. Finally, when he just won't leave the merchandise alone, I have to resort to gently restraining him while the clerk and I talk over how to repair the window. I should note here I that I refrained from making an issue of John's behavior here for two reasons: First of all, he had no direct connection with the business I was conducting, and secondly, I realized I was stretching him past his limits.

No harm - no foul, as they say in basketball. However, my refusal to let John roam around and examine the tools and gadgets has put him into a sulk. After I pay the bill, he refuses to accompany Lindsey and me out to the car. My own children helped me years ago to discover the futility of getting drawn into power struggles with willful children in crowded stores. I say to John calmly: "I'm going to get in the car and drive back to school. Lunch will be ready and I don't want to miss it."

With that I turn my back on John, who is still leaning against the counter with his arms folded tightly across his chest, and head for the door. Fortunately, the car is parked right out front, so that John can see us open our doors and sit down. While I'm searching my pockets for the keys in slow motion, John suddenly appears by the passenger's side where Lindsey has already seat-belted herself in. Either hunger or the thought of being left behind has momentarily changed his tune.

This blossoming saga isn't over yet. John's foot-dragging has enabled Lindsey to beat him to the coveted front seat. He glowers at her and declares in a voice oozing with entitlement, "Hey girl, that's my seat."

"No it isn't," she replies with a lovely self-assurance. "You had the front seat on the way here, and now I get it on the way back."

Back go the arms across the chest; John is in no mood for fairness. He tells her no way is he going to get in the back seat. After a short pause, he starts to open Lindsey's door with a look of determination that signals his intent to battle her for possession of the seat.

I generally don't care to intervene between kids in their territorial struggles over vehicular seating arrangements, but I, for one, am ravenous and have run out of patience with John's antics. Drastic measures are called for. I shut and lock Lindsey's door and say to him, "I'll give you thirty seconds to think it over, and then, if you don't get in the car, I'm going to leave without you."

Now he glowers at me as I begin my slow, ascending count. At twenty-five I turn the key in the ignition and rev the engine a couple of times for emphasis. Then I announce: "Okay John, time's up; we're leaving now. Hope you find your way home."

Leaning stubbornly against the car parked next to mine, he still refuses to budge. It's a real Mexican stand-off. But not for long - it's time to fight fire with fire. Sending him a determined look of my own, I shift the car into reverse and slowly ease out the clutch. That does it. As soon as John sees the car creeping back out of the parking space he cries out, "Wait for me!" I stop, so that he can open the back door and climb in.

Here, of course, I have broken the cardinal rule of effective limit-setting, which is never to set consequences you're not fully prepared to carry out. Obviously I wasn't going to drive off without John. But a six-year-old's fear of abandonment is almost always stronger than his will, and so I was fairly certain my bluff would have the desired effect. For those of you who might think it unfair to exploit a child's fear in this way, keep in mind that Ritalin kids rarely play by the rules. They need adults around that are a step ahead of their game.

We go one more quick round over his seat belt and head back to school. Spying his still furrowed brow in the rear view mirror, I can tell his petulance isn't quite spent. Sure enough, we haven't gone far before John begins to whine about not occupying the front seat. "It's not fair, Lindsey; I had it first." To which he adds, "You're stupid."

Lindsey wisely refuses to take the bait. After he repeats himself several more times, I can't help but ask, "Does your mother give into you when you treat her this way, John?"

Smiling broadly, he answers, "Yup."

"Well then," I return, " your mother is doing a foolish thing because look at you now; you're six years old and behaving like a big baby because you didn't get your way."
This launches him into a stirring defense of his mom: "She doesn't give in to me. I was just kidding." And then as an afterthought: "Don't call my mother foolish; she's smart."
"I know your mother's very smart, but she's making a big mistake when she gives in to your whining and sulking. It's not good for you."
"I told you she doesn't!" he whines back.
I counter by turning to Lindsey and asking her what she thinks.

Lindsey, who along with her two older sisters was homeschooled until last spring, possesses a wisdom beyond her years. She considers the question carefully and then answers: "I think his mother usually let's him win, because otherwise he wouldn't be acting this way now."

Suddenly John changes the subject: "What are we having for lunch today?"

* * * *

Kids as young as six, or sometimes even younger, are capable of an amazing degree of self-understanding. That's why I chose to engage John in the preceding conversation. I wasn't out to impugn his mother, but to get him to begin looking at the price he pays by trying to manipulate others with his sulking and pouting. John's essence is that of a proud warrior, not a whiner, and I know he knows that. It's not the way he wants to be in the world at all; it's just a typical child strategy that has paid off too often in the past. Irene is, by nature, what we used to call "a soft touch." She wants her boys to be happy and she may always have trouble holding her own in a busy supermarket.

While it never does much good to lecture young children, or to expect them to think and act like little adults, it is entirely appropriate to begin helping them understand the mechanics of their own behavior. They are generally more than willing to learn - provided the information comes from within the context of a caring, respectful relationship. Even though he tries my patience mightily, I genuinely like John. In no way was I trying to insult him any more than I was his mother. Rather, I was holding up a mirror in which he could see himself in a new light, so that he might begin to exercise some choice with regard to his response to the outside stimuli of his life, instead of acting only out of habit. While I was being somewhat critical of his actions, at the time I was communi-cating a respect for his ability to reconsider them and perhaps do differently in the future.

Herein lies the utter travesty, and the flagrant inhumanity, of drugging children into behavioral submission. It is cowardly; it's a cop-out. It disregards their inborn desire to become whole persons. Given half a chance, the kinds of kids to whom the labels "attention deficit disordered," "hyperactive" and "learning disabled" are currently being applied in such wholesale fashion are more than willing and able to learn, grow, and change without someone altering their basic biochemistry, in many cases against their will. To presume otherwise represents an appalling discount of the human spirit.



by Emanuel Pariser

Here's an e-mail-borne commentary by long-time SKOLE contributor Em Pariser on the first installment, from our spring issue, of Chris' new book. Em co-leads the outstanding Community School in Camden, Maine, about which (and by whom) we have published many articles.

Hi Mary,

Congratulations to Chris M. I just finished reading his chapter one of Rid-A-Him; and it left me feeling and thinking a lot. What greater value could a text have. So, since it is a Saturday, and I don't have to be anywhere except out in the squash patch for a final summer planting&emdash;I am indulging my impulse to respond immediately. First off, why did I enjoy the piece? Well theoretically and stylistically and politically I feel like Chris is kin. He overstates things just the way I do, he doesn't like to really piss people off either - and, I can relate to that. He watches carefully, and uses a conversational tone in his work - working from the reality in front of him, to the concepts he is engaging and back again.

The description of John's first days at the Free School is engaging and heartwarming, and raises as many questions as it answers. For instance, how did the girl who sat on him do it so well? How did she manage getting spit on so dispassionately? How would this system of discipline work if the child who was doing the sitting had more of their own agenda involved in it? What would have happened if John had been a physically abused child and he had been sat on? and on and on...it's great because for every answer there is another question, and in that pursuit we circle reality with more and more texture. It also made me think of what it would be like to work with younger kids - since I have worked always with high schoolers who can't be "sat on."

I would recommend to you Chris, that you check out Culture Against Man, by Jules Henry, which has a wonderful section on his observations of elementary schools, I believe the section is called "Rome Elementary School" in the late 50's. Henry's analysis is so interesting and stimulating, and right on - about why the culture needs schools to be the way they are that even though it is not an easy read, I still find it breathtaking at least in a mental sort of way. As my mother would say, "it leaves a good taste in my mind"... as your piece does.

Skipping on to what I liked in Rid-a-Him, I love the piece on iatrogenic diseases caused by modern education. This could be developed much more completely - maybe you do that in the book as it progresses, but test-phobia, hyperactivity, etc. all might be tied to certain school practices in conjunction with a shifting cultural and family context...after all the factory model is totally unnecessary now that we have no factories in the US (I know this is an overstatement, but you know what I mean). We can't do the analysis of these diseases "scientifically," but we sure could write an interesting piece tracing some of these "dis-eases" to a cause (one of many no doubt) within the schools - especially the "learning disabilities." However, it will always be the tendency of a culture to label its misfits, so that it can avoid looking at itself...changes on a macro level are probably most frequently caused by other changes on a macro level - catastrophes - environmental, economic, sociological, etc. Our work as educators is always on a micro-level, life by life, and my hope there is that in terms of the big picture we can hit a critical mass at some point; and even that pales as a realizable goal in the flame of a small but real success like the one you experienced with John.

I also liked the line of thinking about separation - how schooling separates, even just in the way subjects are separated, as though the world exists in little separate boxes like science and math and social studies, and then we create a world in which this is true - the world of academics, as our friend Big John [Gatto] points out, a multi-billion dollar industry. There is so much to do though with that idea of separation - there are good separations and bad separations - and ultimately we end up at theological questions which must also be entertained.

Several other thoughts: Brave New World and 1984 are really two radically different forms of dictatorship - Orwell is talking about an externally imposed regime, violent, and built on fear. Huxley is talking about an internally imposed regime based on the quenching of desire - through the wonderful world of chemicals. To fight either one is a terrible task, with the second being more difficult I think. I wonder myself a lot about the argument on psychoactive designer drugs. On the one hand I hate them, I hate the biochemical world they imply, I hate the profit motive which creates them...and so forth. And then I end up feeling like a Puritan - if someone is deeply depressed, and suicidal, and they can take a pill which relieves some of their symptoms so that they can work on their life-situation - can I argue with this approach if they choose it? I have too many friends, acquaintances, relatives, who rely on medicines, psychoactive and somatic, to write this all off as godless capitalism, misguided biochemical determinism, and yet the Huxley image haunts me as well. Where does this all begin and where does it end? And I guess this is where it becomes a question of the spirit.

For this moment my stance is that humans have the incredible capacity to create the worlds they live in. If we want to have a biochemical world, it will be one for us. If we want to have a new age world, it will be one. If we want to have a socialist world, it will be one. The crushingly difficult task is the choice, something which no tradition can train us for. I see the human condition as a huge atrium in a building into which there are dozens of doors, you can enter it from chemistry, religion, philosophy, whatever. The door you come into it from shapes the world you go out into. Then there are the eternal truths of "human nature" which the Buddhists do the best to capture - almost all human behavior can be categorized into aversion and desire. Learning to face these two impulses and free oneself of their incredible power is a life-long task. It's an awesome power we have with our consciousness, and I am delighted that you, Chris, are using yours the way you are.

Write on!

Chris' wonderful book is available for purchase in our online bookstore.