by Chris Mercogliano
Take three adults and twenty-three city, inner-city, and suburban kids of all shapes, sizes and colors to 250 mountain-top acres about twenty-five miles northeast of Albany, N.Y. Drill 9/16" diameter holes in the south sides of some healthy sugar maple trees. Tap in the spiles and hang lidded buckets from the hooks. Thank the trees. Gasp when you see the first droplets of sap spurt forth from a spile. Pray for the right cycling of freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw to keep the sap drip-drip-drip-ping into the pails. Empty them when they're full. Haul the heavy sap in five-gallon plastic buckets to the storage barrels near the evaporator and pour in the precious tree-blood. Repeat all but steps one, two and three as necessary. Oh, and remember to take a long guzzle of the ice-cold sweet crystalline liquid every time you empty the pails (to keep the doctor away).
When the fifty-five gallon drums are nearly full, scour the forest for fallen branches or standing dead trees. Drag them over to the arch. Saw them into lengths with two-person bow saws (a chain saw will ruin everything). Learn how to work together and learn the difference between good wood and rotten wood which yields no heat when burned. Drag more branches over. Trip over the underbrush and scratch your face. Get your boot sucked off by the deep, wet snow. Delete a few expletives. Saw more wood... "I NEED MORE WOOD NOW! DO YOU WANT THE FIRE TO GO OUT? HURRY UP!!" ("But I'm cold, but I'm tired, but she/he's not doing anything, but I can't find my mittens, but... but...")
Take a break and start a snowball war. Play in the huge mud puddle next to the road. Salute the sun when it finally breaks free from the cold grey clouds (no New Age - or Old Age - adult inspired pseudo-rituals allowed, either; just a group of young children off by themselves spontaneously breaking into song when they suddenly find themselves wrapped in the sun's warm embrace). Eat large quantities of good food. Drink some more sweet sap.
Try to get a very big, very hot fire going with a lot of damp, soggy fuel. Discover that the dead lower branches of pine trees make fire medicine, and that birch bark is even better. Learn how to strike a kitchen match without burning yourself. Once the fire's really going, pour ten gallons of the sugar maple sap into a two foot by three foot pan (the evaporator) which rests a bit precariously over the fire on two rows of cinderblocks (the arch). Endlessly debate whether a watched pot ever boils. Come back and sit by the fire and feed it twigs whenever you get too cold (the fire remains at the center of the dance throughout). Watch the patterns in the billowing steam and get smoke in your eyes. Stick a stick into the murky, bubbling mess and then taste it. Ask if it's syrup yet a few dozen times throughout the day and night. Discover that it does indeed take forty gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup.
Watch the sun set and the first star appear. Let the darkness gradually creep up to you. When it starts to turn cold again, try to remember where you left your coat and hat. If your feet are wet, go inside and put on dry socks, and if your boots are wet on the inside put plastic bags on your feet before you put your boots back on. Come back outside and discover that dry cattail heads make excellent torches if you have enough imagination. Watch the swarm of excited fireflies darting around the fire in the winter/spring moonlight. Oh yes, and don't forget the moon - get out a good telescope and study her up real close for the first time. And search for Jupiter or Saturn, too. Wonder about the stars and the planets and the universe. Ask all the questions, even the why ones that have no answers. Wonder some more.
Get very tired - the good kind of tired. ("It's still not syrup yet?") Go back inside the old lodge and make up a warm bed as near to the woodstove as you can. If you find that you're missing your mommy or your daddy, notice how that feels in your body, and where. (Is there anyone in the room who can give you the right kind of comfort when you're this vulnerable?) Let someone read you a really good Grimm's fairy tale before you fall into a deep, dreamful sleep.
Wake up in the morning and finish off enough syrup for a victory pancake breakfast on the kitchen stove. Celebrate! WE DID IT!! That thickened, amber concentrate is its own sweet reward for a long hard day's work and play, with its measure of physical or psychic discomfort. Have another pancake or just keep sticking your finger in the syrup pot and licking it until your teeth begin to ring. Celebrate some more!
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And so ends only a sketchy recipe for education - Free School style. The maple syrup metaphor is a useful one, and I will expand on it later with some stories from our recent adventure at Rainbow Camp, as we call it. But first I want to play with the notion of concentrate, or concentration, which I tentatively chose as the title of this article. I'm not thinking, here, about an intense mental act or the old TV quiz show where you had to remember the location of the other half of the match in order to win the prize. I am thinking about the process of getting to the essence of something, or of getting the most out of whatever you have to work with, to put it another way. It seems to me that there is an ever-increasing gap in our modern world between one's experience and its meaning. This is certainly not a new idea, and I'm not setting out to write about theology; but as the world's children today face an ever increasing level of distractionm - increasing in both number and in intensity (to the point of so-called "virtual reality"), I fear that their ability to distinguish between what's important and what's unimportant is ever diminishing. In my mind, this brings us out of the domains of theology or philosophy and into that of education, purely defined, as a process whereby one discovers how to burn off or skim off the dross in order to get to the precious metal underneath; or, to return to my original metaphor, how to boil down one's experience until what's left in one's pockets is essential and meaningful. I was immediately attracted to the label of Essential Schools, but never having visited one, have remained suspicious that it's actually a lot of clever packaging; which, on an institutional level, is so often what happens to good ideas in our society.
This issue of labeling and packaging is particularly fresh for me because for the past several years Albany has been in the process of "magnetizing" its schools, as many other cities have been doing, to avoid forced busing of kids to achieve racial integration.
Just this year, a "Montessori Magnet" was opened four blocks from the Free School. Several million dollars was spent to retrofit this school for about 250 kids, and the other night they had an open house. The next morning, the mother of one of my pre-schoolers, who had attended the open house, came up to me all wide-eyed and said something like, "It was so beautiful and everything was so new and they had so much wonderful equipment. Can't you... can't we?..." Now, I have nothing against Maria Montessori (and I love magnets!); I'm all for kids having access to beautiful things and new equipment; and like John Gatto, I certainly advocate the proliferation of alternatives of every possible kind.
But, I can't seem to dodge the question of what message are we giving our-selves when we expend such huge quantities of material resources for the purpose of schooling young children? Isn't it that basic education is somehow a complex, technological - and expensive - problem? And how much money is being squandered for the dual purposes of public relations and image management? I hope I don't sound jealous or like some well-preserved Luddite; it's just that I'm beginning to understand better why we sometimes have to work so hard at reassuring our Free School parents that our school is indeed a place where their children will learn exactly what they need to be learning at their particular stage of development. But alas, I'm afraid that this, too, is properly the subject of another article.
Our 125 year-old building in Albany is filled with second-hand everything, and more than one friend of ours with regional or even national notoriety has com-plained to us about our keeping too low a profile. And we don't have any slick labels for our frequent two to five day forays out to our third-hand Rainbow Camp. (We purchased the camp, which is on a small lake, for a very good price because it needed a lot of work; and then, a year later, we were given 250 wooded acres just two miles away. Isn't it amazing how these things happen?) They're not "field trips," or "core curriculum experiences," or any-thing else that you might invent. We simply load up our fourth-hand Dodge stretch van (originally a state prison van... how's that for irony?) with teachers, kids, and gear and head out of the city, stopping at the grocery store on the way. I guess you could call it instant residential education (IRD)...
Our time at the camp is an integral part of our school program, where I have witnessed personal revolutions occurring in countless children over the years. By now I am quite certain that the secret ingredient is the fact that all of us, adults included, suddenly find ourselves displaced from our familiar (root word family) patterns. There are very few props, either. We heat with wood, and there is no running water in the winter-time. All quickly learn the basic law of water conservation: If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down. Water for flushing comes from one of the brooks that feeds the lake, just a short haul away. It's very much like rural farm life. We live like a sprawling extended family, with even the youngest sharing the cooking, cleaning, and firewood and water gathering chores, and the oldest oftentimes reading bedtime stories to the younger kids. It can be a lot of hard work, especially during sugaring season.
There's really no formula for what we're doing because life at the camp is governed by the needs of the moment. Two concepts coined by radical psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich way back in the 1930's and 1940's at least partially describe what we're up to: "self-regulation" and "work democracy." Much of Reich's thinking and practice were aimed at preventing mental illness, which he broadly termed character neurosis. His life goal was to create a model of healthy human functioning, as opposed to some systematized analysis of disease states, as is the norm to this day. Having decided on an in-depth look at child development, Reich took his concern with child rearing practices and education to a lecture by A.S. Neill. The subsequent meeting of the two led to a life-long friendship, self-regulation being the cornerstone of Neill's approach at Summerhill. The idea is that if kids can learn at a very early age how to manage their own rhythms, how to make responsible choices (by learning from the consequences of their mistakes), and how to meet their own needs, then they will grow up into autonomous adults capable of authoring satisfying and meaningful lives. Reich was absolutely delighted to discover a school that actually lived by this principle.
A bone that I have to pick with Neill on this subject has to do with his attitude towards work. In Summerhill: A Radical Approach To Child Rearing, Neill wrote that if you ever saw a child working, then you were looking at a kid who had in some way been brainwashed by an adult. According to old Neill, work is a four-letter word for healthy, free children. Not that I entirely disagree with him, but my twenty-one years of experience at The Free School have taught me something a little different. Neill was a rebel at heart, and Summerhill has always been populated largely by rebellious middle and upper-middle class children; and I think that these factors may have colored his conclusions on this score. On many, many occasions over the years, I have observed kids working, both by choice and with great gusto and pleasure. Several factors are necessary to make this so: The work has to have inherent meaning to the kids on their level.. Also, they have to be continually free to change the way and the pace at which they go about the job, whatever it may be. Free children certainly hate just about anything when it becomes routine. Sometimes, I have to bite my tongue when I'm tempted to suggest a better, faster, more efficient way to get the job done; and if I do intrude, invariably their enthusiasm dis-perses as fast as the air out of an untied balloon. Finally, the fruits of their labors need to follow directly from the completion of the task. It's evident how the maple sugaring fits in here: The kids will each take home a small jar of syrup to share with their families, and then will help marketing the rest to raise cash towards the taxes on the new land (kids love making money, even when the money goes to the school and not directly into their own coffers).
Reich coined the term "work democracy" early in his career after attempting to effect mass social change in Europe through the political systems of several different countries. He eventually became disillusioned, concluding that power politics under any banner, no matter how enlightened or "socially democratic," always stands in the way of real solutions to social problems. Work democracy, on the other hand, is the notion that when groups of people organize themselves around common tasks and goals, then natural forms of authority and decision-making which support mutual accomplishment can emerge. Modes of being and of action remain fluid and changeable. This is because they are non-ideological, which is a critical factor since even the best of ideas turns toxic when it is practiced in a rigid, fundamentalistic fashion. In a true work democracy, cooperation rather than competition becomes a core value. I would argue here that M. Scott Peck's more recent model of community is essentially a reworked version of Reich's original concept. (Reich's body of work later became a foundation stone of the new school of the psychology of groups and group dynamics that emerged in the fifties and early sixties, which was Peck's area of early training.)
At Rainbow Camp, life is not always "democratic." Often the situation demands of kids and grown-ups alike that they do something that they would just as soon not do right then. Sometimes I just put kids to work; we don't have a meeting; we don't take a vote; I just say, "Please do it." On his first Rainbow Camp expedition, when eleven-year-old Rakeem [not his real name], a recent inner-city parochial school cast-off, helplessly decided that he couldn't stuff his borrowed sleeping bag into its generously large sack, I very undemocratically decided to intervene. Rakeem's strategy was to try to force the unstuffed bag back on the much smaller boy that he had borrowed it from.
That boy could have, and in fact probably would have, called a democratic "council meeting," which is our school's preferred tool for conflict resolution, policy making and changing, etc. I happened to have an instinct that this was just the moment for me to put Rakeem, who has a smothering mother and no father, in a bind instead. I simply told him that neither he nor anybody else would get their breakfast until they had all their gear packed up and in order; and even though the bag was borrowed, it was certainly his to deal with. Predictably, Rakeem, who is overweight and a very angry man-child, stomped off upstairs to curse and sulk.
Breakfast time drew near, and as there was still no sign of our boy, I announced to all the other kids that I was ready to bet cash that Rakeem was about to miss a meal. Immediately Isaac, another cast-off from the same parochial school, held out his hand and said, "Dollar bet!" We shook on it and then went about our business. About five minutes went by and there was still no sign of our boy, so I told Isaac that he'd better get his money together because breakfast was just about ready. Instantly, several other older kids went dashing off to find Rakeem to tell him what was going on downstairs. Rakeem appeared within a minute, stuffed the bag and returned it to its owner within another, and a few seconds after that, Isaac had his crisp new dollar, much to everyone's delight!
Interestingly, it was Isaac who had called a council meeting on Rakeem just the night before because Rakeem had bullied him out of one of the camp's cozy armchairs by the woodstove. At that meeting, Isaac got a motion passed that Rakeem, who only sullenly stonewalled when asked by the other kids what was up, would have to sit in the very chair he had taken from Isaac (all night, if necessary) until he was willing to call another meeting to work out the problem. (He eventually did.) So, as I paid off my lost bet, I made sure to point out to Rakeem what a true friend he had in Isaac - on two counts now - one for caring enough to stop him when he was being a bully, and two for believing in his ability to get off it and take care of himself. All of us value friendship very highly at the Free School, and many life-long friendships are forged here.
I tell this story for several reasons. First, though he isn't around any more to check with, I think Reich would cite this an example of work democracy in action. It's important that we all learn to practice self-sufficiency at Rainbow Camp, and that we all pull together as well. I think that this was a most appropriate time for me to exercise my natural authority as an adult and as a parent figure with a kid who gets far too little effective parenting at home. Next there's the fact that at the Free School we try not to adhere rigidly to any ideological precepts, democracy or otherwise. We certain give democratic decision-making its due; but above all, we just try to do what works. Every child is different, every situation is different, and we simply don't find that "democracy" is always the answer.
Finally, to return to the maple syrup metaphor, we believe that the process of change always requires some heat. In the case of Rakeem's mini-breakthrough, Isaac and the other kids provided plenty of heat at the council meeting and then I started a little one-on-one fire with him the next morning. Rakeem returned home later that day not quite the same child. While we were driving back to Albany, I asked him whether he wanted to come back out to the camp again. His face lit up with a smile in response and he said, "Yeah; only I wish that we didn't have to work so hard!" Life at Rainbow Camp as well as at our day-school in the city involves fairly frequent conflict which then gets handled, sometimes unpredictably, and always in a myriad number of ways, some of which are "democratic" and some not. The school motto that I coined many years ago is, "Never a dull moment, always a dull roar!"
Several stories remain to be told that further depict the education that takes place at Rainbow Camp... It was Alexandra, a nine-year old who set fire to her bedroom three years ago, that turned up as one of my frequent helpers while I tended the fire in the arch. I remembered that for some time after that near disaster she was absolutely terrified of fire; understandably so. At one point, when the two of us were alone, I found just the right opening for talking through her fire setting experience with her. Her memory of the event was dimming and it seemed to me that some denial was creeping in; and so I think it was important for her to go gently back over that traumatic past event and explore its teachings. It was a very relaxed talk, and all the while she was steadily pushing back the edge of her fear of fire by tending and feeding the one that was boiling off our syrup and warming us against the chilly evening. It seems unlikely to me that that "lesson" would have arisen out of any planned discussion about the dangers of fire, or even by chance back at school in Albany. And no expensive props were needed (there I go again).
Then there is Anton, a six-year-old boy who a year ago was taken away from and then returned to his mother by the Department of Social Services; thanks, in part, to our intervention on their behalf. He was the last one to go in one night while I was pushing to finish boiling off a batch of sap. Anton quietly sat for hours just poking the fire with one stick after another while I sat talking about everything under the moon with Mark, a recent college graduate who has been volunteering three days a week in the school, and who had decided to come out to the camp and really get his feet wet. What was Anton, fatherless like Rakeem, learning while he sat there listening to our impromptu rap session? There simply were two men talking, talking by turns intently and then laughing in low tones - nothing more - and yet there was nowhere else that Anton wanted to be at that time.
Joseph Chilton Pearce says that all children actually learn via a basic modeling process, as opposed to all the other pseudo-scientific and technical, jargon-laden constructs that humans have come up with to describe how learning takes place. I would hazard a guess that Mark and I were showing Anton, among other things, how two men go about getting to know each other a little more intimately.
At the Free School, we place much emphasis on all forms of relationships. The late George Dennison, author of the classic, The Lives of Children, which is about his experiences in a wonderful, but short-lived, school on the Lower East Side of New York back in the late sixties, wrote the most eloquent descriptions of the primacy of human relationships in the "educational process" that I have ever seen in print. In the book, George told story after beautiful story to reinforce his belief that all true learning takes place within relationships. Period. So, Free School adults and children alike spend a good deal of time working on and working out relationships, and the ensuing learning is literally the heart of our "curriculum."
When Mark, the aforementioned volunteer, showed up two months ago with absolutely no teaching experience whatsoever, we told him that the water was warm and to go right ahead and jump in if that was what he wanted. He chose to do just that, and he has been nothing but a great blessing to us ever since. Mark is both open-hearted and open-minded, and he is entirely and refreshingly available to "relate" on a variety of levels. The kids both love and respect him. Any day now, I guess I should make up an official-looking badge with the word "TEACHER" printed on it and pin it on his shirt!
The last story to tell here has to do with a story that I decided to read as a bedtime one to the kids one night at the camp when I wasn't running the evaporator until all hours. It was Grimm's, "The Water of Life," a powerful tale about a young prince, the youngest of three sons, whose father was slowly wasting away from some mysterious ailment. As the three young men were walking about grieving one day, an old man met them and told them where the cure for their father, the king, could be found. Known as The Water of Life, it could only be attained after a long journey. The oldest son first won permis-sion to go in search of the cure; and soon after setting out, came across a dwarf waiting beside the road.
When the dwarf asked where he was headed, the prince only sneered at the dwarf, and so the insulted and enraged dwarf placed a very effective curse on him. Ditto the second son, and when he failed to return, the youngest prince begged his dying and reluctant father for permission to go. When he encountered the very same dwarf, unlike his older brothers, he stopped, told the dwarf the whole story, and asked for his help. The dwarf responded by telling the young prince to travel to a certain enchanted castle where the Water of Life could be found, and then giving him exactly the tools he would need to survive the trials to come. Once there, the prince met a beautiful princess who promised him the kingdom if he would free her from a spell she was under and come back in a year to marry her. Then, she told him where to find the well containing the Water, and he filled a cup with it and headed home.
Passing the dwarf along the way, the prince stopped to thank him and to ask if he happened to know where his two brothers were. The dwarf told him about the curse; the prince begged for and received their release; but not before the dwarf warned the young man about his older brothers' bad hearts. Soon enough, the brothers did betray him, each to the point of going after the spellbound princess, who, anxious for the return of her prince, had ordered a road leading to the palace to be built of shining gold. Next, she had instructed her courtiers to admit only the man who rode straight up the middle of the road to her gate, as that would be her true lover.
When the oldest brother saw the golden road, he stopped to admire it and de-cided that it would be a shame to ride upon it; so he rode to the right of it instead, and was turned away by the castle guards. Ditto the second brother who decided to ride to the left and was also turned away. Meanwhile, the young prince, having now survived a whole year in bitter exile, decided to seek out the princess and was so intent on joining with her beauty that he never even saw the golden road! Therefore, he rode right down the middle, married the princess, and was even reunited with his father, who had eventually learned of his older sons' deceit.
This story is a deep one containing many interior meanings, as do all the juicy fairy tales I read or tell to kids whenever I get the chance (Rainbow Camp is ideal for this). For me, "The Water of Life" beautifully brings home the themes of this article - and in a properly mythical fashion: The young prince, despite great hardships and betrayals (and also because of them), is concentrated. The heat generated by his troubles and his great yearnings are a very necessary element in his growth. In the end, he is so focused on his love and undistracted by unimportant material details that he reaches his goal - not without help, of course - which he receives because he is open to relationship and is willing to ask.
At the Free School, we believe that the task contains its own reward, and our kids practice open-heartedness, persistence and resourcefulness every day because they are truly responsible for themselves and for each other. We also try never to ignore the mythological dimension of life and of learning. Properly lived, life can be an infinitely magical series of events, if one still believes, and the essential need not be lost sight of. Certainly, nothing is more magical in the everyday world than the process of slowly transforming the water of life of the sugar maple tree into thick, sweet amber liquid-gold.

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