Note: This essay originally appeared in SKOLE, The Journal of Alternative Education, and subsequently became a chapter in Chris book, Making It Up As We Go Along. Read a couple of reviews of Chris' book as well as this page. You can also order it from our bookstore or from the publisher. And, to learn more about Mumasatou herself, click here!
The Mumasatou Principle:
Free School Council Meetings:
power, aggression and discipline
by Chris Mercogliano

In addition to being a beguiling, demanding child, Mumasatou serves as a very vivid human metaphor for all of us; hence the inspiration for the poem at the beginning of the chapter. It seems to me that we all have a willful, opportunistic little kid inside just waiting to dart out and steal the whole show whenever it thinks it can get away with it. That kid sees itself as all-powerful and absolutely as the center of the universe. I know I have one inside of me. Some of us, I think, have more luck reckoning with this urgent inner force than others; and most, I have noticed, tend to swing wide in one direction or the other: either we tend to try to squash the little bugger flat (and then take life altogether too seriously), or we let it run wild (and then spend a great deal of time and energy extricating ourselves from one kind of trouble or another).

Isn't struggling with such conundrums the stuff which life is made of? Every major spiritual or psychotherapeutic system, East or West, spends a lot of time addressing this powerful and generally anti-social part of us which just wants what it wants when it wants it - to hell with anyone else - and each varies in its prescription for dealing with it. Many refer to it as "the ego." Some capitalize the "e" and some don't, but I don't think it really matters. For the time being, I think I'll call this inner construct the "Mumasatou principle." On the one hand, it is a plentiful source of human vitality and creativity; while on the other, it is practically begging to know that there is some force greater than itself. In other words, it simply needs to to know that it can be stopped when necessary, because few things are more frightening to young children than perceiving that they have too much power.

One of the Achilles' heels of my generation has been our extreme reaction against the often rigid and authoritarian child rearing practices of our parents' generation. The Free School is about as integrated as such a small school can be, and so I have seen this trend extend across the lines of race and social class. It is my observation that there are a lot of kids running around today who are being fed a diet too rich in power, and this problem gets further complicated by the fact, I find, that many of my peers would just as soon dismiss or avoid issues of either personal or political/institutional power. I know that I have already had to learn a number of hard lessons in this general area while raising my own two children.

Mindful again that the "Mumasatou principle" has no correlation whatsoever with age (or race or gender), I think I'll go out on a limb and share with you another lesson which I received a while back when I had the bad fortune of witnessing Jessalyn, a friend of mine, a woman in her early fifties, being removed from her home against her will because it was feared she had become "a danger to herself or others." I had known her for several years and for the preceding month or so had been attempting, along with a number of friends, to support her and encourage her to get outside help, something which she had ardently refused to do. This was at the end of a very long, very hard winter during which she had been heroically providing 24-hour care for an elderly victim of a severe stroke in an isolated rural area. So, my nursing acquaintance was obviously stressed out and overwrought; and when she persisted with a series of violent rages and outbursts at would-be supporters and visitors, concern grew, particularly for the well-being of the old man she was caring for.

This is an extremely oversimplified version of the story; however the real reason for telling it has to do with what I observed as two state troopers and later the local rescue squad attempted to get her to come with them for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation at a nearby hospital. The nurse was convinced that those seven men and women, who remained impressively calm, steady, and patient for as long as was humanly possible, did not have the wherewithal to get her out of that house. At several points she even verbalized her belief that she was more knowledgeable, powerful, or superior than them, and I sat in awe as she ran through an amazing and artful assortment of strategies and maneuvers to delay the inevitable (the police had a court order). Ultimately, and painfully for both her and for me as I watched (I had chosen to be there to ease the process in any way possible), the "authorities" were forced to actually capture her physically and carry her out to an ambulance strapped to a sort of inflatable stretcher device.

I include this is an example of the "Mumasatou principle" in an adult well into the second half of her life (and one who I know did not get adequate nurturing by her mother as a young child). Being stopped in that way, traumatic as it was, turned out to be just what was needed to speed her return to herself. She was back at her post at the end of the required seventy-two hour period, having received no treatment or medication whatsoever, and has been doing O.K. ever since.

Mumasatou as Teacher

Meanwhile, Mumasatou, thanks to her uninhibited displays of power, rage and anger, became a valuable teacher, instructing us daily that it is imperative for anyone who works closely with children to have some deeper understanding of the twin phenomena of power and aggression. Mind you, this may not be as easy as it sounds. Back in the early seventies, a book came out entitled Creative Aggression whose basic premise was that, contrary to popular opinion, middle-class American society carries an even greater taboo against aggression than it does against sexuality. Further, the prohibition, spoken or unspoken, against aggression has fostered the growth of all sorts of hidden or indirect ways of expressing anger and hostility, thereby wreaking untold havoc on the intimate relationships of millions across our society. The book then went on to suggest a wide assortment of creative ways for people to communicate their aggression directly and honestly, without doing damage to the other person or persons.

Within our national circle of small, independent and experimental "alternative" schools, the subjects of conflict and of "conflict resolution" are often touchy ones. Many of the schools tend to break the issue down into a polarity between violence and non-violence and quickly rule out any form of "violent" behavior - hitting, kicking, shoving, etc. One problem with this over-simplified and moralistic behavioral model, which most more conventional schools operate by as well, is that it tends to foster the growth of various forms of sneaky aggression - gossip, bitchiness, scapegoating, verbal put-downs, the exclusion of others, etc. These more socially acceptable forms of indirection and avoidance then go unnoticed and the damage to the relationship (by the unresolved conflict) goes unrepaired.

The Effects of Punishment for Aggression

Here's a recent example. At an annual conference of the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools, a girl from the Free School got into it with a boy from another school. Apparently, a group of kids from both schools had been playing an increasingly rough game of chase together when angry feelings broke out and our student ultimately ended up kicking the boy from the other school in a very anatomically tender place. This was no laughing matter; and when one of our teachers learned of the altercation, she proposed that the two schools get together to try to resolve the matter. I was not around at the time, and after I returned and discovered that our group was still busy with the resolution session, I went to see how it was going.

What I found was a polarized and tension-filled room with teachers from both schools hopelessly locked into a struggle over how to proceed. One of our teachers was still trying to get the kids from both schools to trace the conflict back to the beginning and to engage with each other Free school-style in a dialogue around the underlying issues, while a teacher from the other school was insisting with equal persistence that everyone just let bygone be bygones and move on. Unfortunately, that course of action included a mandatory punishment of the boy for violating his school's prohibition against "violent behavior," an outcome which was unacceptable to Free School teachers and students alike (including the one who had done the kicking!).

They had already been at it for more than an hour when I arrived, and so there before me lay a sea of demoralized and defeated young faces. Unable to come up with a solution to the impasse either, I reflected aloud that our two schools simply had divergent ways of handling conflict; and that clearly, neither school was about to convert the other in that moment. I urged that we let it go at that and call it a night (it was getting late), which, with a general sigh of relief, is how the session ended.

The point of this story as well rests in what followed. The boy was punished according to his school's policy, and I then observed an icy distance slowly settle in between the two groups of children. The girls from the other school began making catty remarks about kids from our school and the boy involved in the fight wore an angry and wronged expression for the remainder of the weekend. Our kids, meanwhile, repeatedly expressed frustration at not being able to just sit down with the others and work the thing through.

In other words, when interpersonal conflicts are always settled in some tidy, adult-managed way, the child-antagonists are denied the chance to explore the limits of their power and to develop their own unique style of handling themselves in a conflict situation; and perhaps most importantly of all, to invent solutions that make sense to them. In our school, where there are no pre-set prohibitions against fighting and no automatic or standardized consequences for out-of-bounds behavior, kids have an opportunity to try out a variety of alternatives to the poison of violence that they're fed by the popular culture every day, thereby gaining important self-learning based on the trials and tribulations of their own experience. And twenty-two years of watching (and helping) children struggle with resolving their differences with one another have left me with the conviction that, given the wherewithal to do so, they have as much intolerance for incompletion as do most well-socialized adults I know. Furthermore, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they will go to the greatest lengths to find peaceful solutions, especially if they have the freedom to create them on their own terms.

Now, it goes without saying that a child who has a bad temper and strikes out habitually needs to learn to develop inner controls and to find other outlets for anger. The problem is that external rules and prohibitions alone seldom accomplish this goal, because very angry children tend to respond in one of two ways: either they continue to escalate their behaviors until they get themselves thrown out or locked up and/or drugged out of their feelings, or they go underground with their anger and become human versions of a ticking time-bomb. What these kids need, instead, is to discover for themselves that they have a problem which is costing them something - not punishment; but loss of friendship, of their standing in the community, or of feeling good about themselves. Furthermore, these kids are more likely to get the help they need in this area from their peers than from anyone else.

There simply are no generalizations about anger and aggression that work very well. Every child is unique; every situation is different. Some kids, for example, are too passive and adaptive and actually need help loosening their emotional controls. These are the children we have much more of a tendency to worry about, because they seem to lack the inner permission to assert themselves and instead are too willing to put up with unsatisfactory situations. So often, they are the ones more likely to be destined for later unhappiness and unfulfillment. In plain language, they need to learn to stick up for themselves, which by no means is the same as learning to fight. No child in our school has to fight if he or she does not want to; and, in fact many have gone through their entire Free School career without ever having done so.

Handling Agression: The "Stop" rule; Council Meetings at The Free School

Well aware of the controversial nature of this area; the Free School has taken a lot of risks over the years that other schools aren't willing to take. At times we have received a lot of heat for this and have been accused of "teaching fighting" or "advocating violence" more than once. It's not that we don't set limits on aggression, physical or otherwise, or that we lack the goal of helping kids to discover non-abusive ways of dealing with their anger and hostility. Whenever kids are fighting in school (which isn't all that often), one of the teachers is always right there monitoring the feeling tone, ready to intervene if either or both children start crossing over into just wanting to do damage to the other. Bullying or ganging-up is never allowed, nor is excluding or isolating a member of the group (unless, perhaps they've been bullying or persisting in some other form of obnoxiousness, and this is the only way the rest of the group can get the aggressor to stop.) Many years ago, we installed a "stop rule," whereby all anyone has to do when being teased, or threatened or shoved around, is to yell "STOP" in a good, clear voice; and if the offender doesn't stop, then the next step is for the offended party to call a "council meeting."

Part mediation session, part town meeting, part support group, council meetings preserve the heart and the integrity of the Free School. They are its constitution-in-progress. The mechanics are as follows: Anyone can call a meeting at any time. By general agreement (which is also subject to change at any time), the moment a meeting is called, everyone drops what they are doing and comes to the largest room in the elementary school section of the building where we sit in a large circle on the floor. Three nominations are taken and a chairperson is elected (usually a student, sometimes as young as six). It is the chair's responsibility to recognize speakers, keep the discussion on track and maintain order. Interestingly, while the atmosphere of the school is characteristically freewheeling, in council meetings fairly strict decorum is demanded at all times. This is usually not a problem because everyone takes them very seriously. The general rule of thumb is that meetings are called only for important and/or urgent matters, and only after other less drastic alternatives have been exhausted. The chair begins by asking the person who called the meeting to state the problem or issue. (If the matter is deemed too trivial by the group, the meeting is usually quickly adjourned, and in cases where someone is "crying wolf," a motion might be passed prohibiting that individual from calling any more meetings for a prescribed length of time&emdash;which sometimes sets off wonderful constitutional debates.) All meetings are run by Roberts' Rules of Order; and policy is set, rules made and changed, consequences meted out, etc., by majority vote. (When the issue is a particularly serious one, the discussion tends to continue until some sort of consensus is reached, but this is not required.)

Council meetings are called for a wide variety of reasons (to resolve a dispute, to change a policy&emdash;a six year-old once got the mandatory attendance at council meetings clause voted out for a time&emdash;to solve a theft or to get help locating a lost precious item, and so on); and if the presenting problem is a violation of the stop rule, the meeting then usually becomes a forum both for bringing the hurtful behavior to a halt once and for all; and often, if the participants are willing, for tracing the problem back to its original source (this is where sensitive adult facilitation can be very helpful). Maybe it all started with something that happened a day or two before at school, or with a problem at home (an abusive older sibling, parents fighting, etc.) Personal privacy is respected and confidentiality is kept when necessary. A meeting generally ends when the person who called it considers his/her problem to be solved and makes a motion to adjourn. Not every meeting has a happy ending, however; some grind their way into deadlocks of one kind or another, and it sometimes takes several go-arounds before a genuine resolution is achieved. The good news is that important issues rarely go unaddressed for any great length of time, a fact which goes a long way toward explaining the apparent paradox whereby there is such a high degree of internal peace and order in an environment with so few outwardly visible rules and regulations.

Like parliamentary democracy, which is one of its models, our council meeting system is an imperfect one at best; but its benefits far outweigh its costs in terms of the time taken away from other things. While calling a meeting is by no means a way of getting someone else to solve your problem for you, it does provide everyone access to support of a great many kinds. One of the system's most obvious benefits is that it gives even the smallest and youngest kids (council meetings which include the pre-school kids are few and far between because of the inexperience of the little ones and their inability to keep still long enough) power equal to or greater than the oldest and largest (via strength in numbers). Additionally, the council meeting structure keeps aggression from turning into a toxic force. Bullying and gangstering are easily controlled; and instead, council meetings often become an uncanny way of transforming the energy of anger and conflict into a source of healing on many levels. Tears flow frequently in council meetings; friendships become stronger as a result of the dialogue which occurs; and solutions to other related problems are often arrived at, thanks to the input of the group as a whole.

The council meeting system is the source of a number of other indirect benefits as well. For instance, I have yet to come across a more effective form of what is often euphemistically referred to as "leadership training" than chairing a difficult, emotion-filled council meeting. It is not uncommon for us to get the feedback from outside observers that Free School kids are strikingly open-hearted, fair-minded and compassionate young people; who, while occasionally appearing to have slight developmental lags in penmanship, spelling and grammar, which they usually catch up with pretty quickly, are mature beyond their years. I have no doubt that this is largely the result of the interpersonal fluency gained through their experience of many conflicts and the accompanying council meetings which helped to resolve them.

Perhaps most importantly of all, our home-grown blend of democratic procedure is a very effective means of instilling the sense that everyone has an equal stake in - and responsibility for - the life of the school. Again and again, you will find council meetings reinforcing the sense that we all, in the end, share similar struggles in life, regardless of age, gender, race or social class. Herein lies the essence of the Free School's existence as a true community (but you will have to wait for a later chapter by that name for a full explanation of what I mean by this statement). Suffice it to say for now that in the Free School, unlike most conventional school settings, children are not just passive recipients of textbook lessons about enlightened ideas like "democracy," "liberty" and the one so in vogue today, "community;" but are active participants in the creation and preservation of each and every one of them.

I recently witnessed another upsetting scene while I was with our preschoolers in a public playground adjacent to one of Albany's new magnet schools. There was a group of kids from that school playing alongside ours when a fight suddenly broke out between two of their girls, who were quite big and looked to be about fifth grade age. Incredible as it may seem, the three teachers attending this class of about fifteen kids were unable to stop the fight. But what troubled me most of all was the behavior of the non-combatants. It was a real Lord of the Flies scene, with the other kids crowding around and taunting and egging on the two enraged girls, and with several boys alternately attacking the girl who was clearly the group outcast. The three teachers eventually managed to herd their angry swarm back into the building, fists still flying, and so I didn't get to see how it all ended. My guess is that the two who started the fight were separated from the group and that penalties were then assessed privately. It was deeply disturbing to me to see a group of human beings demonstrating such a complete lack of experience in working a conflict through. I suspect that because aggression is so thoroughly prohibited and then squashed down during their school day it then becomes something for the entire group to "get off on," in the most ugly of ways. It was, indeed, a sad sight, and I know all too well that it was not an isolated occurrence.

In the absence of a lot of rules and official policies, it is important that the adults be very sensitive and attuned to all of the various levels of a conflict and to the interior states of the children involved. Those adults must have good contact with the full range of human emotions (especially their own); and, above all, they need to be familiar and comfortable with their own aggression, so that they can respond creatively and effectively to each different situation. Sometimes fights need to be headed off before they break out, because the kids are just dumping anger and fighting out of habit; sometimes they need to stopped as soon as a shove or a punch occurs, and the adult has to be able to overpower the momentum of the kids' anger in a manner appropriate to the situation; and sometimes kids need to be left to thrash it out themselves - without an audience of voyeuristic hecklers - but with an attentive adult witness who will help the combatants through to a full and safe resolution of the original problem.

Click here to view the cover of Chris' splendid book about The Free School, Making It Up As We Go Along, , of which this article (revised somewhat) is a chapter.

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