... I began that very day, visiting Jonathan Kozol's Roxbury Community School on the way home [from my visit to Alan Leitman, educational filmmaker, seeking advice on alternative schools], and three others over the following few days, one in Buffalo, one in Syracuse, and a third in New York City - the Fifteenth Street School. A week later an article appeared in the newspaper which included large pictures of the five of us gathered (untypically) around our round dining room table surrounded by books and papers. It also mentioned that I would be showing three films on "free school" education at the Unitarian Church and at the university, which I did the following week, to crowded rooms of fascinated adults whose appetite for information about this new "thing" seemed boundless. Out of these three exposures to the public, I found a group of four families interested in sending us their children and in working as a group to help us find a suitable building and at least one other teacher for the seven kids who would be involved.
Suddenly, providentially and wholly unexpectedly, a friend of my older sons gave me a call and asked if he could drop over to chat. Puzzled, I agreed, and lo, what he wanted to talk about was his wish to quit high school teaching (where his best friend had been recently fired for refusing to shave off his beard) and come to teach with me at our fledgling school, now christened "The Free School" by my four students. I agreed enthusiastically, and introduced him to our little group of parents at the next strategy meeting. They were equally delighted.
By this time, June was over and our school was out for the summer. One other mother and I set out in earnest to find a building where we could hold forth, and right away, the first snags began to appear. There were no buildings to be had that we could afford which would give us what I knew to be an absolute necessity as a school site - one large room for gatherings, roughhouse, and general togetherness, plus enough additional space for activity rooms, eating, a lab, at least one good bathroom, an office, a good-sized kitchen, and play space outside. We literally searched for weeks, surveying the entire region, even including the top floor of a factory building which would have been ideal as a huge area on which we could erect our own partitions at will, the owners of which had been playing with offering it to the city for a municipally-funded day care center. At the last minute, they said no, after learning that we would be privately funded at a rate far below what they had been hoping to get from the city! Like Tom Lehrer's "old dope peddler," they had wanted to "do well by doing good."
We began desperately asking churches for space in their Sunday School quarters, were refused by at least three church boards and suddenly, were offered the rental of an entire church building for $100 a month by a black minister whose congregation had bought a fine stone church across town and were moving out. This was a frame building in a state of great neglect but essential soundness, and we grabbed for it frantically and with great relief, because, by this time it was nearing the end of the summer and we had not yet even begun to prepare the space for the school. After a hasty consultation with our parent group, and with the reality of our financial straits before our faces, we all agreed on this building, which was in the inner city. The price was right, the size was ideal, and our appetite for renovation was boundless, none of us having done any!
Immediately, we all set out to put it into usable shape. Working virtually around the clock, sharing coffee and sandwiches far into the night, we worked to cover up the grime with new paint, even going so far as to paint floor-to-ceiling blackboards in several rooms, scrubbing whatever we could not paint, attaching as a fire escape an iron staircase we found at a wrecking company to an upstairs door which had opened onto thin air, for a reason none of us ever fathomed. By the time school started, we had already grown to love this place, funky as it was, but indisputably ours!
One event which had charmed and excited me, but which proved a harbinger of trouble to come, was the fact that, no sooner had we opened our doors (to let in fresh air as well as to bring in ladders and so on) than hordes of curious black children began coming inside, asking us a zillion questions and begging to be allowed to stay and color or play school. These ranged from the ages of three and four up to twelve at least, all from Southern black refugee families who had come seeking work in this northern city, and all wanted to know, "What dis place?" When they learned that we were a school ("A school? You a school? Yo' kids goin' play heah?), asked us, "Kin ah come?"
We began having dreams of attracting a whole schoolful of neighborhood kids as students. Our universal answer to their questions was, "Go ask your momma, and if she says you can, you tell her to come and talk with us and then you can come here, OK?" The older ones would ask, "Do it cost money?" and my instinct was always to say, "No, it's free." My hunger for the children was always greater than my financial sense, and I guess I haven't yet changed that much. Fortunately for me, Bruce, the other teacher, felt the same way about the children as I did, so at least at this point, there was no trouble. But it was coming.
Oddly enough, it came from the direction of the only black mother among our parent group, Dorothea, a well-educated and cultured woman whose husband was a university professor, but who had evidently grown up in Harlem among lower class black people. Her eight-year-old son Tami was obviously quite timorous in the presence of so many street-wise ghetto children, especially of two brothers, one ten, the other twelve, whose father had been living alone in a tiny apartment on the first floor of the church as caretaker, and whose presence struck us as a good idea, especially since he was on SSI payments for a bad back, and so, required no pay for continuing to keep an eye on the building in a neighborhood swarming with bold and curious kids who had nothing in their lives to catch their passion except illegal but highly exciting street activities of one sort or another. Also, he was the father of these particular brothers, whom we had spotted as potential troublemakers or students, depending on how we played our cards.
One day while Dorothea was painting walls and Tami was playing with Gordon and Louis, the brothers, and I was scrubbing the bathroom floor off the kitchen, I heard yelling and then an awful sound of thumping, over and over! I ran out, and was just in time to see Gordon and Louis pick themselves up at the bottom of our very long, steep staircase. Dorothea was standing at the top of the stairs, yelling down at them to go home (they lived with their mother on a nearby street.) Both boys stood for a while at the bottom of the stairs stunned, then broke into a run and disappeared. When I inquired from Dorothea what hadhappened, she told me Louis had been holding Tami's arms pinned at his sides while Gordon began to run at him with his head lowered in butting position. She had intervened at this point and had taken both boys by the arm, dragged them to the stairs and bodily thrown them down! I was appalled, but she was so visibly shaken herself that I knew that this was not the time to try to reason with her.
But when a crowd of angry black men, women, and children of various sizes appeared in the street in front of the building, some of them armed with iron pipes and bricks, I told Dorothea quietly, "I would like you to go down and talk with these people. I'll come with you, but this has to be set straight, and you will have to do it if you can." The scene that followed would have been the ultimate irony if it had not been so poignantly tragic. Picture Dorothea, attractive and cultured in her modified Afro hair-style, silver linen skirt and hand-woven blouse, finely crafted silver earrings dangling from her ears, hand-made sandals on her feet, crying out passionately to this group of black people whose whole appearance bespoke their proximity in time and history to the post-reconstruction agricultural south of the share-cropper newly come north to seek refuge from hunger and despair, "I know you people! I am one of you! I grew up with people just like you, and you are all killers!" To me, it was a wonder they didn't lynch her on the spot.
But gradually, by degrees, Bruce and I managed to quiet the mob spirit by apologizing for the incident and assuring the tribe (for it turned out that every one of them were the boys' relatives - aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on) that it would not happen again, and that we regretted it very much. It was a foretaste of what was to come out of our naive and explosive effort to conduct a free school for middle-class people (among others) in the midst of a totally neglected and furiously angry welfare proletariat (I cannot think of any other term which so aptly fits the characteristics of this group).
Read more of the story of how we learned to work with this kind of violence and bullying in our new school by taking a look at the two articles by Chris Mercogliano, who became a teacher at the school in 1971, by which time our "council meeting" method of settling disputes was well-established.