by Chris Mercogliano
It has been said and often repeated that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Now I don't know about the "only," but fear certainly is frightening; and worse still is the way in which it feeds on itself. The sad fact today is that we are living in a society increasingly run by its fears - the fear of personal violence and crime, the fear of the international political violence we call war, the fear of nuclear holocaust which is receiving increasing competition from the fear of ecological holocaust, the fear of scarcity, the fear of growing old and dying - this list could go on for pages. A substantial segment of our national economy, beginning with the insurance racket, preys on these fears by offering us protective and preventive policies, substances and devices of every imaginable kind. In short, fear has become a growth industry.
Where I encounter this spreading contagion of fear most poignantly is in my work as a teacher and school administrator. Fear-based policy and decision-making from the national level right down to the individual classroom has reached epidemic proportions. While ours is an independent school largely unaffected in any straight-line way by this trend, I still find us struggling daily with its many subtle, indirect effects. Even though we long ago opted out of the traditional reward and punishment teaching methodology which uses fear as a primary motivator, and even though we are up front with our prospective new families right from the beginning, warning them that we will neither bribe nor coerce their children into learning, the distinctive odor of fear remains in the air nonetheless.
It's everywhere, so why wouldn't our Free School parents, teachers and students smell it, too? The entire nation is hung-up these days on academic achievement, or the perceived lack thereof. We used to be falling behind the Russians; now it's the Japanese. Every day a new Chicken Little warns us that something must be done about falling standardized test scores, which don't measure true intelligence anyway. Academic training is foisted on defenseless pre-schoolers at ever earlier stages, and the call for lengthening the school year grows louder and louder. And then comes the blame game. It's the teachers' fault for not teaching or expecting hard enough; it's the students' fault for not studying hard enough; it's the parents' fault for not caring hard enough about their kids' education; it's the country's fault for not maintaining hard enough standards. There's no end to this list, either.
Here is the voice of fear speaking, where the reasoning is always circular. It's like the ancient image of the serpent swallowing its own tail - there's no beginning and no end - and therefore nowhere to break into such a vicious cycle of negative reinforcement. If this were the end of it; if the trouble were just that massive numbers of adults had nothing better to worry about than how their children were doing in school, then there really wouldn't be much of a problem. Regrettably though, kids invariably become infected as well, and their natural, inborn desire and will to learn gets stifled in the process. Children, who live within the boundaries of their parents' emotional bodies, literally smell the grownups' fear and this is how it is passed down.
I chose the modality of smell here for a couple of reasons. For one, fear has a distinctive odor, a lesson well-known to anyone who has spent much time around bees or dogs. Secondly, the connection between the olfactory nerve and the brain is a large and evolutionarily primitive one. The extraordinary way in which certain smells can evoke powerful images and memories is evidence of this important mind/body interface - all the more powerful because it is an entirely unconscious response. In other words, a parent's fear need not be spoken - though it often is - in order to be communicated. An anxious look, an apparently innocent question about what a child did (or didn't do) in school today, or what isn't being talked about can all be worth a thousand words and do the job of imprinting this kind of low-level fear quite effectively. Oftentimes, parents aren't even aware they are expressing fear, or doubt or insecurity, and unfortunately, the more subtle the frequency of the message - the farther out of the range of audible hearing - often the greater is the impact on the receiver. Then, of course, there is the classic TV sitcom scene at report card time when the overwrought father is berating his failing son and asking him if he wants to end up collecting garbage for a living some day. That kind of parental anger is obviously based in fear; and because it is so blatant, I think it is a bit easier for kids to deal with.
Shifting the "blame" away from parents, for I don't believe for a minute that the problem begins at home, it must be understood that our entire educational system and its methodology are based on fear. Why else would every "learning task" be broken down into tiny bits so that no chewing was required - and then endlessly repeated? Why else would progress and achievement be so carefully measured? Why else would we as a nation continue to spend countless billions of dollars per year to maintain a system that we collectively know is not serving so many children or their families' real needs?
Fear is a powerful emotion. It shunts the brain away from higher-level thinking, an autonomic survival response I will describe in greater detail in a moment. It prevents parents from thinking clearly about their children's growth and development, rendering many unable to question the school system's assessment that their children are not performing up to some arbitrary standard. These frightened parents then proceed to frighten their children, who return to classrooms which are controlled by frightened teachers, who, in turn, are sweating it out under the supervision of frightened superintendents... So it goes, right up to the top of a giant pyramid of fear, with the hapless students trapped somewhere in a thick middle layer, literally, physiologically unable to think their way out of the bind they're in. Instead, they resort to an unending array of defensive maneuvers, each according to his underlying character structures. On one end of the spectrum, you will find passive kids anchoring their resistance in "forgetting" and playing dumb ("Huh... say what?"); while on the other end there are the aggressive types who actively rebel, refuse and eventually opt out of the game, whose odds are constantly rigged against them.
Here is how fear works in the brain, which we now know is comprised of three parts, one enfolded inside the other. As all organisms evolve, the tendency is to hang onto old outmoded structures, adding to and improving, rather than casting them off altogether, which is exactly what happened with the human brain. The innermost core of the brain, located at the base of the skull, is aptly named the reptilian brain. This ancient control center auto-pilots the central nervous system and manages our vast array of survival instincts and behaviors. When we are generally at peace with ourselves and our environment, the reptilian brain plays a supporting role in deference to the higher two brain structures.
Surrounding the primitive reptilian is what is known as the old mammalian brain, sometimes referred to as the limbic system. Here is the source of our awareness, emotions and our intuition - where crude reptilian instincts are transformed into true intelligence which can be applied to complex life situations. The limbic system maintains the immune system and the body's capacity to heal itself. Finally, five times larger than its predecessors combined, there is the newest brain, or neocortex, whose job is to integrate the input from its junior partners. Here is the source of our inventiveness and creative thinking and problem-solving abilities. Again, when all is well, there is a general flow of energy and information from the inside to the outside, with the lower structures working in support of their new master, the neo-cortex, which artfully sees to a person's continued well-being.
Now, let's bring fear into the picture: introduce a sufficient stress or threat and the brain goes into full retreat. Leslie Hart, author of Human Brain and Human Learning, an advocate for what he terms "brain-compatible education," calls this negative reflex "downshifting." I imagine a speeding locomotive thrown into reverse without first slowing down and coming to a halt, with all of that momentum going into miles of wheel spinning before there is any actual change of direction. Suddenly, all of the developmental powers of the higher two brains place themselves in the service of their reptilian core, fueling the individual's territoriality and other primitive drives and defenses. Watching ten minutes of world or local news on any given night will confirm the reality of this basic biological survival mechanism.
Or just observe for a day the antics of a "slow learner" or of a "problem child" in any traditional classroom in America. I am purposely avoiding the use here of any of the new, hyper-specific labels invented to rationalize the epidemic failure of children to thrive in our schools and to throw parents who might otherwise manage to keep their wits about them off of the scent. The now old-fashioned term for this is "blaming the victim." In The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at Learning Disabilities, written as his PhD thesis while at Harvard University, Robert Coles proposes that the whole labeling system, beginning with "dyslexic," then moving on to "learning disabled," and since refined to the point of absolute absurdity, is simply a clever and consciously con-trived way for schools to give middle-class parents who are immune to the "culturally disadvantaged" myth a palatable explanation for why their Johnnies can't read yet.
The real problem, however, is that we then have a real-life self-fulfilling prophecy on our hands. The news that their child isn't developing "normally" is frightening to parents, understandably so. Scared parents then scare their kids and we now know, thanks to recent brain research, exactly what takes place inside all of those frightened young minds as they begin to apply all of the resourcefulness and creativity of their modern brains towards the resistance to the learning game being played in the classroom. If you've never watched this totally reflexive mechanism in action, then you've missed out on an important object lesson. All I have to do is close my eyes and remember back to a time years ago when I naively attempted to "teach" subjects like reading or the multiplication tables - humanely, of course - to a group of public school cast-offs. I'll never forget Tommy, in particular, who, ironically, was the one kid who had never been to public school. Tommy's divorced father was from conservative, working-class Irish-Catholic stock, and frequently expressed vocal concern about his first-born son's lack of academic progress. Tommy was a passive resister, adaptively smiling his way through each lesson, yet growing steadily "dumber" by the minute. I patiently employed every creative teaching trick that I had ever learned, but he never did learn those times tables. I was finally rescued by his impatient and critical father, who did not hesitate to fault me and our school for its lack of discipline and academic rigor, and who finally insisted that the boy go to a "regular" school, where thankfully he is now both a reasonably successful student and an accomplished high school athlete.
In Tommy's case, the change to a more conventional school resulted in improvement in his schoolwork for two primary reasons, I think. First of all, Tommy's dad was both pleased and relieved at the move, and so Tommy no longer had to carry the burden of his father's anxiety and displeasure. In addition, the atmosphere and ethic of the new public school were more consonant with the father's belief system, where school is work and work is something that you have to do, so you damn well better just do it. No longer allowed the choice not to do it, Tommy just got busy doing what the other kids were doing. This removed a major thorn in the all-important relationship between father and son, which alone made the change in schools a very good thing for Tommy.
The preceding story also brings us back to the question of what role fear plays in a "free school" like ours, where there is no grading or coercion, and where learning is regarded as a natural, joyful process seldom requiring adult intervention. While our informal, organically structured and family-like school environment usually readily defuses the stored-up fear in a child coming to us from public school, we often seem to have the opposite effect on the parent(s). The litany of questions, spoken or unspoken, which reflect their fear goes something like this: Where are the desks? What about homework? What if he/she just decides to play all day? How will I know my child is learning if there are no report cards? What will happen when my child goes back to a regular school?
Now, I don't mean to say that these are not all legitimate questions, appropriate expressions of concern about the future of a child. I always try to answer them compas-sionately, sometimes addressing the subject of fear head-on, and at other times coming at it in a more roundabout way, depending on the degree of the fear that I feel is contained in the questions. My twenty-one years of wrestling with this subject have taught me that this corrosive fear transcends all race and class lines. The one determinant that I have been able to recognize that doesn't lead into murky psychological realms - and to levels where I have no "contract" to work with parents - is the parents' own schooling histories. When I can get overly-anxious par-ents talking about their childhood experiences in school, the seeds of their current worry are often quite obvious. I discover that they went through one form or another of the same struggles that their kids are undergoing, and that they, too, had parents who were anxious about their educational development. Here, then, is a classic example of how the fear I am talking about indeed feeds upon itself; and in fact, lives to see not just another day, but another entire generation.
Long ago at The Free School, we realized, especially where a child's growth has been decidedly interrupted, that our task is as much to work with the parents as it is with their kids - and I mean work to relieve them of their fears about their children's ability to learn. Yes, it's important that parents read to and talk with their children, that they be consistent and non-abusive in their discipline at home, and so on and so forth. But even abusiveness is often rooted in deep-seated fear; and again, it is fear which scrambles and fogs vulnerable young brains, and fear which throws the entire developmental vehicle into neutral or even reverse.
When talking with fearful parents, I always try to keep in mind and in some way to communicate to them something that I once heard Joseph Chilton Pearce, internationally known lecturer on human development and author of books such as The Magical Child, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, and most recently, Evolution's End, say at a workshop for teachers here in Albany a few years back. The condensed version is that all children are "hard-wired to learn," which simply means that our in-born programming automatically gears us for learning, a process that we now know begins in utero, to a truly astonishing degree. So, it becomes more a question of how we manage to keep a child from learning, rather than one of how they learn in the first place. Pearce's belief, based on extensive new research into the psycho-biology of the mind, is that each child already contains his or her God-given potential, and that what we call "learning" is just the natural unfolding of that potential. This, of course, brings us back to the true meaning of the word "education," which derives from the Latin, educare, meaning, "to lead out." Also, Pearce's recent work in synthesizing the theories of quantum physics and the astounding recent discoveries about the functioning of the human brain tends to confirm Piaget's less "scientific" model of the developmental stages that all children pass through, each at her or his own pace.
Chilton Pearce added one important qualifier to his notion of "hard-wired" learning, which was that it will unfold if - and only if - the environment supports and resonates with children according to their individual natures, and where they are in their own develop-mental processes. It's not hard to see that this is a monumental "if." The learning which is already occurring in the womb, with the fetus responding to all sorts of cues from the mother's body - heartbeat, voice, emotional states, etc. - as well as to the voices of father and siblings, and which is predestined to continue and accelerate right from the moment of birth, is in so many cases crashingly interrupted by the mindless practices of the "modern" hospital. The newborn infant's early developmental surge depends entirely on immediate and adequate bond-ing with the mother. Recent biophysical research has determined that it is proper skin-to-skin contact, continued contact with the mother's heartbeat, and plenty of loving, non-anxious eye contact that triggers the rapid hormonal and neurological changes which underlie the crucial early development of the neocortex.
Interestingly, this discussion brings me onto my wife, Betsy's, career playing field. Betsy is what is known today as a "direct-entry midwife," meaning that she got her training via apprenticeship with veteran midwives, and has shared with me many of her experiences from the amazing world of childbirth. We are continually finding new parallels and connections between related areas of concern in our work, and if anything, she ends up having to deal directly with the inhibitory and suppressive effects of fear more than I do. My wife began by helping the founder of the Free School, Mary Leue, set up a meeting place for pregnant women, their partners and their children, and this led her to nursing school and then to a job as an obstetrical nurse in a conventional hospital delivery room.
Appreciative of the valuable, paid training that she was receiving there, she stuck with that job as long as her conscience would allow her. Over time, she became increasingly appalled by the number of times and ways in which the nurses and doctors interrupted and interfered with the mother giving birth. A distressing but impor-tant lesson that was repeated again and again before this midwife-to-be was how fear slowed down or altogether stopped the process of labor. And, it was all too clear that it was the hospital environment itself which was causing much of that fear. Then, even more disturbing to her was the way the newborn baby was treated after it was born, with one invasive routine procedure after another - shots, eye drops, blood tests, exams - all performed with little or no regard for the subjective effects of all this on the baby.
Medical science continues to have little regard for babies as feeling human beings, and childbirth continues to be approached by mainstream practitioners as though it were a pathological, rather than a natural, healthy process; in most cases requiring little if any professional intervention at all. And all of this, in my belief, is due to fear - fear that something might go wrong and fear of malpractice lawsuits perhaps being the chief ones. Then, either underlying or at least accompanying that fear is a deep distrust of the mother. During childbirth, so many of the routine practices are based on the assumption that a woman does not know her own body, and therefore will not be able to accomplish her task without all sorts of "assistance." Once the baby is on the outside, a new unexpressed assumption kicks in that the world is a dangerous, germ-infested place from which the mother might not know how to protect her baby, and so the hospital staff takes over in that department as well.
Call it fear; call it distrust; call it whatever you want - the result is always the same. In the name of safety and prevention, what ends up being prevented is the natural flow of biological events within and between mother and baby, and the "hard-wired" (to borrow Pearce's term) mother/infant bond which is the logical outcome of those events. What comes to mind here is something I once heard one of my wife's mentors - French obstetrician-turned-midwife Dr. Michel Odent - say a number of years ago at a workshop here which my wife organized. Commenting on the horrifying plethora of ways in which a hospital succeeds in obstructing the delicate and all-important mother/infant bonding process, Odent went so far as to claim that this amounts to a conspiracy on the part of the society to separate children from their parents and particularly to suppress the feminine nature in both little boys and little girls. I have since heard John Taylor Gatto, former New York State Teacher of the Year, turned author and nationally recognized critic of compulsory education in the U.S., passionately decry this to be the very same mission being carried out by another monolithic American social institution - the public school system. There are numerous parallels between the hospital's approach to childbirth and conventional schooling's approach to learning - and the existence of a correlation between the high Cesarean section rate and the number of children in special education programs in the U.S. should be sought out - but this is a subject for another time.
According to Joseph Chilton Pearce, a great many children never truly recover from the setbacks caused by the early trauma surrounding their births, which is then reinforced by other harmful cultural practices such as the impersonal daycare system so often called on to substitute for working parents, the image-robbing and mind-numbing effects of television, and the now well-documented stunting impact of premature academic training. He lets teachers and schools off the hook somewhat by saying that their job today is next to impossible because so many kids are "damaged goods," and essentially buries individual blame entirely, choosing instead to focus on the now totally unnecessary perpetuation of ignorance - by the culture as a whole - around basic life processes such as learning. This is important, I think, because blame - though always a temptation easy to indulge in - certainly will never lead us out of the labyrinth in which we now find ourselves almost hopelessly lost.
The way out, I believe, lies in the direction of putting our fears - both individual and collective - back in their rightful places, and then to seat ourselves back in front of our own controls. Trust is the true antidote to fear, and I can recall a recent poignant example which illustrates what I mean. A group of kids asked me start up a math class at the Free School last winter, and at the very beginning of the first session, I noticed that the student whose idea the class had originated with was sitting at the table crying. Tears were pooling up on the old, tattered work-book that she had brought with her, a relic of an earlier time when she had struggled with learning arithmetic and reading, eventually deciding to put the math entirely aside for awhile.
Referring back to brain structure, we also now know that there is an approximate division of labor between the right and left hemispheres of the neo-cortex, which is actually the only part of the brain involved in the acquisition of so-called "academic skills." The left side is responsible for linear and sequential thinking, and therefore is heavily involved in the "Three R's;" while the right side, working in wholes rather than bits, specializes in the recognition of patterns, and is the half most active when we are engaged in art, movement and music. In my experience, some kids tend to be fairly balanced in the functioning of the two halves of their neo-cortexes, while others have tend to favor one side over the other to varying degrees.
Abby is a classic example of a what I call a "right brained kid." She is an accomplished artist, having begun exhibiting an extraordinary talent for drawing and painting at a very young age. She was also attracted to dance and became the youngest member of her church choir last year. Though not uninterested in reading and coming from a reading family, Abby had had great difficulty "breaking the code" in the early elementary grades. This, naturally, aroused concern in her parents, and to a certain extent, in her teachers as well. Thanks to good communication and rapport between home and school, we all did a fairly good job of keeping our fear in check; but unfortunately, the picture was not this simple. As is so often the case, when an extended family member, influential friend, or outside "expert" will add their worry to the mix, Abby's grandmother - a retired remedial reading special-ist - became quite alarmed when Abby reached the age of eight or so and was still not reading much. Abby, indeed, was exhibiting textbook "symptoms" of "dyslexia" like letter, number and word reversals, and the inability to transfer what she had managed to retain from one level to the next.
Although, as I stated above, I don't give much credence to labels like dyslexia, I didn't in any way discount the grandmother's feelings. In fact, at one point we invited her to come to the school to give us a workshop on remedial reading, an experience which lessened her anxiety considerably, I think. The real problem that I saw in this instance was the potential for the transmission of fear to Abby both from her grandmother directly and through her mother (who also had a pattern of setting great store by her mother's beliefs) - resulting in everyone's preoccupation with her having "a reading problem" at that tender stage of her development. That, by working together, we were able to resolve a great deal of everyone's anxiety was an important factor in Abby eventually learning to read, I am quite certain. Exactly how she did manage the task I am not at all sure to this day. There were a number of things done to help Abby learn to read, including trying out some of the grandmother's specialized exercises and the employment of a reading tutor (with whom she developed a mutually appreciative relationship!) for a short time. I think it is important to note that nothing was done without Abby's consent and willing participation, so that she was never confronted with having a judgment that she was defective in some way. In the end, she was largely left to learn to read at her own pace and in her own way - aided and abetted by her reading teacher - and learn she did.
To complete this unsolicited sermon on the "teaching" of reading, I want to say that I have no reflexive problem with adults intervening in skillful, creative and caring ways to help a child to learn any new technique. At the same time, careful attention must be given to the spirit in which the assistance is given. Are there any unspoken messages regarding either the competency or the character of the learner hidden in the "remediation" process? Also, how much underlying fear is being passed along, thereby setting in motion the vicious cycle of not-learning described above? I have seen far too many kids who eventually learned to read, but with their desire and joy killed in the process, which was turned into a knock-down, drag-out affair because of all the fear-based urgency surrounding the situation. My current belief is that a team of wild horses wasn't going to keep Abby from learning to read; she simply needed to be ready first. Thankfully, today, Abby is a voracious reader, and due to her ready access to the right hemisphere of her neo-cortex, she is an award-winning young poet and a writer of clever short stories as well.
There is a twin-headed dragon still terrorizing up to fifty percent of the students in our public schools - the ones determined by the school to be "underachievers." One head continues to believe, all the recent reforms and innovations notwithstanding, that children should be expected to learn in the same (always left-brained) way at the same time. The other believes, in true Hobbesian fashion, that children are essentially nasty, brutish and short creatures, who left to their own devices can't be trusted to learn a damn thing. And kids know this, though most can't tell anyone that they do - above all not their parents. Add the bell-curve to those fear-based beliefs and it's no wonder that "special education" has also become a growth industry as we approach the end of the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, back to Abby whom we left in a puddle of tears in our math class. Abby's impetus to request the class had come from her decision that it was time to "catch up" on her math skills now that she was thirteen and considering going on to the public high school in the next year or so. Seeing her crying quietly at the table, I sat down next to her and asked her what the matter was. She answered that she was afraid that she couldn't learn math, that it was just too hard for her. We talked about her earlier difficulties with both reading and math, and I reminded her how quickly she had learned to read once she was ready. In order to reassure her that it was OK that she was just setting out to tackle her math, I told her that she had been wise to wait until the math learning circuits in her brain were completed. We agreed the fear that she couldn't learn math was the big problem, and I suggested that she begin with memorizing the multiplication tables, after which I claimed, everything else would be downhill from there. It only took her a couple of days to do it, and Abby has been sailing along ever since. She will undoubtedly be ready for high school when that day arrives.

The moral of Abby's story - and I could tell many more just like it - is that learning, like childbirth, is a perfectly natural, healthy process, and children can be trusted to monitor and manage their own educational growth and development. Of course they need good role models, occasional guidance and challenge, and access to books, materials, and equipment, but it must be remembered that the best motivation to learn comes from within. The ever-increasing number of self-taught walkers and talkers crowding the planet today being ample proof of that fact. There's an old joke that says if walking and talking were skills that required teaching to children, then there would be an awful lot more silent people in wheelchairs out there today.
The point is that when children are truly extended trust and are allowed to be responsible for themselves, they learn more quickly and more easily, and the learning tends to be for life and not just until the end of the marking period. In a recent and startling book called Punished By Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, "A's," Praise and Other Bribes, author Alfie Kohn cites study after study documenting the reality that individuals who perform tasks in order to receive extrinsic rewards do far less well than those who are self-motivated and who find their satisfaction in the activity itself. The inhibitory effects of negative reinforcement were demonstrated many decades ago by B.F. Skinner, the inventor of the branch of psychology called behaviorism which continues to provide the rationale for the methodology of conventional schooling; but now Kohn's research reveals that even such simple forms of positive reinforcement as praise can hamper learning and achievement. And the reason, I am convinced, is fear, which we now know, thanks to theorists like Pearce and Hart, is biologically incompatible with learning.
All too often, managed, monitored and measured learning environments like most modern schools communicate an unspoken fear-based dependency that says that without all the structured trappings, nothing constructive would happen. Left to their own devices, kids would just goof off all day and would never be prepared to face "the real world" - whatever that might be. In addition to being very smart, kids are sensitive to these invisible signals. Far too many respond accordingly, only to be labeled as deficient in some way, setting in motion the vicious cycle of "failure" which often follows them throughout their lives.
The fear-based belief that our children must begin performing academically at a young age has a long reach. Antonio's father, an assistant professor at a local university, once asked me in all seriousness how I expected his son to manage as an adult if he could not read. Antonio, a first-grader at the time, was another typically "right brained" kid in no hurry to begin reading on his own, and who, instead would spend hours either building great structures in our woodshop or concocting far-out, imaginative fantasy games with his age-mates. There was Antonio, highly intelligent and verbal, and yet his inability to read at age seven had triggered the most catastrophic of fears in his well-educated father. However, fear out in the open is far easier to deal with than fear that is unexpressed and hidden away; thus I was able to reassure Antonio's dad in the space of a one-hour conference, predicting that by age ten Antonio's learning curve would begin to match up with, if not exceed his peers. As surprised as I was by the degree of the father's anxiety, I was equally grateful for his willingness to explore it, and then more or less put it to rest.
We are not always as fortunate as we were with Antonio and his family, and we end up "losing" kids whose parents can't find their way to trust that their kids will learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it, given the time and the space in which to operate. And our reluctance to issue what I call conventional schooling's "reassurance policy" - the compulsory classes, the endless repetition, the graded tests and papers, and so on - certainly doesn't help matters much. We've yet to find a universal solution to this year-in and year-out problem; and meanwhile, it's one that we just do the best we can with. We have learned that maintaining open communication is the key. This establishes the trust that enables parents to hang in there while their kids build the kind of permanent foundation beneath themselves that will support them throughout their adult lives. I have had the privilege over the past twenty-one years of watching hundreds of children - of every imaginable shape, size, race, religion and social class - slowly constructing their own authentic selves. The continual beauty, as well as the occasional miraculousness of the process, have helped me to put a great many of my fears to rest, making me a much more relaxed and effective teacher than when I first began. Nevertheless, fear, which behaves much like a radioactive isotope with a very long half-life, often continues to rear its ugly head somewhere deep inside, challenging me, like Max in Sendak's classic, Where the Wild Things Are, to stare it down and order it to "BE STILL!" so that I can get on with the joyful business of living and learning.

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