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Fixing a Desk, Mending a Mind by Chris Mercogliano

Jason [not his real name] has been with us about a year now. He was twelve when he arrived, with a long history of school troubles, both academic and behavioral. Big for his age, often foul-mouthed and prone to harassing smaller kids, Jason, nevertheless (thank God), is not a tough kid. At least not yet. There is still a certain physical softness about him which can also be found beneath the veneer of jive talk and intimidation, somewhere in the region of the heart. Or in other words, the "Yo, don't mess with me" posturing is just that, a protective mask covering layers of raw, untreated woundings that extend a long way back, maybe even into the womb.

Loss has been Jason's almost constant companion. His mother (now fully recovered) was virtually lost to drug addiction for much of his early childhood; then his older brother died when Jason was seven, and his father not long after that. His favorite uncle, very much a traditional godfather figure, is currently dying of cancer. So what happens to a child who has a lifetime of loss packed into a single, abbreviated childhood?

The answer, of course, is never a simple one; and the outcome - whether that boy or girl survives intact or is swallowed up by the same life-denying patterns of existence passed down from previous generations - will be determined by many factors, some originating inside, some coming from outside of the child's home. In Jason's case, thanks in large part to a gutsy mother who somehow found the courage to face her demons and reclaim her life and family, and to a new stepfather who is on a very similar path, Jason has not hardened against his pain, and therein lies the source of his salvation.

What this deep wounding does to virtually all children, I think, regardless of their circumstances, is to lay them wide open to the influence of the worst aspects of the popular culture. This is so obvious with Jason. When I actually listen to what he is saying when he's running his mouth, I realize the words come right from the latest gansta rap hit. His presenting attitudes and mannerisms are straight off the street corner. Not long ago, he even showed up with an old worn-out beeper on his belt for a few days; and when he realized that no one was the least bit impressed, it disappeared just as suddenly.

Meanwhile, most of the time the real Jason is hiding just out of sight, very easy to find if only you know where to (and care to) look. He appears at first glance to be your stereotypically "hyperactive" kid - impulsive, aggressive, short attention span, can't sit still for very long, and so on. But just watch him for a minute or so when he is tired (fortunately, his battery does run down from time to time), and you will see the depression, the grief, the pain, the fear, the anger, the disappointment from which all of his hyperactivity serves to distract him (and others). The truth of the matter is, as is so with any good magician, three-quarters of Jason's act is simply a diversion to lure your eyes away from what is really going on.

None of this is to say that Jason is a dishonest child; in fact, when push comes to shove he is perhaps the most honest person in his class. Though he doesn't quite realize it yet, his pain has been his teacher for a long time. It has deepened him and given him thoughts about things of which most kids have yet to scratch more than the surface. The other kids know this about Jason and it helps them to tolerate his all-too-frequent bouts of obnoxiousness.

The repair work to Jason's heart began the day he entered our school. In actuality, it probably began the day Jason's mother decided to take hold of her life again; but here I will only tell the part which I have been around to witness as Jason's teacher. It began when we told him that he was free to do as he pleased in school, as long as he was respectful and didn't violate the rights or sensibilities of others. It began when we told his parents that he might go an entire year without doing any apparent schoolwork, but not to worry because he was a perfectly intelligent and capable child who would be more than able to catch up academically as soon as he chose to invest himself in the process. And it began with Jason coming to school every day because he wanted to and not because he had to. ........

..... Enter Frank Houde. Frank is a sixty year-old craftsman who co-owns a small, independent woodworking shop which specializes in traditional wooden boats and cars. Father of five sons (and also grandfather of five), Frank and his shop were Jason's first choice when I asked him in September what he'd like to try out for an apprenticeship this year (he declined to do one last spring when he first came to us, which was fine). Now, Jason happens to be very fortunate in that Frank's shop is right next door to our school, on a side street in downtown Albany, N.Y. Therefore, Jason and Frank already had a passing acquaintance, and I suspect that Jason was at least as drawn, if not more, to the person of Frank as he was to the kind of work that Frank does. This brings to mind perhaps the single most valuable dimension of the mentor/apprentice exchange, which is that it restores learning to where it most rightfully belongs: the relationship between two people. And so, all this past fall Jason has been spending two mornings a week with Frank in his shop. Until recently he has mainly been watching and helping Frank while he works, as well as doing the chores that all apprentices in woodshops do, sweeping, fetching and putting away tools, carrying firewood and whatnot.

Enter the final prop in this particular mini-drama - Jason's school desk. .... Along with that image came the thought: this young man of thirteen was not only learning how to repair broken furniture, he was taking all of the necessary steps for mending a damaged mind. And it escaped neither Frank nor me, nor should it escape anyone else, that the desk Jason had chosen to invest so many hours of his young life in was not just any old desk. It was an old public school desk, one at which countless children Jason's approximate age and size had sat over the years, and an older version of the ones which for him had been the loci of so much negativity throughout the most vulnerable period of his childhood.

I no longer believe in accidents. As the pioneering thanatologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross discovered when she began working with the terminally ill in the 1950's, children lead lives rich in symbols, and their thinking - even their internal biochemistry - is guided by them. Jason's mind had suffered real and significant damage while he sat defenseless at all of those public and parochial school desks; and then one day, there appeared an opportunity for him to accomplish long-overdue healing - especially on the level of symbol and metaphor - right at scene of the crime, so to speak. Says "cancer doctor" Bernie Siegel, a long-time student of Kübler-Ross, "Coincidence is just God's way of remaining anonymous."

In other words, if this were Jason's dream, then the desk would represent his mind; and his discovery that he could take a jumbled pile of broken wooden parts and reassemble them into a new whole would signify his readiness to begin anew the task of his mental development. The dream would indicate to us that now that his heart and his image of himself are in large part restored, the ground has been prepared for the necessary work on his mind to follow naturally - without the continual strife which had accompanied his earlier schooling.

It seems I should leave this story unfinished, just as Jason's school desk is yet to be completed; for even when its last coat of varnish is finally applied, the story in some ways will be only beginning. Jason will continue to develop in fits and starts, just like the rest of us; and who is to say where it will all lead him? But I believe I can predict, with at least a fair measure of certainty, that with the successful completion of this one single woodworking project, a crucial curve will have been negotiated in one troubled boy's life.
The key word here is one. This is the story of how one boy is finding his way through the labyrinth we call life, and how the out-side world is providing him with certain needed cues at certain cru-cial moments. This is not the story of a model program or a suc-cessful pilot project. No grants were written; no press conferences were held and no statistical profiles were drawn up. Furthermore, the story has very little to do with anything the Free School did; but more has to do with what it didn't&emdash;the pivotal contribution hav-ing come instead from a man in the neighborhood all of whose cre-dentials came from the school of life.
Thus the resolution to this particular plot is occurring not at the level of institution, but rather at the level of individual, family and community. Jesse was rescued from one of the multitude of cracks in the uncertain ground of compulsory public education by a mother determined to resume control over her son's destiny. She's now busy learning to cede that control to its rightful owner - Jesse - and we're all immensely grateful that the Free School could be there to help.
A child hits a child
And we call it aggression.
A child hits an adult,
And we call it hostility.
An adult hits an adult,
And we call it assault and battery.
An adult hits a child,
And we call it discipline.
Quoted by Aurelia Webb, a SKOLE subscriber
This is an excerpt from a chapter of Chris Mercogliano's book Making it Up As We Go Along (Heinemann, 1998) most of which originally appeared in SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education. Click here to learn more about these and other equally poignant writings about schools, alternative learning, children and families or here to order this book in its entirety or to order back issues of SKOLE, to view the Down-to-Earth bookstore page, or contact for more information. You may also call or write her at Down-to-Earth Books, P.O. Box 488 , Ashfield, MA 01330 (413) 628-0227 for information on how to order.
© 1997 Chris Mercogliano
This article used with permission of the author

Click here to view the cover of Chris' splendid 1998 book about The Free School, Making It Up As We Go Along, , which includes this article as a chapter.

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